Sunday, August 28, 2011

Some appetizers on the bay

Sometimes, the conditions are so perfect that I can spend a long concentrated time in one spot where the birds are cooperating, the lighting is perfect and the wind is calm. Usually, this also means low tide because it is the wading birds that generally provide the most opportunities to photograph birds on the bay. But not every day is perfect of course and that's when I have two choices. I can put the camera away (or not take it out at all) and just paddle, or I can find opportunities somewhere. These may only be appetizers, nothing more than a small bite, but when you have a few appetizers to choose from, it can be good fun.

And so it was today on Biscayne Bay, a few days following Irene, the hurricane that barely brushed us as it stormed through the Bahamas. Most of the time, people up north watch the weather channel as a hurricane bears down on the gulf or lower Atlantic states; but this time, we are watching the northeastern shoreline get pummeled. As the hurricane winds + high tide storm surges flood the Jersey shoreline, we paddle across the bay in calm waters, picking up an occasional piece of debris that blew in from one of the Bahamian islands. The water levels were very high this morning from the combined effect of the moon and the winds coming off the tail of Irene. There would be no wading birds today, but there are other things going on around here.

This particular area of the bay that I paddled today is like a playground to me. There are specific subjects to photograph depending on the time of year, water levels, and wind speed and direction. If it is a negative low tide, wading birds along the shoreline will be in great number not far from the launch site. Further out toward Chicken Key and the channel that comes out near it is the lagoon that contains a cormorant rookery island. As a result, cormorants are always in great number along the channel. It is like a cormorant highway and one can sit in one place and watch them fly by, sometimes in large flocks. Just past the channel are the sticks where gulls, terns and cormorants roost. And last, there is the cattle egret rookery.

My choices today were driven by two things, the wind direction and the extremely high water levels. Since the birds would not be wading, I decided to head over to the sticks. Because of the west winds, the bird would unfortunately be facing the wrong direction. At best, I thought I might try some high key silhouette images of the gulls as they fight for space. When I got there, the sticks were mostly underwater and the few birds that were there, were of course facing west. I wasn't inspired to stay with them, so I decided to head over to the north side of the channel where there would be more protection from the wind (which had started to pick up some) and I could stake out and try to capture some cormorants in flight. On my way there, I captured this immature herring gull that was resting in the water.

Photographing cormorants in flight is difficult when you are firmly on land, even more difficult from a boat. These birds are extremely fast, requiring a fast shutter speed to capture without blur. But what is so cool about photographing them is that they fly low, a few feet above the water mostly. With a backlighting situation, you can capture the bird and its reflection, surrounded by whiteness. In certain areas today, I tried to capture the birds flying over water that was reflecting mangroves and some of the orange colored buildings located in one area near the channel. The colors are beautiful on the water. There was only a small space from which to capture these reflections and since birds rarely fly exactly where you want them to, I was not able to get that image I wanted. Here are a few flyers. Note the branches in the beak of the bird that is flying back to the rookery, still tending to its nest despite it being so late in the season.

After awhile I headed over to the cattle egret rookery. I could see the three tiny islands from a distance and they were covered with white birds. The babies have grown and are learning to fly. Many are still being fed by parents, but for the most part, the babies seem to be independent. In these photos, it appears that there are some juvy little blue herons among the cattle egrets. It was almost impossible to capture these guys; they are skittish with the presence of my boat in the water and consequently move themselves into the higher areas of the mangroves, more hidden from my camera. And the west wind caused all the birds to face away from me. Here are a few shots that at least illustrate the scene. The first photo is one of an adult attempting to feed the young birds.

After a short while, I headed back. The sky has been mostly clear, but there was a storm in the south horizon forming fast. I met up with my fishing companions where we were no more than a mile from the launch site. The storm come over us and we attempted to paddle into 20 knot headwinds. At one point it increased to 25-30 knots and since I was close to the shoreline, I let the wind carry me toward the mangroves where I waited it out for 5-10 min. I can paddle strongly in 15-20 knot headwinds, but when the winds approach 25 to 30, it is virtually impossible for me in this canoe to get anywhere. Fortunately, the summer storms in Florida blow in fast and blow out just as fast. Soon, I was paddling back in manageable winds. Not the best day on the bay, but not a bad one by any stretch.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Framing a wading bird

I was on the water shortly after 7 am. This time of year is tricky with the continuous flow of storms that come in from the east (usually). Mornings tend to be drier, but the sky is never without clusters of clouds. This morning, the sky was predominantly clear, except for one big dark cloud hanging over the east horizon, right where the sun rises. It looked like it was rolling in my direction and in the distance, I could see rainfall over the city. From the looks of it, I figured there was no more than an hour before it overcame my area. I believed that I would not have much opportunity to photograph birds this morning. But that changed.

