Saturday 22 September 2012

It's tough being a bird

A pair of juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers were enough to tempt me to Garrettstown beach near the Old Head of Kinsale late last week. A species I'd seen 4 times before in Ireland but still special enough to make the short trip.
3 of the other 4 birds I'd seen had been quite approachable so with nice light, the chances were good for a decent snap or two.
However when I got to Garrettstown I found just one bird associating with a small mixed group of Dunlin, Sanderling and Ringed Plover. The group was flushed twice by walkers during the first 10 minutes I spent taking 'scope views. Each time the flock was flushed the Semi-P went with them and landed further and further up the beach. Getting close was going to be tricky and even if I did, it would be even harder to stop dogs and walkers moving between me and the birds.
However I had a plan up my sleeve. I wanted to try the 'frying pan' technique for photographing waders which I'd seen used on an American bird photography DVD. The technique seemed perfect for shooting waders on an open beach with little cover. The idea is to place your camera and lens sitting in a frying pan, lie down on your stomach so you are eye level with the birds and push the gear along through the sand in front of you. Panning (excuse the pun) is made easier by gripping the frying pan handle. Creeping up on the birds is made much easier and your gear stays dry and steady. I may not have explained the technique too well but believe me it works.
So I donned my waterproofs and wellies, picked up the frying pan and made my way towards the flock. Once I was within 50 feet I lay down and started creeping. Once I reached a distance of about 20 feet I stopped where I was and started to take shots. My approach had been so stealthy that most of birds in the flock remained asleep including my quarry, the Semi-P Sandpiper. And here in fact was the problem, the light was good and from the right side, I was exactly eye level with the bird, but its head was tucked under its wing as it slept. Not a great pose, no other option but to hope it would awake briefly and give me a decent image. I lay there for a good 30 minutes as it slept. Up to then no one had walked between me and the flock at any point. But then from the corner of my eye I noticed a dog walker approaching, I gestured carefully to him to go around me, he obliged but his unleashed Jack Russell didn't. The dog had got me in his sights and charged at me barking, realising that my quarry would be now well awake and alert, I held my nerve and fired off a few shots. At the last second the dog got distracted by the birds and veered away from me towards them scattering them up into the air and out across the surf. Despair, all that time and they were gone. I shook my head at the dog walker but he didn't seem to care. With the flock gone I stood and straightened myself up. Wet sand was stuck all over me (though not on my gear), sea water had leaked into my wellies and up my legs, I was cold and stiff. When I looked up 4 or 5 people were approaching me. Evidently the scene of photographer stalking bird and Jack Russell stalking photographer had been an interesting one. A small group of walkers had watched the events unfold with mild interest and amusement. They asked if I had got my shot. I showed them the results and explained that the little bird I was interested in breeds in the tundra of arctic Canada and winters in South America. Probably weakened from a trans-atlantic flight it was a pity, I said, that it had to be constantly flushed by loose dogs and walkers. I hoped they understood my point.
Wet through and with one decent shot I headed back to the car to change and grab a drink.

Juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, Garretstown, Cork, 21st September 2012
In the one hour I was there the flock was flushed 4 times, remonstrating with dog walkers seems only to lead to abuse and scorn. Surely the constant flushing reduces the birds chances of survival. Weakened from constant short, quick flights, less time spent resting and feeding and greater exposure to predators each time they alight. It breaks my heart to see someone's much loved pooch charging with abandon along a strand scattering waders in their path.
OK, rant over. With that I moved to the Old Head to check the gardens for migrants. The plantation was dead, I ignored the 'No trespassing' signs and walked down to the Magic Garden and Gulley. I probably shouldn't trespass like that but there was no-one about to ask for permission. I just make sure to close all gates and leave no litter. If a loose bull gores me I'll take the blame. In any case there were no birds down there either. I walked the road back down along the headland and in the garden beside what must be the smelliest farmyard in Ireland, I had a single Chiffchaff and a Spotted Flycatcher. Several stray cats were lurking in the long grass beneath the trees where these 2 birds were and a Sparrowhawk dashed through at one point........the odds are really stacked against these poor birds making it to Africa alive!!!

Spotted Flycatcher, Old Head of Kinsale, 21st September 2012
The next 3 days of easterly winds will hopefully drop something good onto our headlands, lets just hope whatever it is survives our dogs, stray cats and walkers!!

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