Sunday, August 23, 2009

Biscayne Bay: Storms and skimmers

What a weekend! Yesterday on Chokokoskee Bay offered some surprises and today, Biscayne Bay did not disappoint. Seems that this year has been more interesting than usual on the bay. I've spotted three birds that I have never seen here before; woodstork, black neck stilt, and today, black skimmer. To top it off, the summer storms have been fantastic to photograph from the water.

It was a perfect tide, low at 7 am as we got on the water at Matheson. There were very large clouds covering the eastern sky and through much of the morning, the clouds would prevail allowing the sun out only on occasion. I noticed several birds to the north near the channel, so I headed in that direction, opposite of my usual route. Little blue herons were out, they tend to feed farther out in the water and are easy to photograph with the morning frontlight casting over the water. Dozens of laughing gulls were in the shallows near the grasses. Amongst them were a few egrets and nightcrowns. I attached the external flash and attempted some flight shots with several gulls and some ibises. And then I saw it, the skimmer, skimming along as a silhouette against the morning sun light. I captured a few shots, watched it come back and circle around near the shoreline. Soon, it flew off, never to be seen again. Surprisingly, there were no others that I could see. The only time I've seen these birds on the water was in Florida Bay off of Flamingo where a large flock hang out in the winter and spring months. Once again, Biscayne Bay surprises me.

I stayed on with some ibises feeding among the mangroves while I kept the flash on. I captured a nightcrown and a tricolor heron as it spread it wings over the water. After a couple hours, the sky started to look black as large storm clouds covered the Miami skyline and were soon on top of me. I quickly put away the equipment as it begain to sprinkle, but not before capturing the storm clouds looming over the bay. I wished I had my wide angle lens today, but did the best I could at 70mm.

It started raining hard as I paddled back to the launch site. The equipment got a bit of rain so I got back to the car to dry everything off. By then, it had stopped raining and the sun was out again. I dried off the equipment, and headed back out on the water. I paddled around the creek area and used the macro lens for some photos of mangroves

There was an enormous storm cooking up out on the bay and mushroomed upward into the sky, splaying out to the north and south. Soon, thunder could be heard and then the lightning could be seen. The storm appeared to be moving more north than west, so I wasn't to concerned. I was only a few minutes away from the car, so I captured several photos of boats passing under the stormy sky. One kayaker had just gotten on the water and was heading south as I photographed him and his lime green boat, contrasted against the black sky. He changed his mind and started heading back north and soon after, decided to go south as planned. While doing this, I continued photographing him and a sailboat that was further out on the bay, much closer to the storm.

We were back in the car by 11 am, in time for the rain to come back. My days on Biscayne Bay will become fewer for the next several months as I begin a new semester tomorrow. I hope to get back to the rookery, maybe next weekend.

Chokoloskee : manatees, sharks and pelicans

Sometimes we get lucky and so far this hurricane season, we've been very lucky. As hurricane Bill headed north, far away from our shoreline, we looked at this weekend (my last before the semester begins) for opportunities to be on the water. I hadn't been for a few weeks and this was looking to be one of those class act weekends in the canoe. We decided to head to Chokoloskee Bay on Saturday, Biscayne Bay on Sunday. Mornings would be perfect, but various storms were crossing the state of Florida with the high pressure trough that also managed to push the hurricane away from us.

We had an outgoing tide all morning, high being around 4:30 am. On the water by 7 am, the sky was clear and it was going to heat up quickly, reaching low 90s before 11 am. I stayed close to the marina for awhile, defogging the lens and watching the eastern sky turn brilliant orange over the tall palm trees that speckle the island. Gulls and brown pelicans were flying about but not much else going on. I headed west toward the long chain of oyster beds that line the bay hoping that the outgoing would reveal them enough for the birds to take advantage of the oyster feeding grounds. It was a new moon, so it would not take long for the water levels to decline.

The area I spent the morning is challenging with the endless oyster bars. If you get on to a good photo opportunity, it's easy to not pay attention to the water below as it becomes shallower with the outgoing tide. A sharp oyster shell cutting into the gel coat of a Kevlar hull is more irritating than fingernails across the chalkboard. I cringed a few times today as I took a few too many chances with the shallow water in attempts to get to better lighting or close up. Nevertheless, hanging out in this area all morning was a blast.

The water was boiling with life. Mullet and smaller bait fish were jumping everywhere as they were being chased by larger fish lsuch as shark and tarpon. I caught a glimpse of a large snout sticking out of the water and for a long time, I chased a manatee that was working the oyster beds. It cooperated, so much so that at one point, I backed off as the animal seemed to pay more attention to me than to its fishing. I've said it before, my biggest fear on the water is getting capsized by one of these behemoths.

Despite the out going tide, there were no wading birds except for one immature blue heron and one great white egret. A few ibises were in the mangroves earlier in the morning, but then went into hiding. I couldn't figure out why no birds. I would at least expect to see the ibises and usually a yellowcrown nightheron or two. On the other hand, the brown pelicans were busily diving and flying overhead.

