Monday, January 25, 2010

Tiger Key overnighter

Finally, it warmed up and we were able to get back on the water; the first time this year. We expected strong winds, especially on Sunday, so my plans to spend Sunday morning at the brown pelican rookery seemed to fade as the weekend progressed. As always, my camping and paddling trips are a challenge to bird photography. This time, I thought I could at least visit the rookery for an hour or two either on the way to Tiger or on the way back the next day. The trip to Tiger is relatively short (about 8 miles) and when coodinating the route and timing with the tides, I figured I'd have lots of time to spend with the birds. But intentions are only that.

Saturday morning started very foggy. Despite this, the warm humidity was welcomed after the long spell of cold we suffered recently. At the E. City ranger station's launch site, the smell of dead fish was prominent, as it would be on Tiger Key. The fish kill was devastating and without going into any detail, it was down right depressing to paddle and see bright shiny objects floating in the water. The first couple of times I spotted such a site I expected to head over to the object and pick out some trash from the water. As soon as I realized it was a dead fish, I just hung my head. It was sad to see them in such numbers, floating in water and hanging from the mangrove roots. In the long run, the Everglades will survive the set back; it may take years, but the fish will return. But wow, what a loss.

We expected 20-25 knot winds on Sunday so it was decided that I would visit the rookery on our way to Tiger on Saturday morning. Unfortunately, that meant that I would not arrive at the rookery no earlier than 9 am since we need to purchase our camping permit and the station does not open until 8 am. We at least had our boats loaded and ready to launch as soon as I scored the permits. I arrived at the rookery to find the brown pelicans nesting in full force. A few birds were busy flying in with branches, but mostly the birds were sitting in the canopies of several small mangrove islands situated in a shallow shoal area of the bay. On one occasion, we spotted a couple having sex. The behavior I noticed most was one partner jabbing or biting the other. Although clumsy with the huge beak and pouch, it never seemed too aggressive, more playful-like. For the most part, the birds were simply sitting among the branches. I didn't notice any nests, but they were there obviously as birds would fly in with branches.

Interesting thing I noticed about the brown pelicans is that compared to the egrets (even the smaller cattle egrets), the branches they fly in with are of a small lot. I'm guessing its difficult for them to gather branches in the first place with their beaks that are not meant to break or jab. It seemed odd to see such a large bird with a big mouth carrying a stick no longer than 12 inches.

The lighting conditions required use of the flash if I was to get any worthy shots of these birds. But, because of our tide situation, I could not stay with the birds more than 20-30 min. I had 3 paddling companions and could not be left behind. So, I did not bother to take out the flash. Instead, I increased the ISO to 800 and metered a shutter speed no faster than 1/200. This was less than optimal but I figured it was worth recording some of the behaviors and besides, I plan to visit this rookery several more times this spring.

I managed some decent shots of birds flying in with branches and the wind direction placed the bird landing at an optimal point of view for me. The only other birds near by were the cormorants mostly on their own little island. But no great whites. I wonder if they will be nesting here this year. Strange that I did not see one egret. Perhaps they begin a bit later. I did notice one frigate bird flying overhead and then land on one of the mangroves. I had never seen a frigate bird so close and not flying high overhead.

By 9:30 am we were paddling toward Russell Key pass and eventually toward the gulf to Tiger Key. We decided to camp on the north end of the island where we might enjoy the southeasterly breezes. This would help minimize the bugs. It had been over 4 years since I camped here. The high tide sandy spit was barely big enough for a few small tents but now, the large sandy embankment extended out a few hundred feet. The area for camping was large, but without shade. This turns out to be a very beautiful camping spot for both evening sunset colors over the water and a sunrise view as well.

