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Favorite Places: Merritt Island National Wildlife Reserve
by Mitch Moraski

Located along the eastern shores of Central Florida, Merritt Island NWR (National Wildlife Reserve) has a lot to offer any aspiring wildlife photographer. The kids are out of school for spring break and "it's off to grandmother's house we go"! 

A Roseate Spoonbill forages
in the shallows.

A week with the in-laws allowed for two morning visits to this 140,000 acre refuge that borders the edge of NASA. The Refuge is part of NASA and the Kennedy Space Center with public access through the Black Point Wildlife Drive, a seven mile one-way scenic tour, located in the city of Titusville.

Unlike Sanibel Island, Corkscrew, Venice Rookery or the Everglades, Merritt Island NWR seems to stand well behind these other photographic regions in terms of popularity. During my trip there in late April, I was not expecting much of a turnout as most birds have already migrated north. An early morning rise and a 70 mile trek south on I-95 had me there before the sun was up. A cup of coffee and a danish at the local convenience store put me into high gear.

A state in dire need of rain, much of the area was brown and left with somewhat small bodies of water. The wind was calm as the sun beginning to crest the horizon. Little did I know I was in for the time of my life. Birds, birds and more birds! There by the hundreds! 

Drought conditions, though not favorable from an environmental standpoint, can be a positive for bird photographers. Birds will gather wherever food is available, and in this case, many had to fight for feeding rights. When it comes to food and hunger, many birds are oblivious to the presence of humans. There were Roseate Spoonbills, Tricolored Herons, Redthroated Herons, Great Blues, Great Egrets and shorebirds such as the Black-Necked Stilt and American Avocet, in addition to perhaps a hundred or more White Pelicans. Needless to say it got the photographic juices flowing, and if that wasn't good enough, there wasn't another photographer in sight!

A tripod is an absolute necessity when shooting with lenses
400mm and longer plus teleextenders.

As I pulled out my Canon 10D and 100-400 IS, I was left with one problem. There were so many birds and so many photo opportunities, it was tough to know where to begin. I know this sounds hard to believe, but many birds were running interference for one another. Just as I would press the shutter, intruding birds would step into either my foreground or background and ruin an otherwise great shot. Add to that problem my mirrored images became nothing but ripples. In spite of that, with patience, persistence, and my vision broadened, and I was able to come away with many "keepers."

Black Point Wildlife Drive stands about 5-7 feet above the water line on this one way drive. Using the 100-400 IS on the 10D at 400mm gave me a focal length of 640mm. Most of my images were of birds about 150 to 200 feet away. I lowered my tripod as close to ground as possible so that my perspective was such that I was shooting nearly parallel to my subject. My goal was to shoot "into" the birds and not down on those that were close to the road. 

This is an important aspect of bird photography. Shooting down can be a challenge in getting the entire bird in focus as the film/sensor plane and your subject will not be parallel to one another. Focusing was a bit challenging as well. 

Another key element in wildlife photography is to make certain that the eye is always in focus. Both the head and the eyes on many of these birds are very small and focusing at 640mm wide open at this distance leaves very little room for error. Add a 1.4 extender and it becomes even more of a challenge. The slightest movement and you've lost an otherwise sharp image. 

If the eye and head aren't in
focus the entire image will
appear out of focus. 

I cannot stress enough the need for using a tripod in this type of photography. Handholding will only lead to soft images regardless of shutter speed, and the ability to keep your body stable is nearly impossible. Any movement of your body will not allow you pinpoint accuracy for focusing, not to mention the movement of the birds which will double your chances of creating an out-of-focus image. For best results, arrive early, because by 8:30 or so, your best light may have already dissipated and no doubt a slight breeze will have begun. Enjoy your shoot, but don't expect 100% capture rate.

What started out as a school vacation, turned into one of my most rewarding trips. Thanks to the support of my family, I've now added to my collection of Florida birds. Merritt Island NWR has a lot to offer, and is a must visit for any photographer or birder. As I stated before, photography of this type is a challenge, but the "keepers" will keep you coming back for more!

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