Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tripods, the Legs

Perhaps no other photography tool is more important than a tripod. It is impossible for the human body to support anything without some degree of shake or quiver. Short lenses, high shutter speeds and image stabilization helps to eliminate camera motion but when using longer lenses and particularly in low light situations stabilizing the camera becomes of utmost importance.

Mona of the Montanagirl blog recently asked me to make some recommendations as to what tripod may suit her needs.  With her request in mind I will share some of my thoughts on tripods here but first late me state unequivocally that ANY tripod that supports your camera and lens is better than no tripod.

Induro AT313 Alloy 8M

  Before looking at any other features ensure that the legs you are considering are rated to support the largest lens & camera rig that you may use it with.  Keep in mind possible future lens purchases. Buying a big lens is expensive enough without needing to replace a recently purchased tripod.  I well remember seeing a elk shooting buddy show up for the rut one year with a heavy duty set of carbon fiber gittzo legs & Wimberly gimbal head with his little 300mm F4 attached.  The wisdom of his choice became apparent the next autumn when he arrived to shoot the rut sporting a new 12 pound Canon 400mm F2.8. 

Tripods suitable for the still photographer are typically made with either carbon fiber or aluminum legs.  Carbon fiber is lighter, stronger, and more expensive.  If weight is not a major concern aluminum legs can be purchased for less than one half the price of carbon fiber.  If weight is a concern and your budget allows carbon fiber is the best way to go. 

Independent leg locks allow the photographer to easily position the tripod level on uneven ground without dealing with the time consuming chore of adjusting each legs length.  With these locks each leg can be set at whatever angle is required to bring the rig level.  Independent leg locks also allow quick adjustment of the tripods total height.  Also note the bubble level; it comes in very hand when setting up the pod and particularly when using gimbal heads which will swivel uncontrollably if the tripod's center line is not plumb.

Leg locks should be considered also.  There are a number of different leg locks on the market.  The ones picture here are the twist type that lock and release with less than a quarter turn. 

I have read much about center columns and as you can see my pod does indeed have a center column; and not by accident.  While it is very true that by extending the center column you have placed a monopod on top of a tripod and have lessened the stability of the rig, I find that for my shooting the center column affords greater versatility. 

When possible I shoot with the center column down however since much of my wildlife is shot while seated in blinds, seated on the ground, or seated on the boat.  There are many times when I need to adjust camera height by a few inches and do not have option of moving the legs.  With the center column down the rig is as stable as one without the column yet when a height adjustment is necessary the column is there.  For me it was an easy choice.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Lifers: Without & With a Tripod

Immature Black-crowned Night Heron

It's always a pleasure adding new species to ones wildlife image collection.  Birders identify their first sighting of a species as seeing a lifer, as in adding it to their life list.  For me as a wildlife photographer a lifer occurs when I capture the birds image.  This post features three lifers all captured during my recent Florida visit.

Taking a stroll along a well worn path at the Circle B Bar Reserve I had decided to travel light and carried the Canon 60D with the 100-400 L IS lens, leaving the pod behind.  Spotting the heron in a deeply shaded area I immediately regretted leaving the tripod behind.  My only option was to brace against a tree, increase the ISO to 640, shoot at 1/50sec and hope for the best.

American Bittern

Shortly after leaving the black-crowned night heron I noticed movement in the deep ravine to the other side of the path and a closer look revealed this American bittern standing perfectly still hoping to avoid detection.  Once again handicapped by the lack of the tripod I braced against a tree capturing this image at 1/50 sec. 

Lesson learned, never leave the tripod behind!  The image stabilization and the handy bracing trees helped a great deal but the image quality would have been much better shot from a steady support.   

Greater Yellowlegs

However when I encountered this greater yellowlegs feeding in the shallows of Lake Kissimme I was ready with the 600 F4 IS mounted solidly on the tripod.  The results are worth the extra effort.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

River Otters

River Otters, Lake Kissimmee Fl.