After setting up camp, I went back out and paddled around Tiger, checking out Picnic key along the way. I noted that the west side of Tiger Key where we last camped was overtaken by dozens of black vultures feasting on the numerous dead fish washed up on shore. The sun was high overhead, so I did not plan to take photographs, I just wanted to leisurely paddle and enjoy the warmth. I noted a small bull shark and a couple of spotted rays in the water. I got back to camp and relaxed in the mid-afternoon breeze. And then I noticed an egret land in the water near the beach. It was a reddish egret! I quickly got out the telephoto and carefully walked into the water to get lined up between the sun and the bird. It continued to walk around the the sand spit and I followed it waiting for it to begin its fishing theatrics. It stayed on for about 15 min, but demonstrated its wing spread only twice, both times facing away from the camera. It managed to catch a minnow and soon, it flew off to somewhere distant.

In the evening as we ate dinner and enjoyed the sunset, I watched a flock of willets and other assorted small shorebirds flying toward the east point of the spit. I love watching these birds flying together, skimming over the water. They sparkle as they turn in unison exposing their white undersides. By now, the lighting was sweet, the water illuminated with pink and blue pastels. The birds were brilliant flying over the water so I got out the telephoto and waited for them to fly back. And they did, swirling around a few times and finally landing. If they scare off, eventually they fly back so there were several opportunities to capture them as the lighting eventually faded.

During the early morning hours while we lay in our tent, the southeast winds increased to a stiff 15 knots sustained. This would be our next morning's paddle with mostly head winds increasing to 20 knots. We left early to take advantage of the in coming tide, but by the time we reached the exposed open West Pass Bay, the winds were 15-20 knots. From that point on, the paddle was a constant drudge in my solo canoe. There would be no photography today, the waves were very choppy coming straight on.

Despite the conditions, there were some above average photo opportunities; the rookery, a frigate bird, the beautiful Tiger Key, reddish egret and the willets. My goal is to get over to the rookery as early as possible on a calm, clear day and spend some quality time with the brown pelicans. I can't wait!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

9 Days Circumnavigating Whitewater Bay

In the midst of camping season, we have just completed our 9-day paddle that took us around Whitewater Bay and up into the head of the Shark River Slough (Rookery Branch area). The term "rookery branch" implies lots of birds. Historically, this is a great place for birds, fish and gators as it is where the swampy saltwater mangrove forest meets the freshwater grassy marshes of the Everglades. Shark River Slough runs the freshwater down into this area and it is here where gators normally make good homes, and by doing so, enhancing the creeks and waterways. This in turn creates an optimal place for fish and consequently birds. So you can imagine that I was excited to spend a couple days in that area.

We began our paddle from Hells Bay Trail, over to Joe River, up to Oyster Bay, crossing into Shark River all the way to Avocado Creek which leads into Rookery Branch. From there, we headed back down Shark River into the labyrinth that leads us back to Whitewater Bay, into North River and Roberts River, eventually into Lane Bay and back out to Hells Bay and the trail. This was an 8-night stay and mostly chickee camping. The chickee camping was interrupted midway with 2 nights on the Canepatch ground site (next to Rookery branch).

Since we are always on the water by 7 am, give or take, early morning photography is the best. I was able to capture the waterscapes with beautiful lighting and colors. Photographing from my canoe on such trips has some unique challenges. For instance, I am traveling with companions and more frequently than not, cannot stop long in one area for photographing. Thus, most of my photos are shot "on the fly". But, I make the best of it and take as many shots as I can with the expectation that one of them will be worth framing and many of them will help to tell the story of our trip. I do like to photograph my companions on the water. This is especially nice when the water is calm and the lighting is ideal. The reflection of the boat is sweet, as seen here:

There is one particular challenge that is constant. The mangrove shorelines typically surrounding me do not always indicate a straight horizon line. I will often line up the shot with one of the following; the mangrove canopy, the shoreline or the boat bow. But rarely will all three be horizontally parallel to one another. I think I am getting a straight shot and then will see a crooked horizon in the photo. I find that most of the time you cannot use the traditional rule of lining up the trees or shoreline with a perfect horizontal ruler. Often, I have to rotate the photo enough that my eyes are no longer fooled by the illusion and can see the scene as straight, regardless of the ruler's orientation. Look at this photo below. I lined up the right shoreline in front of the boat with the ruler and now the photo looks crooked. That's what I am talking about. The second photo is yet another example. From my perspective, the mangroves were not perfectly in front of me, and so they line up at a slight angle. I could have changed the angle of the photo to make them horizontal, but that would have placed the moon and its reflection at an angle. So, I made sure the moon and reflection were vertically lined up as they should be.

