PURPLE PROS with OLYMPUS
Purple Sandpipers or ‘purps’ as birders affectionately call them, are gorgeous and rather enigmatic waders that are a regular feature of Shetland’s coastline in the autumn and winter months…….
Purple prose, as Wikipedia describes, is often referred to it a literal sense as “text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the excessive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. When limited to certain passages, they may be termed purple patches or purple passages, standing out from the rest of the work. Purple prose is criticised for desaturating the meaning in an author’s text by overusing melodramatic and fanciful descriptions.
Ah, okay, my lightbulb moment of naming this post Purple Prose will hopefully not flagship the meaning of the term in a literal sense…and yes, I am the first to admit I can be a little flowery in my writing at times and stray from the point in question. But in this instance, my purple patch is the current arrival of the delightful Purple Sandpiper, Calidris maritima, a wader that has been migrating to & through the Shetland Islands from their high arctic breeding grounds in the last couple of weeks. The storm battered beaches, strewn with seaweeds ripped from their sandy beds, and peppered with Dunlin & Turnstone, are now joined by subtly mauve-toned birds heading south, many for the first time, to escape the harsh winter ahead – my ‘purple passage’.
In fact around 7% of Britain’s Purple Sandpipers actually over-winter on Shetland, not that you would realise this when out in the field, with so many areas of suitable habitat for these waders in inaccessible remote rocky islets & geos. Many high arctic breeding waders travel a long way south for the winter, but Purple Sandpipers are not known as long distance migrants, remaining as far north as possible in the winter months. They are very conspicuous on the sandy beaches where they loosely associate with other tideline shorebirds, though less so on their favoured rocks where they become incredibly camouflaged.
When time has allowed & with social distancing not a problem on these wild Shetland beaches in November, I have enthusiastically headed out, camera on shoulder, to face the challenges of finding & then photographing the hardy, tidal zone dependant Purple Sandpipers. In the last two weeks I’ve encountered small groups from just a couple to over 20 on beaches in South mainland Shetland. Weather conditions of late, have not been pleasant to put it mildly; our neutral, overcast skies have been good but the heavy rain & very strong gales really put me off wader photography (actually any kind of photography) as I’m not too keen on sand in my face or my equipment!
High winds often put the waders off their usual feeding behaviour & with the birds on extra high alert, the opportunities to get close are minimal too. With favourable conditions however, waders here can be incredibly approachable given time and patience. Of my recent photo sessions, I ended up being no more than a couple of metres away from them as they soon lost interest in the thing on its knees in the seaweed edging towards them. With no shutter noise at all with my Olympus set up, there was a wonderful silence apart from the waders little peeping notes and the tidal flows.
As well as being found searching for food amongst seaweed clad rocks or running the sandy tideline with other waders, Purple Sandpipers will readily take to the water as they did when I spent time with them, virtually swimming in the breakwater and effortlessly running through the foamy shallows, occasionally up to their necks. This provided me with some amazing opportunities to take images that reflected a different side to their behaviour.
Although planned photographic projects have taken a back seat this year, photography for me has in some ways been my most enjoyable for years due to changing to the Olympus mirrorless system back in January. Nature photography brings me such happiness, a strong sense of creative achievement and is a welcome mental sanctuary in a particularly anxious, chaotic world. Perhaps too, I’ve had a stronger awakening to appreciate and enjoy the environment and nature closer to home, on my very own doorstep, instead of hankering for far-flung destinations across the globe.
Purple Sandpipers are a regular feature of autumn and winter on Shetland along much of our wave-pounded rocky coastline. I moved here in 2014, but it is only now I have found time to concentrate on finding their favoured haunts and on working with them photographically. It’s a reminder that we should take the time to appreciate what’s on our own doorstep – I live in am amazing place and am surrounded by wildlife. I’m fortunate indeed.
Now for more on taking the shots……..
The flexibility of the Olympus gear in the field is one of the biggest advantages for me. Walking a couple of miles along the coast to reach shorebirds with the E-M1X, 300mm f4 pro lens & 1.4 converter over my shoulder, I forget I’m even carrying anything. After time stalking through sand & seaweed bent low or on my knees whilst shooting, I feel no discomfort or physical limitations at all. With a rather weak back after years of flogging heavy gear around & with advanced osteoarthritis in my hips & knee, my ‘relatively young’ but worn out body revels in this new gear, allowing me to just keep on going, rather like a duracell battery! The only thing that halted these wader photo sessions was high tide when the birds retreated to offshore roosting spots.
With these wader encounters I had quality time with my subjects constantly passing me with repetitive activities and light conditions. Subjects like this for prolonged periods enabled me, at last, a chance to try out and compare some of the exciting new modes and set ups that my mirrorless, hi-tech camera system has to offer.
You can read up on as many camera features as you like, but nothing beats getting out in the field and practising to really see what works best for you, your subject matter and style. For bird photography, much of which is very opportunistic on Shetland outside of summer hide work, I shoot in (M) manual mode, often keeping the speed high whilst maintaining a low depth of field, usually around f5.6 to achieve my favoured out of focus, clean backdrops. Both these of course set against a manual ISO choice, depending on any given situation. I try and stay with low ISO’s but, particularly on Shetland, this is not always possible so anywhere between ISO 500-1600 is standard for me. I use Autofocus, with Continuous C-AF MF mode a favourite. However, these wader sessions gave me a chance to enjoy two other options, that of C-AF + TR tracking mode and Pro Capture.
The C-AF Tracking mode produced many good, fast, sharp hits, particularly with running tideline waders, see this purple sandpiper in action. As long as the backdrops are pretty clean and uncluttered, this feature works very well and stays glued to the subject, tracking it seamlessly without being distracted. This feature takes the pressure off the photographer tracking the subject and makes the camera do most of the work. You can also select a subject to help your autofocus tracking within the cameras customised menu. The subject list is found by navigating through the custom menu to A3 Tracking Subject. (Intelligent Subject Tracking). Up to now I have practised using the airplane mode or having the tracking subject feature turned off. BUT . . . .Olympus has just announced an exciting new ‘bird’ tracking option to be added to the list through upgraded firmware available this coming winter! There are already options for Trains, Motorsports and Airplanes but a new Bird tracking feature is bound to send professional and amateur nature photographers alike clambering for the upgrade.
I like to think I’m quite quick on the draw with tracking my subjects after years of practise, but there are always times when you just miss that moment, maybe the sudden unprovoked attack of one wader to another as they pass each other on the shoreline, or the sudden perfectly still, raised-head-side profile pose between frantic head-lowered feeding. The Pro Capture mode allows you the ability to capture those moments which has already gone by holding images in a buffer zone whilst you half press the shutter and follow your subjects around. What a feature, a camera that can act faster than my brain can react and take shots I would otherwise have missed! Fully pressing the shutter from half way to full down as soon as you see the action happening captures those shots from that instant as well as the images held in buffer from before you reacted. A massive bonus, especially with action and behavioural wildlife photography. I use Pro Capture Low which allows for continuous autofocus, a must when photographing birds on the move.
P.S Card Alert: Watch out for your memory cards filling quicker than they ever have before. Is there anything worse than an incredible photographic situation and the ‘card full’ flashing on the monitor? Even with space for two cards in the camera, you are not safe in Pro Capture mode and its whopping 60 images a second capabilities. I’ll be ordering a couple more cards to add to my day bag ……
By Rebecca Nason – November 2020