Category: Photography

Local Frogs Find Fame

Some Cuban Tree Frogs photographed on St. Martin are having their moment in the spotlight in a recent article called Early-life disruption of amphibian microbiota decreases later-life resistance to parasites. They’re featured in Figure 1, and you can read the article for free. In basic terms, the study showed that lack of exposure to bacteria as tadpoles left frogs more vulnerable to other parasites as adults.

When rare frogs are raised in captivity, they often die once released into the wild. Perhaps we can use this information to improve their survival. This could change the fate of endangered frogs in our region like the Mountain Chicken.

Learn Bird Photography with Free Ebook

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Bird photography is the subject of a new free ebook, Bird Shots, produced by the Les Fruits de Mer association. The book is a guide designed to help readers improve their bird photography and get more enjoyment from the hobby.

“Bird photography has its own specific challenges, and getting the best results requires a certain understanding of both birds and photography,” commented author Mark Yokoyama. “As a hobby, it is a fantastic way to develop a deeper connection with nature and appreciation for the craft of photography.”

The book was written for birders interested in improving their photography, photographers interested in capturing birds and even those who are new to both birding and photography. Topics include basic techniques to use in the field, composition and visual storytelling, and how to work with the photos you have taken.

This new ebook arrives just in time to inspire local photographers to capture some bird photos for the 2016 Heritage Photo Contest. The theme of this year’s contest is The Spirit of St. Martin.
The contest is free and open to every age, and everyone is welcome to enter as many times as they like.

All qualifying entries will go on display in the online Heritage Gallery, and selected entries will be featured in the Heritage Photo Exhibition, which will be held this summer. Awards will be given for the winning entries in three categories: Adult, Under 18 and People’s Choice.

The ebook Bird Shots is available for free download. Information about how to enter the 2016 Heritage Photo Contest and this year’s online Heritage Gallery are also found on the site.

2015 Heritage Photo Exhibition

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The exhibition for the 2015 Heritage Photo Contest will be held on Friday, July 17th at Lagoonies Bistro in Cole Bay. Photo entries will be on display and attendees will have the opportunity to vote for their favorite for the Erika Cannegieter-Smith People’s Choice Award. The exhibition opening will be held from 6-10pm with the awards ceremony taking place at 9pm. We hope to see you there!

Lagoonies Bistro is located at the Lagoon Marina, Wellington Road 33-35 between ELECTEC and FKG in Cole Bay.

Heritage Photo Exhibition!

Please help us celebrate island heritage and the work of photographers of all ages at the 2014 Heritage Photo Exhibition. The gala opening of the Exhibition will be held at 7pm on Saturday, December 6th at Lagoonies Bistro and Bar at Lagoon Marina in Cole Bay. This event is free and open to the public, and will include large-format displays, voting for the People’s Choice Award, and an official prize ceremony at 9pm. The winning works and other entries will be on display throughout the following week.

The Heritage Photo Contest and Exhibition was developed by Les Fruits de Mer to showcase art created here on St. Martin/St. Maarten, and to engage residents–especially kids–in thinking about their heritage. The Be the Change SXM Foundation provided funding for the contest and exhibition.

The panel of judges faced many difficult decisions when selecting the winners of the 2014 Heritage Photo Contest. With over 75 entries, the competition was fierce, and the works submitted beautifully captured many diverse aspects of the island’s heritage.

The theme of this year’s contest, “Vibrant and Vulnerable”, followed an unusual format and was chosen to raise awareness about the island’s unique natural, cultural and historic heritage, as well as the threats facing this heritage and the need to preserve it. Each entry included two photos–one representing a “Vibrant” aspect of the island and one representing a “Vulnerable” aspect–and the artist’s statement about the photo selections. This format was very open to creative interpretation, and the entries that poured in touch on many different facets of local heritage, from plants, animals and landscape, to history, architecture and culture.

In the end, the first prize in the overall competition went to Alexandre Guerre, and top honors in the youth competition were awarded to Luna Valenti. Their photos, along with many other fantastic entries, will be featured at the upcoming exhibition.

One remaining prize, the $100 People’s Choice Award, will be decided by those who attend the opening of the exhibition. “We’re thrilled to invite everyone to take the opportunity to enjoy the stunning, thought-provoking photos at this exhibition,” says Les Fruits de Mer President Jenn Yerkes, “And, of course, to vote for their favorite!” Voting will be done by ballot between 7pm and 9pm.

For those who cannot attend, or would like a sneak preview of the entries that were submitted, an online gallery of entries can be found at http://www.lesfruitsdemer.com/category/vibrant-and-vulnerable/.

A green turtle takes center stage in the “Vibrant” photo from Alexandre Guerre’s winning entry. Photo by Alexandre Guerre.
A green turtle takes center stage in the “Vibrant” photo from Alexandre Guerre’s winning entry. Photo by Alexandre Guerre.
The “Vulnerable” photo from Alexandre Guerre’s winning entry captures the bright colors of the island’s traditional architecture. Photo by Alexandre Guerre.
The “Vulnerable” photo from Alexandre Guerre’s winning entry captures the bright colors of the island’s traditional architecture. Photo by Alexandre Guerre.
Young photographer Luna Valenti showcased this hummingbird as a “Vibrant” part of St. Martin’s heritage. Photo by Luna Valenti.
Young photographer Luna Valenti showcased this hummingbird as a “Vibrant” part of St. Martin’s heritage. Photo by Luna Valenti.
Luna Valenti’s “Vulnerable” photo spotlights the time-weathered pier in Grand Case. Photo by Luna Valenti.
Luna Valenti’s “Vulnerable” photo spotlights the time-weathered pier in Grand Case. Photo by Luna Valenti.

