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Featured The Elusive American Bittern

Discussion in 'Nature' started by Phocal, Mar 5, 2018.

  1. Phocal

    Phocal Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Jan 3, 2014
    Houston
    I purposely left later than normal to head to my favorite state park because I was after gators. I knew the sunny warm day would have them out everywhere but when I got to the park the clouds had rolled in and it was heavily overcast the entire time I was there. Didn't have any luck with the gators but I did find this American Bittern who let me watch him hunt for 2 1/2 hours.

    When I spotted the Bittern he was about 35 feet away so I dropped my backpack at the top of the bank and slowly worked my way down to the edge of the swamp. The bank was somewhat steep, which made laying head down the bank to uncomfortable of a position. But I really wanted to get a low perspective with my camera just above the weeds.

    You see.......................

    My 3 favorite birds to photograph are American/Least Bittern and Green Herons and all three prefer the thick/dense cover. This makes them difficult to photograph because getting clear shots is not always possible. So when they are in the heavy cover I like to get low and capture images that put you there with the bird to give you an idea of their perspective.

    Not being able to lay facing the bird because of the banks steepness I did the next best thing. I put my legs in water with my butt just on the shoreline and rolled over on my side. Once on my side I bent over into an "L" shape, this allowed me to be somewhat comfortable and to position the camera just above the weeds for that eye level low perspective I was after.

    This positioning made framing the shots a little difficult, especially with respects to being level. One of the advantages to mirrorless is the electronic viewfinder and the information that it makes possible to display. I have gotten into the habit of shooting with the blinkies on so I can instantly know the status of my highlights and shadows. I also always have the electronic level turned on to make sure I am level, keeps me from losing any of the image from leveling in post. I shoot with composition in mind and try to crop as little as possible in post, so being level to start is crucial.

    When I first got into position he was at an awkward distance of around 35 feet. It was awkward because with the MC-14 I risked cropping off body parts if he was sideways while catching a snack. But without the added reach from the TC he was just a bit farther out than I would like (I would have moved out into the weeds if it wouldn't have gotten me into trouble with any passing rangers, I have no problem laying in water and shooting). I decided to go without the TC and hope that I wouldn't have to crop anything below 4000px on the long side. One of my requirements for my images is being able to print 40 inches on the long side, which requires at least 4000px. I use Mpix Pro for my prints and they basically recommend 1000px per 10 inches, so a 40x30 print requires 4000x3000px. Yes! I know you can print that large with smaller files. To start with that is what my print service recommends as the minimum. I also want my images to withstand close inspection because lets face it. If someone puts a 40x30 print on their wall visitors will walk right up to and look because most people don't understand that there is a recommend viewing distance for images based on their size. I don't want someone who bought one of my images to have to try and explain (or for me to have to explain to them) recommended viewing distance. So I have a set limit that I try to work in to keep my printed image quality at my standards.

    But I digress.......................

    First I should mention that the heavy overcast sky was going to force my ISO higher than I really like when keeping the shutter high enough to freeze the action. This gave me a chance to pull out the Godox V860iiO w/ Better Beamer for some fill as well as to drop the ISO some for better image quality.

    When he started walking towards me and ducking under and around the reeds I knew I had the perfect chance to capture a great environmental/behavioral portrait. This image has the maximum amount of crop I am comfortable with, right at 4000px on the long side. So going without the TC was the right decision after all, even it was pushing the distance.

    EM1 w/ 300/4
    26762429718_b50528b799_k.
    American Bittern 003
    by RRcoleJR Photography, on Flickr

    After getting thru that bit of vegetation he came to a stop and stood there perfectly still. I knew he was watching something by the pose he took so I framed the shot and waited.

    and waited.....................

    and waited.....................

    My L shaped position was only somewhat comfortable and laying there holding the camera in position and waiting for an extended period of time was not only uncomfortable but also very tiring. It was a full 8 minutes of waiting before he struck and I was able to capture this image of him catching a small minnow. This image has slightly less crop than the image above, it's cropped to 4120px on the long side.

    EM1 w/ 300/4
    38828351130_5636ef6462_k.
    American Bittern 004
    by RRcoleJR Photography, on Flickr

    I was surprised when after catching the minnow he moved right out into the open. But now I was back at the same problem I had earlier with using the TC. He was going to be to close for full body shots. Normally I am fine with this and will just switch over to doing really tight shots since I am still after a photograph of a birds head and it's catch filling the frame. But the uncomfortable shooting position was going to make framing such a shot almost impossible. So I decided to risk crawling back up the bank to my backpack where my 2nd EM1 with the amazing ZD 150mm f2.0 attached was. I was able to get up there and get the camera and back into position without spooking the Bittern.

