Bird Photography at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm

Bird Photography at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm

By Eric Bowles

Few places can offer the type of bird photography you’ll find at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, and the best time to visit is fast approaching. From late March through late May, photographers can encounter hundreds of wading birds that are nesting, courting, breeding, laying eggs and raising chicks. For nature photographers, this Florida attraction is a must-see.

Those who have experienced the site know the raucous cacophony from hundreds of birds and chicks that greet you upon arrival. Visitors dutifully line up before 8:00 a.m. at the famous Red Door, along with a couple dozen photographers who are there each morning. Everyone in line either has a Photographer’s Pass or is buying one, because that pass allows early entry and also allows you to stay late, after normal closing time. While you wait, you strike up a casual conversation with other photographers. You find the group is a mix of locals, regulars and others from all over the country.

Copyright Eric Bowles / Bowles Images

When the doors open, you all head to the wide boardwalk that winds its way through the rookery. There is plenty of space to observe and photograph. You’ll often be at distances of less than 10-15 feet from nesting wading birds. The largest birds are the wood storks – prehistoric- looking creatures that were once on the endangered species list and are now making a great recovery. Nesting in the same trees are Great Egrets with stunning white plumes and brilliant green lores during breeding season. Not to be confused with the Great Egrets are the Snowy Egrets – smaller white egrets with bright yellow feet, black legs and a raspy squawk. Recently we have seen increased numbers of Roseate Spoonbills, with as many as 50-75 birds nesting in the area. You’ll also spot Tricolored Herons, Little Blue Herons and scattered Green Herons and Cattle Egrets nesting in the smaller palm trees and bushes. All told, there are usually more than 700 adult birds, and at least that many chicks in the nests.

Finally – before you get too comfortable – don’t forget the alligators. There are hundreds of alligators on the property, and many of the large ones are swimming under the boardwalk. It’s mating season, so you’ll hear their deep rumble and see droplets or water vibrating on the surface nearby.

copyright Eric Bowles / Bowles Images

The St. Augustine Alligator Farm is listed on the National Historic Register and has operated in the current location since 1920. It is actually a world-class zoo, and the only place that features all the species of alligators and crocodiles found on the planet. They have a full staff to support not only animal care but research and conservation activities as well. This is not a game farm; rather, it’s an internationally recognized, fully accredited zoo.

Originally, it started as a tourist destination where visitors to St. Augustine could see creatures they had never experienced.  Through the years, the alligators have increased in number and now dominate the swamp. The alligators are captives, but the birds understand that those ever-present alligators prevent predators – snakes, opossums and raccoons – from raiding the nests and stealing eggs or chicks. The result is an amazing rookery.

If you want to visit, be sure to get a photographer’s pass. The midday light can be harsh, and the best photos are taken first thing in the morning before the public enters, or in the afternoon after closing time for the public. My routine is to arrive for entry at 8:00 a.m. (don’t be late!), and to photograph the birds for a couple hours or so. Then I’ll head to brunch or an early lunch, and back to my hotel room to process photos. In the afternoon I plan to enter at 4:00 p.m. or a little later and start photographing around 4:30. I’ll typically stay until near sunset in order to take advantage of late light.

copyright Eric Bowles / Bowles Images

Your gear should include a camera, long lens and tripod. Most photographers are going to want a gimbal head for their tripod, and many use a flash with an extender to magnify your flash, such as a MagMod, Better Beamer or Flash Extender. Lenses will typically range from 300mm to 600mm, but this is one place I have actually used a fisheye for bird photography because the birds are so close and are not afraid of people. On a couple of occasions, I have used extension tubes with a long lens to reduce the minimum focus distance. Be sure to bring plenty of memory cards and some form of computer to download your images and backup your files. I normally take 1000-1500 photos in a half-day session. And don’t forget two important items – sunscreen and a hat.

copyright Eric Bowles / Bowles Images

The big advantage of this rookery is that you can photograph birds in a variety of positions and situations. On your first day you’ll be photographing everything that moves – and wind up with far too many images. You’ll learn to make critical decisions about image selection and discard images based on a shadow, head position or even the lack of a catch light in the eye. After that first session, you’ll learn to concentrate on better compositions and head positions. You’ll avoid the harsh light of mid-day and look for better opportunities. You will begin to watch for birds in the background that might distract from your composition. You may even work on birds in flight, pan blurs and other techniques that require repetition and practice.

