A Willie Wagtail story

A long time ago, in years,  I was a simply a Landscape Photographer.   I happened to live quite near the Woodlands Historic Park, just opposite Melbourne Airport.   The Moonee Ponds Creek has its head waters in the area, and the Creek at this end is not permanent water, but draws from the surrounding hills and channels the water down toward the Yarra.

The watercourse was, and still is a prefect habitat for the majestic River Red Gum, and there are many fine examples of these trees in the park.  Some of them no doubt older than European Settlement.   It is pretty awesome to stand under these wonderful trees and ponder all the things that they have seen come and go.

Now, as I mentioned, in days of yore, I would roam these paddocks and valleys in search of the right light, the perfect moment, the touch of mist or the brilliance of the light upon the massive trunks to make great landscapes.   I also in those days had a huge tripod, which I seemed quite capable of lugging for miles.  Some of you won’t have heard of Filum, but it’s not a four letter word alone, it was the medium of preference for photographers all those years ago.   Big filum.  Large sizes.  No megapixels, and remarkably heavy and slow lenses to use on equally heavy and awkward  cameras.

But times change.

I moved to digital very early in the development. (Easy to say, worked for a company that had both a foot embedded in the filum market, and dabbling in the development of digital technologies.)

But my love of light, shapes, tones and textures that make those landscapes work still drove me.


One morning, about 10 years back, I was returning to the carpark, and stopped to take a break at a park picnic table.   A Willie Wagtail flew past.  Not the first one I’ve ever seen, but it flew back again.   After a few minutes I became aware of a lot of Wagtail chatter going on about 20 m, away and decided to see what it was all about.  To my delight, surprise, awe and enchantment, the two Wagtails were hard at work building a nest, and explaining in Wagtailese to one another the finer points of nest building.  Nor did they seem at all concerned by my presence.  So, wandering back to said tripod, (I was still using for the digital cameras.) I picked my longest lens (a 200mm f/2.8 ) and moved it all close enough to take some shots of this activity.

Willie Wagtails are a remarkable combination of Black and White.  The two most difficult tones to reproduce well. As any formal wedding photographer, or rock band enthusiast, or vehicle photographer, or just about anyone who photographs high contrast subject will tell you.   Still on the point.  I was thrilled to see the nest develop, and came back the following day, sat with the birds and watched them at work.  The following day, she had laid an egg, and then next couple of days began the process of hatching the young. In the end, flying 4 big fat juveniles.  More to photograph.

Now this monologue better go somewhere.  From that moment on, I was hooked on photographing birds. So every word and image you see here, and ever pic thats on Flickr and is in mags, calendars and cards is the result of two squabbling little birds.

The only thing I’ve leaned about bird photography is its obsessive.  I no longer even attempt to explain.  “Oh, I’m obsessed”, is my standard answer.

Which bring us to a trip along the track at The Office, and a Willie Wagtail that came across the paddock to first harass me, then to settle, and then to follow me down the fence line taking insects as it went.   Most every  birdo will have come across a bird on a fence. It’s about 3 posts away. Too far for a good shot.  You move in.  The bird moves 2 more posts.  You move in, it moves 2 more posts. etc etc, until 10 posts seperates.

And this Wagtail was no exception.  But, by not hurrying, I managed to get the gap down to about 2 posts. Then things changed.  The game became: How close can I let this dude get, before I show my disdain and move on.  And still I kept advancing on its position, until we were 1 fence post apart.  Then for its own reasons, it began to feed in the road and grass verge near me.  Still I advanced and in the end, this amazing bird for no reason other than its own, landed by my foot, hunted, and then kind of flew around me, landed and repeated the process.  Now it would land on the fence wire and I could move in to fill the frame.  “Do you think this side, or that side suits me best?” Should I wag my tail? And so my love for these delightful little birds was rekindled.

Now its true I could fill Flickr with heaps of shots of wagtails, but rather than do that here is a short selection from a delightful 3o mins or so with a very elegant and relaxed bird.

Too close, too close, fly away.
Too close, too close, fly away.
Never to sure about you humans. You all look the same to me.
Never too sure about you humans.
You all look the same to me.
At moment of launch.
At moment of launch.
Wow, look at what I caught. Thanks for stirring it up.
Wow, look at what I caught. Thanks for stirring it up.
To deal with these little beasties, one must change the sharp end around.  Claws work.
To deal with these little beasties, one must change the sharp end around. Claws work.
Gotta be careful of the sharp bits.   Snip, snap.
Gotta be careful of the sharp bits.
Snip, snap.
Now you see it now you don't
Now you see it now you don’t
Well, stir up some more.
Well, stir up some more.
Is this my best side?
Is this my best side?

6 thoughts on “A Willie Wagtail story

  1. David, I want to order your book, and if you haven’t written one you must! I know it’ll be a wonderful combination of delightful stories such as that above, with equally amazing photos. Technically brilliant shots and capturing that amazing personality inside that bunch of black and white feathers!


    1. Hi Christine,
      I got a second hand copy of Bird Life by Ian Rowley, I think it just about covers all I could write. His awesome observation skills have left me feeling very poor in comparison. The blog is about as good as I’ll get in this business. Like the thought though.




  2. David, now I am well and truly amazed: what a great story! I will never look at any Willie Wagtail again without thinking of you.
    With utmost respect and admiration,


    1. G,day Adam, they are just the most fun little birds. Their genuine audacity always leaves me amazed. Enjoy them and use the knowledge they can teach as you expand out to other birds who might not be as in your face, but none the less are ready to share with those who enjoy them for themselves.
      Good on ya.


  3. WOW – you must be proud of those insect shots…they always look like they are frowning even though they are such happy little birds.


    1. Hi Nina, thanks for the nice comments. They are a great little bird. The white eyebrow really enlarges when they are aggressive, so its a good indication here that the bird is pretty much relaxed


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