Friday, December 01, 2006

Approaching the Birds



Have you ever observed bird behavior relative to how they respond differentially to to the presence of people who are not paying any attention to them, versus those who do? Why is it that dozens of walkers and joggers on a trail can pass under a Northern Shrike perched on a telephone wire and it stays, but when you try to sneak up on it to take a picture, it flies away? Anecdotally, from years of photographing birds, I believe it's instinctual that they recognize types of stalking behavior, regardless of what's doing it. Perhaps this is a case of counting the hits and ignoring the misses, but I've witnessed this too many times for it to be a coincidence.

One late afternoon at Harrington Beach State Park, I was walking along the beach toward a rocky point and noticed half a dozen Sanderlings on the rocks ahead of me. Unfortunately, I was on the wrong side of the light but couldn't help imagining the nice pictures of Sanderlings I might capture if I could only get to other side of the point. I wanted to make the most of this opportunity – everything was right except for the angle I had on them. To capture exceptional detail, I needed them to be comfortable with my presence, be on the right side of the light and also be a fairly close distance to them.



This diagram that recreates the scene - you can see I had to walk toward them to get around the point to have good lighting. Watching the birds from (1), I knew they would become nervous the closer I got to the rocky point. I quietly but casually approached. When I got to (2) I could see they were beginning to hop across rocks a little further out to the tip of the point. From then on, I turned my face to the right, continued walking (3) and avoided eye contact with them until I made it all the way to (4). Once there, I meandered a bit and then sat down in the sand. Walking that far beyond them was intentional - I think it reinforces to the birds that you're not interested in them.



Optimistically, I glanced over my shoulder - the Sanderlings remained. I looked back to my right and pretended to be content just sitting there in the sand. Carefully watching them out of the corner of my eye, the Sanderlings slowly made their way back toward the middle of the rocks. I continued to pretend I had no interest in them whatsoever, but occasionally sidled toward them a foot or two at a time.



It took several minutes but I finally made my way up to the rocks. Avoiding sudden moves and eye contact, I entered the water (yep, sometimes ya gotta get wet) in a crouched position until I found a nice rock to sit on and went to work. I must have taken over 200 images of the Sanderlings and these ones are a few favorites from the session. They knew I was there, but...they didn't seem to mind. Perhaps the most amazing part of this story is that I was wearing a bright yellow winter coat!

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

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