Monday, February 09, 2009

White Ibis Sunset

On my final trip around the Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island NWR near Titusville, Florida, I was standing along the road with a few friends at sunset when a passing bald eagle scared every bird nearby into the air. Nearest us was a flock of white ibis. These birds burst into the air from an impoundment to our east, flapping frantically past us, headed west into the sunset. I tracked them with my camera and took about 25 photos of the flock as it wheeled left and right.

Then the birds were gone, disappearing over the trees on the western horizon.

Here are the highlight images of those few moments when the ibises were in the air.

The white ibis flock as it took off—the low light turned the fast-moving birds into blurry figures.


Turning to head northwest, the white birds took on the pink of the sunset.

Just enough light to discern some detail.


Well above the bright western horizon, but a hint of the sun's color comes through the ibises' primaries.


Turning back from north to west.

To my eye these scimitar shapes look more like skimmers or bulbats than ibises.

Dropping lower on the horizon now, against a tangerine sky.


The requisite palm tree helps us know this is Florida..


The flock changes its collective mind and wheels northward again.


Every child has drawn the M-shaped birds in pictures created with lots of sky space. Now I know why.


My camera loved the palms as much as my eyes did. Birds are still passing.


The final frame. Lead birds are setting their wings to land.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Photographing Tree Swallows in Flight

Have you ever tried to do something that you knew was next to impossible and yet you could not stop yourself from trying anyway?

On my recent sojourn to east-central Florida's Space Coast region, I noticed large flocks of tree swallows foraging on the wing in several different birding spots. I was both bird watching and taking bird photographs, two activities which, in order to be done well, should be mutually exclusive. You can't enjoy birding if you keep dropping the binocs to grab your camera. And if you're trying to take the best possible photographs, you'll only get frustrated by all the shots you miss when you drop the camera for the binocs. This is one of the immutable laws of the universe.


As I was driving around Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island NWR on fine day, I found that the sun had climbed to its highpoint and the bird activity was beginning to slow. The daylight was getting a bit harsh for photographing water birds, so I moseyed along to a point where a tree swallow flock was slicing the air into a million pieces. The birds seemed to be taking advantage of some large hatch of tiny insects.

I stood and watched for a few minutes, mesmerized by the swooping of swallow wings (wasn't that a Joni Mitchell album?) and noticed that some of the birds were following a somewhat repetitive flight pattern. Oh it was camera time, baby! This would be my chance to totally nail a great shot of a flying tree swallow!

To dream the impossible dream.....

Over the next half hour I took approximately 650 shots. Most of these contained only grass or sky, digital frames completely innocent of the slightest hint of swallow. Some contained a tiny sip of swallow—a tail tip or wing edge.

A very few captured entire birds and were close enough to being in focus that you could even tell what kind of bird it was. These I will share with you here and now.










Photographing birds in flight is a thrilling challenge. Large birds are easier, obviously (see yesterday's post). Small, supremely gifted and speedy fliers like tree swallows are almost impossible to photograph well, unless you are patient, lucky, and in the right place at the right time with the right camera settings and light conditions. And you are not holding your binoculars. And your camera's lens cap is not still on.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Osprey Fly-by

Merritt Island NWR near Titusville, Florida is a world-famous birding hotspot. But it's perhaps even more popular among bird and nature photographers for the opportunity to burn up film—or electrons—on glamorous creatures such as wood storks, bald eagles, roseate spoonbills, American alligators, plus large numbers of herons, egrets, shorebirds, and waterfowl.

Early and late in the day, Black Point Wildlife Drive is busy with vehicles full of folks seeking that perfect nature image. The cars, trucks, and vans drive along very slowly, with all manner of optical and photographic gear poking out of the open windows.

I was standing next to my rental car on Merritt's Black Point Drive one fine morning in late January, when a male osprey came up off a nearby impoundment. He was not carrying a fish. He was carrying nesting material. It was a part of a palm frond, soaked and heavy from the water. The osprey labored low across the water, then along the shore next to me, passing so close that I could hear the air in his wings. At his nearest point, he was too close for me to get a photo with my 300mm lens.

We eyed each other and I gave him the thumbs up for his obvious industriousness. It made me wonder if ospreys pairs understand the concept of the "honey-do list"?

Here's the series of images that I did manage to get.








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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Coot Overload


When one travels to Florida, one might reasonably expect to encounter large numbers of old coots. As someone who has already gotten mailed membership offers from the AARP (at 46, I can already smell the Ben Gay aroma of 50) I wonder about the millions of people who retire to warm, sunny Florida.

I can see why—there are amazing natural spectacles to behold among the birds and beasts, and there are great discounts at Denny's. There is a Denny's on every third corner.


The largest group of coots I have encountered on this trip was on the Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island NWR. It was a cold, windy afternoon and the coots were gathered together in large, swimming clusters. They seemed to be bathing, but why would they want to do this together? Were they clustered for protection from predators? It could be—there were several bald eagles around, looking for grub in all the right places. Was it to help reduce the chilling effect of the wind? Did it have a social function? Many birds begin their courtship before migration itself begins.

Or was it just because this was fun? It felt good to be mixing it up, splashing, wheeling, and grunting with 400 of your fellow coots?

I'd be interested in your hypotheses, theories, and answers.

Or maybe it was because there was a super discount on an all-you-care-to-eat buffet, just for old coots.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Poem of the Great Blue


Oh my little fish swim near
in the cool shade of the mangrove clump
there's nothing here for you to fear
swim closer, little sugar lump

These long pale legs and plumes you see
are just another mangrove tree

swim through these roots and swish your tail
your slippery form I shall impale

and turn you back from whence you came
thus Nature plays its endless game.


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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ruddy Turnstone Convention

Ruddy turnstones along the causeway beach.

Ruddy turnstone in winter plumage.

There's a place along the causeway from Titusville, Florida to Merritt Island NWR, just after the drawbridge, on the left, as you head toward the refuge, where there's a seaweed-covered bit of bay beach you can drive along. There are always large resting flocks of gulls and shorebirds there. And a few wading birds, too. The thing is, the birds are really close. You can drive right up to them and sit there taking photos or scanning with your binocs while they feed and snooze and loaf.

This place always has several budding bird photographers there with their cameras and long lenses, working the flocks. Even when the light is poor you can get really great bird photos because the birds are so dang close.

As I drove up to the spot on Thursday morning last week, I noticed two winter-plumage ruddy turnstones in the grassy strip between the sandy shore and the sandy parking lot where the cars (including mine) were parked or inching along at 2 mph. I stopped the car and tried to focus on the turnstones. But they came closer and closer until I could no longer focus on them. Then they went under the car! I moved the driver's-side rear-view mirror and saw that the turnstones were feeding in the wet tire tracks I'd made in the sand. It must have disturbed the sand enough to expose some food items. The turnstones fed in the tire tracks for a minute or so then ambled back across the grassy strip and down to the water line. Clearly these two turnstones were tuned in to this unusual foraging opportunity.


I drove 50 feet farther down the beach and another turnstone came out and circled around my tires, poking and picking in my car's tracks.

Smart birds—or at least very opportunistic.

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