In late April I returned for a week to Midway Atoll for my fifth visit in four years and my sixth in total. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my unbridled enthusiasm for Midway, one of the world’s truly great wildlife destinations. It is a special, special place and one which I will try to return to on an annual basis assuming visitor services remain intact. This year I travelled with a smaller group than normal and apart from meal times, I was pretty much on my own the whole time. Perfect. Just me, the birds and the beautiful atoll environment.
Midway is home to approximately three quarters of the world’s breeding population of Laysan Albatrosses. Including chicks, they number almost one million. Midway also hosts approximately 60,000 Black-Footed Albatrosses, comprising 35% of the global population of the species and the largest colony of its kind on this planet. On my previous visits, I have largely concentrated on the Laysans simply because they are more numerous but this year I spent much of my time in an area populated by large numbers of Black-Footed Albatrosses with the aim of increasing my image portfolio of this species.
Everything about Albatrosses can be described as superlative and immense: from their longevity (up to 60 years) to their flight endurance (a minimum of three million miles in an average life, equivalent to flying around the earth at the equator three times per year), to their enormous wing spans. The Laysans and Black-Footed Albatrosses are among the smaller of the Albatross species yet still have wing spans of seven to eight feet.
One of the advantages of spending long periods in the company of wild animals is that after a while, you start to get familiar with their behavior patterns. When the Black-Footed Albatrosses land, they will typically spend a few minutes grooming themselves after which they will undertake a big wing stretch, followed by a shake of the wings. To take this first image, I was able to crawl on my belly up to this Albatross after it landed. With the bird only a few feet away from me, I kept the camera viewfinder glued to my eye (in fact I was using an angle-finder attached to the viewfinder so that I could get the lowest possible perspective). As soon as the wing stretch occurred I was ready with the shutter.
Slightly larger and shyer than the Laysans, they also have a different, more frantic courtship dance – one which involves plenty of rapid-fire head shakes as opposed to the more measured head bobbing favoured by the Laysans. For these next two images, I again used a wide-angle lens at or close to the widest focal length, and an angle finder. The birds appeared completely oblivious to my presence, at one point even stepping on my arm as I lay in the sand and I found that I was constantly having to shove myself backwards in the sand in order to distance myself from the birds so that I could include both in the frame.
This next image of courting Black-Footed Albatrosses was taken at sunset using a 300mm telephoto lens, with the white balance on the camera manually set at 8,000 kelvin to accentuate the sunset colours and with a fair amount of under exposure dialed in to render the birds as silhouettes.
Aside from the courtship dancing, I wanted to capture the interaction between both the adult pairs and the adults and their chicks. In order to get down to eye-level with the birds, I shot all of the following images lying on the ground, on my side, handholding the camera and lens, which comprised a 300mm f2.8 lens usually with a 1.4x converter. I found lying on my side and using the shutter release on the vertical side of the camera afforded me the most comfort when lying in this position for long periods of time. The birds were rarely if ever still which made focusing difficult but if I could get parallel to the birds, using all 45 focusing points on the Mark IV, focusing worked quite well. I positioned myself so that the background was a dark distant Ironwood tree forest. The telephoto lens helped to render this to a fairly uniform dark or medium green. I knew I needed a relatively small aperture to increase depth of field in order to keep both birds (or most of them) in focus but with the dark background and often overcast conditions, I was regularly fighting for sufficient shutter speed and needed to regularly crank up the ISO to levels of 1600+.
The adult birds often travel hundreds of miles out to sea on long distance foraging trips and once the chicks are more than 4-6 weeks old, the adults can be away for periods of up to three weeks. Not surprisingly, when they return to their nesting sites on Midway, they are greeted by a ravenous chick.
If there’s one single piece of advice I would give to budding photographers it is this: if you have the chance and especially if your background is dark, always, always shoot back lit.
The downy feathered chicks take on comical appearances when wet, almost as if they had gone a little heavy on the hair-gel…
I didn’t ignore the Laysans and took these candid images of the adults interacting among themselves and with their chicks.
One of the things you learn as your photography improves is the importance of backgrounds in your images. Quite often, I’ll become attracted to a background before any subject materialises. Often you need a lot of patience in these sorts of situations. Underwater, I’ve sometimes spent nearly a whole dive positioned in front of a colourful Sea Fan waiting for the right fish to swim by in front of it.
Half way down the international sized runway on Midway’s main island, there are several large Sea Grape trees which always seem to have a mass of brown and red leaves and which contrast nicely with the green coloured Ironwood trees on either side as well as the brilliant yellow flowers of the Verbasinia plants nearer to the ground. I had noticed that the Albatrosses would regularly fly past the trees and I thought that if I used a slow shutter speed and panned with the birds, sometimes using a little fill flash, that I might get some interesting images. Blurs are very much a matter of personal taste with my own preference being for the eyes and head of the subject to be relatively sharp but in the case of flying birds, for the wings to be blurred. This means that you do not want to use a very slow shutter speed. Depending on the speed of the flying bird, anything from 1/20th to 1/60th of a second usually works best.
