According to the proverb, there are two things that wait for no one: time and tide. For aspiring shorebird photographers, there’s a third variable in the mix: the birds themselves. To successfully photograph these wonderful birds, you need all three elements to come together. This involves some planning, but putting in a little work beforehand can mean the difference between capturing truly great images and not seeing the birds at all.
Where I live along the Massachusetts coast, this definitely holds true. There are a few places I visit every year, and I know when and where to find the birds. That leaves me studying the tides. For photography there are three times during the tidal cycle that are ideal: an incoming mid-tide, which pushes birds up the beach; high tide, when they are roosting; and an outgoing tide, when they start moving back out to feed. At low tide, most shorebirds disperse along the flats—which can be vast, and rarely afford good photo opportunities. When I get the bug to photograph shorebirds, here’s what I look for.
South of Boston lies Plymouth Beach, a barrier beach that hosts large concentrations of shorebirds from late July through October. Piping Plovers and Willets nest here during the summer, but it’s the arrival of thousands of migrants traveling from their nesting grounds in the Arctic that bring some of the best photographic opportunities. Around three hours before high tide, the rising water starts to move the birds off what were exposed feeding grounds and up towards the shore.
As this takes place I like to find either a spot where tidal “streams” and pools have formed or where there’s a nice area of seaweed and rack, both of which can attract good numbers of birds in search of food. The downside is these areas will disappear as the tide moves in. So pick a good spot, put the sun at your back, get as low to the ground as you can, and let the incoming tide be your friend, pushing the birds your way. Also try to limit your movement as much as possible; often you will be pleasantly surprised how close some birds may approach. If you do have to move, stay low. The lower you are the less intimidating you are, and the birds will be less likely to view you as a threat.
High tide signals roosting time for most shorebirds. With their feeding grounds flooded, the birds settle into tidal marsh areas, beaches, and along rocky shorelines. This too can provide a photographic opportunity. For roosting shorebirds, I like smaller areas with fewer birds—exactly what you get at Squantum, along the shores of Quincy, Massachusetts, and only 15 minutes from my home. Wherever you go, your best bet is to arrive before high tide, claim your spot, and sit low and quietly as the birds move in. This will put you in a very good position to get some fantastic photos. As long as you don’t make sudden movements, the birds will go about their business, and in many cases approach closer then you would imagine.
You may not get hundreds of birds at a place like this, however the 50 or so birds you do get are all you need. In fact, it can be easier to get good photos with fewer birds because you only need to concentrate on those closest or that offer the best action shots. For example, a preening or bathing bird is the one to focus on; in many cases it’s just a matter of time before that bird does a wing stretch. That makes a great photo!
Remember, though, that these roosting sites are only flush with birds at high tide. Go during low or even mid-tide and you will be hard pressed to find even one. Also keep in mind that these birds are getting much-needed rest before the tide starts to recede and they head back out to the feeding areas. Try to limit any disturbance, as resting time is critical for shorebirds during their migratory journeys.
As the tide starts to move back out, so too will the birds, well rested and once again looking to feed. Now, instead of the birds being pushed towards you with the incoming tide, you are following them as they fan out along the beach. This can offer some excellent action photos as the birds move about and dodge the incoming waves or pluck their next meal out of the sand. They start to get active about one hour after high tide—only a few at first but gradually building as the tide continues to fall. By two hours after high tide, the birds are on the move, scurrying about on newly reopened feeding areas along the shore, sometimes hugging the shoreline as they feed.
Again, pick your spot, get low, and move only when necessary. And be careful not to get so caught up in these wonderful birds that you forget where the water is. Be mindful as the water flows in and out; the last thing you want to do is get your camera wet. As the tide recedes and more of their feeding grounds become available, the birds will disperse until finally most are nowhere to be found. When this happens, it’s time to head back home. Take a moment to appreciate your time with the birds, then pack up and move out.
If you follow these tips at your favorite shorebird hotspot, you should have success. Bear in mind, though, that as fun and rewarding as it is to capture a great photo, the health and safety of the birds is paramount. Protect the birds and their homes, and they’ll be around to visit for years to come.
Shawn Carey, a cofounder of Migration Productions, produces bird- and wildlife-related multimedia presentations, videos, and photo workshops. Shawn has also taught bird and nature photography workshops for Massachusetts Audubon for more than 20 years.