Chasing Green Herons
September 23, 2016
Several times I have seen comments on bird photos I post on Facebook that fellow birders would like to follow me and Bill Maroldo around as we take photographs. I am afraid you might be bored or bewildered by our process.
The primary consideration for photography is the light. I know many of my loyal readers are still working and only have evenings or weekends to chase birds; you will go out and make the best of the light because it is the only time you have. We do not go out when it is sunny. Period. We check Accuweather forecasts for the coastal areas paying close attention to the % of cloud cover. If it is the same for every hour, discard the prediction as those are probably only place holders in the chart. We will go out on Overcast, Partly Cloudy and A Thunderstorm in the Area. Not on Sunny or even Partly Sunny.
We generally leave after the morning traffic (around 8:30 am) on a weekday; weekends are often crowded but we do go if we haven't been out in a while and the weather is favorable. We have a general plan but in case the birds aren't cooperative or the light changes, we might drive to a different area or even do buildings, bugs or landscapes. I pack water and snacks and we double-check batteries, cards, tripods before heading out. Once I forgot all my batteries (I shoot Sony, he shoots Nikon) and had to binocular bird all day. Luckily for me the sun came out and we came home early. We always have rain gear and towels in case it does rain.
Extra cards and batteries are important. I have a 64gb flash card for each camera and 5 batteries total. I have filled up a card on an day's trip. We take a LOT of shots. Sometimes we laugh about having 200 shots of a Yellow-crowned Night Heron just standing there, barely moving, but ... he could have moved, he could have done something interesting. You can always delete some when you get home but don't risk missing a wonderful opportunity because you have run out of space on your card. And spend some time watching the birds. Learn their habits and try to anticipate what they will do next so you will be ready.
The real key is flexibility and willingness to drive a lot. And knowing how the sun will affect the locations. No need to go somewhere in the morning if you will be facing the sun and all the subjects are backlighted; better to save that location for later in the day.
And sometimes we leave for the day with a specific bird in mind. Knowing bird habits and behavior will influence the choice of a location. We are coming into Fall so there will be Green Herons, Long-billed Curlews, Whimbrels and American Bitterns plus winter shorebirds and a little later, White Pelicans and Sandhill Cranes. Fall Warblers are around, but more difficult to find.
Recently we have been actively searching for Green Herons. They are exciting to find and photograph and I did a blog post about them a few years ago right after I got my Sony A77II. It is a fun read about getting wet and losing patience and you can check it out here: Green Herons
This Green Heron was standing on one of the canal locks at Anahuac. I like the reflection of his orange legs and the tension of the slightly raised foot. Sure enough, he bolted right after this shot. I think I had the big lens braced in the open vehicle window, no way I can lift and follow the take off. Usually, the best I can manage in those circumstances is a sharp image of a foot as the bird flies out of the top of the frame. I would LOVE to have more in flight shots, and practice with the big lens on a tripod, but it is a skill I have yet to perfect.
Oh, for those of you who actually read the text, new stuff! Click on the photos to enlarge. Better to see the details! Tested on Chrome and IE but let me know if it doesn't work for you. Not much change on a phone.
This is the same young one (note the baby feather fuzz on his head) I showed you last week in the Least Bittern adventure. He was fairly close and intent on finding something to eat. The dying reeds slowed down his movement, but as a background they are really busy. This was taken at San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge which has been pretty good for Green Herons this Fall.
I was standing in the middle of the road with a towel draped over the camera and lens for this shot. With a hat and a windbreaker, I was fine. It wasn't windy, thank goodness. Bill got to sit in the dry truck. Well, it is HIS truck and he is driving. But the point is birds are often active in light rain. You can get great shots (click on the image above to enlarge and look at the water droplets) if you use a high enough ISO coupled with a slow shutter speed. A tripod or braced lens will help in this situation.
Sometimes you just can't find one close. We spotted this one a good distance out from the Auto Tour road at San Bernard and he is really too far away. And it is raining. And I hand-held the big lens and shot this over Bill's shoulder - which I can do for just a couple of shots. These kind of images are not much for detail, but a good environmental shot showing the habitat.
So, we are at Surfside near the Intracoastal Canal in a residential area off what we call Boot Rd for the work boot stuck on a fence post. It is a good location for waders since there are lagoons and canals along the road. We found this Green Heron at the corner. It is always good to find one on a post, and especially UP at eye level. Too many times you can't get low and images looking down on the bird's back are not as attractive.
This guy was just standing on the post when we first saw him. He began to preen, working on his chest feathers. I was shooting out the vehicle window, Bill had positioned the truck just right for me since the bird was on the right. He got out and did hand-held shots.
This was ideal set up for that creamy bokeh we all strive for: the background is especially nice because of the gap in the distance. The shallow Depth of Field makes the bird on the perch (close) stand out sharply against the out of focus vegetation (at least 15 feet away) across the canal.
After preening and working on his chest feathers, the bird stretched his left wing, then the right. I am slightly behind, and he had turned away from me by that time, so my shots are not that great. And then... then... he raises both wings and does this awesome full body stretch with his head down low...
I refuse to take photos of birds pooping. Really. But the pre-poop shot was pretty good.
Sometimes it all comes together perfectly. Another day we were back over at Anahuac. With all the rain we have had (and it has rained almost every day this week!) the pond and marshes are full of water. This does spread out the birds, but sometimes you find them in unexpected places. This guy was hunting in a ditch alongside the road to the boat ramps. Usually those ditches are dry. We were driving along, each scanning the water's edge and ... there he was. I saw him on MY side, so Bill backed up carefully. The rule is: The one shooting from the vehicle gets a chance for several shots before the other quietly gets out and risks scaring the bird away.
The bird was first obstructed by a lot of busy branches, but he started working his way upwards. And I got this shot just before he leaped up to a higher branch.
In the case, the background was close and busy and ugly. Getting the bird in sharp focus meant the branches just behind him were also in focus - which is why I used Photoshop to blur the background a bit. How did I do that? ah... another adventure for that explanation!
After a while he flew off, but only across the road. I got out and took this one with the lens propped on the back of the truck bed as my improvised tripod. Look for anything you can brace a telephoto lens on if you lack strength or need a slower shutter speed than you can hand-hold. I have some bean bags I made (actually they have bird seed in them) and I prop those on the hood of the truck, on the edge of the truck bed, in the window. Standing with the door open and lens propped in the window is a great way to shoot. You have a bit more mobility that way.
We were lucky this Green Heron didn't fly far; but a lot of birds are territorial so watch where they fly when startled. Sometimes they will come right back to the same area. Kingfishers and Flycatchers almost always will come back.
Staying out late sometimes affords great sunset opportunities. Bill was working on the actual sunset over the lake but I concentrated on the pink reflections on the clouds and in the canal. Anahuac is pretty far from any industry or towns so the horizon is totally clear. I have never been out there after dark but I bet the night sky is awesome!
Are you ready for a bit of cool weather? We are supposed to have a cool front this weekend; I think it will be highs in the upper 80s F. Every little bit helps!