Shorebird Photography: Beat the Heat this Summer

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Shorebird Photography: Beat the Heat this Summer

Bird photography opportunities ebb and flow throughout the year. The anticipation of the returning birds of spring migration is palpable, while the breeding season of May and June is full of opportunities. But soon, the summer doldrums kick in and leaf-out makes finding most song birds quite difficult. The heat and humidity drive even the most hardcore bird photographers indoors to their air-conditioned homes, where they spend their days organizing and processing images from the spring.

But summer into fall is a great time to photograph a variety of our amazing shorebirds. In early July, the first of our southbound migrants begin to arrive from their northern breeding grounds. Most of these birds will be failed nesters getting a jump on migration, or species where only one parent tends to the nest and young. The adult males of many species migrate first, but the female phalaropes are the first to head south. Their work is done once the eggs are laid, leaving the males to incubate the eggs and raise the young.

A Lesser Yellowlegs preens its feathers to keep them in top condition. 1/1600; f/5.6; ISO 200
A Lesser Yellowlegs preens its feathers to keep them in top condition. 1/1600; f/5.6; ISO 200

By late summer, the early season adult shorebirds are now accompanied by juveniles experiencing their first southbound migration. While the adults are often skittish, the young can be ridiculously tame. You may be the first human they have ever seen, since many are hatched in remote regions of the high arctic tundra. Using an extension tube (basically a teleconverter without the glass) will allow your lens to focus more closely. You will lose the ability to focus to infinity, but will gain quite a bit of extra magnification working inside the normal minimum focus distance of your telephoto lens, sometimes affording the opportunity to create stunning head portraits of your subjects.

Juvenile shorebirds such as this Buff-breasted Sandpiper can, at times, be ridiculously tame. Here an extension tube was used to reduce the minimum focus distance of a 500mm f/4 lens. 1/1000, f/5.6; ISO 400
Juvenile shorebirds such as this Buff-breasted Sandpiper can, at times, be ridiculously tame. Here an extension tube was used to reduce the minimum focus distance of a 500mm f/4 lens. 1/1000, f/5.6; ISO 400

How Low Can You Go?

As if tailor made for hot weather; shorebird photography is best accomplished by lying prone in wet sand, water or mud. A prone shooting position has several advantages. First, the background and foreground will be greatly improved as both will be rendered completely out of focus due to the shallow depth of field. This will add emphasis to your subject, allowing it to stand out against the background. Second, a low position will make for a very intimate portrait, it is almost always best to photograph at your subject’s eye level. Lastly, a low profile will make you less conspicuous, breaking up the human form, allowing sandpipers and plovers to be more relaxed than if you were towering over them.

Waders may be preferred in very muddy situations or when water temperatures are chilly. Of course, waders only work when the wader tops are kept above water!
Waders may be preferred in very muddy situations or when water temperatures are chilly. Of course, waders only work when the wader tops are kept above water!

While getting low can be good in most instances, it is possible to get too low. A slight rise in the foreground can obscure the feet of the bird in your otherwise perfect image. And, when birds are in still water, we can capture better reflections when the lens is raised just a bit higher. Take care to leave plenty of space below the reflection for the most pleasing results. A nice reflection is a great way to increase the size of your subject in the frame.

The Approach

A low, slow slither through the mud can be quite strenuous, but rarely will you overheat in your wet and mud-caked clothing. The best strategy will be to arrive early, maybe even before dawn, to scout your location. Determine where birds are hanging out, then approach slowly, upright at first, dropping to the ground as you get closer, keeping the sunlight at your back.

In cooler climates, or to stay a bit cleaner, you can wear waders or simply walk into your preferred shooting location and place a tarp on the ground. Get down on the tarp, then wait for the birds to return. This method can work exceedingly well in tidal areas where you can get in position and allow the rising tide to push the birds right to you!

Gear Precautions

Gear safety should be considered if you decide to try a prone shooting position in mud or water. If staying put, it is wise to use a tripod to keep your camera and lens clean and dry. If your approach will involve crawling, then consider a Skimmer ground pod that can be easily pushed through sand or mud. Either would be better than attempting to handhold your lens while crawling in the muck. To make things even more difficult, you will need to crawl on your elbows since it is imperative to keep the muck off your hands, lest it end up caked on your expensive gear.

Capture the Action

While simple portraits of shorebirds in fresh fall or juvenile plumage can be quite nice, those images simply don’t hold a candle to the drama of capturing fast action in razor-sharp detail. Shorebirds exhibit a number of exciting behaviors that are great fun to capture. They run, fly, feed, bathe, preen, flap, and perform elaborate wing stretches. Shorebirds are even more fun on the breeding grounds, where they exhibit a multitude of fascinating breeding displays. Birds run on the tundra with wings raised, hover in place while singing harsh, raspy songs, and puff up their chests while singing haunting notes, all in an effort to attract a mate. Fast shutters are needed to freeze many of these behaviors, and mounting your long lens on a gimbal-style head will help you better track the action. Phalaropes are well known for spinning like a top at a dizzying rate to draw invertebrates to the surface, from which they adeptly pluck them. Plan to use a shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second or faster to freeze the spinning motion and other fast action such as splashing, bathing, and birds in flight.

This Short-billed Dowitcher was bathing so aggressively that it was difficult to see all of the action. A fast shutter was needed to freeze the motion in the head. 1/1000; f/8; ISO 00
This Short-billed Dowitcher was bathing so aggressively that it was difficult to see all of the action. A fast shutter was needed to freeze the motion in the head. 1/1000; f/8; ISO 00

Defining Moment

SLOW DOWN! Many bird photographers move way too quickly, taking just a few frames before moving on to the next target. The result has been a barrage of mediocre images on the various social media sites, where quantity over quality is often the rule. Your best results will most often occur when you have “worked” your subject for hours vs. minutes. Being patient will allow you to wait for the best pose with the best head angle where the bird looks slightly toward the camera. Wait for the head turn and shoot when you can see the glint in the eye. Most birds’ eyes appear black and will look lifeless if you do not catch the reflection of sky or sun in the eye. Moving slowly will allow you to see pitfalls in the viewfinder, such as an intrusive foreground stick or bright background object. These intrusions can often be easily avoided by moving just a few inches one way or another, but we don’t see these things when we are moving too fast.

Get Creative

This image of a juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs is one of a string of images I took of this particular bird. After getting a multitude of images, including some from the seated position with a nice clear reflection, I decided to move my legs up and down in the water to create some small ripples. The ripples allowed some blue sky reflections in the foreground, which played nicely with the gold reflections in the background. I was thrilled with the colorful results.

The author makes some waves with this Lesser Yellowlegs to add a new dimension to his shorebird photography. 1/1600; f/11; ISO 1000
The author makes some waves with this Lesser Yellowlegs to add a new dimension to his shorebird photography. 1/1600; f/11; ISO 1000

There is no better way to beat the heat of summer than to head to your closest beach or mudflat. Getting down and dirty in the wet sand or gooey mud is a lot of fun! It will get you out of the house and help beat the heat while photographing our amazing shorebirds!

About Brian Zwiebel

Brian Zwiebel is an award-winning bird photographer whose work has appeared in Birder’s World, Bird Watching, Bird Watcher’s Digest, among other publications. Additionally, his photographs have been shown in the National Center for Nature Photography, in Toledo, Ohio. He is both co-owner and tour leader for Sabrewing Nature Tours. More of his photographs can be found here.

For more wildlife-related news and tips, be sure to check out the rest of Wildlife Week on B&H Explora!

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