Growing up along the beaches of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I have always had a fascination with shorebirds. Maybe it’s the difficulty that most birders have in identifying these little guys. It could of course be the hilarious behavior of some species like the sanderling that scurries up and down the beach with the ebb and flow of each wave. The biogeek inside of me is definitely fascinated with the migration of these little birds and how that so many nest along the Arctic plain only to winter as far south as Argentina. Then of course there is the amazing bio-mechanics of these little guys that allows them to nearly double their body weight in a matter of a couple weeks of hard feeding, jump into the wind, and fly nearly non-stop for a few thousand miles before needing to lay over and refuel again for a couple of weeks as they hop scotch their way along the lengths of entire continents. Whatever it is that draws me to these little puff balls of feathers and pure kinetic energy, also makes this race of birds one of my favorite to photograph.
I have been up at the Audubon’s Cape May Birding Festival this weekend – that is until I was forced to evacuate for super storm Sandy. Though I was in Cape May specifically to work the show, like everyone else working the event, I was also looking to get out into the field as much as possible to catch the epic number of birds that can be found here this time of year.
As it would turn out, much of our time was spent working one of the jetties where Lapland longspurs and purple sandpipers were held up. Along with these unique species, there were of course a number of shorebirds (other than the sandpiper) here as well such as ruddy turnstones, semipalmated plovers, and sanderlings. Naturally, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to photograph these highly habituated shorebirds while I was here!
There were quite a few photographers on the beach with me – naturally considering the event. Watching how others were photographing the birds out along the beach, I couldn’t help but to think how that so many of them were greatly limiting themselves in terms of what they could capture and communicate with their photographs due to their approach. So with this in mind, I want to share some of what I believe to be some very important concepts when it comes to photographing shorebirds like this.
When photographing shorebirds, the first thing you need to keep in mind is that you absolutely must get low. This is a crucial part to photographing little birds like this. Sure, the same argument can be made for photographing any species of wildlife. However, the basic concept behind this is that you want to be at least eye level with your subject. Considering how small these shorebirds are then, that means that you will create your most pleasing photographs while lying flat on your belly.
This is a huge obstacle for many people. Most folks don’t want to get sandy. Most people don’t want to just plop down in the sand or on the rocks with the face inches away from the cold ground. I’m here to tell you though that as long as you are physically able to do it, get over your inhibition right now. Its only holding you back in many ways.
Now photographing from this position with a big lens means that you need a way to support your equipment while down low. Some photographers opt for laying their tripod in the sand and resting their lens on the legs. Others, such as myself, use tripods without a center column which therefore allows you to spread your tripod legs out and drop the entire tripod right down to the ground. Others prefer to use special ground pods – both purchased and homemade.
Like I mentioned above, I use a tripod without a center column specifically so I can use it to get really low to the ground. With that said though, I also use ground pods in certain situations – especially those that I can plan for. Ground pods are great because you can literally slide the entire contraption around on the ground to stay in place with your subject.
I use a homemade ground pod that is nothing more than a Frisbee with a 2×4 cut to fit laying inside of it with a bolt for my tripod head to screw onto. You can obviously make this yourself pretty easily. Or of course you can pay $200 for one also. Regardless of what you do, these are a great tool to have in this situation. This particular morning, I just simply dropped my tripod to the ground.
Getting low like this of course does put you right at eye level with your subject. It also allows you to control the background with these little guys. Background is key in wildlife photography and is just as important as light and subject matter. Getting low like this allows you to include, exclude, completely blur out, or keep your background in focus. Its your choice when you get down low like this and that’s what its all about: CONTROL.
The other thing you want to keep in mind when working shorebirds is simply patience. Shorebirds flitter around. They will jump with a wave, fly 50 feet away, and then often come back again. They move around. They are about as frenetic of a species as there is. The key is to find an area that several different species are all working. This usually means that there is a large and diverse food source here – which of course is a good thing since all animals in the world are driven by just two things: food and sex.
Once this location is located, which with this bird was a section of the jetty that wasn’t being consistently bombarded with waves, I set up my camera, lay down, and wait. As the birds acclimate to you, they will go about their feeding seemingly oblivious to you. You will know it when you have been accepted as you might have birds just 3 feet from your lens. This happened several times while photographing on the jetty this morning. Sometimes it is of course necessary to move with the birds. But more often than not, you will find that if you chose an appropriate location, the birds will consistently come right back to you.
The images I chose to accompany this post about photographing shorebirds is of a ruddy turnstone practicing its morning yoga on the Second Avenue Jetty in Cape May, a close up portrait of another turnstone, and a very plump little semipalmated plover.