Delray Beach: Photographing Birds at the Wakodahatchee Wetlands

Male red-winged blackbird calling. Lowell Silverman photography, 2011
Male red-winged blackbird calling. Lowell Silverman photography, 2011

Amidst the endless grid of housing developments and strip malls a fifteen minute drive west of downtown Delray Beach, Florida sits a small park dense with wildlife.  The Wakodahatchee Wetlands cover only 56 acres, small in comparison to other nearby preserves in south Florida like the 147,392 acre Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge or the 1,508,538 acre Everglades National Park.  They take up only about half of one of Delray’s long city blocks.  It would probably not be appropriate to call the wetland area a preserve, since Palm Beach County Water Utilities Department created it adjacent to one of their water treatment plants.  This recreated wetland serves dual duty as wildlife habitat and as an additional cleaning method for water already treated at the plant.

Great egret hunting in the wetlands. I aimed to capture the bird's reflection. Exposure with egrets can be challenging because the bird's plumage is so much lighter than its surroundings. In this particular case, the exposure came out well straight out of the camera, but I often have to tweak the exposure in Photoshop Elements to avoid blown highlights (overexposed) or the bird looking gray rather than white (underexposed)
Great egret hunting in the wetlands. I aimed to capture the bird’s reflection. Exposure with egrets can be challenging because the bird’s plumage is so much lighter than its surroundings. In this particular case, the exposure came out well straight out of the camera, but I often have to tweak the exposure in Photoshop Elements to avoid blown highlights (overexposed) or the bird looking gray rather than white (underexposed)

As habitat, the project appears incredibly successful, attracting over a hundred different species of birds and providing nesting areas for many different wading birds.  The park features a handicapped accessible trail that is mainly boardwalk and provides an incredibly close look at wildlife.  Indeed, I would rate the park as having the densest concentration of birds of anywhere I’ve visited.

Juvenile white ibis. Lowell Silverman photography, 2013
Juvenile white ibis. Lowell Silverman photography, 2013

Bird photography is a rather challenging niche.  Most birds are small, which makes it difficult to fill the frame.  They often move quickly, which makes focusing and keeping the shutter speed high enough to get a good shot challenging.  Many pros use very high magnification telephoto lenses and photo blinds in order to get effective bird shots.  For people like me who have neither the patience nor the cash to use such equipment, the Wakodahatchee Wetlands are a great place to polish bird photography skills.  The wetlands let you get close to the wildlife, which is half the battle.  The other half is technique and luck.

I had two opportunities to visit Wakodahatchee, in 2011 and 2013.  The results of both visits were quite successful, resulting in some images that I’m very pleased with.  For every satisfactory shot, I’d say 10 turned out poorly.  I was particularly disappointed that I didn’t get any good pictures of the roseate spoonbill during the first time I’d seen the species.   Sharpness was a big issue – telephoto lenses aren’t quite as forgiving as portrait lenses except, perhaps, in perfect lighting conditions.  In some shots the autofocus focused on foreground foliage or did not focus on the bird’s head.  Some shots the bird was at an awkward angle, facing away from the camera.  In others, the bird was obstructed by foliage.

American alligators dozing. The resident water birds seem strangely unconcerned with their proximity...maybe they can tell when they're hungry.
American alligators dozing. The resident water birds seem strangely unconcerned with their proximity…maybe they can tell when they’re hungry.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2011

During my visits I used a Canon Digital Rebel XSi (EOS 450D) which was fine, and a Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III lens, which was not a very good lens.  As an amateur photographer with a limited budget, I’ve been unwilling to invest in a better telephoto lens considering I use them once or twice a year at most.  I’d rather get a good mid-range zoom that serves as a good travel lens, letting me travel light as possible. (However, I convinced Rachel to get a superzoom, which I “borrow” shamelessly when we travel together…I did not have it during either trip to Florida, though.)

Male blue-winged teal. Other than a slightly lighter background, there's not much more I could ask for with this photo opportunity
Male blue-winged teal. Other than a slightly lighter colored background, there’s not much more I could ask for with this photo opportunity

While the 75-300mm takes adequate pictures in good lighting conditions, its lack of image stabilization is a bit of a liability when photographing birds.  Lens limitations notwithstanding, equipment may be less important than skill (or luck!) in getting great photographs.  Among aces, the usual wisdom was “it’s the pilot, not the plane” and you could say “it’s the photographer, not the camera or lens”.

