Chincoteague NWR > June 2012
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This visit to  Chincoteague NWR turned out to be very productive.  There were no truly excellent opportunities -- close up bird portraits in excellent light and settings -- but there were plenty of very good ones.  The refuge has several primary go-to locations, and for once many of them produced results this trip.  The following is a summary of the locations I have found useful.

My favorite morning locations are:

  • A small inlet in Little Tom’s Cove that I call Tiny Tom’s Cove, behind the Assateague Beach parking lot

  • A marshy area with standing pools between Assateague Beach and Little Tom’s Cove (since wiped out by Hurricane Sandy)

  • Egret Alley, the culvert pool at the curve on the way to Swan Cove, for fishing egrets and herons

  • Swan Cove, for sunrise silhouettes or if foggy, if anything is present (rarely the case anymore)

  • Assateague Overlook, looking west if ponies are present; also east for sunrise photos

  • Assateague Beach, for sunrise photos of the Atlantic ocean

My afternoon favorites are:

  • The Wildlife Loop, including the backside wooded area if you have a bird song speaker

  •  Assateague Overlook, looking east, especially close to the road where waders and terns fish

  • Swan Cove, if anything is present (rarely the case anymore)

The Assateague Island beach was once a good place to find flocks of small roosting shorebirds in the morning for eye level images but this is no longer the case.  Sanderlings, semi-palmated sandpipers, western sandpipers, dunlins, semi-palmated plovers, ruddy turnstones, greater and lesser yellowlegs and the like have all but vanished in recent years.  And one can virtually forget about marbled godwits, dowitchers, avocets, etc. -- although one does see the occasional black-necked stilt, as was the case this trip.  Now, one is lucky to find a gull that will allow a prone approach.

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Several things were of note this visit.  The first was the aforementioned stilts.  One afternoon a modest band showed up in Snow Goose Pool at the first long stretch around the Wildlife Loop.  Unfortunately, the day was heavily overcast and the water's surface was almost as white as the stilts themselves.  Furthermore, they were quite a distance offshore and moving about continuously as they fed in the shallows.  I was disappointed at a lost opportunity for some great images, but the situation wasn't going to change so I set about making the best of a bad situation.  Shooting wide open and balancing ISO and shutter speed the keeper rate wasn't great but some very good images came from the session.

Also unusual was the fact that a rare green heron put in an appearance at the Assateague Overlook pool one afternoon.  I had been shooting a tricolor heron for quite some time when the green heron showed up.  These are usually secretive birds so I was delighted that this one chose to place itself in plain view in an open area for a few minutes before departing.

There was also ample opportunity to photograph willets at the marshy pool area between the Assateague Beach parking lot and Little Tom's Cove.  This area has long been a favorite because there are almost always standing pools, backed by marsh grass, which draw shore birds and sometimes waders.  (The pools and marsh grass were wiped out by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, leaving only sand and crushed shells.)

Since one has to cross a long exposed stretch of sand from parking lot to the pools, the birds have plenty of time to see the photographer coming.  Approach technique and gear choice are vital here.  I always start out with tripod collapsed and at some point get down on knees to begin the final approach.  Also, I always attach a 2X extender.  At some point in the approach I begin making an image and then moving forward, deadlifting the rig forward and then scooting up behind as unobtrusively as possible.  This continues at a slow pace, with pauses anytime the subject bird appears restless or alert.

Some people pooh-pooh extenders, but the optical quality of modern gear means that it is possible to get good images even with a 2X.  Plus, it means less impact on the subject.  Teleconverters are especially valuable at this refuge.  Rarely does one see a pro tour group here, and for good reason -- subjects are wary and not as reliably available as they are at locations such as South Florida and other hot spots popular with tour leaders.  In many situations, even with a 600mm or 800mm lens one is forced to use the longest focal length that preserves autofocus -- 1200mm with the former, 1120mm with the latter.

We leave readers with one final point to ponder, the relative merits of teleconverters vs. "rezzing up" an image.  There are those who claim that 1.4X TCs don't degrade an image whereas 2X TCs do, so the best approach for distant subjects is to shoot with a 1.4X TC and then crop and rezz up the resulting file.  First, 1.4X TCs do degrade images, and those who think they do not have either never bench tested their lenses adequately or have never printed large enough to see the difference.  Beyond this, the reason the Internet myth in favor of rezzing up a 1.4X image persists is because there are some cases in which this is in fact the better strategy.  Unfortunately, for excellent gear the opposite is usually true, and if people owning such listen to this advice they may cheat themselves out of the best results.

The only way to know for sure is to test specific combinations.  For example, I was able to verify by testing that my 800mm with 1.4X extender rezzed up gave better quality files than the lens with a 2X attached, probably because the 2X was a poor match to the lens.  On the other hand, a careful bench test of my 300mm lens showed a distinct advantage for the 2X extender over a rezzed up1.4X file.

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