Saturday, March 27, 2010

Quality over quantity on Biscayne Bay

It was going to be a beautiful day according to the forecast, with expectations of moderate winds out of the northwest, lots of sun and a high tide at about 8 am on Biscayne Bay. This is my second visit to the bay within a 2 week period and both visits were during high tides. So once again, I would not be seeing wading birds. Our launch site this morning was Blackpoint, where I have not visited in months. Of all the launch sites on the bay, this area is the least productive for me as far as photographing birds are concerned. That and the high tide was enough to keep my expectations low.

I brought the 70-400mm and the 180mm macro figuring I might spend time in the creeks and use the macro and of course I have the telephoto zoom in case of bird photo opps. With the high sun this morning (I was not on the water until 8 am), I thought I could capture some high key shots of the low flying cormorants over the water at the very least. I tried that kind of shot on a whim and really like how it turned out. I set the meter at about +1 and rendered the water and sky completely white. The black cormorant flies low enough that its reflection on the water clearly showed up. Since then, I've attempted more of these types of shots and find it difficult to get those birds to cooperate. Today, the cormorants were around, many hanging out near the jetty on some branches sticking out of the water. But, they scare easily out here and I wasn't in the mood to chase them all over the bay today.

I paddled out of the creek into the open lagoon located north of the jetty that separates us from the parade of powerboats leaving Blackpoint marina and no doubt heading toward Boca Chica or Elliott Key. I paddled over to the jetty where a group of cormorants were resting. I was exposed to the winds and since I was in deep enough water to not be able to use the stake out pole, I decided to change directions. I noticed a white speck in the mangroves across the lagoon about 1/3 mile away so I headed toward it. Whatever bird it was, it was simply perched, but it was in nice light. I approached it and realized it was a morph version of the great blue heron. These birds are rare and my understanding is they only exist in south Florida. I have photos of one from Chokoloskee Bay and one from Flamingo, but this is the first for Biscayne Bay. The bird stood perfectly still not doing anything special as I framed some verticals shots and a few other wide shots. The bird was a small stark white figure on a wall of mangroves, a very beautiful scene.

I left the bird, or I should say it left me and so I paddled around blackpoint and headed north up the shoreline toward another lagoon that led to some short creeks that meander through the thick mangrove forest of Biscayne National Park. A few cormorants could be seen fishing and flying against the bright sun. I spotted a couple ospreys and one little blue heron that flew nervously along the shoreline as I paddled near by. I didn't think I'd be photographing anything, so I put away the camera. I paddled around the lagoon and headed back toward Blackpoint after awhile. There were no clouds in the sky, but the temperature was comfortable, never getting too hot today.

Once back in blackpoint lagoon, I spotted my friends Vivian and David fishing. Vivian had already caught one good sized trout and was after another. I paddled leisurely around while watching brown pelicans diving. I watched schools of mullet popping out of the water, seemingly getting away from some predator. It was getting close to noon and Vivian and I were starting to head back to the launch site. All of a sudden, she got on to some trout and started catching them. About that time, I watched a royal tern diving for food very close to me. I decided to stake out and see what I could capture. The sun was too high for optimal lighting but I thought I might have luck with some banking shots and maybe some backlit shots against those white feathers splayed out. What fun this turned out to be after all! Just when I thought I was going back to land with only a meager shot of a white heron, this royal tern put on a great show. What a challenge it gave as it flew across my plane of sight and then maneuver into its diving position and in a split second, dive head first toward the water at lightening speed. The wind made it a bit more challenging, but I managed some sharp photos of this dynamic bird.

Once again, Biscayne Bay offered a fine morning on the water. Soon, my summer days on Biscayne Bay will be many. I look forward to those halcyon mornings, soaking up the hot sun and watching those storm clouds fill the sky.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Lots of action at the rookery

It was a classic weekend spent on Chokoloskee Bay. Saturday morning started off calm, a bit chilly and clear skied. I spent the entire morning at the rookery knowing that I would not be making a drive back to Miami; instead, we stayed Saturday night with our friend Mike at Chokoloskee Island Park, home away from home. The morning would wear on and I was in no rush to get off the water.

It was an easy paddle to the rookery and before I reached the series of rookery islands, I could see the white egrets in number among the mangrove canopies. Finally, the long necks were nesting among the brown pelicans. Last year at this time I photographed baby brown pelicans and egrets. But this year, the constant cold weather had delayed spring time and the birds began their nesting later than usual.

Today, I spent four solid hours at the rookery. The shallow waters around the rookery islands got shallower as the outgoing continued until late morning. Anchoring and staking out was not a problem and for the first couple hours, I was in very protected waters with calm winds. I found an island that was particularly busy with egrets and decided to stay with that group for some time. Among the dozens of brown pelicans were about 6 or so great whites and no distinct pairs. One egret stood out among the others because it was in a good light, not hidden by leaves and branches and it kept a fair distance from other birds. This is not an easy thing to do on this busy bird island. Finding a good shot of a couple or a nest is nearly impossible to get without extraneous characters in the frame.

