Wildlife in February - the practical photographer's guide

With winter truly in swing, February often provides some wonderful photographic pleasures, the slightly longer days gifting some gorgeous low winter sun that can be perfect for a spot of wildlife photography both close to home and further afield. This month we're getting out and shooting grey herons locally and sanderlings on the coast.

Grey herons
In the UK, grey herons are found in practically every location where you find fresh water. From river banks to wetland reserves, herons will make their home around the country and are often also found in parks or large back gardens.

In February, herons can be seen starting to search out possible nesting locations. Look out for birds soaring over woodland areas that are close to water, often chasing one another. Nests can be solitary or in groups, with birds often choosing to take up residence together in heronries that can be found in many locations around the country. A quick Google search will likely highlight some areas close to your home.

In terms of images, the possibilities are endless and with the subjects often being accessible for regular visits, you really can focus and work on creating some stunning shots. To start with work with longer lenses to pick the birds out individually - shallow depth-of-field and nice clean backgrounds can make some stunning portraits. Remember to work in both portrait and landscape orientations, as the long necks and beaks will provide a great lead-in line for the base of a composition.

Additionally, go wide and take in the whole scene - birds on nests or even with people in the frame interacting with the birds themselves. This can make for some great pictures, especially in urban environments, creating stories within a single frame rather than just a standard photo of a heron.

Sanderlings are gorgeous little birds. Found around most of the UK’s coast, they are a small wader often found on sandy shores feeding along the tide line. These pretty little birds are wonderful to work with, especially on a beautiful sunny day in February. Lying face down on a beach with one of these little guys in the viewfinder is photographic perfection.

Sanderlings are often accommodating, but good field craft is needed to get really close to these birds for the prime photographic opportunities. Firstly, locate your subjects. Scan along the tide line on a sandy beach and look for small white birds running back and forth around the surf. Note the general direction of their travel and then make your way ahead of them along the beach.

Once ahead of their position, get down on the ground and lay as flat as possible, wearing drab colours to help blend into the environment. You don't need full desert camo, just something dull and plain will do. Once in position, get your lens down low and work from a tripod or, my personal preference, a bean bag to get your lens eye level with these little stunners.

And then… wait. With any luck the birds will make their way towards you as they feed. If you need to change position, army crawl on your front to minimise disturbance - small movements will go totally unnoticed as the sanderlings are too busy focusing on feeding.

In terms of kit, a 300mm lens is going to be the minimum you will want to work with, a 500mm being preferable. With the birds being small and often very close, an aperture of f/5.6-f/8 will ensure a good amount of depth-of-field, and due to the low angle will still offer beautiful clean backgrounds.

One extra to add to the bag is a waterproof camera cover/bin bag and elastic bands to help keep sand and grit off the lens and camera. After you have finished be sure to wipe down your kit with a damp cloth, just to remove any salt spray residue. It’s a camera killer!

Oh, and be sure to wear a few layers and watch the tide - many a photographer has been soaked due to not watching the rapidly advancing waves. It’s very cold, and that’s from personal experience!

Tom Mason is one of the UK’s most exciting young wildlife photographers and conservationists. He leads workshops and seminars and writes a monthly blog for the RSPB. See more of his work here