How to Film Wildlife – part 6: Dippers in streams

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BBC cameraman John Aitchison gets his feet wet as he shows you how to film dippers in upland streams. 

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How to film dippers in upland streams spread.

BBC cameraman John Aitchison gets his feet wet as he shows you how to film dippers in upland streams. 

KEY FILMING SKILLS

Find your location

Good dipper habitat has clean, fast-moving water with plenty of dissolved oxygen to sustain the aquatic insects these birds eat. So, head for streams in steep, hilly areas, especially in the north and west of Britain.

The first sighting of a dipper is often a blurred shape whirring low over the water, making a shrill alarm call as it goes. The secret is to find a place, such as a nest or favourite feeding boulder, where you can wait for your subject to come to you.

Be a dipper detective

View the stream as if you were a dipper. Search the banks for low cliffs and check stone walls under bridges – these are ideal nest-sites. You are looking for an untidy ball of moss (if it hasn’t rained recently, this can have a dry, brown appearance).

Get the timing right

If possible, film when young dippers have just left the nest. You may need to make several trips to your chosen site to be in position at the right moment.

When I filmed these birds last summer, the greyish fledglings stood quietly, blending in with the rocks until the adults flew in with food and revealed their location.

The parents can be confiding, but if a chick isn’t getting fed, you must back off. The birds’ well-being always comes first.

Go in low

For really great results, get down to your subject’s eye-level. Tumbling mountain streams are helpful in this respect – by filming upstream, you can show the world from the dipper’s perspective.

Alternatively, why not try to capture the dipper’s view of the streambed when foraging underwater? To do this, follow the step by step below.

 

STEP BY STEP: HOW TO SET UP AN UNDERWATER CAMERA

1. Use a splashbag

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

Few affordable video cameras are waterproof, but for shallow dunks there is a simple solution – use a splashbag. There are models to fit most types of camera.

Before venturing into the field, you may find it reassuring to familiarise yourself with the set-up at home in the bath.

2. Make it airtight

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

Squeeze out as much air as you can before closing the bag so that it won’t float too high, and ensure the top is clamped tightly before putting it underwater.

It’s worth popping a sachet of silica gel in the lens port, as this helps to absorb moisture.

Check for water in the bag after every dunk.

3. Fix with cable ties

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

If your dipper is diving repeatedly from the same location, try placing the bagged camera close by and leaving it to record remotely. For ballast, use cable ties to fix the camera to the side of a plastic crate full of stones.

The crate must have holes in it to let water flow through.

4. Put in position

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

Gently lower the crate and camera combination into the stream, making sure it is level. You’ll get the best results in manual focus, set to the closest possible distance.

Lenses provide a narrower view in water, so it may help if you fix a wide-angle adapter to the front of yours.

5. Don’t give up

Filming dippers swimming is a challenge, but persevere and you may even get the ‘Holy Grail’ shot – a bird using its wings to overcome its buoyancy to force itself to the streambed while searching for prey. But don’t be disappointed if you don’t succeed – shots above the water are still a real achievement.

 

ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT

OS map (1:50,000 or 1:25,000) To help you to locate potential dipper streams. Focus on steep slopes – those with tightly packed contour lines.

Chest waders To keep you dry when positioning your camera and returning to review your tape.

Splashbag These are inexpensive and come in many shapes and sizes to fit almost any make of camera. Ewa Marine does a good range, available from www.camerasunderwater.co.uk

Lifejacket A sensible precaution and essential when filming alone. Try to avoid bright colours – there are camouflaged versions.

 

Look out for How to film fungi on the forest floor... coming soon! 

 

Find out more about the work of John Aitchison and follow him on Twitter @johnaitchison1