Bird Shots: Greatest Misses – Rebar Heron

One of the great things about bird photography is getting better at doing it. One sign that this is happening is that some of your old favorite shots start to disappoint. I wanted to share a few former favorites and how they’re not as good as I once thought they are.

This first example was a favorite. The Yellow-crowned Night Heron is captured in pleasantly warm evening light against a simple, high-contrast background. A few bits of blurry grass in the foreground frame the heron without being distracting. The problem? A crooked piece of rusty rebar sticking up on the left side of the photo. Does it ruin the photo? Perhaps not. Does it make the worse? For sure. Could it be fixed in Photoshop? Probably, but why not just go out and get a better shot?

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Bird Watch SXM: Bird Shots – Composition Tools

This week we start to look at composition in bird photos. But if composition is the arrangement of elements in the photo, how do you arrange birds and scenery? Sure, you can’t tell the birds how and where to pose, but you still have a surprising number of tools you can use to create engaging compositions in the field. Read about some of them in this week’s Bird Watch SXM column!

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Capturing Behavior: The Unusual

Becoming very familiar with the normal behavior of the birds around you makes it much easier to notice abnormal behavior, just like knowing the common species helps you recognize an unusual bird. Unusual behavior is often linked to a physical problem, and photos of it can capture the amazing resilience of birds and their drive to survive even against the odds.

A Common Gallinule with an injured leg or foot hopped around the shallows when feeding.
A Common Gallinule with an injured leg or foot hopped around the shallows when feeding.
A sick seagull sat in shallow water just offshore, too tired to fly. A few days of rest and recovery and it was feeling good enough to fly off.
A sick seagull sat in shallow water just offshore, too tired to fly. A few days of rest and recovery and it was feeling good enough to fly off.
A Gray Kingbird with a broken beak started hunting for insects and other invertebrates in decaying sargassum on the ground rather than flying insects.
A Gray Kingbird with a broken beak started hunting for insects and other invertebrates in decaying sargassum on the ground rather than flying insects.
The preening of an oiled Killdeer was particularly poignant. Over the course of a few weeks it was able to clean much of its plumage, although the impossible to reach neck area remained thick with oil.
The preening of an oiled Killdeer was particularly poignant. Over the course of a few weeks it was able to clean much of its plumage, although the impossible to reach neck area remained thick with oil.

Capturing Behavior: Interactions

Obviously, a lot of bird interactions are also examples of other behavior, like child rearing or feeding. From a photographic perspective, I think the main thing to keep in mind is that an interaction between two birds is usually the most interesting thing you can capture in any given scene. Always be on the lookout for birds interacting with each other, or ones that look like they are about to. This can be a great way to focus more carefully when photographing a large flock. Also, common birds interacting with each other may be more exciting to photograph than a more unusual bird doing nothing.

In a large group of egrets, certain individuals seemed more inclined to start trouble. Other egrets headed towards their personal space was strong indicator that sparks would soon be flying.
In a large group of egrets, certain individuals seemed more inclined to start trouble. Other egrets headed towards their personal space was strong indicator that sparks would soon be flying.
When Snowy Egrets gather at a prime foraging spot be on the lookout for confrontation.
When Snowy Egrets gather at a prime foraging spot be on the lookout for confrontation.
Being aware of your surroundings is key when birds are coming together to interact. The viewfinder gives you tunnel vision when you are following a single bird. You may not realize that “your” bird is approaching another, or vice versa, until the last moment.
Being aware of your surroundings is key when birds are coming together to interact. The viewfinder gives you tunnel vision when you are following a single bird. You may not realize that “your” bird is approaching another, or vice versa, until the last moment.
A pair of Killdeer perform a scrape ceremony, part of the breeding process that involves suggesting and agreeing upon a nesting site. A behavior like this is impossible to capture in a single photo, so it is best to take many to capture different parts of the interaction, and hopefully some that express the essence of what the birds were doing.
A pair of Killdeer perform a scrape ceremony, part of the breeding process that involves suggesting and agreeing upon a nesting site. A behavior like this is impossible to capture in a single photo, so it is best to take many to capture different parts of the interaction, and hopefully some that express the essence of what the birds were doing.

Capturing Behavior: Nesting and Child Care

Birds are one of the only animal groups where caring for offspring are cared for. Besides birds and mammals, child care is the exception rather than the rule, with most young animals on their own from the time they hatch from their eggs. Birds usually put a great deal of energy into caring for their young, from building nests to incubating eggs to feeding their chicks, often even after they’ve grown left the nest.

Capturing this in photographs requires knowledge of the life cycle of the birds around you: which ones nest locally, when they nest and where. You will need to know how to distinguish adult birds from juveniles, too: are you seeing parenting behavior or just a bunch of birds interacting? Getting good photos of nesting and child care is more dependent on good knowledge of local birds than any specific photographic skills.