The east wind was brisk, around 5-10 knots. Now, I had two challenges; the first being the large cloud that covered the morning sun and the second was the messy water that comes with east winds greater than 5 knots. I met the first challenge by simply using my flash and better beamer. The wind would impose a greater challenge and it has to do with framing a bird in an image. The low was around 7 am and the grasses in the shallow waters were obvious along the shoreline. With enough wind and low enough tide, the water surface is interrupted with ripples and grasses; very messy scene. It's a difficult surrounding when framing a bird in the water. But, I wanted to give it a shot today.

Rather than see this as a reason for not photographing a bird, I decided to attempt some images that might make the water a pleasing part of the composition. To me, these waters in low tide look like fabric with various textures, and wouldn't it be cool if I could take what I see and use it to enhance an image of a bird. Here is one shot of a great white egret to illustrate the water conditions. I took some liberties with the photo. I played around with the channel mixer and heightened the blues of the water while masking the bird. I guess this is one version of many possibilities. Normally, I would not give this image a second thought. But, I've come to realize that the wind and tidal current are just as much a part of the beauty of this bay as are the birds.

Here is another image, this time a juvenile little blue heron. I should say that at this point (about 20-30 min into the morning), the big dark cloud had dissipated and the sun was out, with a nice diffuse haze. With perfect lighting, I continued using my flash. Now, the water was more illuminated and the blue ripples were woven into the green reflections of the mangroves.

The little blue flew over to some single mangroves where several ibises were foraging. I noticed three juvenile ibises and saw that I could get relatively close to them. The little blue was near them as well. These birds were closer to the main shoreline where the water was not disturbed so much by the wind. Also, the tide was rolling in fast and the exposed grasses were now drowning in the water. The juvy ibises can be fun, and I do find them to be more beautiful than the white adult. With three of them, there would surely be some interaction. At one point, one of them tried to grab something off a mangrove seedling.

The blue heron was hanging out near the mangrove roots. This is a beautiful opportunity to photograph this light-colored bird. The challenge here is to avoid a messy surrounding. Grasses often hang from the roots, man-made debris occasionally shows up, specks in the water, etc, are all common distractions in this type of image. With most of these images, I almost always have to clean out a few distractions here and there. For instance, notice the little 3-pronged branch in the water in the lower right of the frame. I would prefer it were not there. But, it would take quite a bit of work for me to remove that without it looking like a hack job (someone could do it better, but I would have a difficult time with it). So I left it there. Now that I have looked at it more, the little branch and couple of light leaves behind the bird's back could also be removed.

As the water levels rose, the only ibis I could see was on the shoreline. I followed it awhile. I love the look of the white bird against the dark mangroves. Here, I try to exploit the curves of the mangrove roots and get the bird in a position where the roots compliment the bird rather than compete with it.

And last, I was back to the great white egret, that was still on the hunt. For this bird, I used the mangroves and water ripples as a means of framing it. I also went with a more panoramic look, as this is a panoramic bird when it is on the strike.

Not a bad day at all in paradise. The wind sort of died down and the sun stayed. Trying to squeeze out as much summer as possible, I hope to get back here tomorrow morning.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

You can't always get what you want

I've learned to never have expectations when I go out in my boat to photograph birds. Many times, I find unexpected awesome opportunities, but sometimes; I return with only a pittance of photos to show for it. Files of photo trips are precious possessions and it feels like a loss when you end up with an empty file. But, it is not a complete lost day because there is always something to bring home with you. Little experiences add up and collectively become your growing history as a photographer. And with that growth comes knowledge that goes back out into the field.

I spent an entire weekend again on Chokoloskee Island while the first kayak fishing derby was taking place at Chokoloskee Island Park. Although I promised to take some photos of the fishermen as they launched, I wasn't going to follow them around waiting for someone to catch a fish. Rather, I wanted to hang with the birds, hopefully some terns fighting on the pilings (see previous post) or maybe some herons or ibises feeding on the oyster flats.

