Thursday, April 30, 2009

Birding Nirvana

Photographing Birds in Flight

On Tuesday I went out with the intention of getting some bird images and testing my camera that was just back from Canon sporting a brand new shutter. In my previous post, I used my backup camera and was pleasantly surprised at how well it tracked moving birds.

63622 Roseatte Spoonbill 1/3200, f5.6, +2/3EV
But this day I was happy to have my main rig back in my hands, and I also took the 40d just in case. I set out early to drive to my venue of choice, the rookery at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, which is about an hour away. This day would prove to be the best day ever for flight photos. The conditions were nearly perfect and the birds were so numerous that often I had to choose which one to follow and shoot. If there is such a thing as birder's nirvana, this must have been it. In this post I will show camera settings on each photo for the benefit of anyone who might be wondering. All photos in this post were shot with a Canon 1D-Mk2N body and 100-400L IS lens at iso 400. Aperture and shutter speed, as well as exposure compensation (if applicable) are shown above each photo. If exposure compensation is not shown, the photo was shot in full manual mode. Near the bottom of this post, I have shared some additional shooting tips for birds in flight.

I started off looking for an opportunity to photograph some perched birds, but I quickly abandoned that idea when I realized that there was such an abundance of flyers. To me, flyers are the ultimate challenge and I find it difficult NOT to try and photograph them, especially when the conditions are good and the backgrounds are sweet. Most of the morning, I was fortunate to have both.

63837 Great Egret 1/2500, f7.1
By the mid-afternoon, I had shot about 800 images, which is very unusual for me. Normally I will shoot till noon at the latest, and generally will end up with less than half that number. But the action was non-stop and I took advantage of it.

63594 Wood stork 1/2000, f5.6, +2/3EV
I watched as this wood stork repeatedly flew to a tree to rip off a branch, then carry it back to the nest. I loved the look of the wing spread just before he took flight. Below is another shot of him flying with a different branch.

63602 Wood Stork 1/1600, f5.6, +2/3EV
As is usually the case, there were more great egrets in the air than any other species. I did try to capture a cattle egret and snowy egret flyer, but the opportunities were rare. I was fortunate to capture a few shots of roseatte spoonbills in flight, mainly because I just happened to notice them coming before they got too close. There were only two or three chances to get spoonie flyers all day. My favorite shot was the first one posted at the beginning of this post above. The shot below is of a younger bird.

63560 Roseatte Spoonbill 1/1250, f5.6, +1EV
63664 Great Egret 1/2500, f6.3
The next few images are great egrets. I had a blast photographing these guys and even though I felt like I was taking a lot of shots that were almost identical, I never tired of doing it. I had a nice conversation with another bird photographer while I was shooting, and after a while learned that he is Kevin Karlson. Kevin has published several books on bird photography, and you can see his website HERE . Since we were both shooting right next to each other, we got many almost identical shots, and we had fun comparing them on our cameras.
63638 Great Egret 1/2000, f7.1, +2/3EV
63654 Great Egret 1/2500, f6.3
63552 Great Egret 1/2000, f5.6, +1EV
When I am shooting birds in flight, I find that it's generally best to shoot in full manual mode, but sometimes I also use aperture priority. No matter what exposure program you choose, you always have to overexpose the shot by about 2/3 to 1 stop if shooting against a bright sky background. Otherwise you will end up with a dark silhouette instead of a well exposed bird. If shooting white birds against dark foliage, the exact opposite is true and you must underexpose by approximately the same amount. The advantage of using full manual is that you can take a few test shots and set the exposure, and it will be the same no matter what the background. This eliminates the need to keep changing the exposure compensation depending what the background is. Since you never know exactly where the bird is going to fly, manual mode yields a lot more keepers and far fewer missed opportunities. I also prefer using flash rather than relying only on natural light. What I try to do is use just enough flash to fill the shadows, but not so much that the viewer can easily tell that flash was used.

63655 Great Egret 1/2500, f6.3
63693 Snowy Egret 1/2000, f7.1

63995 Snowy Egret 1/2500, f7.1
63833 Tricolor Heron 1/2500, f7.1
I was hoping to get a nice shot of a tricolor heron in flight, but unfortunately the only decent shot I think I got was this one looking almost straight up. Perhaps I'll get a better opportunity at a later time. I was not especially crazy about the wing position of the great egret shot below, but other than that I love the detail and sharpness. I am posting a 100% crop below the full shot, so you can get an idea of what I am seeing on my monitor.

