Thursday, March 17, 2011

Return to the Rookery: Part 2

Attention is drawn to the great white egret. The great white egret as well as its cousin the great blue heron are as much a symbol of wild Florida as the alligator. So often, the long necked bird shares center light with the ancient reptile in just about any Florida brochure or advertisement that includes the Everglades. We've seen so many photos of the egret standing upright gazing ahead, that we barely take a second look when we see the real thing. Seasonally monogamous, the great white egret is currently nesting. Courting has been going on at the rookery and soon, the results will be seen. For now, paired egrets tend to the nest, which may or may not have eggs yet. The male egret works hard throughout the day, continually flying away and coming back with a stick to offer its mate who waits patiently. Every once in awhile this ritual is interrupted with egret sex which lasts about 10 seconds. This is long enough to shoot several frames of the act. I did manage to capture a mating scene, but not as well as I would like. Last year, I captured a couple in the act and both the male and female were cleared of mangrove leaves and branches that all could be seen. This time, the female was hidden mostly. The rookery was full of great whites, mostly paired, but some seemingly alone. I focused on a couple that was in good position for photographing. One of the challenges with photographing this rookery is isolating one or two birds from all the others that surround them. The pelicans' large beak makes this even more difficult. Nevertheless, I found some birds that I could target with clean surroundings. I mentioned in the last post how calm the brown pelicans seem. To the contrary, the egrets are nervous and loud, which makes some of their behaviors easier to capture with the loud bird squacks that forewarn you something is about to happen. The male egret coming in with nesting sticks gives his mate and everyone else fair warning that he is about to land. The other thing that makes that particular behavior easy to capture is that they are on a very tight schedule and rarely waver from it. I can time their fly-ins with precision, they are that predictable. Such is nature. With these white birds, as with any white bird, care must be taken to not blow out the whites with too much exposure. Always shooting in manual mode, I use evaluative metering and find that with the mangroves and sky dominating the scene, I can stop down about 2/3 to get the white feathers exposed well. I tend to err a bit in the direction of overexposure with the intention of recovering some of the whites in post processing. This way, I can capture the scene with enough brightness to make the birds "pop". At times, the sun was veiled with thin clouds, enough to change the exposure by at least 2/3 stop. Here's one shot with the clouds. I had to do a little dodging on the bird feathers to lighten them a bit. I also visited the cormorant island behind the egret's area. Many of the young cormorants are no longer cared for by the adults and about a dozen of them were resting in the tree. Many still remain in the nests however. Here's one shot of a young cormorant that only a couple months ago was too small to leave the nest. I hope to be back to the rookery in April, and by then, babies should be there in number.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Return to the Rookery: Part 1

Each spring I look forward to visiting the brown pelican and great white egret rookeries. Today was my first day of spending quality time at the rookery this year. In February, I passed by twice, but with little time to spend as these were camping trips with some distance to cover. About 4 weeks ago, there was no nesting activity that I could see, although lots of pelicans were hunkered down in the trees with the strong northeast winds blowing. Two weeks ago there was much more activity, lots of pelicans in nests and a few egret couples beginning their courtships. I figured it would not be long before more egrets appeared. Now the egrets were in greater number and could be seen some distance away. For this entry, I will talk about the pelicans, the egrets will come with the next blog.

On the water by 7:30 am (daylight savings time), I was at the rookery by 8 am. Before entering the rookery area, I pulled out the camera and got everything ready for anchoring so as to minimize noise and movement. Pelicans, egrets, ibises, cormorants were flying around the area. The ibises had left their roosting spots and had moved on to the oyster flats near by. I thought I saw a group of white pelicans in the distance and eventually watched a handful of roseate spoonbills flying around. This area of the bay was teeming with feathery life, a true sign that spring was in the air.

I approached one of the rookery islands that is relatively large and faces the rising sun. The bonus today was that I had a slight easterly breeze, enough so that the birds would be flying into the wind, toward me and the sun. There were some pelicans bathing in the water nearby. Always a fun photo opp, I approached the birds slowly as they sprayed water with the fast action of their wings. For these shots, I attempt to get myself low in the boat and try for those head angles when the bird is looking directly at the lens and the background is clean (no nearby mangroves). I want to capture the scene frozen, with at least 1/800 shutter speed (cringing at having to bump up the ISO to 800 during the early morning light). This captures the action quite well by freezing the water splashes, but with some wing blur remaining.

Soon I carefully anchored myself near the bird island. The birds do frighten a bit when I first arrive, so I move slowly and quietly, stopping frequently before reaching the edge of the birds' comfort zone. With patients I can begin approaching slowly again until I reach a fair distance for a 400mm. Most of the time, I can capture scenes at about 300mm, especially when the wings are spread. The pelicans don't seems bothered as much as the egrets. In fact, all told, the pelicans have a calm demeanor and the adults never seem to make a noise. Even during sex they appear relaxed. The couples are fun to watch, they seem playful at times, nipping and biting each other in the beaks. But mostly, they are taking care of business, protecting the eggs, stick delivery, nest maintenance, preening and bathing. The mother never seems to leave the nest and I wonder what her feeding schedule might be.

I focused on one particular couple for quite some time. The male diligently brought in sticks and from where I was sitting, I could capture some good scenes of the nest delivery. Pelicans must have a difficult time carrying large sticks with those big pouches, and most often they are seen with tiny branches that may or may not have mangrove leaves. To the contrary, this particular pelican was very successful bringing in quite large branches. Each branch had several offshoots, which must have made it challenging for the bird to collect and carry. Nevertheless, he succeeded to bring home one trophy branch right after the other. His mate must have been proud.

I noticed another pelican leave the mangrove and enter the water below. I watched it as it attempted to grab a branch, which eventually it did. It was a very tiny one with fresh mangrove leaves on it. The bird grasped it at the end of its beak and then flew off to present it to its mate. I'm guessing she would not be so impressed with his contribution.

I stayed until about 11 am. The sun was full most of the day with some slight hazy clouds passing through now and then. I never took the flash out and simply adjusted my exposure between pelican and egret. I find that about 2/3 or 1 stop difference between the two does the trick.

Egret photos will come with the next post, in the meantime enjoy the pelicans.