This is one of several version of the story, published in the American magazine, Outdoor Photographer – one of several articles they run of mine since the mid 1990’s.
Crouching on the sticky estuary mud, I watched with relief as the rising tide began to seep under my blind. Within minutes, its polystyrene floats were buoyed up enough for me to move into a more comfortable position. Through a small slit in the fabric I squinted at the gravel spit 150 yards away where, in about two and a half hours the lagoon’s water birds would congregate as the spring tide flooded lower roosting grounds. Now able to kneel in the blind, I swung it round to face the gravel spit and set a course with the compass fixed to the blind’s wooden framework. Given the difficulty of seeing out, this was the best way to navigate while allowing me to keep an eye on the depth of water. All I had to do now was to work patiently across the open water towards the gathering birds, and time my arrival to coincide with the turn of the tide.
This may seem like a lot of trouble to go to but with many shier water birds, it is the only way to get within their “fear circle”. The technique works because they expect a threat to come from the air or land - not from the water. For the ruse to succeed, you must enter your blind out of sight of the subject and approach it more like a piece of flotsam than a battle cruiser steaming full ahead. So, at my local estuary, I go on to the mud about three hours before hide tide, well in advance of any birds gathering on the spit.
The blind is built round a pair of parallel polystyrene blocks each about 36 inches long by 14 inches wide and 12 inches deep. Wearing neoprene chest waders, I sit on a rubber sling seat between the blocks. These slot into a folding wooden framework, hinged on its underside so that the structure can be made more compact for transportation. Flexible plastic water pipes connect opposite corners, supporting a heavy PVC, dome- shaped canopy. The camera and lens rest on a pair of beanbags lying on a wooden tray. This arrangement gives an intimate low-level perspective although an anglefinder is essential to see through the camera.
As the tide rose, the crossing became easier and, in a sitting position I could use my heels to drag myself over the muddy floor of the lagoon. I knew the route very well – just one narrow creek bed to cross (calling for some frantic paddling) then a much firmer substrate. With just another 75 yards to go and an hour before high tide; I could afford to slow down a little, so long as I kept in my own depth of water. Slowly swinging the blind round I spotted a couple of grey herons to the left of the waders and ducks mustered on the gravel spit. In Scotland, herons are usually very wary of people and don’t allow a close approach. From past experience, though, I knew that they were often unafraid of the floating blind. I reset my bearing and edged slowly towards the heron hunting amongst some seaweed.
The tolerance of different species to the blind is variable and sometimes surprising; eider ducks and herons largely ignore it and even normally suspicious waders such as godwits, oystercatchers and snipe are comfortable with the blind nearby. Quarry species, including pink footed goose, teal and wigeon, however, are not so easily fooled, but with patience they can be worked successfully, especially in places where they are not hunted. While the blind can be used in open water - an image-stabilised lens comes into its own – this usually calls for a lot more light (because of the faster shutter speed needed) than is sympathetic to the subject and I rely instead on waiting until the tide has fallen far enough for me to beach the blind. In these stable conditions, with the lens on a beanbag I can shoot shake free pictures with a regular telephoto down to 1/8 second.
True to form, the first heron continued to hunt amongst the wrack without giving the blind a second glance. Now beached, I relied on the bird remaining in a good position; stalking was no longer an option. Nevertheless, the beauty of this design is that, thanks to the rope handles inside the structure, I can edge it back slowly into the water and go on to work another subject. This I did, although I needed a longer lens for the second heron as the tide was now ebbing rapidly. The price for lingering too long on the mud with a subject is an arduous retreat, 10 inches at a time, to open water. Nevertheless, the chance to be so close to wild birds behaving naturally is always more than adequate compensation for the cold and exhaustion and this remains for me one of the most rewarding ways to photograph birds
Be in no doubt; using an amphibious blind can be hazardous to you and your equipment if you neglect to take some basic precautions:
* Never, ever, go out of your depth. Even if you wear scuba fins (which are very awkward to use in shallow water), your upright position is not an efficient one for paddling . Good-bye estuary, hello ocean.
* Don’t try floating on a windy day; this close to the surface, you’re going to need a housing for that 600 mm lens once the waves start splashing around inside.
* Carry a knife to slit open your waders if they get swamped. Nothing, except concrete boots, will take you down faster.
* Know the local conditions so that you don’t blunder into quicksands or mud that sticks like super glue.
* Plan your route according to how high the tide will be; this way you can always keep your feet on the ground, even if it is underwater
* If your other clothing isn’t too bulky, wear a life vest. The blind can’t actually tip over because of your weight and its low centre of gravity but a life vest gives you confidence should your seat break.
* If you are working in a public area, notify the Coastguard first to avoid public expense and private embarrassment in the event of a call out.
* Carry a mobile phone, to be used only in an emergency.
* If you’ve suffered from DVT, think twice about doing this type of work in winter. After 5 hours cramped inside a small hide, circulation suffers and that, combined with cold, can be problematic for some individuals.
* Protect any cuts on your fingers from the same ; few in more built up areas are free of at least some contamination.