I love it when a bird, or any creature for that matter, looks at me straight down the lens barrel. That eye contact really makes an image and it connects the viewer to that bird. The Snail Kites that were hunting for snails near the airboat were so close to us at times that we probably could have reached out and touched them as they flew past. This male’s eyes show such an intensity and he was so close to me that I couldn’t fit his outstretched wings in the image.
Female Snail Kites are every bit as gorgeous as male Snail Kites. Their coloration is brownish instead of gray and their breasts and heads are mottled instead of solid. But they have the same intensity when it comes to hunting for Apple Snails. This beautiful female glided effortlessly over the snail beds hunting as we photographed her from the stopped airboat.
Snail Kites feed exclusively on Apple Snails and they snatch them out of snail beds with their perfectly sculpted talons. When they are airborne again after snatching the snail, and while in flight, they will often transfer the snail to their equally perfectly sculpted beaks so that they can more easily land on a branch or twig to consume it. This male Snail Kite releases his talons just as he grabs the snail in his beak. Aah, dinner is soon to come.
This young male Snail Kite was a very efficient snail hunter. Time and time again, we watched as he made a reconnaissance flight over the snail beds. Flying slowly with wings stretched out, he would zero in on a snail and keeping his eyes on the prize, subtly shift his body and plunge feet first into the seemingly murky water, emerging with the prize. In this shot, he has freed the snail from the snail bed. Mission accomplished, he heads off to find a branch to eat his escargot meal in peace, no snail tongs or pick needed. His are built in.
The Purple Gallinule, a large, colorful year-round resident of Florida, lives primarily on lily pads. It has impossibly large feet that allow it to stride easily across a blanket of lily pads. Although its common name includes the color purple, its most dominant colors are the three primary colors, red, blue, and yellow. The bright colors make it easy to spot on the green lily pads it calls home.
A banded female Snail Kite takes off from her perch on Sturm Island in Lake Kissimmee.
The diet of the Snail Kite consists entirely of Apple Snails. The Kites fly over known snail beds and their keen eyes home in on snails in the shallow water. It is amazing to me that they manage to locate snails at all because sometimes the water appears murky and it is filled with grasses that shield anything from view. When they hover for a second or two over a spot, they usually have spied their target. They shift their bodies, as this male is doing, in preparation for the feet first precision plunge that results in a successful snail snatch.
Snail Kites, natives unique to central Florida, eat snails, only snails and specifically, Apple Snails. They hunt for them at the very shallow edges of swampy lakes like Lake Kissimmee. Last year when I visited here, we photographed lots of Snail Kites carrying snails but we did not see or photograph the snatch. This year, we had lots of opportunities to try for it because Captain Mark put us in the right place at the right time. I was successful a few times on our last day out in the airboat on the lake. In this shot, a banded male Snail Kite takes off after just snatching his prize out of the water following a reconnaissance flyover. We got to recognize the pattern of flight and hovering that indicated that the bird was about to plunge feet first into the water after a snail. Captain Mark was always careful to put the sun at our backs but the birds and the snails didn’t always cooperate. Quite often the birds went for snails behind us so we missed those shots that were facing into the sun.
It’s spring, time for that Birds and Bees thing to begin. Now is the time for courting, selecting mates, and building nests. Twigs play a big part in the spring-time behavior of the Snail Kite. Snail Kites use sticks and branches to construct a large bulky nest in a low tree or shrub near their feeding area. But, male Snail Kites also carry a twig as part of the courting ritual to present to a female. Whichever purpose this unbanded male had in mind, we had the privilege of watching something that probably happens often in the springtime here but is probably not observed by many. After this bird finished shredding and eating several snails in a row, he hopped to a twiggy shrub. In the first image, he’s found a twig that interests him. In the second, he breaks it free, and in the final image, he flies away with it. Whether it was to be used to interest a mate or to enhance a nest, it was one of the many “wow!” moments I’ve had this week.
The Least Bittern is the smallest heron. It stands motionless, hiding in the reeds and lily pads of Lake Kissimmee, almost impossible to detect. When we spotted this small bird, dwarfed by the surrounding lily pads and reeds, it was no surprise that they’re so hard to see. It took me a moment to find it among the reeds after Captain Mark called it out and stopped the airboat. It stood motionless, then slowly stretched its neck toward the water, and with absolute killer precision, a tiny minnow became the catch of the day.
We’re back at Lake Kissimmee in Florida to hunt for Snail Kites, particularly those Snail Kites that are hunting for Apple Snails. These Snail Kites are listed as endangered. Their food, native Apple Snails, is being challenged by an invasive Apple Snail from South America. We were told that in recent years, the Snail Kites’ beaks have begun to evolve to enable them to eat the much larger invasive species. But, ironically, the invasive Apple Snail is endangering the aquatic ecosystem where the Snail Kite lives. For now, however, the numbers of Snail Kites are reportedly increasing. Our airboat captain, Mark, is intimately familiar with the lake and its inhabitants, including the Snail Kites that live there. Yesterday was our first day on the Lake and the Snail Kites have learned that when the Mark’s airboat passes through certain areas of the shallows, it stirs up the sediment and helps them find the native Apple Snails. We benefited from this discovery and saw at least seven individual Snail Kites, both male and female on our first day here. We watched them hover in search of snails, then plunge feet first into the shallow edges of the swampy part of the lake and grab a snail in their talons. It was fascinating to watch them fly off with the snail in one talon, then transfer the snail to their beaks to enable them to land on the dried twigs of a swaying dead or leafless bush growing in a tussock (a floating island) where they proceeded to extricate the snail from its shell with their uniquely curved bill, consume it, and drop the shell to the tussock floor beneath them. This banded male hovered near our airboat watching intently for a snail that the boat might have uncovered.
