Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Hovering and Landing

I have been reading and re-reading Carrol L Henderson's book, Birds in Flight: The Art and Science of How Birds Fly. The author provides many illustrations and makes reference to several birds. Among these are the brown pelican, great white egret, royal and sandwich terns, laughing gull and osprey, birds that I have photographed many times.

One of my favorite spots to photograph birds is a great white egret and brown pelican rookery located in the Everglades. Accessible only by boat, I come to the rookery several times during the spring and summer months to observe a large community of bird families. I am always awestruck with how easily the brown pelican and great white egret fly in and land on the trees that are heavily populated with adult birds and nests with chicks.

With fascination, I read the book and learned about how these birds are capable of landing with pinpoint precision. As the bird nears its landing point, it changes its posture from a horizontal to a vertical position, increasing the "angle of attack". This slows the air speed and allows the bird to stall or more carefully land. For better control, it often lands into the wind. In the vertical position, wings are outspread and the long broad wings serve as parachutes which gives the look of suspension in mid-air. The tail feathers are outspread and pointed downward, which also provides increased drag. Fine tuning is achieved with the "alulas" which is a portion of the wing located near the birds wrist (about midpoint across the length of the wing) and is similar to a thumb. The alula points out during the landing and by doing so, creates a little lift to prevent premature stalling. So basically, the bird uses several strategies to control its landing.

Landing is similar to hovering in some ways and among my bird list, there are a few hoverers, such as the osprey and royal tern. The osprey hovers when it hunts. It's long wings allow it to stay in flight and to fly slowly for long periods of time as it searches for prey. The hovering maneuver allows the osprey to remain in one place. It can do this by using its primary feathers as propellors that provide lift needed to stay in one place. The tail is outspread and as with the landing strategy described above, the body posture is vertical. The primary feather are spaced apart (like window blinds) to minimize air resistance. The royal tern is similar in this regard.

Where I have seen laughing gulls, sandwich terns and royal terns put their hovering to good use is when attempting to land on a small space, often times occupied by another bird. In these photographs, I capture these birds suspended over their landing site and when there is a conflict with another bird, I will see the hovering behavior carry on for several seconds before one bird gives up and flies away. On occasion, the bird's landing is not perfect (animal blooper alert!).

Capturing birds in flight, when done well, is very rewarding. In my opinion, landing flights are the most beautiful to observe for the obvious reason that the fullness of the bird's wings are seen. Two conditions are important when photographing landing birds; the sun should be behind you and the wind should be to your back. Remember, birds typically land into the wind, so before going out to photograph birds, check the wind directions. With the wind to your back, the bird will be landing toward you. Concerning the sun, an advantage of capturing birds in a vertical position is that the sun can be relatively high and it will hit the underside of those wings in full spread. This is not the case when the bird is flying above you in a horizontal position. So if you are shooting in late morning or early afternoon conditions, look for the landing bird or birds that bank while in flight.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Yellow-Crowned Night Heron

From Chapman Field launch site, I paddled to Biscayne Bay under a cloudless sky and with a slight chill in the air. The early morning sun shined brightly on the hidden lake that was still glazed with fog as the 50-something air temperature began to rise and eventually settled in comfortable mid-70's range. Thankful to be on the water, I had little expectations as the low tide was two hours earlier and a strong (almost full moon) incoming tide made the current swift through the beautiful creek that connects the hidden lake to the open waters of the bay.

Despite the high levels of water, I saw many birds today on the western shoreline of Biscayne Bay. I may have seen a couple dozen species of birds (including a couple wood stork and an immature eagle flying above with the black vultures), but one bird in particular draws my attention and that is the yellow-crowned night heron. I dedicate this post to the night heron for a few reasons, one being that I think I spotted at least 30  of them today. A couple of them allowed me to approach within 20 feet while they rested on a mangrove root and basked in the morning sunlight.

I also pay tribute to the yellow-crowned night heron, one of my favorite birds because it is a relatively cooperative bird to photograph. They tend to be loners but many can be seen spread out along a low tide mudflat or oyster bed, giving each other a wide berth. It seems when one is on to a good spread of crustaceans, it doesn't mind so much that a canoe and photographer lurks near by. The juveniles are generally easier to approach for some reason.

Last, I dedicate this entry to the albino yellow-crowned night heron that I discovered on May 26, 2012 on Biscayne Bay. I have not seen it since last summer, but if it is still among mangroves of Biscayne's wild western shoreline, I may see it again soon.

To the yellow-crowned night heron, may it thrive forever in these waters of south Florida.

