Most winters rarely pass without me finding myself trying to photograph some of my favourite waterfowl, the sawbill ducks. There are three species in the UK, the Red-breasted Merganser, Goosander and the Smew. The latter is a rare visitor to the north-west corner of England where I live and so naturally I have concentrated my efforts on the other two.
A local large marine lake holds Red-breasted Merganser every winter. They tend to arrive in early December with up to a dozen birds being present but I tend to leave any photography until after Christmas when they have got a bit more accustomed to the visitors that stroll around this popular lake. Having said that these birds are still very wary and the lake is large and so it usually takes quite a bit of patience before they come into photography range.
Often I like to have a session with these birds on Boxing Day as it is good to get out of the house and in to the fresh air but it also has the bonus of an early morning visit is also unusually quiet. Unfortunately the weather on the last Boxing Day was not great and it was New Year's Eve before I found myself by the lake at first light. I was surprised to find a reasonable number of people already taking the long walk or jog around the perimeter either with or without dogs.
It was an icy cold morning with a brisk breeze and the sunlight was very short lived as it rose from the horizon and disappeared behind a swiftly moving blanket of low cloud. On arrival I decided to take a 'quick' circuit of the lake to see what was present and soon spotted half a dozen Goldeneye and a similar number of Merganser right out in the centre of the lake. On my travels I came across this Redshank, silhouetted against the golden water of first light which couldn't be ignored
As I moved around the lake more Redshank were found, running like Sanderling across the beach. Still the Merganser stayed out in the middle.
After a while I had complete a full circuit of the lake. The target birds were still out in the middle occasionally going on short feeding runs with synchronised diving. I sat and watched in the face numbing wind. Timed passed. More time passed. The Merganser seemed to be gradually moving closer to the far bank. I decided I would walk back around the far side to see if I could get close to them there. As I walked around they appeared to be getting closer and closer to the far bank of the lake but I had concerns about the number of people heading along the footpath towards them. These corncers were well founded as just as I got eventually round to them, after a reasonably long walk, the birds were drifting back out to the centre of the lake once more. However, I did manage a photograph of a couple more female birds arriving.
Back round the lake I walked again as the birds now seemed to be heading towards the bank where I was originally waiting. When I arrived they seemed to have stopped their progress once more in the middle of the lake. By this point I had been there for three hours with little to show for my efforts except a couple of Redshank and Oystercatcher photographs. I was at the point of thinking that this session was going to be a non-starter for the Merganser when the only male bird on the lake came swimming over right to where I was sat and started diving and fishing in front of me for around 10 minutes. Such is often the way in wildlife photography where long periods of inactivity are punctuated by very busy moments.
The light was not great, as these birds definitely look their best with a bit of sunlight on them to bring out the green hues in the black head feathers, but I was determined to try and make the most of the bird being so close. For these diving birds the best approach is move while they are underwater and try and predict where they will surface. My antics were receiving some odd looks and comments by the numerous people walking past. As soon as the bird dived I would jump up, quickly move along the footpath and lie back down to where I thought it would resurface.
Red-breasted Merganser always look slightly scruffy birds with their wayward head feathers compared to the sleeker line and plumage of the Goosander. However, it does give them a certain endearing character and I always really enjoy photographing them. Here is a small selection of the male bird whose eventual arrival was a very welcome relief on a bitter winter's day.
For my next post I will be re-telling an early January session with some beautiful Goosander on an upland lake in some much better light.