Friday, November 4, 2011

Impressionist Photography, Take 2

Today I set out to the Villas Wildlife Management Area during the magic hour in search of raptors.  Though I saw several hawks and two Great Blue Herons flying high above, no photographic opportunities presented themselves due to the distance of the birds or the lighting conditions.  Since the VWMA was formerly a golf course and held the massive estate of a beer brewer who was eventually incarcerated, water hazards remain on the premises. Since I was having no luck with the birds, I tried my hand at some impressionist photography using the water hazards.  Since the sun was low, some of the areas were poorly lit but the exposures acquitted themselves well after some minor Photoshop manipulation:

2011.11.04  Autumn Reflections
Autumn Reflections, Canon 50D, 400mm 5.6L, f/5.6 @ 1/250, ISO 800, -2/3 EV.  November 4, 2011.

This area was not well lit.  Since I had planned on shooting birds, I did not have a tripod or monopod with me.  The 400 5.6L also lacks image stabilization, so I was forced to bump the ISO to 800 and drop the exposure compensation in the hopes of getting a suitable shutter speed.  I was shooting in RAW, so I knew that bringing the exposure back up wouldn't be much of a problem.  Since the camera was already set in high speed continuous mode to shoot birds, I rattled off a number of shots in the hopes of getting one that didn't display obvious camera shake.  The original RAW file looked like this out of the camera:

[JPG2] IMG_2767

Though I'm a purist when it comes to my nature photography, I don't mind manipulating RAW images for impressionist scenes. The first thing I did was switch the auto white balance from "As Shot" to Daylight:

[JPG3] IMG_2767

Then, I increased the Blacks, the exposure and did two things that I NEVER do with nature or landscape photography: I pushed the Vibrance slider past the +10 mark.  The Saturation was only set at +4.  The end result is what you see in the first photo above.   

Here's a completely different example from today.  I stopped all the way down to f/32 to give the starburst quality to the beams of light reflecting off the water and through the foliage:

2011.11.04  Reflecting Sun
Reflecting Sun, Canon 50D, 400mm 5.6L, f/32 @ 1/160, ISO 100.  November 4, 2011

I lowered the ISO, despite the slow shutter speed it would provide, due to the brightness of the reflections. They are still somewhat washed-out.  I wanted to leave the foliage as part of the scene without blacking it out, however. 

Here's two more examples from today:

2011.11.04  Golden Pond Reflection
Golden Pond Reflection, Canon 50D, 400mm 5.6L, f/5.6 @ 1/400, ISO 400, EV -1/3. November 4, 2011

I wasn't as crazy about this one, but it provides some groundwork for further experimentation:

2011.11.04  Tree Reflections
Tree Reflections, Canon 50D, 400mm 5.6L, f/5.6 @ 1/400, ISO 400, EV -1/3.  November 4, 2011.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Today at the Avalon Seawatch

Official site of the Avalon Seawatch, Cape May Hawk Migration, and Monarch Monitoring Project:

I took my Canon 50D and 400 5.6L to the Avalon Seawatch today, alternating shooting locations between the 8th Street Jetty and the 11th Street beach.  Geographically, Avalon is one mile further out to sea than the resort towns preceding it.  (Hence the slogan, "Cooler by a Mile.")  The exception is Atlantic City, which is 25 miles up the Garden State Parkway but can be seen clearly from Avalon's 8th Street Jetty.  The consequence for birders and bird photographers is that species migrating down the Atlantic Coast by hugging the ocean and/or the shoreline will often move closer to shore once passing A.C., only to be pushed back out eastward as they approach the jetty.  Many migrants will pass in front of, close to, or over the jetty when making their move back out near the coastline.    

Birds were migrating by the thousands today, especially Double-crested Cormorants, Black Scoters and Surf Scoters.  The flocks of Cormorants were constantly streaming over both the beach, jetty and ocean in flocks of up to 100+.  They were flying directly over the water and only 10' from the surface of the beach at times.

