BY ANDREW MCCARTHY
As a professional ecologist and nature photographer, I find dippers one of our most fascinating and enchanting birds. As well as having an unusual semi-aquatic lifestyle (they swim underwater to hunt their invertebrate prey) they are highly charismatic little creatures, which means they make compelling photographic subjects.
I have photographed these birds on our Dartmoor streams and rivers for a number of years now, and after a successful series of photo-sessions in spring 2019 I was really looking forward to working with these birds again in 2020. My photographic plans were of course thwarted by the first Covid lockdown in late March and, since this is the time I’d normally be out searching for nest sites and looking for pairs holding territory along rivers such as the Dart and Teign, the enforced lay-off was immensely disappointing.
The images in this article are therefore from my spring 2019 dippers project and all were taken with the OM-D EM-1X and M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4 IS PRO lens, plus M.Zuiko Digital 1.4X Teleconverter MC‑14 extender. The portability of this combo really suits my mobile photographic style; I rarely use a hide and prefer to carefully stalk my subjects, only settling into a well-hidden spot once the birds (which move around a fair bit during their territory-holding and foraging activities) have moved away for a while. Despite the fantastic image stabilisation capabilities of the ‘X’ and 300mm F4, I also carry a lightweight carbon monopod in such situations. Once I have settled down to wait for the birds to return, the monopod means I can keep the camera nicely at eye level ready for that first shot, so I don’t have to move when the birds come back, as this could disturb them.
Good field-craft skills are vital when birds are close to their nest-sites, as they are particularly vulnerable to disturbance at such times. Whilst dippers are relatively tolerant, there is always a risk they will desert a nest site if a photographer spends too much time nearby. I will only photograph in the vicinity of a nest if I think my presence will (a) not have a detrimental effect upon the birds – for example if there is no suitable cover through which I can make a quiet and unseen approach – or (b) if there is nowhere to remain properly concealed. Whilst I sometimes carry a portable ‘bag hide’ for additional concealment, if I am not 100% certain the birds won’t be disturbed I’ll not photograph that particular pair and will move away to search another stretch of river. As always the unwritten nature photography code of conduct is of paramount importance – the welfare of the subject is more important than the image!
The perfect photographic site would have a combination of factors. It would have good cover nearby through which to approach and shoot, photogenic ‘props’ such as clean perches, and a shooting position that maximises the photographers ability to get a clean background with the right level and direction of lighting. It is relatively simple to make a ‘representative’ image of these birds, since they have a habit of perching (and ‘dipping’) on rocks in fairly open conditions, but I am always on the lookout for perches and backgrounds which offer something slightly new. In my down-time at home I find it creatively helpful to envisage future images, and when I am out in the field I seek out certain photographic locations for their particular photogenic qualities. I choose my approach and shooting position with care, so as to maximise the chance of obtaining images that are a little different to the norm. The slightly abstract portrait shot of a dipper surrounded by out of focus background in this article is case in point – for this shot I had to slowly work my way into the right position just below the perching bird, and close enough to nearby vegetation to give a blurred ‘framing’ effect. It really is so satisfying when a pre-envisioned image comes together!
Camera settings are invariably dictated by conditions. In my usual Dartmoor haunts, the rivers tend to be in steep-sided valleys. This means that during the early mornings (when the birds are at their most active) conditions are not ideal, since the sun does not come over the horizon until late morning, and photography is invariably in heavy shade. I therefore shoot wide open (at F5.6 with the 1.4x extender on the 300mm F4) at an ISO between 800 and 1000; this gives me a shutter speed of between 1/250th and 1/500th second – i.e. sufficient to stop the kinds of movement these birds typically make whilst perching, or whilst looking around for predators prior to flying back to their nest sites. Fortunately, the 300mm f4 is a stunning lens at wide apertures, and it and the EM1x have no trouble handling these kinds of situations.
I am writing this in mid-March 2021 and the latest news on lockdown easing suggests we might be able to get out to our usual photo-haunts within a few weeks. This is perfect timing for me as it coincides with the nesting season, when there should be many opportunities to carefully capture shots of dippers carrying nest materials and food. After last years’ disappointing spring, I really can’t wait to get back to see what the birds have been up to in my absence!