Last year, due to high water levels, a huge field of sunflowers was not mowed. Despite the loss for the owner – for the birds, it became a true paradise. An enormous field of sunflowers, full of energy-dense seeds is undoubtedly a delicacy for many species – so no wonder that when winter came, this place attracted dozens of thousands of birds. The most numerous were bramblings, goldfinches and greenfinches, and among them one could also spot chaffinches, tree sparrows, and linnets. The great number of passerines attracted many predators. On the withered heads of sunflowers, buzzards and kestrels lurked on weaker or inattentive finches. Goshawks and sparrowhawks flitted between the sunflowers, and peregrine falcons and merlins controlled the sky, appearing suddenly and falling like a bolt from the blue. From time to time a hen harrier would visit the canteen, gliding over the field to look for prey. Within just a few minutes I could observe all mentioned species. For me, as a photographer it was a perfect place for photography, and since it was in my local area, I was able to visit it quite often.

During the visits to the sunflower field, I tried to document all of species that were there, however I dedicated the most time to bramblings. There was something special about them. At first glance they are very colorful birds, and their vivid orange seems almost unpractical, allowing the predators to spot them more easily. This is what I thought before realizing how well this plumage blends with the colors of dried sunflowers. The bramblings were perfectly invisible on that background, and only the rustle of spitting sunflower seeds and the sounds coming from all directions made me realize how many birds there were in the field. To photograph them from a close distance you just had to wait several minutes without moving. A flock of birds like a wave moved to the next sunflowers and, after a while, they were all around me. From time to time, a falcon hit like a bullet from above and caused a commotion in the area. All the birds would take off and form a flock changing its shape and light direction with incredible speed. This was a great difficulty for the falcon because it was hard for him to concentrate on a single bird. Sometimes several flocks merged into one big one, and as they flew over my head, it got darker. Each time it made a huge impression on me.

One day, among thousands of birds, I observed one almost entirely white. It flashed before my eyes for a brief moment and disappeared in the depths of the field. I took nearly half a day to find it again and take at least one documentary shot. Persistence paid off once again – finally I succeeded! Merlin chased away a flock of finches towards me and luckily this unique white individual was among them. I managed to take few photos before it disappeared again. After analyzing the images I believe that it was a melanistic goldfinch – this was indicated by the structure of its beak, as the beak of the brambling is more massive and less pointed. After some time I saw a peregrine falcon hunting in the distance. One bird separated from the flock and was quickly spotted by a predator. Within seconds, it was already in the falcon’s clutches. I managed to take a few documentary photos which, despite the long distance, seem to confirm that the falcon had just caught a melanistic goldfinch. Since then I have not seen the white bird again.

Even though I collected a lot of valuable photographic material on the first day, I kept visiting the sunflower field for many days. I always try to use the potential of the place to the maximum – on the first day everything is new for me, and the more time I spend in the area, the better I know its characteristics. I know where the light is best at a particular time of the day, where the birds usually are, from which direction the falcons usually come, and where is the best spot to set up to get an interesting background. After a few days of working in the area, new photo ideas come to me. I start thinking how to photograph a given subject in a different, unique way, based on the information I have collected. One time I came up with an original idea.

There was a sunset and perfect light, but all the bramblings had been scared away by a peregrine falcon and flew back to the far end of the field. While waiting for them to return, it occurred to me that the sunflowers must look like a forest from the perspective of the bramblings. Unfortunately I didn’t have a wide-angle lens with me at the time to see how the composition looked like from a low level. Fortunately, my phone comes in handy in situations like this, which is a great tool for checking if a place has photographic potential. I set my phone on the snow and got a unique effect – everything looked completely different from this perspective. Stalks of sunflowers created incredible depth and resembled a forest. The only thing missing was the birds. Satisfied with the idea, I went home and spent the whole night thinking about how to photograph bramblings from a close distance.