Soon, another egret entered the picture and for the next couple hours, I watched the pair interact. When one egret was absent, the lone egret would preen and perform its mating posture with beautiful splays of white delicate feathers. The other egret would come back with a branch and the two would work together to get the branch settled into the nest under construction. I was hoping to see them interact and sure enough, the couple had sex, a scene lasting no more than 10 seconds. The act was performed in clear view and except for the top of a pelican head in the background, perfectly framed. I managed a series of shots of the couple. Shortly after the sex, they started some beak jabbing with each other in a way that caused one to move away. Finally it flew off, looking for another branch no doubt.

There were several brown pelican couples, easily spotted when one would fly in with a branch. Acquiring branches is a frequent event for the pelican. I watched several fly out and back like clockwork. The bird would disappear to some distant mangroves and would not be seen for about 2 to 3 minutes. Then it would appear again with a branch, always from the same location and in a predictable flight pattern. It would come in and hand off the branch to its mate. It would stick around for about 5 to 10 minutes and then repeat its quest. The other mate never left the nest. It spent most of its time sitting low, perhaps with eggs. Several times, I spotted couples having sex, not as conspicuously as the egrets. The pelicans tend to stay lower in the mangroves and with their dark colors they blend in too well.

One turkey vulture and a few black vultures soared around the island. It seems that vultures like to hang out at bird rookeries expecting to find a dead bird now and then. The struggle for survivial is a tough act and while we photograph beautiful interactions among birds, and watch babies grow into fledglings and eventually adults, we also know that many of these birds don't make it to adulthood. The vultures reminded me today that life in these rookeries is not an easy one. But here they are nevertheless, giving it a shot. Genes get passed on and with them come adaptations to changing environments.

The sun rose high and bird feathers in flight were now shadowed and the highlights from the sun were becoming too harsh. The winds had picked up to 10-15 knots from the southeast, which was actually quite nice as the birds flew in to the mangroves facing me and the oncoming winds. I stayed on until about noon, getting as much from my stay at the rookery as possible.

I hope to get back here at least one more time before summer. With all the sex these birds were having, it should be paying off soon and I hope to see the babies during my next visit.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Back to Biscayne

This was my first trip to Biscayne Bay since November. I've been craving a Biscayne fix for so long that it didn't matter that the tides were not perfect and that we would have 10-15 knot winds. High tide was scheduled about 9:30 am, which meant that I would see no wading birds this morning. The good news was that the winds were westerly, which meant I would be protected along the bay shoreline. We arrived at Matheson Hammock launch site at 8 am and with the time change, the bright sun ball was fully over the calm water, casting its brilliant oranges. This wouldn't last long as the orange cast turned hot white as the sun continued to rise in the mostly cloudless sky.

By the time I was on the water, the sun felt very warm, not quite hot, but most definitely warmer than its felt in weeks. This was a nice prelude to our up-coming summer days, primarily spent on these waters. I miss those Biscayne summers and with the cold temperatures we've experienced this year, it couldn't arrive soon enough.

Today, I brought the 180mm macro lens for the a700 and the 70-400mm for the a100. I hadn't used the macro lens in months. I had fun using it last summer on the bay taking highkey photos of the mangroves in the water. I thought I would play with that today and maybe see some other interesting macro opportunities in the creeks. Some clouds came over the sky and for the remainder of the morning, the sun went back and forth between full intensity to cloud covered diffuse light. I brought out the flash and used alittle fill for the high key mangrove shots. This was not going to be a morning of bird photography so I hung out with the trees and just paddled around, heading south past the Snapper Creek canal.
As far as birds were concerned, I saw a few brown pelicans silhouetted against the sun as they flew over the bay waters on to some distant point. At one time, I watched a noisy flock of gulls coming from the distant waters. A handful of cormorants could be seen here and there. Along the shoreline, I spotted a few ibises, colored brightly, a couple little blue herons and an osprey or two. I spotted a juvenile yellowcrown nightheron resting on a mangrove root. I captured some flash shots of the bird as it basically stood still, putting up with my presence.

On days like these, you have to be a bit open or creative with photography. Knowing that there would be no exceptional bird photo opportunities, I started looking for other possibilities. With the sun blazing high, the shallow Biscayne Bay water was clear. In some areas, the grasses shown through the water brilliantly with brown and copper tones. The wind was creating vigorous ripples which caused the grasses to blur. This was beautifully seen, so I played around with the macro lens taking some shots of the colorful abstract display around me.

Later, I headed up the creek that eventually leads to the canal. I paddled upwind to an area near some residential homes (very large homes with yachts parked in front). I had already put away the camera but as I leisurely paddled around, I noticed several small jelly fish in the water. They were translucent as they floated, letting the current take them where ever. When close enough to the surface, the creatures glimmered in the light and I could see illuminated threadlike structures that gave the body distinct form. I attempted to photograph them hoping to at least get a good enough shot that would distinguish them from the water. The boat and water movement made it difficult to focus on them. I used manual focus and that seemed to work well enough to at least get some kind of photo. Here are two examples.

