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Migration watch

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Migration watch Shutterstock
01 Feb
Cold, damp and dark winter days may not appear the best conditions for photographers, but now is the best time to catch some of the British Isles’ most celebrated avian visitors, particularly in one of the country’s many nature reserves

Winter’s icy grip over northern Europe is accompanied by long cold nights and brief days with low light levels and little warmth. Some mammal species, notably bears, dormice and hedgehogs, slumber these months away in hibernation, while many birds head south to warmer climes. Add to this the obvious absence of the flowering plants and colourful butterflies that one associates with summer, and it hardly seems like the ideal time for the nature photographer to be out and about.

However, when it comes to photographing migratory wildfowl and other water birds, winter is the best time of the year. The British Isles are a favourite destination for many larger species of waterfowl, such as Bewick’s and whooper swans, brent geese and barnacle geese, which flock here in their thousands to escape the harsher winters of Siberia, Iceland and other Arctic locations.

Winter also marks the time when the males of these and other wildfowl moult to reveal the bright colourful plumage they will use to attract mates in the breeding season. As a result, Britain’s wetland reserves, lakes, rivers and estuaries become crowded with colourful water birds, both native and migratory, all busily feeding, calling and mating.



With their temperate climate, North Atlantic coastline and position off continental Europe, the British Isles are an ideal roost for many migratory birds, particularly wildfowl. Conservation groups, notably the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), are also active in preserving existing habitat to ensure the dozens of species of geese, ducks and waders continue to prosper on these shores.

Although the arrival of migratory waders and waterfowl is a seasonal event, climate change is having an impact on the number and type of wildfowl species wintering here. According to a report published by the RSPB in 2011, the number of wintering waders and waterfowl has been in steady decline since the late 1990s. For some individual species, including Britain’s most familiar duck, the mallard, these numbers have reached a record low.

According to The State of the UK’s Birds 2011, winter mallard numbers have declined by 22 per cent since 1998. For other visitors, the figures are even worse: declines since 1998 include pochard (down 46 per cent), dunlin (down 39 per cent), bar-tailed godwit (down 29 per cent) and ringed plover (down 26 per cent). However, an opposite trend has been recorded for some species: since 1998, wintering British wetland birds on the increase include avocet (up 95 per cent), black-tailed godwit (up 53 per cent) and pink-footed goose
(up 27 per cent). In fact, the avocet and pink-footed goose have both reached their highest population levels since records began. Over the same period, numbers
of whooper swan have also risen, increasing by 122 per cent, but Bewick’s swan has declined by 44 per cent.



The WWT says that some of this decline in visiting wildfowl is due to birds no longer migrating as far because of milder conditions elsewhere: a phenomenon known as ‘short-stopping’. But for other species, particularly Bewick’s swan (but also the long-tailed duck and the velvet scoter), the decline is uniform across northern Europe. Bewick’s swan is regarded as an icon of the British migration season and the WWT believes that its decline is partly down to a 45 per cent loss of Britain’s wetland habitat since the Second World War, as well as to climate change.

The WWT has nine reserves of protected wetland within mainland Britain, stretching from Arundel on the Sussex coast to Caerlaverock on the Solway Firth. The RSPB has even more, including some on the Thames Estuary and River Medway marshes in Kent, which support huge flocks of curlew, golden plover, grey heron, teal, redshank and wigeon.

The RSPB caters well for the needs of birdwatchers and photographers, with a network of viewing platforms and hides, some of which are situated close to the water’s surface to enable photographers to get low-angle, head-on shots of larger birds as they splash down.



A purpose-built hide takes away much of the worry and time required for planning and preparation when photographing wildfowl in the winter. Hides bring the photographer closer to the subject, but long telephoto lenses are still required to get frame-filling compositions.

A full-frame focal length of 400–600 millimetres provides the magnification needed for close-up studies of your subjects. However, these lenses cost more than most camera bodies.

Many photographers prefer working with telephoto zooms because of the range of focal length options they provide without having to change lenses. When working in a hide, changing lenses risks missing a shot, as well as allowing any airborne dust onto your camera sensor.

The greater number of full-frame DSLR cameras on the market also means you need to be more alert to buying the right focal-length lens for your camera. Lenses made for full-frame DSLR cameras can also be used on ‘cropped sensor’ DSLRs (those that use the APS-C format sensor), but there’s a multiplication factor of 1.5x to the focal length. For example, a full-frame 300-millimetre telephoto lens will have a working focal length of 450 millimetres when fitted to an APS-C format DSLR, and the 200–400-millimetre zoom popular with many wildlife photographers will magnify to 300–600 millimetres when fitted to one of these cameras.



The high prices of some fast telephoto lenses put them out of reach of many, but a low-cost alternative to increasing lens magnification is to use a teleconverter. All major camera brands include 1.4x and 2x converters in their lens line-up.