If you are in the area of Biscayne Bay February through May, please come visit the Dante Fascell Visitor Center of the Biscayne National Park where I will be exhibiting my photography. Mark your calendar for the full moon "meet the artist" reception, on  March 16 from 6-8 pm. Wine and cheese will be served!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Seagrasses and photographing wading birds

Biscayne Bay is a lush meadow of seagrasses. Turtle and manatee are the most prominent species in Biscayne Bay. Turtle grass looks like ribbons (as in the image above) and manatee grass is cylindrical. As I paddle through the shallow waters of the bay, I can see the meadow below, so abundant along the western shoreline. These grasses are critical to the health of the bay for many reasons, among which are the marine animals they support. Fishes,crustaceans and shellfish hide in these grasses, but they also feed on organisms that live on the grasses.

The seagrasses are Biscayne Bay's life blood and they comprise about 160,000 acres in the Biscayne region. Nutrient loading and land runoff are their biggest threats, but there is also propeller scarring. It seems everything about the bay depends on the health of the seagrasses that support the marine food web that includes algae, invertebrates, fishes, birds and mammals.

I come to Biscayne Bay to photograph the wading birds that feed among the shallow waters. When easterly winds prevail, the grasses are pushed up against the shoreline of Biscayne Bay. Sometimes, they accumulate so much that I must carry the boat several feet through knee-deep grasses before reaching the water.

It is not easy capturing wading birds from a boat. Most often, I cannot simply anchor and stay in one spot. Rather, I have to follow the birds, sometimes over hundreds of feet. At low tide, that often means pushing my boat with some effort through very shallow waters. The grasses provide a surface to glide across, but it is not easy. The worse part is when I get into a good position with birds, they move and then I am stuck having to push myself out of the spot and work my way back into another one.

At low tide, the seagrasses disturb the surface of the water. This makes photographing wading birds challenging. Grassy debris and mangrove sprouts often compete with the main subject of a composition and many times, a photo opportunity is bypassed as a result. I began noticing patterns; the water surface almost appears like fabric with textures and colors. Rather than drawing attention away from the main subject, the grasses enhance the image with proper framing and blending.Clearly, the seagrasses are an important components to photographing birds on Biscayne Bay and I had to figure out a way to capture both the bird and the grasses.

If it were not for the seagrasses, there would be no birds on Biscayne Bay. Enjoy these images of the birds and the seagrasses of Biscayne Bay.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Playing with cameras

I believe it is useful now and then to go back to the beginning and examine old photos. The first images I shot on Biscayne Bay back in 2005 were with a waterproof Pentax Optio that was smaller than an iphone. The fact that it was waterproof gave me freedom to experiment and learn to "see" the bay differently than just a casual observer. With that camera, I did not think about exposure settings, all I did was shoot. I deleted most photos at the end of the day, but the point was, I had dozens of photos to delete or keep. And I learned.

I played hard with that camera (it lasted me a couple years before it got fried from salt water exposure) and I believe that because it was a simple camera, it freed up my mind to test my creativity and simply play. I began by seeing boats on the water. The image above, to this day, is one of my favorites. I was impressed with how well the exposure turned out given the bright whites. I learned quickly that good images could be taken with a point and shoot camera, if one was mindful of lighting conditions. So I played some more. Composition, perspective, color, lighting; there were many things to explore. Below are a few more images from that camera resulting from my playtime. And all of this was happening as I learned the bay and began to see more beautiful aspects to it.


It took me about a year before I upgraded, but not yet to an SLR camera. I chickened out because all my photography was being done in a kayak or canoe and the thought of carrying a very expensive camera and lens onboard was not within my comfort zone yet. So I purchased a more complicated point and shot, the Canon Powershot and bought a polarizer filter and a couple lenses that I could attach. One of those lenses gave me a little more telephoto capability and it was with this camera that I really began to "see" birds. I was able to study exposure and DOF through the use of manual mode. It did not take long to figure out that the camera had severe limitations. But, then again, the experiences taught me that I can find ways to overcome most limitations or at least overlook them and find an alternative. And creativity had little to do with the camera at hand.

So I am thinking about these early days of learning and wonder if maybe I lost my sense of play as things got more complicated and my self-criticism got sharper. Long gone are those days when I took a shot for the sake of taking a shot. Now, I take into consideration many factors before deciding on when, where and how to take an image. But wait, maybe there is still an element of play in all of that. Indeed, I believe there is. The difference now is that I see more possibilities for raising the bar and continuing to learn and expand those possibilities. It is play, but with more levels.
Despite all that, I think I might go back to taking a shot, for the sake of taking a shot. At this level of play, it might make things more interesting.