Despite the birds looking bored, this morning on Biscayne was classic. It simply felt good just to be out there paddling around. I'm looking forward getting back this summer. In the meantime, there will be more camping trips in the Everglades.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Shore Birds on Rabbit Key

A minor break in the cold gave us a weekend of mild temperatures, but as always, strong winds. This time, the winds were coming mostly from the north and by Saturday afternoon, reaching 20-25 knots. We left Chokoloskee Island Park after getting the permit for Rabbit Key and headed across Chokoloskee Bay toward Rabbit Key pass. We wanted to cross into the Auger Hole but with the outgoing tide, the Auger Hole was nothing but a large oyster shell mound, passable only with a 100-ft portage over sharp shells. So we scrapped our plans to explore the Rabbit Key grasses area and headed out toward the gulf via the pass.

Birds were plentiful on the paddle. Many active osprey nests were passed by within feet on this route. The adults were busily fishing as we paddled in the warm, sunny morning. The white pelicans were in large number on their usual oyster shell in the bay. I decided to capture them while we waited for another friend who left from a different launch site. The north winds were already 10-15 knots. For photographing from a canoe, winds that are 10 knots or higher make it pretty much impossible. Today, the outgoing tide and wind worked in unison to push the water at a very rapid rate as I approached the pelicans while maneuvering around the number of shoals in the area. The stake out pole was impossible to use with the boat moving so quickly, so I had to find water shallow enough that I could plant my foot on the ground. The birds were wary of me as usual. I did not want to try to approach too closely since I did not have total control of my boat. Although I have been photographing these birds every year for several years, it has never been easy. The winds, the currents, the boat traffic, etc all make these white pelicans a special challenge. Not to mention the fact that when they are clustered close together, framing a well composed shot is not as simple as it seems. Nevertheless, I always get excited when I see the large white "billboard" in the distance as I launch from the marina and look south over the bay toward the oyster bed.

By early afternoon we were setting up camp on lovely Rabbit Key. Soon after getting the tent up, large flocks of shorebirds began to fly in and land on the long sand bar that juts out of the island in an easterly direction. The sand was becoming more exposed with the outgoing tide. I noticed that the sand bar was about 2 feet higher than usual, probably from the north winds constantly working on it. This also created deeper water in front of our camp area on the nonexposed side of the sand bar. This is to our advantage, especially when launching at a low tide condition.

More birds began to congregate at the farthest point of the sand bar. I was hoping to see oyster catchers, and they did appear as the "tweeted" loudly across the water. There were also royal terns in large number. At first site, I have a difficult time identifying small shorebirds. But after looking over the photos more closely and checking my bird books, I learned that I photographed the following; american oyster catchers, ring billed gulls, ruddy turnstones, red knots, sanderlings, and one skimmer. I could try to guess the total number of birds, but I would probably be off by a hundred or two. The greatest majority were the smaller birds, about 75% of them were red knots the rest were sanderlings and ruddy turnstones. There were probably about 50 oyster catchers and close to the same number of royal terns. There were only 2 ring billed gulls that I could see and then there was the single skimmer. I first noticed the skimmer as he stood in the middle of a hundred or so red knots. From the end of the sand bar where a channel of water passed by, the birds gathered in clusters of their own kind, with the oyster catchers always on the farthest end near the water, the ruddy turnstones together in an area next to the oyster catchers, the royal terns in front of them and then the red knots and sanderlings scattered beyond toward the inside of the sand bar. The skimmer was on the edge of the bird population and later I noticed it had an injured foot.

Here's the cool thing about these shorebirds. When the red knots are en masse, their synchronized flying skills are a treat to watch over the water. They turn one way in synch and appear white, and then they all turn another way, appearing dark. They skim above the water quickly and cluster together like one large shimmering pile of jewels. I have wanted to capture their amazing flight so many times and have barely managed to do so. But today, I had the rest of the afternoon, I was on land and they were right there next to me. Not only that, I had the wind directly behind me which meant that any bird landing or taking off would do so facing me. Sweet. The wind did kick up a bit much, I had a lot of vibration on the lens at times, so overcoming that was a challenge.

The other thing I like about shorebirds, is that if they do scare off, they will fly around once or twice and eventually come back. And so it was that I spent the next 3 hours or so playing with the birds. I had a panoramic view of them as they flew around and landed on the beach. The sun was behind me as I laid on the ground for low shots or stood up for flight shots. It was a smorgasbord of shorebird photography. As the afternoon moved on, the tide started rising again and the sand bar became less exposed as the water crept over it. This meant that the birds had to move in closer to me! Other than the wind getting a bit out of control and a somewhat chilly, this was a glorious afternoon of birds. After about 10 gigs of memory and 2 batteries, I decided to leave the birds and prepare for dinner.

While I was engaged in bird photography, we had additional parties show up on our little island. Two parties of canoes were attempting to paddle out to Pavilion key and with the nasty winds, could not make it out there safely. Later that evening, we built a nice fire and some of our neighbors came over to join our party. In the dark I could still hear the occasional tweeting of the oyster catchers and other shorebirds as we sipped wine and enjoyed the cool temperatures. This was another beautiful evening in the Everglades.