Chincoteague NWR > June 2022
Travels Index Michael W Masters

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In over three decades of visits to Chincoteague NWR and Assateague, the only chicks ever sighted were a few very distant baby piping plovers -- as well as the ubiquitous Canada goose gooslings.  All that changed this trip.  Three little oystercatcher chicks, accompanied by mom and dad, created quite a sensation on the beach around Tiny Tom's Cove, drawing every photographer and bird watcher who passed by.

They generally followed mom's lead, scurrying away when people came near, but if one approached low and slow and didn't get too close they eventually settled back into oystercatcher activities and ignored the strange two-legged flightless bird with the enormous beak (AKA telephoto lens).  When mom wasn't sleeping she was more concerned with keeping willets and laughing gulls away from the chicks than with the nearby photographer.  As a result, most days we were able to find and photograph the chicks and their antics -- albeit usually with a 2X teleconverter firmly affixed in place.

As an added bonus, there were also semiplamated plover chicks camped out on the tidal mudflats of Tiny Tom's Cove.

We were there for two weeks for the first time ever, providing enough opportunities to accumulate 200GB of image files, most of which were 12/fps bursts of individual subjects.  Culling through this extravaganza was another level of processing entirely.  Examples of the unusual included a pair of redheaded woodpeckers and a great shearwater, the latter resting in Tiny Tom's Cove, away from the rough waters of the Atlantic Ocean.  The woodpeckers were extremely shy, mostly specks in the viewfinder, even with a 2X teleconverter.  Deep cropping ensued.

Sheer numbers sparked a different approach to presenting trip results.  In the past, best images were selected and shown as a single collection.  This time, each subject got a separate collection.  The oystercatcher chicks are here.

Longer lens please. . .

A few photography gear lessons emerged from the experience.  First, there is no substitute for focal length.  And second, there are far more opportunities to be had with a hand-held walkaround lens than with a really big, and heavy, long telephoto mounted on a tripod.  In fact, the latter is simply a recipe for frustration given the mobility of these little denizens.

Our choices for this outing were a 100-400mm zoom, a 400mm f4 DO telephoto and a 600mm f4 telephoto, the latter two usually equipped with either a 1.4X or 2X teleconverter.  The 2x yielded 800mm and 1200mm respectively, both at f8, and those were the combinations most often used given the shyness of the subjects and the distances involved.  The zoom hardly ever came into play, and the tripod-mounted 600mm saw action only with static subjects far away enough so as to be unlikely to decamp at the sight of yours truly wrestling the big lens and tripod into position.

This excursion left us eyeing Nikon's new 5 lb. 800mm f6.3 PF lens, possibly combined with a Z9.  Used with a 1.4X teleconverter, that's 1120mm of hand holdability at f9, with roughly the same weight as our current Canon 400mm f4 DO II plus 2X with gripped R5, which yields only 800mm at f8.  Unfortunately, nothing from Canon on the current rumor horizon quite approaches these specs for my particular uses.

Plus, the entire setup can be had for the cost of one Canon big white.

Chick woes

After culling over 2400 oystercatcher chick images, many of which did not meet minimum standards, the need for a few changes to approach became evident.  The first thing noticable is that good light is a prerequisite. Overcast conditions, high ISO, bright gray-white water background, backlit or off sun axis subjects (i.e. no sun spark reflection in eye), all combined to turn a great many images into instant deletes.  These problems were often compounded by dreary mud flats accompanying low tide.

When tripod mounted, fill flash is a viable option.  However, hand holding a long and heavy telephoto with gripped body is already marginal without the added weight of a flash setup.  Sacrificing shutter speed handheld at the distances involved risks blurry results, and even with a wide open lens ISO was sometimes forced to 12,800.  Nor did noise and sharpening utilities make much of a dent.  In fact, to my great surprise some images were rendered marginally better by Capture One's default capture sharpening than by Topaz Sharpen.

As a result, camera setup has been changed so that the maximum allowable ISO in auto ISO is now 6400.  Overall, results should be more palatable.  However, in low light situations shutter speeds will necessarily be lower, so a steady hand will be even more important.  This constitutes a rock and a hard place dilemma.  We mostly used 1/2000 sec for distant captures with the telephotos and 1/2500 for action.  Usually this was sufficient, but for action even faster shutter speeds would have been better. 

The next item is that the R5, used with both 400mm DO II and 600mm II, both mostly with 2X, needs a better mechanism for selecting the primary subject's eye when there are more than one subjects in the frame.  Sometimes the camera recognizes that there are two or more and allows one to sequence between possibilities.  But, more often this is not the case, and annoyingly the camera will not let go of the favored eye.

One can go into manual selection mode and hope that the camera stays latched on to the new subject, but sometimes it just jumps back to the original.  The technique that worked best for me was simply to swing the camera so that the intended eye is the only one in frame and then recompose if and when that eye is recognized.  This wasn't ideal either, rendering all possibilities slow, awkward and prone to missed shots.

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Collections Chincoteague & NWR June 2022

Scenic Tim Hill House I Tim Hill House II Bateman Center Canada Goose
Ponies Fox Squirrel Rabbit Forster's Tern Laughing Gull
Plovers Willets Oystercatchers Passerines Other Birds
Great Egret Snowy Egret   Little Blue Heron White & Glossy Ibis
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