Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Close Encounters With the Birds of Florida

Here is the post that I've been working on over the past few days. These fifteen images are a sampling of my photography from Florida. They also served as my final project for my digital photography class at Columbus State. I choose the theme "close encounters" for this project (one of five choices) and decided that I would focus on bird photography. Thanks to Roger Cicala and lensrentals.com, I was able to rent Canon's 400mm F5.6 lens to take these shots. All images were shot in RAW mode, and processed using Canon's Digital Photo Professional software.

The first image is of the incredible, and fairly incomparable, roseate spoonbill. This bird's expression gives me the impression that it is somewhat embarrassed to be photographed. I would be too, since there were probably no less than twenty other photographers taking pictures of the hundreds of wading birds at the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge the day I took this shot. Notice the drip on the bird's long bill? In it, you can see this bird's pink reflection. Feel free to click on the image to see a larger version.

Wood storks are another unusual bird of the Florida coasts. I've seen these before, but never had an up close experience with their pink feet. Boy are they strange. This clawed foot reminds me of a witch's gnarly old hand complete with rotten fingernails.
Brown pelicans were ubiquitous on the island, and this one was especially tame. Interestingly, the male brown pelicans were in full breeding colors, even though I heard local naturalists say it was a bit early for them to show this plumage. Strange. But they are quite stunning, and my favorite part of this individual is the wild feather patterns on the top of its head. It almost looks like the flames on the side of a 1940's hot rod.
This tri-colored heron is one of my bird in flight pictures. The birds were so close at Ding Darling, that the 400mm focal length was just a bit too long. I was constantly cropping out wings, beaks, or feet! I just never anticipated that I would be too close to the action.
The beaches of Sanibel provided plenty of interesting photography opportunities. When we first arrived, a storm had swept through the previous day, leaving a multitude of dead (and still alive) shells and invertebrates along the high tide mark. This laughing gull made easy meal of this small octopus. Our neighbor at our condo actually found a live octopus and brought it back to his condo, keeping it in his glass Mr. Coffee pot. It died soon after he showed it to us.
There were at least two plover species along the beach, including this large bird pictured above, flinging a worm up to its mouth. I'm no shorebird expert, but taking a look at Sibley's book, I'm guessing this is a black-bellied plover. Please let me know if I have erred. There were also a few of the tiny snowy plovers along the beach. Can you believe how many shells and urchins lined the beaches of Sanibel? It was a smorgasborg for shore birds.
This ring-billed gull struck me, particularly its red eye ring and mouth line. Quite a beautiful creature, really. Again, notice the mound of shells along the beach.
Back to Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, I captured this roseate spoonbill as it was landing. Seeing its outstretched legs like this really gave it a chicken-like appearance. Drumsticks, anyone? (J/K!)
This immature laughing gull had a live cockleshell clamp down on its foot. It went down to the water to see if it would release, but it never did. The gull eventually flew away, with the stow away cockle holding on all the way down the beach.
Snowy egrets are extremely rare birds here in Ohio. They weren't on Sanibel. I saw dozens of them at Ding Darling, and they even hung out in the canal behind our condo. This individual was waiting for a handout at the fishing pier.
The roseate spoonbills constantly sweep their bills back and forth through the water looking for food. Once they catch something, they clamp down, stop, and then flick the food item back towards there mouths. These birds are so weird. Their naked heads remind me of Darth Vader's clammy skull after son Luke removes his mask and life support system at the end of Return of the Jedi.
The black bellied plover, again, in mid wave. I really like how the sea foam in this picture gives the image depth. You can also see just how shallow the depth of field is with this lens. I can only imagine what the 400 2.8 is like!
Willets were very common along the beaches as well. This one found a tiny crab, and like the spoobills, would grab them with the end of their beak and then flip the foot back into their mouths. How fun.
This beautiful yellow crowned night heron was hanging out in a shady ditch at Ding Darling. To expose this image, I metered directly on the body of the bird. I'm quite happy with the exposure. Most people were driving right by this shaded bird to get to the spoonbill pool.
And finally, I think my favorite image of the lot is this American white pelican. Just a perfect exposure if I do say so myself. Since we don't have many white colored birds in Ohio, shooting the birds of Florida was a challenge. In my first day of shooting, I overexposed the shots and the white highlights were blown out on the birds. I was shooting in shutter priority mode (TV), and to dial down the highlights a bit, I underexposed by a full 2 stops in really bright situations like above. This is one of those images where you just shoot the camera as a the bird swims by, but it isn't until you get back and view the image on the computer does is really "pop."

