Sanderlings and Dunlins in the surf at Wildwood Beach on the evening of 13 April 2012.

Since I can’t go anywhere without chasing critters these days, there was birding time built into our weekend getaway to Wildwood. In all my past visits to the beach (in my pre-birding days), I clearly remember seeing flocks of gulls and plovers, and usually the patrolling lines of pelicans. Well, there were no pelicans this time, but I still came home with nine new species on my life list, which is pretty darn good.

Common Terns at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, NJ, on the morning of 14 April 2012.

The biggest challenge, for me, was identification. I’ve always heard that gulls are tough to ID, and it’s true. Honestly, I’m not sure how people used to do it, in the days before digital captures and the Internet. Between two websites and a bird book, I’m pretty sure I finally got my IDs right, but it took a few tries and a lot of searching for some of the gulls.

Fortunately, the others were all easier – the Sanderlings and Dunlins were an easy match (and a hell of a lot of fun to watch). The Osprey below was a bonus – I spent an hour on Saturday at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, waiting for the nesting Osprey pair there to come close enough for a good shot, and never really getting it. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized I’d captured an Osprey fly-over on the beach the evening before! With all my concentration focused on capturing birds in flight, I never even realized that the bird-of-prey had mixed in with the gulls.

Osprey in flight at Wildwood Beach on the evening of 13 April 2012.

It’s the plovers that were my favorite, however – I could have spent hours photographing them.  Energetic, high-strung little birds, they move down the beach in mixed flocks, hunting in the tide line.  They are always in motion and spook easily, the whole flock suddenly taking flight and evacuating to another spot.  So it’s a challenge to track them and get the shots, but it’s also a lot of fun – and it doesn’t hurt that they’re very cute.

Sanderling in winter (non-breeding) plumage at Wildwood Beach on the evening of 13 April 2012.

Sanderlings and Dunlins in the surf at Wildwood Beach on the evening of 13 April 2012.

Dunlin in the surf at Wildwood Beach on the evening of 13 April 2012.

I left my 300L at home – it’s too big, too heavy, and attracts too much notice.  Since this was technically a vacation, with shooting time allotted (as opposed to a shooting trip with, you know, meal times allotted) I opted to rent a Canon 70-300 IS.  I’ve owned this lens in the past and knew that it was the right size – small and light – but still capable of obtaining excellent shots.

To help keep size down, I only brought the 400D.  It’s not the ideal wildlife camera – after using the 7D, having to go back to only 9 focus points in the diamond pattern was hard, and it took a little while for me to adjust my shooting to match.  But within an hour I was able to use that combination, at f/8, ISO 200, continuous burst, and AF Servo.  For an old camera, the 400D came through for me again, and although the performance wasn’t quite as good as the 7D, it was more than adequate.

Herring Gull at Wildwood Beach, NJ, on the morning of 14 April 2012.

I expected to see more birds than I did, and was surprised that several still seem to be in their winter colors.  Despite the fact that it’s been a very warm spring, the migration is apparently still getting into full swing.  I know that even locally, the warblers haven’t show up yet, so I imagine that in another couple of weeks, the beach scene will get a lot busier, both for the birds and the tourists.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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