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Shooting Reddish Egrets From A Kayak
by Peter Wallack

If you think you can just get in a kayak and go shooting after reading this article be very careful. First, you must be an experienced open kayak user who knows how to stay dry and keep the kayak upright at all times. A 30-inch wide, seventeen-foot long Old Town kayak will do nicely for shooting birds in a pond, or protected tidal zone connected to the ocean, or in my case - the Gulf. There is more stability with a wider kayak. Duck boats have been recommended to me as well because they are incredibly wide and stable. People stand up and shoot guns in them but they are heavier and cannot go inside a large mini-van. They need to go on the roof. A big job no, but it takes 15 minutes to secure, and worse, it takes 10 minutes to get down while the bird may be off by that time.

The best way to photograph from a kayak is under a smooth slow paddle from the rear while you shoot from the front. Moving stabilizes the boat from rocking if you can move around centered in the front because your kayak pilot has listened to you about where to go before turning in a certain direction for the approach. You must think- sun in back of my shoulders, subject in range but do not frighten off, and background environmental or out of focus - simultaneously, while giving your pilot instructions. This is the safest and wisest way to work.

What if you feel like doing this all by yourself. It can be done alone but there are additional problems and risks. You will not be under power and stable enough to shoot well just 5 seconds after your last stroke so you better shoot fast if your in a gliding mode. Better, many of the wading birds that you can shoot from a kayak are in shallow water so you can go to shallow enough water to carefully hang out a foot into the underwater soil and stabilize yourself as if you were shooting from land handheld.

The best lens for this kind of work is a lens with Internal Stabilization or its equivalent words in other lines of cameras. I use a Canon EOS 3 with a 100-400 IS lens and if I have my foot out I can put on the 1.4x II for 560mm of reach. You may have trouble handholding more than 400 IS so test your abilities before you lose an important image.

So, what was happening when I got these four shots of this one Reddish Egret? I was making up new guidelines for myself to use that you may find reason to ignore after reading this account. The Reddish Egret in the Reeds Shot was from mid water taken within seconds of dropping the paddle and still under a power glide.
The other three images are a different story. I was getting no closer than eighty feet when the Reddish Egret would get nervous and fly off 200 yards to start fishing in a new spot. This happened three times and I was really not going to get much size in my frame if things kept going this way. The only size I would get at best would be the size of the bird in the image entitled Reddish Egret in the Reeds.

My actions are often intuitive and I figure out what I did and why later on. On my next approach I headed for the mud flats. This would aim my kayak slightly off to the side of where the Reddish Egret was for most of the approach. I paddled my way scrapping ground with kayak and paddle for over 30 feet before I finally was stuck, totally immobilized. The Reddish Egret must have been thinking to himself, "Great! This chump is stuck and going no where." The Reddish Egret was immediately more relaxed and ignored me and I was not moving nor could I move. I have heard that some people believe being still, especially in the bird's medium, the water, gives the wading birds a greater sense of security. In the next 15 minutes the Reddish was canopy hunting and spearing for fish within 30 feet of me. The Reddish hold up their wings, canopy, to cast shadows to rid their view of glare and get a better view of the fish they wish to spear. Well, I was close enough to get a good bird portrait and behavioral action shots within the same image. The following images are two of the canopy hunting and one of the splash just after the Reddish Egret speared the water but came up empty.
I would have liked to get the actual bill just before the plunge, but I missed that. It would have been nice if the bird would have actually speared a fish before he took off; another image of a fish impaled; one when he actually threw the fish in the air; and finally, one when he caught the fish in his mouth. You can see the real photo essay on the Reddish Egret is four images shy but, well, that just leaves me some more fun to look forward to in the future.
Being honest about fun. After the shoot I had my patience tested in a situation quite unnecessary, which was really not much fun. I started to get out of the kayak completely to pull it back off the mud flats, but the kayak and my camera seemed ready to go. I took no risks and just sat there remembering the airtight float bag I should have brought just for this situation. I was feeling a little stupid for quite a while but then another kayak enthusiast, without a camera, came along, inquired about my difficulties, and easily got out of his kayak and dragged me off the flats. Luck and help are the highest skills levels of photography.

About the Author: Peter started taking photographs for academic slide shows in the early 70s and ended up in Soho Photo Gallery by the late 70s. Cooperative Galleries and Art Shows were his forums for landscapes with man, landscapes, and world cultures images. By the 90s so much of his work was world cultures in developing lands that he called his business "Ends of The Earth Photography". In 1999, after contracting to buy his retirement house in Sanibel Island, Florida, a paradise for bird photographers, he transformed himself into a bird photography with a little help from other professional bird photographers.

Peter will have his writings and images in Nature Photographer, Winter 2002, and regularly in Sanibel's Nature Guide.

You can see more of Peter's work at the following sites:
Click to see Peter's Website
Click to see Peter's Profotos Portfolio

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