I had purposely chosen to go as late as possible during the visitor season in the hope that some of the White Tern chicks would have hatched. While I was able to locate several adults sitting on eggs, I was unable to find any chicks apart from two on my one day visit to nearby Eastern Island. Unfortunately neither of these was in a particularly photographic position. I still spent plenty of time with the adults as they really are my favourite bird – so pretty and elegant. If you are in any doubt, look at this beautiful specimen.
I also witnessed a piece of behaviour that I had not seen before. On many occasions I have seen adult White Terns feed their chicks fish. So when I found an adult with a fish in its bill perched on a low tree branch, I felt certain that there must be a chick nearby. I looked and looked but found nothing. The adult remained in the same position for nearly an hour during which time it kept lifting its head and scanning the branches above it. I began to wonder if there had been a chick higher up which had either fallen from its perch – something that is not uncommon given that White Terns do not build nests, leaving the chicks vulnerable during high winds. But with no signs of any chick on the ground, I speculated that perhaps the chick had been taken by an avian predator such as a Great Frigate bird. Suddenly there was a swish of white in the upper branches and I looked up to see another adult Tern alight above the lower one. The latter immediately took flight, landing beside its companion to which it promptly offered the fish to and which was greedily accepted. When I asked the resident biologists about this, I was told that this was part of White Tern courtship behaviour.
Midway is home to two other Tern species - Sooty and Gray-Backed Terns. It is also home to two Noddy species – Brown and Black Noddies. There are 6,000 nesting pairs of Black Noddies on Midway and in certain areas they can be seen high up in the Ironwood trees, sitting on their nests. Sometimes though they can also be seen out in the open; in this case perched on a sea wall overlooking Midway’s lagoon. This particular bird tolerated a remarkably close approach – to the minimum distance of my 300mm lens. I sat with it over a long period of time, during which it largely dozed in the breezed. But every now and then, another bird would fly sufficiently close to elicit a warning call. I had no idea the Noddy’s tongue was quite so long and vividly colored!
After last year’s experimentation with remote wireless triggers and running Albatrosses, I came prepared to try again this year. For those of you who missed lat year’s blog, the idea is to take close-focus, fish-eye images of running Albatrosses by burying ziploc bag-encased cameras with fisheye lenses and with manual wireless triggers attached to the cameras, in the sand, along the natural sand “runways” that the Albatrosses run along at high speed in order to take flight. The camera shutters are triggered wirelessly by yours truely as I wait hidden behind the bushes or dunes that line the runway. All camera settings are fixed in advance (once in the bags in the sand, these are hard to change). I used an AV setting, dialling in some compensation depending on the sun/cloud conditions and focusing was switched to manual. Many times I would be set up eg for sunny conditions and a cloud would cover the sun just as the birds ran over or past the camera resulting in underexposure. Then I would set up for cloudy conditions, dialling in +ve exposure, and the sun would come out. I used two camera bodies, a Canon 5D MK 2 and a Canon 1D MK 4 with a 15mm fish-eye lens on the 5D and an 8-15mm zoom lens on the MK4. Given that the images were typically taken at distances of 4ft or less, anything more than 15mm on the 5D and about 11mm on the Mk4 (which has a 1.3x cropped sensor) is not wide enough. Strangely, I found that 8-15mm lens even when set at the equivalent focal length on the MK4 as the 15mm on the 5D, required 2/3rds to a full stop more of light. Despite all these technical issues, the greatest challenge was hoping the birds would run directly at and over the camera (or should I say, lens, since that is all that was poking out of the sand); and secondly, trying to press the manual triggers at the exact moment when the birds were just in front or over the lens – a very challenging proposition given the speed with which they run at.
The vast majority of images had only bits of Albatross in the frame or were poorly exposed, but very occassionaly I got lucky. I think I have improved from last year but am still striving for that “killer” image. Here is a very small sampling from this year.
This next image may just be my all time favorite image that I have taken. It’s exactly the kind of different image I want to take; one where the viewer has to think for a moment in terms of what he or she is actually looking at. In case you’re still wondering, I had positioned the camera and lens so that the lens was pointing directly up at the sky. The image shows an Albatross about to step on the lens. The white sand acts as a giant reflector helping to illuminate the bottom of the foot while the sun from above helps to bring out the translucent qualities of the foot and the veins inside it. I’m presenting a full frame image here, but it could probably be improved by cropping out the sunlit portion in the upper right
No trip to Midway is complete without spending time photographing the courting Red-Tailed Tropicbirds. 5,000 pairs of these birds nest on the ground of Midway between February and August, typically at the base of vegetation. The birds have extremely small legs, and feet set so far back on their bodies that they can barely walk. Walking in fact is an exaggeration for their movements on the ground are much closer to crawling. However, once in the air, it is a different story. In the middle of the day especially when the sun is out, large numbers can be seen above Midway’s beaches performing their acrobatic courtship flights. The birds circle, hover and even fly backwards, sometimes in unison with other birds, the sun shining through their brilliant white feathers and their long red tail streamers switching back and forth.
And so another Midway trip came to an all too soon end. Sadly, as I write, there now seems a very real chance that future visitor services maybe suspended due to budget constraints. Fingers crossed that this does not happen, but if it does, I will always treasure my times on this seabird Eden.