One final tip: Remember I suggested that you bring a hat? Keep an eye out for large white spots on the deck in areas under the trees. Don’t stand there, regardless of what a good photo location it might be.

For more information about the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, visit their website at https://www.alligatorfarm.com/

 

Eric Bowles is President of GNPA, a professional nature photographer, and director of Nikonians Academy. He leads bird photography workshops for Nikonians, Chattahoochee Nature Center and Georgia Audubon in addition to his own programs. His images from the St. Augustine Alligator Farm have been selected to Audubon Magazine’s Top 100.
Photography in the Pandemic

Photography in the Pandemic

A Little Blue Heron landing at its evening roost, photographed with the Induro GIT 404L tripod-mounted SONY 600mm GM, the 2X teleconverter, and the a9 ii. I didn’t discover this great sunset spot until I was forced to stay home because of COVID.

By Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART blog

Covid-19 has taken its toll in the past year, and created hardships for many of us. But during this time, like many of you, I’ve tried to take advantage of photographic opportunities that are close to home.

I am blessed to live in a development in central Florida called Indian Lake Estates (ILE). Please don’t ask me where the estates are because there aren’t any. Our development is about 70 miles west of the Atlantic Ocean at Vero Beach, and about 100 miles (as the crow flies) east of the Gulf of Mexico at Fort DeSoto Park in Pinellas County. I’ve lived there since 2001, when I was looking for a home and was intrigued by the fact that I found more than a few Sandhill Cranes feeding right along Park Drive, the main road that leads down to a large lake.

A Black Vulture coming in to land at my road-kill café, taken with the handheld Canon 100-500mm (at 500mm) and the EOS R5. It took me a while to figure out the best R5 AF method for birds in flight, but now I’m very confident in my lightweight Canon rig. And with the 1.4X teleconverter, I often use it for close-up work with tame birds. Canon mirrorless owners should check out the R5/R6 AF e-Guide.

Lake Weohyakapka, more commonly known as Lake Walk-in-Water, is about a two-minute drive from my house. Every year, you can find pairs of nesting cranes, lots of Red-shouldered Hawks, a few Bald Eagles, hordes of vultures, Great Horned, Barred and Eastern Screech Owls, a variety of herons and egrets, a very few shorebirds (including the wintering Killdeer), and a smattering of resident, wintering and migratory songbirds. In the two decades preceding the pandemic, I’d photograph at the lake fairly often in some years, but almost never in years when I was traveling the world extensively.

But since March of 2020, I have practically lived at the lake. I visit almost every morning and in recent months, I head back down for sunset.

A five-day old Sandhill Crane chick, photographed handheld with the SONY 100-400 GM lens and the a7r iv. With 61 million pixels, sharp a7r iv images can handle fairly extreme crops with ease. Because the chick is on a small rise, the background is beautifully out of focus.

In March, a pair of cranes at South Field hatched two chicks that quickly grew into handsome colts. As I was watching them every day, I learned that they would swim back and forth across a small canal each morning and afternoon. That discovery helped me make some good images of the swimming colts. But near the end of March, one colt disappeared, and then the other. I had been seeing a fox in their marsh…

On May 10, the day dawned cloudy and grey. For several months, I had been seeing a single crane standing in the same spot in a handsome stand of marsh grasses. Several days before, I had walked out into the water and seen that the bird was actually on a nest. I thought that it might be sitting on a clutch of infertile eggs. That day, I had the SONY 600 f/4 GM lens on my Induro GIT 304 tripod topped with a levered-clamp FlexShooter Pro. I had nothing better to do, so I walked out into the lake and waited, taking a few images of the adult. Suddenly, a tiny chick appeared; it had been roosting in the feathers on mom’s back! The little one walked around and around the adult as I quickly photographed it.

Then the chick snuggled back into mom’s feathers and disappeared. I stayed for another hour, hoping for another development. Eventually the adult stood up. In the nest beneath her was a cracked eggshell and a tiny, sopping-wet, just-hatched chick. I thought, “I’m gonna be famous,” but before I could push the shutter button even once, the firstborn chick, which had been thrown off mom’s back when she stood up, ran into the nest and pecked its new nest mate ferociously, driving it out of the nest where it disappeared into the marsh grasses. All in the blink of an eye. I was reminded that, for the most part, bird photography is not easy.

Anyhoo – as my dad often said – one of the two young cranes survived and continues to do well. Because of the pandemic, I had the privilege of photographing the Mother’s Day family for 10 months, something I never would have done otherwise. I was there when one of them hatched, watched them quickly grow, and witnessed the surviving colt fledge and take flight with its parents.