And those are fifteen close encounters with the birds of Florida. Even though I had the flu for most of the trip, I was able to get out and photograph a wide variety of birds. Sanibel is a fantastic place for any nature lover. I hope you get to go there and take your own pictures!

In closing, and to help evaluate my work, I have one question:

Which images do you like the best, and why?



  1. These bird photographs are very nice.

    I wish we had this variety here in Ohio, but we don't. I get extremely excited with a crow landing here and he was back today in the rain. AMazing birds.

    Abraham Lincoln
    Brookville, Ohio

  2. I like the landing roseate spoonbill best because of the rich color, the action, and because I see pics of standing spoonbills all the time (I live in FL). Good job!

  3. I kept formulating my comment for this post: My favorite photo is the... but as I scrolled, I found I couldn't pick just one.

    Fine job, Tom!

  4. Tom- it was a fun trip- but the part I'm happiest about is that you are feeling better! :-) I love the roseate spoonbills. :-) So weird. the noises they made were really cool too- maybe we could post a video. :-)

  5. Abe-

    Thank you. Yes, wouldn't it be something? And if we had the quantity, and if they were as tame in Florida. I really enjoyed your crow photos, I've never gotten close to photographing them as well. They often come to feed on the popcorn in our street. (After our neighbor puts it out for them) but they are extremely skittish.

    Boy- Thank you! Yeah, there were a bazillion people photographing them.

    Jennifer- Thank you very much.

    Megan, great idea, we should download the videos from your camera! The birds were very noisy at Ding Darling.


  6. Tom, These are outstanding photos! They are glamour shots! I'm with Jennifer, there's no way I could pick one. I'm in awe, you are a great photographer!

  7. WOW!!! It would be impossible to choose a favorite, but oh boy, I like that first Spoonbill big bunches!! The Snowy with the breeding feathers is outstanding, too. You must be thrilled to pieces with these pictures!

  8. The Yellow-crowned night heron reminds me of the Black-crowned cousins that hang by our local river! Awesome work!

  9. With the first and last my favorite favorites, I love 1, 3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 15. I think it's the bird personalites and photo colors.

    Must come back to catch up. I have a crazy life right now but oh so good.

    You must have been wanting to snap photos every second. :D

    Hugs, JJ

  10. Very lovely photos! The brown pelican is our state bird & we're fortunate to see them rebounding here from the past decimation by DDT. My favorite is probably the 1st roseate spoonbill picture. I love the contrast, the detail, the colors. Just an awesome shot!

  11. This is tough.

    I'd probably have a different 'fav' tomorrow, but for now it's the Wood
    Stork because you got that wonderful pink foot!

    I was on the Ding last month and couldn't get that foot to save my life.

    I also love the shore birds at the water's edge. Part of the appeal is the sounds they conjure, the wonderful smell of the ocean and shore.

    They're all great:0)

  12. Catbird-

    Thank you very much. Your kind words are much appreciated.

    Dave- I have yet to see a black crowned night heron- I think. They both are such interesting birds, especially with their large eyes.

    JJ- I have been ridiculously busy too! Thanks for stopping by.

    Thanks Lana- interesting that the pelican is your state bird. A great choice.

    Cathy- I've got a better shot of the woodstorks head, but it had the feet in the water. It was really tough to get all the different parts of this bird. What an interesting creature. This is probably my favorite bird that I saw during my trip. Isn't Ding wonderful?


  13. I like the first image of the roseate spoonbill-his expression is excellent! I don't think he was embarrassed so much as posing (to show his "good side"). Outstanding photography all the way around...you should get an "A" for sure!

  14. Beautiful photos. The willet is definitely my favourite. Great frozen-action shot, good colours, shallow depth of field creates a focus on just the bird and the shells at its feet. The leading Roseate Spoonbill is a close runner-up. :)

  15. Wow these are beautiful birds and great photography.

  16. Tom: I read a little more of your blog and was astounded by this group of bird pictures. This are so exciting to see. I'm glad to see the Blue Heron, that inhabits Lake Hodgson, but these are outstanding photos. I bet you got an 'A' in the class.