Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Alone on an Island: Part 3

I have been coming out to these islands for the past ten years, and in this short amount of time observed the dramatic effects of the weather. The results of hurricane Wilma being the most notable. In my attempt to photograph the beautiful things that I see and experience while beach camping, I have become more interested in photographing the unkempt, storm swept beaches. The image below is from several years ago.

Many of the beaches are cluttered with fallen trees and tree stumps that appear and disappear with the ebb and flow of the tides. It appears very chaotic or more accurately described, wind blown.  I am intrigued with how one scene can change so much within a day. Direction of the sun and tides are the two primary instigators of change. This makes it very challenging because unless you spend at least an entire day on the island, you can miss the best moments.

I have hundreds of images from my paddling trips through the Ten Thousand Islands and my tripod is always with me. The problem is twofold. The first is that I am limited in time during these paddle trips (most of the time, I am camped one night on an island). The other problem is that I have never been good with a tripod and infrequently use it. I fumble around, and drop and forget things. I am in awe of the amount of work and time that go into a landscape image and those photographers that present their creativity in such a masterful way.

To continue with my goal, I needed more quality time to practice and experiment. So it was with this recent trip to one of the islands that I set out to capture some wild scenery, with no limitations other than what nature brought my way. I wanted to get to know the island and through my images, illustrate my experience with it. And I wanted clouds. It was only two days and I brought home a relatively small number of images. But what I took away from the experience goes much farther than that.

As I explored the beach, the sun and tide changed from morning to night, providing various opportunities. The next two images are of the same tree and you can see how much the tide changed.

The clouds were absent in the early morning but eventually many cumulus clouds appeared throughout the day. High tide was around 8 am and reached its lowest around 2 pm. Here are a couple images illustrating the change from both. The lone mangrove tree always seemed to get my attention.

The polarizer lens worked well during the early afternoon hours and I tried my hand at a black and white image while post-processing the images.

On the second day, large dark clouds prevailed and kept the sun covered mostly. This was a good opportunity to try my macro lens and look for small things. The dead wood on the beach offered various textures and tones and I was drawn to the tree snails living among the wood. Here are a couple images to show the variation.

Thankfully, I was photographing the snails an hour or so at low tide, meaning I had plenty of beach space to get around the fallen trees. But as the water comes in, the beach becomes unforgiving and difficult to negotiate safely. You can get the feel of this from the image below.

 On the second evening, clouds formed over the western sky and provided the sun a few openings to shine through. While the colors never appeared dramatic, this image illustrates the pastel reflections on the water.

And oh yes, turtles are nesting and I have a photo of turtle tracks. This is something you don't see when camping in the winter! Unfortunately, raccoon tracks were all over the place.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Alone on an Island: Part 2

Not really alone as I shared the island for two days with thousands of fiddler crabs. On the first day, I arrived at the northeast sand spit of the island. About two hours after arriving, I could finally grab the camera and walk the island.

After a bit of exploring, I walked past a part of the beach that was well protected from the winds and contained a tidal pool that would soon receive water with the incoming tide. This is where I began to notice several sand fiddler crabs running away from me to take refuge in their sand holes. I then noticed thousands of these little critters at the water's edge. The colony of tiny crabs covered an area of about 40 feet in length. They appeared to be heading toward higher ground where they could climb into their little burrows.

I ran back to camp and grabbed the telephoto lens. There was a one-foot drop-off from the sand to a small tidal pool that would soon be filled with water. I laid down on the low ground and propped my camera on the high edge of the sand so that I could be at eye level with the crabs. And the sun was behind me!

I had so much fun photographing them, my first time ever really observing them in great detail. Typically, these little crabs scurry away (side ways) and hide in a hole when you approach them. But this encounter was different. What I observed during my 30-40 min with the crabs were interesting behaviors that could be described as mating rituals and/or territorial disputes. That just about sums up the animal kingdom, does it not? Despite my presence, they stood their ground and at times got too close for my 400mm focusing length.

After getting home, I did my research on these crabs having never photographed them before that day. Indeed, the males were displaying themselves to other males by waving their super-sized claw in a threatening manner. I photographed a couple males fighting, one time with a female in the middle of the dispute.

The male also waved his claw while standing next to his hole. This could be for a couple reasons; to attract a potential mate or to warn approaching males that they are getting to close. In the meantime, several female and male crabs of varying sizes (from a thumb tip to as large as a fist) were moving away from the water and making their way to their respective holes. An interesting fact about the fiddler crab is it recognizes its own sand hole and will not enter any other hole, unless threatened enough. I read this but I also thought about it while observing a crab running away from me. It had several opportunities to run down a hole and take refuge, but instead it passed several of them until it reached its own.