American ahingha in flight. The bird was a bit underexposed, but I liked the silhouette image that resulted. Straightened and slightly cropped in Photoshop Elements.
American ahingha in flight. The bird was a bit underexposed, but I liked the silhouette image that resulted. Straightened and slightly cropped in Photoshop Elements.

Tracking a bird in flight can result in some amazing shots, but it’s a difficult situation, especially if the the bird is moving sideways across your field of view.  There are two techniques I’ve found are useful under such situations.  If already zoomed in, I will keep my dominant eye to the viewfinder.  When I close my non-dominant eye, I can see through the viewfinder, but when I open the other eye, I can see and follow the subject.  By alternating between opening both eyes and having one eye closed, I can use my binocular vision to acquire the subject in the viewfinder.  Not everyone finds this natural; I’ve tried to teach Rachel this technique when using her superzoom without success.

Wood stork flaring for a landing. I acquired the bird on approach; it was easy to track since it was moving towards me, not across my field of vision. I was ready to shoot at the perfect moment. Well, except for the foreground foliage, it's a pleasing shot. Exposure adjusted slightly for the white body and photo slightly cropped.
“I caught a fish THIS BIG!”  Actually, this wood stork is flaring as it sets down for a landing. I acquired the bird on approach; it was easy to track since it was moving towards me, not across my field of vision. I was ready to shoot at the perfect moment. Well, except for the foreground foliage, it’s a pleasing shot. Exposure adjusted slightly for the white body and photo slightly cropped.

If zoomed out, the easiest technique is to locate the subject in the viewfinder and smoothly zoom in while tracking the bird in the viewfinder.  You have to zoom slowly enough to not lose the bird, since all movements are amplified when you’re zoomed in and it’s easy to lose track.  Of course, zoom too slowly and the subject will probably be out of range by the time you’re ready to shoot.  After you have the image composed, you’ll have to trust the autofocus, which may or may not be able to pick the bird out against the background.

Green heron hunting. If not for the twig at left, I'd say it's one of my favorite bird images.
Green heron hunting. If not for the twig at left, I’d say it’s one of my favorite bird images.  Sometimes sidestepping a few feet can clear foreground distractions if you’re cognizant of the entire composition, which can be hard to do while focusing on getting a clear view of a quickly moving bird.  I suppose I could remove the twig in Photoshop, but I find extensive editing beyond color, contrast, straightening, and cropping somewhat unauthentic.

Nesting wading birds can be a little easier to photograph than birds that are foraging for food.  After all, nesting birds return to a predictable location where they might be more or less stationary.  Herons and egrets nest in colonies known as rookeries.  Florida’s mild winter climate means the birds nest earlier here than they do in the rest of the country.  Herons are definitely easier to photograph when nesting than songbirds, which typically build nests in more secluded locations rather than as part of a boisterous colony.

Great blue herons building a nest. I believe the male typically brings material and the female works it into the nest. I like the poses in the photo, but the bland lighting at the moment let the image down a little.
Great blue herons building a nest. I believe the male typically brings material and the female works it into the nest. I like the poses in the photo, but the bland lighting at the moment was a letdown.
The same breeding herons with slightly better light, though the angle still wasn't ideal. Unfortunately when photographing from a boardwalk, your options for getting a better angle are limited! Love the heron's tongue though. More than any other bird, Great Blue Herons remind me of dinosaurs.
The same breeding herons with slightly better light, though the angle still wasn’t ideal. Unfortunately when photographing from a boardwalk, your options for getting a better angle are limited! I love the heron’s tongue though. More than any other bird, Great Blue Herons remind me of pterodactyl.

Although I took most of my favorite images at Wakodahatchee during my 2011 visit, I took what is perhaps my favorite bird photo in 2013.  A young tricolored heron was chasing one of its parents around the refuge, begging for a free meal.

A young heron being a pest.
A young heron being a pest.  Not a good picture to begin with, but I love the action.  Better photo to come…Lowell Silverman photography, 2013

After its parent escaped, the young heron perched on the boardwalk very close to me.  I was able to not only fill the frame with the bird, but zoom in even closer to get a good view of its head.  Everything was perfectly sharp and there was a non-distracting background.  I love that the photo captures feather detail effectively, especially the bird’s crest, which fits the rowdy teenager it seemed to be.  After processing the image from RAW in Photoshop Elements, I had the photo printed on metal for my wall.

Young tricolored heron
Young tricolored heron ready for a punk rock concert
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