For the first time in many months, possibly years, I actually used my extension tubes on a bird. The last time I can recall doing this was on a very very friendly Little Grebe at Rainham Marshes, but at that time I may have only had access to my 800mm which has a 6m minimum focus distance. My more modern 500mm lens has a 3.7m minimum, however for this Snow Bunting on the north Norfolk coast even that was too much. It was another of these wonderful wildlife moments of the sort that I enjoy so much. I get a thrill from managing to get up close to a bird without threatening it, but an even bigger thrill from encounters where the bird is simply fearless – usually an indication that it’s never seen a human before. This bird, the first of the winter season, was one of these latter and was quite happily feeding within two feet of people on Saturday. This is no exaggeration – two feet. Obviously that’s still way too close and I would have needed a Macro lens (wish I’d had one in my bag!). So as it was I had to hang back but quite often the bird simply hopped towards me. This is no bad thing as I got to spend as much time simply watching it at close range as it delicately prized seeds from coastal plants, as taking image after image of it. That’s not to say I didn’t take any, of course I did, but this was only when the bird flew or walked to less busy areas, or in some cases perched on some old war-era rubble. A number of people there with cameras (which let’s face it is most people these days) were firing off continuously, no matter where the bird was, but I was happy to hang back and wait for the most part as I knew I’d probably just bin anything where I didn’t have a largely clear background. I did however close in with the extension tube for a number of shots where I knew I could crop to just the bird’s head and forget about the rest of the frame.
To be honest though I did find it rather busy on the beach, with any number of people with the bird. I expected no less, this is the Norfolk coast in autumn. To anyone who thinks people were crowding it, well yes they were but it didn’t alter the bird’s behavior at all and that’s the key thing. But it did alter mine as there were at times so many people that I couldn’t get the angles I wanted without getting somebody’s leg! I think it’s just a feature of birding almost anywhere in the south-east these days, it’s an increasingly popular hobby, information is everywhere and lots of people chase the news and want the best views they can get – especially those who have not seen a Snow Bunting before! Mind you, it might not just be the south-east – I saw a photo of a Little Bunting up at Spurn that was completely surrounded by at least a hundred people who were all there dipping bigger and better birds, and pager messages from there the previous day were explicitly asking that birders give tired migrants like the Pied Wheatear space to feed and rest and not pursue it around the rocks. And I’ve been on Shetland before where within half an hour of a Buff-bellied Pipit being found a number of minibuses with tour groups had turned up and there were probably 50 people on the beach looking at it. Every situation is different of course, and this Snow Bunting was just one of those silly birds you get from time to time rather than an exhausted migrant, but all in all and satisfying as the bird was I felt a little uncomfortable being one of a crowd around it. I’d much rather it was just me and the bird, whether or not I have a camera, and no sight of the green horde anywhere! This is one of the reasons I now twitch less and travel more, as many of the places I go I’m the only person there. What I really need to do is seek out places in the UK that have nobody there – no birders, no joggers, no dog-walkers, no cyclists, no football players, nobody flying model airplane, no kids, no nobody. On this crowded island on which we live this is easier said than done of course, and bearing in mind that I live in London for now I may just need to accept that when I go out birding or on a photographic mission, for the most part I’m going to be just one of many.