Monday, October 22, 2012


The last few winters have seen me spend some time targeting two of the three sawbill species found in the UK. The first of these is the Red-Breasted Merganser, a small number of which take up residence on a large local artificial saltwater lake. They are not the easiest of birds to get close to and usually demand an early morning visit before the dog walkers take to the perimeter path for their daily constitutional.
There are a number of small floating piers in the lake which allows you to get down at water level to get a good low perspective on the birds. However, stepping on to these slime and guano coated wooden platforms is not without risk and I can only liken it to trying to walk across ice with ice blocks strapped to your feet. I have nearly taken a horizontal feet first dive into the lake a couple of times doing this. Its not the thought of plunging into an icy lake that concerns me as you would only need to stand up to save yourself from drowning, but the certain ruination of some expensive camera equipment after its a saline bath.

The standard diving bird approach is usually adopted for getting out on to the platform. This involves moving whilst the bird is underwater and stopping as soon as it surfaces, repeat until you have got to where you want to be. Once your out on the platform safely it is actually fairly unpleasant lying down on the green slime and bird plop gloop that coats the wooden planks. As they say though if it was easy it would not be fun.
The male birds are quite a tricky exposure with the camera, as are any birds with adjacent black and white area, and the key is trying to strike a balance to keep detail in both. The black head of the male does also have a green sheen when the light hits it at the right angle. the females are much more straight forward to photograph.
When  the bird dives you can usually work out where it is under the water by watching the trail of bubbles. However, occasionally the take you surprise as this young male did when it surfaced right next to me on the pontoon, so all I could fit in the frame was its head.

The other sawbill species I have spend several sessions with now is the Goosander (I have a feeling you may call these Common Merganser in the USA). They are impressive birds and notoriously difficult to get close to. For these birds I travel for about 2 hours into an upland lake in North Wales where on a particular lake you can usually find a group of around 10 birds.

This group of birds is very unusual in that they have a developed a love for eating bread from the frequent feeding of this large lake's waterfowl population by visitors. I have tried to feed them their normal diet of fish but if given the choice they go for the bread every time. This of course makes the photography much less of a challenge.

The really are beautiful looking birds and of a much tidier appearance than the Red-Breasted Merganser. The male are a difficult bird to photograph well just because of their very bright white flanks, that is sometimes flushed with a pink wash, and their dark heads that change from black to green depending on the light direction.

I have always really enjoyed my days photographing the Goosander as it has always coincided with high pressure conditions resulting in clear skies and a still lake in a stunning location on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park.

My last visit was in February this year. In fact it was my birthday which for the last few years I have taken the day off work for a photography session which helps take my mind off how quickly another year has passed. The main purpose of my trip this year was to try and capture some Goosander in flight for the first time. This is not easy photography as they fly incredibly fast just above the lake surface. Anyway after spending the whole day their I eventually managed to get some photos.

I have now built up a good library of images of these sawbills but I am sure as winter progresses the urge to photograph them will return, particularly with the goosander,  and I will find myself heading to the hills once more.


  1. wow, you sure did pick up some amazing captures for your efforts; well done!

  2. Excelentes capturas de estas bonitas aves acuaticas.Saludos

  3. Great tips on approaching the sawbills. Wonderful images!

  4. Perfection. Wow, I am in awe of your photography talent! Exquisite images of these beautiful birds!

  5. Amazing. Absolutely gorgeous photos. Love the detail in the head shots.

  6. Well the risk was worth it Rich, at least on our end! Wonderful photos, absolutely brilliant.

  7. Wow! I loved this post. Such wonderful closeups!!

  8. Fantastic photos and wonderful lighting and composition! Love the shot with the water dripping off the bill and I can finally see why they call them sawbills!

  9. Fabulous photos, Richard! Love the group landing, and the close-ups, and .. all of them! The hairdo of the Red-breasted Mergansersa wouldn't be out of place for Halloween!

  10. Excellent images! The detail shows the beauty and complexity these feathered creatures. The things we do to have a close encounter with birds simply baffles others. I've ruined a few pairs of dress shoes because I saw a cool bird while still in my work clothes. I have done the "scoot and shoot" approach to diving and perched birds as well--wait for them to dive or look away, scoot to the next rock or bush, take a few shots, and repeat.