To juvenile grackles seem to be asking their mom for food. The plumage of the juveniles is similar to the adult female, but the eye color is clearly different.
To juvenile grackles seem to be asking their mom for food. The plumage of the juveniles is similar to the adult female, but the eye color is clearly different.
Female hummingbirds are excellent parents, feeding their chicks frequently. The males are not involved in child care. The key is finding a nest.
Female hummingbirds are excellent parents, feeding their chicks frequently. The males are not involved in child care. The key is finding a nest.
A bird carrying nesting material is enough to evoke their parenting instincts.
A bird carrying nesting material is enough to evoke their parenting instincts.
A bird incubating eggs makes for a great photo opportunity, but if a bird gets scared and leaves its nest, it’s time to back off.
A bird incubating eggs makes for a great photo opportunity, but if a bird gets scared and leaves its nest, it’s time to back off.
Colonial nesting is wonderful to capture in photos, and generally requires knowledge of local nesting sites.
Colonial nesting is wonderful to capture in photos, and generally requires knowledge of local nesting sites.
Do birds discipline their chicks?
Do birds discipline their chicks?
Juvenile American Oystercatchers are often seen with their parents. Perhaps it takes time to learn how to find and extract the shellfish they eat.
Juvenile American Oystercatchers are often seen with their parents. Perhaps it takes time to learn how to find and extract the shellfish they eat.
Killdeer are well-known for putting on elaborate distraction displays to draw potential predators away from their nest or chicks.
Killdeer are well-known for putting on elaborate distraction displays to draw potential predators away from their nest or chicks.

Capturing Behavior: Preening and Cleaning

For birds, preening isn’t done out of vanity. Grooming is very important to the well-being of birds and most birds do it several times a day. When preening, birds clean their feathers of dirt and parasites and they also arrange their feathers for more efficiency in flight. Most birds also spread oil from a special gland called the uropygial gland, which helps waterproof feathers and keep them flexible.

Other cleaning habits can include bathing in water or dust to clean the feathers and dislodge parasites. Birds often stretch their limbs and fluff their feathers to make sure they are all in the proper place.

These preening and cleaning times are generally great for bird photography because the birds are liable to stay in the same spot while they focus on the task. Stretching, bathing, fluffing and preening also put the birds into interesting positions and accentuate their wings and other body parts.

Here are a few examples with notes:

Fluffing often happens for just a split second so it is important to be ready when it happens and use a fast shutter to freeze the action. The reward is a unique image!
Fluffing often happens for just a split second so it is important to be ready when it happens and use a fast shutter to freeze the action. The reward is a unique image!
Preening may offer a glimpse of areas of the body that are usually hidden and often creates visually interesting asymmetries.
Preening may offer a glimpse of areas of the body that are usually hidden and often creates visually interesting asymmetries.
Freezing a dust bath with a fast shutter speed gives an interesting window into this activity.
Freezing a dust bath with a fast shutter speed gives an interesting window into this activity.
Grooming adds a twist to this image of a heron. Birds may seem more self-absorbed when grooming, giving photos an intimate feeling.
Grooming adds a twist to this image of a heron. Birds may seem more self-absorbed when grooming, giving photos an intimate feeling.
A White-cheeked Pintail flaps its wings to shake off excess water when bathing. This burst of motion requires a fast shutter speed and can be impressive from the front or behind.
A White-cheeked Pintail flaps its wings to shake off excess water when bathing. This burst of motion requires a fast shutter speed and can be impressive from the front or behind.
A raised wing gives a great view of the flight feathers on this Gray Kingbird.
A raised wing gives a great view of the flight feathers on this Gray Kingbird.

Capturing Behavior: Birds Are What They Eat

The old saying “you are what you eat” clearly applies to birds, although more directly it could be “you are how you eat.” The bodies and behavior of birds is often tightly linked to what they eat and how they get it. Feeding is one of the most fundamental behaviors—birds do it every day—but also one of the most distinctive since different kinds of birds feed in different ways.

What are the keys to photographing feeding? All the regular guidelines of bird photography are applicable, as are general birdwatching practices like being patient and knowing the habits of the bird you are photographing. When capturing feeding, there may be key moments that are particularly engaging or distinctive that may make the best photo. Also, although the eye is typically the focal point of a bird photo (or any portrait), the beak may be the focal point when a bird is eating.

Below are some examples with notes:

A Bananaquit feeding from banana flowers showcases the posture of the bird rather than its facial expression.
A Bananaquit feeding from banana flowers showcases the posture of the bird rather than its facial expression.
The moment a heron swallows a crab always has an awkward feel to it. A fast shutter speed is key, as this is a fast motion. The heron will also close its nictitating membrane over its eye at this moment.
The moment a heron swallows a crab always has an awkward feel to it. A fast shutter speed is key, as this is a fast motion. The heron will also close its nictitating membrane over its eye at this moment.
A Spotted Sandpiper has pulled most of the legs off of this fiddler crab. Food preparation, in birds that do it at all, can be fascinating.
A Spotted Sandpiper has pulled most of the legs off of this fiddler crab. Food preparation, in birds that do it at all, can be fascinating.
An American Kestrel eats an Anguilla Bank Ameiva. During a meal like this you will almost surely have time to take multiple shots, so take advantage of that opportunity.
An American Kestrel eats an Anguilla Bank Ameiva. During a meal like this you will almost surely have time to take multiple shots, so take advantage of that opportunity.
A Semipalmated Sandpiper and Short-billed Dowitcher show that their bills are made for probing. In some photos you want to show the bill, in others it is good to show how it is used.
A Semipalmated Sandpiper and Short-billed Dowitcher show that their bills are made for probing. In some photos you want to show the bill, in others it is good to show how it is used.
A Gray Kingbird flips a cerambycid beetle into the air like a pancake before swallowing it.
A Gray Kingbird flips a cerambycid beetle into the air like a pancake before swallowing it.
A Black-necked stilt goes head first for food. It makes for a fun photo even though the birds entire head is hidden.
A Black-necked stilt goes head first for food. It makes for a fun photo even though the birds entire head is hidden.
The Great Egret uses its bill to spear fish. In this photo, the method of capture is clear.
The Great Egret uses its bill to spear fish. In this photo, the method of capture is clear.
A young Common Gallinule eats a dead tilapia. This invasive fish, which is vulnerable to high salinity levels in the Great Salt Pond, becomes a meal for this primarily vegetarian bird.
A young Common Gallinule eats a dead tilapia. This invasive fish, which is vulnerable to high salinity levels in the Great Salt Pond, becomes a meal for this primarily vegetarian bird.
The Gray Kingbird tenderizes a katydid before eating it. This is another behavior that requires a fast shutter speed to capture.
The Gray Kingbird tenderizes a katydid before eating it. This is another behavior that requires a fast shutter speed to capture.