There was about 10 minutes of sunlight during my four hours there, so most of the  photos show a lot of grain when viewed very large and lack the 'pop' and feather detail provided by sunlight.  The required processing also served to degrade their quality somewhat, but that was helped by shooting in RAW only.

Photographic opportunities at the Seawatch are dictated by day, weather conditions, and by how much reach you have.  The bare minimum lens requirement is 300mm, and even 400mm is not always useful.  A 400 is excellent for shooting Double-crested Cormorants, which have little preference for their migration location as long as it is somewhere near or over the Atlantic.  They will migrate above the land and marshlands close to shore, over the beach, or directly over the ocean near the shoreline. They will fly as low as 10' over the beach and directly over the water near shore at times.  Less commonly, they will migrate approximately 100-300 yards out to sea.  Once the middle of October hits, they are frequently seen in Avalon in numbers ranging from a few hundred to upwards of 10,000 per day until migration begins slowing at the middle of November. Some will stop to feed off the jetty.  The opportunities to shoot these birds are limited only by your memory card if you have  at least 300mm of reach.

2011.10.26  Migrating Cormorants 4
Migrating Cormorants, 2011.10.26, 400mm, f/7.1 @ 1/2000, ISO 250 

2011.10.26  Migrating Cormorants 2
Migrating Cormorants, 2011.10.26, 400mm, f/9.0 @ 1/2000, ISO 400 

2011.10.26  Migrating Cormorants over Atlantic
Migrating Cormorants, 2011.10.26, 400mm, f/5.6 @ 1/2000, ISO 400.  I would have stopped down past 5.6 for this flock shot if there was more available light. 

The usual birds that surround and occupy the jetty can also be shot with 300-400mm.  They consist of sandpipers, ruddy turnstones, and various gulls and terns.

2011.10.26  Gull on Jetty
Gull on Jetty, 2011.10.26, 400mm, f/6.3 @ 1/2500, ISO 200. 

2011.10.26  Ruddy Turnstone
Ruddy Turnstone, 2011.10.26, 400mm, f/7.1 @ 1/1250, ISO 320, -2/3 EV.  I would normally shoot a bird this size at f/5.6 and lower the ISO.  I had not changed the setting from shooting a recent flock that flew by the jetty.  

On occasion, some of the migrants further out over the ocean will circle the jetty, pause to feed near it, rest atop it, or will stop for a spell on a nearby area of the beach.  Today, I was able to capture one of two Great Blue Herons that took a breather on the 11th Street beach while in the process of migrating:

2011.10.26  Migrating GBH Resting on Beach

Another GBH circled the jetty for a time, fortunately during the 10 minutes of sunlight:

2011.10.26  Migrating Great Blue Heron 2

2011.10.26  Migrating Great Blue Heron 3

Beyond the Cormorants, local shorebirds, or resting migrants, shooting at the Seawatch becomes much more difficult without a minimum of 560mm of reach.  (I would recommend 700-800mm to shoot all of the species that will be migrating past.)  A strong East wind is needed for the scoters to be blown close enough to the jetty to be accessible for shooting with a 400.  Scoters prefer to migrate near enough to the shoreline to be clearly visible with the naked eye, but they most often fly far enough out over the ocean that shooting them with only 400mm will do you no good:

[JPG] IMG_9354 

This is a very heavy crop of the front portion of the flock in the same photo:

[JPG2] IMG_9354

Since Surf Scoter drakes are very photogenic birds with their sky blue eyes and a large orange and white beak against its dark feathers, not being able to properly shoot these birds is disappointing.  I saw over 1,000 Black and Surf Scoters today over a 4-hour period, but none came within shooting distance.  (During November, a mixed flock of waterfowl will take-up residence around the jetty before moving on.  Scoters are included, and they can be shot with 560mm or 400mm if you are very patient or lucky.)

