I last posted about our 4 baby Green Heron's on June 9th, which was Day 11 after hatching. Day 24, almost 2 weeks later, was the first day that they did not return to the nest. Today is Day 27 and although we have seen a couple of the young green herons through the leaves in nearby trees, they have not returned to the big Pine Tree or their nest. We do expect to see them again along the banks of our canal learning how to fish - but for now they are on their own.
This has been an interesting experience. Having observed the entire process we realize just how lucky we were that the nest was in an easy to observe location; a different tree or a higher branch would have made for a different viewing experience. We're impressed too by the parents smart selection of the location - on an open branch in the pine tree, easy to protect and to keep an eye on from afar; close to other trees that can be reached by climbing and jumping, and near water which provided a close source of food.
I was fortunate to have been able to take photos every day - in fact at times it was hard to leave because I didn't want to miss the action. I've posted one or more images from every day and while day to day changes were small, weekly changes were amazing. We were also impressed by the parenting effort. The female and her 25 days of patient nest sitting followed by 10 days of sitting on the nest with the chicks along with their constant attentiveness, care for each other and on-time feeding. We watched hour after hour of essentially no movement, punctuation by chaotic feeding moments when the parents would swoop in, pass off the food and exit as fast as possible (under 5 sec on Day 23).
I found myself watching the Green Heron's on Father's day (Day 17) with juvenile Bluebirds, Catbirds, Carolina Wrens, and Red-Bellied Woodpeckers all swooping over my head. Their Dad's were zooming around trying to be everywhere at once - challenging squirrels and other birds that got to close; finding food for their kids and like all Dad's, teaching, preaching, protecting and feeding. They were helping their kids get started on life. You can learn a lot about Dad's from watching birds and I'm grateful to my Dad for my love of the outdoors, birding, photography and science. It was a nice day to reflect.
Amongst all the watching and photos, there were moments that stand out. The evening of Day 18, when they first left the nest for the nearby Oak Tree, one of the chicks lagged behind. It knew that it had to go, but was clearly reluctant - carefully picking its way down the branch of the Pine Tree, slipping once and recovering but finally making it over to the Oak Tree where the 3 other kids were waiting. Two days later during a morning feeding frenzy, one of the chicks (maybe the same one) found itself launched from the Pine Tree, landing in a more distant Oak Tree hanging onto a thin branch with only it's wing, whoops! You could see, and feels its surprise. But in less than a minute it was able to get a grip and then carefully figured out a path back to the Pine Tree and safety all on its own. I gasped and in 20 seconds took 14 images (4 are in the gallery).
Feeding time was always chaotic, with the kids running, jumping, biting, and wing flapping to vie for position and food. So we waited for 3 or 4 hours for a few moments of intense action. We learned to expect chaos whenever a parent would arrive - however on Day 17, after Dad showed up with food, we observed Mom and 4 attentive, calm chicks - almost like she was holding class. That was captured in a short video. We know it's Mom because of her yellow legs (Dad has orange legs).
Starting with Day 17, the nest would be empty at dusk (they are nocturnal feeders) but would be full again in the morning. This happened a few days in a row, until Day 23 when the didn't show up in the nest in the morning, but instead assembled, all in a line, on a branch in the Oak Tree. They quickly left for a feeding in the Oak Tree, but then returned to the same branch and lineup, where they stayed for almost an hour. I took "graduation photos" until they made a final exit into the distant trees - and we've not seen them together again.
The Green Herons provided an interesting photographic experience, which may be of interest to other photographers.
If you aren't a photographer, stop reading!
I used my two cameras: a Nikon D300 with a Nikon 300 mm f4 lens and a 1.4x teleconverter (630 mm equivalent focal length), and an Olympus OMD EM-5 with a Panasonic 100-300 mm lens (200-600 mm equivalent). Since the Olympus is better in low light, I sometimes used the Nikon 300 mm f4 lens on the Olympus camera using a simple adapter. Even so, most images have been cropped to 25-50% of the original. Both cameras were tripod mounted with shutter releases (mirror up/shutter shock on). When the chicks were in the nest, I used the interval timer on the Nikon to snap a photo every 30 seconds. This made for lots of deletion work, but proved useful to keep track of the nest and to not miss a feeding. A 30-sec interval missed the most intense action, so I used the Olympus for rapid sequences, different angles, and videos. The short videos (all < 100 sec) turned out to be useful in showing the action.
The location of the nest to the south meant that it was in shadow and backlit most of the day. While this made for stunning backlit images of the fluffy chicks, it also resulted in a lot of dark photos to keep the highlights in check. Fluttering leaves in the background often through off he exposure meter, so I switched to manual settings. The dark subject required wide-open apertures (~f5.6), longish shutter speeds (1/125-1/250) and higher than desired ISO settings (500). Fortunately Green Herons move slowly, so these shutter speeds were fine - until feeding time when a 1/1000 or higher was needed. The lighting was best around midday but by then the overhead sunlight made for very contrasty conditions.
Because these setting resulted in a very narrow depth of field (DOF), and because clusters of pine needles were in front of the nest, focusing was critical and challenging. Auto focus was often tricked and missed the bird's eyes, so I used auto focus only to establish an initial focus and then manually focused. On the Nikon I used Liveview to zoom in and fine focus through the pine needles. I then switched the camera to manual focus just to insure that it would not accidentally focus. This worked but was awkward as Liveview is hard to see outdoors. On the other hand, the Olympus with it's electronic viewfinder (EVF) was easy to fine focus by magnifying the scene either in the viewfinder or on the tiltable LCD screen. It was also easy to re-aim and re-focus using the magnified liveview. One problem I had was that the minimum magnification of 5x was a bit too much, 2.5x would be better (2.5x is available using the camera's digital teleconverter, but that feature is somewhat awkward to use). Even with all my focusing care, I still deleted many images with well-focused pine needles and out-of-focus birds.
Capturing the action at feeding time was mostly an unmet challenge - pine needles were usually in the way, manual focus of the action took too long, and even a fast shutter speed of 1/1250 didn't stop the motion. However, most of the feeding images had to be deleted because they didn't show identifiable birds, just a mass of feathers, feet and beaks and pine needles. That was frustrating!
All images were processed as raw files in Lightroom 5.5 to reduce highlights, brighten shadows, reduce noise and crop.
I've kept about 600 of the thousands of images taken - about 40% taken with the Olympus (love that EVF) and the rest with the Nikon (great interval timer and sharp lens).
It was a marathon photography event for me; I learned a lot and am better prepared for the next nest in the yard. That could be soon, as there's another Green Heron mom incubating a nest on the other side of our backyard - but they didn't chose their location as smartly and it's not conducive to photography, so I may sit that one out.....we'll see.