Bird Watch SXM: Bird Shots – Capturing Behavior

How does bird photography remain fascinating and challenging year after year? A deeper understanding of birds compels us to capture not just the birds, but also their many unique behaviors.

Observing bird behavior is fascinating. Some behaviors, like hunting and feeding chicks, are immediately recognizable to us, and reinforce the fact that we are both animals and share many of the same activities in life. Other behaviors, like certain mating rituals, may seem strange and exotic to us. Capturing behavior in photographs allows us to share these moments, both commonplace and extraordinary.

Of course, anything a bird does is part of its behavior. Even resting can be evocative, as when a sandpiper tucks its beak into the feathers on its back for a midday snooze. More active behavior is the primary focus of this article, however. Capturing bird behavior is more dependent on skills like patience, careful observation and knowledge of birds than apertures and shutter speeds. The photographic principles covered in past articles don’t change when capturing behavior.

Everyday behaviors of most birds include feeding, preening (straightening and cleaning feathers), communicating with song. Because birds are so diverse, these activities manifest themselves in a variety of ways. The Great Egret will stalk shallow water looking for fish to spear with its bill, while the Gray Kingbird sallies forth from high perches to catch flying insects. Some ducks dabble and some ducks dive. You can become familiar with the daily behaviors of the birds around you through observation and put your self in the right place at the right time to capture these activities.

Seasonal behaviors are often linked to reproduction, although some of our resident birds reproduce throughout the year. Courtship, nesting and the rearing of chicks are all fascinating behaviors. Killdeer couples often do a scrape ceremony when selecting a nesting site prior to mating. Sugar birds often make nests in visible locations, making it easier to document the process. Female hummingbirds feed their chicks frequently, a fantastic photo subject if you know the location of a nest. Knowledge of the life cycle of local birds is key to being able to document many of these behaviors, knowing the nesting season and the type of habitat or specific locations where birds nest and raise their young.

There are also unusual behaviors that are worth capturing as well: a kingbird with a broken beak foraging on the ground instead of in the air or a young Brown Boobie with a fish stuck in its throat after trying to swallow it tail-first. These behaviors may not even stand out as unusual without knowledge of what normal behavior for these species looks like.

This week, spend some time trying to first observe, and then photograph the daily behaviors of birds around you, like feeding and preening. Try to capture the essence of the activities you are observing. Also, follow along on lesfruitsdemer.com for more tips and examples.

A Black-necked Stilt will do an elaborate distraction display if you wander too close to its nest.
A Black-necked Stilt will do an elaborate distraction display if you wander too close to its nest.

In Flight: Odds and Ends

In flight bird photography is a pursuit unto itself. Any aspect of bird photography and strategy for getting better photos can be applied to in flight bird photography, although a slight twist may be warranted in some cases. Here are a few photos illustrating some of these aspects.

Sometimes its all you can do just to keep the bird in your viewfinder, but don’t forget to keep an eye out for unique moments, like a funny facial expression.
Sometimes its all you can do just to keep the bird in your viewfinder, but don’t forget to keep an eye out for unique moments, like a funny facial expression.
Lighting considerations are still important even when a bird is flying, although the direction of the light in relation to you and the bird might be changing quickly.
Lighting considerations are still important even when a bird is flying, although the direction of the light in relation to you and the bird might be changing quickly.
There are plenty of nice backgrounds besides blue sky, and the lower the bird is flying the more likely you are to be working with a different background.
There are plenty of nice backgrounds besides blue sky, and the lower the bird is flying the more likely you are to be working with a different background.
Sometimes the bird is just a detail in a more expansive photo.
Sometimes the bird is just a detail in a more expansive photo.
A group of birds in flight has all the challenges of photographing a flock piled on top of all the challenges of photographing a bird on the wing. Still, flight and social behavior are important qualities of many birds and should be captured.
A group of birds in flight has all the challenges of photographing a flock piled on top of all the challenges of photographing a bird on the wing. Still, flight and social behavior are important qualities of many birds and should be captured.
As with birds at rest, a pleasing arrangement of birds can give structure to group shots.
As with birds at rest, a pleasing arrangement of birds can give structure to group shots.
Portrait orientation of flying bird photos is probably less common in general, but it can be useful. Cropping out parts of the bird, on accident or on purpose, can also be acceptable and help the bird fill the frame.
Portrait orientation of flying bird photos is probably less common in general, but it can be useful. Cropping out parts of the bird, on accident or on purpose, can also be acceptable and help the bird fill the frame.
Distracting backgrounds can ruin an otherwise interesting photo. Of course, when the photo features a frigate scavenging a rotting tilapia carcass, perhaps the urban background is also telling a story.
Distracting backgrounds can ruin an otherwise interesting photo. Of course, when the photo features a frigate scavenging a rotting tilapia carcass, perhaps the urban background is also telling a story.

