Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Out of the canoe and on the trail

Only about 2 or 3 times a year do I get to the Anhinga trail. It lacks the solitude of being in the canoe, but I do love the bird and gator activity that can be seen up close and personal. I like coming here primarily for one reason, I can experiment with and practice taking bird portraits. I rarely get that opportunity in a canoe. What am I saying, I never get that opportunity. On the anhinga trail, you can get so close to a cormorant that you can outline your reflection in its cyan eyes. And let's not forget the vultures. With plenty of them around, they are excellent subjects. With the right light they have a twinkle in their brown eyes, it's irresistible.

The cormorants were the subject of the day for me. Many anhingas had begun nesting, but none were in good light or position to be photographed today. I spent time with the cormorants who were mostly obliging. On the trail, there are some challenges to photographing even a very cooperative bird. First, the wood fence that gets in the way. It casts shadows and often prevents you from getting a good angle. The other challenge is background. The tall saw grass is a beautiful background with the morning sun, if you can get it. Lighting is also a challenge in the morning. On the paved trail, you have to shoot at a sharp angle toward the water for instance.

And then there is the depth of field issue that comes with close ups. Today, I wanted speed, so I settled with low dof, at f5.6. I went for the preening cormorant pose and tried to capture it as the bird's head, beak and feathers were all on the same plane of view so as to get it all in focus.

I spent less than 2 hours on the trail, but enough to make me want to go back there sooner than later. But first, we have our upcoming new years eve everglades trip. Hoping to spend some quality time with the white pelicans near Turkey Key. In the meantime, here are some photos from the Anhinga Trail.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Miami has Biscayne Bay

I can't say it enough, but every time I am on the bay I feel so lucky to live in Miami. I curse the daily commute to and from work with the constant highway construction, the second worse airport in the country and the high cost of living. But at 7:30 am on a Saturday morning, I can't think of any other place in the USA I want to be as I paddle the bay waters under clear skies, and cool but calm breezes. And the bonus, I live only 20 minutes away. From Deering launch site I paddled out as the incoming tide begun. A few egrets were wading, but mostly I saw gulls and pelicans flying about. The sun was well over the horizon by the time we were on the water, but the coolness of the air made this a very pleasant morning on the water.

I wasn't sure what to expect, I rarely get out on Biscayne Bay in the winter, maybe once or twice. Two years ago in December, I captured photos of woodstorks and a portuguese man-o-war. I wondered what I would see today. I hoped to find the gulls concentrated at the sponge farm sticks, always a fun photo opp. But as I paddled past Deering Estate, the northwesterly winds became more evident. This meant that if birds were landing and taking off from the sticks, it would be in a direction away from me, at least for frontlighting.

I paddled along and noticed several wading birds near the shoreline that runs past the estate. A tricolor heron and great white egrets were scattered about, but none would let me close enough. I continued on and headed toward the sponge farms. There seemed to be many more wading birds taking advantage of the low tide near the channel that passes Chicken Key. Once there, many cormorants were seen flying and swimming. On the other side of the channel was a large flat that contained probably 10-15 great white egrets and about as third as many great blue herons. The area is large enough that no two birds had less than 100 feet between them.

By now the northwest winds were stiff. This is a problem for several reasons today. First, it makes staying still very difficult. I paddled as close to one bird as possible and once staked out, I had to allow my boat to move with the wind, often with bad results. Second, the wind was strong enough that the water was disrupted with ripples, giving the background and foreground too much noise. And third, given the direction of the winds, any bird taking off or landing would be doing so with its back feathers toward me. Case in point, see next photo. For all intents and purposes, this is a successful shot, good exposure, good sharpness and dof, and the background is fine. But, I don't want tail feathers, I want eye contact!

When I started photographing animals, I learned almost immediately that there are 3 requirements of a good photo: clean background, good lighting and interesting subject. A good or excellent photo should have all three of these; perhaps not in equal proportions, but each should be evident. What does Biscayne Bay have to offer regarding these 3 qualities?

Background. The mangrove leaves and roots are an excellent background to white birds, hands down. Where it gets difficult is when the water is so low that grass covers the surface or when the winds, like today, stir up the water. I look for areas close to the shoreline where the wind may have less effect and where calm waters reflecting the mangrove colors offers a beautiful setting. Today, I had messy waters to work with, lots of grass and wind-created ripples. I attempted to overcome that limitation by taking advantage of the pastel-colored reflections of the condominium buildings (I'd much rather they were not there). I waited for a white egret to wade into the reflection. I almost managed it as seen here.

