Project Water Rail

February 16, 2015  •  Leave a Comment


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.

In terms of the gear I would be using for this project, I planned on utilising as much of my normal set-up as possible with a few additions including a something to lie on (and hopefully keep me dry), lots of layers including waterproofs, wellington boots & gloves. I opted against my bag hide given my low profile, hoping this would sufficiently distort my shape with my face for the most part hidden behind the camera. Previous experience of such low level shooting suggested the bag hide would be more of a hindrance than a help. As long as I remained still I was confident of getting some reasonably close shots.

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.

My first session was an early morning one on a very cold and frosty day. As I’d hoped, the Water Rail were very active. I located myself against some vegetation and was in a crouched position with my camera mounted on a tripod with the lens probably around a foot or so above the ground. In terms of the results, at the time I was very happy but hindsight and subsequent results have changed my view of those early shots. More often than not the birds were in shadow due to both the brightness and position of the sun. I’d also slightly underestimated exposures due to my shooting angle, which occasionally meant I had a dark bird against a very light background. Rookie stuff but easily remedied. The biggest positive was how close the birds were coming. An encouraging start.

My second session was much better in terms of results, but less so in terms of activity. It was again relatively early but a lot milder. I decided against the tripod, instead using a bean bag. The lower angle meant I needed to lie down, so I used an old horse rug kindly donated by my partner as a groundsheet. I was as usual in waterproofs (a necessity given the amount of flooding at the spot I’d be shooting from). I’d also dialled in my settings following the previous issues and decided to shoot using 9 focal points rather than the single point I’d gone for last time. With the birds more isolated from their surroundings, this would give me more flexibility in getting the bird correctly composed in camera when they ran across the open channel area they favoured.

Water RailWater 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.

My fourth visit was on Christmas Eve and we were due to travel up to Lincolnshire just after lunch to visit relatives so my time was very limited. The horse-rug option was out as it was drying from the previous visit so I opted for a bin bag ripped down the sides. No protection from the cold ground, but a surprisingly water-tight solution. It did not however protect my right arm which ended up in water for most of the time. Not comfortable but thankfully the Water Rail did more than enough to distract me. Within 10 minutes of getting set up and led-down I had a very showy bird pop out about 15 feet in front of me and begin feeding along the water’s edge. It was very bold and came fairly close before disappearing into the undergrowth. I thought the results would be ok but before I had any time to check another bird emerged from the vegetation I was lying against. The light was fantastic and the bird was not at all concerned by my presence, assuming it was even aware I was there. Initially I couldn’t get any shots – the bird was that close that it was within the minimum focussing distance of my lens. Nothing to be done other than watch and enjoy. It hit me just how lucky I was to be so close to such a shy bird. It eventually moved a little further away allowing me to start shooting. It stayed out in the open for a good five minutes, venturing directly to my right to such an extent that I couldn’t move for risk of scaring it off. I again just watched before it moved back into the reeds and then back across the channel to where it had come from. It emerged a few times after this offering exceptional views. So close that only a headshot was possible. Frame-filling Water Rail? Mission accomplished!

Water RailWater Rail

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!

Water RailWater Rail

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.

This didn’t stop once I was set-up. In fact, it was a tough session because the birds spent more time within the minimum focussing distance than out of it! My dad had joined me to observe from a distance and he was startled at just how close they were coming with one no more than two feet from my lens. I was even able to raise my head and watch without spooking the bird. Wow! It felt awesome to be so close. It did make me wonder if they’re getting used to my presence as I was repeatedly unable to shoot due to the proximity. Whilst this was great in terms of excitement, it made photography a real challenge. It prompted me to remove my 1.7x converter so I was shooting with 300mm on a full frame camera for the first time during this project. This was something I had considered previously and decided that I had nothing to lose given the conditions and it did work well. Saying that; low light plus high ISO plus large aperture plus VERY close subject equals hardly any depth of field. This did make for something slightly different but how I wished for just a little more light. There always something that could be better! The main drawback was the low shutter speed but I got a few keepers.

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.

Water RailWater Rail

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.

Water RailWater Rail




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