Wildlife photography from a boat

A Great Egret poses in front of early autumn colors.

Back in September I was fortunate to join the boat owners club when I picked up a single-seater canoe/kayak hybrid. After my typical dive into researching the best potential model for my usage and pocketbook, I was pretty certain it would suit my needs. Excited to give it a try, my first stop in getting it wet was an early morning vacation day at Creve Coeur Lake.

The “Discovery 119” hybrid – very stable and easy to move to and from the water.

On this first outing, only minutes from my house, I did not expect the photographic opportunities to be very abundant. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the looks at wildlife and photos I was able to get.

A Great Blue Heron, usually quite timid, was easy to get close enough to capture with a 400mm lens.

Maneuvering the boat into position while trying to get the photos was a bit of a chore and will definitely take more practice to get right. Facing your subjects is key and in still waters was usually doable before the subjects could complain.

A Great Egret grabs a quick bite.
A quick flip to align and down it goes.

This boat sits very shallowly in the water, allowing me to maneuver easily in the shallows wetlands found at the south end of the lake. I was often moving in less than three inches of water!

Green Herons tend to have a strong tolerance for humans in more populated settings, often allowing close looks.
It’s not every day that you can get this close to a juvenile Little Blue Heron.
The boat was stable enough for me to handhold track this LBHE in flight.
Birds were not the only ‘reptiles’ I was able to get close to on this outing. This is an age-induced melanistic male red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) who was bold enough to stay on his sunning perch after his smaller conspecifics had fled to the water.
This northern watersnake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon) was showing opaque eye scales, indicating it will be shedding its skin within a few days.

This wraps up the best of my keepers from my first day out in the boat. Needless to say I was quite satisfied with this activity and I am looking forward to getting out more often with it.

Great Egret

Thanks for visiting!

-Ozark Bill

White-eyed Vireo Nest – Part One

May seems such a long time ago. I don’t know how I get so behind on photo processing, but, better late than never. Here is the first of what will probably be three videos with stills of the White-eyed Vireo nest found by Miguel Acosta at Weldon Spring C.A. this past spring. I hope you like it.

-OZB

A few nesting Missouri birds from 2020

As usual, I am woefully behind on processing images this year, probably worse than usual actually. I’ve also not put much work into birds this year, a general trend over the past few years. Too much I’m interested in and not enough time. Anyway, here is some avian miscellany from 2020 so far.

Cerulean Warbler photographed at Weldon Spring C.A.

My quest is to get the perfect Cerulean Warbler shot. These are not it, but getting closer. Better luck next year.

Cerulean Warbler photographed at Weldon Spring C.A.
Cerulean Warbler photographed at Weldon Spring C.A.

This pair of Blue-grey Gnatcatchers were also photographed this spring at Weldon Spring Conservation Area.

Blue-grey Gnatcatcher (female), Weldon Springs CA
Blue-grey Gnatcatcher (male), Weldon Springs CA

A pair of Louisiana Waterthrush were usually easy to find in a territory that the trail ran through.

Louisiana Waterthrush, Weldon Springs C.A.

This Horned Lark was found back in March at Riverlands.

Horned Lark, Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Horned Lark, Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary

I was happy to fins this Hairy Woodpecker nest this past spring, but, unfortunately, the parents never got used to my presence so I didn’t spend much time here.

Hairy Woodpecker bringing food to nest, Beckemeier Conservation Area

Back in April, Casey and I visited a hotspot for the small population of Swainson’s Hawks in Greene County. These hawks are rare in Missouri and nesting pairs are limited to the southwestern portion of the state.

Swainson’s Hawk

While waiting for more interesting subjects, Killdeer can sometimes get close enough to make it worthwhile. This one was strutting in some pretty good light.

Killdeer, RMBS

Finally, this Red-winged Blackbird was captured establishing his territory outside the Audubon Center in early spring.

Red-winged Blackbird, RMBS

-OZB

North Carolina Birding – 2019 Wrap-up

Black Skimmer, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, N.C., USA.

Going to the archives to try and wrap up 2019, I want to share a few more birds taken in eastern North Carolina.

Least Tern, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, N.C., USA.

For me, the highlight of visiting Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge was visiting the Least Tern nesting colony. They put up a barricade to make sure you do not get to close to the nests and chicks, but it soon became obvious that the birds do a pretty good job at dissuading anyone from getting too close.

Least Tern dive-bombing the photographer. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, N.C., USA.

It was terrifying watching these birds react defensively, strafing and defecating until I moved back to a point they felt comfortable with. I remember I still had some of their ammunition on my camera body for at least six months before finally cleaning it off.