Another benefit of staying close to home is that I learned some new spots at ILE, locations that surely have been good for years but remained undiscovered by yours truly. My favorite is a sunset location where, with the right wind (northeast is best), you can photograph small wading birds flying into their evening roost with brightly colored skies and water as the background.

A five-month old Sandhill Crane jumping for joy, taken with a handheld SONY 200-600 G lens and the a9 ii. The bird in this image is either the chick in the first image or its nest mate. It is amazing how fast they grow! I was standing near the edge of a canal so that I was on the same level as the birds.

During these months, I’ve also had the chance to play with a Canon R5/RF 100-500 rig. Though I am fully committed to SONY, I had fun with the lens and quickly decided to write an R5/R6 AF e-guide, which has been well received. I purchased the rig and, at present, am almost finished writing a complete Canon R5 User’s e-Guide.

So don’t get me wrong; the pandemic has challenged the lives of almost everyone. But in keeping me at home, it’s opened the door to some opportunities that I might have never found in a normal year. And for those, I am grateful.

Spatterdock blossom photographed with the tripod-mounted SONY 100-400, the 1.4X TC, and the a7r iv. Shot at 1/6th second at f/8 with the self-timer.

 

Arthur (Artie) Morris is widely recognized as one of the world’s premier bird photographers, photographic educators, and photography tour leaders. His photos have been exhibited at a number of prestigious institutions. Before becoming a full-time bird photographer, he taught elementary school in New York City for 23 years.

His book, The Art of Bird Photography , is the classic how-to text on the subject, while the follow-up, The Art of Bird Photography II (916 pages on CD only), covers the digital aspects of nature photography. He is also a co-founding publisher and now sole owner of the online educational community, BirdPhotographers.Net, where honest critiques are done gently ($40/year). Artie also authors the BIRDS AS ART blog, which offers extensive free information geared toward becoming a better nature photographer.

Before the pandemic, he also led BIRDS AS ART instructional photo-tours and photo-cruises. He currently is offering a Galapagos trip in summer 2022 (those interested can contact him via e-mail.

Photographers can use his B&H affiliate link to save 3% and receive free second-day air shipping from Bedfords Camera by using the BIRDSASART code at check-out. Doing so will often entitle buyers to free or discounted Camera User’s or educational e-Guides.

From the President

From the President

Sunrise at Jekyll Island, March 7, 2021. Photo by Eric Bowles

 

Despite Covid, A Year of Accomplishments

 

Eric Bowles
GNPA President

Wow, what a year! In the past 12 months, we’ve all had to adjust to massive changes related to Covid-19. But during that time, GNPA has adapted and made changes, so I’d like to update everyone on just how much we have accomplished.

The GNPA webinar program was launched in May 2020 to help provide information and outreach to our members. Since then, we’ve conducted nearly 50 webinars by a wide range of speakers from across the country. Most of those have been recorded, and we now have 36 programs available to members at anytime on the GNPA Member website. Thanks to all the speakers, chapter leaders and Lee Friedman for creating this webinar program while we could not meet in person.

The GNPA Newsletter and related Blog program were also launched last May. Tom Wilson helped kick off a communications strategy for GNPA that includes the newsletters, website, blog, video and social media. We are very lucky to have some great support from members, including Ken Dunwoody as newsletter editor, Armetrice Cabine, Cindi Kurczewski and Brian Lucy working on our Blog, Brian and Jamie Andersen tackling newsletter production, Alfie Wace and Lowell Sims managing our Facebook page, Lee Friedman handling our YouTube programs, and Chris Dekle continuing to work on the website and technology platforms. There have been many other members participating in these programs as well – too many to name here.  The result of these efforts has been the publication of six newsletters annually, more than 50 blog posts a year, and the addition of valuable fresh content on a regular basis to our members and the public via our website.

In the past year GNPA membership has declined slightly, but remains strong. Currently we have 639 individual members of GNPA, spread out through eight chapters around the state. Plus, we are continuing to attract more photographers with 30 new members in the past 90 days, despite the fact that we can’t meet in person or conduct our normal Meetup activities. Stewart Woodard has been the go-to person for our entire membership, managing the database and member renewals. Stewart has worked endless hours to clean up bad data, resolve renewal and access problems, and resolve a host of other issues. John Criminger has now volunteered to take over Stewart’s role heading the Membership Committee.