These fit between the lens and the camera body to extend the focal length of the lens by the magnification factor of the converter used. It also changes the maximum aperture of the lens by the same factor, so a 300-millimetre f/4 telephoto becomes a 420-millimetre f/5.6 when fitted with a 1.4x converter, and a 600-millimetre f/8 with a 2x converter.

Working with long lenses means that there’s an even greater onus on keeping the camera and lens absolutely still to reduce any blur caused by movements and vibrations when taking a picture. After all, the greater the amount of image magnification a lens provides, the greater any lens movements will be magnified.

All of the major SLR camera and lens makers now include image-stabilisation technologies in many of their lenses to counteract the movements and vibrations caused when handholding the camera. However, the best way to prevent camera shake entirely is still through the support and stability provided by a tripod. The shutter is then fired using a remote release or the camera’s self-timer.

Another handy means of support is a beanbag rested on the ledge of the hide to support the weight of the lens. Lightweight and low cost, beanbags are remarkably effective at absorbing vibrations.



Wildfowl rarely stay still for long. Even when wading at the water’s edge, they can take flight with little or no warning. Photographing birds in flight involves handholding the camera with a long lens and keeping the bird within the frame as it flies across or towards you. The AF-continuous mode (AF-C) helps by continually adjusting the lens’s focus on
a moving target. The multiple AF sensors across the screen detect and respond to changes in speed and direction in an instant, allowing the photographer to concentrate on keeping a steady hand to ensure the subject stays in the frame.

When photographing wildfowl on the water, reflections will feature in the composition. Winter may not have the longest or brightest days, but the low path of the sun across the sky means that it’s likely to be more visible in reflections off the water. Adding a polarising filter to the lens will help to reduce glare and stray reflections from the water’s surface.

Even when photographing from a hide, the welfare of the birds should always be of prime consideration, especially as many species are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Among these Schedule 1 species are some of the country’s most threatened water birds, including the great bittern, corncrake, red-throated diver and Bewick’s swan.

The act makes it a criminal offence to ‘intentionally or recklessly’ disturb a Schedule 1 protected species when it’s ‘building a nest or is in, on or near a nest containing eggs or young’. This is rarely an issue at RSPB and WWT reserves, as the hides provide enough concealment for both the birds and photographers.



Use a polarising filter and a lens hood to reduce the glare off the water and lens flare caused by the low position of the sun in winter

Fix your camera and lens to a tripod. Photographing wildfowl with a telephoto zoom, particularly on a cold or windy day, requires the most stable support to eliminate vibrations and movement that cause image blur. A tripod gives the best chance of a crisply focused image

Focus on the eyes. As with all wildlife photography, the eye is a natural focal point and needs to be pin sharp in the frame to hold the viewer’s attention



Leave the waterproofs at home. Expect wet weather when you go out, so wear waterproof boots and clothing, and use a waterproof housing for your camera if it’s raining, or if the wind is blowing spray from the water’s surface

Attempt to photograph a Schedule 1 bird species at nest without first obtaining a Schedule 1 licence from Natural England. Make sure to check which birds are designated Schedule 1

Use a slow shutter speed. Unless you’re panning for effect, the best images of wildfowl and other water birds are made with a fast shutter speed to achieve the sharpest possible result


Recommended reading

Watching Waterbirds by Kate Humble and Martin McGill, A&C Black, pb, £12.99

Birds of the Wetlands by James A Hancock, Poyser, hb, £24.99

Wetland Birds: Habitat Resources and Conservation Implications by Milton W Weller, Cambridge University Press, pb, £42


Equipment Selections

Outdoor option: Waterproof boots

High ankle, waterproof boots are essential when photographing wildfowl in winter. Outdoor specialist The North Face makes the lightweight Verbera Lightpacker GTX boot (£150), which uses waterproof and breathable Gore-Tex membranes to keep your feet dry and sweat-free. The Vibram soles provide plenty of grip on soggy ground.



Lens option: Telephoto zoom

Tamron’s long telephoto zooms are a lower-cost alternative to those made by the leading camera brands. Their AF 200–500mm f/5–6.3 SP Di LD IF (£900) uses low-dispersion glass elements to improve overall resolution, and internal focusing means the front lens element doesn’t rotate during focusing. It can be used on both full-frame digital SLRs and APS-C ‘cropped sensor’ cameras, which extend the zoom range to 300–750mm.



Camera option: Cropped-sensor DSLR

Full-frame DSLR cameras are becoming more popular, but ‘cropped sensor’ cameras give greater magnification with full-frame lenses. The D7100 (£900, body only) is Nikon’s top-end APS-C camera and features a weather-sealed body that makes it ideal for outdoor use. It features a 24-megapixel image sensor, 100–6400 ISO range, 51-point
AF system, 3.2in LCD screen and 6fps continuous shooting.


This story was published in the February 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

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