Sunday, October 3, 2010

Quality time on the bay

Over two months has passed since having a good photo day on Biscayne. August and September were filled with weekends of storm clouds and rain,work and other obligations. Finally, it was a perfect day to be on the bay. Let me count the ways; good tide conditions, no rain or storms in the forecast, mostly unclouded skies, and extremely calm winds. On the water by 7:15 am just as the sun peaked over the horizon, I did not leave until noon.

The sky was brilliant with oranges and reds, clouds still remaining on the low horizon and directing the sun's rays in all parts of the sky. As we loaded the boats, we watched the hundreds of ibises that make their morning southerly flight. They roost at night on Chicken Key and the island near the Deering Estate and always just before the sun reaches its full view, they fly off to where I do not know; inland somewhere, perhaps where they can feed on insects. Whatever reason they have, the scene on the bay was breathtaking and of course my camera was still in the pelican case. Meanwhile, the mullet were running like crazy through the water; it's that time of year. Because these schools of bait fish are constantly under attack, the water was boiling with activity. As I began my paddle, a large shark could be seen about 200 ft away, its back fin swishing back and forth behind the front fin. It was a thing of beauty, black silhouette on sky reflected waters, and it was coming closer. Once again, my camera was not ready!

Ah well, I had a purpose today and that was to get over to the sponge farms to photograph the social interactions of the laughing gulls and royal terns. Always fun to watch, I thought the conditions would work to my advantage because of the lowering tide and the fact that the winds were to come out of the N to NE at 5-10 sometime later in the morning. With those winds, the birds would be landing and taking off facing me as I sit with the sun to my back. With anticipation, I began the paddle to the sponge farms.

Several gulls and some cormorants were roosting on the sticks. There are basically 3 clusters of sticks of varying lengths arranged close to each other. The first cluster is in open waters near the channel and offers mostly a clean sky background. You have to watch for boats in the channel and the buildings that sit behind the distant shoreline. Good shots have been taken from here. The second set of sticks is further north and lies a couple hundred feet from mangroves. This offers a nice background and can be quite rewarding when attempting to capture the birds flying off and banking as they swoop around the sticks. The third cluster is larger than the other two and contains probably 3 times as many sticks. There can be lots of activity there, but the problem is that the scene is very crowded. Rarely can you get a clean shot of a bird. So, I settled on the second cluster where there were fewer birds, but plenty of action.

Everything was working well. I staked out easily in the water that was gradually getting shallower and the birds did not mind my presence at all. That's one of the best things about photographing gulls. Yes they are common and sometimes annoying, but they are a great subject for a few reasons; they don't mind you getting close, they are very social and offer lots of interactions, they have character, and frankly, they are beautiful with their wings spread. I can sit with them all day and not get bored. That's an important ingredient for a wildlife photographer, you must have endless amounts of patience and the absolute desire to learn every nuance of a bird or other animal. There are rarely "lucky" shots in nature.

Everything was working well except for one thing; there was no wind and the birds were facing away from me. Beautiful landing scenes were happening, lots of territorial disputes and I could not capture one scene! At one point, a gull landed with a shrimp in mouth. I had never seen this before. How great a shot this could have been had the bird only landed toward me. Here's the shot as it was seen, and will never get past this post.

Since I couldn't capture the birds landing or taking off, I concentrated on capturing them as they took flight and banked around the sticks, with the beautiful mangrove and their reflections in the water. Many flight shots were taken, but none was considered good enough to post because of inadequate wing position, blurriness or bad angle. But I did manage a few cute shots of them resting on the sticks.

In the meantime, the tide was rolling out and white birds began to accumulate along the nearby shoreline. Feeding time for the wading birds!! One particular area was filled with about a dozen white birds. Further north, great white egrets were starting to appear, scattered about giving each other a wide berth. I left the gulls and headed toward the white birds. I approached them and watched quietly, getting myself into the best lighting spot. There were about 8 snowy egrets, all appearing to be quite young. I think this because their yellow feet were not as brilliant yellow as I am use to seeing them. There were a few ibises among them. They were mostly standing and preening but on occasion one would break off and spear the water for food.

I had a good set up, I just needed the birds to cooperate; alittle separation between them, good background, some action, some good poses, etc. And then I heard the noisy motor off in the distance getting louder. It was a motorized glider, one of those single seaters. I've seen them out here before, probably the same one. It approached on the gulf side and came within 500 feet. The birds spooked immediately. The glider moved on, and eventually the birds returned one by one. Then the glider came back, and once again the birds spooked. For some reason, the driver of this noisy aircraft decided to fly over me at least 3 times. At one point, I had got very close to a tricolor heron and as soon as the air craft flew over, the bird was gone. I suppose the birds flying looked nice from above.

The morning wore on and the sun was quite high by now, well past optimal lighting. I faced the sun and watched the sponge farm activity. It was high key time, those shots that are very simple, yet compelling. I experimented with several horizontal and vertical compositions. Cormorants were around and I waited for one to spread its wings, making a lovely silhouette. For these shots, I meter on the water or sky, use a aperture of at least f11, and compensate between +1 to +1.67, depending on the sun's angle. Wnith a high enough ISO, I can get a shutter speed of 1/400, quite adequate for still targets.

High key shots mean that the sun is high above and it is hot. The heat felt good, but it has been four hours already on the water. Time to get back with a near perfect morning on the bay behind me. Oh what the hell, it WAS perfect.

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