Posts Tagged ‘Snowy Egret’

David has dreamed of riding his bicycle to Key West for several years.  He explored several organized rides, but none of them felt right to him, so he asked me if I would SAG for him if he did a solo trip.  David is one of my best friends, so, of course, I said yes.  Plus, I might even get a life bird if I was lucky.  I hadn’t had a life bird in Florida since 2015, but typically a few rarities show up every winter in the southern part of the state, so I was hopeful.  In cycling terms, SAG means support and gear; I would drive David’s car along his bike route carrying food, water, tools and parts for minor bike repairs, extra clothing, etc.  We decided to start the cycling adventure in Naples Beach, travel east across US 41, and then drive/cycle down US 1 through the Keys.  To save money and give us a little flexibility, we would spend five nights in Florida City.

When I left home on February 10, there were three possible life birds that I could get, plus anything new that might show up.  I got a late start and spent the first night in southern Georgia.  The next morning, I headed towards Merritt Island NWR where a Great White Pelican had been regularly seen for a couple of weeks, including the previous day.  After I got on the road, I learned that Black Point Wildlife Drive, the spot where the pelican was most often seen, was closed for a controlled burn.  I arrived around noon and checked a few other locations where it was speculated that the bird could have gone.  I found a group of American White Pelicans at Haulover Creek, but not my target bird.

At the Merritt Island NWR Visitor Center that afternoon, I was consoled by several beautiful Painted Buntings. It’s hard to be sad while watching these gorgeous birds. Below, the colorful male is on the left and the pretty yellow-green female on the right.

After the Visitor Center closed, I was looking at birds in the trees in the parking lot when I heard what I thought was a woodpecker, but I couldn’t find it. Finally, I discovered the source of the pecking sound – a male Northern Cardinal challenging his own reflection in the rear view window of my car! This behavior isn’t unusual, but I rarely see it.

The next morning, I went back to the Visitor Center to find out when the wildlife drive would open. “Noon,” they said, too late for me as I wanted to head to Dunedin to stay with David and Val that evening. Again, I birded in the parts of the refuge that were open and actually enjoyed it more than the previous day. I had given up on the pelican and just enjoyed what I did see.

Birds winter in this area in large numbers and I saw 50 species with my modest efforts on two short days – herons, egrets, ibises, shorebirds, ducks, and more. My favorite animal wasn’t a bird, though, but this adorable Hispid Cotton Rat under the Merritt Island NWR Visitor Center feeders.  I was disappointed that I hadn’t found the pelican, but genuinely happy to see the rat, a life mammal.

I grew up in Pinellas County and I’ve visited so often the last few years that it feels like home. My favorite birding locations are Dunedin Causeway and Honeymoon Island State Park, so that’s where I headed on Thursday after arriving the previous afternoon. I had a great time at Honeymoon Island, but I couldn’t concentrate on birding because people were so friendly! Everyone wanted to talk, but I enjoyed the conversations, especially with a young couple who thanked me for being their “tour guide” after we watched a Gopher Tortoise together. It was a special treat to see this creature, a threatened species in Florida. Gopher Tortoises are important because they dig burrows deep in the sand that are used by over 350 other species including Burrowing Owl. Many of those species could not survive without the Gopher Tortoise. This particular tortoise is one of the largest that I’ve seen; note it’s smooth shell from years of burrowing in the sand.

In late winter, it’s always thrilling to observe the many Osprey at the height of courtship. Everywhere you look, Osprey are fishing, eating, calling, sitting near their mates (or intended), and soaring overhead. This male Osprey is enjoying lunch. Who can identify the fish by its distinctively shaped red tail? Please leave a comment if you know what it is.

I had one more day to go birding before David and I headed south, so I went to Dunedin Hammock City Park to look for the Short-tailed Hawks that had been reported there. I ran into a local birder who told me that the hawks had nested in the park since 2017. We went our separate ways and then ran into each other twice more. Just before we both needed to leave, he caught a glimpse through the trees of a hawk flying. We waited and it soared overhead for a minute, confirming its identify and allowing me to get a bad photo, but good enough for the local eBird reviewer to confirm my report.

This Snowy Egret at Dunedin Hammock was lovely in breeding plumage and much more cooperative than the Short-tailed Hawk.

I had enough time left that afternoon to find a Purple Gallinule (rare for Pinellas County) and then it was time to meet David after work and get ready for his big cycling adventure.

All we had to do on Saturday was drive to Naples to be in place for David’s start on Sunday morning, so we were able to do a little birding on our way down the Gulf Coast. Our first stop was at a place near Sarasota called “Celery Fields” by Florida birders. We had no idea what to expect and were surprised by the wonderful feeder area where we spent most of our time. We had great close looks at Common Ground Doves, a species that we have seen often, but never so well. A Brown-headed Cowbird is in the shadows behind the dove in the photo below.

Most fun, though, were the Nanday Parakeets, who swooped down into the feeder area and took all our attention. This is another species that we had seen before, but not this close. We found it interesting that the middle bird below was hanging by one foot with its head in the feeder port.

Below, a single Nanday Parakeet poses for a portrait photo.

We made another stop at Corkscrew Swamp, a favorite place of mine since I lived in Miami in the early 1980’s. Wood Storks were much less common then (they were assigned endangered status from 1984 to 2014). To see these birds, we had to drive across the state to Corkscrew which was the breeding ground for about half of the Southern Florida population then. Fortunately, they have had a good recovery and are now easy to see in many areas of Florida.

I had planned to look for the White-cheeked Pintail in Naples, which had been seen for weeks before I left North Carolina. But, by the time we got there, the duck had been missing for eight days, so we didn’t spend time looking. Yep, another lost opportunity for a life bird.

