Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A World's Best

Prologue... I was going through old posts, cleaning up broken picture links when I came across this article from last year that I FORGOT to actually publish! It's just been sitting in the queue for the past year.  I didn't want to cheat Ricky Robertson out of his day, so here it is... better late than never.

Dateline April 11, 2012:

It's not often that you see a superlative that starts with the word "World."  But that's exactly what this was.  At the 2012 Pepsi Florida Relays, Ricky Robertson from Ole Miss jumped a 2012 world's best 7'7".  And best of all... I was there to photograph it!... and I didn't screw up.

Conditions were very good for photographing the high jump.  The sun was low in the sky, a little behind and to the left of the bar, which offered nice highlights when taking pics behind or to the right of the pit.  A bonus of the right position was the full stands in the background.  When they called the start of the High Jump, high school relays were running (which don't interest me much), so I stationed myself behind the pit for some good pics.

The competition was stiff, with several stereotypical high jumpers from Georgia Tech, Indiana, Maryland... all about 6'6" - 6'8" and lanky.  I really didn't even notice this kid from Ole Miss, who was about my height (not impressive), and quietly went about his work.  The bar moved up a few times and jumpers started getting weeded out to the point where it was the tall guys and this regular looking kid from Ole Miss.  Then I started paying attention to him... and so did the crowd.  Looking back at my pictures I see that cleared the later heights with room to spare.

At the final height, he cleared and the remaining two failed in their three attempts.  The bar was set higher for him alone.  Ricky got his running start and cleared it on the first attempt!  The crowd went wild and Ricky jumped out of the pit and ran toward the stands.  The bar was set yet higher to 7'7"... a mark higher than any jump of 2012 so far.  I could tell the officials were nervous as they verified the height with a laser measure.  They knew they were wading into important territory.

Ricky made his run and cleared again!  He jumped just about as high out of the pit as he had into it.  The crowd was on its feet... an exuberance not often seen at a track meet.  All I could do was watch and pray that hadn't messed up the pics.  I was trying a new manual focus technique that I hadn't tried before, so I was nervous.

The officials reset the bar, remeasured and Ricky made three attempts at the next height.  After the last attempt, he waved to the standing crowd in appreciation.  It was us who appreciated him, providing such an exciting moment in our lives.  Its not often that one witnesses a superlative that begins with, "World's Best."

I was on pins and needles until I got back home and downloaded the pics for viewing.  They came out perfect.  My new manual focus technique was a success!... and an uncommon one in this day of auto-focus, especially for sports photography.  I couldn't be happier.

See more of the 2012 Pepsi Florida Relays here.

See much more at where it's all about the photos!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Merritt Island National Wildlife Preserve

This one's been on my list for some time now.  I occasionally find myself in the area, but never quite had the time to make it there.  Finally, the opportunity presented itself.  I had President's day off, the wife had to work and the weather was favorable.  Bingo!  I was also excited about giving my new lens, a 400/f2.8 prime, a workout.   So, up at 4:45AM to make it to Titusville by sun-up... required an extra cup of coffee... made it to the entrance of Black Point Drive just after the sun peeked above the horizon... perfect!  Or so I thought.

My first pass through Black Point Drive was not terribly productive.  There just weren't a lot of birds around.  I attribute that to the 38 degree night (coldest of the year).  If I was a bird, I'd stay in bed a little later too!  I took a few pics, but nothing outstanding.  I bagged Black Point Drive and headed up the Kennedy Parkway to a dirt road north of the Haulover Canal.  Unfortunately, the road was closed.  I parked to the side of the gate, gathered my gear and walked in.  I saw some interesting birds, but most of them spooked before I could get reasonably close to them (that's pretty spooky with 800mm worth of glass).  I was getting pretty frustrated when I saw this:

Well, that explained why I was humping fifteen pounds of camera gear through the marsh.  Is this the best plan that the brightest minds at the Department of the Interior can come up with to control a small group of problem people on one acre out of 207,000+ acres of National Preserve land?  Please!  Another example of typical government wisdom... punish everyone by stooping to the lowest common denominator.

Enough whining... let me crawl down from my soapbox.  I did got a couple of pics on my walk, including this Tricolor Heron with interestingly constricted pupils looking into the low sun.