Northern Gannets are another photogenic species that can often be seen from the beach or jetty come October, but they often fly far out over the ocean.  Adults are easily spotted by the naked eye from over 100 yards away because of their white feathers.  (Juvenile plumage is brown.)  As they approach closer, they are easily distinguished from gulls because of the black feathers underneath their wingtips or by their slightly larger size than many gulls surrounding the jetty.  I would recommend 700-1200mm if you are intent on shooting Northern Gannet from the Seawatch.  I saw approximately three dozen adults and juveniles today, some of which were diving for food.

On a beautiful day last October, I got lucky when an adult Northern Gannet stopped on the jetty in order to observe a juvenile feeding.  The bird was very tame and undisturbed by the presence of curious observers:     

Northern Gannet Portrait  

2010.10.28  Adult Northern Gannet Observing Juvenile Hunting

2010.10.28  Juvenile Northern Gannet Hunting

The following photographs further demonstrate the limitations of 400mm at the Seawatch.  Though the lighting was poor today, with 700mm of reach (or even 560) these photographs could have been much more interesting:

2011.10.26  Gull with Dinner

[JPG] IMG_0107

2011.10.26  Migrating Great Blue Heron

2011.10.26  Migrating GBHs in the Distance


1.  Bring the longest lens that you are able to borrow, rent, or own. To shoot Double-crested Cormorants, the local shorebirds, or the occasional resting/feeding migrant, a minimum focal length of 300mm on a crop sensor body is required but 400 is preferred.  The 500mm 4.0L IS, especially when paired with the 1.4 TC, is the optimal lens because you will be afforded 700mm that can be handled (very carefully) on a heavy-duty monopod.  Most shooters prefer to use the 500 on a tripod with a separate head; it is essential for the size and weight of the Canon 600 4.0L IS.  Though the Canon 400 4.0 DO IS is a lightweight lens that can be handheld and turned into a 560 5.6 DO IS by using a 1.4x teleconverter, even the good reach provided by this lens may prove to be a disappointment if you wish to shoot the Scoters and other waterfowl migrating further out from the jetty unless a strong wind is pushing the birds west.  

If you have access to a private boat, I'd bring a 400 and a 70-200 and anchor at a safe distance from the jetty.  The fall and winter seas can be quite rough.  Only an experienced, properly licensed captain can make a determination as to whether the seas are appropriate for your vessel.  

2.  You need not be a morning person to shoot the Seawatch.  The sun rises at a position relative to the jetty that early morning migrants over the ocean will be sidelit- and on the wrong side, as well.  The lone exception would be the Double-crested Cormorants flying over the jetty or beach, unless you are lucky enough that Common Loons are eating crabs for breakfast in the cove-like area at the start of the jetty.  The migrants will be sidelit on the proper side or frontlit by noon.     

2009.09.02  Avalon Sunrise III
The sunrise from the 8th Street Jetty after a storm cleared in early September 2010.

3.  Watch your camera settings.  You will be shooting individual birds and flocks, as well as birds with white plumage or darker plumage.  Depending on the amount of available light, your aperture, ISO settings and exposure compensation will be changing constantly depending on the number of birds and the color of their plumage.

4.  Shoot at low tide if possible.  This allows you to get to the end of the jetty, or will allow you to shoot migrants closer to the shore if you are shooting from the beach nearby.  The end of the jetty is not accessible at high tide without serious risk to your equipment and yourself, even with relatively calm seas.

5.  Make sure your sensor is clean and clear of dust.  Otherwise, dust spots will appear if you are shooting flocks in the f/8 - f/13 range.  While they can be cloned out, it may be a lot of work depending on how much dust is on your sensor and where.  

6.  Nothing at the Avalon Seawatch is guaranteed.  Migration varies based on weather and wind.  There may be days with only several hundred migrants, or days with almost 40,000.  You can check years of Avalon Seawatch history using the link of the top of this post.  Rain will slow migration, and fog can make taking photographs nearly impossible.  Temperatures begin to dip sharply in November.  