63724 Great Egret 1/2500, f7.1
63724 Great Egret 100% crop
Snowy egrets and cattle egrets always seem to fly very erratically compared to the larger great egrets. This makes capturing a flight shot especially challenging. On this outing, I only saw 2 or 3 cattle egrets building nests, so the chances were limited. The shot below was my best effort.

64128 Cattle Egret 1/2500, f7.1
Shooting birds in flight is great fun, and it's also rewarding when you have a good day. I've had my share of frustrating days in the past, but this particular outing made up for a lot of them. This is the kind of day that keeps me coming back.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Half-Day of Florida Birding

6185 - Great Egret in flight
Today I got out for the first time this season to do some birding, thanks to a friend visiting from Atlanta who was looking for some shooting company. We met at the rookery behind the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, Florida. I was only shooting from 8am till noon, but it ended up being a surprisingly fruitful day. I was sort of bummed because I had to send my main camera in for service, so I was left to shoot with my backup rig, which is a 40d. This camera is slower to acquire focus than my Mk2N, but I was a little surprised at how capable it was once I got used to it. I didn't think about it until I was on my way home, but I actually could have photographed 7 different species of herons and egrets alone, if I had bothered to get at least one image of every kind I saw. In addition to herons and egrets, I also saw roseatte spoonbills and Wood Storks. Aside from opportunities to photograph adult birds, there were also chicks of several species and also some juvies. This post will be long on photos and short on text.

6063 - Great Egret chicks
There were plenty of opportunities for Great egrets, including many nests with chicks. I have never gotten what I consider a really good shot of chicks, and I after today I can still say that. But I did get a few shots that at least show the chicks pretty well. Note that in the photo above, the mother has already lost the bright green lore that you usually see as the birds get into breeding season. In the photo below, you can see another of the same species in full breeding colors. I would guess this one is about at peak color.

6014 - Great Egret breeding colors
I'm not normally a fan of white sky backgrounds, and most of my photos with white backgrounds end up in the recycle bin. But the one below works for me and I like it. It's probably the first time I've posted a photo of a white bird with a white background. I was fortunate in my timing to capture the egret with a nice full wing spread.

6161 - Great Egret with nesting material
I was hoping to get a good shot of a cattle egret, and while I saw a few with good color, all were in nests that were obstructed by too many sticks for a decent photo. I'm posting one anyway, just to show the breeding colors. When the colors are at peak, the lore is a purple and looks pretty cool.

6114 - Cattle Egret
I saw a few snowy egrets, but none in good breeding colors. Here is an example of what I am talking about. These birds look a lot prettier when the lore is bright red.

6104 - Snowy Egret
This tricolor heron hung around for a while so I waited until I could get an unobstructed shot. There was a piece of a branch in the upper right corner of the frame that I cloned out.

6026 - Tricolor Heron
Below is a headshot of another tricolor heron that had a little nicer color. This bird was facing away from me at first, but I liked the background so I waited a long time until it turned its head to give me this shot.

6132 - Tricolor Heron headshot
I saw lots of wood storks in nests with chicks, but most of them were too high up in trees to get a good shot. I waited for a long time before this chick stood up and faced me. There were two chicks in this nest but they never got up at the same time while I was watching.

6271 - Wood stork with chick
As I was about to leave, I noticed a great blue heron standing on a tree limb above the swamp. It did not give me the head turn I hoped for, but I snapped this photo anyway.

6275 - Great Blue Heron
This ended up being a very productive day compared to most outings, and I felt like I got at least a half-dozen keepers. This was partly due to the overcast conditions, which kept the light pretty soft for a good part of the morning, well past the time when the bright sunlight would normally be spoiling most opportunities for decent photos. In addition to what is shown here, I saw roseatte spoonbills and a few green herons, but I didn't have an opportunity to get any decent shots of them. Since I spent the morning walking on a boardwalk above a swamp full of alligators, I'll end with a headshot of a gator. I captured this mage because I liked the color of reflections in the water.

6023 - Gator

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Church Rising From the Ashes

5390w3 - Raising Roof Beams

This is a photo from Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, currently under construction. It will replace the former church building that was destroyed by fire 2 days prior to Christmas 2007.

16855 - Old Sanctuary prior to fire

Rewind back to December 22, 2007 - three days before Christmas. That evening, the church was host to a benefit concert of Handel's Messiah given by the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. Late that night several hours after the conclusion of the concert, an air conditioner motor apparently overheated and caught fire. Before most people awoke the next morning, the church was gone.