Good lighting. This time of year, light between 7-8 am is optimal, 8-9 am is quite nice, 9-10 am is adequate. After 10 am, not so good, at least for frontlit shots. That's when I try to get creative and go for the backlit or high key shots. The sponge farm sticks have been an interesting subject for this. I played around with that scene where many cormorants were congregating. Very few gulls were around, but that was fine because the cormorants are good subjects most of the time. I set the aperture at f22 and went for it. Here is one result where I converted the end product to grayscale and added an artistic filter. For this type of shot, I would want all the birds to be displayed against the sky and more interesting posing such as wing spreads. I would also want that empty log in the middle out of the photo. Unfortunately, the birds often do not cooperate with us.

Interesting subject. This is the primary reason for me having fewer and fewer "keepers" among my photo collection. At the beginning, every shot was a keeper because every shot was new to me. Now a days, I limit my keepers to those shots that have a certain interest to them, something different perhaps. Birds in a wing spread pose, catching or eating a prey, or interacting with other birds are sought after photos. But even these shots can be most unattractive with cluttered background (other birds interfering, out of focus branches in the foreground, man made structures, etc) or bad lighting. Thus, I attempt all three qualities at the very least. Today, I found a couple little blue herons that were fairly cooperative by letting me get close enough for a short period of time when I had good lighting. I like these birds in the mangrove reflections and I've been successful with some good shots of them. Here are 3 taken today. I like the first one with both birds in the frame and both in relatively good focus because they are at about the same focus plane. Having 2 birds in the frame adds some quality to the photo. Also, the background is not bad and provides balance to the composition. The second one has some interest with the wings spread, but the face appears a bit dark. I would prefer the bird had turned its head slightly to its right. The third is a classic pose, one I have captured many times. However, there is no bait fish in beak, rendering this photo as one among many (every bird has a common pose). But, I still like it and didn't mind the ripples in the water as it seemed to add some dynamics to the photo.

As far as photos taken today, none was considered a "keeper", meaning I will not delete these, but will likely not use them for any thing else (prints, contests). Here's an egret with a lizard fish. I cropped out a significant amount to give it a cleaner appearance. Such is photography from a canoe.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Out of the canoe and onto the trail

A few weeks ago, I was in the Big Cypress forest helping the with the Florida Trail Association's trail maintenance. The majority of the area is slash pine. I brought my camera and tripod expecting to get out at sunrise and capture some scenes. The problem was that I could not find an ideal setting for the sunrise. So, I improvised and tried to capture some of the pine trees in various lighting and compositions. I also wanted to show some of the trail and waited until the morning sun was bright before doing that. Also captured a photo of rat snake on the trail. Here are a few photos from that weekend.

Choko Bay at low tide

After our first camping trip of the season last week, it felt good to go out for a day trip in Chokoloskee Bay. No camping gear to haul, just the weight of my cameras and me and a few other odds and ends. Last week, I spent the day in Gopher Creek (see previous blog) on a cloudy, rainy day photographing birds. Today, not a cloud was seen in the sky. And it was chilly, low 50s upon arrival (about 7:30 am), but warmed up nicely to mid 70s by late morning. Winds out of the northeast were a bit more than I wished for, made the photography more challenging in this bay.

The low was scheduled at 8 am, and it was a negative one with the new moon. This is a good and bad thing. The bad is that lots of oyster shell mounds are exposed and can easily scrape the bottom of my boat as I attempt to get close to the wading birds that feed on those shell mounds. And that's the good news, there are plenty of birds around. Nothing exotic today, no roseates, no oyster catchers; but plenty of white ibises, gulls and white pelicans.

I paddled toward the pelicans where they were congregating in their usual spot. At first, there were only a dozen, give or take on the shell island, and they were quite wary of me, more than usual. I had little choice as to where I could paddle toward the birds, given that I was trying to get the sun behind me for optimal lighting. I paddled as close as possible, hearing the annoying screeching noise across the the boat haul. I couldn't get any closer while sitting in the boat, so I staked out and got out. My presence became more looming for the birds, now I was standing much taller than them. One by one, the got into the water and moved farther away. I attempted to walk the shell mound but they were moving away with every attempt I made to get closer.

I walked back to the boat and walked it out of the shallowest area before getting back in. I decided to try my luck at some other birds. One small mound was covered with royal terns and cormorants. The cormorants booked as soon as I began my approach. The terns took off too, but unlike the cormorants, they circled around and came back. Such are the gulls and terns, they seem to mind humans the least of all the birds. Ibises and brown pelicans come in a far second in that regard. The ibises ability to tolerate humans or a human with a boat varies, depending on their mood. I noticed a few of them at a near by mound, so I headed there. Once about 150 ft away, it became shallow enough that I could put the paddle down and manuever forward with one foot on the ground. I don't mind doing this because it gives me a lower profile, less movement and noise. I stopped whenever the birds took noticed. They stop feeding and stand erect, looking and listening. If I remain still, they go back to feeding in a few seconds. Finally, they allowed me to get quite close. They were busy, seems the morning breakfast was lizard fish. One after another, I watched each ibis catch and eat a fish.