This Royal Tern displays its wings in style — what you might call Tern-style. My apologies for the really bad pun.
At the feet of this adult Great Blue Heron, a chick is its little Mini-Me with the two-toned beak, gray, white, and buff pin feathers, and especially that round, yellow, fixed-stare eyeball. If it weren’t for the eyeball, the chick would be perfectly camouflaged. It was Valentine’s Day and there must have been a bit pre-Valentine’s Day revelry at the rookery as there were already quite a few nests with chicks. This little one looked very young, tiny, and vulnerable but the adult kept watch overhead. I did get a little nervous as I watched the adult bend its long legs and crouch down to sit on the little chick. But it all worked out.
I wasn’t expecting to see Warblers at the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples, Florida but they were there. We saw quite a few varieties in fact, including Black and White Warblers, Palm Warblers, and most often, this one, a Yellow-rumped Warbler. The tangle of vines is illustrative of the area. The dense growth of twigs and vines makes it quite a challenge to get a clean shot of a small bird like this one, especially when they’re hopping from twig to branch to vine. I was glad it stopped for a few seconds at a “Y” in its path.
Its flight seems effortless——a Brown Pelican, a graceful and elegant flier gliding low over the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier at St. Petersburg, Florida last month.
Yesterday around noon, I looked out and noticed a half dozen birds perched in the leafless Red Oak over the back wall. I didn’t immediately recognize them as regulars to my garden so I picked up my binoculars and identified them as Cedar Waxwings. They came in, a few at a time and within minutes, the tree was full of them, at least 30, probably more, and they were motionless facing my direction. By the time another couple of dozen had arrived and landed in the other leafless Red Oak, I had my camera with Z400mm f/4.5 in hand and was poised in the doorway waiting. As if on cue, all fifty birds descended on one Japanese Privet in a feeding frenzy that was over within a minute. They were gone for a couple of hours and then I noticed a single Waxwing perched in one of the leafless oaks. Suddenly, a half dozen were crowded on the urn fountain bathing. Then the second feeding frenzy began. By this time, I had my Z800mm with the Z1.4X on a tripod and had moved outside slowly. Watching the feeding frenzy a second time was great fun. They’d pick a berry, flip it up, and gulp it down in a three step process repeated over and over. Just a couple of weeks ago I watched Snowy Egrets in Florida grab a fish, flip it up, and gulp it down. Pick, Flip, and Gulp! It’s how the birds do it!
The Aurora Borealis is whimsical, pulsating constantly as it waxes and wanes in the night sky near the Arctic Circle. One moment the lights are invisible, obscured by overcast skies or just too weak to be seen with the naked eye. Then, they might suddenly explode across the sky into twists, ripples, or streams of luminous greens, yellows, reds, and even purple. The displays can last several minutes or change in a heart beat, dancing high in the heavens or flitting low near the horizon in elaborate patterns and streaks. On this night by Chena Lake near North Pole, Alaska (really! Santa is there, too!) last week, clouds began to move in as the whimsical lights danced low across the sky before disappearing behind a curtain of clouds.
It was Valentine’s Day at the Venice Rookery. What better time for this Great Egret to put on its elaborate mating display that includes neck stretching and retracting in a sensuous “S” pattern that shows off the bird’s breeding plumage? The morning sunlight colored the leaves in the distance, adding a warm glow.
The American Wood Stork is currently listed as threatened on the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, but just a couple of weeks ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a proposed rule to remove the Southeast U.S. distinct population of these birds from the list because it has been determined that they have recovered and are no longer considered threatened. I have seen Wood Storks in Florida a couple of times over the years but our visit to the Brandon Rookery near Tampa, Florida a few weeks ago was the first time I’d seen so many and of those that I saw, many were exhibiting courtship behavior. I have read that one of the characteristics of a Wood Stork in breeding season is that its toes turn pink. It looks as if the toes of this Stork are turning pink. However, I am not sure if the “curtsy” shown in this image is courtship display or just a wing stretch but I love the look of it. The late afternoon dappled sun on its bare head and neck give it an interesting look. It is an elaborate and enchanting display regardless of its purpose.
There was a full moon the other night that lit up the snow covered ground in front of the spruce forest as the Aurora Borealis danced over head at Chena Lake outside of Fairbanks. Fainter bands of green appear beneath the broader band. The Aurora Borealis occurs when solar winds and magnetic fields interact with elements in the Earth’s atmosphere, creating the colorful phenomenon. The color depends on which atoms are struck and how high up they are. Green is created when the winds collide with Oxygen atoms at altitudes of up to 150 miles. Red results when the collision occurs over 150 miles. If the collision is with Nitrogen atoms, blue and violet can appear. What amazes me is that the stars remain visible through the colors, still twinkling brightly.