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Taranaki photographer spent weeks befriending rare white fantail to get amazing shots

A patient Taranaki photographer spent a week just getting to know a rare white fantail before he even tried to get photos of it.

A pure white leucistic fantail photographed in Stratford, Taranaki. Source: Guy Vickers

Guy Vickers of Stratford, who has taken photos for 25 years, initially set out to teach himself the difficult skill of photographing birds, and set his sights on local blackbirds, ducks, hawks and sparrows - before a chance encounter.

"As I was sitting there under a shrub, three fantails flew over the top of me and one of them was bright white, and I thought, that's weird - maybe one of them was a different bird," Mr Vickers said.

"I came home and told my family and my son said he was out mountain biking and he saw a white fantail.

"So I went looking for it - I was bumping into people with my camera gear and they said, 'oh, have you seen the white fantail?'"

Mr Vickers soon came across the bird, which has Leucism - a white colouration which is very rare, and distinct from albinism.

Some birds have only partial Leucism, with patches of white, but this pīwakawaka is pure white.

"I started photographing it and the initial results were shocking," Mr Vickers said.

"I couldn't get close to the bird and the exposure was wrong and it was very difficult."

Source: Guy Vickers

Mr Vickers was not easily deterred, however, and set about a plan of gaining the bird's trust and adapting his technique.

"I realised that I couldn't use my long telephoto lens - my 400mm - to capture this bird, because it moves too fast and the light levels are too low down by the river," he said.

"So I worked out that if I used a shorter focal length and strategies to get the bird accustomed to me being there, I would be able to get closer to it and then get the photos I was after."

Gaining the bird's trust involved heading down to the river most days, he said, to sit quietly in wait for "Whitey" to show up.

Mr Vickers wore the same bush-coloured clothes each day - washed, of course.

Source: Guy Vickers

"When it came close to me, I would talk quietly to it - I gave him the nickname Whitey, so I would just talk quietly and say 'hi Whitey, how are you doing?' - just so he got used to my voice.

"I would use little fantail like noises, and he wouldn't respond, but just by repeatedly doing those things, he knew I wasn't a risk to him.

"I didn't get photographs when he came in close the first week - I just sat and kept still, talked quietly, and built up that trust."

The moment Mr Vickers realised his groundwork had paid off was when a large mayfly flew up from the river, and Whitey came flying over, within 1.5 metres of him, and caught it on the wing.

"That was sort of the moment I realised it trusted me, because it was close to me and it was distracted with catching food," Mr Vickers said.

"When I walked through certain areas of the forest, he would come and be happy to be around me - feeding and doing its normal behaviour - preening and singing."

With Whitey much more trusting, Mr Vickers began spending long hours waiting for the perfect shot using a different, shorter lens.

Source: Guy Vickers

"A lot of frustration, a lot of unsuccessful days - but over time, as the bird got used to me, my exposures and technique got better and better,' he said.

For the photographically inclined, he had a Canon 5D at the ready with a Canon 400mm f/5.6L mounted, and his "secret weapon" - a Canon 7DII with a Canon 135mm f/2L mounted.

His photos have been widely praised online, with one old lady calling him up and saying his photo brought back memories of a similar bird she'd seen on her farm years ago.

"It's a very rare bird and a very difficult thing to photograph - it was just a really fun learning journey to teach myself the photography and share the beauty of the bird,' Mr Vickers said.

"I still don't think I've got the perfect photo - the one I would want to put on the wall and say this is perfect.

But Mr Vickers' lockdown project will have to soon come to an end.

Source: Guy Vickers

"It's a phase - I've got to go back to work sometime, I'm self employed - back to the power tools and construction work any day soon," he said.

"One day the bird's going to be gone - they're a little bit more prone to predation I believe - and we'll just have the photographs as a memory of this amazing animal."

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