A Return To My Favorite Swamp

Jan 3, 2014
Last summer just before Hurricane Harvey hit Houston I started to explore a beautiful swamp I discovered only 22 miles from my house. I documented my 4 trips there in this thread - Southeast Texas Swamp Exploration

As I mentioned in the above thread that after it re-opened from Harvey it was closed on the weekends for duck hunting so I avoided it. I tried to get out there in February but it was closed due to flooding and then again at the beginning of April. We have had a lot of rain and the refuge is along the Trinity River, which brings down all the rain from the Dallas area. So they keep having to close it down, which has been driving me crazy.

I have hardly been out shooting the last 6 weeks because my can project has been consuming me. I decided that Wednesday I needed to get out and shoot something so I called the refuge to find out it had just reopened. So I decided that was where I would go and it was my first time back since Harvey.

My original plan was to head to an area that I knew a lot of Pileated Woodpeckers lived in hopes of finding their nest, their young should be hatching this month. But something came up and I needed to be at a meeting in the afternoon so needed to be home by noon. So that only gave me a few hours out there, but I really needed to get out. I was still going to try and do a drive-by thru the area but when I got to the paddle trail where I saw a Barred Owl last year I could hear him in the distance hooting up a storm. It was also the area where a bunch of Green Herons nest, so decided to head that way to check on the area.

I never did find the owl, but I did find something else very interesting. A little before the area where the Green Herons nest (they should be there come June/July) I found a spot where a good number (around 20 is my best guess) of Yellow-Crowned Night Herons are nesting. I use the paddle trails to get out into the swamp quickly but typically get off them at some point to explore areas I have found using the software for my Garmin GPS unit. I should use the word paddle trail very loosely because they have not really been maintained since being made many years ago. The beginning of them are pretty open and easy paddling but the farther back you get the more and more overgrown they become, eventually to no longer being any type of trail.


I heard the owl off to my left and started off the trail, actually this is about the point that the trail becomes so overgrown you are not really on a trail anymore. That is when I realized I had moved into a Yellow-Crown nesting area. You can see on the map where I made that left turn and halted because I was right in the middle of it before I realized what I had done.

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Trip 5 to Champion Lake by Phocal Art, on Flickr

They blend in so well with the very heavy cover that even when specifically looking for something in the trees it's hard to spot them. When I got home I did some research because I have never come across a nesting area of Yellow-Crowned Night Herons. It was interesting to learn that they typically return to the same nest each year and make it bigger and bigger (kind of like Bald Eagles), this helped to explain why I saw nest of various sizes in the area.

This area was super thick and it was hard to maneuver a 12 foot kayak through. I had to pull everything inside the kayak to keep things from getting caught up on all the branches that were constantly smacking into me and the kayak. I also took my paddle apart so I could stash it in the kayak. I maneuvered either using my small wood canoe paddle or by pulling on the branches and trees. Before backing out I captured this photograph.

EM1 w/ MZ 300mm f4.0 IS Pro - ISO 200, 1/640 @ f4.0, handheld from kayak
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Yellow-Crowned Night Heron 001 by Phocal Art, on Flickr

After backing out I moved down the "trail" to the Green Heron nesting area to check on it. I heard the owl one more time and turned back around to try and locate him. I guess he moved on because I never heard him after that. I wasn't real sure how big this nesting area was and looking at the GPS saw where I was in relation to it. So I decided to make my way back along it and try to find the edges. On the map that turn north is along the western edge of the nesting area.

The shooting conditions in here were just terrible. Under the canopy it was dark but the super bright sky in the background was causing the camera to basically shoot silhouettes. I just use the matrix metering (or whatever Olympus calls it) and then compensate using EC to dial in my exposure. I find this a lot easier since I never have my subject dead center and don't use focus and recompose, so spot metering is completely useless to me. I find this method makes it very quick and easy to nail exposure. I was having to dial in 1 to 2 stops of over exposure to make the bird visible. I honestly think the EM1 handled the exposures very well, given it's limited DR (I say that jokingly because I have never found it limiting since it is more than the film I started with). These next two shots are from my 2nd trip along the edge of the nesting area. I also added the MC-14 because I wanted to maintain distance. I should have thrown on my flash but I knew this was only a drive-by photo shoot and as thick as it was the Better Beamer would have been getting caught up on a lot of stuff as I moved around to find a clear view. When I return and setup to try and get some great shots I will not be drifting by and will break out the flash. It will be really helpful in that heavy cover that doesn't get a lot of light.

EM1 w/ MZ 300mm f4.0 IS Pro + MC-13 - ISO 640, 1/400 @ f5.6, handheld from kayak
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Yellow-Crowned Night Heron 002 by Phocal Art, on Flickr

EM1 w/ MZ 300mm f4.0 IS Pro + MC-13 - ISO 1600, 1/320 @ f5.6, handheld from kayak
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Yellow-Crowned Night Heron 003 by Phocal Art, on Flickr

This was another one of those times I was grateful for the amazing IBIS of my EM1. I was in a moving kayak (was slowly drifting), while also moving around to get a clear view (so not always the most comfortable or stable shooting position). So to be able to get sharp photos at an effective 840mm focal length at these slow shutter speeds is really amazing. Most of us who shoot m4/3 kind of take this for granted, but there is no way I could shoot shutter speeds this slow at this focal length with my old Canon gear. Not even getting into how impossible it would be just using a 500mm lens in this situation. Yesterday once again proved to me that I made the right decision to switch to Olympus.

Not the best photographs I have taken and not really up to my super critical requirements, but they do help tell the story of my day and in the end that is what it is all about. While not up to my large print standards the first and third images will be getting printed on a plastic bottle I pulled from the water. I actually didn't find one can while paddling around but I did find and pull out a lot of plastic water/soda bottles, I threw away all the plastic bottles except one. I find a lot of plastic oil bottles while on the water because all the motors on boats need oil and seems like most of them leak and are always needing more. Since they have flat sides I realized that I could cut them up and print on them, before I always threw them away. So the one that I found today is currently soaking in a bucket of water and I will clean it up this weekend and print on it.

I find a lot of odd things while out on the water but this light bulb is right up there with the strangest. It was bobbing in the water like a fishing cork and at first I thought it was a Miller Lite can.

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Light Bulb by Phocal Art, on Flickr

Despite Hurricane Harvey and all the flooding since the swamp is in very good shape. These swamps are use to this type of weather and actually bounce back really well and pretty quickly. But all this area got was the flooding and not all the heavy wind, which is what would really tear it up. Because the areas I have explored are pretty far from the river the trash that came down the Trinity during Harvey wasn't able to make it. I am sure that as I explore this area more (have barely scratched the surface of this place) and get to places closer to the river I will find a lot more Harvey trash. I wouldn't be surprised to find the areas close to the river contain a lot of trash that got deposited after the flood waters receded since there is no one who will come by and clean it up.

Hope you enjoyed the story and photos. I am looking forward to my next trip to the swamp and will try to go again next week. Since it was a Wednesday I was the only person out there, exactly how I like it. Even when I find other people out there it is in the lake part and they are there to fish. I have never run into anyone once I get a mile into the swamp. Oh, on this trip I covered a total of 3.5 miles.........so it was my shortest trip distance and time wise so far.


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