A banded female Snail Kite hovers in anticipation over the marshy waters of Lake Kissimmee as it searches for an Apple Snail, her primary food source. On our second day on Lake Kissimmee, we had another very cooperative Snail Kite. She has an unknown something stuck on her left talon but that didn’t seem to keep her from hunting and successfully finding snails. In this shot, she was actually dropping down to retrieve the snail she saw from above, dangling her legs as she prepared to extend her talons. Sadly for me, the shot of the exact moment the bird plucked the snail from the water eluded me. Hopefully, I’ll return someday and be successful in getting that shot.
Snail Kites have strikingly intense red eyes. They come by it naturally, not as the result of flash. No Photoshop correction is needed. Last week on Lake Kissimmee in Florida, we were fortunate to have a cooperative male Snail Kite and an airboat captain who knew how to maneuver his craft to allow us to shoot the bird continuously as it flew alongside. This bird’s red eyes are definitely focused on his mission to search for Apple Snails.
A female Least Bittern is partially obscured by tall, dense reeds on a floating island on Lake Kissimmee in Florida last week. She stabilizes herself by gripping two different reeds with her long talons while she searches for prey. I’m not sure if the small red ladybug on a stalk facing away from her is something she would eat but it was safe for the time being and I didn’t get any images of the bird eating.
What I did get was lots of in focus images of the bird even as I tracked it through the dense reeds, keeping the eye in focus as it passed in and out of the light and behind stalks and sometimes briefly obscured by swaying leaves. Although I’ve had the incredible Nikon Z9 camera for almost three months and have photographed mammals in Yellowstone, birds in my backyard, and stationary lighthouses in Michigan, this trip on an airboat on a lake gave me my first real test of the Z9 on birds. In my mind, it passed with flying colors! Or maybe flying colored feathers! Birds in flight. Birds perched. Birds clamoring through dense vegetation like this Least Bittern. I took this image near the end of our first day of shooting on Lake Kissimmee. It’s shocking to me to think that I took more than 18,000 images in just three hours! Most were of the endangered Snail Kite which was our target species but in the last half hour, I took slightly more than 2000 images of this Least Bittern. I did calm down a little during our next two days of shooting and took fewer in both days combined than I did on Day 1. But, I loved seeing the results and it was such fun I can’t wait to do it again.
Apple Snails, mollusks native to lakes in Florida, are the preferred diet of Florida’s endangered Snail Kites. Once the Kite extracts the snail from its shell with its perfectly curved beak, the shell is discarded to drop onto the dense floating island beneath the perch. The Kite will devour its meal in a couple of gulps. After seeing what the snail looks like without its shell, I had to grimace but kept shooting in fascination. However, I do not consider this “escargot” a delicacy but since its the primary diet of the Snail Kite, he obviously has no issues eating snails. We watched this bird find and consume three or four snails within an hour or so. Then, it didn’t seem to want to eat anymore. Garlic butter, anyone?
When you’re on an airboat on Lake Kissimmee in central Florida looking for Snail Kites, it is essential that the captain is an expert at driving his airboat. Captain Mark was an expert. He not only knew where to find the Snail Kites, but, once found, he was able to drive that boat at the exact speed the kites were flying, keeping a perfect pace with them while they flew at eye level, along side us. The Nikon Z9, with a 20 frames per second shooting rate, is such an incredible camera that during the 15 second burst that included this photograph, I shot 292 images, all tack sharp, almost all in the same place in the frame, and until this beautiful male Snail Kite began to veer away from the boat, almost all the same size in the frame. I kept shooting even as the bird turned away, hoping it might turn back again to parallel the boat. He eventually found a place to land to consume the snail.
At my age, I can always appreciate a gorgeous male and I now find that I can appreciate gorgeous males of many species besides Homo sapiens like this stunning male Rostrhamus sociabilis, or Snail Kite. On our third morning on the airboat on Lake Kissimmee, we encountered this unbanded male sporting deep gray plumage and brilliant red legs, a classic example of a Snail Kite. Gorgeous indeed and with no bands to show the hand of man. He had just snatched an Apple Snail from the shallow water and was searching for a place to consume it so he was flying low past the surrounding trees and bushes along the lake’s edge as droplets of water dripped off his feet and the snail’s shell.
Zipping over the lily pads and through rafts of water hydrangea in an airboat on Lake Kissimmee is exhilarating. The tussocks, or floating islands as they are also known, are home to lots of species of birds and of course alligators lurk on the edges waiting for their opportunity to pounce. It’s easy to spot some birds that inhabit the tussocks but others, like the small Least Bittern, spend much of their time hidden among the bulrushes. This male Least Bittern is about the size of a Jay and blends in well on the floating island of cattails. We were lucky that Captain Mark had seen a few Least Bitterns on the lake and took us to the spot where we were most likely to find them. Maneuvering the airboat across the tussocks and through the cattails, Mark put us in the perfect position and we finally espied this male Least Bittern intent on finding its next meal. The bird was so focused on his prey, which he kept his eyes on as he tracked it from reed clump to reed clump, that it didn’t seem to notice the boat or us just a few feet away. And, his focus paid off. He snatched the dragonfly, I believe it to be a Blue Dasher, from the air while we watched.
