Winter Shorebird Basics
Reprinted from the BT Journal, Vol. 7, Issue 4, August 2002
The sun hints of its arrival in the east with a soft glow of color. The air is quiet and damp with the night air still clinging to the surrounding landscape. From the brightening sky, the pond in the distance becomes apparent as we stroll in that direction. Dark shapes can be seen in the pond like mere puffs on a stick, standing in mass on one edge of the pond. The light slowly brings definition to the shapes and we can see it’s a small flock of Least Sandpipers. They’ve spent the night in the water, a natural intruder alarm sounding should a predator try to make an approach during the night. And now the light is just right for photographing this sleepy little flock. They begin to stir as a wave of wing-stretches spread amongst the flock. It’s the beginning of a perfect morning of photographing winter shorebirds.
Surprisingly, many wildlife photographers do not haunt shorebird territory in the winter. Maybe that’s because they don’t like the winter plumage of winter shorebirds. Perhaps it’s because many species are so small, getting a “big” image size is beyond their optical means. It could even be that photographers are simply not aware of what great subjects they make. I’ve been into winter shorebirds long before I was even a photographer. I’m so into shorebirds that I’ve traveled to many regions in the far north to photograph them on their nesting grounds. These little puff balls are really addictive! I’m going to try to entice you to get down into the mud and have some fun with me, photographing winter shorebirds.
Winter Shorebird Basics
The avian group known as shorebirds is really large. It comprises sandpipers, plovers, stilts, avocets, snipes, oystercatchers, turnstones and phalaropes (phew!). All these groups include the 49 common species of shorebirds found in North America (not included are the rarities that show up on our shores from time to time). In the winter when we see shorebirds, we find them in their drab, gray plumage. Breeding in the northern latitudes, these mighty long-distance travelers winter in many locales throughout the US . Just after arriving on our shores, they molt their spring colors for their grays, blacks and browns we’re accustomed to seeing. While many don’t even recognize them when they are all decked out in their spring wear when they’re heading north, they’re a familiar friend in winter.
While not something most photographers think of when photographing shorebirds, their bills are incredibly diverse. Some are long, some short, others broad while others are very thin. In addition to all the bill variations are varied leg lengths. Added to this is the fact that some shorebirds barely tip the scale at a couple of ounces while some weigh in over a pound. This incredible variety of characteristics permits shorebirds to successfully forage nearly side by side and not be in real competition with each other. This includes wet soils just as much as dry soil types.
Just what do they find to eat when they stick their bills in the slimy mud? Plovers have large eyes and locate their food visually by foraging for insects from the surface. Sandpipers have poorer eyesight generally finding food by touch, probing the mud with their bills. Shorebird diets consist of polychaete and oligochaete worms (sounds appetizing to me), insect larva, and aquatic insects such as water boatmen. Other food items include amphipods, copepods, crustaceans, and mollusks. What they forage for depends upon their bill and leg length.
How do all of these shorebird varieties find their way to and from our shores? That’s a really cool process I think. One summer when I was shooting in Churchill , Canada with my good friend Artie, we saw this great mystery unfold before our eyes. We were there to see the Hudsonian Godwits raise their young and watch those young take off on their migration prior to the adults leaving. What was cool was we knew the young would actually meet up with their parents again on the east coast in a month or so. How do “chicks” that are only a few months old, know when, how and where to fly with no one showing them? It is truly amazing!
The routes shorebirds use to migrate are pretty well known. There are four major flyways, so no matter where you live in the US , you should be able to photograph winter shorebirds. (World wide, I couldn’t find an answer as to how many flyways exist, but there’s plenty for everyone to photograph!) Shorebirds are believed to have an internal compass (powered by what is a good guess) that gets them from point A to point B. This compass might be influenced by the sun, moon, position of the stars, polarized light, magnetism, wind, photoperiod, olfactory cues or any combination there of. However they amazingly do it, the vast majority ending up at inland wetlands to spend the winter.
