Speaking of Nature: The 40-foot rule

  • This ruddy turnstone was a little nervous as it made a run for it across my camera’s field of view. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON

Published: 8/17/2021 3:14:38 PM

Residents of the Bay State will understand that there is a certain responsibility for each of us to make a pilgrimage to the Cape and Islands on a somewhat frequent basis. My schedule for these visits is approximately every two years and I’ve done a fairly good job of living up to that goal. In 2014, I spent two weeks seeking out the wildlife of Martha’s Vineyard. In 2018 and 2020 it was the birds and mammals of Barnstable and Mashpee that fell into the crosshairs of my camera. This year I have returned to Martha’s Vineyard.

Once I have settled in, my daily routine is simple. Wake up early, grab a quick coffee and head out to a beach to look for shorebirds. Then, back home by about 9:15 a.m. to say good morning to my beautiful (and well-rested) wife Susan. I’ve been here for almost a week now and it has already been a smashing success. The only thing that really changes is the actual beach that I go to.

My standard go-to is the beach at West Basin. This is located just off Lobsterville Road and it features a public access parking lot in very close proximity to the water. There is also a public boat ramp that gives access to a gorgeous little harbor with a very narrow inlet protected by two jetties. The icing on the cake is a wonderful bell buoy that sits just outside the harbor’s mouth. Early in the morning, before other people arrive, it is just me, the waves and the gentle sound of a distant bell. Pure magic!

I arrive at the beach by about 7 a.m. and turn left. The jetty to my right acts as a bird blocker, so I can “control” the flow of birds if I am careful. I walk about 100 yards down the beach, plant myself in the sand and wait patiently. In my early days, I would attempt to pursue any birds that I saw, but with more experience I have learned that much greater success can be gained by a much more passive approach to the problem. Basically, I just need to sit down, stay calm and become a part of the background.

There is one other extremely important element to this particular strategy — distance to the water. I have found that shorebirds seem to follow what I call the “40-foot rule.” When it comes to a matter of personal space, the smaller shorebirds are generally willing to approach within 40-45 feet of a stationary and seated human. An upright human will expand that comfort zone out to 70-80 feet, which is far too distant for good photos of such small birds. The other advantage to sitting is that you get a much better angle for your photos.

All of this came together in one marvelous moment as I was sitting on the sand and watching a small group of birds walking my way. They were coming from my right (from the direction of the jetty) and they were at the perfect angle to be bathed in the soft morning sun as it tried to burn through some persistent fog. This gave the entire setting a soft glow, but still allowed for a point of light to appear on the birds’ eyes.

I had been sitting on the beach for over an hour and the birds had decided that I wasn’t an extreme threat, so they returned to their standard beach-combing foraging method while also keeping an occasional eye on me. When a ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres) headed toward me I lifted up my camera and got myself ready. The turnstone had passed by me several times, but this particular time happened to coincide with a momentary increase in sunlight due to a thinning of the fog.

The bird took a few steps and then grabbed at something in the sand at the water’s edge. Then it took a few more steps and paused to take a look at me. Once satisfied that I wasn’t making any dangerous moves, the bird would repeat that sequence. By the time the turnstone hit the 40-foot mark, it was still at a bit of an angle to my right. The tide had come in a bit and reduced the distance between the water and me from 40 feet to somewhere between 30-35 feet. What would the bird do?

Sometimes a shorebird will take flight and move 30 feet down the beach; passing me, but passing me in flight. This time, however, the bird decided to make the trip on foot. Very much aware that it was close to me, the turnstone decided to make the journey by way of a brisk sprint. Fortunately, the photography gods (Nikonus and Iso) smiled upon me. I had put myself in the right place, I had remained patient and alert and, most importantly, I hadn’t given up.

So, as the turnstone made a run for it my camera was steady and the settings were perfect. I ended up with several beautiful photos, but the one that I have included with today’s column tells the story of the bird’s mood perfectly. The feathers are unruffled, but if you look closely you can see that neither one of the bird’s feet are actually touching the ground. The bird was pushing the envelope of its personal comfort zone and I can imagine its inner monologue as something like, “Go, go, go, go, go!” Anyone who has ever made a run for it with too little clothing on will know this feeling well.

Between now and next week, I hope to capture some more amazing photos of the birds, mammals, fish and invertebrates of Martha’s Vineyard. In the meantime I hope that you are able to get out and enjoy nature, wherever you may be.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 24 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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