Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Biscayne Bay: Spiders and losing my paddle

Another morning on Biscayne Bay this Labor Day weekend and what could be better. Instead of Blackpoint, I headed to my originally planned destination, Matheson Hammock. As usual, storm clouds covered the eastern horizon as the sky above the city was clear. For the first time in I can't remember, I saw stars in the sky, clear as crystal. But those notorious summer storm clouds lay over the eastern horizon as the rising sun attempted to shine over them. I arrived at Matheson at 7 am, near low tide. Once again, low tide did not look like low tide. I finally realized why that might be. With the great amount of rain Miami had been inundated with in the past several days, the canals were opened for draining right into the bay. Hence, low tide looked like high tide as I loaded the canoe and headed out onto the bay in near dark.

There was enough sunlight to give the water a nice shade of blue and some oranges and reds cast around the low lying storm clouds. A calm morning, the winds did not pick up until later this morning as a storm came blowing through around 11 am. By then, I had loaded up the car and started the drive home as the storm settled over the bay intensely.

Today, I brought both the 70-400mm and the 180mm macro lens, each attached to a camera. First, I would hang out with whatever wading birds I could find. The sun took some time to finally shine over the clouds and by the time it did, I had honed in on a couple of tricolor herons near the launch site. I chased the skittish birds until finally, they seemed to settle into an area near the mangrove playground a few hundred yards south of the launch site. Soon, the sun provided a warm light and the reflections over the calm waters that were speckled with mangrove seedlings provided a classic Biscayne Bay scene. The tricolors allowed me some time but soon flew off probably because of the noise coming from the now busy marina channel about a 1/2 mile north.

Soon, I found a green heron on a mangrove surrounded by the water. I got very close, within 15 feet as it stood on one of the roots preening and staring, preening and staring. I stayed with the bird a good 30-40 minutes capturing several poses, trying to capture it with a clean background. That is almost impossible in this setting. Green herons hide within the mangrove roots, but sometimes they present themselves on a lone root that strays away from the many. After some time, it took a turn and hid on the other side of the tree, away from my view. I was able to photograph the bird well enough and felt satistified as I looked around a found no other birds to photograph.

I paddled about as the storm clouds to the east continued to look lively. Still calm, the winds were mildly coming from the northeast. I shot some scenes at 70 mm and decided to put away the telephoto and use the macro lens. I found a spiny backed orb weaver in its web over the water between a couple mangroves and thought I'd give it a try. I tried to find a good light and an interesting perspective by leaning in and getting below it. The wind started rustling and it became very difficult to focus on the tiny creature. I was able to get a shot with a nice clean background and decided to move on. I had two strikes against me, the wind and no tripod. Nevertheless, there would be other opportunities on the bay, I was certain of that.

I headed into the creek hoping the insects would not be too unfriendly. I had noticed a goldensilk orb weaver in the creek on some other days I had paddled there, but it had been several weeks since. I paddled to the spot where I was certain I had seen it and sure enough, several weeks later, there it was. She was beautiful and with a tall sitting position, I would get my camera lens within a foot of her. The current was a bit strong, a new moon incoming tide with an easterly wind to boot. I had not set up my anchor system and the stake out pole was useless in the deep creek water. So I manuevered using a bit of paddling and a bit of holding onto a mangrove branch. I attempted to be very careful not to move the branches the spider's web was attached to. Once, I was trying to line up for a photo while the spider moved toward its prey, a hungry spider this morning. As soon as I touched the branch, it disturbed the web and the spider quickly ran back to it original spot where it stayed the remainder of my time with it.

Without the external flash, I thought I would experiment with some frontlighting. I set the camera at ISO200, not wanting any more noise than that setting would make. I opened the aperture wide to 3.5 knowing that this was not ideal for such a large creature. But, these settings provided me a shutter speed of 1/200. I know that I can do quite well at speeds between 1/100 and 1/400 (less than ideal) in my canoe with Sony's effective stabilization. So I went for it and took several shots from various angles. I would shoot, and look at the photo zoomed in to determine whether the focus was sharp enough or not. 1 time out of 5 was about the rate I was able to get some fairly decent shots. Then, I took out the external flash and set up the exposure with a fill flash at -2 (the lowest it goes on the a100.) The settings allowed me a faster shutter speed at 1/500 and a slightly higher depth of field at f5.6. This might work. I stayed with the spider waiting for her to move in on a prey or give me some kind of movement. She accomodated somewhat as I continued to manuever my boat back and forth.

I had to occasionally pick up my paddle and work my boat around and the get back to shooting the spider. I would get the spider in a good light and background, start focusing and shoot as quickly as possible as my boat moved the spider out of focus. I kept this up several times. After a few photo attempts, I would grab my paddle and work my boat back to position. Except one time, the paddle was not there. Oh my God, I'm sitting in a canoe without a paddle! The realization that I had absentmindedly let go of the paddle without taking care to put it in place was a bit unnerving. Oh, I had a spare, a cheap retractable metal and plastic job that I bought at Outdoor World for $20. But my ZRE 10-oz carbon fiber, $250 paddle was floating somewhere up the creek, for who knows how long! At least, I hoped it was floating. I put away the camera and lens and proceeded to paddle up the creek to find the paddle. Several hundred feet away, after a couple sharp turns in the creek, I spotted it, face down, floating into the mangroves. Thankfully, the paddle floats, so all's well that ends well!
Now, back to the spider. Time was running out, I could hear the thunder behind me to the east. I put away the gear and paddled back out to the bay. The winds had picked up nicely. The sky was becoming darker as a 4-member family (dad, mom and 2 kids) paddled ignorantly toward it in a double kayak. Back at the launch site, 2 double canoes each with 3 people headed out onto the bay, in time to catch the storm coming up quickly.

Another spectacular morning on the bay behind me, I headed home with the storm looming behind. These are perfect days on the bay, halcyon days of summer. Soon, they will be over, and my time will be mostly spent in the Everglades. Everglades, Biscayne Bay, you got to love it.

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