Back on the road again, I headed south and stopped off at the Haulover Canal access road where I ran into Larry, Mo and Curly...

... the Black Vulture version of them anyway.  Also saw a Baldy, but he was not in a photogenic pose, so I passed him by.

Next, I headed for Peacock's Pocket Drive.  This is probably my favorite drive in the reserve, much better than the more popular and heavily advertised Black Pointe Drive.  It's a longer drive, is oriented better for the southern angle of the sun, and includes more habitat than Black Pointe.  It's also less travelled... always a big plus in my eyes.

Along the southern portion of Peacock's Pocket, it seemed like there was a Tricolor Heron every fifty feet!  And... a Great Blue Heron every hundred feet.  Nobody was fishing much though... just standing around looking pretty.  I think they were all warming up from the cold night before sticking their head under water.  I know I would have.

The herons weren't nearly as skittish as most that I've encountered.  Again, maybe the cold... "I would fly away and tick this guy off, but I just don't feel like moving at the moment."  Later in the day, as it warmed up, everyone became more active and less reticent to get wet for a meal....

By the way, he came up empty.  Sad for such a valiant effort.

After a run through Peacock's Pocket and Catfish Loop, I headed back over to Black Point to see if anything had warmed up there.  I saw some wild boars and piglets rooting in the marsh.  Evidently there's a large population of them in the reserve.  The piglets were almost cute.  On this run through, the birds had started fishing.  This fellow got the all-you-can-eat shrimp special.

And this gorgeous Reddish Egret was checking under the hood before she started running all over the bay tracking down a meal.  Those Reddish Egrets are interesting to watch fish... so very active.

After a second run through Black Point, I headed over to Bio Lab Drive.  Interesting name for a road.  I assume it went to a Bio Lab at some point.  I guess I need to look up the history on that.  It's an excellent drive along the water, and hard to find so not crowded at all.  The best photo opportunities are in the early morning due to its north/south orientation and marsh on the west side of the road.  It was too late in the day for that, but I did get some good pics on the big water (east) side of the road... like this Osprey chowing down on lunch.

I also saw a nice juvenile Baldy, but he took off before I could get a good shot of him.  On a second run through Peacock's Pocket, there were boatloads of White Pelicans.  My favorite was this group swimming along feeding.  White Pelicans don't dive for their food like Brown Pelicans... they just swim along dipping their head in the water and filtering out small fish and such.  Check out the dragon-fly on the lead pelican's nose.

I also ran into a few Roseate Spoonbills on Catfish Loop.  Beautiful birds!

Later in the afternoon, it clouded up.  I almost considered bagging the day and going home, but I stuck around for the sunset.  I was rewarded by the sun falling down in the clear underneath the clouds.  That is always the best light, when the sun is low and direct, but also reflecting off the golden clouds.  Trouble was, there weren't any birds around!  I was racing around the Peacock's Pocket roads (glad the Man didn't see me), desperately looking for a subject to fill my frame with the perfect light.  Finally, I saw some Black Skimmers doing their thing in a calm marsh pocket.  I leapt out of the car with my 800mm Canon (literally and figuratively).  I didn't even bother setting it on a tripod... I just hand-held it and staring blasting away.  After about a hundred frames, I looked down at my settings and noticed that I was shooting at a shutter speed of 1/200.  Argh!  That was probably a hundred wasted cycles of the shutter.  When I got back home, I found that somehow, someway, just one of the frames actually came out clearly.  Here's the lucky picture...

Not bad for 800mm hand-held at only 1/200th of a second!  For reference, I usually try to shot action at 1/1200th of a second or faster.

If you want to see more, Merritt Island NWR photos are included in several different galleries here:

Florida Water Birds
Blue Herons

See much more at

It's all about the pics!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Viera Wetlands

Another in my New Years birding binge series...  After shooting the Orange Bowl game, I left the stadium at 1:00AM and drove north.  The first rest stop on I-95 isn't until after Jupiter and by the time I got there, I felt like I had been driving from Earth to Jupiter!  Finally, I got to stop and sleep!  I only slept a few hours though because I wanted to be at Viera Wetlands in the first hour after sun up.  I made it groggily to Viera.  What a neat place!

