Mar 08 2010
The second of my photos that appears in the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America is one of the big ones, spanning two pages, a treatment afforded only 3 shots in each book. It appears across pages ii & iii.
But the photograph has to share space–lots of space–with two text boxes and a map. Not only that, but the elements that float over it get to hog the most significant real estate, the central areas where one’s eye naturally goes, so the layout presents a bit of a challenge. Either you need a picture with the bird or birds in the lower left, or you need a flock shot, a wider picture where the birds become semi-abstract design elements and can be cut and blocked without destroying the overall flow of the page. In the Eastern book I went with the latter, much easier option. Here’s what it looks like unobstructed. Somewhat ironically, the bird most sharply focussed of the whole bunch, the knot just above and right of center, is almost entirely obscured in the book.
I took this shot on the evening of 20 May 2010 at Slaughter Beach, Delaware. Named for a family rather than a massacre, this stretch of coast is among the most productive along the entire shore of Delaware Bay for horseshoe crab spawning and shorebird feeding. If you’re unfamiliar with this annual May spectacle, the Delaware Birding Trail has a thumbnail sketch of it here and there are plenty more sources of info to be found with a little Googling.
That afternoon, I had gone to Slaughter Beach with Kevin Fleming pictured below with two of his cameras, both Nikon D700′s, the left with a 600mm Nikkor lens and the right with a 200-400mm Nikkor zoom. Kevin and I spent a lot of time last spring shooting together, him working on his upcoming book, Wild Delmarva, and me doing the Peterson shots. Kevin was kind enough to let me use the 200-400mm rig on quite a few occasions and 6 of the pictures reproduced in the Eastern book were taken with it. A seventh was taken with Kevin’s 200-400 lens and a Nikon D300 body.
Looking over the barrel of the 600mm lens, you can see the shoreline crammed with shorebirds, with plenty of Laughing Gulls flying overhead. By slowly and carefully approaching the birds, staying very low to the ground, we were able to get close enough for satisfying photos without disturbing the birds’ frantic foraging and feeding. It’s a real thrill to see such gorgeous animals, massing here almost in my backyard.
As the sun dropped toward the western horizon, the birds were lit in beautiful, if strongly directional light. I shot hundreds of pictures, trying to get group shots, portraits, interesting behaviors, on and on and on. Below, a Red Knot lifts a bonanza from the sand, a marble-sized mass of several dozen fresh horseshoe crab eggs. Having flown in from South America and soon to depart for the High Arctic, the knot needs the calories these eggs furnish if it is to arrive on its breeding grounds at all, let alone nest successfully. A Ruddy Turnstone looks on, perhaps jealous of the knot’s find. I believe those fluffed feathers may literally be raised hackles–an aggressive display, perhaps in hope of scaring the knot into surrendering the goodies. Watching these shorebirds, one sees quite a bit of inter- and intra-species aggression. It’s no picnic for these guys, it’s a matter of survival.
A different turnstone strikes a more sanguine pose, with a pair of horseshoe crabs coming in to spawn in the background.
Another looming pair of horseshoe crabs provides a backdrop for a sleek Red Knot.
Being shorebirds, the turnstones, knots and others took flight fairly regularly, most explosively when a Peregrine Falcon strafed the beach, perhaps in search of a meal or maybe just some sport. When the birds took wing, Kevin and I would rapidly switch gears and try to fire off as many flight shots as we could manage. It was one of these that ended up being used. Below is a more wide angle shot of shorebirds coming back to the beach after startling.
If you’re looking for a way to help preserve beach habitat for this globally significant phenomenon, may I humbly suggest a donation to the Delaware Bird-a-thon? I’ll be competing again this year and would love to have your support. I’ll be posting more about this event as it draws closer.