Surfside and Spoonbills

Surfside and Spoonbills

Feb 22, 2019 ~ Last Saturday we made a trip to the coast as it was overcast and not too cold. Maybe it was the full moon, but the tide was high so most of our favorite mudflats were covered in water. The ponds behind Bryan Beach (that dried up this summer) were full of water and Coots, but the little road between the ponds is in sore need of maintenance. Take care if you go that way in anything other than a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Or a tall truck.

We did find a nice Red-tailed Hawk on the approach just past where the fruit-stand guy sets up.

Red-tailed Hawk just after leaving a pole perch
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2500 sec f/7.1 ISO 640; hand-held

This close to the coast we were finding sea fog and the sky was quite hazy. You think it is dark, but actually there must be a LOT of refracted light bouncing around. I had to work on this guy in post-processing to get the colors right and it was shot at ISO 640. Which was an anomaly for the day; as we moved away from the coast it became more overcast with intermittent drizzle.

We scouted around and checked out our usual places. Nothing much at Casco Rd, and Crab Rd was a bust but we did find a nice Osprey on Thunder Rd.

I just LOVE writing… Thunder Road.

Relaxed Osprey
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; hand-held

I like this crop although Bill argued with me about it. He doesn’t like the man-made elements, all that telephone cable, but I was intrigued by how the danged bird was sitting. His wings are positioned much lower than usual. In fact, at first he had the left wing lowered even more and it looked as though he was injured. Of course, if his wing was damaged he would have been unlikely to have flown UP that high.

Soon, he left the perch proving he was completely fit.

Young Cooper’s Hawk take off
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; hand-held

It was turning into a hawk and raptor day. We found this young Cooper’s Hawk on a pole in front city hall on our way to check out Quilty/Guilty Pond. Of course he flew when we got out but I like his yellow eye.

We found the Green Heron hanging around the same corner as last visit but neither of us got a shareable shot. It happens.

Bay Avenue was disappointing as well. In fact they have brought in a lot of dredged mud to fill in some low spots at the end by the boat ramp and that may be an obstacle to our future birding. Nothing on the low posts where we saw the Osprey last time. Some Killdeers in the glasswort but no Curlews, Whimbrels or even Willets.

Neotropic Cormorant doing his thing
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1000 sec f/6.3 ISO 2000; hand-held

At the back side of the Crab Pier we took way too many shots of this Neotropic Cormorant. Bill stayed in the truck with his Nikkor 600 f/4 braced on the truck window and I wandered around getting different views with the Nikkor 500 f/5.6. The lightweight lens affords a wonderful opportunity to vary the angle of view which controls the background and get a different perspective. I was shooting a fairly slow shutter speed since the bird was dark, and the sky was dark and I was using ISO 2000. It works because they don’t really move a lot. The ones where he flapped his wings were too blurry but there is always a trade off.

We had been by the old abandoned pier on Hwy 332 earlier in the day and found a couple of White Ibis and some Spoonbills. We decided to try once again.

Galaxy 9 phone photo - I know, you would have just stayed HOME with this kind of light.

Galaxy 9 phone photo - I know, you would have just stayed HOME with this kind of light.

This is the scene. There is quite a bit of concrete and paving just off the road and then all these wonderful piers in the shallow water for perching. It is obvious there was some kind of walkway bridge to the island at one time. Questioning local residents I pieced together a story that there was once a house and bait camp run by several brothers. I suppose the island was bigger at one time, but storms and time have taken their toll. Google Maps shows the site next to the highway was used to park containers and trucking equipment; we still see odd stuff there now and then.

And lots of fishermen.

Bridge to Surfside Beach when Ike came to visit

Bill remembers the house was pretty dilapidated before Ike and that was in Sept 2008. It you look carefully at the Ike aftermath in the photo to the right, you can see a “Live Bait” sign right about at this spot. It is really hard to tell with the foreshortening of the photo (which has the wrong hwy notation; this is Hwy 332).

But there are almost always birds here. And late Saturday afternoon was a bonanza for Roseate Spoonbills.

Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1250 sec f/7.1 ISO 2500; hand-held

When we first got out, there were several spoonies on the short piers. We were looking for wing flaps and stretches and this one obliged. I was moving around with my 500 f/5.6 and Bill set up his tripod with his 600 f/4. He later switched to using my Heavy 500 as they were so close. This bird is an adult and getting breeding colors. Look how pink his legs are, plus the dark coloration on his head behind the eyes. Soon, his bill will have almost a filigree pattern around the edges. A lot of them breed at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island and if you have never been, this might be the year.

The Neotropic Cormorants were also active and we saw a couple of Yellow-crowned Night Herons flying off to the marsh. There were two Spoonbills perched on the tall frame right in front of us.

Then there were three.

Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1000 sec f/6.3 ISO 2500; hand-held

Now it started getting really interesting. While it was late (about 5pm) and seriously overcast we looked at it as a challenge. Our cameras perform superbly in low light and high ISOs. Spoonbills are basically light colored birds and they fly rather slowly so a really high shutter speed is not absolutely necessary.

We soldiered on.

Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1000 sec f/6.3 ISO 2500; hand-held

There were more flight opportunities as they shuffled for position on the high bar. Neither of us could get the shutter speed we really wanted so the wing tips … umm… “show movement” as you say.. but the bird’s head, body and feet are sharp and that will make a satisfying image. .

The gang is all here…
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1000 sec f/6.3 ISO 2500; hand-held

At one time there were four on the high bar. What worked in this situation is all the birds are lined up in an even row parallel to the camera’s sensor. The depth of field at f/6.3 and (estimated) 60 feet for my rig is over a foot so as long as their heads and bodies are within that space, the image will be sharp.

Do you ever look at the Depth-of-Field Calculators? I like this one, it helps to visualize your camera’s capability with different lenses and distances. Of course, the hardest part is estimating the distance. I know my yard is a little over 70 feet wide, so I use that as a relative marker.

White Ibis joins the party….
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1250 sec f/6.3 ISO 2500; hand-held

And we even had some White Ibis join in the fun. It never got any brighter; this was shot at ISO 2500. And the whole set needed more post-processing than I usually have to do, but what do you think? Was it worth staying late and fighting the mosquitoes?

Spoonbill carefully staying within the shallow depth of field.
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500 f/5.6 PF VR ~ 1/1600 sec f/6.3 ISO 2500; hand-held

But overcast light is still my favorite. There are no shadows on the birds, you can shoot from any direction and the bird is evenly illuminated. Bill and I are talking about doing a post on Exposure and have been collecting our thoughts. It is just a hard subject to approach since every answer starts with “it depends”.

In this instance, getting a good exposure required high ISOs (1600 all the way to 2500), relatively slow shutter speeds (especially late in the day) and careful positioning of the birds. You can often get away with a shallow depth of field (say…f/5.6 or f/6.3) if the subject is parallel to your camera’s sensor and some distance away. For example the Cormorant at the Crab Pier with wide-spread wings is all in focus; if he was turned three-quarters from the camera, the front or back wings might be soft. And the lined up Spoonbills were all within the same focal plane. Or a singular posed Spoonbill is not facing you but showing you their best side.

Spring Migration is almost upon us. You can see the birds are showing breeding colors, carrying twigs and even squabbling over territory. Are you ready? Do you plan to go anywhere special for the birds? AND what questions do you have about exposure? Let me know in the comments below!

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