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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 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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For example, let’s say the great egrets grab your interest (not hard for them to do). You’ll want to find chicks that aren’t much larger than their eggs. Next, you’ll want to find chicks that are three times the size of their egg. Lastly, find chicks that are nearly as tall with the neck stretched as the parents’ legs. These nesting biology photographs showing the three age classes of chicks will, over a week’s time, look as if you spent two months with just one nest. Pretty cool!
Basically, chicks do three things—eat, sleep and avail themselves of Mother Nature’s facilities (and not necessarily in that order). Of these three activities, eating can be broken down into wanting to eat, just ate and wanting to eat more. Of all of these activities, obviously eating is the only one that holds any real photographic potential, so that’s what you tend to focus on.
Feeding is a rather violent activity in appearance. It’s basically the original sword-swallowing act. The chicks grab hold of their parents’ huge, pointed bill and yank back and forth to encourage the adults to regurgitate what’s in their crop. What comes out isn’t truly photographable, but the process certainly is. So this, in a nutshell, is what you’ll be photographing.
In this day and age, you have a lot of excellent options to fall back on to capture this incredible spectacle. Photographing the nesting wading birds at the park can be accomplished easily and quite well with a simple 70-200mm zoom. You don’t need more than that to capture beautiful images. There are many nests—those of snowy egrets, tricolored and little blue herons, in particular—that are physically close enough that this lens is all you need. While the great egret and wood stork nests can be photographed with this short a lens, a longer lens is required for those killer intimate photos. My preference is the VR Zoom-Nikkor 200-400mm lens with the TC-14E 1.4x teleconverter.
You might have noticed that my preference is for zooms. The physical size of the subjects changes nearly every heartbeat. At one moment the chicks and adults are quietly posing, and the next, parents’ wings are unfolded and chicks are alive with the hopes of being fed. This instant change in subject size is a constant all day. Shooting with prime lenses and having to change either lenses or working distances to accommodate this activity would nearly guarantee missing some great images (besides wearing one out).
This is the reason for the zoom. The ability to change focal lengths with a twist of a ring brings an incredible amount of flexibility and problem-solving to the situation. If you’re physically this close to the subject, there’s no reason not to take advantage of it by filling the frame with the subject. That’s what makes the whole shooting experience special. At the same time, you don’t want to crop off body parts unintentionally. While this still happens because you can’t zoom in or out fast enough at times, at least it happens very infrequently. The VR Zoom-Nikkor 200-400mm with a 1.4x teleconverter is incredibly sharp, gives me an ƒ/5.6 working aperture and an AF-S motor with superfast focusing response.
For the most part, all day you have the “shooting the infamous white bird in blue water dilemma” (but instead of blue water you have green foliage). This exposure nightmare keeps some photographers awake at night, but that need not be the case if shooting digital. It all comes down to your knowledge of light. How can digital solve this for you?
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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.
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.