Updated: Mar 22
PHOTOGRAPHING BANDED DOTTERELS & WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS
Banded dotterels (Tūturiwhatu) are great little shorebirds to photograph, their wide distribution and inquisitive nature make them relatively easy to capture. Despite this, for many years my banded dotterel photos were largely a result of opportunistic encounters; a welcome by-product of photographing what I considered 'more exotic' or 'rare' species. Determined for that to change, I decided to focus my attention on these wonderful waders and follow their progress over the recent breeding season.
Unfortunately over the last few years I have noticed a steady decline in my local banded dotterel populations. In early Spring it is the territorial vocal peeps that alert the photographer to their whereabouts as they boisterously establish and defend their territories and woo their potential mates. Although, this past Spring the local nesting grounds where their 'chip' calls once filled the air have become eerily silent. This sadly is an all too familiar trend, these wonderful little shorebirds are disappearing from many sites throughout New Zealand as their numbers gradually decline.
Did you know that banded dotterels are classified as Nationally Vulnerable? That's the same classification as the great spotted kiwi and whio!
Thankfully due to the mammoth efforts of small community groups and passionate individuals the plight of the banded dotterel has been steadily gaining attention - and when you're a small shorebird that weighs 60g you need all the attention you can get!
It's a late afternoon in early Spring and there is hardly a breath of wind as I slog through the loose beach pebbles, perfect conditions for picking up tūturiwhatu's telltale calls, but there's still no sign of them. A few years ago this area was a hive of dotterel activity, as they scraped nests in the rocky stones and claimed their territories through short intense battles - not today.
As I slowly make my way up the beach the loose rocky ground begins to harden, wildflowers and low lying grasses spout up between the rocky ground. I climb a nearby rocky embankment, stopping to scan the flat open ground below. It's amazing how well banded dotterels blend into this environment, their grey-brown upper plumage make the ideal camouflage - perfect for evading aerial predators such as kahu and karoro... still no sign.
For over 30 minutes I amble along the rocky ground carefully scanning for any movement. A bird suddenly flushes in front of me, taking to the air with an energetic fluttering of wings and melodic song - a skylark. Almost instantly the skylark's melody is cut short by an aerial attack; an acrobatic swoop performed with a frenzied fearlessness and high-pitched "chee-aree-aree" sends the skylark into a hasty retreat! I hurriedly drop to the ground and peer through the viewfinder... for the first time this season I'm face to face with a majestic male tūturiwhatu, adorned with vibrant breeding bands, its chest puffed up as if reveling in triumph! 60g of pure testosterone... they're here!
The next hour of searching yields a total of five dotterel pairs - a significantly lower number than previous years. As I walk back along the beach I can't help but feel a little deflated - what is causing their numbers to decline? What hardships lay ahead for the five remaining pairs? Only time would tell...
For the next couple of months I followed this small local population as they courted, built their nests and ultimately raised their young. When photographing tūturiwhatu, it was extremely important to me that my presence did not negatively impact the birds' well-being or behaviour. Not wanting to cause undue stress to this already struggling population was a priority, so I set myself two rules (1) the birds had to approach me, and (2) if the birds showed any signs of stress or discomfort I must retreat immediately.
So, for the next few weeks I became a part of the landscape, an observer, laying quietly watching the birds as they busily fed, built their nests and established territories. With every session the tūturiwhatu got closer and closer, until it felt like I was no longer there. They sheltered from the wind in my leeside, preened, and fed all around me - I had gained their trust. I personally find this one of the most rewarding parts of being a wildlife photographer, a real privilege and certainly not one I take for granted. Gaining their trust was essential if I was to capture natural behaviour and with hope - photograph their precious young.
After spending some time with the tūturiwhatu one thing became obvious - these small shorebirds live on the edge, in a delicate balance between future success and failure. This future uncertainty is no reflection on their natural resilience and fortitude, these attributes they already possess - prerequisites for living in these harsh and open environments. Unfortunately their future success is largely determined by factors out of their control - and it didn't take long for me to witness these threats for myself.
The first threat was a more obvious one; during the day these local tūturiwhatu are forced to share their nesting grounds with a much larger more imposing threat; their tracks leaving scars crisscrossed across the landscape - this of course is the formidable 4-wheel drive. Throughout the day numerous 4x4s, motorbikes and quadbikes make their way over these sensitive nesting grounds indiscriminately carving out their own paths causing a threat not only to vulnerable nests and young but the unwitting wildlife photographer.
The second threat was a little less obvious, although creates an aftermath more devastating than the first due to its' stealth and relentless intent - the introduced predator. Under the cover of darkness introduced mammalian predators such as cats and hedgehogs patrol these nesting grounds causing a threat not only to the vulnerable eggs and young but their bold protective parents. Sadly I witnessed two of the five nests fall victim to this - cats from the local settlement the most likely culprits.
As I look back at the time I spent with the dotterels I feel my respect and admiration for them has grown immensely, for they possess a boldness and resilience that far outweighs their small stature. For the most part, their breeding season was a success, with most pairs successfully rearing young; the two pairs that lost their eggs early in the season successfully re-nested. Although, as I think back I cannot help feel a little apprehensive - for their future success is reliant on factors out of their control - factors that largely fall into OUR hands. Let's hope that their 'chip' calls will continue to call out on nesting grounds throughout New Zealand!
PHOTO TIP: CREATE MOOD WITH LIGHT
To capture compelling and impactful wildlife images, have a think how your images can make your viewers feel. One powerful way to add feeling is by creatively using the light to add mood.
Light has the extraordinary power to evoke emotion. Bright and optimistic, muted and bleak, ethereal or dramatic -- the brightness, temperature and direction of light conveys different moods. Understanding the emotional effect of light enables you to create more profound and engaging images. A dark and contrasty bird portrait sends a very different message compared to a bright front lit portrait.
In the field, make sure that the mood you create with light enriches the story you want to tell. For example, if the story you want to illustrate is the decline of a species, choosing to photograph front-lit on a bright, sunny morning may fail to evoke the intended emotional response. You’ve missed a valuable storytelling moment.
I chose to photograph this young banded dotterel (below) backlit to create a warm, ethereal and optimistic mood. In this case, the setting sun enhances the story by creating rim lighting that accentuates the birds ‘fluffiness’ and helps to create separation from the busy background.
Experiment with lighting on accessible subjects close to home, taking note of the mood it creates.