The way birds eat fascinates me. The more bizarre the more intriguing. Some birds tear their prey limb from limb, while feathers or fur flies. Still others swallow what they’ve captured whole, and possibly alive. Take herons for example. Great Blue Herons swallow what they catch whole, a frog or a fish or a rat, for example, regardless of size. We encountered this GBH standing on a raft of lily pads along the shallow edges of Lake Kissimmee in Florida one morning. It had impaled a Greater Siren, a type of Florida Giant Salamander that can be more than three feet in length, skewering its beak through the creature’s head and waiting for the unfortunate creature to die. We have no idea how long it had been waiting to devour its prey when we first came across it. Soon after we arrived, it flew to another raft and then another. And it was almost ten minutes before it finally disengaged its beak from the body of the salamander, changed position, flipped it up, and gulped it down whole. Fascinating!
Kissimmee, Kissimmee Mucho ... Bésame, Bésame Mucho. Since I've been air-boating on Kissimmee Lake in central Florida, I can't get that song out of my head. Another ear worm as they say. Well, I LOVE Lake Kissimmee and all it has to offer and if I could, I'd kiss it! Day two was yet another phenomenal morning on the water, this time with Captain Nate. We had only one Snail Kite, a banded female, but she stayed in shooting range for much of the morning. We watched her hover and dive, legs extended to grab a small Apple Snail from the shallow swamp with her talons. Then we watched her fly from one perch to another with her precious cargo grasped firmly in her orange talons. On one pass, the snail fell from her grasp and she watched as it plummeted back into the water. She tried to retrieve it but it apparently sunk from view so she went on to find another. She tried to settle down atop a Water-Purslane but a female Boat-tailed Grackle perched nearby flew at her and she decided to find a more peaceful dining area. When she finally found a quiet place to eat, she expertly extricated the entire snail from its protective shell in one piece. I don't think I've ever seen the complete body of a snail before and I'm not so sure I'd ever try escargot again —— once was truly enough for me and, after all, it's only the garlic butter that you're after and as the Galloping Gourmet famously said, even pine knots would taste splendid drenched in snail butter. In this shot, the female Snail Kite grasps the snail after pulling it from the shallow water and flies to a place where she can consume her meal without harassment.
Wow! What a way to start an adventure! Our goal was to photograph the endangered Florida Snail Kite whose territory is central Florida. The bird is on both the National and Florida State endangered species lists, with fewer than 1000 individuals. Its diet consists almost exclusively of native apple snails and now it is acclimating to a much larger introduced snail. I was not expecting to see, let alone photograph the rare bird especially with its native namesake prey, until we’d been here a while, at least a few hours if not a few days. We climbed onto the air boat under Captain Mark’s command and buzzed out of the dock and headed into Lake Kissimmee in central Florida. Within a few minutes, we encountered this banded male Snail Kite and spent much of our three plus hours on the water with him and a cooperative female. In total, we saw three Snail Kites, one male and two females, and 38 species of birds during the morning. My kind of morning!
The speed of a hummingbird’s wings is so fast sometimes that if they are visible at all, they are blur. The wing was already moving down and away from the head when I took this photograph of a female Anna’s Hummingbird at the urn fountain in my garden. The blur is transparent enough that the eye is visible and sharp through the blur. Very cool.
There are two fountains in my garden and the Anna’s Hummingbirds use both of them to bathe. When I walked out into the garden holding my Nikon Z9 with the 500mm PF attached for some panning practice, I heard this female Anna’s making it clear she was not happy that I was in her garden. I finally espied her flitting around the shrubs chirping at me. Normally when I invade their space, the Hummers leave until they feel comfortable returning with me there, about ten minutes or so. That was not the case yesterday morning. Her erratic flight up and over the pergola and everywhere but around the feeders made it clear that she wasn’t there for nectar but for something else. Finally, she realized I wasn’t leaving so she focused on the urn fountain. Then I knew she was determined to take a bath and here she is descending onto the fountain. After watching a Nikon Professional Services webinar the day before that discussed the various Z9 focus systems, I was determined to try out the ones I hadn’t yet used. Hummers are good test subjects because of their erratic flight but also because they hover motionless except for their wings so the auto focus system can do its job and with animal eye detection enabled, lock on. My problem yesterday was not at all with the autofocus system which worked perfectly but with the photographer (that would be me) being unable to keep all of the hummer within the frame. In the end, I did manage to get quite a few shots and I was happy to see that even the ones that were only partially in the frame were still in focus. I am going to continue working on doing a little better job of framing my subject. An added bonus, there’s lots of green in the photograph, taken yesterday on St. Paddy’s Day.