As the morning wore on, I headed back to the marina where by now, several brown pelicans, mostly immatures, were hanging out in the water and on the numerous pilings. A couple of herring gulls were rushing about, skimming the water for bait fish. As I sat near the pilings for an hour or so, I watched several flocks of brown pelicans fly overhead. Those that hung out on the pilings offered some fun poses and I was able to capture a few of them. By now, the sun was blazing and the lighting was harsh.

The roseates have left the bay, but soon the royal and sandwich terns will be in large numbers. Although nothing more spectacular than a common gull, the terns are always fun to photograph as they fight for space on the dock pilings. Before the camping season begins, I'll be back to Chokoloskee a couple more times.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Return to the Biscayne rookery

What started out to be a very dark morning with large clouds looming overhead as they headed toward the west, progressed into a great day on the water. For the most part, the clouds cleared. Those that stuck around moved west as I sat facing the rookery island with the sun behind me. The young fledglings were showing off their wings, fluttering mostly in the mangrove canopy and occasionally flying overhead circling crazily as they learn to fly. Through part of the morning, the dark clouds in the west provided a brilliant contrast to the birds and mangrove leaves.

I tried something different to get to the rookery earlier than usual. We launched from the canal that runs under 152nd St just before the gated entrance. We unloaded the boats and all the gear next to the unlocked fence. The entrance to the water is about a 70 foot walk through some trampled weeds. I then drove the car to the closest point along the road where parking is not banned, about .3-.4 miles away. Vivian got all the gear down to the water and when I got back, we carried each boat to the edge, loaded up and paddled out. Fortunately, there was enough wind to slow the mosquitoes down. All told, it really didn't take much longer to launch here than the usual Deering Estate site. I might not be inclined to do it alone; if I did, I'd be carrying my 15-20 lb pelican case full of camera and gear from the car.

The winds were gusting by now to 15 knots straight out of the east and the wave action was evident in the open bay at the end of the protected canal. I didn't care because from this point, I was only a half mile away from the rookery. So I arrived earlier than usual as the large thick dark clouds continued to pass over. The bird activity seemed lively this morning as I watched hundreds of ibises fly over head. I see them flying overhead every morning that we've launched from Deering. Today, I was on the water paddling and could see them coming from a distant point past the bird rookery. Lots of cormorants and egrets were flying near the rookery as usual. The wind appeared to die down a bit and as the clouds dissipated, it was warming up to be a great day.

I anchored and staked out near the rookery and pretty much stayed in one spot the entire morning. Today I would need both anchor and stake out pole to stabilize the boat in the winds that seemed to increase again as the morning wore on. This made photography a bit tricky but not impossible. There was lots of activity as the young birds appeared more adult-like. The cattle egret and cormorant adults were still coming in continuously to feed the various nest groups. I saw no cattle egret in flight with nest material but did see some cormorants with branches. I noted more anhinga activity as well, particularly in flight. They seem to like to nest very high in the canopy, at the highest points actually. And within the trees, I could only see their long necks and faces sticking out as they watched their surroundings.

I noticed several black crows in the trees as well and I am not sure if they are nesting or simply harassing the other birds. I watched them on occasion hover over the canopy, like an osprey or kingfisher. They made interesting silhouettes as they fanned out their wings. Maybe these were young birds that recently fledged; I do not know and probably never will.

As for shooting, I never used the flash today and only had to wait on a few occasions for a cloud cover to pass by. Once, it began to sprinkle enough for me to put the camera away, but just as soon as I did, it stopped. About that time, the birds started acting nervous, lots of flapping and flying around. That's also when I ran out of memory and battery power. As I fumbled to change both while protecting my gear from the sprinkles, it all stopped. Up until recently, I had only used as high as 4G with the memory card. For uncompressed RAW files, that yields a little more than 200 images. Now I use 8G but will not increase above that. This is because I am paranoid of losing all my files. 8G gives me over 400 images and that can last me most mornings on the water.

Today, I played around with higher ISO settings so I could get a higher shutter speed. I set the aperture at 5.6 and never changed it. Early in the morning I went as high as ISO1600 on some cormorant shots. They seemed relatively OK in terms of noise but I didn't like the side lighting so didn't keep them. I tried some shots at ISO640 and continued the remainder of the day as they sun rose higher with ISO400. Very pleased with the little noise results! I exposed for the cattle egrets and pretty much ignored the cormorants with just a few exceptions. My shutter speeds ranged from 1/2000 to 1/3200. Today was a treat with the easterly winds as the birds always land and take off into the wind, perfect for trying to photograph them head on. Lots of opportunities for those shots but as the sun rose high, the shadows became more prominent. I practiced shooting only when the bird was banking or offering a full wing spread toward the light.

So it seems the rookery has been successful yet another year. My third year here, and it seems these birds still have a good thing going. I hope to get back again before the summer is over one last time or two. By then, the fledglings should all be flying about and more cormorants should be seen in the water. I love Biscayne Bay.