Pennsylvania began a river otter reintroduction program in 1982 aimed at restoring otter populations in portions of their historic range.  Otters once lived in every major Pennsylvania watershed but unrestricted trapping and habitat destruction had reduced their range to only the north-east portion of the state.  Legal harvest was ended in 1952 with the reintroduction program following three decades later. To date I have only once encountered a river otter in Pennsylvania and fortunately I was able to photograph it as it approached my boat.  

So you can imagine how pleased I was to encounter an otter family, while photographing birds with  Chad, along the shoreline of Florida's Lake Kissimmee.  The family consisted of an adult and three pups.  The pups were very curious as they paused to view us intently as we were busy photographing them.

And here stretch up even higher for a better view

The adult soon returned to the pups and swam off with for a short distance before depositing them on a hummock of high grass surrounded by shallow water before swimming off. The high grass made photography difficult but by wading to withing a few yards of their position I was able to capture this image.  During this encounter the young otters showed no fear, only curiosity.

Apparently Florida is blessed with a thriving river otter population.   I have encountered otters a number of times during my short visits to the Sunshine State.  Interested in the status of the Florida river otters, I visited the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website and found the otter population is sufficient for a harvest season to be held annually.  The regulations allow an unlimited number of otters to be taken by licensed individuals during the open season. 

Hopefully river otters will become as well established in Pennsylvania as they are in Florida. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper at water's edge

Spotted sandpipers typically are first seen in my area near the end of April and this year was no exception.  This small shorebird is easily identified by its spotted underside, its near constant bobbing, and its stuttering flight of rapid wingbeats interspersed by short glides. 

Spotted sandpipers forage along the shoreline and over the years I have noticed that early in the morning they frequent the earth and rock dam of the local lake.  Insects perched on the rocks are easy picking for the sandpipers.

And even crevasses are not safe spots to hide from these fast moving sharp eyes little birds.

Friday, May 18, 2012

In the Fog: Bald Eagles

I was slowly motoring south on the lake before sunrise this morning when an adult bald eagle launched from a lakeside tree flying along the lake shore at tree top height until it was swallowed up in the fog.  Continuing on I passed a person fishing from the pier and soon spotted the eagle perched on a dead branch.  Moving the boat as near as the water depth would allow I shot a few images.

Soon the bird moved on and after flying only a short distance again perched near the shoreline.

While jockeying the boat for a better shooting position this immature eagle flew by perching near the adult.  The perch it chose was in a leaf-filled tree that did not afford any further photo opportunities.

Shortly after the fog lifted, the adult eagle left its perch.  If you look closely you can see bits of bark falling as the eagle launches into the air.

Later, as I was leaving the lake, I had occasion to chat with the gentleman at the boat launch.  As we chatted I learned that he was the one I had seen fishing earlier.  I asked if he had seen the eagles to which he responded that he had not.  He was genuinely surprised when I told him that the adult had flowing directly over him.  To erase any doubts that he may have had I showed him a few of the eagle shots on the camera LCD. 

In addition to the eagles I observed a number of spotted sandpipers and one loon.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Anhinga:  Viera Wetlands

No Florida wetlands bird shoot would be complete with out photographing Anhingas.  Found around lakes and wetlands, anhingas are frequently seen perched often with wings half spread.  I photographed this bird during the golden glow of sunset.

Immature Anhinga:  Viera Wetlands

Noticing movement on a palm trunk a closer look revealed an immature anhinga.  This photo was captured at sundown as well.

Anhinga with Catfish:  Circle B Bar Reserve

Walking along a hiking path at the Circle B Bar Reserve we spotted this anhinga struggling with its catch.  Although the catfish is quite small the anhinga repositioned it a number of times before swallowing; apparently out of concern for its dagger sharp fins.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Boat-tailed Grackle

Boat-tailed Grackle:  Viera Wetland, Florida

Much larger than its cousin the common grackle, the boat-tailed grackle is primarily a coastal bird ranging from New Jersey to Texas and inland across Florida. 

As is so often the case these close-up photos were taken from the car window.  In places where wildlife is accustomed to autos, approaching by car is the least threatening way to get the close-up image. 

