See ’em ducks? MR knot ducks, MR ponies. MR no ducks right now.

The Thanksgiving weekend at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia is billed as a waterfowl weekend to celebrate the huge numbers of migrating waterfowl that come to the Chesapeake Bay. Evidently, the waterfowl did not get the announcement this fall. So, absent them, what to photograph?  Well, wild ponies.

The ponies spend most of the year on the Assateague Island except in July when the firemen round them up, and swim then onto Chincoteague to select out a number of yearlings for auction, and to provide veterinary care. Otherwise, they are pretty much on their own to survive.

Having come to see thousands of Snow Geese and such, the ponies were only mildly interesting though the majority of visitors seemed to get really excited to see them. Obviously not birders.

There are, of course, resident birds that are pretty accustomed to people.  I’ve found that an auto is an excellent “blind” for bird photography.  My wife, Pam, is becoming proficient in positioning the car for me, and I set up in the back seat with a bean bag on the window sill to support the heavy telephoto lens. Moving the car just a little can greatly  improve the background and more clearly define the subject.  Being in the backseat, I can shoot to both sides.  Well, the first resident bird for us was a Great Blue Heron very intently fishing along the road to the beach.

One of the enjoyable aspects of photographing birds is learning to recognize the signs that a bird is ready to take flight or to strike at prey.  When your reaction time is added to the shutter delay of around 45 milliseconds, it is key to press the shutter before the main motion is seen.

The action is so fast that I am not generally sure if I have captured the event until I get the images downloaded to my laptop that evening. The camera’s screen did not clearly let me see the small minnow in the bird’s beak.

Adding to the difficulty is keeping the bird’s eye in focus. The autofocus has to recognize the movement and shift focus in the milliseconds involved.

All of this was on a section of the beach road where a canal parallels road so you can be close to the birds.

While there, I was out of the car anticipating a fly-over of some egrets or an ibis that were nearby. Did not happen.   As I chatted with another photographer, I saw a Belted Kingfisher fly down the canal towards a wooded patch some 200 yards away. Great Blue Herons are interesting but Belted Kingfishers are much less approachable, and I was excited.  I’ve not previously had any good images with them.  So, I gathered up my gear, set up the bean bag in the back seat, and Pam moved me into position.

The result was pretty encouraging. This little Belted Kingfisher helped me forget how few waterfowl were on the marshes. I realized how small they are as I watched it for about a half hour.  It preened, and stretched, and then began some serious watching for prey.  I was disappointed that it never dove for a fish, but still it was a high point for the weekend.

You’ll note the nice background.  That came about from a shift of only 5 feet in the car’s position.  If you are going after improved photos, pay serious attention to the background.

This was pretty much the high point of the weekend. We searched widely for more subjects but what I saw was not equal to images I already had of waterfowl. Still, we had an enjoyable time observing bird behavior with our binoculars.

There were a few Tundra Swans on the fresh water pools. We found one immature foraging very close to us on Sunday afternoon (after most of the weekend visitors had joined the exodus home). As the bird foraged, I realized how powerful they are.  It was pulling water plants out by the roots, and would vigorously twist and strain to gain the plant.  Their long neck allows them to feed at a greater depth than competing geese or ducks.  Their size convinces the smaller waterfowl to stay distant.

Of course, Sunday evening was very quiet in town and the sunset along the channel was colorful.

We decided to skip the refuge in the morning and head home with a stop at Bombay Hook NWR where we found American Avocets, Northern Harriers, Pintails, Northern Shovelers and huge mixed flocks of Starlings, Grackles, and Redwing Blackbirds swirling about their roost trees in liquid waves called “murmurs”. ( The volunteer receptionist at Bombay Hook was from Ithaca.  Small world, again.)

I expect to see on some bird blog that the waterfowl arrived on the Chesapeake in a few days. It will be tempting to try again, but I’ll first check with some local contacts. Overall, the weekend was enjoyable with some good practice on birds.  The Kingfisher saved the weekend from being a loss.

Paul Schmitt

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