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Stalking the elusive stork

(No.10, Vol.3, Nov 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

The salt fields at Phan Thiet City, Binh Thuan Province, South-Central Vietnam, have long been an infinite source of inspiration for poetry, music, arts and cinematography. My story of flocks of storks reflected on the salt fields of Phan Thiet began in 1999.
It all started in March of that year, when I began the practice of taking pictures of wild animals. I lived in Phan Thiet, and had to take my child to school at five a.m. every day. We went along the salt fields, and I noticed one of the storks’ strange habits. From five to six a.m., just before sunrise, hundreds of storks gathered on the salt fields. But at about seven, when the sun was up, there were only a few of them left. Where did they go, and why?
Every day, more and more of them gathered there. I decided to bring my camera each morning. At six, when my kid was in class, I came back to the salt fields. The first day, when I came within about 200 metres from them, they flew away. The next day, I came to the same spot and stopped. I stood there till seven, when the siren announced working time. They flew away one by one, and I went to work. The third day I came closer, about 180 metres from them, and they paid no attention to me. I continued advancing day after day until I was standing about 50 metres from the storks, free to photograph them while they went on chit-chatting carelessly. Once, while I was deep into photography, the birds suddenly panicked, because a man came within about 100 metres from them. So they were afraid of the man, not of me. Why?
It rained one night in May. The next morning, I came with my usual enthusiasm to carry on with my photography. But strangely, on that day and many days after that, on the salt fields there were only a few lone storks, and they didn’t gather together. I was able to understand why only many months later.
Why were the birds not afraid of me, but of someone else who was over 100 metres from them? Because during the two months I followed them, I always wore the same green uniform, repeating the same movements that caused no danger. They found me harmless and got used to me.
Why did they gather only from five to six a.m. and flew away when the sun was up? It’s because there are two kinds of salt fields. One holds sea water, the other makes salt. March, April and May are the hottest, dryest months of the year. The water holders dry out quickly. The fish surface more often to get air and the water is shallow. That is a festive time for the birds, for the eating is good.
When the sun is up, the field’s surface is like a mirror. The reflection makes the water hot, forcing the birds to go looking for food elsewhere. So, to take pictures of the stork flocks on salt fields, photographers have to come there during March, April and May, work before sunrise, and know how to make friends with them, just as I did. If one misses the opportunity, after just one rain, the water level will go up, and the birds won’t return until the next year.




Text and photos by Le Hoai Phuong
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