April 28, 2018
This comes as no surprise to experienced wildlife photographers: our brains are wonderful at processing moving images and keying on critical elements, for safety, to see beauty, or here, to make out several species of birds on floats. Eyes+brains often outperform camera images.
I have a new digital camera this year, purchased late last year after losing my old field camera on a job. It has a 24-2000 mm lens, which I like, because I can shoot images of flowers up cliffs or across roads and get a pretty good image to help with identification.
But when it comes to shorebirds at a distance—several hundred yards, on floats that are bobbing up and down in the water, it’s not so great. If I wait for front-lighted images on tidelands as close as possible to me, the images are better.
This spring with a new camera I started trying to photograph what my brain sees on the floats. Very quickly I learned about heat shimmer (bad for eyes+brain, worse for cameras), rain, wind, backlighting, haze, low light, high light, and other less than perfect viewing conditions.
Today is cloudy with occasional rain. Visibility fluctuates between two and six miles. Near high tide I checked the floats: more than two thousand birds, and took these images.
|A typical April day near high tide: a few hundred shorebirds on oyster floats, with a gull.|
One of the great migrations that people can experience along the Pacific Coast is the spring migration of shorebirds towards Alaska, Canada and the high Arctic. During these periods, thousands of birds of more than ten species gather, feeding along ocean beaches and estuaries up to Grays Harbor. From there, staging in the millions, they fly northwest across the ocean to the Aleutians, and along the shoreline to the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean.
It’s common to see up to five thousand shorebirds at one time as the migration numbers build up, birding from my home on Willapa Bay. Over the years I’ve seen vast numbers of Dunlin, and hundreds of Black-bellied Plover, Least Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, even a few Greater Yellowlegs every year. It’s not the magnificent display of Malheur NWR, eastern Oregon, or Bowerman Basin, in Grays Harbor, Washington, but it’s right here—outside my house.
|See the reddish birds? Short-billed Dowitcher among Dunlin, with a few Least and Western Sandpipers, two gulls, and Black-bellied Plover.|
Less common species include Marbled Godwits, which I see once or twice a year, though they winter at the north end of the bay at Tokeland Port. Once, I saw Long-billed Curlews. Occasionally, Pacific Golden Plovers stop for a day or two. Greater Yellowlegs come through each fall and spring, but are usually only heard, and rarely seen.
|Right in the middle of the second float, and almost in focus: Black-bellied Plover. Two more on the third float back, with Short-billed Dowitcher and Dunlin.|
The common sight during migration is thousands of shorebirds on oyster floats at high tide. A neighbor put these floats in several years ago, in clumps of 4, eventually there were 600 floats in 150 sets, sitting on the flats at low tide, and floating at high tide. Shorebirds figured out very quickly that these are great places to roost when the water is high. They depart when the winds and waves get too strong.
Much as I like my new camera, I am humbled again by the capacity of my own eyes and brain to make out details.