It’s hard for me to understand why I don’t see more photographers out on the mud flats with me when there are literally millions of subjects just waiting to be photographed. The shorebird numbers are just staggering, especially when you consider we can’t exactly count each and every one of them. When you look at the estimates though, it can take your breath away. Recent USFWS censuses of several staging areas in recent years showed the following numbers for these species: At Delaware Bay- 600,000 shorebirds consisting mostly of Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, and Semipalmated Sandpipers; San Francisco Bay, California- 930,000 shorebirds of multiple species; Great Salt Lake, Utah- 600,000 Wilson’s Phalaropes and 300,000 Red-necked Phalaropes; Bay of Fundy, Canada- 1,000,000 shorebirds with Semipalmated Sandpipers numbering in the 100,000’s. At sites in South America 500,000 Wilson’s Phalaropes and 20,000 Golden Plovers were counted in Mar Chiquita Cordoba, Argentina, 1,000,000 Semipalmated Sandpipers were recorded at Bigi Pan, Suriname, 2,000,000 Semipalmated Sandpipers and 50,000 Short-billed Dowitchers at Wia Wia, Suriname, and 750,000 Semipalmated Sandpipers, and 50,000 Lesser Yellowlegs at Coppename Rivermouth, Suriname. Wow!
Why do shorebirds tend to mass in such numbers? Safety in numbers is surely a big reason for the large flocks. If you’ve ever watched a Peregrine Falcon on a hunting foray, you’ve seen how the masses protect those in the middle of the flock when they take to the air while tail end Charlie usually is the one that gets picked off. With the ever decreasing loss of habitat, one can’t help but believe that that too is creating greater and greater concentrations. When you add this all up though, there is no getting away from the fact that shorebirds are just waiting for us to take their photograph!
Tools for Photographing Winter Shorebirds
Long lenses, old clothes and knee boots are a really great place to start! Photographing shorebirds does require long lenses, the longer the better. Photographing shorebirds is not a poor man sport I’m sorry to say. When I say long lens, I’m talking about a 600mm with either a 1.4x or 2x. I know my good friend Artie often stacks a 1.4 & 2x on his 600mm (a definite Canon advantage) to get a whopping 1680mm (good thing he has IS, probably the one time when it really makes a big difference!) Attach this rig onto a 1D and you would have a 2180mm lens! Zow!!! With Nikon we can combine a 600mm and 2xs for 1200mm and on a D1 family camera end up with 1800mm. You don’t need this much horsepower, but it sure does make life easier.
The shortest lens IMHO you can get away with is 600mm. This could be a 400f5.6 with a 1.4x, 100-400IS on a 1D or a straight 600mm. A very popular combo is a 500mm and 1.4x because it is light yet powerful. You can easily see for yourself how much lens you need by simply focusing on someone’s fist. The basic adult fist is the size of your basic peep (small shorebird). You can see just how close you have to get with the lens you have to get the image size you desire. It’s the combination of focal length and physical distance from the subject that determines your image size.
Digital has been a great boon for shorebird photography for many reasons. One is the great focal length digital brings to wildlife photography. I’ve talked about this many times in the BTJ. With cameras like the D100 or a used D1 on the market, you can get to 600mm or greater for less than $2k which in many instances is less than the price of a telephoto lens.
The one thing you cannot scrimp on is the tripod! You’re always working on very unstable ground which is true if you’re standing up or lying on the ground. You need maximum stability from your tripod no matter how you’re set up. The vast majority of the time, you’ll be shooting at slower shutter speeds than normal (because of DoF) and if you cheap out on tripods, you’ll never get a sharp image.
I can’t emphasize this enough! When you set your tripod up, you must push the front leg of the tripod down into the muck! Resting your tripod on the top of mud or sand is not stable. The surface tension of these soils can often hold the distributed weight of your rig but at the same time, it transmits all vibrations to the tripod. By simply pushing the front leg of the tripod into the mud or sand, you break this surface tension. This gives you a solid platform in which to operate. (Be sure after shooting in the muck that you clean your tripod legs before you close them up. This prevents the muck from getting up into the inner sections of your legs and joints and causing you problems later on.)