I looked around and noticed that more white pelicans had joined the other group, that were by now back on their shell mound. I headed back. Water levels were higher now, so I had more room to get around and there was no need to get out of the boat now. The northeast winds were stiff, and never did I feel the need to take my jacket off. In fact, I felt a bit chilled most of the morning despite the full sun. The pelicans were now in great number, I estimate about 70 of them. I noticed a few flying in and flying out. About half of them were in the water. Now I could attempt to photograph them as I approached as close as possible, probably no more than a 200 ft. The sun was too high for my taste, but I'd take what I could get.

I noticed in the distance a great flock of turkey vultures swirling around. This is not unusual, but what is interesting is that they fly around, but never land anywhere. Then all of a sudden I noticed several of them above me. Hey, I'm not dead yet! I watched them for awhile. They were low enough that I thought I would attempt some shots. I metered off the sky and compensated about +1. The sun was shining down, illuminating the tips of the great birds feathers, a pleasing sight. Now I noticed more and more vultures. It was a path that they seemed to be taking from the southwest heading toward Chokoloskee Island behind me in the northeast. They kept coming and coming. On a few occasions, all of a sudden I noticed white pelicans among them, only flying lower right above me. Awesome sight!

Finally, the vulture show stopped and I put away the camera. I decided to paddle around for awhile. I came upon my fishing friends and hung with them for awhile. The incoming tide was very strong, especially through some narrow passages between oyster mounds.

At about 11:30 I headed back to the marina. On the numerous pilings were brown pelicans, herring gulls and royal terns. The sun was directly overhead, so what was I thinking. I thought I would experiment with some backlighting and fill flash. I didn't know what to expect, but I have seen some amazing photos of backlit birds. So I gave it a shot since the birds were landing toward me. If I got lucky, I would capture a tern or gull with wide open wings, backlit all around. I set the flash between +2 and +3 and went for it. Well, they didn't turn out as good as I would like, but considering the conditions, it was a good experiment.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Giving thanks

For Thanksgiving, I spent 5 days in the Everglades, paddling from one campsite to the next. 65 miles approximately, in total. But I was able to spend some quality time in one of my favorite Everglades spots, Gopher Creek. I've only been in there with my canoe twice previously. Once was before I owned an SLR camera. But with my P&S Cannon powershot, I was able to capture some shots of birds and gators.

Gopher Creek is an interesting area, situated between the gulf and one of the backcountry bays. Thus, it contains a mixture of tidal waters and backcountry flows from the Big Cypress. In addition, this area was wrecked years ago by hurricane Andrew. Along the creek the hurricane damage is evident with the numerous dead trees that still stand high. These offer lots of perching locations for birds. At low enough water levels, the creek is saddled by mud banks that provide the hundreds of gators places to rest in the sun and lots of feeding ground for the birds.

When I am inside Gopher Creek paddling with the mild flow of water, I feel I am in another world. The birds are plenty, yet they do scare easily as my boat coasts quietly. Gators take notice and will appear quite alert as you pass by. I love to photograph in this place, with the challenges come unique opportunities.

On the one day I had to come in here, it was cloud covered and rainy. The clouds provided a diffuse light making the use of my flash optimal. The rain came in a few times with high gusts, but lasted only 10 minutes each time. By 2 pm, the sky had cleared. By that time, I had been inside creek for about 3 hours. Most of my photos were taken under cloud cover. I was able to practice my fill flash and was quite happy with the results. Using ISOs of 400 to 640, I was able to settle at shutter speeds between 1/500 and 1/800.

Most of the egrets and herons consisted of tricolor herons and snowy egrets. Probably the greatest number of one species was the white ibis, lots of juveniles. I ran into a concentrated area of juvenile woodstorks where they perched high on the dead branches. Green herons were seen, but they were hiding well in the mangroves. The problem today was the relatively high waters and lack of mud space along the creek. Consequently, almost all the birds were perched high or flying to and fro.

Once past Gopher Creek Bay, I saw more birds, including a couple roseate spoonbills and osprey. One of the roseates was feeding along the edge of the water, so I hung out with the pink feathered bird for awhile, until it flew off. I waited for it to jump onto a low branch at which point it would inevitably splay its beautiful wings out. This was a attractive scene to capture, with the dark background contrasting the pink.