Least Tern, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, N.C., USA.

Least Tern with fish, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, N.C., USA.

You have to look really close towards the center of their nesting arena to spot the chicks – the reason for their territorial behaviors.

Can you spot the Least Tern chick? Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, N.C., USA.

During a walk along the interior, marsh portion of the refuge, this beautiful Common Tern flew by.

Common Tern, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, N.C., USA.

A real treat were my first looks and photographs of Red Knot.

Red Knot, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, N.C., USA.

During the same trip, I was fortunate to visit a nice longleaf pine forest habitat at TNC’s Calloway Forest Preserve in Hoke County, NC. Here, along with the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, I got to find one of my southern favorites, the Bachman’s Sparrow.

Bachman’s Sparrow, Calloway Forest Nature Preserve, NC., USA.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Calloway Forest Nature Preserve, NC., USA.

From the few short trips I’ve been, North Carolina seems to be quite a place for birds and nature.

-OZB

Great-horned Owl Nest – Carondelet Park 2020

March 2020 seems so long ago. Back at the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic, when we were all getting used to social distancing, I remember watching this nest with a few other photographers. I only made it to the park on a few days and unfortunately did not cover much of the course of the two chicks’ development. But what little time I did have with them I managed to capture a lot of interesting behavior. I’m sorry if this one is a little long, but I had a hard time cutting things out. Scenes where mom and the chicks are looking horizontally or up and mom is giving her best defensive display was in response to a pair of Canada Geese that would sometimes buzz the nest, apparently interested in potentially taking over that prized knot hole for their own nest. Then there is another sinister enemy that I won’t spoil for you… 😉

I hope you will find this as entertaining as I do.

-OZB

My Closeup Beaver Pics

A North American beaver pushing its way upstream to get back to its den to spend the day.

Thought I was getting racy? These photos were taken at Weldon Springs CA this past spring when Dave, Miguel and I were hoping to score some photos of newly arriving birds. The birding was slow this day, if I remember correctly, but here is a fantastic example of why it is always worth while to get out as early as possible.

North American beaver (Castor canadensis)

While standing on a low-water crossing the guys and I noticed a mass coming upstream towards us. It didn’t take long to discover that a beaver was on its way and would have to get by us to reach its destination farther upstream. We all shot away with our long lenses until this guy got closer than our minimum focal distances. It hesitated a bit and hurried back downstream as Miguel moved to get in a different position, but eventually climbed up the crossing and moved to the other side. He was so close to us during its crossing that Dave could have potentially petted him if he had wanted to.

Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis)

This Stinkor was found in a nearby field later that same morning. The eyesight of both species is pretty awful. If you come across these guys, there is no need to be concerned. Simply move slowly and as silently as possible and you will likely have plenty of time to observe them without being noticed. I have had several close encounters with skunks and have never felt threatened with being sprayed.

-OZB

WGNSS Nature Photo Group Outing – Swans of RMBS

ƒ/8, 1/1250 sec, ISO-320, 1120 mm focal length equivalent

In December, 2018 the WGNSS Nature Photography Group met at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary with hopes of making some memorable images of our giant white residents that spend their winters here. Trumpeter and Tundra Swans will spend their evenings at roost in the bodies of water at RMBS and will then typically leave to forage in surrounding agricultural fields, picking up the wasted grain from harvest.

A good strategy for placing yourself in the most appropriate position for making photographs of these birds is to pay attention to the direction of the sun. If the birds are found in Ellis Bay during the golden hours of morning light (during winter in St. Louis, this can be up to three hours after sunrise), then getting close to the shore with the sun behind you can produce some satisfactory results. Try getting closer to the ground and shooting the birds from a low angle. This will give your photographs an eye-to-eye perspective that is a much more intimate view into the birds’ world. Shooting at low angles will also tend to provide a more pleasing, out-of-focus background to your subject that will cause the bird to appear to be larger than life. We photographed both species of swan as they lounged in Ellis Bay for the first couple hours of the morning. Can you pick which is the Tundra and which is the Trumpeter Swan in these first two images?

ƒ/8, 1/800 sec, ISO-250, 1120 mm focal length equivalent

We then moved on to another place within the refuge that the Swans can often be found on winter mornings. At Heron Pond, these birds are typically too far away from the observation areas to get closeup photographs while roosting. However, the patient photographer on the ready can often be rewarded by standing and waiting around. During this morning, the Swans were a tad tardy in lifting out of Heron Pond, so our group was in the right place at the right time. Getting proper positioning with the angle of the sun is a bit more difficult here in the morning but is still critical. We placed ourselves in the best places available on this busy morning and took advantage of the swans as they left the pond, which often flew right over our heads.

