Reef Fishing

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The rocks at Fingal Head in northern New South Wales are famous for their hexagonal tubular shape. Battered by heavy waves at high tide the Head and its adjacent beaches is a splendid place to wind your neck in and forget about the world and its issues for a few hours. I learnt long ago to take a camera along whenever we go out because when I don’t have it I always regret it. In this case lucky I had it with because what was supposed to be a few relaxing hours on the beach quickly morphed into a finger twitching hour of photography when a pair of Eastern Reef Egrets arrived and started fishing off the rocks at the end of the beach.

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What struck me immediately about the birds and sucked me out onto the slippery rocks to photograph them was how sure footed they were on rocks pounded by surf. Every step I took out over the slippery rocks I knew that as long as I didn’t fall I was going to get some good shots. And if the measure of a good days photography is a few good frames out of a bunch of rubbish, then this was a spectacular day with maybe twenty or thirty good shots of the birds taken over the space of an hour.

Once again, it was absolutely astounding to see how comfortable these guys are in rough water and even more surprising to see how many fish they catch in such water. Their eyesight has to be very sharp and their reactions even more sharp for such a task. But they excel at fishing in such water. At one point I counted a fish in the beak of one or the other every five or six minutes. Unfortunately, of all the frames taken the ones with a fish or crab in the beak were not worth keeping. So, I have got the fishing, but regretfully not the catch.

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Completely at ease with the water the birds gracefully flit from one fishing stone to another and are not at all bothered by surf breaking all around them. Rocks battered by waves which would normally be too slippery for humans are solid perches for the egrets to scan the surf and launch accurate attacks when a target is seen.

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Of all the shots taken, one series stands out for its simplicity in showing how blase the birds are when it comes to breaking waves. As the tide receded one of the birds started working the beach end of the rocks where the sandy bottom was exposed every time the waves withdrew. It spent the time checking small pools around and under the stones for small fish left when the water receded. Then as each new wave washed in it calmly walked back up the beach, somehow just managing to keep a few milometers in front of the foaming water.

Talk about being at one with the environment….it was very very interesting watching these guys.

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In between bouts of catching a meal the preening begins. Again an opportunity for a few different angles of the birds who were not at all fussed by my being fairly close. Like all wildlife, as long as they know you are there and you don’t intrude into their personal space life goes on and you get your photos.

Looking at some of these afterwards, especially the ones of the male it becomes evident how hard life is fishing a reef everyday for a living. Look closely and you can see that the birds are actually quite battered.

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For those of you interested to try your luck, head for the northern beach at Fingal as the tide is receding. The birds seem to be regulars and depending on your luck you can get anything between one and three on the rocks at this time.

For the purists, all these photos were shot with a Canon 1DX and EF 300mm f2.8L IS II Lens. At first I used a 1.4x converter but took it off as I didn’t need it.

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