Footwear is really important to shorebird photography. I’ve seen many a great image missed because it meant venturing out in the mud, a place photographers couldn’t go because of their shoes. Shorebirds are out in the mud and the muck as we’ve seen for safety and food. If you want to get close, you’ve got to go out to where they are! This means getting muddy. The best option is simple knee high boots. Simply drive to where you’re going to shoot and then put on the boots. When you’re done shooting change out of the muddy boots before driving home and you’ll have an easy time of dealing with the mud.
When it comes to clothes, you can wear anything you’d like, but if you wear something you don’t care about then your clothes won’t hold you back. Getting down and dirty is a big part of the fun of shooting shorebirds. Just like your shoes, if you wear clothes you don’t want to get dirty, you’re going to miss out on a possible great image.
A very common question I get in regards to photographing shorebirds is, “do you need a blind?” I’ve never used one for photographing winter shorebirds and in fact, never used one for photographing nesting shorebirds either. There is no doubt that you could use a blind and it would help you get closer. My only problem with them is the fact you’re often working with tides. The tides would have to be perfect along with the light and location of the shorebirds for a blind to be a benefit. But sitting in a blind in mud is not my idea of fun!
Photographing Winter Shorebirds
The first thing I recommend is you go out and find where it is the shorebirds hang in your area. Grab your binoculars, call the local birding hotline, go out with a local Audubon group, do whatever it takes to find those shorebirds! You don’t have to live on the coast to photograph shorebirds, as you can find them nearly everywhere in North American in the winter (though some regions might only have one or two species). You’re looking for photographic locales and not just birding locales as the two are not always conducive. You’re going to want to be picky about the locales you locate for a very specific reason. Once you’ve found the shorebirds, you need to think through your photographic approach.
I personally like to photograph shorebirds first thing in the morning. This is partially because of the quality of light, but it’s more because I like to find the shorebirds when they’re still sleeping. So when you’re locating your shorebirds and thinking through how you’re going to get close to them, you might keep in mind shooting in the early am as an option. You’re going to need to scope out a means of walking to your shorebirds without waking them. While this might sound simple enough, when it comes to shorebirds and mud, it can be anything but simple (ever heard the noise a boot squishing into mud makes?).
At a couple of my favorite places to photograph shorebirds in California the path is solid muck. Knee high boots are the only way to go. Two other locales I frequent are all blacktop. But whatever the case may be, there is one thing we must always keep in mind when approaching shorebirds. Habitat Ethics! Many of the shorebirds that become our subjects are endangered. The vast majority of the time they are endangered because of habitat loss or degradation. The last thing we should do is add to this problem by our activities! All it takes is common sense and you’ll have no problems.
Once you find your shorebird subjects and you figure out your best approach, you can figure out your equipment. For example, when I go to shoot at Palo Alto Baylands , CA to the morning pond, I have a 2x connected to the 600mm. When I go to my favorite pond in Bakersfield , CA , all I need is 600mm. Why is preselecting your optics important? Two reasons, both technical.
When shooting at first light, there is very little light so shutter speeds are critical. This is especially true if you’re cranking down the DoF. Quite often when shooting a group of shorebirds, I’m at f/22. At this aperture and shooting at ISO 200, my shutter speed is down in the 1/20 range. All of this is important because you need to be able to operate in all of these conditions and come back with sharp images!
This means you need a secure place to set up your tripod. Prescouting a locale can help assure this. It also means you need to use proper long lens technique. Shooting at 1200mm at 1/20, if you don’t use proper long lens technique, you won’t come back with sharp images. A lot of your photographic success then comes from the homework you do prior to ever firing the shutter! (Obviously at these slow shutter speeds, if the subject is moving, you’re going to have images out of focus no matter what you do. This is the other main reason I go early in the morning when the shorebirds are still asleep.)
