I love water and I love wildlife. This is the time of year when these two things come together to provide some interesting and fun photo opportunities. If nothing else, then a breath of spring air and a walk by a rippling stream is a wonderful way to rejuvenate the spirit after a long grey winter.
Small birds can be both fun to photograph and at the same time challenging. I have a few favourite species and amongst them I definitely include dippers and wagtails. They can be found on many quiet, rural (and some not-so-rural) freshwater streams. With thoughts on nest-building and raising this year's brood, spring is a time when it is often easier to get closer to some species than at other times of the year.
Dippers and wagtails are territorial. Once they have established their home patch they will patrol it and seldom move far away. As with all wildlife photography it is important to put the welfare of the animals first. I start by leaving my camera at home and searching for a stream where dippers or wagtails can be seen. Although I have a few favourite places I always look for new ones too. Then I sit down and just observe. I will learn more about my subject and increase my chances of getting good photographs by spending several hours just looking and learning. This is especially true if it's a new location.
Dippers are often found around old stone bridges or the remnants of stone piers. I look for the tell-tale signs of the nest. It is usually a clump of moss and ferns dangling from a hole or crack in the stonework. I never get too close to the nest. Once the female has laid her eggs the male will find a shady spot on the riverbank and stand guard for days on end. He will have a favourite place and often it is a stone at the water's edge. In the stream he will hunt for larvae and small insects taking them to feed the female and young in due course. His approach route to the nest is often the same every time and may involve jumping on a specific stone for a final look round before flying into the nest.
Once I have worked all of that out I have the location for my shots. I then need to work out where I will hide, what will make a good background and what direction the light will come from at different times of the day. Morning is often the best for light quality and bird activity. After I've done my homework I leave the shoot for another day. I go home and give some thought as to how I am going to handle camera settings - particularly exposure. Dippers have a habit of getting tucked against dark banks and under overhanging trees. They also have very dark brown bodies and the contrasting white bib of the chest plumage all makes it tricky to set the correct exposure.
Grey wagtails with their distinctive bobbing motion and that flash of beautiful canary yellow render them a terrific subject for stunning photographs. They too have a favourite territory with stones from which they will leap acrobatically into the air to snatch flies on the wing.
If I'm lucky, hunting for grey wagtails will often throw up a place where pied wagtails are seen. Sometimes I can manage images of both these types of birds in the same place. I try to use the water for capturing reflections and also for showing the environment that these wonderful creatures live in.
Above all, I just enjoy nature and springtime. It is wonderfully invigorating.