Three Trips to Crab Road
Nov 3, 2017 ~ Early last Friday after I made sure the scheduled blog and notifications were on track to be published, Bill Maroldo and I left for the Surfside area. The forecast was mostly cloudy and it was even sprinkling a bit when we left Sugar Land. We had intermittent sun/clouds on the trip down and on the horizon we saw milky clouds. The day was shaping up well.
After a slight detour looking for a Pileated Woodpecker (we will find it next time, Cheryl) we quickly went through Brazoria National Wildlife Reserve. They had just completed another controlled burn and the birds hadn't come back yet. It bodes well for the future to get some of that underbrush out. In case you haven't heard, the AutoTour is open.
On to Surfside where we found the lowest tide in months. Everywhere we went were exposed mudflats and shallow tidal pools.
And Clapper Rails.
This is the way you generally see Clapper Rails. Look how well he is camouflaged in the marsh reeds! We waded out to a small exposed island in a wide oyster bed off Crab Road. I think this is the first time the tide has been low enough to do this whole year. It is always best to get eye level with your subject and at least Surfside is not known for alligators. Well, I think they did find one on the beach after a storm, but this is salt and brackish water so you are not likely to run into one. Water snakes, yes.
Bill and I were on our crates with our new tripods. We are trying a different style; the flip levers just don't hold up well for us. But, then most people don't wade out in the mud on a regular basis. So far, so good on the new design and we both pledged to do a better job with maintenance in the future.
Patience and more patience and one came out to look around. Here is a mini-fluff up. It was overcast, the bird and mud are dark, plus the reeds in the background are dark. The conditions call for a higher ISO and the bird is pretty close, so you need a good depth of field.
When I was first learning to shoot manually, I worked on getting the correct ISO for the conditions. During those days my images were exposed well, but often soft or blurry because my shutter speed was too slow. I gradually learned to check myself and up the shutter speed if needed and adjust the ISO to the change. Images got better but then I noticed the tip of the beak would be soft, or not enough of the bird was in focus. A raised leg would be blurry. And that is when I started thinking about the depth of field. Changing the f/stop means you may have to adjust the ISO or the shutter speed.
You just don't learn all this technical stuff over night. It is OK to concentrate on one part at a time.
After walking along the muddy bank, he started out into the water. Water backgrounds are just smoother and less distracting than all those reeds. This is where being down in the mud really helps. If you are standing on the bank looking down at the bird, you will miss that foot action and it would be hard to show his eye. Getting eye level with your subject works for people, too. And dogs. And cats.
Usually, Clapper Rails swim across shallow water but sometimes they will fly. It is always sudden, short and surprising. A Clapper Rail in flight is still on my list. This one left the bank, swam out halfway and then swam back to the muddy shore. Twice.
The one time one flew across the water, I missed it. Same when one chased another away. You have to be really quick, and there is no time to change your settings. You might notice that I am using a tripod, but I am keeping my shutter speed no less than 1/1600 sec. Just in case and that probably won't be fast enough since they are so close.
He was walking around the shallows after his second swim and we noticed something red ... a berry! We saw one pulling berries off a bush last week but he was buried up in the foliage so that shot was only documentary. I never knew Clapper Rails would eat such a thing! From the diet section on Audubon:
Includes crustaceans, insects, fish. Diet varies with locality, and includes a wide variety of small prey. Crustaceans often favored, especially crabs, also crayfish and others. Also eats many aquatic insects, small fish, mollusks, worms, frogs. Eats seeds at times.
And he definitely ate it; Bill has images of the berry in different positions in his bill and finally almost swallowed. I have only two shots; another vote for cameras with high fps (frames per second).
And good reflexes.
He stayed out, moving up and down the banks for quite a while, hunting and finding crabs. We noticed this guy had a small limp. The right heel joint (or backwards knee) looked to be slightly thicker than the other. It is amazing how many birds we see thriving with damaged legs or wings.
We left and made a big circle in the area looking for Kestrels, but instead found this Merlin. He was on a low wire, which is not as nice a perch as a post, but still it was the first sighting of the season. And he was fairly cooperative; I got 83 shots but he still didn't turn around. I stood outside the truck and propped my camera in the open window; Bill moved to the left and got some great hand-held shots.
After the Merlin adventure we drove around a bit, but came back to Crab Road since it had been so productive. This time we set up on the other side of the road. That is the beauty of cloudy skies; subjects are evenly lit from any direction. We were down at the edge of the water about 3 feet below the road.
And the birds didn't seem to mind us at all.
One even took a bath and did some elaborate preening. There were two Tricolored Herons and a Snowy wandering around in the shallows. Occasionally a Great Blue Heron or a Laughing Gull would fly over. Being down in the mud with the birds is exhilarating. After a while, they just ignore your presence. In fact, it was during the second session that I got the portrait shown at the beginning of this post. Want to see it again?
He got so close this is barely cropped; it is a 20.5mp image. This was later in the day and that front was finally coming in, so it was shot at ISO 3200.
We left again and found a Great Blue Heron fishing under the Intracoastal Bridge. And a Reddish, but you have seen so many of them lately. Oh, and we found a bunch of Snowies fishing behind an old pier. Maybe I can do a Short Story blog next week for these odds and ends.
We made one more swing by Crab Road around 4:15 pm and got back in the mud where we were before. We haven't changed Daylight Savings Time yet because of The Children and Trick or Treating, but it is pretty dark by then. And down below in the mud it is even darker. I just want to show you what really high ISOs can look like. Remember, I am shooting Nikon; I don't think you can do this with a Canon.
Go ahead, click on the image above to see the metadata and what I did in ACR. My camera is 36mp full frame; the crop is still 17mp. It is helpful to crop in ACR so you can see how big the image is going to be. You knew you could tilt the crop, right? Just hover your cursor over one of the corners and it changes to a two-headed curved arrow. Then just hold down the mouse button and tilt the crop as needed.
This is one of the last shots of the day. It was shot at ISO 5000, but the reflective water helped to make it a bit brighter. So in post, I raised the Exposure by a full stop, added some Contrast, opened the Shadows and reduced the Blacks. Added a bit of Clarity and Saturation. Not shown is a bit of Noise reduction in the Details section. Be sure to set the Sharpening slider to zero if you are going to do noise reduction in ACR. I don't use Lightroom, but it might be the same. You do not want to do any sharpening until the very last step - just before you save as a jpg for posting.
And here it is cleaned up. I used Topaz DeNoise 6 and selected the settings for Nikon D810 at ISO 3200 (closest match to 5000), then reduced the image to 1500 px and applied Smart Sharpening in Photoshop. And saved as a jpg.
Summary: Cloudy and overcast light means you can shoot from any direction and the birds will be evenly illuminated. Dark birds against dark mud and dark foliage require a higher ISO. Close birds need a greater depth of field such as f/8 or more to get it all in focus. Be prepared for birds that might fly at any minute with a fast shutter speed. Being at eye level with birds is more interesting. Impossible high ISOs can be successfully processed in post. Going back to the same place several times during an outing can yield good results.
Now, do you ever go back to the same place more than once in the same day? To see how it looks in different light? What is your maximum ISO? Cameras are different, some don't do well at all with higher ISOs. And most importantly, do you ever get down in the mud and dirt for a shot? Let me know in the comments below!