Project Water Rail
Rallus Aquaticas. More commonly known as the Water Rail. An elusive bird that is more often heard than seen and when one does reveal itself it is usually a fleeting glimpse as cover is quickly sought. The Water Rail is not a rare bird as such but is likewise not common. Find the right habitat though and you have a good chance of seeing one. I can still recall the first time I heard one. A gradually fading pig-like squeal emanating from a deep reed bed. At the time, being new to such sounds, I wondered what it could be but it was so distinctive that I was quickly able to identify it later that evening thanks to the helpful power of the web.
Here in Gloucestershire there are a number of reliable sites where these enigmatic birds can be found. Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust tends to be a safe bet in the winter months with at least one bird often foraging in the open under the feeders at the willow hide. Closer to home, the Cotswold Water Park has a seemingly good population with sightings reported on a regular basis.
It was during a spur of the moment visit to a local site that a Water Rail popped out onto the path in front of me. I managed to get a few frames before it darted off into the undergrowth having detected my presence and whilst the results were alright, it got me thinking about a new project.
Arriving home later that day I had a little look into what images of Water Rail were already out there and was quite surprised that there weren't as many really impressive shots as I was expecting, at least based on my relatively limited search. Whilst surprised I was also a little excited. With a reliable site close to home and Water Rail normally seen and almost always heard this was a great chance to try and get some decent images of a very shy bird. With winter in full swing the timing was perfect. I was keen to have something accessible, happy to take on something relatively challenging and that’s how my addiction to Water Rail and this project began.
Logistics / Gear
Prior to my first dedicated session I was pretty sure of a couple of things. Firstly, I wanted shots from a low angle. Most of the shots I'd seen of Water Rail were taken looking down on the bird, primarily due to photos being taken from hides. Great wildlife photographs tend to be taken at eye level with the subject as this gives a far greater feeling of intimacy. It also offers the benefit of a smoother bokeh depending on a combination of the focal distance of the bird, the background and the photographer. Secondly, and tied in with the first, I was likely to get wet. After all, the name of my subject intimates the habitat and the location I had in mind is often prone to flooding with dry land at a premium. Therefore some decent water proof clothes and preferably something to lie on would be required. Thirdly, I had a couple of particular images in mind; one being very dependent on the weather but others more attainable, subject to the birds actually appearing.
So, how did it go?
You may now be wondering how things went. If you’ve visited my ‘Rails’ gallery you’ll already know! In a few words, it went very well! I undertook a number of visits of varying length and of those only a small number were a disappointment where I had very little activity. During one of those quieter sessions, one bird did come out into the open in perfect light but I was too busy getting something out of my pocket to get a shot. So typical, so frustrating but just one of those things. I did however learn a great deal in a very short period of time.
Water RailThis image was captured as the Water Rail was making a quick dash from one set of reeds to another. The motion blur in the legs shows the speed at which the bird was moving.
The third session was the least successful to date and started early afternoon on a fairly cold day. There was very little activity with the exception of a couple of joggers going past. I didn’t keep a single frame from this session which was a shame. I felt a little frustrated afterwards but given how things had gone so far I was soon counting down the days until my next visit.
Just after Christmas I had my final visit of 2014 and again got some good results. I had to wait an hour or so for the first bird to appear but it gave me some great opportunities in wonderful light. It also led to a close-up head shot which was an almost carbon copy of one I got during my Christmas Eve visit – almost everything was identical. That hasn’t happened before!
I'd by now invested in a very cheap but superb solution to stay dry, in the form of some camouflaged tarpaulin - a real winner! A few further visits have been and gone, some in very different conditions, which I was hoping would offer some variation in the images I was collating. One such visit was a very cold day with thick cloud and, at times, mist. The latter turned out not to be an issue given the proximity of the rails though the cloud cover acted more like a blocker than a diffuser of light. Pretty dank and it meant getting a sufficient shutter speed would be a struggle without whacking up the ISO or increasing the aperture. Upon arrival there were two birds foraging in the open and I managed to get a lot closer than normal without really trying.
The last few visits dedicated to this project saw a reduction in the regularity of the birds appearing. This may simply have been down to bad luck / timing as there was still activity both in terms of sightings and regular calls. That said, as a result of a calmer spell of weather featuring a welcome dry period, the water levels receded sufficiently to allow some images with the birds on dry land at last giving yet more variation to the images I’d collated to date.
So that’s how the project has gone to date. All in all, a thoroughly satisfying project, which will be hard to ever really leave alone. Some pleasing shots and exceptional up-close and personal views of a normally shy bird have made me a very happy chap. I don’t plan on leaving it there though and have a few tweaks in mind in terms of my set-up for future projects of this type, which I’m hoping will give me some even better results. Some of these tweaks include a dedicated ground pod for additional stability whilst hopefully allowing more fluid panning of the camera. It's been a fantastic project from a learning perspective, not just from a photographic perspective but also in terms of gaining a greater understanding of the behaviour of a charismatic if secretive little bird. A bird which has become one of my favourites.
No comments posted.