Bobo, my 36 year old Red-lored Amazon Parrot, has been under the weather for a week. I was so concerned, I took her to the Roseville Bird and Pet Clinic where she spent two nights and three days of tests including an X-ray under sedation. I brought her home yesterday afternoon and now am continuing her treatment of two twice daily oral medications for two weeks. Both she and I are thrilled that she is home. She has improved significantly and is eating and much perkier than she has been for some time although she still is not back to normal. I’m thrilled that she is eating and seems to be wanting to return to her regular routine. Although I’ve had her for twenty years and have worked with her on positive reenforcement training, she is still not a bird that chooses to be handled by humans. She will step up onto my hand when, and only when, it is in her best interest. When she came home yesterday, she eagerly stepped up to get out of her travel cage and return to her big cage. But, once out, it was hands off so the toweling for meds was not fun for either of us. In this shot, she was touching the target stick that I use for her positive reinforcement training. She touches the stick and she gets an almond sliver treat. Under usual circumstances, I’m holding the target stick, she touches it and I hand her the treat. In this shot, she was so happy to get home, she raced out onto the table and grabbed onto the target stick protruding from the jar holding her almond treats. Touching it was not necessary as the jar was open for her to get treats as she wished. I like to think that she wanted me to give her a treat which I was happy to do.
Another Yellow-billed Magpie perched on an oak snag in Antelope Community Park near my home. The tail barely made it into the photograph but I love the bird’s intense expression and the yellow bill being so prominent.
The Yellow-billed Magpies were not in evidence when I walked through the park early yesterday morning. They often forage in the nearby streets or roost out of view high up in the Blue Oaks so I don’t always see them. Recently they’ve started refurbishing their huge nests and I’ve watched them select twigs to weave into their existing nests. There aren’t as many Yellow-billed Magpies in the park as there were 20 years ago when I participated in a UC Davis study on the effects of West Nile virus on these interesting birds. At that time, there were seven nests in the park that I monitored and in the end, they had 23 offspring. Since then, the park has changed significantly. Many of the oaks, including three that had nests, were sacrificed so tennis courts could be built for the community and the high school that was built at the edge of the park. A few of the giant oaks have succumbed to age or vandalism, one toppling just a few months ago after someone built a fire in a crevice at its base. But fortunately, there are still a couple of visible Magpie nests in the remaining trees. I think there are about a dozen birds in this Magpie flock. I hope they will continue to thrive. This shot is from my visit a couple of days ago.
One bird is unique to my home, the Central Valley of California and it lives no other place. It is a bird I love. Even if you’re not from the Central Valley, it might look familiar because the Black-billed Magpie is ubiquitous in at least half of the US, as far east as Nebraska and Minnesota and as far north as Alaska. But it’s not a Black-billed Magpie. Look closely and you’ll see that this bird has a bright yellow beak. It is, not surprisingly, called the Yellow-billed Magpie. I went up to the park yesterday to practice hand holding my long lens. It was almost noon and we had a bright sunny day, not the best time for photography. We also had a high wind advisory so I was contending with 25 MPH winds and trying to keep my hair out of my eyes so I could shoot. Many members of the flock of Magpies that live in the park were grazing on the freshly mowed lawn. Two park guys were mowing the weeds (and incidentally all of the budding wildflowers). They were kicking up billows of dust that soon forced me out of the park. I was hoping for flight shots but the winds were too gusty for the birds to fly more than a foot or two. Before I left, I managed to get a few shots of these gregarious birds perched on a fallen oak.
In yesterday’s post, I implied that male Painted Buntings take all the glory when it comes to a color palette and that females of the species are drab. The males may get more attention, but the yellow-green color palette that female Painted Buntings display is every bit as appealing and as colorful. They are not drab; the colors of their feathers are just not as varied. Like so many bird species, the males and females have such different coloring that in some cases, they seem not to be the same species. I would never have dreamed that these two birds were the same species if it weren’t for The Sibley Guide to Birds. I didn’t mean to give short shrift to female Painted Buntings. This lovely gal poses for her portrait as she waits her turn to plunge into the water for an afternoon bath in South Texas last May.
Male Painted Buntings are such colorful birds. Despite their tiny size, only slightly more than 5 inches, they stand out in a crowd. Female Painted Buntings in comparison are drab, sporting only olive green and yellow. They don’t have any of the striking red, brilliant blue, or fiery orange that makes their makes counterparts such standouts. In this instance, though, the “paint” on this male bunting looks pretty wet. They enjoy bathing enthusiastically and become quite waterlogged after thrashing about in the water.
Blue and orange are complementary colors. This is a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher photographed against a blue sky in South Texas. Its orangey flanks are a perfect complement to the azure sky. The big challenge photographing this bird was managing to keep its lengthy tail in the photograph. I took this using my Nikkor 500mm PF lens with a 1.4x teleconverter attached. The slightest puff of wind or flick of the tail by the bird caused the bird’s tail feathers to be cut off in the viewfinder, so at 700mm, I was constantly adjusting the camera to keep the entire bird in the frame. After all, you can’t cut off the scissor-tail of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.
This is an illustration of complementary colors. Bright red male Northern Cardinals are really quite spectacular, especially when they pose in front of a muted green background. This is from May last year at Santa Clara Ranch in South Texas near the Rio Grand. It’s clear why red and green are complementary colors.