In Flight: Landings

Landings are one of the most dynamic moments you can capture. Legs, often tucked away in flight, are extended and wings are moved dramatically to slow the bird as it comes in for a landing. It is definitely not an easy shot, but they can be fantastic if you are lucky enough to get one.

Probably the only real advantage you have is that the bird is slowing down in the final moments before it lands. This makes it a bit easier to capture a bird in good focus. Also, the wings may be used more like a parachute than a propeller, allowing better focus on the flight feathers.

For the best chance at getting a good landing shot, you’ll need to keep an eye on your surroundings. Locations where birds nest or feed are prime locations for getting this kind of shot. Keep an eye on the sky for birds joining flocks that are already feeding in wetlands, for example. A fast shutter speed will help freeze motion, and zooming out to leave some space around the bird will help make sure nothing gets cut off when the bird changes its wing motions or extends its legs for a landing. Zooming out a bit also helps convey a sense of the surroundings where a bird is coming to rest.

Here are a few examples:

Wings, legs and tail are all in motion as this Black-necked Stilt comes down for a landing.
Wings, legs and tail are all in motion as this Black-necked Stilt comes down for a landing.
The moment before touchdown gives a perfect view of a Whimbrels wing and tail feathers. It’s one of the relatively rare situations when a photo from behind is valuable.
The moment before touchdown gives a perfect view of a Whimbrels wing and tail feathers. It’s one of the relatively rare situations when a photo from behind is valuable.
A Red-billed Tropicbird slows down as it approaches its nest in a cliff. The motion gives the photo a sense of vitality even though the bird’s face is not visible.
A Red-billed Tropicbird slows down as it approaches its nest in a cliff. The motion gives the photo a sense of vitality even though the bird’s face is not visible.
A juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron lands on a branch. These landings are tricker than landings on solid ground because the bird may remain in motion as the branch bends.
A juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron lands on a branch. These landings are tricker than landings on solid ground because the bird may remain in motion as the branch bends.
A Yellow-crowned Night Heron glides to a landing. A lucky angle captures the details of the plumage from the back and also the face of the bird as it scans the area.
A Yellow-crowned Night Heron glides to a landing. A lucky angle captures the details of the plumage from the back and also the face of the bird as it scans the area.

In Flight: Takeoffs

Takeoffs can be incredibly dynamic. If you plan on using your bird photography for motivational posters, you’ll want to build up a good portfolio of takeoff shots.

The easy part about shooting a takeoff is that you know where the bird is. Usually they’re standing on the ground or perched on something. In some cases, the takeoff may involve a running start, but in most cases you are able to frame your subject and get focused before the bird is moving.

Basically every other part is tricky. You don’t know when the bird will take off, although you may be able to get clues from the bird’s stance (a quick bend in the legs) a split second before takeoff. You don’t necessarily know which direction a bird will be flying, although if it is starting on the ground, up is probably one of the directions. Takeoff also has to be fast, otherwise it wouldn’t work. Wings are usually flapping quickly, even if the whole bird takes some time to gain speed.

As a photographer, there are a few things you can do to compensate. To capture a takeoff you need to maintain focus on your subject lest you lose that magic moment. Using a fast shutter speed will help you freeze motion as much as you can, although you also need to maintain a reasonable aperture so the bird will remain in focus if its takeoff sends it towards or away from you. Since the bird in takeoff will be moving quickly, zooming out more than you would for a stationary bird will give it some room to move before it moves out of the frame.

Of course, patience and perseverance are key, and takeoffs will always be unpredictable, but you can improve your chances of success with a steady gaze, a fast shutter and some breathing room in your composition.

Here are a few examples:

Zoom in on your subject to closely and it may start leaving the frame before your shutter snaps.
Zoom in on your subject to closely and it may start leaving the frame before your shutter snaps.
Large birds, like the Brown Pelican can take longer to get airborne, making it easier to photograph their takeoff.
Large birds, like the Brown Pelican can take longer to get airborne, making it easier to photograph their takeoff.
The American Kestrel takes flight with a short hop.
The American Kestrel takes flight with a short hop.
Not all parts are moving with equal speed. This Snowy Egret's wingtips are moving much faster than the rest of the bird.
Not all parts are moving with equal speed. This Snowy Egret’s wingtips are moving much faster than the rest of the bird.
Some birds prefer a running takeoff, which can offer some dynamic moments.
Some birds prefer a running takeoff, which can offer some dynamic moments.
In a split second, your subject can be out of focus and headed out of frame.
In a split second, your subject can be out of focus and headed out of frame.
A bird taking off towards you makes for a dynamic photo, but staying in focus can by tricky because the bird is flying away from the focal plane.
A bird taking off towards you makes for a dynamic photo, but staying in focus can by tricky because the bird is flying away from the focal plane.

In Flight: Soaring

Photographing a bird soaring in the sky captures an important part of its essence, particularly birds like the Magnificent Frigatebird that spend much of their time on the wing. Although a soaring bird is in motion you may be able to track the bird through your viewfinder so you are ready to take your shot when the moment is right, or take several shots to choose from later.

When is the moment right? Usually you will want the bird to be close enough to capture details. Depending on the situation, you may have the option of photographing the bird coming at you, right above you, passing by you or leaving you, each of which makes a different impression and all of which can be useful. You may also want to time your shot so blue sky is behind the bird. It can be very difficult to get the right exposure if clouds or the sun are in the background, although sometimes clouds or other backgrounds can be interesting.

