Saturday, January 28, 2012

The huge American White Pelican

There are two species of pelicans in north America, and during the winter months, the Everglades are crazy with both. Unlike its cousin the brown pelican that lives here year round, the American white pelican lives far north during the summer months in nesting colonies. But during the winter, the Everglades lights up with the white pelican and it is a spectacular view that is so appealing to the eye when groups of these large birds can be spotted from great distances. Imagine paddling through the Ten Thousand Islands dominated by blue water and sky separated by a line of mangroves. Then imagine a white aberration in the distance that looks like a large white wall on the water. Pelicans for sure. Look up at the sky and you will see a squadron of black and white winged birds, circling above. This will happen later in the morning after the temperatures have sufficiently increased to create a thermal layer. These are the wintering white pelicans of the Everglades.

White pelicans are foragers, unlike the brown pelican that is a proficient dive bomber. The white pelicans typically work in groups in the shallow water, where they hunt for fish. These large birds (known to weigh as much as 30 lb) can consume over 4 lb of fish in a day (the pouch can hold 3 gallons of water), yet they are considered to be non-competitive to fishermen because they eat mostly non-game fish. However, I learned that with the increase in catfish farming in the southeastern states that these concentrated shallow fish ponds have become a popular foraging site for the white pelican. Normally, the birds spend about 1/3 of the day foraging and the remainder is spent loafing. But in the catfish ponds, they spend only 4% of their day foraging because they don't have to work as hard to fill up on fish. In the Everglades, the white pelicans can be spotted in the shallow waters of large bays or grassy water areas such as in Charley Creek or near the Hells Bay area. They work together to herd the fish and dip their large beaks into the water to capture them.

Photographing the white pelican has become one of my favorite challenges. Usually, I am photographing them as they loaf on a sand or oyster bar and they are typically in large number. It is difficult to approach them to get close enough for photographing, but when you do get close enough, the other challenge is composing the shot.

For these group shots, I try to get them all within the frame, but often there is a section of a bird sticking into the frame. I like their bright orange beaks and legs and try to capture the birds all facing the camera in some way. Occasionally, you can capture one flying by.

The white pelican is a thing of beauty, so large with its 10-ft wing span. In the fall, they usher in the winter season with their migration into the Everglades where they reside until spring when they leave to go north. You know their trek north is coming soon when you see the horn on the beak appear and the orange pouch, legs and skin around the eyes become more vivid; all indications that the bird is getting ready to breed.

Hope to see you again soon, white pelican, in the sunlight of the Everglades.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

From my window

I never thought it possible, but I photographed through my second floor window, which was not too dirty having been cleaned recently. Often, during the early sunlit morning as I sit at my desk working, I look through this window. For the past few months, I noticed several spiny orb weaver webs built between two large trees,square in front of me at eye level. The morning sun provides a back light such that I can more closely observe the spider and its silky orb expanding 1-2 ft across.

A few days ago, I took interest in a couple of them. One was building or rebuilding its web, having only 3 or 4 outer circles completed. The background from my view (slightly above the spiders) is messy, consisting of buildings, grass, shrubs and trees, water and the reflections of these objects in the water. Oh yes, and ducks. With a wide enough aperture, these objects will blur out as most of them were several dozen feet away. Lighting was tricky however, with shadows and highly lit areas competing with each other.

At any rate, I set up my exposure to brighten the web and spider as much as possible and keep the background consistent and dark. I began composing, with window between me and my subject.To get an even background, I had to negotiate around my desk and computer, and had only a narrow range to work with. From the following two photos, you can see the progress made by this busy spider.

The next day, I noticed that the same little spider was rebuilding its web. Next to it was its neighbor that had a larger web. It also appeared to be doing some maintenance work on it. The next two images demonstrate some of this work.

The spider's web requires some support lines that shoot out from the center through the orb, and it appeared that she was rebuilding these, as seen here.

Soon, she was back in her center resting spot, with full support.

For post processing, I cropped only some of these photos, particularly the images of the larger spider that showed up so well in the back light. I also liked the light reflecting on the web, so I used some curve work to lighten the lights while maintaining a dark background as much as possible. No cloning or noise reduction were used on these photos. As Dorothy once said after returning from Oz, "If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard." Well, maybe I will, but it sure is a good feeling to know that the spiny orb weaver is a few feet away.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Photographing birds on an 8-day trip through the Everglades

Before the new year, we get out for our annual long trip through the Everglades. Usually, we do not get many opportunities to camp more than 2 or 3 days at a time during the season, so we take advantage of our holiday time and get in as long a trip as possible. While I love these trips and there is so much to photograph, bird photography usually takes second seat because of the traveling involved. No doubt, I see lots of birds on these trips. But almost always, I am moving and so are they. On occasion, I come into a concentrated area where birds are plentiful and when given the opportunity, stay in the area long enough to photograph. Always, my favorite location for bird photography is the primeval area of Charley and Gopher Creeks, a two day paddle (or very long day) away. The night before we got into the creeks, we camped on Turkey Key, only one mile from the entrance into Charley creek. Here's a shot of our beach camp.

We left the island at 7 am, with the sun beginning to rise as we entered the dark mangrove tunnel. The tunnel is about 1 1/2 miles long before reaching more open terrain. Here is a shot of the tunnel as one of our paddling friends cleared the path by sawing a couple logs that blocked the path.

I include these photos to offer the reader a glimpse of the variety of environment we are exposed to out here. From the sandy gulf beach, the mangrove tunnel led us into a hurricane-damaged wet prairie that intermingles with mangroves. As we paddled out of the dark canopy into the light of the openness, I noticed that the prairie scene was behind the large mangroves and buttonwoods that lined the creek. But what I noticed mostly were that hundreds of birds, and all I had was thick mangroves and mud between me and them. I found an opening and pulled my boat up the mud bank and staked out. I stepped onto a dead branch that was large enough to support my foot and proceeded to get out, one hand on a tree branch and the other holding my camera with 400mm lens attached. As soon as I got my other foot on ground, I instantly sunk in a foot and a half of mud. With two steps forward, I was on firmer grassy ground and heading toward the bird scene. The birds, by now, had mostly moved further away. Nevertheless, the were relatively close and busy feeding. The water holes they were congregating around must have been loaded with bait fish and other marine edibles. Here's the best I got from my little excursion out of the boat.

I could not stay long as I had four other people with me and this was not an area to get stuck in at low tide. I got my muddy self back into the boat and continued exploring. For the remainder of the morning, I stayed in the area closer to Gopher Creek which had plenty of water, while the others paddled on. This is an amazing place to find birds, I felt like a kid in a candy store. The challenge was that this is a totally wild place and birds have lots of choices, one of which is to stay far away from the intruder. I tried many attempts at photographing them and managed some decent shots. The highlight was the American Avocet, a first siting for me. There were 3 of them busily feeding and while the egrets and other birds flew away from me, these guys stayed and allowed me to get very close.

Here are some other scenes from Charley and Gopher Creek, the best place to be in the Everglades on a warm, cloudless day, in a canoe.