David started his ride from Naples Beach on Sunday morning. Our first two days across US 41 were rather tedious and I didn’t see many birds. But, I did enjoy birding the Shark Valley entrance road for an hour on Monday morning where I saw this Anhinga in the ditch drying its wings.

The trip would soon got more interesting for both of us. Watch for part 2. Read David’s story about this part of the trip in his blog post, Bicycling Naples to Key West – Part 1.

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Photographing birds is fun and it’s a great way to create wonderful memories of special birds and birding trips. It’s also a good way to learn more about birds. I’m not an expert, but I would like to share what I’ve learned. I just use a “point-and-shoot” camera, but these basics also apply to DSLR cameras.

I got my current camera (a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150) about two years ago and I quickly learned that I rarely got good photographs with auto mode. I switched to program mode so that I could set the focus to a single area. This is probably the single most important thing to do – put your camera in any mode other than auto and use a single focus area. That’s all I did until recently and I got nice photographs of easy birds under good conditions.

American Woodcock. Program mode. Camera stabilized on the boardwalk railing. Image cropped, but no other editing.

American Woodcock. Program mode. Camera stabilized on the boardwalk railing. Image cropped, but no other editing.

Recently, I’ve become interested in improving my skills, so I had photography lessons with Tom Dunkerton  at Merritt Island NWR on my last trip to Florida. Tom set me in the right direction, made it fun and easy, and gave me confidence. I also found some great online tutorials on bird photography and bought a book. I’ll give links to these resources at the end of this post.

Green Heron. My favorite photo taken the day after my lessons with Tom Dunkerton.

Green Heron. My favorite photo taken the day after my lessons with Tom Dunkerton.

The first thing to work on is getting sharp, well-exposed images. As mentioned above, use a single focus area. On most cameras you can control the position of the focus area (it doesn’t have to be in the center of the image) and the size of the area. Focus on the bird’s eye. If the eye is in focus, the photo will generally be pleasing. Aperture mode is usually recommended for photographing birds. A wide aperture (low number) will increase the shutter speed, helping prevent blur caused by movement of the subject. It will also help to get a sharp image of the bird, but keep the background softly out of focus. Unless you are trying to create a shot showing bird habitat, a sharply focused background is distracting.

Red-bellied Woodpecker in my backyard. The light in the bird's eye makes this photo work.

Red-bellied Woodpecker in my backyard. The light in the bird’s eye makes this photo work.

It is also important to hold the camera as still as possible. Experts recommend using the electronic viewfinder rather than the LCD screen. That allows you to use your body to stabilize the camera. I’ve never been able to do that, so I put the camera strap around my neck and hold the camera away from my body so that the strap is tight. I hold my left hand under the camera to add additional stability and press the shutter with my right hand. Even better than hand-holding the camera is using a tripod, monopod, or some other stationary object to support the camera. Experiment – see what works for you.

Three things affect exposure – aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. A good basic ISO setting is 400. However, if you are shooting in low light, you may want to increase the ISO. When using aperture mode, the camera will automatically set the shutter speed. This works fine for most birds with good lighting conditions. But, white birds and very dark birds are more challenging. You may also need to make some adjustments if the light is not ideal. The easiest way to make adjustments is to use exposure compensation. To do this effectively, set your camera to display a histogram and learn to read it. It’s actually very easy and provides instant feedback on your exposure. It simply displays the tones in the image, usually from dark on the left to the lightest tones on the right. The goal is to keep the graph within the scale, as evenly distributed from left to right as possible, but not “hitting the wall” on either end. If the graph goes off the left end, the photo will be underexposed and details lost in the shadows. If it goes off the right end, some areas of the photo will be pure white and no post-processing can recover the blown highlights.  If the graph is too far to the left, increase the exposure compensation.  If it’s too far to the right, decrease the exposure compensation.

There is much more to learn about photography, but these basics will go a long way towards helping you get some nice photos that will add to your enjoyment of birds.

This Snowy Egret was a white bird with a dark background. An exposure compensation of -1 kept the details in the white feathers.

This Snowy Egret was a white bird with a dark background. An exposure compensation of -1 kept the details in the white feathers.

Here are a few more miscellaneous tips that I’ve recently learned.

  • Study your bad photos to determine what went wrong. Also, study your good photos to see what went right.  Use the EXIF data embedded in each photo to see the settings you used and how they affected the image.
  • Try turning off “image stabilization” in good light. I was amazed, but my images were sharper after I turned this setting to “off.”
  • Use burst mode. Any camera movement caused by pressing the shutter won’t be evident in the second and subsequent photos. It may also help you get the bird in a more pleasing position if it moves.
  • Take lots of photos. It’s not film. It’s free to shoot photos with a digital camera.
  • Use photo-editing software. Sure, you want to capture the best image that you can, but don’t be afraid to improve it with a little editing.

Pine Warbler (female). Even a simple image can be pleasing. This photo works because the background is out of focus.

Pine Warbler (female). Even a simple image can be pleasing. This photo works because the background is out of focus.

A few resources for bird photography:

  • The user manual for your camera.
  • Bird Photography Tutorials from Mike Atkinson.
  • Many excellent books on digital photography are available. I just bought The Beginner’s Photography Guide ($15.18 from Amazon) and I’m finding it to be extremely helpful.
  • Ask for help.  We have several skilled photographers in Forsyth County who are willing to answer questions, offer suggestions, and provide additional help.

Below is an example of learning more about birds through photography. I photographed this male Common Merganser in California a couple of years ago. When I looked at the photo, I was fascinated by the pattern on the breast. I never would have noticed or remembered this detail from just looking at the bird with my binoculars. Since then, experiences like this have been repeated many times.

Common Merganser (male)

Common Merganser (male)

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