The birds did not deliver much. After photographing the fishermen in the pre-dawn and seeing them off, I was in the canoe by 7 am heading toward the area where I expected to see many birds taking advantage of the outgoing tide. Low was around 9:30 am and so there would be many oyster flats revealed on the bay. Only a few birds here and there, I began to paddle into the some remote lagoons and tidal rivers that flow into and out of the gulf. By 7:30 or so, rumblings in the western sky were becoming louder. Dark clouds formed on the horizon and with that, it is never a smart idea to continue paddling toward them. In the meantime, the morning sun beautified the mangroves and their reflections. I made a lame attempt to get close to a yellowcrown night heron before it flew off. But it became obvious that I would not be getting many photos of birds today.

I headed back to the bay and hung with a few roseates and juvenile laughing gulls. Soon, the sky became more engulfed with the encroaching storms, which by now were producing lots of thunder and lightning. I paddled across the open waters of the bay; as I have so many times before, attempting to outpaddle the storm. Of course, in between strong paddle strokes, I must stop to turn the boat toward the storm, steady it and wait for it to stop moving to shoot some images of the clouds.

I could see the fishermen heading toward the marina and by the time I arrived, most of them were on ground watching the storm and hoping it would pass soon. Many were one or two fish away from a slam, so everyone was eager to get back on the water. The storm skirted the bay to the north and after about 30 minutes, everyone was heading back on the water. A rainbow greeted us as we did.

By now, the tide had risen and no waders could be seen. The storm had increased the wind somewhat, which would have been great had it been an easterly wind. The terns were starting to arrive at the pilings, but unfortunately they were all facing west. The heat was the clincher, I decided to get off the water and let the birds go. So it goes sometimes here in paradise.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Tern Wars

Summer is ending soon, which means less time for Biscayne Bay. During the fall months before camping season begins, I head over to Chokoloskee a few times. It is during those trips that I attempt to photograph one of my favorite bird subjects, the tern; specifically, royal and sandwich. This weekend, I will indulge in another Chokoloskee weekend, this time in the company of a couple dozen kayak fishermen participating in a friendly tournament. I promised them that I would not attempt to photograph anyone because my camera lens brings terrible luck to the fishermen. So while they go their way looking for redfish, snook and trout, I hope to capture some scenes from what I call "The Tern Wars".

Four years ago, I discovered that the terns show up in great number starting in August and September. They are interesting subjects to photograph as they fight amongst themselves for space on the many pilings near the marina. They also have the large pelican to compete with (the tern is always on the losing end). I have found that if I sit near the pilings and if there is an easterly wind, I can capture scenes of a bird flying into a piling while it scares off another. It is quite fun to look over the photos at the end of the day to see the various interactions between these feisty birds. As I prepare for this weekend, I went back to some of those earlier photos and include a few here. As I look at them, I notice the challenges of photographing these scenes, and they are many.

First, most of the pilings are very tall and this makes the angle steep, especially at low tides. A high tide will raise me a foot or two, which helps, but there is still about a 10-15 ft difference most of the time. At such a steep angle, lighting is difficult with the underside of the wings shadowed. To overcome this, I attempt shots of birds that are banking or raising their wings enough to capture the sunlight on them. I've also included the flash on occasions.

Another challenge is the unattractive pilings that are often splattered with the last stage of digestion. If I can, I minimize the amount of the piling that comes into the frame. I have no problem doing post-processing to erase some of it or at least tone down the white highlights. Speaking of pilings, another challenge is the arrangement of them (see photo below). There are so many of them close together that it is difficult to isolate one, especially from a canoe. It's also difficult to focus on an incoming bird when it is flying between the pilings as you attempt to track it. I try to get my boat positioned where I will have at least a couple choices for clear views of the birds. And last, the other challenge has to do with the wind. If the wind is westerly, the birds will be facing away from me, no point even trying to capture them when that happens.

My goal is to continue trying to capture these birds and hope for the best. With some luck, they will be available to photograph this weekend. If not, guess I will have to photograph a fisherman in a kayak. In the meantime, enjoy these preview scenes from "The Tern Wars".