The following day I arrived at the field early in the morning – this time with a wide angle lens and a radio-controlled trigger. The plan was theoretically simple – set up the camouflaged camera in the snow, move away and hope that bramblings would come. The problem was that the field was huge and the birds had a very large feeding area to choose from. Most of the sunflowers were straight and tall, some of the flowers tilted, and others were broken in a way that their heads touched the ground. Birds preferred to feed on these unbroken, tall flowers, as the seeds were more easily accessible there. They also had a good view of the whole area from above and could react faster in case of a falcon attack. Some of the birds also foraged at the bottom, eating the seeds that fell on the snow.

There were more broken sunflowers in one part of the field, and some of them were almost touching the ground. Additionally, there were lots of tracks and scattered seeds in the snow. That was a very good sign. I decided to set up my camera at that spot. This time I had a 10mm wide-angle lens and a mirrorless camera with an electronic shutter, which is especially important when shooting at close distances because it is silent and does not scare animals. I chose a composition, masked the camera with snow and dried sunflowers. I chose the aperture of f/22 to keep the foreground and background in the depth of field. I set the focus point manually at about 20cm from the lens. Then, I connected the radio-controlled trigger with its range of about 50m. Finally, I move away to a safe distance and wait patiently for the events to unfold.

Time was passing by but the birds were still absent. I started to ponder over the sense of my plan, doubting whether the birds would choose this small fragment of field, where I had my camera, out of the enormous area full of sunflowers. At one point I saw a peregrine falcon in the sky. It was a good sign, because its presence always causes a commotion in the area, and then bramblings change their place. How happy I was, when after a while a whole flock of finches flew to the area where I had my camera hidden! The birds were just a few meters away. Promisingly close, but still not enough to take the dreamed photo, as the ideal distance was about 10cm from the lens. Only then the birds would be big enough in the frame to nicely fill the composition. The situation was complicated by one more problem – I had no live view from the camera’s viewfinder, and therefore no idea what the current composition in the camera looked like. I could only guess it, based on what I saw through the binoculars, hidden few dozen meters away. I waited patiently for the development of events. Within minutes, the camera was surrounded by birds. I could not believe it! I was releasing the RC trigger again and again, as everything seemed to indicate that bramblings were in the exact spot I had planned. At one point, I saw through my binoculars that one of the bramblings landed right in front of my camera and decided to husk the sunflower seeds… in the lens hood!

After some time, a peregrine falcon flew over the field again and scared away all the birds in the area. This was the moment to check the results in the camera. Fortunately, the trigger did not fail and the shutter was released. When I looked through the photos, I was beyond happy. I got the image exactly as I had planned. It also turned out that when one of the bramblings sat in my lens hood, it soiled the lens. Unfortunately, from that moment on, all the subsequent photos had spots and smudges. But it didn’t matter – I still had this one image I was hoping for. Later in the day I tried to change the camera settings and composition, but the yaws were not feeding so close anymore. Later in the day, I tried to change the composition, but the bramblings haven’t come that close anymore. Out of all the photos taken with the wide-angle lens, I selected a few, and I like one of them the most – I titled it “The Feast”.

In the following days I also visited the sunflower paradise in hope to repeat the situation with a close encounter with bramblings – unfortunately, I didn’t manage to do it again. Additionally the weather changed and warm front melted all snow. For birds it was like a sign of approaching spring. In the following days all bramblings disappeared and begun their journey to the northern breeding grounds. Only a handful of goldfinches remained, which also flew away the next day. The sunflowers field became quiet, so uncommon for this place. All that was left were memories and photos saved on my camera card.

I am convinced that one of the main factors that enabled me to take interesting photos was the fact that the field was in my local are. As a result, I was able to visit it many times, and with each subsequent day, I had new ideas for photos in my head.

Always, when working on a subject, I strongly encourage you not to finish after one day of photography, even if you already have taken many great photos on that day. I know from experience that after spending more time in one place, you start to look at it from a different perspective and begin to see opportunities for even more interesting and creative photos.

That’s why I love working locally. It allows me to visit the area more often and get to know the animals that live there. And it doesn’t matter to me whether I am photographing a rare owl or a common sparrow. I think that every animal is special in some way and is worth photographing. Sometimes you just need to spend more time with it to see its beauty. The idea for an interesting frame will come by itself. The only thing left to do is to press the shutter button and take that one, unique photograph.