Our Conservation Committee remains very active in support of conservation programs and community partners. This year, the committee made it possible for members to contribute more than 1,000 photos to the Wildlife Resources Division of Georgia DNR, which will help promote wildlife, conservation, the environment and parks across Georgia. In addition, GNPA members contributed over 800 images to other conservation partners and organizations in the state.

In spite of the Covid limitations, we are still making photos. Our members have created some great images, and we’ve seen those photos in a number of contests. In fact, GNPA members have submitted over 1,500 images in a range of competitions and gallery exhibits this year. The quality of work by GNPA members continues to improve and impress, while it highlights the natural beauty of Georgia and our adjoining states.

Financially, GNPA is in good shape. Due to Covid, we had to cancel the Expo and field trips, which contribute to the revenue we use to run the organization. That lost revenue was partially offset by the suspension of rental fees associated with chapter meetings, a reduction in insurance premiums, a reduction in chapter speaker fees, and conservative management of expenses. Collectively, we had a surplus of $4,565 for the calendar year. We continue to maintain adequate liquidity with cash reserves and adequate cash balances.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Board members, Chapter Coordinators and volunteers of GNPA. This is an all-volunteer organization, so we can only operate by having a large number of members who are willing to contribute their time and expertise. We try to run the organization professionally and efficiently to make good use of each person’s time. Our general approach is to include multiple people in each GNPA activity to help share the work and to make sure it remains fun.

We already have some great plans in place for next year and beyond. GNPA has a new contract for the 2022 Expo at Jekyll Island on April 7-10.  The keynote speaker will be renowned photographer Arthur Morris, who is also planning a multi-day workshop for GNPA members following the conference.

In lieu of our annual member meeting at the Expo, we’d like you to join us next month to celebrate the past year, provide some updates, and welcome the new GNPA Board members and officers. Please mark your calendar for a virtual GNPA Annual Meeting, scheduled for April 7, 2021, at 7:00 p.m. on Zoom. I hope to see you there.

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Tips for Nature Videography

Tips for Nature Videography

 

Extracting Images and Video Focus Stacking

By Tom Simpson

Ever since video capabilities were added to smart phones in 2007, the popularity of videography has soared. Nikon introduced video in its D90 model in 2008, Canon followed suit with its 5D Mark II, and now virtually every camera allows you to shoot video.

Even so, many photographers’ experiences with videography are still limited to their cell phones. That’s unfortunate, because today’s DSLR and mirrorless systems provide far more versatility than phones, as well as higher-quality video performance. If you haven’t taken advantage of these capabilities in your camera, you should.

Here, we’ll take a look at just two ways to utilize your camera’s video capabilities: Extracting quality still photos from a video, and using video for focus stacking. Both options can offer valuable tools for nature photographers.

Extracting a Photo from Video

Each camera has its own settings for video functions, including resolution quality based on pixels.  Typically, those include full HD (high definition) video, which provides an image of 1920×1080 pixels per inch. But higher resolution (i.e., more pixels per inch) became common after 2012 when the Canon EOS 1D C introduced 4K video (about 4,000 pixels per inch), and Panasonic brought 4K to mirrorless cameras in its Lumix GH4 in 2014. Nikon’s first 4K DSLR was the D500 in 2016. Now, 4K video is common in most cameras (and some can even shoot 6K and 8K).

These increased resolutions created the ability to extract high-quality still images directly from your video. Recording at 24 or 30 frames per second, video images can capture action must faster than the frames-per-second rate for burst shooting. It can also do so for much longer periods of time, achieving 30 or more minutes of continuous shooting. This provides potentially hundreds of individual images within an action sequence, offering the ability to find that one “special” shot.

Bringing your video into Lightroom or Photoshop is pretty painless, and you can easily scan forward and backward, frame by frame, to choose a still image. Then, using the sequence of Edit>Copy>Paste>Save, you can save a single image for additional processing. With 4K video, your frame will be about 8.3 megapixels, which is easily adequate for an 8×10-inch image at 300 dpi. But if your photo is not going to be viewed in a “nose-to-image” environment (such as in a gallery), you can go much larger, likely up to 15×30. If you’re shooting 6K video, a single frame will be about 18 megapixels and allow a 10×20 image at 300 dpi. And with the latest AI plug-ins such as Gigapixel, you can enjoy substantially higher quality in these bigger enlargements.

