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Photographing beach birds

Tips on photographing birds at the seashore

By Tim Gallagher

I recently took a trip to where I used to live in Southern California to visit my family and old friends. This brief vacation also gave me a chance to revisit my old bird photography haunts on the beaches and estuaries of the Pacific Coast. And it was great. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed crawling around the sand there, trying to snap pictures of the many fascinating birds that showed up. Where else but the beach are shorebirds, gulls, terns, scoters, pelicans, and many other birds so plentiful and easy to approach? Whether you live near the Atlantic or Pacific oceans, along the Gulf of Mexico, on an island, or beside a lake or river with a sandy shore, beaches can provide spectacular places for taking close-up pictures of birds.

It’s not only the birds themselves that are great at the beach. The subtle hues of the light at various times of day and the backgrounds of sand, rock, and sky add pleasing elements to your pictures. I especially like shooting on clear mornings, when the rich, low-angled light spills warmly across the beach, illuminating all the feather detail and color of the birds and the blue sea behind. But sunsets are great, too. A good sunset fires the sky with orange light that reflects off the wet sheen on the sand when the waves roll back. With backgrounds like that, how can you miss taking beautiful photographs?

Although photographing at the beach has its own set of unique opportunities, it also has distinct problems to overcome. One thing that can be both bad and good is the amount of human traffic you see at many beaches. I don’t know how many times I’ve been just about to snap a great bird picture when a jogger has run up to me to see what I’m doing and scared off the bird. But the large number of people always present at beaches does have a remarkable taming effect on birds. I’ve noticed that shorebirds flushed by passersby on a beach usually fly back immediately and start foraging again as soon as the people have left.

I rarely use a blind at the beach. Usually you can get close enough to birds there without one, and blinds really catch people's attention. Everyone wants to know what you’re doing. But if you’re just sitting on the sand with a camera and tripod, it’s pretty obvious you’re taking pictures.

During my earlier California days, I sometimes used to make a variation of a blind out of sand when I went to the beach. I’d use a small trowel and build a wall of sand about a foot or two high and wide enough to hide my body. Then I’d cut a vee in the center of it to accommodate my camera and lens. I always placed a towel over the sand to protect my equipment. I would erect this simple structure fairly close to the tide line and wait for shorebirds to come strolling along the water’s edge, foraging in the surf. With this setup, I didn’t even need a tripod—the sand conformed to the shape of my equipment and provided solid support. I’ve taken some nice pictures of Sanderlings, Willets, and other shorebirds using a sand wall. The birds rarely even looked at me. Sometimes they would stand erect for a moment as they heard the soft whir of my motor-drive, but then they almost always continued their foraging. These shorebirds usually forage by walking toward the water’s edge as the wave recedes, snatching all the food they can get before the next wave crashes, driving them back. They’re so intent on their task, they don’t even notice a strange lump of sand looming near them.

I may be lazier than I used to be, but I rarely go to the trouble of building a sand wall these days. I find that at beaches frequented by people, you don’t really need it. Just by sitting quietly and patiently on the sand behind your tripod, with its legs at their lowest extension, most shorebirds will come to you. I only build a sand wall now in places where the birds are wary of people. The most important thing in this kind of shorebird photography is to figure out which way the birds are headed so that you can place yourself accordingly. As these birds move in and out with the waves, they usually also move laterally up or down the shore. Figure out which way they’re moving and then station yourself ahead of them so they are moving toward you. If you don’t look threatening, the birds will eventually move very close to you.

Brown Pelicans are one of my favorite birds at the beach. I’ve photographed them in California, Florida, and Texas, and I never get tired of them. I used to go to a place on the coast of Orange County, California, where a boat channel cuts through the beach into the ocean. There Brown Pelicans gather to dive for tiny fish in the channel. I would sit down as inconspicuously as possible on the rocks at the side of the channel and watch the antics of the pelicans. In this kind of situation, flight shots are easy—especially with an auto-focus camera. It’s just a matter of panning (moving your camera smoothly in a horizontal plane) and taking a picture as the bird flies past. Pelicans are large, lumbering flyers, so it’s not hard to keep up with them. What’s more of a challenge is to photograph a pelican in the middle of a high, vertical nosedive after fish. Nothing’s quite like seeing a bird as large and ungainly as a pelican crash into a school of fish. Often gulls and terns join in the free-for-all, trying to catch fish (or, in the gulls’ case, to steal them).

One of the easiest places I’ve ever photographed Brown Pelicans was on the beaches of South Florida. Many of the birds there seem completely oblivious to humans—as you can see in the picture of the fisherman and the pelicans that accompanies this article. I also took many full body as well as head-and-shoulders shots of pelicans that day, and I’ve never had it so easy. Sadly, the birds’ extreme tameness is probably the result of being fed fish numerous times by people who should know better.

Seagoing waterfowl such as Surf Scoters also make interesting subjects, though they are more difficult to photograph than many beach birds. They tend to stay too far out in the water to get decent close-up shots. I try to find them in areas with rocky outcroppings and pools where they sometimes come in close to shore to plunder shellfish. I hide myself as well as I can in the rocks, remain still, and wait for good picture opportunities to materialize.

While photographing along ocean beaches you can sometimes use the tide to your advantage. Study the tide charts and then watch each locale. I’ve seen places where a large sandspit with shorebirds scattered widely over it becomes a tiny island with shorebirds tightly concentrated at high tide. That can be valuable information. Just set a blind there during low tide, then wait for the birds to be pushed toward you as the tide rises. But always beware of plus-tides. You could easily find yourself knee-deep in water at a place that was high and dry during an earlier high tide. Again, study your tide charts. You can pick up a copy at most bait stores on the coast.

Another thing to be careful about is keeping your camera equipment away from corrosive elements at the beach. Nothing is more potentially damaging to cameras than the seaside environment. If you ever drop your camera into seawater, you might as well leave it there. If you are laying at the edge of the water with all your attention focused on the shorebirds walking toward you, it’s easy to miss the wave that’s about to crash over you. Just remember, an accident like that could put your camera gear out of commission—forever.

Salt spray from breaking waves is also hard on camera equipment. If you put your camera away after it’s been covered with a light salt spray, you might find the next time you use it that it’s a corroded mess. After a day at the beach, I put my camera equipment through an entire cleaning regimen. I clean the camera body and lenses thoroughly with a soft cloth. Then I use a blower brush or some canned air to blow away small bits of grit or sand. Afterwards I clean the lenses with lens tissue and a couple of drops of lens cleaner.

Another threat to camera equipment is sand. I avoid going to the beach when it’s windy. When it’s stirred up by wind, sand tends to get into the tiniest cracks and crevices of camera equipment. But even on a still day you should be careful, especially when you change film. You definitely don’t want to get any sand inside your camera. Even just one or two grains of sand inside your camera can scratch your film. If you lay down on the sand to take pictures of birds, always place a thick towel or tarp under your camera to keep it clean. Also, try to avoid getting sand from your hands or your clothes onto your equipment. Taking a few precautions to guard against sand and saltwater damage will minimize the chance that any harm will come to your camera gear at the beach.

So, if you’re looking for a spectacular location for bird photography—with a wide variety of wonderful species and backgrounds to work with—try out your closest beach. You’ll find it’s good for a lot more than just soaking up sunshine.

Tim Gallagher is editor-in-chief of Living Bird magazine.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2000 issue of Living Bird magazine.