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.

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