The Art of the Bird — Shorebirds
On photographing shorebirds
Mosquitoes, scores of them. Not only that, but black flies, midges, and other biting insects will swarm you as you either kneel or lay prone along the shoreline of a lake. If you are lucky and the water levels are low the shoreline is revealed with a combination of sand and mud that offer up a banquet of insects for these birds to devour. This habitat which the last few years around Southern Ontario has been rare in the spring and frequent in the fall offers the very best opportunities to photograph these little birds. No other birds take as much of a toll on your gear and overall body as shorebirds. Getting a low POV shot of one of these birds involves getting into mud, sand, and often some water. The strain of going prone — to standing — to kneeling, inching forward in “groucho” walk fashion is significant on anyone’s joints and muscles and you quickly realize why some self care is needed after attempting these shots.
But it is worth it.
My best shot and one currently prominently displayed in my home is of this Dunlin wading through the tide water along the beach at Ashbridge’s Bay park. It was a warm cloudy late May day and I knelt in a low position for over 60 minutes to allow these little birds to approach and get used to my presence.
During the springtime beaches are the best place to be. As these little birds migrate towards the end of the migration window (late May) I find that in most cases unless you are out there early enough you’ll be competing with the beach goers — volleyball players, dog walkers, and worst of all offleash dogs—for space. Dunlin, Sandpipers, and Sanderlings often congregate together around pools formed by the spring rain and changing tides. Although more common along the plentiful sandy beaches that line the east coast, in the central great lakes region, sandy shoreline is hard to come by. That generally means picking only one or two specific hotspots and visiting them as early as possible. Similar to warbler photography, cloudy weather works best for shorebirds, particularly as a sunny day not only means harsh light, but also heat bouncing off the sand. This heat creates a shimmer effect that makes it all but impossible to get a sharp shot. Haze or high overcast therefore works best and allows one to take advantage of a longer time window. It also noticeably alters the behaviour of the little birds. Dunlin are among my favourite to shoot at this time period — particularly given their distinct breeding colours.
With a good hotspot, a high overcast sky, the next major challenge is getting close enough to these little birds for a shot. Far easier said than done. I have spent hours kneeling or sitting on my arse waiting for these birds to approach only to lose my patience at the last second and have then slip away. From my observation it’s best for these birds to come to you and not the other way around. This only occurs with a logical spot along the shoreline where there is plenty of food and either going under a blind or being fairly still. I don’t own a blind or a full camoflauge outfit (nor would I wear one at a public beach as it only draws more attention to me from onlookers), so I tend to wait. Eventually the birds get used to your presence. This tactic has worked on a number of occasions with a wide variety of species, although I acknowledge it won’t work for everyone. Just a note on calls — in my experience completely ineffective and useless with these birds — and by fiddling with a phone your hand movement often achieves the opposite effect — scaring them away.
The fall species that migrate through the great lakes region tend to be different than the spring. A number of birds make the grueling flight back to their wintering grounds in a single attempt or choose not to stop over unless inclement weather blocks their path. That is why I felt incredibly lucky to find and photograph the next bird. These Pectoral sandpipers winter along the coast of Chile and breed in the high arctic. Thousands of miles of flight for a bird smaller than an American football. The fall usually means heading to lake sides and mud — from a time standpoint it usually begins in early September to mid October until slightly after Canadian Thanksgiving. But the rewards are plenty, particularly if you can get a nice background or reflection of autumn colours on a still morning.
Shorebirds continue to be a focus for my photography, and I hope to expand the number of species I come across. Sadly there is only one group of birds that have experienced more of a sudden decline than these shorebirds (grassland birds). Although not 100% confirmed, the suspicion is that a combination of climate change and habitat loss around migration points is contributing to a significant decline in shorebird numbers, and all but one of these species is in significant decline. Although climate change is a significant manmade problem that no one is likely to do anything about soon (given politics), habitat protection and conservation areas are something local communities can and need to protect. Regular people can have a tremendous impact on these little birds as well. For dog owners that means keeping your four-legged companions on leash, particularly near known nesting or stopping over spots. That gives these little birds the best chance of completing their long journey south.