Photographing wading birds at Pickett`s Paradise

As a festive treat, we are delighted to welcome back local naturalist and photographer Ron Macdonald as guest blogger. Ron’s post takes a look back at the heady days of summer and autumn 2019. Enjoy!

In August and into early September a small wetland to the west of the Stevenson Forvie Centre was a magnet for migrating waders. 

Locally referred to as the ‘Flooded Piece’, I prefer the name Daryl Short coined for the wetland, ‘Pickett’s Paradise’, after David Pickett, Forvie’s Reserve Manager, who regularly birdwatched here during his 6 months secondment at Forvie. 

It was David who first alerted me to how much of a draw the wetland was for migrating waders.  He posted a photo of a juvenile Spotted Redshank on a local Birders’ Facebook Page and this encouraged me to visit the site and see for myself.

The first picture below is of the juvenile Spotted Redshank with its pal a juvenile Dunlin feeding along the edge of the wetland. For 2/3 days the two were inseparable, feeding and roosting together. The green tinge to the image is caused by me taking the photograph through vegetation at the edge of the wetland. More about the reasons for this later in the blog piece.

Juvenile Spotted Redshank and juvenile Dunlin © Ron Macdonald

The next 2 images are of the Spotted Redshank on its own, the Dunlin having left, probably having continued south to its wintering grounds or to the neighbouring Ythan estuary which at this time had several hundred juvenile Dunlin. 

Spotted Redshank feeding  © Ron Macdonald
Spotted Redshank picking off midges from the surface of the water © Ron Macdonald

Over the next 4 weeks the wetland attracted a wide diversity of wading birds including Greenshank, Ruff, Wood Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, Dunlin, Golden Plover, Ringed Plover and Curlew.  There weren’t great numbers of birds with seldom more than half a dozen present at any one time.  The Spotted Redshank stayed for around 3 weeks. 

A juvenile Dunlin at rest © Ron Macdonald
A juvenile Greenshank wondering what this strange thing is in front of it © Ron Macdonald

I hope you enjoy the images I took using a full frame camera and a 700mm lens at distances of between 10-25 metres. Getting good quality photos at a small wetland like this with no hides and which is very open is 25% reliant on the quality of your equipment, 15% on one’s technical ability in using it and a whopping 60% on fieldcraft. Yes fieldcraft; it is that important in this type of situation.

A juvenile Greenshank framed by a clump of sedges © Ron Macdonald
A wary juvenile Golden Plover © Ron Macdonald 

So given the emphasis on fieldcraft, what did this involve and how did I go about taking the images? Hopefully the pointers below will help others take photographs of waders in a similar situation.

  1. I always viewed the waders from afar before getting closer.   Using binoculars from around 100-150 metres, I slowly crept closer with the last 20-30 metres prostrate face down inching forward.  I stopped frequently so as not to spook the birds, allowing them to get used to my presence. It also allowed me to see which areas were the favoured feeding, resting and roosting spots. 
  2. When I first watched the Spotted Redshank and its wee Dunlin pal, it was very wary and would immediately fly away, even at distances of 100 metres. However it gradually became more relaxed until, eventually, it was comfortable to keep feeding at a distance of 10-15 metres. 
  3. Lying as low as one can get not only reduces the threat you pose to the bird,  it produces more attractive ground level pictures. You are literally at the bird’s eye level. It also helps you blur the background and by including vegetation in the foreground, it makes it stand or pop out.
  4. I allowed the birds to come to me rather pursue them. As their fear of you subsides they will gradually return to their favoured feeding area which you already know about. 
  5. Lying flat at the edge of a wetland often means you get wet so either wear waterproofs or bring a change of clothes.  Most importantly protect your camera and lens by resting it on a beanbag. 
  6. One evening while lying prostrate, photographing the Spotted redshank, two juvenile Greenshank landed about 15 metres away.   You can see in one of the pictures a Greenshank walking towards me with a tuft of sedges just in front of the bird. This was at a distance of under 12 metres.  The two Greenshank were migrating during the day and decided to stop off at Pickett’s Paradise for a quick feed and a bathe. By using good fieldcraft I was able to take advantage of the surprise visit. I was doing the right thing, in the right place at the right time!  Bingo!
  7. Photographing the Golden Plover was difficult as I had to crawl for about 40-50 metres face down. I could see by the bird’s behaviour that it was wary so I retreated and took only 4-5 photos from 30 metres.  If I had continued the bird might well have flown away.  Yes I might have got a better picture but at the cost of disturbing the bird. The greatest buzz a responsible photographer can get is a good photo without disturbing the bird. I get enormous satisfaction and inwardly I’m shouting ‘Yessssss!’
  8. All the birds photographed were juveniles most of which would not have encountered humans before. It is much easier to gain their trust than if I was photographing adult birds who have experience of us humans and are therefore much more wary. 

By the middle of September the wetland had dried out and no longer attracted waders.  Some 3 weeks later, in early October, heavy rains reflooded the wetland and a few Dunlin did use it. However the halcyon days of August were not to be repeated but I did have fantastic memories and what I think are some good quality images. I count myself incredibly privileged to have experienced what I did. 

Ron Macdonald, December 2019