This was it, today we would get the Little Stints , my confidence was high. We had brought all the gear. Mike had a bag hide complete with built in chair, I'd brought a dome hide, basically a round tent, and a separate chair. Neither of us appear to have had much prior use out of our equipment, indeed my dome hide had only ever been used once out in the field in the several years that I had owned it after buying it second hand but in new condition( which begs the question ...why was it so !)
All this gear came in at a fair weight... we had paid an extra £40 to bring it as a third bag and extra hold item on Easyjet. We also had the photo equipment to carry too. Mike's Mk1 600mm is a back breaker, my 500mm Mk11 is considerably lighter but still not one you want to carry too far. Bags, camera bodies, teleconverters, lenses I had about 20kgs of gear to carry, Mike even more. To get it to where we wanted was not going to be easy , it was about 2 miles along the beach. We could get to the beach itself but entrance was barred by a ford so that there was no way our hire car could negotiate it without water ingress in to the main body. We'd have to ask Pavel to drop of us off in his much higher people mover which he kindly agreed to do.
Setting off at 7.00am I was to be dropped off at the Little Stint pool, Mike a hundred yards further on at a water outlet on to the beach where we had previously seen both a pair of Curlew Sandpiper and Grey Plover in breeding plumage. Fingers crossed all would still be there!
It must have been at least three years since my dome hide had been out of it's bag and with little experience of erecting it I was amazed that I managed it with ease. Soon I was set up, camera on tripod, me on chair and all I needed was a bird. Incredibly within a minute or so a Little Ringed Plover dropped in at the far side of the pool.
Already I had my best ever shot of the species and the day had barely begun. I was elated.
I heard a shout from Pavel who had returned from dropping off Mike further down the beach and he shouted across to me from the car some distance away. With the wind blowing quite strongly I couldn't hear a word of what he was shouting but I stuck my arm out of the side of the hide, pointed that I had a bird already, stuck my thumb up as an OK all was well and off he went.
My photo session was under way!
The LRP was getting closer with each visit.
and it made several, spending time here and elsewhere on the beach depending on the success of it's hunting resulting in the length of each stay no doubt.
I was filling my boots, and my camera cards !
I was using my Canon 1DX, a 500mm f4 lens with a 2.0x teleconverter. Personally I am happy the images this combination takes. Sharp enough for me although I know most professionals prefer to avoid using a TC on their lens when possible.
I decided to try the bare lens.
In my incapable hands there isn't a lot of difference in image quality as far as I'm concerned. You have to crop the image to a much greater extent, particularly as the 1DX is a full frame camera. What you gain on the swings you loose on the roundabouts so to speak. The more you crop the image the more image quality you loose so although initially the 500mm bare looks sharper it ends up looking similar to the one taken with the 2.0x TC on. Of course the answer is to try and get closer and fill the frame a bit more but that isn't always possible either, even using a hide.
The major disadvantage of using a TC is that it reduces the number of potentially available focus points the camera has. In fact the 1DX is left with a maximum of only 5 out of a possible 61, and they are all right in the centre of the frame. If the bird is moving, and a Little Ringed Plover does on a regular basis, composing the picture and focussing the image is not easy with just 5 focus points.
A good compromise is using a 1.4 TC. Instead of a 1000mm of "reach" or magnification you have 700mm but you have all 61 AF points to enable to compose the shot.
I decided to give that a go for a while.
That would do nicely
I had got more shots of the bird than I needed, what now I wondered.
In our haste to set up and get on with the shooting we had never agreed a time at which we would swop hides thus giving us both a chance of both species without the disturbance of moving too much equipment. I was aware that I had been very successful with the LRP, how was Mike doing. It was only fair that I let him have a go and besides, I wanted a crack at the Curlew Sandpipers before the light was too harsh.
Leaving all my gear in the hide I went in search of Mike and to my amazement found out he wasn't where we had agreed and neither was the hide. He must have decided to go back with Pavel right from the off. Pavel had been trying to persuade us to go to see his Barred Warbler site and Mike had taken the bait. Maybe the Curlew Sandpiper had been missing earlier but they were there now. I went back to my hide and waited to see if Mike returned but no, there was no sign of him or Pavel. I decided my only option was to move my hide and move to the new position.