35719 - Church still Smoldering 12/23/07 10:57am

This event surely impacted some people more than others, but I suspect it was probably the hardest on the elderly in our congregation who had formed so many memories both from events in their lives and those of their families inside that building. It was difficult to watch as we arrived at church and saw the firefighters still spraying water on the now smoldering ruins of the sanctuary where we normally spent our Sunday mornings. The steel beams that held up the roof were now melted and sagging below what had been the roof line. It was difficult to believe this was really happening. We had been members there for about 13 years at the time of the fire.

35744 - Inside Gymnasium - day of the fire

Services were held that morning in the church gymnasium. Ironically this is the same building where the church held its first services in 1946. So in a way, some may have felt they were right back where they had started. The sanctuary had been constructed in 1957 and had been renovated twice with the most recent renovation being completed in 2001, including the addition of a very large stained glass window depicting the outstretched hands of Christ. It would never be the same not being able to see that huge lighted stained glass window as we drove down Hendricks Avenue at night. I will probably never forget that morning, especially how our pastor stood in front of the congregation assembled in the gymnasium already with a hammer in his hand, declaring "we will rebuild".

36614 - Front Facade
Looking back, the fire may have actually brought people in the church closer together than ever before. We all joined in many work days where we did all sorts of cleanup. Additionally we managed to salvage a few pieces of furniture from adjacent offices. One morning, we dug up dozens of bushes and shrubs from around the site of the church and re-planted them in other locations on campus, prior to the demolition of what remained of the building. The concrete front facade of the building remained in place for several months even after the other walls were demolished and removed. It was lit by floodlights at night and stood a remembrance of what had been. In a strange way I was not quite ready for the last piece of the church to completely go away. But that too would soon be removed as we finalized plans for a new sanctuary.

Extensive work went into conducting listening sessions to gather input from members of the congregation to assist in determining what style of church should be built. While it's impossible to please everyone, this seems to have gone a long way toward determining how to meet the majority of the needs and wants of the church as a whole. A design was finally decided on while a capital campaign was conducted to try and raise money to cover the shortfall between the expected insurance settlement and the cost of the new sanctuary.
Construction finally began in late 2008, nearly a year after the fire, and was expected to be completed in time to hold Christmas services in the new Sanctuary in 2009. The new sanctuary would not be built in the same location, but instead would be located more in the center of the campus to facilitate better traffic flow and ease in getting from one place to another.

While the site prep work was going on it was difficult to see any progress visually, although progress was certainly being made. But in February the walls started going up and in March the concrete floor was poured. Then at the end of March, the roof beams started arriving and were being assembled and added. Now in the 2nd week of April, the roof frame is nearly complete and soon the workers will begin closing it in. Since now we can see so much progress being made, many are getting excited and are looking forward with anticipation.

5340 - Lowering a beam into position

62914 - New Sanctuary Construction

62891 - Assembling the massive roof beams
 Last week the choir sang Robert Ray's "Gospel Mass" for our Easter Musical. But we performed it a Lutheran Church across the street since we are still a few months away from having a sanctuary of our own. It was a nice change compared to holding services in our fellowship hall, where the sound is not nearly as good.

Just as Easter represents a new beginning for people of faith, the new sanctuary is sort of a new beginning for one north Florida congregation. Happy Easter!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Wildlife Photography with Ken Conger

2882 Female Grackle - Wakodahatchee Wetlands 2008

This post will be a little bit different from those that have appeared here so far. But anyone who read my very first post back in January may remember that I mentioned I might occasionally write about some people I had met with my camera - those who were responsible in part for helping me develop my skills as a photographer. I've probably had more fun hanging out and shooting with my friend Ken Conger than with anyone else, and I have certainly learned more from shooting with Ken than from anyone else. From the very start when I knew very little of the practical side of photography, I soaked up a lot of knowledge just watching what Ken was doing and then reluctantly at first, asking a question now and then when I couldn't figure something out.

