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.