The wetlands are a series of man-made impoundments, very much like Wakadohatchee.  However, rather than a boardwalk, you simply drive your car around the tops of the dikes.  Talk about easy bird-watching!  This is an excellent opportunity for handicapped individuals.  In fact, I saw a guy driving around in a van with a homemade camera mount hung on the window like a drive-in eating joint.  Perfect.

On to the pics... there were all manner of birds in the wetlands, but the stars of course, were the nesting pairs of Great Blue Herons.  There were several pairs nesting in the tops of palm trees, just twenty  to thirty yards off the road.  They drew a crowd of folks, some shooting with mongo lenses, some just gawking at the site.

And gawking is appropriate at that!  What a beautiful scene.  I could have sat right there the whole morning and watched the Blues nest.

But, there was other stuff to see, so I drove and walked.  Every time around the dikes, I saw something different and exciting.  This Glossy Ibis was a neat find.  I haven't seen any up in north Florida.  You can definitely see how it got its name.  Just look at the deep hues of green and blue in that glossy black plumage.

Here's a nice Snowy Egret showing off his breeding plumage.  He's dressed formally to attract a pretty girl... can't blame him for that!

It's absolutely astounding how close you can get to the birds in this place.  They're all so acclimated to people and cars, and the dike road is so close to the water on both sides, you just can't miss with pictures.  This is especially true of normally shy birds such as Great Blue Herons.  In my neck of the woods, they take off if you look at them cross-eyed from fifty yards away!  Not here.

Of course, there's the obligatory Anhinga or two hanging out...

And then there was this guy...

An American Bittern in the reeds.  You have to appreciate that this photo is at 330mm... he didn't look this close in real life, and had I not seen him fly into the bull rushes, I'd have never know he was there.  Of course, that's the point... and he's very good at it!

Ducks of all manner call this place home... more in the winter I'm sure.  Here's a group of Ring Necked ladies hanging out, waiting for the guys to come back home.

If you want to see more, Viera Wetlands photos are included in several different galleries here:

Florida Water Birds
Blue Herons

See much more at

It's all about the pics!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Sweetwater Strand Everglades

Another in the series from my trip to south Florida for the Orange Bowl...

I usually look for the roads less travelled when away from home.  In the Everglades, there just aren't that many roads, but Loop Road is definitely one of those less travelled.  Loop Road is partially paved, mostly dirt and traverses a loop from the west side of U.S 41 to a point nearly midway between the east and west coast.  Its entrance is wholly unmarked on the west end and marked only with a small street side on the east end.  The east entrance is easiest to find, as it comes into 41 where 41 makes a jog to the north.  Oh, and if you're planning a trip, watch out for the Miccosukee cop who is a permanent fixture at the east entrance to U.S. 41.

Six miles in from the west entrance, lies Sweetwater Strand a thin body of water traversing the Everglades, eventually emptying into the Ten Thousand Islands.

This is the view from the small bridge that cross the strand.  The water is shallow and crystal clear with a hard coral/limestone bottom.  You can peer into the cypress and see all manner of wading birds.  Even with a brisk breeze blowing from a passing cold front, the water here is so protected that it is dead calm.  Perfect for reflection pictures.

While shooting around the strand, I met a nice older fellow who was shooting with this magnificent piece of equipment...

He was retired and had opened a studio which his wife ran.  His "job" now was to run around the Everglades taking pictures for their studio.  Hmmm... I think I'm seeing a retirement plan forming in my head.  This was his "small" camera... an 8x10.  He also had an 11x14, both of which he had restored himself.  Neat guy.  He also looked up and pointed out a Red-Shouldered Hawk who had been sitting on a branch right over might head for the past thirty minutes, and I'd not noticed him once.  He said the hawk was a regular and that he had a neat picture of the hawk with three chicks lined up on that very branch.  I would have liked to have seen that!

One feature of Sweetwater that's conducive to good pics was its orientation to the southwest, which allowed the sun to shine in during the afternoon.  Even with the sun, it still remained a dark cypress swamp which made for excellent contrast for light subjects.

