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Hudsonian Godwit, Franklin's Gull, and going facedown in the sand

A pair of Hudsonian Godwits rocket by at Maumee Bay State Park, hard on the shore of Lake Erie just east of Toledo. I visited this spot last Wednesday, with the big sandpiper being a primary target. Uber-birder, photographer, and all-around naturalist Rick Nirschl had been reporting godwits from the area for a few days, along with many other interesting species. Besides, I just don't get into that neck of the woods nearly often enough, and there are always interesting finds to be made. So, in the golden light of late day, I connected with local photographer and naturalist Kim Smith (see her blog HERE) and set out in search of robust sandpipers.

As always, click the image to enlarge

A Dunlin tends to its plumage. The chunky little sandpiper is in basic (winter) plumage. It's quite the different looking beast after molting into alternate (breeding) plumage. Then, it transforms into a coat of rusty-red above, and rich black below. It was once known as the "Red-backed Sandpiper".

Anyway, a large flock of several thousand gulls was roosting on the beach, with small numbers of shorebirds hanging around the periphery. We slowly stalked towards the group, being cautious not to flush or alarm the birds. Finally, after getting close enough, we dropped prostrate on the sand. Before long, this Dunlin and a group of his compradres - and one Least Sandpiper - flew into the water's edge directly in front of our position and in perfect light.

I could not believe our luck! Not only were there excellent photo ops of the little sandpipers, but the godwits - there were three - had been flying about and foraging on distant parts of the beach, and I knew the big sandpipers might well be lured in by these smaller sandpipers. Shorebirds like to pack up together, and our Dunlin were essentially acting as decoys to possibly lure the godwits right to our position.

Flat on my belly on the sand - thanks Kim for the photo - and ready for action. This, by the way, was a nasty chunk of sand to flatten oneself on, due to all the goose scat. But one must do what must be done. Note my shadow, pointing right in the direction of my quarry, and the soft golden glow of the light of day's end. Superb conditions.

My Gitzo tripod has quick-release tabs that allow the legs to splay out perfectly flat, allowing my camera rig to be only 6-8 inches above the ground. There are at least three great advantages to shooting in this position:

1) In such a posture, the birds no longer react as they would to an upright potentially threatening humanoid biped. They often go about their business as if you weren't there, and often approach closely. I would have never gotten the images that I did if I remained standing and shooting with the tripod nearly fully extended. Not disturbing your subjects should be rule #1.

2) By getting down on the ground, the photographer is at eye level with the subjects. Such a perspective is often unbeatable, as we shall see in some of the following images.

3) From an extremely low position, the reflections of your subjects in the water often melt into a pool of quicksilver - an awesome look, and I'll share an example further on.

Sure enough, our trusty little Dunlin decoys worked like a charm! It wasn't long before I heard the maniacal squeaky-toy calls of the godwits in flight, and seconds later the trio of birds plunked down with the Dunlin - right in front of our location! This was fantastic "good luck", although not due just to "good luck". Knowing the habits of your subjects helps immensely in being at the right place at the right time.

Right away, we were treated to stellar opportunities to create images of these large, sensational sandpipers. The godwits paid us no mind and went about their business of tidying feathers, resting, and foraging.

The bird in the previous shot was much in need of grooming, and here it sets about making those feathers right. Hudsonian Godwit ranks high among the world's most amazing birds. There are not many - the total population is estimated to be around 60,000 individuals. Here in Ohio, they're rare migrants, nearly all juveniles - like these birds - in late fall, with the majority occurring along Lake Erie. They are phenomenal world travelers, nesting in scattered locales in the North American arctic and migrating to the coasts of southern South America for the winter. As I write this, five days after making these images, these godwits are possibly already in South America. This species is capable of long-haul nonstop flights that can cover a few thousand miles. It is known that significant numbers of Hudsonian Godwits rest and refuel along James Bay in Canada after departing nesting grounds to the north. Many of these birds then fly nonstop to South America - an amazing journey in excess of 3,000 miles!

This photo is completely uncropped. Bird photographers will seldom carp about being too close to their subjects, but in this case I was decidedly over-lensed. I was shooting with the Canon 7D II mounted to Canon's fabulous 800mm f/5.6 lens. The 1.6x crop factor of the 7D means the lens is effectively a 1280mm lens. At times, this super telephoto did not allow me to leave the blank space around the edges of the bird that I would have preferred and sometimes I could not fit the entire bird in the image. But, I am not complaining.

A near macro view of the bird above, showing its scapular, covert, and contour feathers. This is an advantage of being close - cropping down to such fine detail, without pixelating the image.

One last view of one of our beautiful subjects, using its long bill to plumb the sandy depths.

A 1st-cycle Franklin's Gull sits placidly in the quiet waters of Deer Creek Reservoir, southwest of Columbus in Pickaway County, Ohio. I visited this area last Saturday morning, as Deer Creek and vicinity always produces something of interest. I was mainly there to go after sparrows, especially Le Conte's and Nelson's sparrows. As it happened, it was the first day of waterfowl season and the marshes sounded like WW III. That destroyed any possibility of quietly stalking the marshes for sparrows, so I headed to the state park beach. And hit paydirt as five Franklin's Gulls were loafing about with a few dozen Ring-billed Gulls, a smattering of Bonaparte's Gull, and two Herring Gulls.

It was a mirror image of the tactics employed to stalk the godwits a few days prior. I sidled onto the beach, dropped to the sand and worked my way towards the birds using a slight ridge of sand as cover. Before long, I was plenty close enough without alarming the birds at all.

Earlier, I made note of the advantages gained by shooting from a prostrate position, including the melting of reflections into a quicksilver pool. That effect is evident in the above image. One other comment about this photo. The gull is at nearly the perfect angle, and posture and angle is everything when making shots of birds. I watch my subject like a hawk, ready and waiting for it to subtly adjust its position. Note how the back of the bird is canted slightly my way, and the bird is looking slightly my way - maybe a 5-10 degree cock of the head. Perfect.

One of the young Franklin's Gulls plops into the water. This beautiful small gull is sometimes called the "Prairie Dove". I don't know that they look especially dovelike, but the prairie part fits. Franklin's Gulls nest mostly in the prairie pothole region of the Great Plains: the Dakotas and adjacent areas of the northern U.S. and into the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. They, like the godwits, are long-haul migrants and most winter along the Pacific coast of South America. They are rare autumn migrants in Ohio, and always a notable find.

Finally, as a bonus for an hour of lying in gritty sand, this adult Bonaparte's Gull rewarded me with a wonderful photo op. It came right at me, small fish in mouth, and gracefully landed in front of my position. I was ready for it and got this shot.


Comments

Jerry said…
Outstanding, Jim! Congratulations. That last one is a wall-hanger!

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