11604 -  Ken at Alligator Farm Rookery -2006

We first met in March 2005 in St. Augustine, Florida. I was photographing birds at the rookery behind the St. Augustine alligator farm with my brother Steve, when we bumped into Ken. It was interesting seeing a massive camo-covered 400mm f2.8 lens on Ken's Gitzo tripod, and I guess I probably asked about it. Ken was still shooting film back then and I remember him telling me that he had purchased his first digital SLR (a Canon 20d) and was using them both and trying to decide if he wanted switch to digital. I was pretty much in la la land when Ken invited me to hook my 10d camera on to his rig and try out the 400 f2.8 lens for a while. I'll never forget that. We pretty much became instant friends, and Ken told me about some of the places he had visited and the different wildlife he had been photographing. I think I fired off close to a hundred shots with that lens in about 15 minutes I was able to try it out. It was great to be able to get such fast shutter speeds with a lens that was 2 stops faster than the 100-400 I had been using. Steve and I hung out with Ken that day, and during our conversation he mentioned that he would be back in Florida the following month and told us we would be welcome to join him again to go shooting. My brother is still working but I had been retired just over a year. I was still feeling the freedom so I thought, why not? We communicated by email over the next month and a half and made a tentative plan for which places we would be visiting. And I had to get a few things done around the house in order to convince my wife I should be able to go joy riding to wildlife sanctuaries for a few days.

12815 Least Tern - Ft Matanzas Inlet 2006

When Ken arrived in Florida we started out at the rookery in St. Augustine where we had met about 6 weeks earlier. Over the next 6 days we would also visit Merritt Island NWR, Viera Wetlands, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Everglades National Park, and a few other smaller places that we scoped out along the way. The routine was to start early and be in one of our planned stops before first light. We would shoot for a few hours and then later when the light became too harsh for good photography we would scope out other nearby places that me might return to later, and then find somewhere to stop for lunch. By the end of the week we made our way down to the Everglades and also stopped to visit Ken's parents.

  We spent 6 days on that trip and I had gotten a few keepers at several of our stops. The biggest revelation I think I had from shooting with Ken that week was the realization that no matter how good a bird photo is, it's still basically garbage if the background is cluttered. I remember thinking during our ride back from south Florida that by applying this criteria, I could probably delete half of the photos that were stored on my computer back home.

43629 - Great Blue Herons - Wakodahatchee Wetlands 2008

42673 Great Blue Heron - Wakodahatchee Wetlands 2008

We've remained good friends and have met for a Florida photography trip each of the last four years, with the most recent being a 9-day jaunt in March-April 2008. On that trip, we also hooked up with Klaus one day down at Gatorland in Orlando. Klaus often comments on Ken's blog, and is a regular in the blogging world. I'm new to this blogging thing so I don't know many people yet. Prior to that day I had never actually met Klaus in person, but we had communicated by email after being introduced by a mutual friend by email. We both live in Florida and both enjoy wildlife photography and we had been thinking about meeting at Gatorland anyway, since I had never been there. This was the perfect opportunity. That morning Klaus met us in the parking lot at Gatorland and we all got acquainted as Klaus showed us around Gatorland, which was his familiar stomping ground. We shot there in the morning but after lunch decided to head to Joe Overstreet Park and try for some snail kites. Gatorland is nice, but the photo opps were limited due to the long distance from the boardwalk to the trees across a pond where most birds were nesting. We went to Joe Overstreet Park after lunch but were not successful in seeing any snail kites close enough to photograph. So we worked the dirt road we had driven in on, since we saw lots of meadowlarks and a couple caracaras, as well as a bald eagle there. We went back to Gatorland for the evening light because we knew a lot of birds would be flying in to roost at night, and we saw it as a good opportunity to photograph flyers.

The next day we went back to Joe Overstreet Park in the early morning, but luck was no better so we headed across the state toward St. Petersburg and Fort De Soto Park. This proved to be a great venue, although some of the beach had been roped off to protect the nesting shorebirds from people who don't know any better than disturb them. This was bad news because there were skimmers there and I really wanted to get a good shot of one, but we could not get close enough. We did work the beach further north and got various shots of a few different species of birds. We probably spent 45 minutes photographing a pair of mergansers that were fishing in the surf just a few feet off the beach. We also walked up on a model shoot that was taking place on the beach, but that's another story.

2593 Merganser - Fort De Soto Park 2008

In addition to the surf, there are also some inland bodies of water just to the west of the beach, and there were a good number of shorebirds feeding there. We were careful to sneak up on them so as not to spook them off. In the photo below, I stayed back a little rather than risk messing up Ken's opportunity to get some shots after he had taken quite a bit of time to arrive where he is in this photo.