Later I paddled to a narrow portion of a baylet where some belted kingfishers were chattering loudly. When I hear that kind of chattering I recognize that to mean that there is more than one bird flying about. I found a good spot to stake out and stay still. I honed in on 2 birds that appeared to be chasing one another. They also appeared to be flying around in a small area, all within good range of my 400mm lens. There were a few highstanding dead tree trunks that provided excellent perching for the birds. The winds were steady and in a direction that meant the birds would be landing and taking off while facing my direction. And, when the sun finally came out, it was too my back. Perfect! I watched the speedy birds and began to follow a pattern with their flights from one perch to another. One would land on one tree and the other would land near by. Then, one would fly over to the other, chasing it off its perch. This continued for some time. This was a new experience for me. These birds rarely offer me an opportunity to photograph them because they rarely stay in one spot long enough. But today, I had a show and lots of photo opportunities.

I was happy with my first attempt at capturing the belted kingfisher. I only wished I had a larger lens to fill the frame with the bird. But, then where would I store it on such a trip? I was also happy with my use of the flash, something I am gradually getting use to, even with white birds. Dealing with the rain was only a minor inconvenience. With flash and better beamer attached, I couldn't put away the equipment, so I covered it with my rain jacket with the camera on my lap. I could have paddled back to the campsite like that if I had to, but thankfully, the rain only lasted minutes. I think for my day paddles, I may bring a large dry bag that can accomodate the flash and beamer with camera so that I can quickly put it all away into safety. In the meantime, this Thanksgiving meant thanking God for the Everglades.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The white pelicans are back

It is that time of year again that makes me nostalgic for winter months in the Everglades. It means preparing for our camping season, enjoying the cooler temperatures and witnessing the return of one of the most beautiful birds in south Florida. Groups of American white pelicans have already been spotted in the gulf islands of the Ten Thousand Islands. If I lived on Chokoloskee Island, I would be able to capture the amazing migration flights of thousands of these birds as I could look up into the sky frequently and it would only be a matter of short time before I see them. Everything about the American white Pelican is spectacular, not the least of which is the 8-ft wing span! I once thought the brown pelican was amazingly large, until I first saw one standing next to a white pelican.

Besides the obvious differences body size and feather colors, there are other differences between the white and brown pelicans. If you are around them enough to observe their behaviors in the water, you will quickly notice that they also differ in how they catch fish. Brown pelicans typically dive for fish; sometimes alone, sometimes in the presence of other pelicans. White pelicans, on the other hand, catch fish while swimming in groups. They don't dive into the water, rather they dip their pouch to catch schools of bait fish. Another notable difference is that white pelicans rest on ground, such as mud flats (near Flamingo in Florida Bay), oyster shell beds (Chokoloskee Bay), or beachy islands (such as Plover or Pavilion keys in the Ten Thousand Islands). You will not see them resting in trees like the brown pelicans normally do. Nor will you see them taking up a piling post near a marina where you often watch brown pelicans hanging with the gulls and eagerly awaiting the remains of a fisherman's catch. The white pelicans are more elusive and rarely seen alone.

And yet another difference between the white and brown is that the whites do not nest in southern Florida. Rather, they make a long migration from northern United States and Canada around October and November each year. Late in winter, you'll begin to notice large bumps on their beaks, an indication that they are preparing for breeding season which begins with a migration back north sometime around March.

On two occasions, I have seen white pelicans here in the summer, once on Chokoloskee Bay and once on Biscayne Bay. The two things that struck me most were that it was summer and the bird was alone. I reckon that the bird on Chokoloskee Bay was old and could not make the migration back. There it stood among active roseate spoonbills all around it. It appeared beaten with old age and simply worn down. The other bird on Biscayne Bay had some grayish coloring on its feathers and I suspect this was a young one that made a migration south with its parents and did not go back north in spring since it was not yet ready for breeding.

I think the most amazing scene I have witnessed in the Everglades was in January of 2008 when paddling to Pearl Bay for an easy overnight trip. The plan was to spend a good portion of the time exploring the area and look for hidden bays. While paddling to the chickee, I watched some birds flying high, swirling around with the thermals, much like vultures do. Woodstorks also appear this way. I soon recognized them as white pelicans. As I continued paddling, I continued seeing more birds. They appeared to be coming out of a back area, arising over the mangrove canopy. Once I arrived in Pearl Bay, I had already watched several hundred fly overhead. As I set up camp and went back out on the water, their flights continued for the entire afternoon. Where were they coming from I wondered?

I learned that they feed in the hidden back bays during the day and fly out in the afternoon, which is what I was witnessing. The next morning, I headed into one of those back bays before sunrise, sat in the boat and waited as the sun began to peak over the horizon. Before long, I could hear their powerful wings and then they appeared. By the hundreds, the large birds were soon flying directly over me, almost within reach! They were coming back to feed again. Seems that the fish get caught in these back bays in the winter, and that's food for these birds.
The white pelicans are back now and soon I will be out there with them. Just look up and you can see their magnificence . Another Everglades precious gem.