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Alone on the bay

As far as I know, I am the only person that persists at photographing birds from a canoe or kayak on Biscayne Bay, or anywhere in south Florida for that matter. I know of others that bring cameras with them in their boats and have posted photos of birds as a result. But none, that I know of, is out there as much as I am or with the same intent. Florida bird photographers know well of the many prime bird locations for photographing, almost all land-based. We recognize where many photos are shot, places that at certain times of the year are cluttered with large telephotos set on tripods and the photographers that stand behind them (photographers wearing clean clothes and standing upright). There are famous rookery locations such as Gatorland and Alligator Farm where a 200mm lens is more than enough length to capture the birds. For the more adventurous of the lot, the beaches of Florida offer nesting space for many bird species including the royal tern, American oystercatcher and black skimmers.

I mention this only to make a point and that is, while members of the bird photography community spread the word of nesting birds, migrating birds passing through or cases of unusual sitings, the information passed along does not include Biscayne Bay shoreline. In fact, the only people that provide me information are fishermen, and that information is not consistent. Fishermen are typically aware of their surroundings, but pay less attention to the details of the birds. I have to rely totally on tide and weather information to speculate on what will be available to photograph on any day I choose to go out. I also rely on previous experiences. For instance, I know that a negative low tide will extend the wading bird feeding territory about 200 feet from the usual areas. This offers some special opportunities that I would not have any other time.

Since coming to Biscayne Bay, I have been pleasantly surprised at new bird sitings; up until yesterday, these have included the woodstork, black skimmer, black-necked stilt and white morph version of the great blue heron. These are birds that I unexpectedly ran across, but only once or twice. I can now add roseate spoonbill to that list. I ran across two that were busily feeding in the negative tide shallows. Here's how it all went down Friday morning.

I was on the water by 7 am, just in time to sit on the water as the hundreds of ibises and dozens of great white egrets began their morning ritual of flying from their roosting island to some distant location along the bay. There is no better sound in the quiet of the morning when sitting in a canoe on the water than the beating wings of birds flying overhead in great number. The east wind was brisk at about 10 knots, which makes photographing very challenging and while my expectations were low because of that, I figured the birds flying made the trip entirely worthwhile.

After the birds disappeared I continued heading into the headwind toward the old sponge farm (I will now refer to the sponge farm as "the sticks"). It's about 1.5 miles to paddle. Large clouds filled the sky and it looked as if they would be clearing out by the time I arrived at the sticks, where I hoped to find a community of laughing gulls hanging out. I've had fun in the past with these birds as they fight each other for stick space. That's what I would concentrate on today. The low tide was a couple hours away, but already, the grassy flats were quite shallow where dozens of great white egrets were stationed here and there. I paddled passed them anyway, intent on capturing some gull action.

The wind had picked up as a nearby offshore storm continued its way further north. I arrived at the sticks to find a few gulls hanging out. I sat with them for awhile in windy conditions (I used both anchor and stake out pole), but there just was not enough action. Here's one shot of a yawning bird and that's about all there is to it. No gull interactions that I could capture.

I noticed that the nearby shoreline was now becoming cluttered with several wading birds. Little blue herons were in the greatest number. They tend to forage at the edge of the shallows, farthest away from the shoreline and thus, are easier to approach. More toward the shoreline are the tricolor herons, snowy egrets, green herons and ibises. Here are a couple shots of the little blues, that often hang out in twos or threes. You can also see how difficult it is to capture these guys in the grassy water.

I paddled over to the area where I noticed the most birds. There were two large whitish birds close to the mangroves. As I paddled past the little blue herons to get closer to the shoreline, I noticed suddenly that these were roseates. I paddled as close as I could, the hull now sliding along the grass making a noise as it did so. This is when I have to be very careful when approaching the birds; they tend to hear the slightest out-of-place noise. As soon as one is alerted to the noise from the boat, I stop and wait. The paddle stays low as well. If I can, I try to get closer. This continues until I can no longer move the boat with any effort.

The closer of the two birds was foraging along some mangrove roots, and I thought this would make a nice image. The grassy waters were messy and the shoreline was cluttered with some debris, making the composition challenging. If the bird would just stay near the mangrove roots, I could capture it nicely. But of course, they never totally cooperate with us, so off it went, closer to the shoreline.