And the highlight for me was this Green Heron fishing.  I rarely see Green Herons in north Florida, so getting to watch this one fish was a treat.   He started out like this...

... and kept leaning forward...

... and further forward until I thought he'd fall off the branch!

Finally, he launched himself like a dart into the water and came up with a fish.  It didn't look like he missed too often.  He leapt back up to the branch to enjoy his dinner.

After dinner came a little preening and ruffling before he flew off into the bowels of the swamp.

If you want to see more, Sweetwater Strand and Loop Road photos are included in several different galleries here:

Green Herons
Everglades Landscapes

See much more at

It's all about the pics!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Wakodahatchee Wetlands

What a mouthful!  Those Seminoles had some funky names.  This one means "Created Waters"... and actually was designated not by the Seminoles, but by the Florida DEP.  This is a created wetland, right in the middle of a large residential section of Delray Beach, FL.  It's one of a growing number of man-made wetlands for waste-water remediation where the government has provided public access (which I whole-heartedly support).  This spot is perfect for those that might have trouble getting around... elderly, handicapped, etc.  It features a handicap accessible boardwalk which weaves through the wetlands and allows excellent vantage points of the many birds that visit the wetlands.

I visited on New Year's day, in the morning before heading down to Miami to shoot the Orange Bowl.  Despite arriving before sun-up, I was the fourth car in the parking lot.  I'm used to being the crazy first guy there.  This is a popular spot, with good reason.

There was lots of activity before the sun came up, but most of it too dark to shoot.  This fella was preening himself before breakfast.  Sun wasn't up yet, so the slower shutter gave him a blurry look as he shook.

There were several nesting pairs of Great Blue Herons, with one of the pairs actively building their nest (spring comes pretty early in south Florida).  I was fascinated watching their interaction.  The male would fly off to find a stick.  After a while of searching, he'd fly back and hand (mouth) the stick off to the female.  She'd carefully place the stick in just the right place in the nest while the male preened her gently.  When she was done, every now and then she'd offer this display to the male:

I'm not sure what it means... "Thanks" perhaps?

Sometimes, she'd lay down in the nest while the male was off looking for a stick.  One time while she was napping, the male snuck up on her and surprised her.  I'm pretty sure he startled her awake because she flew up into a tantrum at him.  It was spectacular!

I love the look on the Anhinga's face at the lower right.  Watch out!

Nesting space was a little sparse, so lots of competition for the best spots was displayed.  Naturally, the Great Blues commanded the best spots, with Anhingas and Cormorants nesting below them.  This is what happens when the Anhinga gets a little too close to Mamma Blue Heron's house...

Yeah, I think I'd back off too.

There was other nest building going on there too.  The Anhingas were busily gathering the soft Australian Pine boughs to line their nests.  Anhingas are definitely not made for roosting in trees.  They were quite ungainly fumbling around in the branches trying to snap one off to take back to the nest.

And even funnier was watching them fly back to the nest with the fluffy pine branch in their mouth. How could they see where they were going?  Flying blind!

The most special moment was just that... a split second in time.  I was waiting for the heron to come back to the nest and out of the corner of my eye, I saw something flying toward me.  I didn't know what it was, but I just turned the camera and shot off a burst.  I didn't bother looking at the pics right then because I assumed they'd be out of focus or blurred by motion.  Several days later when I got home and started editing pictures, I came across this...

Wow... great shot!  I wanted to make sure I labeled the picture correctly, so I started looking on-line to try to figure out what these were.  I knew I had never seen one before.   I looked in all my normal resources and came up with a blank.  Finally, I searched for "ring-necked goose" or something similar, and up came these guys... Egyptian Geese, native to Africa!  What are they doing in south Florida?  I don't know, but they sure are pretty!  What a lucky shot.  I love it when I discover a wonderful shot that I didn't even know I had while shooting.

If you want to see more, Wakodahatchee photos are included in several different galleries here:

Florida Water Birds
Blue Herons

See much more at

It's all about the pics!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Shark Valley, Everglades

While in Miami to shoot the Orange Bowl game, I spent some time shooting in the Everglades.  One of the better locations, was the Shark Valley Loop.  It was a little touristy for my liking, but the birding opportunities were excellent.  You can't actually drive the loop.  The Miccosukees have a concession running a tram around the loop.  But, you can walk the loop if you're so inclined... only 16 miles.  They do rent bicycles at the top of the loop... probably a much more palatable option.

