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BBC cameraman John Aitchison demonstrates how to film migratory waders on coastal mudflats.
KEY FILMING SKILLS
Know your tides
It’s best to arrive as the tide is falling so that you can check which areas of the flats are most popular with feeding waders.
While the tide is out, set up your hide and wait for the water to rise, which will bring the birds towards your filming station.
Even a few centimetres of water will hide your tracks, so you might find it useful to plant some bamboo canes along your route to mark your way back. It’s crucial not to get caught out by rising tides.
In fact, there’s no need to stray very far from the shore or cross any deep channels. Also take care to avoid the softest areas of mud – test the ground in front of you before you walk on it.
Set up camp
When filming nervous birds, I move my hide nearer to them in stages, so that they can get used to it gradually, but this won’t work on mudflats, as each rising tide will quickly flood the hide.
Luckily, waders are not shy, so this should not be a problem.
A low angle is best for filming waders. If your tripod’s legs are too long, see if you can unscrew its head. If so, you could try bolting it to a tray. You’ll also need a long lens, such as those found on birdwatching telescopes.
Use the right camera
As an experiment, I attached three different cameras to my telescope – two small camcorders and a compact stills camera that could record moving pictures. I found that the video cameras overly magnified things, whereas the stills camera did much better and recorded some beautiful moving pictures.
Watch the birds
To capture interesting film sequences, it helps to learn the distinctive behaviour of various waders. For example, curlews and godwits plunge their long bills into the mud in search of worms, and oystercatchers carry cockles to firmer ground to open them.
Meanwhile, redshanks look for small invertebrates near the surface of mud. Look out for disputes over the best feeding patches – two curlews walking in parallel might be sizing each other up for a fight.
STEP BY STEP: HOW TO FILM WITH A DIGISCOPE
1. Mix and match
A digiscope is a camera attached to a telescope. To avoid seeing dark or soft image edges, slide the camera onto a suitable adapter and position it to fall in line with the centre of the scope’s eyepiece.
2. Make adjustments
Manually set the camera to infinity, then focus the image using the telescope – the camera will select the exposure for you. Resist the urge to zoom in with the telescope and you’ll get lighter, higher-quality pictures.
3. Use a tray
At high magnification, any movements will be exaggerated, so adjust the digiscope smoothly. If your tripod doesn’t have short legs, try bolting its head to a tray to achieve the lowest possible filming angle and keep it dry.
4. Be patient
To make the most of the low angle, you’ll need a hide with an opening for a camera at the bottom. Be prepared to spend a long time waiting on the ground – it’ll be worth the backache for the views!
Telescope I used the Swarovski ATS 80HD with a 20–60x eyepiece, though most high-quality scopes by the leading manufacturers will do.
Digiscoping adapter The Swarovski DCB-A base is a flexible piece of kit and suits many stills cameras. There are a growing number of other models now on the market.
This will help you to plan ahead so you arrive at the right time. UK tables are available at www.bbc.co.uk/weather/coast/tides
Look out for How to film kingfishers... coming soon!
Find out more about the work of John Aitchison and follow him on Twitter @johnaitchison1