You’ve done all of your homework and you’re now standing in front of a flock of shorebirds, what next? The first thing I try to capture while the light is low and the birds are still motionless, are reflections. I go after the reflections first because once the birds start to move about while waking up, the reflections are usually gone for the rest of the morning (besides shooting at a slow shutter speed with moving subjects doesn’t work).
The other reason I go after reflections first is the light. The lower the light is on the horizon, the more even the exposure between the subject and its reflection will be. I personally prefer the subject and its reflection be even in exposure rather than the reflection being underexposed compared to the subject. Using a split graduated neutral density filter just isn’t an option. Being a very careful observer of light is. Another big benefit of shooting early in the morning especially on the coast can be fog/overcast. This very natural diffusion can extend the great light required for reflections. When photographing shorebirds that are mostly tan or gray, you can squeeze by with marginal light, but that’s not the case for any bird with white plumage. American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, Greater/Lesser Yellowlegs can all present real reflection problems once the light level starts to increase.
Successful reflection shots require more than just a mere reflection. The subject itself is the key. The subject and its pose must be so perfect that you want to see it twice. You need to know a little bit about your subject. One thing to look at more than anything else is the feather condition of your subject. While that sounds a little weird, if you’re a good student of bird photographs, you’ll note all the birds’ plumage is in perfect condition. If you have a perfect bird, you’ll have it twice when you capture the reflection correctly, making your photograph twice as good. If not, then the imperfection is doubled making your photograph twice as bad.
Looking for behavior that you can reflect is a great thing to look for. The most obvious behavior is sleeping, the bill tucked into the wing. But when the shorebirds first start to stir they often preen a little. This can be a great shot. You need to watch the action at hand and your shutter speed, but capturing this behavior makes for a really cool image.
Before the shorebirds start to stir and while you’re working the reflections, you want to photograph the masses. Photographing flocks of shorebirds all resting on a pond is spectacular! It requires lots of DoF to make it all work which means your shutter speeds are in the basement. There are no tricks or magic numbers for success. You need great long lens technique, a good eye for patterns and the means to crank off lots of images. I highly recommend you take a minimum of four of each shot. This is because generally the 2 nd or 3 rd shot in a series is going to be the sharpest. If you take a number of images to increase your odds, then you’ve gotten the image. Take it from painful experience, there is nothing worst than having a great pattern and great reflection only to not have it sharp!
Patterns are another great morning shooting activity. Short, tall, black, white, long bill or short bill, sleeping or waking, you name it and you can find it in the shorebird flock. Some patterns are so plainly obvious you can’t help but see them and focus right in on them. Others are very subtle and don’t show themselves until you exclude everything around them. I personally will pan the entire flock first horizontally and then vertically and with various focal lengths to find these more hidden pattern treasures. Pan slowly as you view through the viewfinder, look at the subjects, their reflections and all that’s going on. You’ll be surprised at all you’ll find that you didn’t see with your naked eyes!
Something else to be on the look out for before the sun comes up are the flying ballets. I become so mesmerized by watching flocks of Western Sandpipers or Sanderlings or Least Sandpipers or Short-billed Dowitchers fly in unison in their aerial ballets. They rise and fall, turn left then right, speed up and slow down all in sync with the bird next to them in a ballet that could never be choreographed to better perfection. This is where the beauty of the Wimberley Head really becomes apparent as you track this swirling mass of beating wings, dancing through the air. Tracking, focusing, firing is all a matter of luck in capturing the perfect form in the final image. The key is simply shooting a lot and picking the best flock pattern back at the virtual light table. But capturing this ballet in the red light of early morning or late evening is a special treat for the winter shorebird photographer!