As I watched them more, I noticed that the females sort of ran in packs, while the males stood alone near their respective burrow. What was likely happening is that the females were wandering around looking for a suitable mate. If a female takes an interest in a male, she will go inside its burrow, followed by the male. If she likes him, she will stay there a week or two and mate with him. If not, she comes back out after a few minutes and continues her search. Once the male has a mate, he will re-emerge from the hole and seals it with a sand ball before going back in. 

Here are a few more interesting facts about the sand fiddler crab:

  • The male crab can use only its small claw for eating, while the female has use of two claws.
  • The sand balls on the beach are formed when the crab spits out the sand when eating. They also form these balls when digging a hole.
  • They are good for the environment. Their burrow holes aerate the soil.
  • The super-sized claw on the male can be two thirds of its body weight.
  • If a male loses its super-sized claw, the other claw will grow to become super-sized and the other will regrow into normal size.

I have also written about my photography experiences with other crabs. Check it out if you are into crabs.
Horseshoe Crabs
Mangrove Crabs

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Alone on an Island: Part 1

Sharing a dream, on an Island, it felt right
Between the moon and the tide
Mapping the stars for a while
Let the night surround you
We're halfway to the stars
Ebb and flow
Let it go
 David Gilmour

I feel as if I am the luckiest woman in the world; to be able to go out alone to an island within a national park for two days, and being capable of paddling the distance and camping primitively in the May heat. And with no law or authority to keep me from doing such a thing. A free woman alone on an island.

With only two days available in my schedule, my goal was to photograph to my hearts content with no other obligations. Being alone, I had no one's welfare to concern me, I brought no cook stove and was unfettered from any type of schedule, other than nature's. I set out to explore and test my photography skills on one of the rugged, storm swept islands in the park. My biggest fear had nothing to do with dangerous animal (human or otherwise) encounters, but rather tripping over a log and spraining an ankle or even worse, losing my camera to the seawater.

I did not sprain an ankle, but it was not a perfect trip. I made the mistake of camping on the exposed side of the island where the 15-20 knot northeast winds never let up. I had the tent tied down with buried rocks attached to three fly ropes. The tarp managed to stay up surprisingly, except for one incidence where one stake came loose. Worse part of that is it knocked my tripod with ballhead into the sand. And dang if I didn't break two nails the first day from having to dig in the sand. Forgetting to bring my nail file was another mistake! Not wanting to put up with another day of gusting winds, the next morning I broke camp and paddled over the western side which received enough breeze to make this entire trip bug-free.

Other than those mistakes and few other minor ones, it all played out as I hoped it would. While the first day took much of my time and energy just to keep everything upright and sand-free, the second day was spent photographing along the shoreline. The trick was to pace myself, spend an hour or two walking and photographing (almost always having to carry tripod with camera), take several short breaks under the shade of the tarp, drink lots of water and eat frequently. I could have kept doing this a couple more days if I had the chance. I can manage the heat and the bugs, but the wind kills it for me.

Happy to have captured some of the island's untamed beauty, I had a safe and easy paddle back to Everglades City. The first of many more to come, this trip was a sharp reminder of how lucky we are to have national parks and other protected wilderness areas and that we have the freedom to go out there pretty much whenever we want to. But we also have the responsibility to fight for their protection. Photographing is but one way to do that.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

City of Pelicans

I've been reading a book titled "Tales of Old Florida" and in it is a chapter titled "The City of the Pelicans". Here, the author describes his visit to Pelican Island, where he photographed hundreds of nesting brown pelicans in the year 1903. I compared his experience to mine and while there were obvious differences (i.e., camera equipment), what came across as being similar in our stories is how amazingly calm the birds appear when in the presence of an intruder with a camera.

It is because of this characteristic that I have accumulated many images of nesting pelicans, they simply allow me to do it. And while the birds have their natural habits that have become all too familiar, I never tire of watching or photographing them. With that, I was quite happy to visit the rookery for the first time this year on Mother's Day.

Overall, the year 2014 will probably go down as one of the most challenging and frustrating years for photography from a canoe. I usually make my first visit before April. The constant winds as well as non-weather related obstacles have kept me from the rookery up until last Sunday.

Despite the forecasted 15-20 knot easterly winds, I made the paddle over to the rookery as early as possible, arriving there about 7:15 am. Lighting was very challenging throughout the morning with cloud cover varying in thickness; sometimes the sun peeked out but then all too quickly went back under cover. I kept the flash on the entire time, something I do not enjoy doing. It is heavy and my track record with flashed shots is not so good. This is probably because I rarely use it for photographing birds.

At any rate, while both the great white egret and brown pelican were in great number, my attention was almost completely drawn to the pelican. I was not able to capture baby pelicans this time, but there was lots of parent birds flying in with nesting material. Not the best day I have had with the rookery, but a bad day at the rookery beats a good day at work, anytime.

