Tips & How-Tos

The Call of the Birds

There’s an unshakeable feeling that rises at certain times—that it’s been just a little bit too long since your last photo outing. It could be a week, or month—or horribly, even longer—but  once that feeling gains a foothold, there’s only one thing that you can do: check your calendar, block out some time and head out to a favorite photo spot to spend a few hours outside with eyes through the viewfinder.

It is birds—shorebirds in particular—that call to me. I grew up on a thumb of land between two tidal ponds that fed into the Manasquan River along the Jersey Shore. Gulls, ducks, pipers and all of the stilt-legged pointy-beaked things are lifelong friends. Any chance I can get to spend a few minutes to a couple of hours alone among these winged sea-loving creatures is always time well spent for me.  Salt water courses through my veins. When the call rises, I usually head for Sandy Hook, a spit of land jutting into the Raritan Bay, across from New York City, the northernmost point of the Jersey Shore, the nearest shore bird hotspot to my home base.

There’s nothing like a walk along the shoreline, is there? I love to hear the whistling calls of the American Oyster Catchers while they fly in tight groups. Sigma 150-600mm C lens paired with a 6D. 1/2500 F6.3 ISO 400 at 600mm.

Walking gingerly into the saltmarsh, feeling with each step for where the raft of cattail straws strewn along the intertidal zone goes from sandy to boggy to a surprise tidepool while the laughing gulls cackle, terns trill, oyster catchers give a shrill whistle while on wing, a hint of sedge and dune grass on the salted breeze, the muffled roar of distant ocean waves and the more delicate and precise lap of bayside wavelets, the cool air and goosebumps of a foggy patch giving way to a warm kiss as the midmorning sun finally claims victory over the morning fog, the declarations and protestations of Red Wing Black birds perched atop poison ivy branches, the squeaking wings of a mourning dove alighting, and the impenetrable silence of a snowy egret on the hunt fill my senses.

The measured silence of Snowy Egrets never ceases to fascinate me. 1/1600 F6.3 ISO 400 at 600mm.

In many ways, the photography is secondary to the actual experience. The immersion into this environment, even just temporarily, is a huge reward unto itself. If I manage to make some strong frames along the way, that’s a very nice bonus. Even if I come home with nothing too spectacular, that’s fine, too; at least I was out there.

A common tern calls in the foreground as a black skimmer naps a little farther away. 1/2500 F6.3 ISO 400 at 600mm.

I go in without expectations. While I know the seasonal cycles and migrations of many of the birds that will pass through here—or reside here for some part of the year—it is a strand of land nearly seven and a half miles long and a quarter mile wide; so there’s no guarantees for which birds will be in which spots on ocean side or bay side any time of day or day of the year. Obviously, the nesting ospreys have a known home base; but beyond that, I’ll gladly spend the time with whatever birds happen to be ready to meet me and allow me to slip along the edge of their world for a little while. If herring gulls and pipers are around, that’s fine by me. If there’s a willet or an egret, so be it.

I go in without expectations, happy to find whatever birds may be around. It could be a GBH, could be an egret, or could be a tern turning its head nearly upside down. I never know what I’ll find. 1/1000 F6.3 ISO 320 at ISO 400 on a 1DMIII.
An Eastern Willet traipses along the shoreline. 1/800 F6.3 ISO 200 at 600mm on a 1DMIII.
I waited a while and switched cameras and caught another willet wading into a tidal stream. 1/2000 F6.3 ISO 400 at 600mm on a 6D.

On this particular morning, two encounters stand out for me. I’ve never been as close to a Black Skimmer for an extended period as I was today. Just lazing, it paid me no mind, trusting its commingled cohort of gulls, pipers and smaller tern cousins to stand guard for a while. On wing, these large, stout terns are swift, flying low across the water: a challenge to capture amongst the ocean waves. In a tidal pool, this one just napped and generally ignored my shutter snaps. I’ve also never been so close to any Brandt’s Geese before. For whatever reason, this small flock was much less skittish than those I’ve seen in the past, surfing wavelets just a couple yards away from me.

This black skimmer was the least skittish member of its tribe I’ve ever encountered. It napped, not minding me, and trusting its fellow tern cousins and the mixed flock of laughing and herring gulls to let it know if they thought me too close. 1/2000 F6.3 ISO 400 at 600mm on a 6D.
I’ve spied Brandt’s Geese before, but usually at a much greater distance. For whatever reason, this flock didn’t seem to mind me nearly as much and they rode little wavelets breaking right at the bayside shoreline. It’s not an epic photo, will never go viral, but whatever, I got to spend some time with these birds, and that’s far better than another day at the desk! 1/1600 F6.3 ISO 400 at 600mm.

Being a peninsula surrounded by the still cold waters of early June,  much of the morning was foggy and grey on the Hook, despite being decidedly sunny just a half-mile or so to the west atop the Highlands, so I needed to crank up my ISO to get fast enough shutter speeds; but still, not quite fast enough to get airborne shots with perfectly frozen wings. None of the photos are going to go viral—there’s no epic interplay of a variety of animals—heck, none of these are even likely to make my top 20 on the year!

Looking at the fog on the bay, watchin’ the tide roll away… the particulars of the geography of the Hook can lead to foggy mornings in spring and early summer. 1/2000 F6.3 ISO 200 at 150mm. A half mile away from the Twin Lights, it was sunny and bright. But me and the birds, we were fogged in much of the morning.
Red Wing Black Bird on sea grass.
The same Red Wing Black Bird on the beach posturing and chirping loudly at a lolloping dog a few yards behind me.

But all of that is besides the point. The simple act of getting out there—just me, the birds, and my telephoto lens-equipped camera—is what really matters. Everything else racing through my mind retreats, and I am focused on what I am focusing on, in the moment, waiting for the right moments to maybe make a frame.

Lenses Used: Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | Contemporary

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