Circle B Bar Reserve for Fabulous Bird Photography

Circle B Bar Reserve

It was exciting to see and photograph a limpkin for the first time at the reserve. They are quite common here, so you are likely to get to photograph them.

This former cattle ranch has been restored to wetlands and the birds have responded by frequenting it in large numbers. Limpkin, great-blue heron, great egret, snowy egret, black-crowned night heron, roseate spoonbill, anhinga, double-crested cormorant, and common moorhen along with numerous other species call this reserve their home. Of special interest to me is the limpkin because I have never seen one before. They are downright common at the reserve.

The reserve offers a few miles of hiking trails that border small ponds and wet areas where birds feed regularly, especially in the morning and again in the evening. The birds are habituated to humans and allow close approach. Of all the places I have photographed birds, this is easily one of the very best. The small ponds nicely reflect vegetation and the blue sky, and any birds present in the pond, allowing frequent chances for birds and their reflections. And plenty of natural perches are present for them to use, and use they do. Also, the ponds are full of fish and in a short time I managed to photograph quite a few birds holding and eating their prey. It truly is amazing what egrets and herons can swallow. The idea of swallowing a spiny catfish gives me the shakes!

I like the back light passing through the wing feathers of this fabulous roseate spoonbill.

The reserve is free to visit, but make a donation at the visitor center, offers plenty of parking at convenient locations, and is open from dawn to dusk every day of the week permitting photographers to enjoy the optimum light for their photos, and peak bird activity too. Circle B Bar Reserve is a little southeast of Lakeland, Florida. Here is the address:

Circle B Bar Reserve

4399 Winter Lake Road

Lakeland, FL 33803

Nature Center phone is (863) 688-4673

This double-crested cormorant will happily enjoy the fish for breakfast! It is truly amazing so see what a bird can swallow.

Photo Strategies


I carry one lens on a tripod and the other on my back in a backpack. The two lenses I have been using are the Canon 200-400mm and Canon 800mm. Birds will let you approach quite closely, but as much of the area is wetlands where alligators prowl, it is enormously helpful to have plenty of lens to reach out across the water to make pleasing compositions. I use the reach of the 800mm lens more than the other, but keep in mind I only use cameras with a full-size sensor, not crop factor cameras. My tripod is a sturdy Gitzo and the Wimberley gimbal head on top is simply awesome for allowing easy use of the big and heavy lenses I prefer.

The dawn golden sunshine nicely backlights this cattle egret.

Shooting Strategies

Exposure: Since many birds are white, and others are dark, and the brightness of the background changes quickly as the shooting angle changes, manual exposure is king here. All autoexposure modes change the exposure too quickly as the brightness of the subject or background changes in the composition. Manual holds the exposure no matter how things change, but of course, it does not adjust for changing ambient light levels, and that usually isn’t a problem, but could be on a partly cloudy day. I determine exposure the fast and easy way. I simply guess at the exposure by using the metering scale in the viewfinder, take a shot to see if any blinkies appear. If no blinkies, I add light by slowing the shutter speed down, or opening the aperture a little, shoot another image, and check for blinkies again. When the first blinkies appear, I use that exposure to expose my images as I shoot only RAW files and know the first blinkies do not indicate overexposure, only that the exposure is getting close to overexposed. I do sometime adjust the exposure for various birds. An exposure that holds detail in the white feathers of a snowy egret or wood stork might not be enough for a darker bird like a little blue heron, so I quickly adjust the exposure to add more light for darker subjects that don’t have a lot of light tones to be concerned with.

My lenses do have image-stabilization in them, but normally I don’t use it because my shutter speed is 1/800 second or faster, so I don’t feel I need it. When I must shoot at slow shutter speeds – for the long lenses I use – such as 1/200 second, then I do activate image-stabilization.

The colors of the roseate spoonbill always amaze me. I used my 800mm lens to isolate this individual against the background.

Indeed, for the forty thousand bird images I have made recently at various Florida locations, I have used full manual exposure the entire time. I am a believer in the technique of using manual aperture, shutter speed, and ISO Auto along with exposure compensation, but find this method is far too erratic for bird photography in Florida. As many of the birds are bright white – great egret for example – or quite dark – black vulture and glossy ibis – the camera set to an auto exposure mode varies the exposure too much for the widely different reflectance values of the birds, and the brightness of the background throws off autoexposure too. For example, if I have an ideal exposure set for a great egret standing in a pond at the Circle B Bar reserve where the pond is also reflecting dark green foliage, quickly composing a flying egret coming at me in a light blue sky doesn’t work very well. With autoexposure, the meter “see” all the light blue, the camera averages the new set of light tones and then darkens the exposure underexposing everything in the process. Better to use full manual exposure and then a white egret is properly exposed no matter what background the bird is against. I have been pointing out this problem for autoexposure modes for many years now, so I hope it is well-known by now as I will soon stop mentioning it.

Black-crowned night herons are work mainly during the night shift, but it is possible to find them hunting very early and late in the day.

Sometimes, exposure is tough no matter what you do. A couple times on this Florida bird photography trip I had to deal with rapidly changing reflectance values from shot to shot and the ambient light was changing quickly and significantly simultaneously due to the sun moving in and out of cloud cover. I stayed with full manual exposure and did quite well anyway. Again, I shoot an image, review it quickly to check for blinkies, and how many blinkies there are, and go with the exposure setting that produces the first blinkies in the highlights where I desire detail. As many now know, both the camera’s histogram and the highlight alert are based on an embedded JPEG in the RAW file, and the first blinkies do not actually mean the bright areas are now overexposed in the RAW data – just getting close to that point. Although I have stressed the histogram in many books I wrote for Focal Press, I have now dropped histograms in favor of the highlight alert for achieving a find exposure. It works incredibly well!


