Beyond the BackyardMerritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Quiet Morning at MINWR

All week long, I’ve been seeing these amazing sunrises in the east.  The colors have been extraordinary.  Each morning, I’ve wanted to drive to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and photograph the sunrise over the water.  But instead I had to go to work.  :-p  Funny how work gets in the way of birding and photography!

So on my off-Friday, I drove over to MINWR in the pre-dawn hours.  I made sure I was there half an hour before sunrise, when the colors are the best.  I knew of a place on Gator Creek where I’d have a nice reflection in the water.  I had my 40D body all ready with my wide(r)-angle lens.  But the sunrise didn’t cooperate.  It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t the spectacular sunrise that I’d been drooling over.  There were too many dense clouds.  So I was a little disappointed, but then as the sun rose higher in the sky, it peeked out from behind the clouds and gave me something to photograph after all:

Note that this picture was an HDR combination of three shots, taken at +/-2 EV.  I used Photomatix Pro to combine the shots.  I’m liking Photomatix more and more, as it tends to produce brighter and less noisy images than Photoshop HDR.  Also, as a beginner in HDR tonal mapping, I like how Photomatix gives me presets that I can pick and choose, and thereby start to learn my way around the various knobs and dials in the tool.  The image above was based on the “Compressor – Deep” preset, which tends to saturate the colors  more than I usually do with my HDR work.  I usually stick to “Enhancer – Smooth” or “Enhancer – Default”.  However, with the varying tones in this sunrise, I liked the more exaggerated beams of light that the “compressor” settings gave me.

As I stood watching the sunrise, I noticed a big spider in a web right in front of me.  Remembering a friend’s Good Morning Charlotte image on Flickr, I decided to experiment.  The sun was already too high to copy Scott’s totally-orange background reflections, and the light wasn’t really cooperating anyway.  But I did experiment with HDR bracketed shots of the spider, moving my tripod left and right trying to incorporate the orange tones of the sunrise reflections. I thought it was really cool how the web stood out with the strong backlight after I completed the HDR.  I actually did several HDR images, with different settings, and I had trouble deciding which one I liked best.  I finally decided on this one.  Again, it uses the Deep Compressor settings that saturate the background.

So after the sun was up, I tried to find some birds.  A couple of Barn Swallows and terns passed over my head periodically while I was standing on Gator Creek Road, but they were the only birds I saw there.  I’d read earlier this week on Birdbrains how there were hundreds of Kingbirds and Bobolinks at the refuge, and I wanted to find some of those – both would have been lifers.  But I guess I wasn’t looking in the right place, or the migrants have moved on already.  I tried Black Point Wildlife Drive, but it is closed until October 1.  Then I tried my luck on Biolab Road, which I’ve never driven before.  There were some fun shorebirds, but the light was all wrong for them in the morning.  They were feeding on the ocean side, so I was shooting straight into the sun.  I asked them to move to the other side of the road, but they were too busy fishing to listen.  I was excited to see a small group of Black Terns, and I dialed in exposure compensation and tried to find a vantage point where I’d at least have sidelight instead of backlight.  Black Terns are only in Florida during migration, and at this time of year, they are in their winter plumage already.  They look more like Sandwich Terns now.  But in the summertime, they are all black.

The birds who did cooperate with me and pose on the right side of the road were the herons and egrets.  They posed in the mangroves and went fishing.  Most were Tricolored Herons, but a Reddish Egret flew in and had a territory dispute with one of the Tricoloreds.  The Reddish won.  I just sat in the car with my tripod on the beanbag, watching and waiting.  It didn’t take long for them to get used to me, then one of the Tricoloreds flew up very close to the car.  His pose was a nice end to a not-so-productive but still fun-to-be-out-there morning!