Having recently added a Nikon D500 to my photographic armoury, I've been getting back to some bird photography after what feels like a very long time and I must admit I'd forgotten how much I'd missed it.
I've had a few 'practice' sessions with the new toy locally, with great-spotted woodpeckers being the main attraction and as always these have been very entertaining. After an initial worry about my lens and camera needing calibrating I've come to realise that they're both fine and the newly added auto-focus fine tune isn't something I'll need to play with. A great feature in theory but I can't help but think it will tempt people to mess with something that may well be best left just as it is...
Back on topic, as I'm sure I've mentioned before, waders are one of my favourite species to shoot and a very good place for these enchanting little birds is Farmoor Reservoir in Oxfordshire. It's a place that can look desolate and dull but it is a seeming magnet for passage migrants and can turn up some real treats. I'd planned on an after-work visit and had been keeping an eye on sightings, little expecting for things to fall into place as they did. I'd considered going on Tuesday evening but ended up finishing work too late. Later that evening I saw that two little stints had been reported. Typical! I could only hope that they'd stay put long enough for me to get over and see them!
My next opportunity came on Thursday evening and with the stints still present in the morning I headed to Farmoor as soon as I'd finished work, feeling excited of what lay ahead. If the stints weren't present I was sure there'd be something else to see, no doubt a Dunlin or two.
Upon getting out of the car I couldn't help but notice how calm it was. This would hopefully mean that if got down low as I usually do here I wouldn't get too wet. I opted for a bean bag and football sock combo to start with, feeling a tripod would be a bit too cumbersome for very low shooting. Not only that, it would mean a higher profile which any approaching birds may find disturbing.
The first birds I noticed were a couple of young pied wagtails, bouncing around before flitting out of sight. Mallards and coots were in abundance, with the latter seemingly in their hundreds. I soon reached the causeway that divides the two parts of the reservoir (F1 and the larger F2) and began the slow walk scanning both sides for anything wader-like. I was facing the sun so anything I was looking at was initially in silhouette and a few pied wagtails did their best to get my hopes up but they only had to show their profiles for the game to be up with their long tails the giveaway. The first wader that I found was a very sleepy dunlin, roosting high up on the bank of F1. I made a slow approach from distance and got a few shots before slowly retreating.
I then found a group of four birds and one of these was a little stint. What a stunning little thing it was too, about two thirds of the size of the dunlin it was keeping company. I slowly crouched down overlooking the bank as the group approached and just watched as they picked their way along the shore, occasionally calling and stopping every few yards to survey their surroundings. The little stint was very active, rarely lifting its head from probing for goodies. As they passed me by, I had the sun behind me and the light was very nice indeed and it was a great opportunity to real take in the plumage details. If I could find a lone bird, feeding towards the sun, I could be in luck. I carried on walking up the causeway, enjoying the calm and warmth of the sun and soon found another little stint on the other side of the causeway, this one on its own and showing a lot more colour in its plumage compared to the other. It was feeding away from the sun so not ideal for photos so I again sat down and watched it go about its business, no doubt refuelling following its migratory flight from wherever it was born, probably somewhere thousands of miles from its chosen pit-stop in Oxfordshire. For such a small bird, a mighty feat! After a good ten minutes, the little stint turned around and headed back towards me. This was what I'd been waiting for so I unpacked the camera, and tied my beanbag to my lens hood with the football sock. I do this to save me having to repeatedly adjust things and allow me to concentrate on what I'm doing. I walked about 15 metres further up the causeway before climbing down onto the concrete bank on the shore of F2, staying low at all times and moving very slowly. I got down to the waters edge, laid down flat and waited.
This is when things go one of two ways. The first, and most infuriating, is someone sees me and either asks what I'm doing or just stands there and watches. More often than not, this results in the bird being disturbed and flying off or turning around again. The second, and most rewarding, is the bird carries on feeding, gets a feet feet away from me and then either turns around and carries on feeding, or takes a long walk around me and carries on feeding. Thankfully, with it being a weekday, the second scenario played out. The stint picked its way along the waters edge moving a few inches at a time before probing with its bill and unlike the first one seen, frequently stopped and lifted its head, allowing for some nice profile views. I kept my eye on the viewfinder and snapped away, with a few shots taken when the stint was still some distance away, just to allow it to get used to the sound of the shutter. I'm not sure if this is necessary and don't always do this, but it also allowed me to check the exposure was ok before the bird was in a nice range. It also allows some wider angle shots to show some environment. Looking at the below, you'd think I was on a beach!
I took plenty of shots, with the D500 auto-focus doing a fine job of keeping up with a small, erratic target. I used a single focus point, back button focussing and filled my boots. Before long, the little stint was no more than four feet from me and was filling the frame. It had a little look around and then carried on back where it had come from. I waited a while before slowly getting up and getting back onto the causeway. Checking the results is always an exciting moment and with expectations high I'm glad to say it was worth the discomfort. I'd got some photos and the little stint hadn't been spooked. Result.
Hard to argue that this is one smart wader. It was fab to see at such close range but that wasn't the end of my session. I walked a bit further up the causeway with a few more dunlin noted and a pair of very vocal, very flighty ringed plovers. They did touch down briefly but I didn't even try and get close. Some birds you just know are going to be off in a flash. A little while later, the first little stint I'd encountered was alone and a bit further up the bank, clearly having a break from feeding. I again approached from distance, this time belly-crawling very slowly towards the bird. At the first sign of it sensing me I stopped and watched. I didn't need to get too much closer so moved a few inches at a time before taking a few shots and then retreating just as slowly, leaving it to some well deserved rest. Again, the low shooting angle worked a treat, making it impossible to tell that this bird was on the edge of a huge concrete bowl!
I then found another pair of dunlin on the other side of the causeway, one tucked up behind some weeds taking a nap with another close-by seemingly in two minds about whether to go down to the waters edge and feed or join its companion for some rest. I caught this on camera, with the bird on one leg but alert showing off its profile. Again, the low angle worked well.
I then spent a good twenty minutes or so just watching the various bird activity, with plenty of gulls, coots, mallards and grebes milling about. By now the sun was starting to drop and started casting a very nice warm glow to all and sunder. One of the little stints was again actively feeding so down to the water I went again for a few more shots.
On this occasion, the Little Stint was even more relaxed and confiding that it had been before. It just kept on coming, picking at the shoreline whilst getting closer and closer. It was soon within the minimum focus distance of my lens so it was time to stay still and observe. Still this tiny little bird kept coming and it was now just a few feet away. It had slowed down and was a little more cautious and I slowly raised my head to have a proper look. The plumage really was stunning and the stint was clearly happy to show off and stopped between my outstretched arm (supporting the end of the lens) and my face. It was no more than a foot from my face and was spectacular to see. A photo cannot capture such an encounter. The detail, size and movement of the bird were all right there in front of me and it was incredible. I wish I'd been wearing a Go-Pro but the memory is burnt into my mind. The stint considered carrying on past me but casually made a slow about-turn and headed away from me. I stayed still until it was a few metres away before slowly getting back to the causeway, wearing a huge grin on my face. I didn't even bother checking the photos at that point as they felt so inconsequential compared to such an epic close encounter. Those are the moments that make wildlife photography for me. Obviously it's extremely satisfying to get some decent shots but it's the trust gained by one's subject that's the real kicker and what made a Thursday evening at a reservoir so damn good. Roll on the next time!
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