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.

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