Here are a few examples to consider:

A juvenile frigate captured head-on makes for a dynamic photo.
A juvenile frigate captured head-on makes for a dynamic photo.
A Great Egret passes horizontally through the frame.
A Great Egret passes horizontally through the frame.
Clouds can be boring or make it hard to get the right exposure, but with this Great Egret gray clouds create an ominous feeling.
Clouds can be boring or make it hard to get the right exposure, but with this Great Egret gray clouds create an ominous feeling.
Although shot from behind, this Laughing Gull's face is still visible, making the shot more interesting.
Although shot from behind, this Laughing Gull’s face is still visible, making the shot more interesting.
A male Magnificent Frigatebird in profile accentuates its throat pouch.
A male Magnificent Frigatebird in profile accentuates its throat pouch.
With a plain blue sky in the background the framing of the shot may determine the direction a bird seems to be flying.
With a plain blue sky in the background the framing of the shot may determine the direction a bird seems to be flying.
Captured from underneath, the details of this Great Egret are in shadow, but the angle gives a remarkable view of the bird's wing feathers.
Captured from underneath, the details of this Great Egret are in shadow, but the angle gives a remarkable view of the bird’s wing feathers.
A boring gray background diminishes an otherwise strong photo of a Black-crowned Night Heron.
A boring gray background diminishes an otherwise strong photo of a Black-crowned Night Heron.

Bird Watch: Bird Shots – In Flight

We return to the Bird Shots series in this week’s Weekender.

Capturing birds in flight requires a fast shutter speed, a steady hand, and a knack for predicting the future.

Photographing birds in flight is one of the great challenges of bird photography. Your subject is not only in motion, it is free to move in any direction in a three-dimensional space. It could be tempting to give up on in flight shots altogether, if it weren’t for the fact that flight is a defining feature of all the birds that live around us. In flight bird photos are a challenge, but they’re a must.

In general, you will want to use a fast shutter speed to freeze motion, and you’ll need to learn to track the movement of birds as they fly. A good way to start is to shoot birds passing overhead, like Magnificent Frigatebirds at the Great Salt Pond. Often, these birds are gliding around at a leisurely pace, making it a relatively easy shot.

For this kind of photo, you’ll choose a subject and track it as it flies around. In general, the closer the better, but for birds in flight, the closer they are the faster they seem to move, so for in flight photos the sweet spot may be in the middle distance. (Someone running ten feet in front of you passes in an instant but seen from a mile away they would move very slowly through your field of vision.) Blue sky in the background is better than clouds, and you will also want to avoid having the sun directly behind the bird you are photographing.

Takeoffs and landings are very dynamic moments that can be great to capture. They also have their own advantages. When photographing a takeoff, you may not know when the bird will choose to fly, but you know where it is. Birds typically slow down when landing, giving you a little bit more time to get a great photo and making it easier to freeze the motion.

In both cases, learning to predict the future is a key skill. What does a bird do right before it takes off? Many birds will bend their legs to spring up from the ground or leap away from a perch. If you can learn to spot this, you get an extra split-second warning that your moment is arriving. If you’re tracking a bird through your viewfinder, you can look for a bird dropping its legs in preparation for a landing the way that a plane lowers its landing gear.

This week, spend some time watching birds to see how they take off, fly around and land, and then find a spot where you can photograph some birds in flight. We will also feature some additional tips and techniques at lesfruitsdemer.com throughout the week.

A soaring frigatebird makes a great in flight subject.
A soaring frigatebird makes a great in flight subject.
Birds slow down to land, making that a great time to take a photo.
Birds slow down to land, making that a great time to take a photo.

Bird Watch: Bird Shots – Bio Boost

Here’s this week’s Bird Watch SXM column from the Weekender section of The Daily Herald. Check it out to learn how increasing your bird knowledge can improve your chances at getting great bird photos. I will be doing some bird education training this week, so we may not have updates on the blog during the week. In the meantime, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds site for way more than a week’s worth of great bird info.

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Sweet Spots: Salines d’Orient

Nestled between Le Galion and Orient Bay, this extensive wetland area features a large salt pond and many smaller ponds. There is no observation platform, but the mudflat areas can be accessed by foot. Just be very careful in the late winter and spring to avoid stepping on very camouflaged bird nests/eggs.

This area is relatively undisturbed and is perhaps the easiest place to see the tricolored heron and little blue heron, which are often hard to see on St. Martin. Ospreys often fish over the large pond in the winter as well.

If there’s a downside, its that this is a large area to cover on foot, especially in the sun. On the plus side, there are many little spots to explore!

Here are some shots from this location:

Sweet Spots: Étang de la Baie Lucas

This really is the most scenic pond on the island, and now there’s an observation platform that makes it that much easier to enjoy. If you have a friend visiting the island and you don’t take them here, you aren’t doing your job and you’re not a good friend.

Basically, this is a gorgeous spot and the best spot to take photos of birds surrounded by beautiful scenery, including mangroves, huge boulders and cactus-filled scrubland. The observation platform is constructed as a bird blind, so it is great for seeing birds without disturbing them. If the birds to fly off to the other side of the pond when you arrive, hang tight for a few minutes and they should come back. Green herons are usually up to various shenanigans on either side of the platform.

