Mating dance of the red heron

It is fun to see the large and nearly fearless birds of Southwest Florida just standing around or hanging out. You can see heron, egret, pelicans, willet, sandpiper, ibis, skimmer and anhinga walking, flying and fishing every day in Pelican Bay, where we live in Naples, Florida. But on a nature cruise with the Southwest Florida Conservancy of the estuaries south of Naples, you can see much more. For a nature fanatic like me, it was unforgettable. These photographs show you some of these birds in their habitats — up close and involved in “doing their thing.” The nature cruise, narrated by two knowledgeable docents taught us new things that birds do while observing all of this behavior live.

Let’s begin with the cattle egret. They are wearing their mating plummage and have gathered in this mangrove tree en masse. They are called “cattle egret” because you usually spot them sitting on the backs of cattle in the field, feeding on the insects that also gather on the cattle’s back. After witnessing this mangrove trimmed with cattle egret, I will never forget what they look like:

Next we spotted an osprey with both eyes on us. She was guarding her nest from a perch nearby. These are big birds, about 12-15 inches tall.

Later I captured an osprey as she was taking flight from her nest, sturdily built on the channel marker. Admire her talons. Osprey have four talons and a joint that makes two opposable, so they can pick up heavy prey positioning two talons in front and two behind.

A highlight of the trip was a rare sighting of a red heron (who knew heron came in RED?) performing a mating dance. It was quite a distance from us, and I got got close with my zoom lens and a cropped image to give you this close-up view. Light was low, as dusk was approaching, so I had to use the full range of my ISO (3200) in order to freeze motion and deliver a sharp image. I was so excited to have captured this event with my camera!

The last and most dramatic highlight of the nature cruise was the discovery of a rookery island. Of course, the docents and boat pilot knew what they were doing — to arrive at the rookery island right at sunset, but I had never heard of a rookery before. Now I know: it is a cluster of mangrove trees surrounded by water that creates a safe haven for the birds to spend the night and sleep soundly without having to fear a dangerous land-based predator. Sunset is the time many species flock to the island and find a branch upon which to spend a peaceful night. Most numerous were the pelicans, but I spotted ibis and cormorants as well. (Docents confirmed that these black birds were cormorants, not their more common look-alike the anhinga, because of the hook at the tip of their beaks.) Very low light made it very challenging to take a photograph with a zoom lens and a fast enough shutter speed to freeze motion, but these two photographs capture the scene.

Tomorrow I head back to Southwest Florida for 10 days.

Author: cathykellyphotography

Independent photographer based in Pittsburgh PA and Naples FL. Nature, landscape and portrait photography. Portfolio includes international work in USA, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Email to review work in your area of interest. Nature portfolio includes flowers and wildlife. Prints and digital files for sale. See website:

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