The Flight of the Egrets

Egret landing with wings spread out. Shot in Kozhikode, Kerala, India

There I was, knee-deep in the mud, muscles trembling, with a camera in my hands. The lens was hovering right over the soil, my back bent at an unnatural angle. A few feet ahead of me was a congregation of egrets, daintily probing the mud.

My movements were furtive, for one sudden jerk could scare them off. I had taken tremendous care and patience to make them comfortable with my presence. Like most birds, egrets are very skittish. They perceive the slightest actions as danger and quickly make their escape.

2 little egrets fighting black and white image. Shot in Kozhikode, Kerala, India.
Dance of the Egrets

My body begged me to stop, for I had remained in that position for close to an hour. My jeans were torn, my head dripped with sweat, and my body was thoroughly exhausted. Mentally, however, I never felt more powerful, for I was living the photography dream.

Patience and deliberation are essential traits in wildlife photography. Many photographers that I admire embody these virtues. You must be willing to get dirty and uncomfortable. Great images come to those who brave the elements.

During such experiences, the world fades in the background; all that is left is you and your subject. Your mind is alive, figuring out the best composition. You are frequently checking your settings, making sure you have everything right. You seldom get such opportunities, so there is no room for error. As I marvelled at the scene before me, I reflected on what brought me there.

Group of Egrets moving together. Shot in Kozhikode, Kerala, India
Forward Together

Since my childhood, my family would undertake long road trips to neighbouring states. And during these drives, I would sit by the window, watching the Indian countryside roll by.

One recurring theme in all my trips was the abundance of egrets in the vast backcountry. I’d observe them prancing around the agricultural tracts, head bobbing back and forth.

The egret is a heron found across much of the Indian subcontinent. They typically have a pure white plumage, with some species changing colours for breeding. They are resident breeders, living either communally or alone.

Flock of Egrets flying in synchronisation. Black and white fine art shot by Ishan Shanavas. Shot in Thattekad Bird Sanctuary , Kerala, India.
Take Off

For many years, I never paid attention to them. After all, they were such a common sight in India, much like crows and cows. But something made me change my outlook.

Earlier last year, I came across a swan photograph by my favourite photographer David Yarrow (See it here). He describes the swan as an elegant and graceful bird that hasn’t been photographed well. He wanted to photograph a swan in a manner that accurately captured its attitude and dignity.

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I began to see many parallels between this description and the egret. In its ubiquity, people have forgotten its delicate beauty. Its stark white feathers atop balletic black limbs make for a very graceful bird. This line of thought provoked a paradigm shift in me.

I began to see the egret in a different light from that moment. No longer did I cast it aside; instead, I began to picture various compositions of it every time I saw one.

And then, many months later, I landed up in that field, with those birds in front of me. By then, I had tried and failed repeatedly to get the shots I liked. For the look I wanted, I had to change my approach.

Taking a leaf out of David Yarrow’s book, I knew I had to get close. Moreover, I had to shoot from their eye level. Intimacy and a ground-level perspective is essential for an immersive photograph (read my post on it here)

I spent a couple of hours in that field, trying out various compositions. Farmers from neighbouring fields quizzically observed as I bent in all abnormal angles searching for the shot. I can only imagine how hilarious I must have appeared.

The birds fluttered about, backlit against the morning sun. Watching them circling the fields, I felt a strange feeling of mesmeric tranquillity. It was a profoundly spiritual moment, something I attempted to capture through my images.

Group of egrets flying. Shot in Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, Kerala, India.
Flight of the Egrets

Patience and deliberation are essential traits in wildlife photography. Many photographers I admire embody these virtues. You must be willing to get dirty and uncomfortable. Great images come to those who brave the elements. I, an amateur, had endured numerous cuts and gashes in pursuit of these images. These are just realities of the trade.

This photo series attempts to depict the egret for what it truly is; ethereal and angelic. Do they emphatically express the egret’s grace? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

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Published by Ishan Shanavas

I am a young adult, interested in nature, photography, art and culture. An aspiring polymath, I share my learnings through my blog. I also include insights from my favourite books.

6 thoughts on “The Flight of the Egrets

  1. Nicely done, and some lovely shots of these graceful birds. Cattle Egrets were especially common during my childhood, and I learnt, not all Herons like water bodies!


  2. This was well written. I admire the passion and patience in this field. Fortune favours the brave, and you are a brave young man. Keep feeding us these detailed articles. Thank you


  3. The wordings and the language used gave a pen picture of the troubles taken by you. I felt as if I was with you all throughout. Pictures are realy nice. Much more beautiful photographs are expected


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