Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Summer Storms in Chokoloskee

I understand how Clyde Butcher capitalized on the Everglades skies with his camera. Especially with the summer storms, the cloud formations are monumental and breathtaking. When you are paddling on the waters, they can become overpowering. And they are unpredictable. Nevertheless, the fascination with them is that the clouds appear alive, and take on all kinds of dimensions and splay out in various directions with varying intensities that if you turn away for 10 seconds and look back again, you will see a very different image.

This past weekend was a Chokoloskee Bay weekend. High tide was about 7:30 am on Saturday, an hour later on Sunday. Certainly not ideal for wading bird photos but I thought I could find the roseate spoonbills somewhere in the mangrove shorelines or various islands near Chokoloskee Pass. The humidity didn't seem so bad in the early morning and even better, the bugs were not out enough to be thought of. This weekend, we would stay over one night capturing another morning on the bay. We were on the water before 7 am both days and at that time, the sky was nearly clear of clouds. Within an hour, thunder could be heard rumbling in the west on both days. From my location, I could not see the western horizon that was hidden by the high mangrove canopy, but the sky above gradually became darker and busier with cumulus clouds. Behind me was the morning sun without cloud cover.

I found the roseates as usual, and stayed with a batch of them for some time. The background sky against their powerful pink feathers was quite pleasing and I had the sun directly behind me for most of the birds. Unfortunately, they were not doing much of anything, and mostly had their spoonbills tucked away. Every once in awhile, one would become more alert and do some stretches or yawns, providing some interesting pose. As the western storm approached, the birds became more nervous. Soon, several of them would do a head stretch, straight up, like a bugle blower. Sounds were made, squacks that appeared to be some kind of warning perhaps. After a time of that, one by one they flew over me toward a distance mangrove shelter where they would hide the remainder of the day as the southwesterly storm blew through. There was some opportunity here to get some flight shots, head on with a beautiful background. But, still getting use to the zoom lens, I struggled to capture them well enough as they flew overhead quickly.

After the birds all disappeared, I put away the telephoto lens and got out the wide angle. A rainbow appeared on the edge of the storm that seemed to be moving northward but never directly on top of us. By now the outgoing tide was relatively strong in Chokoloskee Pass as the thunder became louder. I had yet to see any lightning so I wasn't too worried. I decided to capture several cloud photos as the tide moved me out. The clouds began to loom over me and appeared to be coming in darker and more boisterous. The lighting was marvelous with the sun still uncovered and brightening up the mangroves that were surrounded by dark clouds with magical formations. The winds were still relatively calm, so I was able to take several images with little problem. Lining up the shot can be challenging when mangrove shorelines are not perfectly perpendicular to the camera's lens. I will always take several shots from the approximate same angle with the hope that one will come out fine. Usually, a little straightening is all that is needed. Some shots are taken with the boat in the foreground, but IMO, it's very difficult to get the fullness of the sky AND the boat in the same photo. Plus, the boat often appears angled and doesn't blend well with the straight horizon.

Despite the heavy clouds and darkness, it never rained on Chokoloskee Island that day until about 7 pm. At that time, the edge of the storm passed over the island with a strong northly wind and torrential downpours. Within minutes, the winds clocked around until they were blowing from the south . We sat on the patio overlooking the bay and enjoyed the cooler temperatures. It rained the remainder of the night but we were awakened to yet another clear morning on the water.

A near perfect weekend in Chokoloskee Bay. I find that July and August are relatively interesting for photographing birds here, especially with the roseates. But the best time to come is on a low tide, this weekend was not that. Come September and October, the terns return in force and I have fun with them near the marina where they roost with the brown pelicans on the numerous pilings sticking out of the water. I anchor and sit with dozens of birds surrounding me. I can usually capture some other birds at low tide, ibises are common, there are yellowcrown nightherons and oystercatchers as well. We'll see what the next visit will bring, but there is always something to be photographed here. My paradise.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The sun blazed over Florida Bay

Decided to head down to Flamingo yesterday to catch the early morning low tide and take advantage of the relatively "dry" conditions we've had lately. The difference is most noticeable on the car at 4:30 am when normally, moisture covers it like a blanket. Not this morning, it was as dry as can be in south Florida. This would be a hot day without the early storm clouds to scare us off the water.