A bit miffed that Mike hadn't left the hide set up for me I soon realised why. From my previously sheltered position behind the dunes this was an altogether different prospect. The wind blowing off the sea and on to the beach made setting up the hide difficult, anchoring it down in soft sand impossible. I had managed to capture one rather poor image of the stunning Sandpiper in virtually full breeding plumage before my efforts to put up the hides but in doing the latter had well and truly spooked the birds and they had flown off down the beach. Abandoning the hide idea I went to see if I could relocate them which I did pretty quickly but one again they took flight.... this time back to their pool. I doubled back and taking only my camera and lens combination crawled closer working slowly up the beach.
They were back in situ and so far, so good, they were not bothered about my presence either. I still had my 2x teleconverter attached to the 500mm lens which had the advantage of getting me closer but depth of field would be even more a problem with the extra magnification.
Soon the female, or at least I presume it was the female relaxed in to some grooming whilst the male carried on searching for food.
Before long it was a role reversal
To be very close to your subject is to be allowed in to their world. You are no longer an observer, you feel part of it.
My view was limited by the slight rise in the beach ahead before it dropped back down to the water where they were stood. More problems for composition, especially with the TC attached. Depth of field issues when the two birds were together, too much out of focus foreground if you tried to include both as well. Cropped shots were a problem too as you could have parts of the second bird still in the shot and that looks worse still. However, there were moments were one went out of shot leaving a better opportunity for cropping.
Even some action.
The pair tended to stick closely together and when one went to the far end of the pool, the other followed. Now they were a bit too far away although depth of field was less of a problem.
Then they started heading back. The female first.
My heart beat rose ! Getting too close. I had a dilemma. Freeze the action with a higher shutter speed or try and increase depth of field with a higher f number. As they were mainly on the move I went for a higher shutter speed and you can see the result.
When the bird turned sideways it's not such an issue.
Next it was the stunning male's turn. Closer and closer. I had changed positions whilst the birds had been at the furthest end of the pool and now I had a clear water level view.
You have to have experienced it to empathise ! Those who have will know the adrenaline rush we photo togs get at moments like this!
I was cursing the 2.0x TC now but I was stuck with it. I wouldn't know what the results would be like until it was too late to do anything about it. They were too close now to even contemplate taking it off. I might spook them with my movement.
Some shots look better than others but the moment was magical and the closest I had come to revisiting my experience in The Gambia a few years back. We don't seem to get opportunities with waders like that where I live.
Finally they backed off. I took the TC off and tossed it aside , not true, I tried to place it with care to avoid getting sand in it ! The pair were finished though. They walked up the sand and decided to have a sleep. Just before though I managed a shot at a very high f number...f22 in fact, just to make sure both birds were in focus.
As you can see, both look fairly sharp.
I must have spent 2 hours with them so I thought time to leave them in peace. Slowly crawling back I left them sleeping,picked up my gear and headed back down the beach. I didn't care that I had been abandoned , the experience with the Curlew Sandpipers had put me on a high. Minimising weight I left my chair behind and continued the long walk back to where our car was parked. Fortunately I had the ignition key so it still had to be where we had left it earlier...at least I didn't have another two to three miles to walk once off the beach.
Around mid day it was hot trudging through the sand. Very damned hot ! Almost back to the car I suddenly spotted a jet black bird at the edge of the reeds. It took a moment to register that I was looking at a fully summer plumaged Spotted Redshank, a stunning bird and highly desirable photo. I tried to gently put everything down on the ground to enable me to capture the image but it was a lost cause. The bird flew.
Ah well, can't win them all.
I drove back to Branta Lodge and I was met by an unexpected sight. Pavel's cars were parked outside. I went in but there was no sign of Mike. Asking the question I was told he was on the beach were Pavel had left him, not where agreed but a further on. Pavel said he'd shouted to tell me on his way back earlier but as I was gesticulating wildly he thought best to drive on as he could see I was pre-occupied with the Little Ringed Plover in front of my hide and he didn't want to disturb me further.
An expletive came to mind.
What a cock up.
What had happened to Mike then ?
I presumed he must have found something to keep him occupied as I hadn't seen him. Nevertheless I asked Pavel if we could return by car to find him.
We found him not far short of the place we had parked the car.
He wasn't a happy bunny.