I spent the night in the car on Loop Road just west of Shark Valley so I could hop up before dawn and walk in for a sunrise over the marsh.  I walked in four miles in the dark, wondering the whole way what I'd do if a gator jumped out of the marsh.  Fortunately, a cold front blew through the previous day and the fifty degree night had the gators lethargic.

Unfortunately, the sunrise was not too spectacular.  I gave half a thought to walking the entire loop, but my somewhat pained hip talked me out of the idea.  So, I started trudging back to the entrance.  I had my head hanging low, looking at the dirt as I walked when all of the sudden a spot of yellow entered my field of vision just twenty feet away.

This Eastern Meadlowlark was just standing on the side of the road, wholly unconcerned with my presence.  He looked about as sleepy as me... stretching and getting ready for the day of begging from tourists alongside the road.  I stayed and took pictures of him for about ten minutes.  He enjoyed playing the game of, Turn-my-front-away-from-the-camera, just like my kids used to do.

After bidding adieu to the Meadowlark, I continued my trudge towards the top of the loop.  Birds were waking up and flying to their breakfast grounds.  A couple of egrets and herons stood on the road as I approached, but spooked too early for a good shot.  Finally, I happened upon a Little Blue Heron sitting in a bush along the road.  He happily (OK, maybe not so happily) posed for quick shot in the rising sunlight.

He was accompanied by a Tricolored Heron fishing in the small open water space next to the bush.  The low filtered sun made for very nice lighting indeed.

After a short time of shooting, the herons tired of my presence and took off for more peaceful fishing grounds.  So I continued to the top of the loop, feeling pretty bushed by the time I got back to the top (eight miles before the sun even had a chance to stretch... pretty good).  I was tired, so I decided I'd walk back up to the car (parked on the side of Tamiami Trail), but on the walk back out to the highway, there was far too much to shoot along the side of the road.  Turns out the best place to shoot was right at the entrance (could have saved myself a long walk).

I saw this Green Heron along side the road... first one I've seen.  We just don't seem to have a lot of them in north Florida.

And this Great Egret right out by the main road.  Nice looking feller:

I walked out to the car and found a New Year's day party going on around it!  It was a group of people from Miami who's tradition is to meet by the side of the road at Shark Valley every New Years, bike the loop, and then celebrate by the side of the road.  They shared some coffee and breakfast with me, and feeling refreshed, I decided to take a second walk into Shark Valley.

By this time, the sun was up and strong and the gators were popping up everywhere trying to warm up in the sun.  You couldn't walk twenty feet without stumbling over a gator... not an exaggeration!  Even the birds were having to step around the gators.  I watched this fella keep one eye on the water and one eye on the twelve footer right next to him.  I think the heron would have fit as nicely in the gator's mouth as the minnow is in his mouth.

I watched a tricolor heron who's technique was to briskly walk down the edge of the water along the road looking for bugs and minnows.  Every twenty feet or so, he'd come up against a gator stretched out across his path and he'd make a careful and wide circle around the gator and then resume his hunt.  Funny to watch.

As I walked, I generally had my head down looking into the water and brush along the road, looking for wading birds, but suddenly something caught the corner of my eye.  It was a red shouldered hawk flying towards me.  It took up station in a tree right above me and posed for a few pics.  I hoped to see him hunt, but alas, I didn't have the patience to wait him out.

At that point, I felt it had been a fantastic morning.  I was tired and ready to head back to the car.  I walked, not even looking hard for photo opportunities, when a sudden burst of color skittered in the lilly pads next to me.

The exclamation point to a perfect morning!  A Purple Gallinule!  The first I've seen (not that they're uncommon).  What a beautiful bird.  I think God just had a thought, "Let's make something with every color of the rainbow in it."  Wow!

If you want to see more, Shark Valley photos are included in several different galleries here:

Florida Water Birds
Blue Herons
Green Herons
Everglades Landscapes

See much more at

It's all about the pics!