Lighting is often a challenge on a paddling trip because you frequently do not have the luxury of going in a direction that gives you optimal frontlighting. Since we are on the water early, most of my shots are taken between 7-10 am and I will mostly have to stop and turn myself or my boat to get the right lighting. After 10 or 11 am, I usually put the camera away and wait until evening to shoot from the campsite.

Another issue concerns keeping the camera dry. I don't see this so much as a challenge since I have it pretty well down to a science and feel comfortable in the boat with my camera. The pelican case is locked at all times except when to take out or put back the camera. I clean the lenses every night when at camp.

Probably the most frustrating challenge for me on these long trips is that lack of wildlife photography. Mostly, the wildlife scenes are fleeting or too far away. I see lots of birds and mammals on these trips, but only on occasion do I get opportunities for close ups. When paddling, I typically have the small lens out since the watescape shots are more abundant. Frequently, a good wildlife shot comes into view, but I will not have my telephoto lens out to shoot it. One good example is on the morning we were paddling down Roberts River. The early morning light was spectacular as we came up to an osprey nest that was positioned perfectly for photographing. I didn't see any birds, so I photographed the scene with the small lens. Within a minute, one of the osprey parents came flying in with some branches and continued to fly in circles over the nest, obviously disturbed by my presence. The lighting on the bird's wings was magnificent and of course, I did not have my telephoto out. That sort of thing happens a lot on these trips. Here's one shot I did manage the day we arrived in lane Bay:

Sunset and sunrise shots are abundant on these trips, both from the water and from the campsite. I particularly like the photo opps from the chickees because the view is often open and nicely situated for a sunrise or sunset photo. Below are two photos, the first taken from the water on Lane Bay and the second taken in the evening from the Roberts River chickee. For the chickee shot, I used the tripod.

Probably one of my favorite subjects for photographing on these trips are the clouds. Over a course of 9 days, anything can happen, weather-wise. We had two fronts pass over us and we had one day that was completely cloudless (a rare thing). Here's a shot of some storm clouds forming as we headed toward Whitewater Bay on our second day:

Lastly, we so looked forward to spending time in the Rookery Branch area. We purposely spent two nights at Canepatch, allowing us one day to explore. I imagined that I would wander off alone and find some areas with lots of wading birds during our day off. It didn't happen quite that way. First,the day was overcast. Second, the water levels are so high right now (lots of freshwater run off from the slough) that the fish, gators and birds are dispersed and mostly nowhere to be seen (somes vultures at the campsite and a few woodstorks flying overhead was about it). On this day, there was no fishing or photography. The photo below sums up my day on Rookery Branch. So it goes sometimes in the Everglades:

For this trip, here is a list of camera equipment that I brought with me:

Tripod and ball head
In the 1500 pelican case:
Sony a100 attached to 18-70mm lens
Sony a700 attached to 70-400mm lens
Extra camera batteries and extra AA batteries
Three lens clothes (once a cloth is exposed to any amount of salt water, such as from my fingers, I put it away)
Extra memory cards
Cleaning solution and lens brush/stick
In the 2100 pelican case:
External flash and better beamer
Voice recorder (to record specific places and events)

Overall, I was very pleased with the photos, they do tell a good story and show the areas where we paddled. For a day to day photo account as a slideshow, please go to this link:
Also, I have several photos in my pbase gallery: