Close Encounter

Reddish egrets - white and dark morphs - are not often seen together. In this photo, the white morph on the left seems to be staring at the dark morph on the right as both birds stand in a marsh. © Bill Kracov Photography
Reddish egrets – white and dark morphs – are not often seen together. © Bill Kracov Photography

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

Bill Kracov photographed these egrets back in 2015 but only recently posted the shot to the NANPA Facebook group where the 21,000 members showered it with more than 1,500 interactions and 124 comments, and counting. It was one of the most popular posts in the group during April. So, what makes it so engaging? To find out, we talked with Kracov.

What: the subject was unusual

“It’s always a treat to see reddish egrets, but white morphs are much more rare,” he said. He was originally shooting the white morph and could see a dark morph coming in. “The two don’t usually get along and the darks usually scare off the whites.” This time it did not and both birds hung out in the marsh for about twenty minutes. Knowing this behavior was unusual, Kracov sensed he might have an opportunity for a really interesting photo. He positioned himself with the sun at his back and kept moving to keep the birds in profile. He fired off a number of shots, but this one stood out.

Where: the location was productive

The photo was taken in Fort DeSoto Park, “a big, beautiful park” on an island where Tampa Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico. Reddish egrets were frequent visitors to a sort of lagoon in the park, where the water was 12-18 inches deep at high tide. The water was bordered on three sides by grass and was a favorite location of local bird photographers. Unfortunately, a hurricane significantly altered the island and the lagoon isn’t there anymore, though the park still attracts a lot of birds.

An earlier sequence, shot as the dark morph flew in, captures action but the background isn’t as pleasing and the interaction not as intriguing. © Bill Kracov Photography
An earlier sequence, shot as the dark morph flew in, captures action but the background isn’t as pleasing and the interaction not as intriguing. © Bill Kracov Photography

When: the best time of day for subject, location, and photographer

Kracov took this shot on August 29, 2015, at about 9 in the morning. “At that time of year,” he said, “the light is good up until around 10.” He got there early, near sunrise (because of COVID restrictions, the park doesn’t open until 7:00 a.m. now). “You have to be there early, before it gets too hot, as there’s no shelter, you’re on a beach, and you’re frying in the summer.” The birds were accustomed to photographers and, as long as you kept your distance, they ignored you. Any later in the day, though, and there are too many people and dogs for the birds to feel comfortable. This particular morning, the tide was up, so he could photograph the birds in water that was reflecting the blue of the sky instead of shooting them in the drab mudflats of low tide.

How: the gear and an ethical approach

Kracov was using his Canon 1Dx and his 500mm lens with a 1.4 teleconverter, on a tripod, at f/8, 1/2000 second, and ISO 500. He strives to be an ethical nature photographer, so he kept a respectful distance from the birds, giving them plenty of space. He uses long lenses and never feeds or pesters the birds or any wildlife. (See NANPA’s Principles of Ethical Field Practices.)

Two less successful examples where the birds do not have the eye contact or clear interaction.  Other images from about the same time aren’t quite as absorbing either. © Bill Kracov Photography
Other images from about the same time aren’t quite as absorbing either. © Bill Kracov Photography

Why: what makes this compelling?

This photo is well composed, sharp and well lit, and it shows an unusual situation, but there are several additional elements that really make this photo work. The birds are facing each other, as if in conversation. Both of their beaks are open. The heads are roughly on power points in the rule of thirds. The feathers around the white morph’s head are sticking up. “It’s a kind of display they do when threatened”, Kracov said. “The dark morph had just arrived and darks usually chase white morphs away.” Compare this shot to some of the others taken just before and after and you might say this on captures “the decisive moment.”

One of the comments was that it was “really cool that not only are they together in the same shot, but they also appear to be reacting to each other.” With the birds interacting with each other, the viewer wonders what’s going on. What are they saying to each other? The photo raises questions and piques our curiosity. One viewer wrote that it “looks like an interesting conversation going on!” Another wrote that it would be fun to caption.

To create contrast in color and tone, Kracov purposely positioned the white morph so she was against a green grass background, the dark morph against the open water, while the soft morning light bathes them in a warm glow. A couple of the Facebook comments mentioned the “beautiful background” that Kracov carefully crafted.

A deep familiarity with the location and knowing the tides, light, and bird behavior all came together to create a pleasing composition and a memorable photo.

Who: about the photographer

Bill Kracov lives near Clearwater, Florida, just outside of St. Petersburg, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. When he was in junior high school, Kracov was VP of the photo club. They built their own enlargers and dark room, developed their photos, and enjoyed it all. Then, he says, “life happened.” With a career, family, and all the things that go along with life in your twenties and thirties, there was no time for photography. It wasn’t until about 2010, when his nephew got a camera, that Kracov got interested in photography again. He bought the same model camera as his nephew, took some lessons from local pros, joined photography groups, and took courses.

He didn’t know what direction he wanted to go in, so he explored lots of different genres of photography. He enjoyed almost everything and, like a true photographer, purchased more gear. Kracov wound up focusing more on nature photography, particularly wildlife. He explored landscapes, especially the Adirondacks, where his daughter has a camp. Florida, however, is pretty flat, without the mountains or changing seasons of New York, or the majestic landforms of the American West, but is a magnet for birds and bird photographers. He’s taken a number of photo tours focusing on birds and landscapes of the southwestern US, as well as Costa Rica and Ecuador. Like most of us, plans for photo tours in 2020 and early 2021 were all canceled. He looks forward to getting out and traveling again. See more of Bill Kracov’s photos at his website or on Facebook.