He was pretty p***d off as he had sat waiting for me to change hides with him, eventually given up and carrying an extra heavy load to mine made the long walk back.
To make matters worse he hadn't taken a decent image in the 6 hours he had sat there.
P**d off was an understatement and worse still... he blamed me !
Me ! It was his fault !
Maybe it was Pavel's fault but to be fair you can't shoot the messenger.
It was a reflection on both Mike and I's relationship and the fact that we are both laid back characters that all was soon forgotten. Lessons learnt on essential communication skills, oh and trust of one another.
We had each wrongly assumed the other had left by our own accord without telling the other.
Stupid or what !
Oh well, we now had the rest of the day to figure out how to spend it. Having learnt of my Curlew Sandpiper experience Mike was keen to go back and try his luck. I was already amazed he hadn't seen them yet. He decided he'd shed all his load of gear and walk back from the car back where I'd drop him off.
I meantime would park a few hundred yards further up the road and from there, walk in to the Sunflower field, pitch up my hide near a muddy pool and wait for him NO MATTER HOW LONG IT TOOK ! I was desperate for his day to turn around as mine had been superb.
It was my turn to get fed up as for four hours I saw barely a thing. The occasional distant visit of a Yellow Wagtail was as good as it got.
I wasn't too bothered as long as Mike was getting some shots as good as mine.
Then came communication mistake number two. Pavel had asked why Mike and I hadn't 'phoned each other earlier, that way we could keep in touch. Simple ! Believe it or not we hadn't exchanged our mobile numbers... particularly difficult for me because I haven't a clue what mine is, largely due to the fact I rarely use it.
I heard Pavel tell Mike that he'd give him his card. I assumed mobile phone card thus making it a local call instead of an international call.
Sitting in my hide I decided to text Mike to ask him how he was getting on. First problem.. I couldn't figure out how to text on my cheap (free actually) and cheerful Asda mobile 'phone. All I could do was input numbers! I did however come across a menu with the option of "template".
Could I change things ?
But I did find a selection of ready made texts and chose the one that said " How are you getting on?".
Perfect ! I sent it.
The reply came back "Fine"
Not exactly euphoric but I assumed Mike was too busy to elaborate. Thank goodness I thought!
Eventually I was too bored to carry on and decided to pack away the hide and was packing it in to the car when Pavel turned up in his.
" You text'd me" he said.
"Err, no I text'd Mike, he has your mobile phone card in his phone"
"No he hasn't, I gave him my business card with my mobile number on it" was the reply." He thought that the text he'd received from me was a request for a lift, hence his appearance !
Leaving the hire car where it was, I set off in Pavel's to look for Mike.Half way along the beach we spotted a small flock of mixed waders. Only a dozen birds but what beauties they were!
I jumped out of the car and grabbed a few images. Pavel told me they were approachable, they wouldn't fly.
They gathered pace at the sight of me
And moved on further down the beach
I told Pavel I'd keep track on them until he returned with Mike from where I presumed he'd find him... a mile or so further on at the beach pool!
To my delight I discovered that two of the mixed flock of waders hadn't gone very far. Today was certainly my lucky day.
The two were Little Stint.
Now you don't get to see Little Stint very often in the UK. When you do they are not in this glorious breeding plumage either. On my local reserve they are seen at around 100m distance, look pale and unremarkable and getting a photo is near on impossible.
Here they were relaxed and feeding
and close by.
I was elated. My target for the day achieved when I had earlier thought it not likely.
I saw Pavel driving back along the beach towards me so left the Stints to intercept him on the track.
He hadn't found Mike.
Oh no I thought, somehow we must have passed him earlier without seeing him. I knew the spot that it could happen so I was convinced I'd find him back at the car, waiting where I had promised to be.
Pavel decided to stop and take some photos of the single Ringed Plover in the mixed flock which by now were only a few hundred yards from where I had parked our car. I left him to it and walked/jogged back hoping that Mike hadn't been there too long.
He was there and totally relaxed. Phew! My good intentions of going looking for him hadn't backfired after all. I insisted we drove back to look for the mixed flock to give him the opportunity but the light was starting to fall, the birds flew on and away from us and we decided to call it a day.
Tonight was to be our last at Branta Lodge. The beers were on Pavel too!