We arrived at the marina at 6:45am, exactly at low tide. With mosquito jackets on, we loaded the boats and headed out. The bugs were not too bad, there was a slight wind to keep them at bay somewhat (about 10mph). I headed toward the mud flat that is southeast of the channel and directly west of the small island that sits about 500 ft from the marina entrance. The sun was already well above the mangrove canopy, but the sky was white with haze. It remained that way all morning with a few small clouds here and there. It was as if the sky was covered in parafilm, barely noticing any blues today. I later learned the haze was the result of the African dust; imagine that.

I approached the flat and pulled out my retractable paddle that I use to push through the mud in about 1 in of water. A lone white ibis and reddish egret were present. The egret was on the other side of the flat, well away from me. The ibis was closer so I lined up to get some shots of it. In the meantime, several plovers (or sandpipers) and a few dowitchers were foraging about. I noticed the dowitchers digging up some marine edibles. I wasn't sure what they were catching until I looked at the photos on the computer. They were tiny horseshoe crabs. Horseshoe crabs spawn on mudflats at high tide during spring and summer months. This is where females deposit the eggs. So these little crabs that the birds are catching must be the recent results of this.

The white ibis didn't take long to fly away to the mangrove island behind me. I decided to try to get closer to the reddish egret that was frequently demonstrating its dancing moves. It jumps crazily with outspread wings and will do this for a few seconds. In between that display it will concentrate on the water with beak pointing vertically toward it and then spread its wings with the hovering pattern it is notoriously well known for. I wanted to get as close to this as possible. It would be very difficult with the low water levels, but by now, the tide was incoming and it seemed to be doing so very quickly. It became easier and easier as the morning wore on to paddle around the area.

I spent the next hour chasing the dang egret around. With patience I would sit in one spot and it seemed to get use to me and would start to come closer. But every time it did that, it would head toward the sun and I would lose my lighting. The background is tricky as well with frequent power boats motoring through the channel, and the park buildings lining the shoreline. I managed to get some shots of its flamboyant fishing talents with a clean background but still a couple hundred feet away from me. Finally, it walked past me toward the sun within 50 feet of me and stood as a silhouette for some time. I thought I could capture its silhouette while it displayed its wing spread but it never produced. Instead, it decided the tide was too high and flew off to the mangrove island where it would hide during the remainder of the day until the next low tide offering.

I paddled around the island and started noticing several young osprey flying about. This place is crazy with osprey. Within this area of the park, I've counted 6 nests and those are the most noticeable. Two of these are located on manmade structures and clearly seen by all visitors. Now, this years crop of fledglings look almost like adults as they soar and dive. I watched them practice their diving maneuvers and its clear that the learning curve for these birds is very steep.

More than I've ever seen before, there were several manatee showing their snouts around the bay. I noticed some shark fins also. The waters were alive with life, but my paddling partner would not catch any redfish today. The sun was blazing and it was hot. A slight breeze kept it comfortable but the sun exposure was intense, despite the haze. I paddled to Snake Bight and turned around at the point and headed back to the marina. Heading back, something very large was seen in the water about 60 feet in front of me. I figured it was a manatee and veered to the left of it, trying to give it some fin room. All of a sudden, something very large spooked about 5 feet from my boat leaving a very large wake path moving away from me. Whatever the animal was, it stirred up the mud fiercely and left my boat rocking. I didn't see a manatee head and thought maybe it was a crocodile.

