This page is a chapter in the book Techniques and Educational.
Paul's asked me to share some of the techniques I use when photographing shorebirds, which I'll endeavour to do here as best as I am able.

The first thing I want to mention is that 90% of all my shorebird images are taken at the one location. So most of my experience and what I mention below is based on my experiences with these birds at this location.
Always visiting the same location gives you a great advantage when it comes to photographing shorebirds because after visiting for a certain period you start to notice certain habits of the birds, certain parts of the reef that they like to frequent and when they go there, as well as getting to know the environment they are in. All these are important factors for increasing your odds of getting a decent image of a shorebird.

[top]Watch the birds behaviour

I believe this is an important part of photographing shorebirds. Understanding how they react to my presence and that of other people has helped me maximise the chance of getting a nice photo and minimising any disturbance or impact my presence has on then. If you only have one rule when photographing shorebirds, it should be to never ever cause the birds to take flight. You don't want to send the birds up at all! Never ever! If you make this a not negotiable part of your photographic technique, then youíll have a lot more keeper images.
From what I've experienced of the birds at my local patch and other places, is that once you put the birds to flight they become very wary of you and you dramatically decrease your chances of getting close to them. Also try to avoid sending up nearby birds as well. If the shorebirds see you disturbing other birds at all, they'll also become wary of you and again youíll never get anywhere near enough to get a good photo of them. I avoid sending any bird into the air at all costs.
The birds will generally tell you if you are getting to close. Some will start to bob their tails, others bob their heads, some will call, and others will start to walk away. This is the birdís sudtle way of telling you that they arenít comfortable with you coming any closer. So be content to stay at that distance as any closer approach will distress the birds and cause them to take flight.

[top]If at first you donít succeed..

Donít force the issue. If you arenít getting the images you want, then donít worry. Itís better if you stop and come back another day than to stress the birds by approaching too close time and time again and stressing them out. I find that I take between 400-600 photos per session, and of those only 5 or 10 are worth keeping. And I find that about 1 in 10 sessions Iíll have 10 keepers. The throw away rate is really high with shorebirds and some days the results really are very average. But thatís how it is with these birds.

[top]Keep going back

Repeat visits to the same patch will allow you to see patterns in behaviour. This will allow you to sometimes predict where the birds are going to be. This is how I take around 90% of my images. I usually visit the reef at certain times of the tide, watch where the birds are and position myself as low to the ground as possible in front of them and wait for them to approach. Itís the most successful way to photograph the birds and Iíve used it successfully at numerous locations. This technique allows the birds to be in control of their position relative to you. (If the birds are comfortable with you then you get a good chance at some nice images. If they arenít comfortable, then back away until you notice them relaxing).
If the tide is receding and the birds are following the tide out, then go sit in the water ahead of the birds and wait for the birds to approach as the tide drops. Likewise if the tide is coming in, watch where the birds are heading and lie down and wait for them to approach you. Donít be too worried about getting wet or dirty. My best shorebird images are taken when Iím either lying in mud, or on rocks or in a few inches of water.
Iíve found that Iíve had much greater success doing it this way than pursuing the birds. And Iíve found that if you are lying down then the birds will sometimes come quite close once they have become accustomed to your presence. Iíve had Red-necked Stints within 5m from me a couple of times, but 8-10m seems to be a good average distance.
NB: Not all bird species will come close to you. Red-necked Stints are the most trusting and will come the closest. Ruddy Turnstones will on some occasions, but not always. Grey-tailed Tattlers will allow a close approach if they arenít out in the open. But Pacific Golden Plovers take the prize for being the hardest and the most aloof to a get good photo. Youíve done well if you can get nice images of these birds.

[top]The birds are more important than the photo

This is probably the most important point I want to make. The numbers of most if not all of the migratory shorebirds, and some endemic species are in decline. And with the reclamation and destruction of important staging grounds in Korea and China currently happening, the numbers of these migratory birds will continue to decline. Always try and minimise your impact on shorebirds. If things arenít going your way, donít push it. If you crept into a position, then do the same again once youíve finished photographing the birds. Donít just stand up and startle the birds because youíve no more interest in them. Creep in and creep out. Report any flagged or banded birds to the AWSG. Donít purposefully flush the birds to get a flight shot, or flush a bird close to you to get to one further away. Be responsible around shorebirds and mindful that these birds migrate thousands of kilometres to arrive here. They need to rest and to be disturbed as little as possible.


Article courtesy of Mark Young.

Originally published in.

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