California Dreamin'; Part Two
If you read my previous post you'll remember me talking about a quick scan of Ocean Beach in San Francisco whilst exploring on a day out during my recent visit to the USA. We'd opted to walk from the beach back to the city centre, via Golden Gate Park, and on arriving at the beach I just had to have a look at what was about. This sneak peek at the beach really got me excited as there were hundreds of waders feeding up and down the shore line, including whimbrel, marbled godwit and plenty of sanderlings, and I'm an absolute sucker for waders! They've always been one of my favourite groups of birds, probably because I associate them with the coast and beaches. Maybe because of their unique build, often with long legs and an equally long bill. I was therefore determined to spend some time trying to photograph the waders of Ocean Beach so agreed with my very understanding other half that I'd get up before sunrise to have a few hours of photography whilst she enjoyed a lie in.
Wednesday 4th May saw my alarm buzzing at 5:30am and it seemed very dark out still. Sunrise wasn't until around 6:00am so I got dressed, gathered my gear and hit the road. Well, the tracks. I didn't have a long wait for the metro from Powell Street and the train was soon rattling along underground. When the train escaped the darkness of the tunnel system things didn't get much brighter. Thick, dark, threatening clouds had an equally dulling affect on my mood. This was not part of my plan and wasn't forecast. I hoped things would improve in the 30 minutes or so left of the remaining journey but they only got worse with rain soon falling. Arse. I eventually arrived at Ocean Beach at just gone 7 and the rain had eased though the leaden skies still hung depressingly overhead. I ploughed on, crossing the main road and climbed the sand dunes that divided civilisation and the Pacific. It was here that I noticed a sign warning that this was a protected area, specifically for over-wintering snowy plovers. I took a slight detour here and crested the last dune to be greeted with a fairly high tide and thousands of waders feeding in all directions. At least the birds had read the script. I sat down and got my binoculars out and noticed whimbrel and sanderlings but no godwits. I then got my camera gear out and began the short walk down the beach. Given I'd planned on low level shooting, I had a change of top, a towel and a few flannels with me to ensure I didn't go back looking like a plonker. I'd also opted for shorts and flip-flops figuring this would mean a quicker drying process.
I got relatively close to a mixed flock of about 150 birds and led down, hoping the birds would eventually move my way. It took a while for this to happen and when it did I noticed a couple of very small waders which turned out to be my first ever snowy plovers - when they stood still they almost disappeared, melting into the sand such is their amazing camouflage! Unfortunately these stunning little things and the sanderlings they were with zipped past me as quick as a flash. It was slightly too dull to get anything sharp so I just led still enjoying the continual peeping of these super quick birds. Two whimbrel were with the flock and they were in much less of a hurry but the sanderlings had my attention and I was now facing them with the whimbrel behind me. The light was slowly improving but it then began raining. Bottom. I contemplated moving but there was no cover and I'd planned to get a bit wet so stayed put, as chilly as I was starting to feel. After a few minutes I had a cautious glance over my shoulder and was surprised to see the two whimbrel much closer so I made a very slow and careful turn to face them and managed to avoid spooking them. They came a little closer before one made a swift beeline for the waters edge. The remaining whimbrel seemed curious though and stepped closer still, taking a few steps before pausing. This allowed me to get some images of this lovely wader in a few different poses, and I was over the moon when seeing the results on the back of the camera. Here are a few of my favourites. If only the light had been better!
My moment with the whimbrel was rudely interrupted by an onrushing wave which I luckily noticed with just enough time to get up and out of the way. In hindsight I'd have got a nice shot as the whimbrel would've been up to its knees in water though I'm not sure the following few hours would've been comfortable for me with sopping wet pants!
Given I was now stood up I had a scan around and there were a good number of sanderlings not too far away so I slowly walked in their direction. It was then that I noticed a few more snowy plovers - tiny little things that I only noticed when they scuttled away from me. I went low again and slowly belly crawled to the nearest bird though it was fairly wary and I couldn't get too close without it motoring away. After a few minutes it relaxed and I got a couple of pleasing frames of a new and very cute little wader.
The sanderlings behaved in a similar manner though in much greater numbers, sticking together pretty much all the time. What also struck me was the incredible range of plumage these birds were showing. Some were extremely dull looking whilst a number were in full summer breeding plumage, consisting of a doppled reds and oranges. It was a challenge to isolate individual birds but I did get a few images of lone birds, picking them out on the many occasions when they veered around me at great speed, sometimes pausing inquisitively to give the unusual camera toting creature a once over.
When the flock wasn't playing roulette with the ebbing tide, they were either starting to roost or busily feeding in the freshly soaked sand, probing with their bills. One moment that I'm really glad I managed to capture was a pair of sanderlings feeding together whilst looking at me. It was an extremely brief exchange and I loved the symmetry as they both hit the sand at the same time.
After this wader-fest I wandered along the beach and was blown away by the sheer number of sanderlings. They were everywhere, often in pockets of 50-100 birds. I didn't see any more snowy plovers but did come across a group of 20+ whimbrels, many of which were higher up on the beach resting. During my wander I saw numerous brown pelicans cruising along out at sea along with a couple of surf scoters and a flyover caspian tern. Birding abroad is definitely something I plan on doing more of as everything has an air of excitement about it. You just don't know what will be around the corner.
This brings me onto our final full day in the city. We hadn't taken a tram ride so far so did that, going from Powell Street to Fisherman's Wharf. From there we walked along the sea front to Crissy Fields. Along the way we went past a large mariner and I noticed loads of small dark crabs on the rocks bordering the water. They scuttled away as soon as we approached and on keeping my eyes on the water a few minutes later spotted a black-crowned night heron hunting. It was very close, very confiding and gave me the chance to take a few picks before flying off to the other side of the mariner. A cracking bird with a beastly eye colour!
That was the last bird I photographed from the two weeks I had away and given I wasn't on a proper photography break I'm really pleased with the number of new bird species seen and the images I got to bring home. San Francisco and the surrounding areas we did see were utterly brilliant and I'd love to go back. The wildlife was as impressive and the Golden Gate Park must be a real feast for those with time to do it justice. As for me, I'm looking forward to my next trip abroad, wherever and whenever that may be but in the meantime things are really kicking off here now and my macro lens has already had a number of successful outings, but more about that soon!
Keywords: Beach, Bird, Birds, Ocean Beach, Photography, Photography, Sanderling, Shorebirds, Snowy Plover, Waders, Whimbrel
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