Off the water by 11:30, I had spent the past 4 1/2 on the water unsheltered. Despite the little opportunity for photographing, it was the only place I wanted to be. Despite the economy, the Everglades exists and I'm lucky to have access to it.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A rare siting on Biscayne Bay

Two years ago on Chokoloskee Bay, I found a lone white pelican resting on the roseate spoonbill's oyster bar. It was July. White pelicans migrate from the north to south Florida in October. It's an incredible site to see huge flocks crossing the sky above as they come in for the winter season. Then in late March, they begin flying back north for nesting. Two years ago, the pelican I saw on Chokoloskee Bay was left behind for some reason. I photographed this large white bird, surrounded by the smaller and active roseates. The pelican seemed like it had seen better days. On one wing, a large patch of skin was exposed and its overall appearance was evidence of old age. Clearly, birds do get old and/or sick. In this bird's case, it would spend its final days alone. Above is a photo of the bird.

Fast forward to yesterday, July 11, 2009. I was paddling on Biscayne Bay toward the bird rookery. It was before 7 am but the sun was high in the sky, yet covered in a thin veil of clouds. About 500 feet or so away from the channel, I could see the bird rookery island and the shallow waters that surround it. There was a large figure in the water not far from the island. It was not a brown pelican, it was too light feathered. The sun was backlighting the figure so it was not clear. But I recognized the distinct size of a pelican and because it was not dark, I could only conclude it was a white pelican. Same situation as two years ago, a lone bird in the middle of summer in south Florida.

I paddled around the bird, keeping my distance as I headed toward better lighting. Eventually I came up about 150 feet from the bird and staked out. It became alert to my presence. I did not move closer and took some shots hoping to get enough detail to take a closer look at this bird on the computer. Within a few minutes it flew off to the other side of the channel. It was in the dLinkeep channel water and soon, a powerboat with loud occupants came through. The bird flew off and I never saw it again. In winter, I rarely see white pelicans on Biscayne Bay and the two times that I have seen them, they were small flocks flying overhead. So this was a rare siting, indeed.

By now, the outgoing tide had slacked and soon, several great white egrets were wading in the shallows near the boat channel. I attempted to get close to them, but wow, they were extremely shy. No closer than 500 feet and one by one, about 7 GWEs flew another 500 feet away. I tried it again but once I saw one fly off, I decided to leave them be. In this same area, I have come very close to GWEs. In fact once, a bird kept walked toward my boat with interest and was only a few feet away. With a 420mm prime lens, it was too close for my taste! But today, these birds were too wary and would not have it. So I moved on to the rookery island.

Cormorants were numerous along the boat channel and were flying to and fro. Despite the opportunities for high key shots (facing the direction of the sun), I decided to head to the island. Small sharks (1-3 ft in length) were feeding everywhere, their dorsal fins rippling the water. One got spooked by my boat about 10 feet away, got confused and shot toward the boat bumping it hard before heading in the opposite direction. It was low tide and there was a feeding frenzy going on under the surface of the water.

The bird island was alive as usual and seemed particularly loud today. I hung out for awhile before paddling over to some creeks about 1/4 mile north of the island. After some exploring, I headed back to the boat channel and stayed for 30 minutes or so. I was sitting in the deep waters watching for incoming cormorants when I heard a snorting sound to my right. I looked over to see a extremely large mammal (that would be a manatee) sticking its large snout out of the water about 5 feet from my boat. Curious to my presence, it began moving toward me as I started to focus the lens on it. As soon as it moved in my direction, I realized that I needed to make it stop right away. If there is one thing I am genuinely afraid of in these waters it is having a manatee the size of a hummer come up under my boat. Yes, I know of paddlers who have been flipped by these evil, oops, I mean gentle giants. I put the camera down and placed my paddle in the water. That was enough to divert the animal before it got under my boat. It dove deep leaving its back fin to flip just off my stern but not enough to make a splash. I saw it again as it headed out with the tide toward the busier section of the boat channel. A large powerboat was heading toward it. The manatee was quite obvious making waves and raising its nose out of the water, or so I thought. The boat proceeded toward it. Then it was on top of the manatee! I hear that manatees are fast and it is quite likely that it got cleared of the boat in plenty of time. But sometimes, they don't make it.

