Dawn was something of a total washout. We had counted on clear skies and that golden hue of early morning light to bathe swamps as we headed on the boat. Instead however, a heavy overcast set in low overhead thus making the light to low for any real action.
Not to be deterred, we set off across the water anyways to a place unlike any I have ever seen. I grew up on the water, in the swamps, on boats, plying the tannin rich black water of Southeastern Virginia and Northeastern North Carolina. To a certain degree, ospreys have always played backdrop to my world. Skimming past their nests so precariously erected atop old duck hunting blinds across the Currituck Sound, as a kid I was always marveled by their adaptability and fishing prowess.
Here however, on this body of water was largest concentration of these birds that I had ever seen. There were no nesting platforms, no hunting blinds, not telephone pole, or any of the other all too common sites around the Outer Banks that ospreys are typically forced to make their home. Instead, here there were only cypress trees.
In the flooded timber that made up this stretch of the swamp, there must have been an osprey nest every 40 yards, and those trees that did not have an active nest, served as favored perches for the males where they bring in their fish to eat the heads off before handing over the rest to his lady and young.
The cypress trees were beautiful. Typically, when ospreys choose trees to build nests upon, those trees are very large dead standing cypress. Here however, these trees were still quite young for a cypress – which was evident in the conical shape of the tree. With giant balls of twigs and Spanish moss their nesting sites looked like something out of a Dr. Sues book.
By the afternoon the clouds began to break enough to allow for periods of sun and the real fun began. When it comes to photographing birds in flight, having nothing but a blue sky background does not do a thing for me. Boring is what immediately comes to mind. Thus the background becomes a crucial element in creating a since of place, depth, and telling a story. Don’t get me wrong here, a blue sky does not destroy an image of a bird in flight – its just that you need that something extra in the image to keep your viewers attention.
When you are photographing birds, like ospreys, in flight against a background, you are most often better off dialing in your exposure manually. Why? As the bird slips from bright sky to mid-toned / dark background, and you track the bird through the viewfinder, your camera’s meter will consistently be fooled by the quick transition. This typically results is ghastly overexposed images. Manually setting your exposure however will lock it in so that as you track the bird from blue sky to dark green trees for example, your exposure will be dead on every time.
In all, we spent two days out on a boat photographing these birds and had a great time in the process.