I’ve heard many people comment that spur-winged plovers (Vanellus miles novaehollandiae, or masked lapwing if you’re from Australia) nest in the most stupid places. The middle of grassy paddocks, farm tracks, vacant lots in town and traffic islands for instance. But it clearly works for these birds, as they are a relatively recent arrival to NZ but are now common from one end to the other. Not so stupid if you ask me. When I heard a pair had nested on a tiny island in a small pond on the local university campus I wasn’t at all surprised, but knew it could be a good opportunity to get some new photographs of them. Spur-winged plovers are staunch defenders of nests and chicks, and will dive-bomb and cackle at any predator or human that comes near. The funniest example I’ve seen was a stand-off between a spur-winged plover and a curious lamb. The lamb was massive compared to the plover, but the bird held it’s ground and ended the matter with a sharp peck to the lamb’s nose. These birds at the university would have to be more tolerant of people than usual though, since thousands of them would be walking past just 10 m away each day. A lot of wildlife photography is about finding the right individual to photograph. By circumstance or personality, some individuals are easier to approach and photograph than others.
I knocked off work early one afternoon, walked over the hill to the little lake and set up on the side of a board-walk with a Gitzo tripod, Wimberley gimbal head and 600 mm lens. The main problem I find when photographing in public places like this is the strange looks and questions this sort of gear and behaviour attracts. You get used to it though, and most people are just understandably curious and a polite chat doesn’t hurt. It does often surprise me how little many people know about our New Zealand wildlife, and instilling a little knowledge and appreciation can only be a good thing in my opinion. Spur-winged plovers may be one of our most common, widespread and distinctive native birds, but I was still asked what they were by people walking past.
As I hoped and expected, these birds were not concerned by people. There was a couple of metres of water between their island and the walkway, and they were more concerned about mallards getting too close than the guy with the big glass eye staring at them. The only things needed were a bit of patience and foresight. When the chick started feeding its way toward the part of the island closest to me I knew there could be a chance to capture it reflected in the water, and when it got within a few metres of mum it was likely to run in for brooding, especially if it had been 15 minutes or so since last warm up, and 15 minutes or so later she would stand to reveal the chick again. When one parent flew off after a mallard and landed on the far side of the pond, I knew it wouldn’t be long before it would fly back to rejoin the family. I waited, tracked it in when it flew and managed to get the shot I had hoped for, with the spurs for which they are named clearly visible on the wings.
Sadly, there was only one chick present when I visited, and I was told there were two that morning, and three the day before. Clearly something had found the family that the parents couldn’t protect them from. The last chick disappeared within a couple of days of my visit. The harsh reality of nature.