Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The greatest of egrets

On my second day of the weekend on Biscayne Bay, I was expecting a repeat of the first day. As I mentioned in my last post, the laughing gulls took over the area. Today, it was the great white egret that commanded the most attention.

I have to admit, with the exception of the egret rookery on Chokoloskee Bay, the great white egret has not been a favorite subject of mine. There are a few reasons for this. First, unless the egret is busily catching food or flying above, it tends to be stagnant and its long neck pose borders on a cliche scene from Florida outdoors. And it can stay in that position for endless amounts of time. Second,the great white egret is not normally a social animal, it tends to forage alone. Many times, I see several great white egrets in the shallows of the bay, but there is almost always a great distance between them. Third, they tend to be very wary of me and my boat and can scare away easily.

On the other hand, of all the birds I photograph on this bay, the great white egret has surprised me the most with its willingness to overcome its shyness. And I have to say that this summer has been full of surprises. When this happens, I can sit in my canoe watching an egret strut past me within 10 feet. I can make a loud noise and it does not scare. I can pass by it without it flinching. This is when the great white egret becomes one of my favorite subjects to photograph.

On this morning, I had the surprising good fortune to be in the close company of several great white egrets. I was out on the bay by 7:30 am. The sky was covered in dark clouds that were moving quickly north, soon leaving me with intermittent clear and cloudy skies. With an interesting combination of lighting conditions, I chose to not take out the flash today. Instead, I saw an opportunity to capitalize on the diffuse light that comes with clouds and which, when exposed correctly, can provide optimal light for birds. I have to admit, I have some photos here where I wished I had taken the time to use the flash. the back lit shots below are good examples of when a bit of fill flash would have taken the photo over the top. As it were, I had to use dodging and curve work to get the white bird to "pop" out of the white background. The results can be stunning with the flash. Just look at Arthur Morris's work to see how that works.

As I paddled over to the mouth of the creek that only yesterday was full of laughing gulls, I noticed a few great white egrets out and about, 3 hours before low tide. I found a good place to stake out where I had 3 birds in good view. They were also letting me get relatively close to them (about 80-100 ft). Soon, there were a few more of them. After several minutes, one or two of them got very close to me, within 15-20 ft. This is when it got interesting. I was soon surrounded by egrets, some in the back light, some with front light. I heard a splash behind me and turned to look in the direction of the sun. An egret within 25 ft had just captured a lizard fish. The back light (a bit to the side actually) lit up the scene. It was irresistible. I metered quickly on the water and compensated about +1. I rifled off several shots as the bird maneuvered the fish in its beak. Here are a couple of images.

The egrets were quite busy capturing prey. Blowfish, lizardfish, whatever they could find. What I am guessing is that these birds were juveniles. I am not sure why I think that other than the fact they were less shy than usual. Most juvenile egrets and herons are quite distinct from their adult counterparts. Take the little blue heron for instance; it starts out with white feathers that gradually turns to patchy blue and white and eventually all blue. The great white egret juvenile, on the other hand, is similar to the adult. Even in the nests the young birds quickly grow and become adult sized. This is quite alarming when you watch an adult attempt to feed the large babies.

When the food is plentiful, so are the birds. The egrets were filling up with food before the tide rolled in. I was lucky to be in the midst of it all. I had lots of various options for lighting and compositions. For those poses when the bird is not capturing a fish (just a pretty pose), I attempt to frame the bird with the mangroves and water. For these scenes, lighting and clean surroundings are critical and I go for these images when the morning sun lights up the mangroves and their reflections, such as this image and the first one shown above.

Today, the clouds covered the sun often, but leaving enough light that it could work. Here is when I attempted to capture the bird with as clean of a background as possible. This was difficult as the water gets messy with grass and wind current. At one point, I captured an egret that had caught a lizard fish. Another egret came along to steal it and the bird flew away. Here is a shot of it as it did so. You can see the diffuse lighting on the feathers, which is quite pleasing. Even with the sun high in the sky, the clouds help to neutralize the shadows and highlights. But, I do hope the bird photography police are not looking because this photo breaks a couple significant rules. First, it is flying away from the camera. And second, but not least of all, I cut off its feet. Oh well! I still like this photo for some reason.

Last, while experimenting with lighting, I am always trying to capture some action. Inevitably, that means a bird with prey in beak. For these shots, I want the bird's head to be turned toward me so I can capture the light in its eye. I would like the prey to be easily seen as well and water splashes and drops are a plus. The water can be complimentary by adding some dynamics or it can be distracting. For the first photo below, I love the reflections in the water. I also like the bird's position and the fish in its beak is easily seen. The water drops are a bonus. For comparison, the second photo is less dynamic, the water does not add anything to the composition. But, the bird's prey is of interest, it is a blowfish fully blown.

Not a bad weekend on the bay. So far, I have shown the gull and the great white egret and a smattering of other subjects. But wait, there's more. The ibises and the little blues did not disappoint. They are saved for the next entry.

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