Monday, July 18, 2011

Highlights from Avalon and Cape May, NJ This Summer

July 1, 2011
Canon 50D
Canon 400 5.6L
No Blind
Avalon, NJ

All images can be viewed larger by clicking and choosing the 'View All Sizes' Option:

Snowy Egret Portrait
2011.07.01  Snowy Egret Portrait

Snowy Egret Portrait
2011.07.01  Snowy Egret Portrait

Little Blue Heron Hunting
2011.07.01  Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron with Common Tern Diving into Frame
2011.07.01  Little Blue Heron w/ Common Tern Diving into Frame

Little Blue Heron Being Curious about the Photographer
2011.07.01  Little Blue Heron

July 1, 2011
Canon 50D
Canon 400 5.6L
Avalon, NJ

Clapper Rail
2011.07.05  Clapper Rail

July 9, 2011

Canon 50D
Canon 400 5.6L
Roadside Tidal Pool
No Blind
Swainton, NJ

Snowy Egret Hunting
2011.07.09  Snowy Egret Hunting

Snowy Egret Claiming Hunting Territory
2011.07.09  Snowy Egret

July 12, 2011
Canon 50D
Canon 400 5.6L
No Blind
Cape May Point, NJ

Courting Least Tern with Fish
2011.07.12 Male Least Tern w/ Fish

Failed Least Tern Courtship Display
2011.07.12 Male least Tern w/ Fish 2

2011.07.12 Male least Tern w/ Fish 3

Fledgling American Oystercatcher Thanking Mother for Sand Crab
2011.07.12  American Oystercatcher w/ Fledgling

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Osprey on Thompsons Beach Road

I discovered Thompson Beach Road in Heislerville, NJ by accident. I knew it was there from my trips to Heislerville Fish and Wildlife Management Area, but I had no idea it was THE spot for Osprey in Cumberland County.  There may be up to a half-dozen sitting in the trees along the road at any one time.

You can get some good photographs with only a 400mm lens, as there is an occupied nest directly on the road.  With the mother incubating her eggs right now, I chose not to disturb her.  There's no need; where there is an incubating female, the male is sure to be close by.  The male usually hangs out in the dead trees that are anywhere from 10-30 feet away from  his nest.  The best time to photograph this particular male is in the morning.  I arrived on this day late in the 2 o'clock hour, which ensured that the Osprey would be side lit.  With the branches of the tree blocking some of that sun, it afforded me few keepers.

I would recommend 560mm - 700mm for photographing the rest of the Osprey in the area.  In the late afternoon, they will be frontlit and sitting in the trees on the opposite side of the road. 

All shots were taken with a Canon 50D in bad need of a sensor cleaning and a 400 5.6L lens. The final shot is not cropped.

[JPG] IMG_2706

[JPG] IMG_2835

[JPG] IMG_2988

[JPG] IMG_3043

2011.05.28  Osprey with Late Lunch

Friday, June 3, 2011

Avalon, NJ by Kayak 2011.05.30

I was able to grab a kayak from my friends at Bay House on a Budget and hit the marshlands surrounding Avalon, NJ.  My favorite birds to shoot are wading birds, which forage only at low tide because they need to stand upright in the water while they hunt.  Low tide, unfortunately, was timed to be close to the harsh noon sun directly overhead so photography conditions were not optimal in terms of lighting location and the high power level.

Hungry birds, however, were plentiful.  At one point, I witnessed two snowy egrets, several species of gulls and a yellow-crowned night heron in the same exact area.  One of the egrets still had his breeding lores and was especially ornery toward his companion. When the non-breeding egret stumbled upon a blue claw crab leg in the shallow water, the more aggressive egret pounced in an attempt to steal it.  Though he was unsuccessful, he was able to ensure his competition for food wandered aways off. 

2011.05.30  Snowy Egrets Fight over Crab Leg
Since I used a relatively closed aperture to account for the whites under the harsh noon sun, I was able to capture the faces of both egrets clearly even though the head of the egret with breeding lores is obscured by the departing egret's legs.       

