Taking Flight

banded pelican landing

Juvenile Brown Pelican tests the power of maturing wings. Photo: Canon 7D; 180mm @f/7.1; 1/400sec; ISO400. (Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures)

“It’s one of those mornings worth waiting for – this light is really sweet.” I said to Will as he finally relented, abandoned his spotting scope and grabbed his camera.  I looked over and he was smiling – he knew it too and if he didn’t the whizzing of my 7D’s motor on high speed sequential was the siren he needed to hear.

Will Selman is a wildlife biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.  I met Will a few weeks ago when I was filming at the Brown Pelican release site on Rabbit Island in West Cove, Louisiana.  Will and another biologist Tom Hess share duties monitoring the population of juveniles with focused attention on spotting tagged birds released here after falling a foul to oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.  The pelicans spent weeks in the rehab center at Hammond, LA. before being freed in the Rabbit Is. rookery (a site that fortunately never saw direct oil from the disaster.)

Banded rehabilitated Brown Pelican

Previously oiled juvenile Brown Pelican - from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster - takes flight over the rookery at Rabbit Island, West Cove, Louisiana. Photo: Canon 7D; 400mm @f/5.6; 1/800sec; ISO400. (Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures)

Brown Pelican in flight

Juvenile Brown Pelican tests the power of maturing wings. Photo: Canon 7D; 400mm @f/22; 1/40sec; ISO100. (Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures)

A couple weeks ago when I first took the bumpy six mile ride up the Calcasieu Channel into the lake of the same name and crossed over into adjacent West Cove, the low-lying oyster grass island was barely visible until we sailed within a half mile; nothing on the island sores more than a couple feet tall.  The pelican rookery, despite being crowded with hundreds of birds, was only marked by the birds lifting and landing on the south shore.

Over the past few days the tropical storm bashing coastal Mexico and spinning north into Texas has dumped rain on this SW corner of Louisiana, combine that with unusually high tides and Rabbit Island is little more than a bayou of submerged oyster grass.  The little beach the juvenile pelicans preened and fussed about on has slipped beneath the brackish waters of West Cove.  For these pelies it’s time to take flight.

Brown Pelican in flight

Juvenile Brown Pelican returns to rookery after feeding. Photo: Canon 7D; 210mm @f/8; 1/400sec; ISO400. (Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures)

Practicing landings - Brown Pelican

Previously oiled juvenile Brown Pelican - from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster - takes flight over the rookery at Rabbit Island, West Cove, Louisiana. Photo: Canon 7D; 400mm @f/22; 1/40sec; ISO100. (Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures)

The primary focus of much of the Rabbit Island photography is to get images of the “tagged” juvenile pelicans that came here from rehabilitation.  Red tagged birds were some of the first to be impacted by the oil slick as it came ashore in late May and June.  These birds made a round-about journey here first traveling to Florida where it was thought conditions away from the oil would be best.  Eventually they were returned to Louisiana and found refuge here in West Cove.  The pink banded birds were later releases and arrived directly from the rehab center.  As a result most of the photography is with two 7D camera bodies, and a 70-200mm 2.8 on one and a 100-400mm 5.6 on the other.  Zooms are mandatory and everything must be hand-held.  I am working from a platform boat and the past few days have been very choppy on the water – one leg is usually wrapped around a deck post as I juggle lenses and struggle for stability.

Juvenile pelicans gather on channel tower

Juvenile Brown Pelican (with trailing Laughing Gull) tried to land on crowded channel marker tower. Photo: Canon 7D; 285mm @f/5.6; 1/800sec; ISO400. (Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures)

Preparing to dive for mullet schooling in the water below, this juvenile Brown Pelican practices the tricky art of hovering before plunging face first. Photo: Canon 7D; 400mm @f/5.6; 1/800sec; ISO400. (Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures)

The great part about coming back to the island repeatedly is the chance to try other creative options – and then come back again to perfect those.  I love the challenge of trying to express motion in an image – especially with a boat that is in constant motion – it’s always one part guess, one part skill and a huge dose of luck.  So many factors have to align to create the “perfect” motion image.  Perfection is still out there flying around Rabbit Island, but I created a handful of photos that start to approximate the speed and power these young birds need to muster to lift themselves from the water.  Some versions are posted here – back at it again tomorrow – with refinement!

Juvenile Brown Pelican in flight

Juvenile Brown Pelican lifting off water after diving for 'pogy' fish. Photo: Canon 7D; 400mm @f/22; 1/40sec; ISO100. (Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures)

Brown Pelican lifting off

Like a floatplane taking off this juvenile Brown Pelican tests maturing wings as it struggles to take flight. Photo: Canon 7D; 400mm @f/6.3; 1/800sec; ISO400. (Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures)

Juvenile pelican taking flight

Juvenile Brown Pelican tries a choppy water take-off. Photo: Canon 7D; 300mm @f/8; 1/800sec; ISO400. (Photo by Gerry Ellis/Audubon/Minden Pictures)

Many thanks to Tom and Will and all the folks at Louisiana Dept of Wildlife & Fisheries as well as all the gang on the boats these past fey weeks for making these images possible.

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