Chincoteague NWR > June 2023
Travels Index Michael W Masters

Tide, Wind, Sky -- Pick Any Two

Session proofs from Chincoteague NWR and Oyster Bay
Piping Plovers Oystercatchers & Willets Egrets, Herons & White Ibises Nature, Birds & Wildlife

There's an old engineering maxim: Better, faster, cheaper -- you can design for any two but you can't have all three.  In the case of seashore photography, the conditionals would be tide, wind and sky.  Just as with engineering, Mother Nature seems to conspire so that you never have calm wind, favorable tides and advantageous lighting all at the same time.  Not strictly true, of course -- there are good days occasionally else we'd abandon the avocation entirely.  But, when it seems that at least one is missing we begin to suspect that Joe Btfsplk might be lurking nearby.

This year occasioned just such a situation. Last June, the tide was out all week leaving ugly mud flats at our favorite cove rather than sand and surf -- a dark cloud on the mild winds and generally sunny skies.  This year on the other hand, the tide was perfect.  But when it wasn't windy the sky was cloudy -- if not both at the same time.

Nevertheless, enough was found to make bird photography interesting, if not perfect.  And, by far the most memorable subject was a small family of piping plovers.  According to refuge staff, there was a mama, a papa and one chick.  I only ever saw them all together once, and that for just a few seconds.  But, they're clever little mischief makers; according to staff, one of them ditched it's radio transmitter, leaving staff wandering the dunes with an antenna and receiver in an attempt to find the high-tech discard.

Endangered and protected, piping plovers nest on the south end of Assateague Island, and during mating season the area is posted and roped off to keep people out.  But, sometimes their nest site is near the beach parking lot, and the family seems to spend at least some time nearby before dispersing.  This presents opportunities not always available, and thankfully that was the case this year.

Piping plover play time. . .

These petite peeps -- so small it seems improbable that they can actually fly -- are endlessly entertaining, scurrying about with hardly ever a pause.  This, combined with only rare excursions outside their posted nesting area make them difficult subjects to photograph.  One is forced to follow along outside the ropes as best one can, hoping they will stay close enough to the parking lot for photography.  As quick as they are, only a handheld setup works, obviating longer lenses such as a tripod mounted 600mm f4.

As a consequence of the posted restrictions as well as the perpetual motion of the plovers themselves I could never get close enough to get the kind of frame-filling images I would have preferred.  But, a 2X teleconverter, 45MP and some deep crops yielded acceptable results.

Perhaps the most intriguing session was the last one.  That morning I happened on a single plover.  It was scurrying about, apparently intent on staying just ahead of a very frustrated photographer so that one rarely glimpsed more than tailfeathers.  It would run a dozen feet, then pause, or sometimes hop into a divot in the sand and roost for a few seconds, always with its back to me.  Then off it would go again.  Frankly, I couldn't keep up.

Finally in exasperation, I abandoned the chase and headed back to my car.  Just as I was about to open the door to stow the lens and camera, the little creature winged its way back to me and plopped down inside the posted area nearby.  Needless to say, the chase was on a second time -- with the same result.  Amazingly, once I again gave up, here came the plover back, almost as if it was playing a game with me.  A third chase ensued.

This time, I finally decided to give up for good.  Incredibly, the bird seemed to sense that this was it.  It fluttered in and landed on a small hillock of sand and seashells, there to pose while I blew through a few dozen exposures.  Not having to give chase, I had time to crouch down as near to eye level as possible.  (BTW, a telephoto lens makes a great crutch if you're having trouble getting up!  But, be sure to brush the sand off the lens hood.)  It was still some distance beyond the rope, but this was the first and only opportunity of the week to shoot a meaningful sequence without having to pursue a target perpetually in motion.

A week of handholding

This week I never got the EF600mm f4 lens and tripod out of the car.  The lens of choice was a handheld EF400mm f4 DO, usually with 2X attached.  This combo was not always ideal, hence the cropping mentioned above.  At present, the new Nikon 800mm f6.3 PF seems appealing -- except that it won't mount on my Canon cameras.  As a result, we await further developments in the RF mount.  There is a rumor of a possible RF500mm f4.5 DO, which would get to 1000mm with a 2X.  But, rumors aren't lenses so for now we bide time and await developments.