My camera is set on continuous AF with the control on the rear of the camera most of the time as the birds may be moving or holding still. Pressing the AF button in tracks moving birds and letting up on the back-button that controls the AF locks the focus for still subjects. When doing only birds in flight, then I switch the autofocus back to the shutter button, so I have one less thing to do – hold the back-button focus in. I often use a single main AF point along with four surrounding AF points should the main AF point move off the target due to bird movement, or me just not paying close enough attention to the AF placement.

Autofocus is invaluable when making flight shots, such as this great egret passing low over a pond at the reserve.

My Canon AF parameters are set to:

Tracking sensitivity -2

Accel. /decal. Tracking +1

AF pt auto switching +1

AF Microadjustments

I find every lens I own that I use autofocus with benefits from some AF microadjusting. Each microadjusting setting varies with the camera and the lens. With my Canon 5D Mark IV camera and the Canon 200-400mm lens, it is -9. With the Canon 800mm lens, then -3 does the best job for me. In both cases, my camera/lens combo is back focusing a little, so using a negative setting makes the lens focus a tiny bit closer to me and perfectly on the spot where the AF focus point is on the subject.

Most likely, if you are not AF microadjusting your camera/lens combination, you are not achieving the sharpest possible focus. Check out the spring issue of Nature Photographer magazine for my detailed article on this technique. And remember, you cannot assume the adjustments I make with my gear will work with your gear. You must run the AF microadjustment test with the gear you are using, and it can change over time, and at different focal lengths on a zoom lens.


I look for birds that are pleasingly illuminated and with a non-distracting background as much as possible. I am especially attracted to any bird standing in the water or along the shoreline where a fine reflection is also present. By including the reflection in the composition, I don’t have to be as close to the bird, the reflection adds much interest to the image, and the magnification is less so more depth of field covers the bird. Though, I often use front light, I really prefer backlight, especially in the morning or late in the day when the light is golden. I am always careful to not shoot too directly at the sun as that will create flare in the image, so I look for an angle to allow the lens shade to block sunshine from striking the glass element at an angle. And that is another tip. Always use the lens shade for better images. Even on a cloudy day, the lens shade is beneficial!

I composed this anhinga a little closer to the right side of the image to give it more room to look to the left. Since the bird is facing to the left, the flow goes that direction.

Tripod Use

I realize many are advocates of shooting handheld. Indeed, some scoff at the idea of using a tripod. Nevertheless, I cannot imagine shooting handheld when a tripod will easily work. The tripod will let you shoot with lower ISOs and more depth of field because you don’t have to favor fast shutter speeds so much to obtain sharp images. Not only that, but many of my most interesting images I made were successful because a tripod supported my camera and lens for ten or more minutes at a time while I waited for the bird to do something interesting like catch a fish, bathe, or react to other birds. I would miss so many pleasing shots if I had to bring a camera up to make the image because I was handholding my equipment. I do realize handholding is sometimes the best way to make flight images, especially when the birds are flying overhead, but most of the time my tripod works quite nicely and easily. I use a tripod to make at least 98.765% of my images, any you can quote me on that!

Time of Day is Crucial Here

The snake is doing its best to avoid being eaten by the great egret.

But, wrapping itself around the beak only worked for a little while. Eventually, the snake made a fine breakfast for this determined great egret.

The birds are especially active early and late in the day when the light is extremely photogenic. Therefore, I plan to photograph from first light slightly before sunrise till the light becomes too dim in the evening. Usually that means the first two hours of sun at dawn and dusk. For unknown reasons, few photographers are present when the light is best – especially in the morning when fog can add mystery to the birds and the ponds. Most are photographing during the midday hours when the light is especially harsh. Indeed, I see many photographers photographing birds handheld, with fairly short lenses, and during less than ideal sunshine conditions. What do I think of that? I am trying to be diplomatic……not easy………okay - I would not do that!

Top Tips for Quality Images

  1. Shoot when the light is best

  2. Select an angle where the light pleasingly lights the bird

  3. Use a tripod

  4. When you find an especially wonderful group of birds, take your time, and lets thing happen.

  5. Use the lens hood made for the lens and properly mount it

  6. Don’t use UV protection filters

  7. Focus on the face of the bird if possible

  8. Shoot a lot of images, but do so selectively

  9. Wait for a pleasing pose and avoid shooting a lot when the subject is facing away from you

  10. Again, shoot selectively, but shoot a lot when things are happening. I often shoot up to 3000 images at the Circle B Bar reserve in a single morning as I find dawn is particularly productive. Evening are wonderful, too, but not quite as good as dawn. But, during both photo periods, I make images I cherish. In case you missed it, this is a terrific place for bird photography!!!!

I spent about 1/2 hour with a group of blue-winged teal. When this male began to dip its head rapidly in the water, I knew it would likely rise up and flap, so I was firing my camera as it did so. Having my 800mm lens mounted on a tripod made this image possible. If I was handholding and had to raise the camera up, it would be too late.

Time to Visit the Reserve

My only experience is during early March and the photo opportunities were superb. I suspect plenty of other times are excellent, but I don’t have first-hand knowledge of other times of the year. Good luck at the reserve. You will certainly enjoy it!!! It is one of the very best places I have photographed birds at, and that is saying a lot as I have photographed birds all over the world for more than four decades. Enjoy the Circle B Bar Reserve, and don’t step on any gators!

I look for reflections in the calm water of my subjects, such as this tricolored heron.

#CircleBBarReserve #birds #FL #backlight #autofocus #microadjusting

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