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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Be The King In The Rookery

Photographing one of nature’s greatest spectacles

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Walking past the very alive and very smelly alligators I can hear what sounds like a million voices all talking in the distance. As I round the corner in the predawn light, I can make out, at first, some dark shapes. Walking further, it appears as if the mangrove swamp has been decorated for Halloween with thousands of miniature ghosts. Armed with just an AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 200-400mm with a Nikon D3 on the tripod and an AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm on a second body, I venture into this magical world. My senses are alive. I smell the rookery long before I see it. The incredibly heavy, warm, humid air clings to my skin as my eyes are wide open with the incredible sights—wood storks, great egrets, snowy egrets, tricolored and little blue herons nesting so close I can literally grab them! Roseate spoonbills and white ibis dot the trees here and there. The photography is going to be killer!

Florida is a constant buzz each spring from the millions of wading birds that form large nesting colonies. The vast majority of these colonies can only be experienced through a 40x power scope. A handful can be experienced up close and personal, however, and one of the best colonies is in St. Augustine. The hundred-plus-year-old St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park has a century-old swamp that Florida’s wading birds come to by the thousands to raise their next generation. A boardwalk takes you right through the swamp and up close for a photographic experience you would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in the world! This is a journey into a world that otherwise only a handful would ever experience.

While the challenge of getting physically close to the birds has been solved by photographing at the park, there are plenty of other challenges in capturing great images. All the photography revolves around nesting wading birds. Photographing nesting birds isn’t for everyone, but for those wanting the rewards of a lifetime, success at the park can be broken down easily into three necessary skills. Great images come from knowing the biology unfolding before you, the technology required to capture that biology and the inner photographic skills to put that all together into a beautifully elegant image.

The Biology
The biology, the bird’s life story, is what we’re truly photographing. It’s only logical that in order to capture those great images, we understand what our subject is all about. In this case, it’s all about making and raising babies—baby wading birds.

We all know what an egg is; there’s not much mystery there. It requires only a photo or two to tell its story. It’s when those eggs hatch and life outside the egg begins that the photographic story really begins. This means timing is everything in photographing nesting wading birds. The month of May is generally the time to head to the park for nesting bird photography. The date varies every year, but a little homework will quickly determine when to visit.

Once in the presence of the nesting birds, what’s next? Scouting is the key. Check out as much of the nesting colony as you can (with camera in hand). You’re looking to see if, in a number of nests, you can find the entire nesting biology of one species. While you’re scouting, keep in mind that these baby birds are fed rocket fuel. They grow incredibly fast from the cute “baby bird” to the soon-to-be-adult bird. During your scouting, take into account the number of days you’ll be photographing the colony, the age classes of the chicks and the story you want to tell.


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