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.

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