Thursday, September 22, 2016

Post #76 - Observing behavior to capture better photographs

A few weeks back I was birding at one of my usual Orange County haunts, Huntington Central Library. I wasn't carrying my camera as I wanted to focus that morning on birding, something I sometimes find difficult with camera in hand. Anyway, I hadn't birded the park in a while, and as such I didn't realize that the once-lake in park's center had during the hot summer months evaporated to nothing more than a large, muddy puddle. In that habitat, I immediately and appropriately spotted 2 Solitary Sandpipers, a mildly notable species anywhere in the generally arid confines of Southern California. The two birds were relatively approachable, and I kicked myself for leaving my camera in the car (Murphy's Law, right? Wonder if the same guy discovered Murphy's Petrel?!?!?). The sun was already above where I'd ideally like it to be for morning shooting, so I formulated a plan to return to the area later in the afternoon with the hope that the birds would stick around despite sure and constant disturbance from people and dogs at the heavily used park. 

OK, fast forward 6 hours. I returned to the park to find that the sandpipers were still present. This was the scene, looking east. The sun was behind me, to the west.

Huntington Central Lake, errrrr, Puddle.....

During my morning session, I noticed that the sandpipers favored the western edge of the habitat, the edge just on front of me in this late-afternoon photo. I staked out a position in the reeds just adjacent to this section of the mud hole. As per usual when photographing shorebirds, I got down on my stomach and waited for the birds to return to that favored area. 

Taking cover just off the path.
Crappy iPhone shot, sorry!

I waited, and I waited some more.  Then some extra-special bonus waiting. There was a fair amount of foot and dog traffic just behind my vantage during all this waiting, so the sandpipers stayed on the far shore where I couldn't photograph them as desired. Finally, after over an hour of waiting, one of the birds flew into the staked out area. There were loads of Mallards in that same corner so it was really tough to get an isolated shot of the sandpiper. Luckily, it found, for just a few moments, some clear space in between the ducks where I could get a shot of it without any duck photobombs. I had only a few seconds before another person came along and scared my subject away. Bummer, but I was able to walk out with that I consider to be a serviceable frame of the bird! 

Solitary Sandpiper  - Tringa solitaria
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800 (I think)

I think this example helps to illustrate two suggested points with respect to bird photography. First, many birds are creatures of habit, even non-resident migrants like this Solitary. As such there is often at least some degree of predictability to their behavior, particularly their foraging efforts. It is very possible to increase one's chances of obtaining a decent photograph by pausing to observe the sought bird or species before jumping headlong into photographing it. This is the planning half of the equation. Second, once a spot is selected, a commitment to it, even through a prolonged wait, can be fruitful. This is the patience stage. While I have captured some legitimately fortuitous frames over the years, most of my best shots have resulted from a combination of careful planning and exercised patience. Give it a shot. With enough practice, you too can use behavioral observation, proper planning, and patience to improve your bird photography. 


  1. Nice frame, Dorian; you can almost see a bobbing tail!

  2. Yep! That's what they do. They and Spotted Sandpipers (and Wood Sandpiper!) share that characteristic behavior.