Thursday, July 10, 2014

Photographing Piping Plovers and Least Terns at Dawn

Piping Plover
 I know its been a while since the last post and this isn't Newton birding, but I hope the images will make up for it. I had a photography class with Michael Milicia back in the spring on camera operation and exposure settings and our second class was supposed to be a field session photographing Piping Plover chicks and Least Terns in early June. But instead we spent all of June getting this trip up to the North Shore rained out and rescheduled, so I was excited when we finally caught a break in weather and schedules on July 2nd when it looked to be a great day for weather. But before I go into the details on the trip, I first wanted to offer a little information on the conservation status of these two species.

Both species are protected in Massachusetts and the Piping Plover is listed as threatened at the federal level. In addition to nesting on the sandy beaches of the East Coast, both birds also nest along sand bars and beaches of the major rivers and great lakes. And these interior population of both birds are listed as endangered. So how did these birds get into such dire straits? Both species are beautiful and their feathers were highly prized in the 19th century as fashion accessories in lady's hats. So we killed them, and lots of them. In Massachusetts, the Least Terns bottomed out at only 250 pairs at the turn of the 20 century. After this both birds ran into the same trouble, their breeding habitat on sandy beaches is also highly prized for development and recreational use. A trip to the beach is the quintessential summer vacation regardless of whether it is a day trip, hotel, or vacation house. This all led to the 1980's when the Piping Plovers hit a low of only 800 breeding pairs for the Atlantic Coast.

Least Tern Chick and Adult
Fortunately, due to the tireless efforts of conservationists and conscientious beach-goers, their populations have rebounded. Here in Massachusetts, we have some of the largest populations of Piping Plovers on the Atlantic Coast, with almost 500 breeding pairs as of 2005. And the Least Terns in the state are back up to 2,500 breeding pairs. But there is still lots of work to do as development and people further encroach upon their habitat and predators (like crows and gulls) decimate eggs and chicks. (Numbers from Wikipedia and

My first encounter with a Piping Plover was actually recounted in this blog, where I found a couple early in the season after they had just migrated. Though Least Tern are often found at Belle Isle Marsh, I've always thought they were much more fun to watch than the Common Terns. So when Michael suggesting these two species as photography subjects I was thrilled.

Sunrise over the Atlantic

Though I was less thrilled at 3am when my alarm went off. The goal was to be down on the beach and set up for sunrise, which offers a warmer gentler light that photographers crave. But standing on the beach at 5am with the smell of salt and the sun just creeping up over the ocean was a sight to behold. And to top it off, we were surrounded by plovers, terns, and Willets! The plovers were harder to see, being so well camouflaged, while the terns were easy to spot as they were flying all over the place.

In the back of my mind I kept thinking about whether or not my actions were disturbing the birds, or not. Because even before the photography, we wanted to make sure that we didn't cause harm or distress to the birds. One thing I was amazed about was how small and aggressive Least Terns can be. I've always seen them at a distance on their hunting grounds, not near a nesting location. Even when we were walking well away form the roped-off areas with the chicks and nests, they would dive-bomb our heads (I never knew they had partially webbed feet before!). But as soon as we would lay down, they stopped being alarmed and ignored us instead. Adults would even land just a few yards away. Later we saw one of the researchers checking on nests in the roped off area, he was carrying a tall pole to prevent the terns from attacking him. Apparently they attack the tallest point (e.g. you head or pole) and are quite able to draw blood if they think you are too close. But in addition to our own skin, it was important to prevent the parents from being so stressed that they abandon their nest or chicks.

Least Tern
The other thing that helped in not stressing the birds was a lens rental. For this event I decided to make the most of the trip by abandoning my 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 zoom lens and renting a 300mm f4 and 1.4x teleconverter for the day from Lens Pro To Go. Which had the added benefit of increased focal length (magnification) at 420mm (630mm equivalent due to my 1.5x crop factor sensor) and better image sharpness. So we could stay further away, and get better images.

I had a blast crawling around in the sand and having a front row seat to the lives of the Piping Plovers and Least Terns. Add to that the challenge of trying to capture all that beauty in the single press of the shutter definitely made it lots of fun, though may have made me less aware of the moment itself focusing on the camera so much.

Piping Plover Chick
The Piping Plovers hunt visually for food, scurrying up and down the sand, looking for small invertebrates to eat as their short beaks aren't good for probing far into the sand. The parents don't even feed their chicks as they are able to forage within hours of hatching. Instead, after hatching the parent's primary role is to protect the chicks from the elements and from predators. The former is easily accomplished by brooding, where all the chicks run up to the parent and get tucked under-wing, helps keep a chick warm and dry. For a great example of brooding, check out the second picture on Michael Milicia's website. And for predators, the parents act as a decoy to draw the attention away from the chicks, who's first line defense is actually amazing camouflage against the sand.

Piping Plover Chick
We actually saw both defense mechanisms at work, with parents drawing our attention away from the chicks and we never had a prayer of finding a chick until it moved. My Piping Plovers pictures turned out much better for the adults, as the chicks are challenging, especially when they aren't brooding and have the safety of a parent nearby. The young chicks look like cotton balls on toothpicks and once we found them, they were busy feeding and never stopped. We found chicks that varied in age from just a few days old, to almost fledged, so it was interesting to see the transition all in one morning.

After first focusing on the plovers, we turned our attention to the terns. Least Tern chicks share the camouflage against the sand as a defense mechanism. I even saw a couple of chicks "flop" onto their chins and they immediately disappeared against the sand, just another wind swept mound of sand. Once or twice an adult would give a warning note and the chicks would scamper as fast as they could back up the beach towards the nests. Unlike the plovers, the Least Terns need to actively feed their chicks, as they won't be able to fish until they can fly. So several times we witnessed adults flying in with small fish that were passed off to the chicks, who swallowed them whole, even when the fish was the same length as the chick!

Least Tern Feeding a Chick
While the plovers were spread out, with each pair having staked out an area, the terns are more colony nesters, meaning we got to witness much more interaction between them as the adults would also squabble amongst themselves.

As the sun rose in the sky making the light harsher, more people began to appear at the beach, though fortunately those walking near the plovers gave the families a wide birth, careful not to disturb them. Eventually, we decided to call it a day around 9am, after more than 4 wonderful hours photographing and watching the birds. In reflection, when birding I often hunt around for more species, but on this day, the goal was to capture a few moments from the lives of the Piping Plovers and Least Terns. So I spent more time with them than I ever would have birding, not to mention laying down on the sand, to see the world from their perspective. And I have some fun photographs to help remember the day.

Area of beach with nesting Piping Plovers and Least Terns