Photographing these mostly bright-white birds on a bright sunny day is not necessarily simple. While on the ground or the waters of the bay, it is common to have the camera’s light meter expose for the darker and more prominent background. This will often lead to the white feathers of the birds being overexposed. Remember to check the histogram of your camera and use the “blinkies” while reviewing your images to ensure you are not clipping your whites. If this is the case, make the proper adjustments to your exposure. Saving your whites may result in your blacks and shadows being bunched up at the other end of the histogram. Since the big white bird is your subject of concern, this should be nothing to worry about.

ƒ/5.6, 1/1600 sec, ISO-160, 594 mm focal length equivalent

Changing directions and the angle of sunlight are challenging for proper exposure. Get as close as you can in the field – much can be recovered in post-processing.

Shooting these large birds in flight presents a different set of challenges. Although these birds move relatively slower than most other birds during flight, the photographer will still want a relatively fast shutter speed. This is particularly true the closer you are to your subject. I recommend no slower than 1/1000 of a second. Start at this setting and increase shutter speed if you notice blurring or softness to your image due to subject movement. As these birds get closer during flight, they will naturally fill more of your frame, thereby increasing the number of pixels seeing the bright white values. This can often lead to a case of the camera’s meter overcompensating, thereby causing an underexposed image. In this case, the birds may come out looking grey instead of white and the black colorations of their feet and faces will be much too dark and lack sufficient details.

ƒ/5, 1600 sec, ISO-200, 272 mm focal length equivalent

In the above image, a swan can be seen with a significantly crooked neck. I typically see one or two birds with this condition every season. I do not know how it affects the birds or what their ultimate fates may be.

In the case of constant sunny skies, fully manual exposure settings are most called for. Here I will present a good starting point for setting the exposure for capturing swans in flight. Shutter speed – As I mentioned earlier, start with a minimum of 1/1000 sec. This may likely be too slow to capture a sharp image, depending on what position the bird’s wings were captured. Often, shutter speeds of up to 1/2500 sec or higher might be necessary. Aperture – This will depend on how close you are to the swan. Remember, these are large birds and when shooting at a profile there is a lot of distance from wingtip to wingtip. If the bird is significantly close, or if you have multiple birds in the frame, you will be unlikely to capture the entire subject(s) in critical focus if shooting wide open. I recommend no wider than ƒ/5.6 – you may need to stop down significantly smaller. However, always remember that getting the animal’s eye in sharp focus is critical. Many images will work fine if other parts of the bird are not in critical focus. ISO – Remembering that photography is a compromise, shooting at a fast shutter speed and smaller apertures might require that a higher ISO value be needed to obtain the proper exposure. Several latest digital camera models have a useful “auto ISO” setting. I know, technically this is not fully manual, but ISO does not necessarily have the input it once did. Know the highest ISO setting for your camera that you are comfortable with and don’t be afraid to shoot there. This will vary by camera model and by the photographer’s taste.

Here is a photo of “crooked neck” as it flew directly over my head. In cases like this a telephoto-zoom lens is really beneficial for capturing birds in flight.

ƒ/5, 1/1600 sec, ISO-400, 216 mm focal length equivalent

The majority of this material was originally published in Nature Notes (The Journal of the Webster Groves Nature Study Society) February 2019, Vol. 91, No. 2.

-OZB

White-tailed Deer

Something is in the air

Until this autumn, I never considered targeting our abundant white-tailed deer as a photo subject. When my friend, Miguel, brought up the idea along with a place with a lot of potential, I asked him to lead the way. We set up in a copse of trees located near the center of a scrub field in an area that does not allow hunting and Miguel’s predictions of worry-free males still on the hunt came to fruition.

Buck and Foxtail

Although I cam ill-prepared, leaving my tripod and any other means of support at home, the light was just sweet enough to allow for proper hand-holding the big 500mm. Once I took off the unnecessary teleconverter, it worked even better.

Spike

We counted at least two larger bucks that patrolled the area, but found this young spike buck as well. He was not quite as confident as the other two.

Doe

Females walked the area as well, but were more skittish. The bucks were more curious when they first heard the sounds of our shutters slapping and picked up our sent in the light morning breeze. The does, however, tended to trot away at first sign that something different lurked in our copse.

White-tailed Deer

This spot turned out to be quite nice. With the rising sun to our backs, the trees at the far edge of the field provides for a nice backdrop for that warm light to hit against. These guys have probably, or will soon be dropping these nice racks. With any luck we can try more of this next year.

Thanks for paying a visit!

-OZB