I continued following the two birds and it soon appeared that if I was going to capture them well, I would need to stand up; for two reasons. One, I could no longer move my boat as the water levels continued to decline. If I was going to follow these birds, I would need to walk. And second, it became clear to me that a low perspective from the boat was not as pleasing as the background was too messy. As an alternative, standing would angle the shot in such a way as to capture more reflection and less shoreline clutter. With the 3-4 inches of mud sinking I would experience, it would give me about 5 1/2 feet of vertical height. Clear water allowed the mangroves and birds to reflect, but this was interspersed with the grasses. So the challenge was to capture the birds when I could get as much water reflections in the frame and also when the bird's bill was showing well enough. I rarely get out of the boat when photographing birds, mainly because I make more noise that way. But the roseates did not seem to mind and in fact, I got about 60 ft from them, relatively close I thought.

I attempted some shots with both birds in the frame without closing the aperture (I kept it at f5.6) and was only able to capture one shot that got both birds focused well enough. You can notice that one bird has red eyes and the other does not. The one with the red eyes also has the featherless head while the other one is still feathered up. This is likely a juvenile.

After romping through the mud for some time, I decided to get the boat out of the shallows. As I turned toward the sun, I noticed a few little blue herons nearby. They had been busily foraging behind me as I concentrated on the pink birds. The high key scene with the heron feeding during negative low tide is quite interesting I think. The grasses in the water give the scene a fabric-like pattern. The sun at the right angle makes the grass glow a yellowish tint. The bird's silhouette is the only object that interrupts the pattern. I metered off the water, compensated at about +1 and attempted to get closer to one of the birds. I wanted a shot at the time that the bird captured its prey. The sun's reflection on the spraying water is beautiful, that's what I wanted. But, it didn't happen this time. The bird appeared a bit skittish with my presence and before I could get closer, it flew away. Here's one shot I managed, at least it gives you an idea of what I was after.

Soon, I noticed the roseates had moved out farther from the shoreline as the feeding grounds continued to increase in size. Here is a similar shot (front lit) of a roseate in the grasses of Biscayne Bay. Few photographers would think about bothering with the birds in this bay. If you are a photographer, you can surely see the challenges of capturing these birds in these grassy tide conditions. But, with some imagination, the grasses may provide new opportunities that you would otherwise miss.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Birds on the oyster flats

This is a continuation of the previous blog, from my weekend in Chokoloskee Bay. I love paddling this area of the Everglades but it is an extraordinarily frustrating place to attempt to photograph birds, not to mention LEARN how to photograph birds from a boat. I basically began my photography from a canoe on Chokoloskee Bay. I didn't realize just how challenging this place could be until I started photographing wading birds on the easier-going Biscayne Bay location.

Here are a few more photos of a few bird species, other than the usual white ibis. The roseates are always seen here in the summer and almost always within a small range of the bay. Unless they are in the mangrove tree canopies, I most often see them resting on an exposed oyster flat. As this was a low tide morning, I knew they would be there, in the usual spot. The problem is, they tend to not do much and most of the time have their heads tucked under the feathers. Within a group, there is typically one or two that appears to stand guard watching the intruder while the others rest. Capturing them like this is a bit, dare I say, boring. They do let me get rather close though. Today, I inched myself closer (with one foot out of the boat) and got within 50 feet of the group. After a while, a loud powerboat came by (the birds are located relatively close to a channel), and was loud enough to bother the birds so that they flew away, leaving me behind.

I paddled to another flat where a juvenile yellowcrown nightheron was busy capturing tiny crabs. This bird had no problems with me being close and after several minutes with it, it came to within 10 feet of my boat. This was a challenging bird to capture as its feathers blended too well with the oysters. As it approached closer, I went in for the close ups, shifting between vertical and horizontal positions. I wasn't all together happy with the end results, but there were a few images that you can see the tiny crab in the bird's beak.

One last bird caught my attention, a juvenile little blue heron that I spotted feeding along the muddy edges of the mangroves. I let the current drift my boat slowly toward it, as it was in very nice morning light. The grayish blue and white body was tiny among the mangrove roots, but it contrasted enough to be seen well. I thought I would take my time drifting toward it and at one point, grabbed the paddle to maneuver the boat. Just at that moment, another juvy came flying our of nowhere towards the feeding bird and within a few seconds, both were flying off to another distant place. How irritating! Now, I have seen this before with pairs of tricolor herons. Just like this, I spot one bird and get rather close to it, then another comes along, scuffles with the first one for a few seconds, and then they fly off together far away. Why must they do that?

After spending time with the wading birds on the oyster flats, opportunities were declining so I headed toward the marina where many pelicans and terns rest on the pilings. More on that later.