40952 - Sneaking up on Shorebirds - Fort De Soto Pk 2008

We continued the week making stops in at Ding Darling NWR, Shark Valley and Anhinga Trail in the Everglades, Loxahatchee NWR, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Green Cay Wetlands and Brian Piccolo Park, as well as a visit with Ken's parents. We had skipped one of my favorite places, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, because it was very dry due to the lack of rain, and there were virtually no birds there. Wakodahatchee Wetlands and Green Cay are also favorites of mine. I always seem to have good luck whenever I am able to stop at either one.

2872 - Grackle - Wakodahatchee Wetlands 2008

Ken calls me the techie-guy because I tend to keep up with the latest specs on cameras and lenses and also the latest gadgetry. I got Ken turned on 'ultra low discharge' Sanyo Eneloop batteries last year after I finished researching them and deciding they were exactly what I was looking for. These batteries hold their charge for a long time, and only lose about 15% of their charge, even if you don't use them for a year. I was in the habit of using batteries then not recharging them until I was ready to use them again. This new product eliminated the need for all that last minute charging. I also got Ken turned on to a couple new monitors built with S-IPS panels, which render colors for photography better than the other types. These have come down quite a bit in the last couple years and I had just gotten one at an eBay store at a great price.

42264 Red Shoulder Hawk - Green Cay Wetlands 2008

We were nearing the end of the week, but I had gotten some of my best nature shots ever on this trip, from all corners of Florida. We visited about a dozen wildlife sites in all, and we were fortunate to get keepers just about everywhere we went, with the exception of Kissimmee Lake and Shark Valley. I had communicated with several other photographers just prior to our trip, trying to find out where the best action was likely to be, but things change so fast that often the word is not reliable a week later.

43112 Burrowing Owl - Brian Piccolo Park 2008

One place that was being avoided by most at that time was Merritt Island. Several people including Arthur Morris told me that it had pretty much been hit and miss this season. A great source for this kind of information is . The site was started by Art Morris and you can find many talented photographers from all over the world posting photos there. It's also a great place for networking and sharing information. We would be driving right past Merritt Island on our way back north, and we both like the place, so we decided to give it a shot. We would shoot there in the evening light, and if it was not good, we would not return there on our last morning. As luck had it, we got there and stumbled upon the motherlode. We happened upon a large group of roseatte spoonbills, and within minutes Ken declared that he had gotten an elusive spoonie shot he had been trying to get for the past several years. Then he laughed almost uncontrollably at the success. We also were able to photograph a good number of other birds, and also saw a wild boar that evening, although I did not get a shot of it worth showing. It was a nice finish to a good trip.

47219 Roseatte spoonbill 2008

We returned there in the morning for our last shoot of the week and we enjoyed photographing some shore birds in the inland ponds, and also an osprey that cooperated by hanging around for a while. At our last stop inside the refuge, I got some photos of a manatee that conveniently surfaced within a few feet of us.

44168 Manatee - Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge 2008

Last summer, Ken and I met up in Shenandoah National Park to photograph deer fawns. I persuaded my wife to come along on this trip and she enjoyed taking video out in the meadow while we were shooting stills. 

49519 Fawn w/Mother - Shenandoah National Park 2008

This was really an enjoyable time, and even though I didn't get too many good photos, I learned a lot about the habits of the deer so I will be able to do better next time. We shot for 4 days at Shenandoah National Park, although Ken left to go home the last morning while my wife and I photographed the sunrise and then photographed more deer fawns in the morning light. It had been a fun time and we would not have been as successful if it were not for Ken coaching us on what to do and what not to do, and how and when to approach the fawns. This was an annual thing for him and he had become quite an expert at it. He had also already been there the previous weekend to scout things out.

4386 Early Light - Shenandoah National Park 2008

I missed a chance back in December last year to shoot with Ken when he traveled to Florida again just after his retirement because I was tied up with several jobs and could not get away. Ken did hook up with Klaus again on that trip but all I could do was check his blog with envy, seeing everything I had been missing each day. They got some amazing shots on that trip and it killed me that I couldn't be there too. You may have seen on Ken's blog that he DID get some great shots of snail kites on that trip.

I give Ken a lot of credit for much of what I have learned over the last few years in the way of wildlife photography. He's a good guy and a generous teacher. Since he landed a seasonal gig as a park ranger in Denali National Park for this summer, I'll be watching his blog with envy again, wishing I could get in on some of those photo opportunities as well. To see more photos from our 2008 Florida trip, Click Here.