Here are a few links to previous blogs on the rookery:
The brood reduction hypothesis
Learning to fly
Feeding the chicks
The freeze of 2010

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Not Black and White

Currently, some of my work from Biscayne Bay is being exhibited at the Dante Fascell Visitor Center at the Biscayne National Park. On one wall, I have five pieces as shown here.

From comments made to me and others about these particular images, I believe that most people think these are black and white photos. Some have even inquired about how I painted or drew these designs, disregarding the fact that I am a photographer. With that and also from discussions with others having an interest in my work, the topic of post-processing, or what some call "Photoshopping" comes up. I thought these "not black and white" images would be a good way to talk frankly about how I create my art, because, well, I just love talking about that stuff.

The inspiration for these images began with the double-crested cormorant that has such a high wing load that it has to fly close to the water's surface to take advantage of the compressed air. On Biscayne Bay after those early morning golden hours, I stop photographing birds along the mangrove shoreline because of the harsh lighting. On a calm day (and it has to be calm), I turn to the east and see the water and sky as one, a large white palette with the sun about 70-80 degrees above the horizon. One day, I captured a cormorant flying by and because it was so close to the water, it offered a beautiful reflection. From that moment on, I looked for those opportunities.

Among all the various subjects I photograph, what makes these particular images stand out the most is how easy and straightforward they are to capture Above and below are some before and after photos, so that the viewer may see that the final product for these images are very much like what came straight out of the camera. To expose the scene, I point toward the water and sky (horizon line down the middle) and meter the camera from there. I compensate about +1 1/3 to 1 2/3 stops, meaning I want the water and sky to appear more white and not too grayish blue. In the meantime, this exposure must not be overcompensated too much as to blow out the black silhouettes, which are the main subjects of the image. In the end, there is a compromise going on, because basically, the camera does not have the capabilities of the human eye.

So that's where the post-processing comes in. Once on the computer monitor, I can evaluate the scene. Is the water and sky too dark? Are the silhouettes too blown out? With minor changes (in Photoshop, I use Curves), I can make the sky and water become white while darkening the silhouettes. If there are residual marks (for instance, ripples in the water), I remove them. The finishing touch might be a crop. There is no black and white conversion, it is as the camera captured it.

And that's it! Easy as hitting the shutter button.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Mangrove Tree Crab

Photographing from a canoe in south Florida allows me to capture various animals including the recently posted horseshoe crab. I've on occasion captured other types of crabs, such as this blue crab (see below) I found in Biscayne Bay. As I photographed it, it appeared to blow bubbles into the water. Quite interesting. Off the canoe I have also captured some land crabs, specifically inside the Fairchild Tropical Garden. The second image below is one of them.

The crabs that interest me the most are those that live among the mangrove trees. Where I see them mostly is when I paddle through the creeks of the Everglades or Biscayne Bay. There are two species of mangrove tree crabs that I am familiar with; the Goniopsis cruentata and the Aratus pisonii. The first of the two is the largest and most easily seen among the dark roots of the trees. Here's one that I happened to find one late summer day in a creek in Biscayne Bay. On that particular day, I spotted several of these red crabs and some appeared in twos. I have read that mating season for these crabs are during the rainy season, so there you have it in August.

As with any animal I photograph, I like to pay my respect by learning as much as I can about it. Recently, I was visiting friends in Sanibel and in the mangrove trees along the canal behind my friends' house were several Aratus pisonii types. Standing on land, I attempted to photograph them as the trees offered interesting surroundings and the lighting was nice. Once home, I did alittle research on these weird looking crabs.

First of all, I have to say they are not the most attractive subjects. But even more, they are very, very shy and they camouflage well. As my canoe moves through a creek, if I watch closely enough I can see several of them scuttling around a tree limb to get out of sight. In other words, they are not a frequently photographed subject. But since that day on Sanibel, I decided to learn about them and from this, they have become a more interesting and sought after subject.

This particular species of mangrove tree crabs are unique in that it is the only crab specie that does not breath air. Instead, it relies on water to cover its gills. Other interesting facts about this little crab is that it eats the surface of the mangrove leaves which causes scars or marks on the leaf. It also eats tiny animals and in turn, serves as food for the larger mangrove tree crab, like the red one shown above, and birds such as the white ibis. If the little crab falls into the water, mangrove snapper will snap them up. I also learned that mangrove tree crabs that survive without access to mangroves (such as on pilings) rely on algae for food and would not be able to survive if placed on a mangrove tree away from the pilings.

This summer as I explore the creeks, I will see many of these little creatures. I will look for them more keenly and attempt to photograph these interesting little creatures the best way possible. I will not pick one up and place it in a location where I might photograph it at my will. Instead, I will come to their habitat and patiently wait for the right opportunity. And yet another animal joins my list of favorite challenges.