New camera helps birdwatcher see hobby through new lens

Posted by JEFF KIDD on August 5, 2013 

I think I would be up for a recurring role on the television show "Hoarders," except that my OCD also commands me to organize.

As a youngster, thousands of baseball cards were strewn all over my bedroom floor ... for a few hours. Then, it was time to arrange them -- by team one day, by player the next by set numbers the day after that. As a teenager, I began collecting music, arranging about 500 cassette tapes in alphabetical order, then curating an even larger collection of CDs.

As an adult, I began dabbling in photography, which did not satisfy my need to collect and possess. So I got interested in bird watching at about the same time, primarily because I like being outdoors and the hobby gave me something to point the camera at. Now, I get excited when I'm able to photograph a species for the first time, and my catalog of photos -- nothing counts if I can't get a picture -- replaces the 1981 Topps baseball set I completed by purchasing boxes of wax packs when I was 12 years old.

It was interesting, then, for me to hear recently from Karen Marts, who works for Beach Properties of Hilton Head as a vacation planner. She also is an avid birder, but she comes to the hobby from the exact opposite direction: Also a blogger for the Birding Friends Yahoo Group, Karen said she became a bit notorious for bumming pictures from her friends to accompany her posts.

In other words, she sought photos because she likes to birdwatch; I like to birdwatch because I seek photos.

However, Karen recently ditched her disposable cameras in favor of a Canon Power Shot SX50 HS with 50X zoom lens that a friend, photographer David Dahlke, helped her pick out. As you can see from the accompanying photos, Karen and Canon make quite a match. She wrote about her first excursion with her new camera -- a trip to Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, where the Ibis Pond allows easy, close access to it nesting namesakes.

Karen wrote for the Yahoo group and agreed to share the story with Untamed Lowcountry readers. I look forward to reading more of her work and, of course, seeing more of her photos. Karen, you might have just stumbled upon another hobby, much as I did, even if I approached from the opposite direction.

Here is Karen's account:

I couldn't possibly let the summer slip by and miss out on photographing the nesting season at Pinckney Island. I arrived at the refuge 8:30 a.m., with a 10-minute glance through the manual as preparation. I was unprepared for the awkwardness of carrying binoculars around my neck, the additional heaviness of the half-pound camera, and my backpack. 

A local writer, Dean Rowland, was already wrapping up his morning walk and claimed he discovered nine baby white ibises in nests. He had taken a birding tour at Audubon Newhall Preserve back in November, with master naturalist Rita Kernan, and recognized me from that group. We chatted briefly, and I began my walk, already swarmed by the mosquito population. 

Earlier, I had spotted a small bird up on a wire as I was driving in, but a tourist drove by in his car and scared it away. It was probably the painted bunting that frequents that location. Twenty-three white ibises were probing the salt marsh mud on the side of the road, so I practiced zooming in and out with the built-in lens. Male and female northern cardinals provided the perfect opportunity for me to snap a shot; however, I had difficulty looking at the screen opened up to the left of the camera and trying to find the moving birds at the same time. 

Tiny Carolina chickadees flitted about, a mourning dove flew by and a mockingbird neatly cropped a bush as it searched for food. With the day being cool and overcast, I finally understood why photographers complain about the correct lighting being crucial to their success. 

As Ibis Pond came into view, I saw a tri-colored heron standing tall amongst the trees. I took a few snapshots while listening to the insects around me, their buzzing reaching a crescendo, then silence. A little blue heron sailed by. 

There were seven white ibis birds lying on nests, three together in one tree. A snowy egret waited at the top of a tree and beckoned me to film it. One of my favorite birds, a black crowned night heron, landed in the cattails, carefully balanced on a hidden branch. In the distance I could see an immature little blue heron, its body feathers a mottled gray and white. The pond was covered in thick green vegetation, eerie and mysterious. 

I made my down the mud path to spy on the white ibis nests, grateful for an opportunity to show the world why I am a birder. An adult female white ibis, its antique-white feathers mixed in with light brown, tenderly looked after her chick in the nest. The chick had a black head, dark charcoal feathers and a magnificent orange beak with three distinctive black markings. The baby's body was covered in pin feathers, which look like porcupine quills. 

The mom carefully stood up, adjusted a stick and settled back down. Below her was another nest, and directly across from the pair was a third family. Two huge chicks stood up in the nest, lifting their wings still covered in fluffy down. Their mother provided nourishment as I stood there in awe. White and gray feathers lay on top of the still pond water, and I shuddered to think how many small birds may have fallen from the small branches above. As I was crouching with my new camera, trying to focus on the birds, then zoom in, I was being bitten ferociously by flies. It was unbearable. My God, how do birders handle themselves in the Amazon? 

I took notes and photos for one hour, mesmerized by the loving scene before me. I showed the birds to several groups of people, then met Sophie and Michael, soon-to-be college students from North Carolina. We birded together for the next four hours!

We rounded the corner to find scores of people watching a 3-foot alligator basking in the sun, its nine siblings happily floating in the water. Four more gators on land rushed back into the pond as we approached. My first day with the camera was unbelievable! 

Several more alligators, black bodies covered yellow horizontal stripes, lie relaxed on broken cattails in the pond. Michael spotted a green heron with thick pale yellow legs, standing under the pine trees. He found three more as we skirted the back of Ibis Pond. A common moorhen walked around on the dirt, and then we saw what appeared to be a very sad black crowned night heron. It stood forlorn at the water's edge, staring straight ahead. Subsequently, Michael found three more black crowned night herons, one sitting on its nest. For the first time, I saw three black crowned night heron chicks, brown feathers streaked with pale cream. One chick seemed to be attacking a smaller, fluffier bird. I told my new acquaintances this was their lucky day, to see birds that are typically hidden away. 

As we completed our trip around Ibis Pond, 35 white ibis, beaks and legs a rhubarb red, congregated in every level of the trees. Sophie commented on how social they were. We decided to make a quick trip down to Dick Point, which I had never visited, and we were rewarded with an osprey flying above us, its wings at one point tucked in tight, as if it were ready to dive into the water. We spotted an immature yellow crowned night heron, chickadees, and a black crowned night heron fishing quietly in a lagoon. The grass-covered road was beautiful. The view of the water at the end was worth the hike. Sunlight sparkled on the surface, little islands of palm trees were in the distance, and we just sat on a bench and soaked up the ambiance of the Low Country. 

Pinckney Island is truly a birder's paradise.

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