As the males displayed they would close their white inner eyelids making for a striking contrast between the white eye and their iridescent feathers.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Fishing for Loons

Common Loon

Arriving at the lake before sunrise this morning, mine was the third boat out.  With the air temp ten degrees cooler than the water, fog hugged the water limiting visibility.  Seeing the one boat heading north and the other still near the ramp I headed directly towards the western shore and began searching for waterfowl.  With the spring migration nearly over I realized that the likelihood of success was not high. 

As the sun began cresting the eastern mountain I heard the unmistakable call of a loon echoing down the lake loud from the north end.  Immediately I headed that way, passing the boat headed north earlier.  Locating the loon I began maneuvering for photographs.

But this loon had a very low tolerance for boats and dove before I could get to withing good camera range.  Soon it resurfaced and again I tried a slow approach but again it submerged with this pattern repeating until the other boat with two fishermen were close at hand.  With the loon underwater I was motoring slowly in tight circles waiting for the loon to pop up.  The pair of fishermen were intent on casting to the side of their boat when the loon surfaced only a few yards directly in their line of travel.  As they were looking to the side they failed to see the loon but the loon, alarmed by the close proximity of their boat, immediately dove with a huge splash.

Talk about a reaction from the fishermen!  Hurriedly they retrieved their lures and cast into the spreading wake where the loon had submerged.  No doubt they thought that a huge bass had jumped and were wasting no time getting their lures into the strike zone.  With a chuckle I continued to circle watching for the loon to reappear.  A few minutes passed and then it popped up 50 yards or so from their boat and once again dove with a huge splash.  Once again the fishermen heard the commotion but again failed to see the cause, so this time they motored over and resumed casting to the wake, and once again to no avail.

Feeling that the loon had had enough of the boats I only waited a few minutes and when it did not reappear I motored off to do some fishing of my own.   I don't know if the fishermen had a successful day but at least they do have the story of the huge bass that jumped twice but was so lure-shy that neither time could they entice it to hit. 

Loons are very adept fishermen but this encounter is the first I ever witnessed a loon fooling the competition :)

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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret: Viera Wetlands, Fl

Cattle egrets seem to be everywhere in Florida.  Whether you are in the wetlands, farmland, or center city the cattle egrets are there. 

In non-breeding plumage they really are not much to look at, but when attired in breeding plumage I find them rather striking.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant, Savannah National Wildlife Refuge

Sometimes the best shot of the day comes before the sunrise

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Pied-billed Grebe with Crayfish

Pied-billed grebe are the most common nesting grebe is the eastern US.  Their range extends from our southern border well into Canada. The pied-billed grebe's diet consist mainly of fish, aquatic insects and crustaceans. 

I photographed this bird at Florida's Viera Wetlands as it attempted to eat a large crayfish

Grasping the crayfish with its stout bill, it repeatedly shook it violently to break its body into manageable pieces.

The grebe's catch attracted the attention of other a group of coots who pursued the grebe attempting to steal the crayfish.  The little grebe responded to their attempts by swimming rapidly away to a more secluded area.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Waterfowl Migration Winding Down

Ring-necked ducks taking flight

With the arrival of May the spring waterfowl migration is winding down in my area.  It all began back in late February with the snow geese and tundra swans arriving at Middle Creek and by early March buffleheads, lesser scaup, and common mergansers were on the local lake.  The mild winter had failed to freeze the lake so there was not the usual ice to impede their early arrival.

By early April these species had moved on and were replaced with hooded mergansers, ring-necked ducks, horned grebes, along with the resident mallards and wood ducks.  Last weekend a flock of ring-necked ducks were still on the lake.  During my visits yesterday and today I failed to spot them.

Common Loons

The loons arrived during the second week of April with the numbers peaking last weekend when I spotted at least four individuals.  I photographed this pair yesterday but today was unable to spot a singe loon.  More loons may arrive yet however I will not be surprised if this is the last I will see them this spring.

Common Loon, winter plumage

As the loons pass through our area both the breeding and winter plumage can be seen with birds of both plumages being seen in nearly equal numbers.

Loon in flight

Check out how the loons feet extend well beyond its tail apparently acting as its rudder in flight.  The loons legs are positioned far back on its body; perfect for diving but useless for walking on land.  A loon causes a considerable commotion taking flight as it must patter for well over one hundred yards to gain enough speed to become airborne. 

