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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

A rookery is a place of wildlife action and drama, making it rich in photo opportunities. Moose Peterson traveled to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in Florida, where birds flock seemingly by the millions to nest, mate and give birth to offspring. Many rookeries can’t be approached, but at some, like the St. Augustine park, photographers can get up close and make use of even a moderate telephoto lens to craft tight wildlife portraits.
All digital cameras have a Highlight Warning feature, what many photographers affectionately call “blinkies.” When activated, if there’s any region in the photograph where the highlights are blown out (no pixel information), they’ll blink black-and-white in the preview. This visual message is telling you that the light falling on the scene is greater than what the film can hold. In this case, it means that the feather detail on the white birds is being lost!

The ability to have instant feedback when you’re not a master of light is the best and quickest way to learn about light. It also assures you that, after all the work you’ve gone through to photograph these birds, you come back with the images. You frame a snowy egret standing over chicks, and sunlight is filtering through the branches so there are some magic beams lighting the subject. Are the beams really magic, or is the range of their exposure compared to the shadows too great for the sensor to hold the highlight detail? If you don’t know, you take a photo, look at the blinkies and instantly learn the answer. If there are no blinkies, you’re in! If there are blinkies, you know you might want to use flash to bring up the shadow info to compact the exposure range and eliminate the blinkies. With the biology and technology so neatly taken care of, all you have to do is make great images.

The Photography
If there’s a key to success in photographing nesting birds, even a thousand nesting birds, it has to be patience! When chicks just hatch, they aren’t that active. You might see them get fed once an hour. When they’re at their most photographable, you might see them get fed twice an hour. When they look like their parents, they’re fed as often as the parents can bring in food. This means you have time on your hands.

Working a rookery like the one at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park gives you a chance to scout out the various nests as the activity and light permit. But you need to stay focused on one subject at a time and make the best images of it. This often means setting up and waiting for feeding time. Most often, you’ll be shooting vertically and with flash. Before the activity takes place, take a shot or two and check your framing, exposure and flash fill. In this way, when the activity begins, you’re ready.

AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 200-400mm
You want to develop eyes in the back of your head for photo ops, as well. The best example is simply great flight shots as the parents come back to the nest. They’ll be point-blank close to you, so you don’t need a huge focal length to make the best shots. Watching for the adults coming in also will prepare you for the action that’s about to begin at the nest so you don’t miss it.

You should look for other photo ops not related directly to feeding, as well. Two situations that come to mind are the “punkers” and the “goners.” The punkers are an age class of herons, about two weeks old, when they have their adult plumage coming in along with a head full of chick down. When they look down their bill at you, they have the craziest hairdo you’ve ever seen. It’s well worth the effort to capture it. The goners are those chicks that, because of the very nature of their surroundings, get eaten by the alligators. Whether they get pushed out of the nest by their siblings, or the alligators burst out of the water and grab a perch and shake them out, chicks do get munched. These are two examples of other photo ops you need to keep your “third” eye open for seeing.

Nesting bird photography can be thrilling, particularly in a wading bird rookery! The potential for learning and improving your photography is enough of a reason to seek it out. There are great images just waiting for any photographer who takes up the challenge, so do all it takes to start planning your trip now. With these simple tips, I guarantee that, once you arrive at the colony, you’ll instantly see what all the fuss is about photographing in the raucous rookery!

To see more of Moose Peterson’s photography, visit www.moosepeterson.com.


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