Cape May Point State Park, NJ 2011.06.01

There is a great diversity of species in one of the best parks for birding in the U.S. right now: glossy ibis, great egret, snowy egret, great blue heron, red-winged blackbird, mute swan, mallards, turkey vulture, Canada goose and their chicks, nesting least terns, Forster's terns, numerous gulls and many small birds in the brush that fly far too fast for me to identify.

Glossy ibis seem to be plentiful this summer as compared to last. Not only did I see a flock of at least a dozen with two snowy egrets in a small pond near the back of the red trail, but I've consistently seen them flying over the Garden State Parkway en route to the numerous marshland areas.  (If you're not from the tri-state area, South Jersey is largely rural with vast marshlands in the southernmost areas.)

I took my hike during the worst possible time for photography (11:00 a.m. through noon) but still managed a few shots:

[JPG] IMG_3772

[JPG] IMG_3755

[JPG] IMG_3819
Though generally skittish, snowy egrets will tolerate human presence if they're hungry and there's a lot of food around.  I photographed this snowy for at least 20 minutes and he clearly stared right at me here without flying off.

[JPG] IMG_3817
Though tough to see here, that's a blue damselfly in the egret's beak.  That gives you an idea of how quickly these manic hunters can move.  Click on the photo to see the larger version on my flickr account.

[JPG] IMG_3821

2011.06.01  Red-winged Blackbird
Birders know that the red-winged blackbird is the real sign that spring is in the air, as opposed to robins which tend to winter in PA and NJ.  These small birds have the most distinctive call I have ever heard.  It almost sounds electronic.

2011.06.01 Resting Terns
Forster's terns hanging out on the pier on the pond.  They are not afraid of humans. They're smart enough to know that they are much quicker and faster than any human outside of Kenya.  Also an intelligent species, researchers believe that their migration is governed by internal sensors attuned to the Earth's electromagnetic field.  

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Heislerville, NJ Fish & Wildlife Management Area - 2011.04.30

Yesterday I stopped at Heislerville between 4:30 and 6:00 p.m. while on the way to check on my parents' place in the Villas.  (It was an easy decision to make the stop given that the Flyers were already falling apart by this time.  Boucher was pulled just as I hit Matt's Landing Road.)  

Though plenty of my favorite wading birds were present, most were much too far away for even my 400mm 5.6L.  The tide was low, and most of the 18 snowy egrets I counted foraged in the mud that was on the opposite side of the road.  The 4 great egrets I spotted didn't come within close range, even though I was employing a blind that I've had great success with in the past.  This is the best picture I obtained of a great egret, and this is full-frame:

[JPG] IMG_2051
Great Egret Landing, Canon 50D, 400 5.6L, f/8 @ 1/1250, ISO 160, EV -4/3

In contrast, I was able to capture the following image from my car, which was about 10' further away from yesterday's blind, on April 29 last year. It's about a 50% crop.

2010.04.29  Great Egret
Great Egret Feeding, Canon 50D, 400 5.6L, f/7.1 @ 1/2000 ISO 320, EV -1 April 29, 2010

The best photos I obtained yesterday were of a mute swan that was drifting back and forth very close to my position.  You can click on any image and view it larger from my flickr account.  These photos are approximately 75% of the original image:

[JPG] IMG_1941

[JPG] IMG_2060

[JPG] IMG_1975

[JPG] IMG_1976

[JPG] IMG_2176

Incidentally, the dike is in very poor condition right now.  It's not due to mud- the holes in the dike's surface are craters.  Don't make the mistake I did and try to navigate it in a low-clearance vehicle.  Take the entrance road opposite the marina.  Although there is a 'Road Closed' sign, the road was in much, much better shape than the dike itself and is mostly dry. 

Species observed:
Snowy Egret (18)
Great Egret (4)
Common or Forster's Tern (3)
Osprey (1)
Greater or Lesser Yellowlegs (1)
Dunlin (numerous)
Red-winged Blackbird (numerous)