I was off the water by 11:30 am. After five hours on the water, I was hot and had enough sun to last me awhile. Summers on the bay, got to love it. No matter how often I come here, there is always something to bring back home with me. Here's a high key shot of a fisherman and his guide.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

In coming tide at Matheson Hammock

With the moon at 97% and low tide at 6:12 am, the incoming tide came in like a river flow all morning. I was on the water just before sunrise and anchored near the mouth of the creek and watched for any type of bird activity in the direction of the horizon. I brought both the a100 and a700 cameras; the 70-400mm on the a100 and the 180mm macro on the a700. I started the day with the telephoto lens with the intention of spending time with the wading birds. Later, I would pull out the macro lens and head into the creek.

The bay was like glass with no wind to speak of. It was already 80 degrees upon arrival and would reach 90 degrees before 10 am. I was alone on the bay and paddled gentled in the shallow grassy waters. I heard the loud squacks from a couple tricolor herons flying among the mangroves and took that as a sign that the birds would soon be feeding in this area. Sure enough, shortly after sunrise the birds came in to the shallows. The usual players were there; yellowcrown nightheron, little blue heron, ibis and tricolor heron. I spotted the black necked stilt pair that I had seen on other days this year. Unlike some of the herons and egrets, these two are extremely skittish and will freeze if there is any indication of a predator nearby. They quickly lose their patience and will move further on, making it difficult to capture these little guys.
In the meantime, I honed in on some ibises, typically less fearful of my presence. A little blue heron was farther out that I could come toward him with the sun in the background. This was a very nice photo set up as the water was calm and smooth. I captured some silhouettes of the bird while it busily caught and ate the water worms that live in the mud.

After awhile I stayed with some ibises; but the tide was rising so quickly that the birds really didn't have much feeding time. One by one, they flew to a farther point. I decided to paddle around the mangroves and see what I could find with the macro lens. I focused on some mangroves that stood alone in the water with the sun to my left. I set the aperture at f16 and bumped up the ISO to 400. I liked what I saw through the viewfinder. The high key look really distinguishes the mangroves and with the smooth water, it was surreal. I played around with these shots for awhile. I paddled on to smaller mangroves that I could isolate. I purposely put ripples in the water that headed toward the tree. The reflection would be broken up by the movement which made an interesting look.

Eventually, I headed into the creek and after paddling 10 minutes or so, the mosquitoes were in high gear and out for blood. I really wanted to use the macro and was hoping to find a female golden silk spider above. They generally weave a hardy web above the creek, well above eye level. This is good because you can find them easily if you look up. My guess is that from toe to toe length-wise, the spider is a good 4 inches long. Quite beautiful too. Today, I paddled in and did not see one with the sun behind me. But as I paddled out with a barrage of mosquitoes following, I finally found one. The spider was facing the sun and the best lighting was on her underside. This could be interesting. I didn't plan to stay long with the bugs so I rifled off a couple shots and left it at that. While shooting, it occurred to me that a really interesting shot would be to get underneath the spider and shoot straight up. Today, I could barely get into a good position, the sun and bugs were not cooperating.

I left the creek and headed back to launch with the sun blazing and a slight wind. I was off the water before 10 am.

Notes on the new lens: love them. the Sigma 180mm macro lens is a joy to shoot with. And the Sony 70-400mm is tack sharp, even with the a100. Two perfect lenses for the bay.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Back to the Biscayne Rookery

For the third year in a row, I have photographed a bird rookery on Biscayne Bay. During the previous two summers, I stayed close to one island watching the dozens of nesting cormorant and cattle egret families. I wrote a journal about it last summer that covers several visits from May to August. The journal is on my website at http://cmierphotoandfitness.net/birdrookery.