    When I got back into position I realized he was still a bit farther out than I wanted to be shooting the bare 150/2 and I didn't grab the EC-14. Didn't want to risk moving back up to get the TC because he had moved even closer, was about 25 feet away at this point. So I just went with it and started shooting with the bare 150/2. It was about 15 minutes since the last photograph when he caught this crawfish.

    This image made it to Explore on Flickr today, so that made me happy since it is one of my favorite American Bittern captures to date. Because of the distance and only shooting with an effective 300mm focal length this photograph has what is for me an extreme crop (down to 3700px on the long side). The 150/2 has enough resolution to withstand this much crop and will still print 30 inches on the long side with the quality I require from my images. I will just not be able to offer it in my largest size of 40 inches long.

    EM1 w/ 150/2
    39717550245_592d803f39_k.
    American Bittern 001
    by RRcoleJR Photography, on Flickr

    He eventually turned sideways to me and I was able to capture this nice profile portrait of him. This image also has a extreme crop to only 3700px on the long side.

    EM1 w/ 150/2
    25767948527_300ced886e_k.
    American Bittern 005
    by RRcoleJR Photography, on Flickr

    I still had the MC-14 in my pocket, so while waiting for some action I put it on the 300/4 to capture some close-up portraits of him. For me the two camera/lens combo of the 300/4 and 150/2 is the best two camera combo I have ever used for wildlife photography. There is nothing I can't shoot with these two lenses. What I really like about using them together is I can get close enough for full body shots with the 150/2 and use the 300/4 for tight close-up portraits.

    This isn't the best image. It is shot from behind with the bird looking away, is at my high ISO limit for wildlife photography, because of the higher ISO it loses detail and really only has the eye in focus.

    But............................

    There is just something that appeals to me about it. For me it gives the impression of wondering what he is looking at or thinking.

    Anyways..................

    I really like the image and plan to print it on some alternative media, something I have been working on this month (why I haven't been posting much lately) now that I have my Epson P800 printer. Hopefully here in the next few weeks I will be able to share some of this alternative printing that I am working on. This image has about 50px crop because my OCD forced me to line it up perfectly. So basically it has no crop.

    EM1 w/ 300/4 + MC-14
    40621416421_3be02169b4_k.
    American Bittern 002
    by RRcoleJR Photography, on Flickr

    I do hope you enjoyed the story as well as the photographs and maybe even learned something in the process.

    As always, any and all comments are welcomed.

    Regards,

    Phocal

    P.S. I want to add that even tho I was basically laying in the water of the swamp I wasn't really concerned about gators.

    First..............

    When my dad was teaching me to shoot rifles he taught me to shoot with both eyes open and it's something I have carried over to my photography. So I am always looking for anything, especially gators when laying at the edge of the water.

    The entire area in front of me was also only about 6 inches deep and full of weeds. So there was no way a gator to get close without me seeing him and having plenty of time to move out of the way.

    My real concern was a Cottonmouth showing up since it has been warm the last week and they should be starting to come out.
     
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  2. Kalifornier

    Kalifornier Mu-43 All-Pro Subscribing Member

    Apr 29, 2014
    California
    Wow!
     
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  3. Schwert

    Schwert Mu-43 Regular

    156
    Mar 2, 2016
    Pacific NW
    Beautiful series of an amazing bird.
    Superior write-up, thanks.
     
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  4. DynaSport

    DynaSport Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Jan 5, 2013
    Dan
    And cotton mouths are mean and territorial. You have more nerve than I do sir. Beautiful shots as always.
     
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  5. Phocal

    Phocal Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Jan 3, 2014
    Houston
    Thanks..............
     
  6. Phocal

    Phocal Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Jan 3, 2014
    Houston
    Thank you. I am glad you enjoyed both.
     
  7. Schwert

    Schwert Mu-43 Regular

    156
    Mar 2, 2016
    Pacific NW
    I can imagine a space alien looking at the wildlife in this park and being torn between taking a photo of the feeding bird or the prone L-shaped bipod laying on the bank...which shot to take back to illustrate this newly explored planets oddities...
     
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  8. Phocal

    Phocal Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Jan 3, 2014
    Houston
    Thank you.

    I actually have found their reputation is a lot of folk lore. I can regularly crawl within 5 or 6 feet and photograph them with the bare 150/2. Don’t get me wrong, they can be very aggressive in the right situations. They also do drop out of trees when done sunning but they don’t drop out and into boats to attack like people say. They will try to crawl into your boat or kayak in my case, but it’s just a natural thing for them. They just think it’s a log or something in the water and are going to go over it because it could be a good place to sun.
     