Seldom have I observed a loon return to the lake once it takes flight.  Typically the loon, once in the air, will circle the lake a number of times clockwise gaining altitude with each pass.  After three to five passes it will be high in the air while I watch it passing over the north end of the lake soon becoming a mere speck above the horizon before disappearing completely.

Red-breasted Merganser

The female and immature red-breasted mergansers are the last to leave.  I have never observed mature males later than mid April however hens and immature males will stay well into May, sometimes as late as the last week.  I photographed this female stretching her wings yesterday after she had emerged from fishing underwater.

Female Red-breasted Mergansers

The mergansers were very actively fishing yesterday and diving frequently.  I enjoy watching these birds when they encounter a large school of baitfish.  The birds will go from swimming with their heads underwater to running across the surface when suddenly the entire flock will dive.  Where moments before a flock of ducks were swimming, only swirls on the water remain.  A few moments later heads will begin popping up some distance from where they dived and the search for fish will resume.

Many of the diving species such as the loons, horned grebes, pied-billed grebes, and redhead ducks will dive to evade intruders however while they dive to feed, the red-breasted merganser when pressed to closely take flight.

While the waterfowl migration is winding down the spring song bird migration is heating up.  Just this week I spotted my first hummingbird, cat bird, and spotted sandpiper for the season.

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Thursday, May 03, 2012

Florida Cranes & South Carolina Gators

Florida's resident population of sandhill cranes provides photographic opportunities year around.  I photographed this sandhill with a dragonfly in its beak at Viera Wetlands during our recent trip south.  While this is a good enough photograph it is a situation where I missed to very best shot.

A pair of sandhill's with their colt were feeding in the wetlands.  The bird pictured in the preceding photo captured the dragonfly and began waking rapidly passing behind a tree.  Just as it cleared the tree and before I was able to regain camera focus it dropped its head passing the dragonfly to the colt.

So while I came away with some nice images of the sandhills, the best image exist only in my memory.  That is wildlife photography, sometimes it just happens like that. 

On the way south we overnighted at Hardeeville South Carolina because of its proximity to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.  After securing a room and dining at the Crippled Crab, (if you are traveling though this area at dinner time stop!  The food is fantastic and prices very reasonable) we spent the evening motoring through the four mile wildlife drive.

Bird life was reasonably plentiful with a number of alligator sightings.  I again returned to the refuge in the morning for a few more photos before jumping back on I95.  While definitely a place I would like to spend more time the most memorable parts of SNWR was the gators and mosquitoes!  The mosquitoes must have outnumber the gators better than a million to one as a swarm met me immediately each time I set foot outside of the car.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A Short Morning Walk

With wildlife all around us even a short walk down a country road may result in capturing some memorable images.  With a little time to kill well after sunrise I tossed the camera rig over my shoulder heading to see what I could find.

Locating this chipmunk sitting motionlessly in the roadside fence row I compensated the exposure slightly to bring out the detail in the chipmunk.  After processing I decided to crop leaving a strand of barbed wire in the photo to tell the story of finding the chipmunk using the fence row habitat as home.  Overgrown fence rows are important habitat for many farm land species but with modern clean farming practices they are becoming a thing of the past. 

Moving to the other side of the tree that the chipmunk was sitting near, at first I didn't think a photo would be possible.  Looking closer I found one small hole I was able to shoot through giving me this close-up photo of the alert little animal.

Walking on down the road I noticed a back lit bird silhouetted singing from a tree top.  Think that it was probably a mockingbird based upon its shape and the variety of bird songs it was imitating I was surprised when I passed around to its sunlit side to find that it was a brown thrasher.  Brown thrashers spend most of their time in heavy cover, however during the nesting seasons they can sometimes be found singing from the tree tops.

And last but not least were the chipping sparrows.  These little birds were creating quite a stir.  Whatever the cause, breeding activity or territorial dispute the sparrows were in quite a flutter.

Wildlife is particularly active during the spring and many species can be found on just a short jaunt.