Here are some shots from this location:

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Sweet Spots: Étang de la Barrière

This is probably the best spot on the island for close-up shots of waterfowl. There is a 225 meter wooden boardwalk through the mangrove and a large section has a wall that acts as a bird blind. Regular foot traffic from birders and many other people also makes birds a bit less shy at this pond.

There are normally plenty of egrets and a variety of shorebirds, particularly during the migratory season. The water level varies and the area is often most active when low tide leaves more exposed mudflat.

When visiting this site, it is also worthwhile to visit the beach to see more birds. In the morning, wade in the shallow water of the bay to take shots of birds on the beach with the rising sun behind you.

This pond is right beside the Pinel ferry dock in French Cul-de-sac. You should really never go to Pinel without stopping by this trail before or after to see who’s there.

Here are some shots from this location:

Sweet Spots: Great Salt Pond

The Great Salt Pond is another huge pond on the island that has a rich historical heritage as a center of the salt industry. There are a number of areas to access this pond for birding, including the sand fill areas that ring much of the pond. Some of my favorite areas are in the southeastern part of the pond where the remains of salt pans provide a resting place for many birds and a nesting area for some, like the black necked stilt.

A wide variety of waterfowl can be seen at the Great Salt Pond, although there aren’t large mudflat areas that are favored by many shorebirds. The pond does tend to have many egrets, herons and ducks. Seabirds, including gulls, pelicans and frigates also forage on this pond. Like the pond in Grand Case, no matter what time of day, there is always some accessible part of the Great Salt Pond with good lighting. The many drainage ditches surrounding the pond can also be great spots to find and photograph birds.

On Saturday, October 11th from 9am-Noon, the Great Salt Pond will be the location for the 2014 Migratory Bird Festival, which will be held at the University of St. Martin. This event is free and open to all. There is more information on this website and on Facebook.

Here are some shots from this location:

Sweet Spots: Salines de l’Aéroport

The airport pond in Grand Case has a lot going for it. Although large areas have been filled in, it is still a big pond with large mudflat areas and it attracts a lot of birds. One reason I love it so much is that it’s close to home for me. I can pop by rain or shine, at any time of day. I often head down with my camera just to take some photos to take a break from what I’m doing or think about something I’m going to write. At your local pond, it is also easy to get familiar with the birds and what they are up to at different times of day.

To me, the pond is too urban to be very scenic, so I tend to stick to bird portraits. A wide variety of species utilize the pond, some in great numbers. Although there are no birding trails or observation platforms, there are a number of spots where you can see views of the pond: the canal where the pond meets the sea, at the entrance to the airport parking lot, a break in the mangroves on the main road across from the school central kitchen and just before the turn-in to Grand Case near Hungry’s Towing. These basically give you windows into the pond that will be good for photography at any time of day. Of course, there are other spots to get a view of the pond if you are willing to scramble through the mangroves!

Here are some shots from this location:

Bird Watch: Sweet Spots

This week in the Bird Watch SXM column we look at some of the top spots for photographing birds on the island. On the blog we’ll be looking at these featured spots in more detail, as well as some other top spots around the island that you won’t want to miss!

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One with the Flock: Mixed Flocks

Single-species flocks can be great, but mixed-species groups can be wonderful, too. Perhaps I am late to this realization because I have often been focused on documenting each species individually. Anyhow, I don’t really have advice other than to embrace odd couples and motley crews. The odd man out may be the true star of your photo. And, of course, non-bird cameos can be fantastic, too.

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One with the Flock: It Takes Two (or Three)

Dynamic duos are some of my favorite bird photos. It’s the smallest group of birds possible, which makes composition more manageable. The pair can be together, evoking a couple (and sometimes they probably are a pair, or a parent and child). They can also be separated to fill out the frame. As a photographer, you get many of the benefits of multiple birds without the hassle of having too many.

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While duos can be dynamic, three is often the magic number. With three you can make a “V” or a triangle (which are actually the same thing). Odd numbers, especially prime numbers, can often feel more random to us because, I don’t know, math or psychology or something. At any rate, trios, or trilogies, as the French like to call them, are a great for creating both movement and balance in a composition.

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And, of course, having two or three of the same species can be very nice because it allows you to focus on the positioning without being distracted by differences in the building blocks. But, mixing up your birds gets you a very different, but also very nice result.

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One with the Flock: Broken Rules

Rules are made to be broken. At least, sometimes they are. Here are a few photos that break rules. Do they still work? Maybe, maybe not.

Stolen thunder. The gull in the foreground was in focus and meant to be the subject, but the one in back had other thoughts. The photo is okay as-is, but would be better if there were time to refocus on the rear bird and still capture that laugh.

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All bridesmaids. None of these egrets really grabs the spotlight. That’s not as noticeable because the setting on the old salt pan gives the composition some structure.

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Ducks in a row. Of course, there are no ducks in this photo, but all the birds are in a row. Normally this makes for a flat and boring photo. Perhaps it does in this photo, too, but having several different species and the way the individual birds are looking left or right makes it at least a little more engaging.

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Good crop, bad crop. This photo had some potential, but it was there was too much going on around the edges. The first version is my original crop from a couple years ago. It was a bit of a mess, with a bird cut though the head in the upper left and a blurry bird in the foreground pulling attention from the would-be subject by walking the the opposite direction. While writing about it, I started to see a new crop, which is the second photo. The subject is restored to a position of prominence and the birds at the top get cut off in a way that is a bit less distracting. Not a masterpiece, but a solid improvement, I think.

