Thursday, April 29, 2010

Roseate Spoonbills

One bird that seems to usually be pretty elusive for me is the roseate spoonbill.  I don't see a lot of them very often, and usually when I do the chances of good photos are slim.  When the birds are roosting, the backgrounds are almost always too cluttered so the best chance at a keeper is usually a flight shot.   This presents a whole different set of challenges because it seems that I seldom get many opportunities at flight shots either.  Even when I do, everything has to be just about perfect to get a decent photo.   The light needs to be in the right direction, and a small amount of flash should be used to partially light up the underside of the wings to balance the ambient light hitting other parts of the bird.  If all these factors are in place, then the challenge is to capture a good flight pose and also get a sharp, well focused image.    The majority of my attempts end up in the recycle bin due to one or more of the items mentioned above not being just right, but most often due to just not capturing an attractive pose.

On my most recent outing, I hooked up with a friend who was visiting Florida from Texas and we set out to try and get some flyer shots.   I had some decent opportunities with various bird species, including two chances where a roseate spoonbill flew close by.   I am only including the spoonbills in this post and all of these flight shots came from the same series.    In the image above, the bird was flying to the left and preparing to bank back toward the right. 

As the bird came back around to the right, I was fortunate to get a shot with a full wingspread.  Although the flash did not fire, I got a little bit lucky that the wings were back lit enough to prevent the underside from being too dark.   When I checked the exif data on this series of photos, I was surprised when I noticed that flash did not fire on any of them.   Thinking back, I remember changing my flash batteries at one point after discovering they were spent.  I must have shot this sequence prior to that time.  I must remember to watch that indicator more closely from now on as I believe some fill flash would have helped these images.  

As yet, this species has not nested this far north in Florida. But folks around here are hopeful that they may start soon as some nesting behaviours have been observed in St. Augustine.

In a bit of unrelated news, I was fortunate to get NASA Causeway tickets again for  the launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis on May 14.   So if all goes well and there no delays, I am hoping to get some better images of a shuttle launch in a couple weeks.  This will be the last flight of space shuttle Atlantis, and after this there are only 2 more launches left in the entire shuttle program.  I'm sad to see the program end.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Launch of Space Shuttle Discovery sts-131

The Challenge of Photographing a Pre-Dawn Launch

Early this morning we drove down to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery.  We arrived at 3am to allow time to board a bus and set up our cameras on the NASA Causeway for the scheduled 6:21 am launch.   The launch was originally set for the afternoon of March 18th but due to cold weather in Florida, the preparations to the launch vehicle could not be completed in time for that date.  Because the shuttle launch has to be synchronized with the orbit of the International Space Station, the launch time gets 25 minutes earlier for each day it is delayed.   That's how we ended up with a pre-dawn launch, which is much more challenging to photograph. 

Today we were fortunate that everything went very smoothly and the weather cooperated very nicely as well.  Discovery lifted off right on schedule at 6:21am.   It was a nice cool morning approximately 60 degrees, which is what I consider perfect weather.  

Below is a chronological sequence of launch photos.  There were over 20 images in this series but I am only showing 5 of them.  The camera settings I used were vastly different for the first few photos, before the shuttle cleared the launch tower.  Once it cleared the tower and the huge flame from the solid rocket boosters became visible, I had to raise the shutter speed from 1/100 second to 1/640 second to prevent the photos from being completely washed out.  Since I knew the smoke plume would billow out toward us and momentarily block our view of the shuttle after the solid rocket booster ignition, I used this 1 to 1.5 second interval to adjust my shutter speed.   I was ready when the shuttle emerged from behind the smoke and I had the right settings thanks to a good friend from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Montgomery, Alabama who advised me early this morning.  Thanks, Joby!
[ click any photo to enlarge ]

Ignition of Discovery's 3 main engines.

Flaming up

Firing Solid Rocket Boosters (here comes the smoke plume)

Discovery emerges from behind the smoke plume.

The photo below shows the International Space Station as it flew overhead 17 minutes before the shuttle launch.   I snapped a few photos as it passed between us and the moon, getting both in the frame. 

[click photo to enlarge]

Finally, here's one that Cindy snapped right before the launch.  Since we were in total darkness, I  look like deer in someone's  headlights from the camera flash.

Additional images can be seen HERE.


Friday, April 2, 2010

Birds In Flight

St. Augustine Alligator Farm
Having just returned last week from a trip around Florida photographing birds, I was still in the mood to do a little more.   So on Tuesday I drove down to the rookery at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and was a little surprised to see so many birds already nesting in the trees above the swamp.   I had heard there were a good number of birds, but never expected this many so early in the season.  

Needless to say, this made a good opportunity to photograph some birds in flight.  The wind direction was not ideal, but I still got some decent opportunities.   There were tons of great egrets, and also lots of wood storks and snowy egrets. 

I also saw about 20 spoonbills roosting, and occasionally they would fly around.  But usually they did not fly far and would land again close to whee they had been, offering little chance of flight photographs.   I only had one or two chances to photograph the spoonies in flight, and I didn't really get anything too good.   The image above is one of them. [click any image to enlarge]

The next five images are great egrets.  It's fun to photograph these guys as they go out to retrieve sticks and then return to add them to the nest.

Below is one of the few wood storks I photographed that day.  There were lots more great egrets in the sky than anything else. 

And finally, it was interesting to see this great egret below attempt to fly with this large a tree branch.  He flew a good distance with the branch, but dropped it just as he got to the nest.

The rookery is really cranking up now and there are lots of birds.  In addition to what I've already mentioned, there were also some tricolor herons and a few cattle egrets, and night herons. 

The newly built boardwalk is much nicer than the old one.  It is far more stable, and it extends a little closer to the back fence.  It does not vibrate when folks walk past pushing baby strollers, as it always did in the past.

I figure I'll be making a few more trips to the rookery as the other species of birds start nesting.