May/June 2021 Heron Rookery Photo Project

May/June 2021- Heron Rookery Photo Project 

From 24 April until 18 June 2021 I was on the road.  One of my projects involved documenting the activity in a heron colony populated by a variety of wading birds–Great and Snowy Egrets, Black-Crowned Night Herons, Tri-color & Little Blue Herons, and a few Glossy Ibis.  The rookery was in a large marsh on a ridge where low shrubs grow such as Bayberry and Wax Myrtle.  Nests were low and among tangled branches that help protect the nests, eggs, and offspring from predators.  It was a perfect locations with little chance of flooding and rich waters nearby with abundant food to provide for the growing youngsters.  

Photographing colonial birds in a rookery setting requires a very careful approach as to not negatively effect breeding success.

Herring Gulls

Surrounding the heron colony in the tall stands of salt-meadow hay Herring Gulls nested.  They chose a perfect location since they could swoop over the rookery harassing the herons and attempting to grab eggs and hatchlings. On several occasions, I saw a gull dive down and hit exposed heron.  There was evidence that high water flooded the lower part of the marsh and destroyed some of the nests.


I took great care to minimize any disturbance of the nesting birds to avoid interfering with nesting behavior, possibly causing displacement of eggs or the herons abandoning nests. I keep. my visits infrequent, limited in time, and when temperatures were moderate.  Since my intent was to document natural behavior and interactions between individuals, I would have been foolish and unethical to disturb the birds.

My route through the marsh was difficult since I had to avoid soft mud, holes, and tidal guts.   I benefited from past experience reading the marsh and noting what grasses and substrate would support me.  

Dressed in camouflage, I approached the colony slowly and indirectly.  I photographed from a  low position, sitting or kneeling on the soggy, water-saturated ground.  Once in place, I  minimized my movement.  It was usually distant noise that would cause the birds to flush from their nests -- the rumble of trucks, planes, boats, and construction projects..  Luckily, the birds quickly returned to their nests and young.  


Lenses primarily used included my 200-500 mm and 80-400 mm Nikon lenses.with my D500 and D850 Nikon cameras attached. The telephotos were necessary to keep my distance from my subjects and yet isolate them.  Zoom lenses provided for flexibility.  As the birds moved and interacted, I could adjust my focal length to capture the range of motion.  Most shots were taken using a tripod with a sturdy ball head or gimbal mount.  I used waterproof sleeves over the base of the tripod legs to protect the joints from damaging grit and corrosive brackish water.


Changes from May into June

During May, many herons displayed breeding plumage and bright colors around the eyes and bill.  A few still were engaged in mating, courting and nest building, with some birds carrying sticks.  In mid-June, courtship feathers were less obvious and the facial colors had faded a bit. There were eggs in some nests and young birds in others.

Capturing action

One of my goals was to capture arial fighting and aggressive behavior as birds landed in the bushes and jockeyed for position to access their nests. I carefully observed the colony concentrating on areas where there was more activity and less tolerant birds.  Aggressive actions included nipping, stabbing, feather pulling, hackle raising, or just landing on the back of an opponent.

I had the best luck capturing the arial fights when using my 80 – 400 mm lens and shorter focal lengths since it was nearly impossible to predict exactly where and when the action would occur.


Focus Difficulties

If the birds were flying with sky in the background, I focused using a small group of focus sensors. When multiple subjects were involved, I selected an f-stop that offered a bit more depth of field than usual such as an F11 or 16.  But to freeze action with high shutter speeds, I had to use higher ISOs than I typically prefer (often 1000 or 1250).  When the birds were perched on branches or were landing,  I often used a single focus point over the bird's eye.

With auto focus, I had problems with the sensor locking on branches and leaves, not the bird.  Sometimes manual focus was required. Because the nest were located deep within shrubs, I struggled to get clear shots of the birds landing and interacting without branches, grass, shadows or the wings blocking their faces.

Final Thoughts

Most folks find marsh foreboding with muck, unpleasant smells, and pesky flies and mosquitoes.  For me, they are marvelous places filled life and new things to discover.  When  involved with projects like this one where I am deep within a marsh, I find solace and a connection with nature.

Marshes are critical ecosystems that need our protection, not destruction  They are highly productive and a haven for wildlife. They trap sediments and remove nutrients and toxins from the water that can clog our waterways, poison wildlife, and deplete life-giving oxygen. 

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