For example, when shooting at a popular south Texas ranch a few years ago, I had focused on a dragonfly that was repeatedly landing and taking off, at some distance from our blind. When I viewed the video later, I realized that what I had not noticed through the lens was why the dragonfly had been making such frequent fly-arounds and landings. As the image below shows, the dragonfly was being attacked by a pair of parasitoid wasps, commonly called “dirt-daubers.” Had I been shooting single or burst shots, it is very unlikely that I would have captured this specific action, since it was a very brief moment in about three minutes of video, or a single frame out of about 4,300.

Wasps attacking a dragonfly. Photo by Tom Simpson.

Video Focus Stacking (using Helicon Focus)

To achieve conventional focus stacking, you typically use a tripod to capture multiple shots of a scene or subject – at slightly different focus points for each shot – and then combine those images into a single, completely focused photo that shows the subject in full depth of field. This can be done manually by repeatedly adjusting the focus through a successive series of shots taken as cross-sections of the scene or subject. These are then transferred into other software (such as Photoshop, Helicon Focus or Zerene Stacker) for post processing.

More recent cameras – including several Olympus and Panasonic models, Canon EOS RP, and Nikon D850, Z6 and Z7 – can actually complete this stacking process in-camera. In either case, the successful finished image requires that every fraction of the scene or subject be captured in focus before being “stacked” together. Skipping any cross-section or plane of focus will noticeably reduce the quality of the final image.

Video focus stacking, on the other hand, avoids the need to take all those individual shots, and assures that all cross-sections are captured, in focus, and included in the stack of images. The process, as with any focus stacking, works best with the camera on a tripod. Simply set your focus point at one extreme of the total depth of field, such as the nearest portion of the subject. Press the record button to begin the video and then, as you’re recording, carefully turn the focusing ring all the way through the complete depth-of-field that’s needed for the subject. Turning the focusing ring through the entire focal range, without moving the camera, may take a little practice at first. Once you reach the other end of focal range, stop the video.

Post processing can be done in Photoshop, Zyrene or Helicon, but only Helicon is ideal because you can import the video directly into the software to render your final image. As seen below, Helicon has an “Open Video” tab, which is used to import your video stack into the software.

 

Then, by clicking on the “Render” tab in the lower right corner (above), the final transformation takes place, as all the individual video frames are merged into a single image with full depth of field. The resulting image can be saved and processed just like any other photo.

This video shows the complete video sequence of a pitcher plant in Maine. The final photo shows the resulting image, captured in Helicon from over 250 video frames. The software rendered this final image in less than 25 seconds.

Maine pitcher plant. Photo by Tom Simpson.

As you can see, creating single images from video – whether from a single video frame or via focus stacking – opens up some fascinating options for nature photography.

Tom Simpson grew up in Nashville and earned biology degrees from MTSC, LSU and FSU. Following service in the Army Chemical Corps and academic positions at Wake Forest and Agnes Scott College, he began a 40-year career in environmental consulting. Now retired, his photography interests include photomicroscopy, macro, landscape and wildlife, with particular interest in nature videography. He shoots primarily with Panasonic mirrorless cameras. His family includes his wife, Cindy, three daughters and seven grandchildren.

 

Meet A Member

Meet A Member

Robbie Medler, Coastal Chapter

In our newsletters, we feature short profiles of GNPA members from across the state. This month, it’s Robbie Medler from the Coastal Chapter.

When did you join GNPA?

January 2017

What’s your occupation?  

I’m a retired teacher.

How did you get into photography?

After our sons went off to school, taking their toys with them, I started watching the birds in my backyard and began taking photos of them, and went from there. I still love taking backyard photos of all things nature-related.

What are your favorite photography subjects?

Birds, insects, flowers, landscapes – anything to do with nature. And now a grandson, too!

What are your favorite places to shoot?

Anywhere outdoors, but I love wildlife refuges and parks, and of course my backyard.

What would be your photographic “dream trip?”

So many to dream about. Maybe Alaska and photographing bears.

Which camera and lenses do you use most often?

I have a Canon body and I use the 400mm and 100mm Macro lenses, along with a couple of wide-angle lenses.

What are your go-to websites for photography information?

I honestly don’t have a go-to website. I Google a lot!

What’s your favorite part of belonging to GNPA?

The members. Everyone has been so kind and forthcoming with their knowledge. I have learned so much, and I’ve been so inspired by the members, photographers and others.

Where are you from?

My dad was in the Air Force, so we lived many places, finally settling here in Georgia.

Ibises Morning Bath. Photo by Robbie Medler.

Life in the Flowers. Photo by Robbie Medler.

Oatland. Photo by Robbie Medler.

 

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