As the morning progresses, so do the shorebirds. Depending on the species the first activities are determined but in general, most shorebirds start the day with a bath. While the actual bathing can’t be photographed because of the slow shutter speeds we’re shooting at, it’s what happens afterwards that you want to be prepared for – the wing stretch. Shorebirds often wake with a wing stretch and while I’ve captured them after sunrise, I’ve never yet captured the wing stretch reflected. It is an image I strive to capture. The name of the game is being prepared with the knowledge it could happen. This means not having too much lens because you don’t want to crop out the wing because you’re too tight. It means being horizontal or vertical when you should be. Some species stretch their wings straight up more than sideways. If you’re horizontal when an avocet (one of my favorite shorebirds) stretches its wings, you’ll miss it because they like to stretch their wings overhead.
The little peeps tend to go right to feeding. Photographing feeding activity early in the morning requires you to make a judgment call. Do you go for freezing the sewing machine feeding activity or do you go for DoF. There is really no easy way to do both because of light level and shutter speed. The feeding of peeps, often likened to a sewing machine because of the very rapid up and down motion of their probing bill, is really hard to freeze. The key is using peak of action, that is, shooting right when the shorebird is at the top of the stroke or at the bottom and stops just for a heartbeat before proceeding in the opposite direction. Motordrives and the willingness to use them is the key here along with a good eye and fast finger.
There really is no limit to the activities and the photographic possibilities as the morning moves on. Shorebirds fly in and out a lot, train on that. Some shorebirds start to get territorial and chase other shorebirds about, concentrate on that. If you’re tuned into a birding hotline, you might look for that “rarity” that all the birders are trying to find. While not a ticker anymore, I do like to know if a rarity is in the area so I can keep an eye open for spotting it. I sometimes will decide to go to one pond over another because a rare shorebird had been spotted there. The shot of the Pectoral Sandpiper is a good example of looking for a rarity once the gorgeous morning light has evaporated.
A great place to head to photograph winter shorebirds once the light gets hard is the beach. The natural reflective quality of the sand helps fill in shadows so while the light is harsh, the actual light range is minimal. There is a technique I use here more than I do in the marsh. That’s getting down! I know of some photographers who love to crawl in the mud to get this angle, but that’s just not my idea of fun. But doing it in sand is not only fun but kind of essential I think! While the sand works wonders for filling in shadows at hard light times, all that white isn’t the nicest of backgrounds. You can see what I’m talking about in the photo of the Wilson ‘s Plover. The shot on the left was taken with the camera on top of the tripod, shooting down. For the photo on the right, the tripod foot of the 600mm was literally resting in the sand (be sure to take a towel with your to clean off the sand before returning your lens to the tripod).
Getting down is a personal option (I’ll leave that to your imagination). In the case of the Wilson ‘s Plover, I like both images. The one on the left is the classic pose while the one on the right is so intimate. The key here is to realize this is an option and if you’ve never gotten down, try it at least once and see if you like the results.
The water’s edge is a great place to head as well. Here you can find all sorts of shorebirds going about the routine of surviving. Surely you’ve seen the Sanderlings’ seemingly tireless efforts to push the ocean back. How about a Marbled Godwit or Willet chasing the waves out to find an unprotected sand dab? Maybe it was a pond shoreline with a Black-bellied Plover foraging amongst the shells. Perhaps it might be a Black Turnstone on the rocks with the waves crashing behind it. The photographic possibilities are endless!
Photographing winter shorebirds is an endless pursuit! I could write and write and write about it and spend even more time actually doing it. These little “drab” birds on more than one occasion have saved my sanity when no other subject could be found to photograph. While this piece is all about photographing winter shorebirds, don’t think this is the only time I photograph shorebirds. Traveling north to see them all dressed in their summer finest is a lifetime thrill for me I keep seeking. But those trips are to far off lands that last only a couple of weeks. Winter shorebirds are subjects you can find right where you live and can enjoy for months at a time. Use the information here as a stepping stone to your own adventures with this very diverse and fun group of birds. The winter shorebirds, may they take the chill out of your winter!