Tag Archives: Shackleford Banks

Swimming Horses

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Along the coast of North Carolina, there is a population of wild horses thought to be the oldest in North America. It was here where Western Civilization first crashed into mainland North America, and these horses are thought to be the result of these very first attempts and exploration and colonization.

This breed is known officially as the Banker horse, and unlike those wild herds of the west, the two populations of these mustangs are federally protected due to their historical significance.

For the last 400 years, these horses have adapted to a world of sand and salt, of hurricanes and nor’easters. Surviving on salt marsh grass such as spartina, and digging their own wells in the by pawing down to through the sand in low areas known as swales, these horses have survived countless calamities – including the shipwrecks for which some the original stock of horses are believed to have washed ashore form.

On one particular island, many of the individuals swim out along the edge of an inlet, through a bull shark nursery, fighting tidal rips, and risking drowning, to access tiny marsh islets where they will feed until the tide begins to drop again and they swim with the current back to their island home.

I created this image from my skiff – a flat bottom boat specifically designed for running in and navigating the treacherous shoal water around these islands. I have spent countless hours on these islands photographing the horses that eke out a living there. And this is a particular shot that I have spent several years trying to capture.

Part of the problem in the past, was that I was attempting to photograph these horses while they were actually swimming. Seeing a herd of these animals sweep past you with the current is an incredible experience, but it is definitely one that is best captured with video not still photography. What it finally took, was realizing that, from a still photography perspective, capturing the horses just before they officially kicked free of Terra firma was the moment that made the photograph.

Let the horses swim and you have a distinctly awkward horse head that looked like a furry alligator’s head sticking above the water. I still have ideas floating around in my brain for a shot that will work with the actual swimming, but I will need an underwater housing and a 9 inch dome port to make that happen.

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Crystal Coast Kayaking

Hands down, the Crystal Coast of North Carolina is one of my favorite places to kayak. Even though I live up on the Outer Banks just to the north,  my home islands just do not have the same diversity of bird and sea life that this place has to offer. Actually, that’s not true. What I find when I am kayaking down around Beaufort, Cape Lookout, and Shackleford Banks can be found on the Outer Banks as well – even the wild horses – however, the concentration of such diversity in a very small area is the real draw.

In the late winter / early spring, my interest here are the oystercatchers. Some 300 of them winter in what is known as Back Sound making this place the densest concentration of these birds in the state. Now, once spring hits and the world begins to green up again you will find me here photographing horses on Shackleford Banks or Carrot Island. This time of the year though, its all about the birds and some sun.

As I have written about on this journal several times before, the potential for kayaks when it comes to photography just cannot be overstated. I mean come on, that is why these boats were made in the first place – to aproach animals for hunting that would otherwise never let you get that close. Well thousands of years later, its the same story. The low profile, the slow approach . . . it all combines to put these animals at ease. Don’t get me wrong, some individuals are just spooky no matter what. For the most part though, these boats will allow you to access places and animals you never would have been able to on foot or by motor boat, and from a low perspective that just can’t be beat.

When it comes to photographing oystercatchers in an estuarine environment, that is to say, not on the beach, tides and food play a big role in success rate. When its low tide, countless miles of mud and sand flats become exposed and these birds will range far and wide. However, at high tide when the flats become inundated, the birds will then concentrate onto oyster bars near their favorite haunts. Its not uncommon to count 40 or more of these birds all clustered together on one oyster bed or tiny marsh island that sits above the waterline while they rest and wait for their next buffet.

Once you have located the birds, your best to make a slow and somewhat indirect approach to these birds. Of course there will be a comfort zone usually that these birds will not let you within however it will be plenty close to make photographs of them as long as you don’t flush them with your approach. Its best to do this where you have several oystercatchers hanging out together as they tend to be lest skittish when in the company of their peers it would seem. Confidence maybe?

With the flight shots that I am posting here, I had found a bar with around 20 0ystercatchers huddled up just a few inches above the waters edge. With the sun and the wind to my back I made a slow approach to these birds, stopping for a couple of minutes and making sure that they were calm, and etched forward. Over the course of about 20 minutes I managed to get within 15 yards of them. I grounded myself on a shoal and then simply waited. By this point I had been photographing portraits all afternoon and so I was looking for flight shots – hence the sun and wind at my back. Remember, birds take off into the wind if they have the choice to do so.

From my vantage point whenever a bird took flight, and they would leave and return either solo or in pairs, they would fly right past me. The Nikon d300 with the 200-400 vr combo is perfect for this situation in my opinion. Its a heavier lens, but not as bad as say the 500 and with proper light, hand holding technique, and the vibration reduction technology, this is a great lens to shooting out of a kayak – especially birds in flight. Some folks prefer to carry a 300 mm f/4 which is much lighter and easier to whip around. For me however, the versatility of the 200-400, which with my Dx sensor is the equivalent of a 300-600 and with a 1.4 tc attached is a 420 – 840 mm lens, this is just cant be beat.

For portraits I prefer to portray these birds on oyster beds – I mean, that is where they get their name. For me, the photographs of an oystercatcher on the beach in the sand just doesn’t cut it for me. Sure, this is where they nest, but what makes them unique is their adaptation to feeding on oysters. In the sand, it might as well be any other little shore bird. The oyster beds help to tell a story – which if you want to sell your work to magazines, is something you must be able to do.

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