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.


  1. Tim, you have incredible bird photos and you travel with Ken! Now I know where he learned (chuckles). I sure will miss him this summer but he is going to reward us with incredible bear images from Denali. I also do my annual pilgrimage to Florida early in the year and those places you mention are familiar to me. Living in Florida really have great photographic benefits.

  2. Amazing bird pics! What do you call those two birds with pointed beaks?

  3. Inspiring outdoor photography. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Tim your work is also outstanding out of all the photos you have shown here I cannont pick a favorite they are all great No wait I think it's the Owl :) Top class Photography mate !! BTW Ken is an excellent photographer too :)

  5. That is a wonderful hommage on Ken! I for my part thouroughly enjoyed meeting the both of you - and missed you on our December trip.
    Ken sure is a role model for anyone who tries himself in the art of nature photography.
    Hope we can hook up sometime soon to go a little shooting!
    Cheers, Klaus

  6. Those are some beautiful pictures! What an exciting and learning time you had.
    Next time, I want to go. tee hee
    Maybe I could learn something too. Although, I have learned how to sneak up on the turkeys that frequent my pasture.

  7. Tim,
    An extremely interesting post and your are an excellent photographer. Those are outstanding images.

    I have not met Ken in person, but feel like I know him from exchanging comments in blogging and also considering that we both worked for our respective state conservation agencies.

    It was great to learn how you met him and see the shots of him in action.

  8. Quite the honor to have the tech king take the time to post such kind words. I'm lucky to have met you and am a better photographer due to our ventures and friendship. Blue Skies.

  9. Tim : Stunning wild bird images. WOW I kept looking at them a couple of times to decide which one I like best, it was hard to decide on one, but I think I will settle for the Least tern shot which is a class shot.

    I have also added myself to your follower list...Thomas

  10. Absolutely stunning work Tim, a pleasure to view. I love them all but the Roseate Spoonbill is my favourite.

  11. just passing through visiting photo blogs thought I would say hello. Love the heron and spoonbill pictures as I love birds in flight pictures

  12. ...your wildlife photos are amazing!! Absolutely beautiful...

  13. Ken your photos are great! I have just started taking pictures this year. I have a incredible place full of deer. I wish you would look at my pics and tell me what you think. If you search snugmug I am under adeerable. If you ever get to Autin Texas I would love to take you out to the place I take my pictures. My website is