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One with the Flock: Center of Attention

In a great group photo one bird will stand out as the center of attention. This is probably because the photographer picked that bird and built the shot around it. Choosing a single subject as a focal point works for groups from a few birds to dozens of birds. Once you get to hundreds of birds, you probably really have to luck out to find one that is distinctive enough to focus on, but most of the time picking a subject works.

Being the center of attention doesn’t necessarily mean being in the center of the photo. In a photo where the scene has depth, the subject bird will generally be in the foreground because it is more natural to have blurry birds in the background rather than in the front. The subject bird is often looking at the camera or doing something interesting because you focused on it and waited to capture that moment. The subject bird may be separate from the other birds in the photo.

Below are four photos that, I think, have one bird that is clearly the subject. It might not be equally obvious in each of the photos, but I think most people would agree about which bird it is. What do you think?

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One with the Flock: Enhance!

Did the title “Enhance!” make you think about those police/spy TV shows where they can zoom in on a blurry photo of a parking lot and read a license plate? Good, because that’s basically what I’m thinking about. A big group of birds gives you lots of composition options, and it’s usually worthwhile to try out a few of them.

Below are four photos of the same group of birds, although not all from the same angle. The differences in the end results are huge. It is a bit ironic that the photo showing the most birds is less overwhelming because it also shows large areas that have no birds. The last photo is the one where it is easiest to look at the individual birds, and it still gives the impression of a busy flock. Unfortunately it doesn’t have a strong focal point. The second to last photo actually does have a bird that stands out from the crowd, but there are so many birds you probably have to look for a moment to find it.

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Perhaps you have an amazing ability to look at a scene and conceptualize what parts of it will make the best photographic composition. I don’t have that, so I usually do two other things. In the field, I will scan the scene through my viewfinder, zooming in and even walking around to find appealing shots, taking extras just in case. At home on the computer, I spend time with what I shot, looking for images that work, and cropping or adjusting to fine tune those selections.

One with the Flock: Spray and Pray

Whenever I am photographing birds, I take lots of photos. Even if it’s a bird sitting totally still, I may take five of the exact same shot because I’m usually near the limit of my equipment and often one of those five is going to be sharper and clearer than the others. Then I might change a setting or two and take five more of the exact same shot. If a bird is moving, I might take twenty shots to capture the moment a muddy foot comes out of the water or a beak opens to let out a cry.

I guess spray and pray is not an entirely fair way to describe this. It is a fairly deliberate process. I generally don’t take loads of photos of something I know won’t turn out well. On the other hand, I am hoping that one photo from the bunch turns out well and I usually don’t know which one it will be.

When photographing groups of birds, I take EVEN MORE photos. The chance of something being off is higher, and it is often impossible to be aware of what each bird is doing at each moment. Once you’ve composed your scene, taking loads of photos increases the chances that everything will come together in one shot.

Of course, there’s a method to this madness. As we know from the Bird Watch article, you should always have one bird that is the subject of the shot. There’s no point in shooting a lot when your primary bird isn’t cooperating, but there is good reason to take extras at that moment to get the best from your supporting actors.

I don’t have any examples of a full set because I delete perhaps 90% of the photos I take. But, for reference, here are three that I saved out of a group of 20 or 30. These were my favorites because in each shot, the birds worked together in different ways. The rest of the photos were all less interesting compositions, blurry or had other problems so they got tossed out. Surprisingly, these three images were all taken within 11 seconds, which should give you an idea of how many different compositions can happen almost instantaneously when you are photographing groups of birds.

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Whatever you do, you will probably want to take more photos than usual and review them after the fact to see which ones really work the best. It is impossible to be fully aware of what several or many birds are doing all at the same time, but you can take your time to compare photos after the fact if you are taking plenty of them.

Bird Shots: One with the Flock

Another week, another Bird Shots column for The Weekender. This week, we take a look at group photos and how to make them work. They can be the hardest bird photos to take, but are often the most wonderful as well. Stay tuned right here for additional tips and examples throughout the week.

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The Second Subject: Conservation Messages

If you’re lucky, when you’re photographing birds you are enjoying nature and break from the trials and tribulations of the human world. If you’re on St. Martin, when you’re photographing birds, you are probably trying to find an angle where there’s no garbage in the frame. Sometimes, though, it is important to capture the mess we’ve made, since that is the island we are living on.

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Just as a photo of habitat is enhanced by the presence of a bird, our own woeful neglect of nature and downright hostility to the environment is brought into sharper focus when accompanied by wildlife. It is inspiring to see life surviving in the wake of our destruction and the shame we feel is amplified.

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At the same time, there are also moments when the worlds of man and nature cross paths under more congenial circumstances. The remnants of the salt pans, mostly forgotten by man and now occupied only by birds, are a favorite. It’s also a reminder that in our rush towards the future, we tend to sacrifice not only the natural world, but also the legacy of our own past.

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The Second Subject: A Living Landscape

Often, capturing habitat means showcasing specific plants and animals that are key parts of a bird’s habitat and ecosystem. Mangroves are a great example. When it comes to tropical wetlands, mangrove trees are the critical organisms providing food and shelter, giving life and form to an ecosystem.

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Although they move around, a cow is part of a Cattle Egret’s habitat. They are basically giant machines that help the egrets find food. From time to time, they can be a spot to roost as well.

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The Second Subject: Close-up Wide Angle

This is something that I rarely do in bird photography because it usually is impossible to get close enough to a bird. With a nest, however, it is something that can work. Using a very wide angle lens, you can capture a nearby subject, like this nest, while also showcasing the whole scene around the subject. It can be a really striking effect and a fantastic way to feature something within a larger context.

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