Reddish Egret at Surfside
May 3, 2019 ~ We always say “you can never have too many Reddish Egret photos”. Well, we say that about Green Herons, too, but all bird photographers will probably agree that the Reddish is a challenging and fun bird to shoot. Recently we found one hunting in the shallow water alongside Bay Avenue in Surfside. A few days later on a repeat trip, we found what may be the same bird in the same area.
Just standing still or slowing walking past you can tell this is a regal bird. Look at the bi-colored bill, the shaggy russet-colored mane and slate gray body. He is a tall bird, although much smaller than the Great Blue Heron or Great Egret. They are larger than the Little Blue and Tri-colored Herons. Kinda medium large.
But he is most famous for his super-active hunting style.
If you have never seen one dash and dart among the shallows looking for prey you have really missed something. This link is a video of a Reddish feeding in low tide at the coast; if they have room, they will certainly use it. But, thankfully our guy was mostly looking for little fish hiding around the glasswort.
Still, he was a challenge to keep up with.
He did manage to get up some speed. Now, males and females look the same; this could just as easily be a female. They will stop, turn, jump, dip, lunge, run, spin and fling those wings out while doing it.
Bright overcast light is perfect because of his unpredictable movements. Can you see why we like shooting in overcast light? If you are out on a sunny day and see a Reddish doing his stuff, the angle of the sun and deep shadows will certainly affect your images. All of these were shot with the Nikon 500 f/5.6 PF (no teleconverter) and the flexibility of hand-holding is a huge factor in getting successful images. The first day we got out and were sitting on the side of the road on our crates; the second day I shot from the car and Bill was out moving around. I did get out and follow the bird down the road a bit. He really didn’t pay much attention to us.
I remember when this happened; I was holding my breath “OMG please let this be good.” We were shooting at f/5.6 and f/6.3 and a head-on shot might not be in focus. In fact, I bet his backside and butt would be blurry, but it worked.
Seems to me some overthink this whole depth of field issue. Now, if you are taking photos of your cat on the couch or vase of flowers, then it is very important to get it all in focus and depth of field is more critical. In those situations you will probably have bright light and a semi-stationary object less than 5 feet away. Or maybe even closer if you are using a short lens. But for a bird that is 50 feet away that is constantly on the move f/5.6 or even f/6.3 is generally sufficient. And you want the background to be all blurred out, don’t you?
He ran all over the area. Sometimes he was facing away from us stalking and running, but then he would turn and come right back. I would suggest trying to follow and keep him in focus at all times since they are so unpredictable. There are so many ways to set up your camera for focusing methods. A lot of people swearz by back-button focusing but it gives me a headache just reading about it.
You just have to try and find what works for you. If your keeper rate is not good or you have trouble acquiring and keeping focus, by all means try different approaches.
I can tell you what works for me. I have my autofocus set to AF-C (continuous shooting as opposed to single shots), the shutter set to Release + Focus and the focus mode at Dynamic 9 (instead of single point). I have a button on my lens and the preview button on my camera both programmed to single point. I can toggle between the two focus modes. The Dynamic 9 is awesome for flight shots and quick action; while the single point is useful for stationary birds.
Getting that tiny square on his eye is next to impossible; birds have such little heads. I often aim at the point where the neck and chest meet. You want to focus on a place on the bird’s body that is in the same plane as his head. Got that? Often that part of the body is more stable than a head that is moving around.
I half-press the shutter to activate the focus. Keep following the bird and keep half-pressing the shutter to stay on focus. If he starts to do something interesting, follow and fire. Just hold the button down as long as the action is happening. This is where a camera with a large buffer (for holding the data) and a fast card (for writing the data to) is important.
Note: The literature states that using Release + Focus for your shutter setting can slow the frame rate (while the camera re-focuses on the subject in burst shots) but I am not complaining about my results. Neither is Bill Maroldo. The Nikon D850 camera is capable of 7 fps and I don’t notice any noticeable slowing of the performance using this shutter setting.
Here we have the second day’s Reddish Egret in the middle of a big fluff-up. I saw him bristle up and knew it was coming. He was completely parallel to the camera sensor; I was sitting in the car with the lens propped in the window on a pillow. He was in focus and I held the shutter down as he kept ruffling his feathers. He didn’t move from the spot, only the feathers moved. This was image number eleven in the series and there are eleven more until he finally stopped. Twenty-two images in a about 5 seconds and they are ALL in focus. Every last one of them. I can’t say I didn’t let up during the sequence; I very well could have had a couple of short pauses.
I just don’t remember. It was too exciting to watch.
The bird we saw the first day must have been hungrier; he didnt waste any time fluffing. Mostly we see them eat small fish. We did see one attempt to eat a fisherman’s huge cast off, so I suppose they are as opportunistic any any bird. They do like shrimp as well as little fish.
This was cool how he slung the water droplets from the tiny catch. Keep that shutter speed up!
Second day’s bird did do a lot more jumping. Maybe because the water was a bit deeper on that side of the road, I am not sure. When they do jump, you sometimes have the heartbreak of a headless bird if you aren’t fast enough to get the lens up… like I said, they are so unpredictable.
Here he is slightly turned and settling into the water again. The head angle is not ideal but it really shows off his back feathers. The 500 mm PF lens was just perfect for this. Any more magnification and he would have jumped out of the frame.
This is a classic Reddish Egret posture. I have no idea what he is looking for. It was not a full-on preening session, he just stopped in the middle of hunting fish to tend to something on that wing. I have about ten images like this and then he went back to looking for food.
Usually images from the back are not keepers, but I did like the splash and posture on this one. This illustrates why you just never take your eyes off Reddish Egrets; they are always surprising.
I was going to stop with the images, but just one more. This is such a classic pose with the wings completely stretched out. Their wing span is about four feet and they can cover a lot of space with those long legs as well.
Did you know Reddish Egrets are relatively rare? We see them along the the Texas coast but there may be fewer than 1000 to 1500 nesting pairs and most of those are in Texas according to Texas Parks and Wildlife. I see photos of them along the Carolina coasts, Florida and southern California so hopefully there are more than we estimate.
I have written about them several times, including two we saw in this exact same place last year in Rockin’ the Reddish Egrets. We haven’t seen many of the White Morphs lately but you never can tell when one might show up.
That is the amazing thing about bird photography, in my opinion. You literally never know what is going to happen next. But, I don’t think everyone sees it that way. We have seen several internet discussions about wildlife photography stating
There's always a bit of luck involved with wildlife photography, but images/opportunities that were not intentional/planned for are seldom going to be the best. It's usually best to pick the location/lighting first and then wait for the bird to cooperate.
Maybe this works better in his neck of the woods? This could certainly work with a feeder in your backyard but we are generally willing to go to the birds around here. We might skip an area in the morning and come back in the afternoon because the light has a better direction, or the tide is lower. And sometimes you have perfect light, no wind and … no birds no matter how long you wait. Or you know migrants will be in the usual places at certain times of the year so you go out with a goal of a particular species. Occasionally you hear about an owl or rare bird in the area and you make a special trip to find them. Do you think that is what he meant? I am not sure…
And then sometimes your are driving by or walking on the shore and OMG .. it is a Reddish Egret! and you carefully sneak up all crouched over and sit down to watch for a while. Once he gets used to you being there you might as well be a big rock and he goes on about his business finding food as you click click click. And more clicks.
You couldn’t have planned for it at all.
Do you carefully plan your bird photographs? Do you hike out and wait for the birds to come to you? Or do you just always carry your camera and hope there will be a bird worth photographing where ever you stop? Do you stop on the side of the road to get photos of birds? Let me know in the comments below.