For the late January king tide, I knew I wanted to head to Stinson Beach. The weather forecast called for scattered offshore clouds, perfect for some sunset photography.
The king tides, in addition to bringing the highest high tides, also bring the lowest low tides. In the winter the lowest tides of the cycle appear to happen near sunset. I’m unclear if this is just a happy coincidence for the next few years or a regular hydrological phenomenon, but it’s very convenient for photographing wintering shorebirds.
At the lowest tides, Stinson Beach’s tidal flats are exposed, extending dozens of feet from the beach. This large flat expanse creates amazing opportunities for shorebird photography.
The tidal flats used to extend dozens of feet, anyway. The New Year’s atmospheric river changed all of that. As illustrated in this tweet, a layer of sand over a foot deep was eroded away. Most of the tidal flat was washed out to sea. The end result was that this extremely low tide looked more like high tide did before the storm.
In addition to the lack of beach, there was also a lack of birds. In the winter of 2021-2022, I would often see dozens of curlews and other sandpipers at Stinson Beach. So far, I’ve only seen a handful on each of my visits this winter.
At first, all we could find was this typically shy willet. It was at least kind enough to stand facing into the light, but it didn’t present much in the way of exciting composition opportunities. I was started to worry that the rare confluence of tide, clouds, and sunset would go to waste.
We saw a curlew in the distance. I perked up a bit at the sight. Long-billed curlews tend to feed higher up the beach than willets or godwits, so a curlew would give me a variety of looks. The curlew flew off before we even got a chance to get close to it. Things really weren’t looking good, but there was yet another curlew further in the distance.
Sometimes it just takes a single bird to make a photography outing. This curlew was very tolerant. It was feeding on a nice and flat sand spit. It appeared to really like this one spot. For the entire evening, it walked back and forth in front of me on that sand spit, on occasion coming closer than my 200-600 mm lens’s 7 foot minimum focus distance.
I started out on the sand spit, facing towards the beach and away from the water. This gave great lighting on the birds as golden hour got started. The light was changing pretty rapidly as the sun poked in and out of clouds, so some photos turned out better than others.
In addition to giving me nice and soft front lighting on the birds, my position right near the water created a decent separation from the dunes and cliffs behind the beach. This was more important than I was used to, what with the beach being so narrow. Lying down on the beach right at water’s edge also meant I couldn’t see waves coming. Inevitably, I got hit by one of the larger waves. My camera and I both got fairly wet, but the camera kept working.
Not wanting to tempt fate, we moved up the beach, took the battery out of the camera, and watched the sunset. Once the sun was getting close to the horizon, I took out my backup camera and headed back down the beach. The curlew was still in more or less the same spot. This time, I stayed uphill from the curlew, facing toward the water and well away from the swash zone.
Facing toward the water also meant facing toward the sun, which gave an opportunity for more of a backlit look.
The light was changing fairly quickly as the sun got closer and closer to the horizon.
While I was trying to face the ocean, my friend (I felt like we were friends by this point) occasionally obliged me by walking uphill from my spot on the beach. I was pretty much staying in the same spot, swiveling to track the curlew. This curlew was happy to walk back and forth in front of me, so there was no need to get up and risk scaring it off.
I was so pleased with this shot. If I’m quibbling, the curlew would have been better a little further to the left. Anything but a square composition looks off as a result. That aside, this was one of the shots I’d envisioned when I headed to the beach, and my friend was kind enough to provide it.
After the sun dipped below the horizon, I mostly shot silhouettes.
In retrospect, I paid a lot of attention to trying to get the right composition, and much less to adjusting for the light as the curlew moved towards and away from the sun. I missed a lot of opportunities to crank up the exposure (higher ISO, lower shutter speed), and get a nice soft landscape with the curlew illuminated by the blue hour light. Things to try out on my next outing.
I’m worried about Stinson Beach. A lot of the beach was washed away by the storm. With houses, streets, and parking lots directly behind the beach there isn’t anywhere for the beach to retreat to. If higher temperatures cause this kind of storm to become a regular event, the beach could all but disappear in my lifetime.
That’s not the cheeriest note to end a post on, but while the beach is still there, I’ll be checking the tide tables and the weather forecast to find days with low tides, promising sunsets, and friendly long-billed shorebirds.