  9. DynaSport

    DynaSport Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Jan 5, 2013
    Dan
    Well, I apparently took one’s fishing spot one time and he was not happy about it at all. I didn’t want to kill him, so I finally left and gave him the spot back.
     
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  10. Xx123456xX

    Xx123456xX Mu-43 Regular

    102
    Nov 11, 2017
    Houston, TX, USA
    Jake
    Great photos. Watching wading birds hunt never gets old.

    The other day my brother and I were exploring the Brazoria NWR when he spotted a cottonmouth basking on the side of the road. He was waving his hand over it so it would open its mouth, but it would close as soon as he stopped. This prompted him to say, "Jake, come over here and piss off this snake so I can get a good picture of its mouth." I did not oblige. Unfortunately by the time I was ready to get some video, it was annoyed and slithered into the grass.
     
  11. Mountain

    Mountain Mu-43 Top Veteran

    934
    Aug 2, 2013
    Colorado
    Nice shots @Phocal@Phocal, sorry that the gators weren't cooperating, but glad the bitterns were! I thought about sliding down the bank of the spillway when I was down there, but didnt want to get on the plane smelling like swamp water. Seeing your shots, I'm not sure I made right choice.
     
  12. Phocal

    Phocal Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Jan 3, 2014
    Houston
    thanks and you are correct, could watch them all day just to see what they pull out of the water.

    But........................................


    I do not condone or practice the intentional harassment of wildlife for a photograph (or any other reason for that matter) and have zero (actually I mean far less than zero) respect for anyone who does.


     
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  13. Xx123456xX

    Xx123456xX Mu-43 Regular

    102
    Nov 11, 2017
    Houston, TX, USA
    Jake
    My brother, in retrospect, realized how stupid that was.
     
  14. Phocal

    Phocal Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Jan 3, 2014
    Houston
    Thanks. There is always next time to find some gators to photograph. Last year there were more bitterns then you could shake a stick at. I had seen 1 out there this year until I found this one and after photographing him I spotted two others on my walk out.

    Oh you should have. The smell of swamp water is relaxing, it would have had you sleeping the entire flight back.

    Think I am going to head to the Smith Oaks Rookery this evening. I have never been there for an evening shoot and it looks like the light it going to be amazing tonight. But the drive in gate doesn't open until the 10th, so it will be a long walk in and I have been told it is super muddy. Guess it's time to get muddy...........
     
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  15. Phocal

    Phocal Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Jan 3, 2014
    Houston
    it's not about how stupid it was, but messing with something that can and will attack is stupid. it is about the ethics behind it and the treatment of all wildlife, be it a snake, bird, deer, bobcat, gator, raccoon........................................
     
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  16. Xx123456xX

    Xx123456xX Mu-43 Regular

    102
    Nov 11, 2017
    Houston, TX, USA
    Jake
    That’s what I meant. He felt bad for ruining the snake’s day.
     
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  17. Phocal

    Phocal Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Jan 3, 2014
    Houston
    Thanks @barry13@barry13 for the feature, I greatly appreciate it.
     
    • Appreciate Appreciate x 1
  18. pdk42

    pdk42 One of the "Eh?" team

    Jan 11, 2013
    Leamington Spa, UK
    Fantastic shots Ronnie - and a great write up. Proof once more that great wildlife photography needs animal knowledge, superb technique, patience, perseverance and the acceptance of personal discomfort in the name of art!
     
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  19. Phocal

    Phocal Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Jan 3, 2014
    Houston
    Thanks, glad you enjoyed both. Knowing your subject trumps gear and telephoto reach every time and it’s why I will never sell my 150/2 (the Little Tuna is just to special of a lens). To consistently get great shots one has to be willing to be uncomfortable at times. I don’t think I ever go out without getting bit at least once by fire ants. By getting bit once I mean crawling across a mound and getting 10-20 bites, if it was only 1 single bit I would be extremely happy. I have long ago learned to ignore mosquitoes, don’t even notice their bites anymore. Near the coast the flies are terrible, hurt like hell and I have yet to find anything to keep them at bay. The all time worse are chiggers, those things will make you think twice about ever photographing wildlife again. Then you have all the various fungus’s you can get on just about any part of your body. My doctor is probably tired of me coming in to get something to treat this or that fungus. Even with all that I still love getting out there and observing/photographing wildlife. My latest project has been keeping at the house the last month, so I am itching to get out and plan on getting the kayak wet this weekend.
     
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  20. Holoholo55

    Holoholo55 Mu-43 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Aug 13, 2014
    Honolulu, HI
    Walter
    Fantastic shots. Shows the importance of knowing the animal, the right gear and technique, and lots of patience! Glad you were rewarded for your hard work. :bravo-009:
     
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