My first visit this year was early May when we attempted to launch from the People's Dock near Deering Estate. I planned to get to the rookery at the earliest light but as it turned out, the launch was problematic and by the time I arrived at the rookery, the morning sun was in full force. I arrived at the island that I studied intensively last year to find a disappointing number of birds. They seemed to only be located on the southwest end of the island, where they flourished in the shade. There were many flying to and fro, but scant activity from my perspective with the sun behind me. Hmmm. Where were the birds? Was I too early in the season? Last year, I did not arrive until mid-May, so maybe I was a couple weeks too early.

I knew that there were some islands on the other side of the jetty near the channel closer to the private docks along the bay shoreline. I never attempted to photograph those islands because of the deeper water and boat traffic. The island that I do photograph sits in shallower waters and is well isolated from the channel. With the little activity I saw on the island today, I decided to head over to the channel islands to see if they held more bird action. There are actually three small islands side by side. They are within a few hundred feet of a wall of mangroves that separates the water from the condominiums. I paddled over there, about 1/4 mile away to find each island feverishly active with nesting birds. As usual cormorants and cattle egrets ruled the island in their high numbers. I also spotted several tricolor herons, a few little blues and a couple anhingas amongst the crowd.

The nests were in full force. Nest building, feedings, testing young wings, etc were all happening. Clearly, these islands were going to get more of my attention this summer. I dropped my anchor and was pleasantly surprised to find that it actually caught bottom. I was able to stabilize my boat and luckily, there was no boat traffic on this side of the channel. This was good since the best lighting is on the side of the channel where I would most likely encounter boat wakes.

Since this first day, I've been back to the rookery a few times. the original island has demonstrated more activity and I've spent some quality time watching it. But the three islands near the channel have proven to be a gold mine of bird nesting activity. One day, I arrived with a total cloud cast. A nasty storm was forming in the east but it stayed far enough away that the winds did not pick up significantly and I didn't have to paddle for cover. A perfect day on the water as it turned out! It was a good day for flash and to learn how to use it on white birds. I spent the entire morning facing east despite the rising sun. With the diffuse lighting, I was able to move to any location around the islands and photograph the activity. There was a great amount of flying activity and I practiced shooting while using the flash. I captured some cormorants feeding in the nests and also in the water, which is an interesting sight to see.

The cattle egrets do a very good job of hiding their nests and thus far, I have had little luck capturing a parent feeding the young birds in the nest. One day, I came up on the island just in time to see a tricolor heron feeding its baby. As soon as I saw it, it was finished and flew off leaving the baby tricolor behind. The baby stood on a high branch in good light for the longest time seemingly waiting for mom to come back. I waited patiently for the parent to arrive again for another round of feeding, but I never saw it and missed that opportunity. In the meantime, birds were flying about and young cormorants were learning to swim. Several fledglings were learning to use their wings, never venturing too far from the nest.

I'll visit the rookery a few more times before the summer is over. This year has been more of a challenge to get on the water because of the storms and rain. But it's been a privilege as always to visit the rookery and observe the life of the birds.

Concerning photography, I've used my new telephoto zoom lens here at the rookery once so far. Compared to the prime lens (420mm with teleconverter attached), the 70-400mm lens has opened up more opportunities. I can capture entire wing spans on birds in the mangroves and flying over head. This advantage becomes most evident in flight shots where I often focus on an incoming bird getting closer by the millisecond. With the prime lens, I have a short window of opportunity before the bird gets too close and I miss the entire wing span. Obviously, I will need some practice with the zoom, but that's part of the fun of it.

I've been struggling with a chronic case of tendinitis in my left shoulder and arm. It appears to be brought on by holding my camera. To overcome this, I purchased a monopod and use it often in the boat and on land. It may or may not provide me more stability but it does take the pressure off my left shoulder. Using the monopod, however is limiting especially with flight shots. It does have a swivel head which helps, but it is still awkward when trying to move the camera about. It's especially difficult when I have the flash attached. In that case, I don't even bother with the monopod and simply try to use my knees as support for my arm.

Using the flash has been challenging and I'm still working out the bugs so to speak. Shooting white birds in daylight with the flash seems counter-intuitive but when shadows start taking over (i.e, under the wings), the fill flash is very pleasing if used properly. I typically stop down the flash to about -2 and adjust exposure compensation accordingly. It's a learning process and all I can do at this point is continue reading what the experts are saying and looking at their results.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Chokoloskee Roseates

For the past few years, I've photographed a flock of roseate spoonbills that reside on Chokoloskee Bay during mid-summer. Mostly, I find them roosting in the mangrove canopies well above eye level. But on occasion, I am lucky to find them on the bay when the tide is low enough for the oyster bars to be revealed. They favor the oyster bar near the busy Chokoloskee Pass channel, so boat wakes can be an issue for both bird and photographer.

I was on the water before 7:30 am. My paddling buddies were off to catch a snook or redfish while I paddled the 1-mile crossing to the roseates. The sky was mostly cloudless, something we hadn't seen in many days. Much rain has fallen these past few weeks and the bay has been generously fed with backcountry fresh water leaving it a murky color and with higher than normal levels. Low tide was approximately 7:30 this morning, yet very few oyster bars were revealed. What is typically an oyster-ridden route to the roseates was deep enough to paddle without any concern for boat-oyster shell encounters.

The bright pink flock was well seen a mile away and once I was a couple hundred yards from them. I pulled out the camera, defogged the lens and metered the exposure before getting closer to the wary birds. I had a new lens, a recently purchased 70-400mm Sony telephoto. I've been wanting that telephoto range in a lens forever and finally Sony built its f4/5.6 telephoto with 400mm capacity. Perfect! Now I could capture the entire flock or single out a few at a time.

I paddled closer on a course that would keep the sun to my back as I photographed the festive-colored birds. I came into shallower water and could clearly see the oyster shells laying below. I slowly and carefully paddled closer to the birds and set up anchor about 150 feet away. They were mostly preening or sleeping; not an excitable group either. This would be challenging to find something remarkable to photograph. Good thing these birds are colorful. Here's a shot of the entire flock and a great blue heron hijacking the photo. A couple other photos below show some of the flock members.

I stayed with the birds as several powerboats motored by, bringing on the waves. Within 30-45 minutes, the oyster bar became more covered with the incoming tide and the birds huddled closer to each other to avoid the water. Eventually, the great blue heron lost its space and fled. the roseates didn't seem to mind me much as I continued to move closer, setting up anchor at each spot. At last, a rather large power boat came through the nearby channel and the waves were too much for the birds as their oyster bar became more and more crowded. One by one they flew away, which can be a glorious photo opportunity. The only problem is that they are typically flying away from the camera. Two remained for several minutes more, than one more flew off and at last, the final bird was history.

The birds flew toward the mangroves that line the waters between Rabbit and Chokoloskee passes. I headed over to an area where several of the birds roosted below the high canopy thinking I might have a better vantage point for them. I paddled beneath the tree ornaments as some became a wary of me and moved to higher branches. The others were mostly sleeping and were not revealing their spoons or showing much interest of anything at all.

After some photos of single roseates who obliged me with nice poses, the sun was high in the sky and I put my camera away. I left the birds and paddle on to explore the area.

On another note, I've been shooting almost entirely with a prime telephoto lens up until recently, since purchasing Sony's first telephoto zoom lens, the 70-400mm (f4/5.6). Thus far, I am very pleased with the sharpness coming out of this lens and most of the shots have been taken at 400mm. I wasn't sure if any zoom lens could be as sharp as the Minolta prime that I've been using. I've been shooting entirely with the 1.4 teleconverter attached to my 300mm Minolta lens, making it a 420mm, f5.6. Compared to the Minolta with teleconverter, I would say that shooting at 400 mm (f5.6) with this new lens is even sharper than the Minolta. However, the zoom lens at 300mm may not match up to the Minolta without the teleconverter attached. I may test that some day to help me decide whether or not to sell the Minolta. For now, the 70-400mm Sony lens is perfect for me and will really show its true colors with enough zoom practice behind me.