Pelicans in Formation

When I observe birds flying and swimming in formation, I often think of synchronized dancers performing on stage or marching bands, but then I realize that humans are the ones imitating nature. We wear uniforms or dance costumes, so we will look as similar as two birds of the same species, right?

Two White Pelicans foraging together at low tide mirror each other in formation, as the overhead sun casts a mirror-like shadow on all three pelicans in the water. Low tide is feeding time, and on this day it happened near noon. J.N. Ding Darling Nature Preserve, Sanibel Island, Florida, January 2021.

When photographing wildlife, you can’t plan this. You just have to be patient enough to sit and wait, following your subject and continually adjusting your focus. Note: something really cool usually happens after you pack up your tripod and start walking back to the car!

Pelican Stare Down

I’m not sure who blinked first, but I do know that my camera shutter clicked before this handsome Brown Pelican looked away. I followed this Pelican for several minutes through a 600mm lens at a significant distance, tracking his behavior at a comfortable distance, not disturbing him. Yet he saw me watching!

As a bird lover with a specific affection for Brown Pelicans, I enjoyed this moment of connection with a Brown Pelican at the J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve on Sanibel Island, Florida. The yellow crown feathers and pink bill indicate a pre-breeding adult. January 2021.

Brown Pelicans and Climate Change

There are so many reasons to like the Brown Pelican. I love to watch them dive for fish along the Gulf Coast of Florida. They are so big with a length of a meter and wingspan of 2-3 meters, yet they are docile and quiet.

This Brown Pelican takes off while feeding in the Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve on Sanibel Island, Florida. Its yellow crown feathers and pink beak indicate it is a pre-breeding adult.

Yet another important reason to love brown pelicans is the important role they play as an indicator species to help humans monitor the effects of climate change. We can monitor their numbers and migration to help understand the changes in fish population.

Synchronized Swimming: White Pelicans

These White Pelicans reminded me of swans as I watched them forage together and look like mirror images of each other. As these three swam away from me and kicked up ripples on the surface, they looked back toward the camera.

White Pelicans forage in a small group on Sanibel Island during low tide. This photograph captures their synchronized swimming.

White Pelicans are true “snow birds,” as they migrate to Southwest Florida in winter from the Great Lakes region. Dozens of them return to Sanibel Island every year.

Colorful Character: the Reddish Egret

Before leaving Florida for the season, I want to share a series of photos of the unique Reddish Egret. It’s a medium sized heron with a mane of elongated reddish feathers, a pink translucent beak and a cool way of dancing while foraging. You can find them in the salt water shallows foraging at low tide.

I observed this adult breeding reddish egret on Sanibel Island at J. N. Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve in February 2020. My friend marveled at the bushy neck plumage, asking, “Are you sure that’s not hair?”

#reddishegret, #heron, #sanibel, #dingdarling, #florida, #plumage, #pinkbeak, #birdphotography, #naturephotography, #wildlifephotography, #nikon, #birds,
Reddish egret shows its pink beak and reddish neck feathers in afternoon light, Ding Darling Refuge on Sanibel Island, FL.
#reddishegret, #heron, #preening, #birdphotography, #naturephotography, #wildlifephotography, #nikon, #dingdarling, #sanibel, #florida, #birds, #feathers
Reddish egret having a “bad hair day” while preening feathers and showing its flexibility. Sanibel Island, FL.
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Reddish egrets are known for their graceful dance moves while foraging. They extend a wing to create a shadow to attract fish close to their legs, at Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, Florida.

Witness to Nature, Moment by Moment

You might wonder if that Yellow Crowned Night Heron knew how to “pick a crab,” if you read the previous blog (with the heron holding a live crab in its beak). My friend Mary and I watched the heron dismantle and texturize and finally swallow the crab. This series of photographs will share the experience with you:

As a Baltimore native, I know how to pick a crab: first you remove the claws and legs, (although there is more than one right way.) The heron shook the crab hard enough to knock those off. You can see the claws on the sand.

#yellowcrownednightheron, #heron, #predator, #prey, #crab, #sanibel, #dingdarling, #wildlife, #wildlifephotography, #birdphotography, #floridabirds, #florida, #naturephotography
Yellow Crowned Night Heron shakes his live crab until the claws and legs come off. It was the first step in turning the catch into an edible meal. Ding Darling Nature Preserve, Sanibel Island, FL.
#yellowcrownednightheron, #heron, #floridabirds, #prey, #predator, #crab, #nature, #florida, #sanibel, #dingdarling, #action
Step Two: Yellow Crowned Night Heron pokes the crab’s body to break up the shell. Ding Darling Nature Preserve, Sanibel Island, FL.
#yellowcrownednightheron, #heron, #birdphotography, #wildlife, #wildlifephotography, #nature, #prey, #predator, #crab, #action
Step Three: Yellow Crowned Night Heron tosses the crab body in the air and crunches it with his hard beak. Ding Darling Nature Preserve, Sanibel Island, FL.
#yellowcrownednightheron, #heron, #birdphotography, #action, #prey, #predator, #crab, #sanibel, #dingdarling, #wildlife, #wildllifephotography, #floridabirds, #outdoorphotography, #nature, #naturephotography
Finally, Yellow Crowned Night Heron is ready to toss that crab down the hatch. Can you believe it? Ding Darling Nature Preserve, Sanibel Island, FL. 2020

Discovery Channel Drama

While I treasure a close-up of each species of bird in its exquisite detail, and I get excited about a more rare capture of a bird in flight, the trifecta of wildlife photography thrills for me is to witness a drama between animals — the rare sighting that leaps beyond good color, detail and composition to tell a story.

Such was my luck late one afternoon on Sanibel Island in February. So far the visit to J.D. Ding Darling Nature Preserve had been pretty uneventful, and I was apologizing to my friend Mary who accompanied me. We had planned our trip to coincide with low tide to observe the large birds feeding, but few white pelicans or roseate spoonbills were in sight.

Here is how the action unfolded: We set up my tripod between the road and the water’s edge to observe for awhile when a Yellow-Crowned Night Heron emerged from the brush. About 4 onlookers pointed and whispered to each other as it paused in the gentle afternoon light. At Ding Darling, most bird watchers are quiet and respectful of wildlife.)

This heron took graceful giant strides, and within a few minutes, it had grabbed a crab in its beak and held it up in the light right in front of us. I had to adjust my 150-600mm zoom lens to 400mm to see the entire bird in the frame, and I could not believe my luck with the beautiful light and the chance to witness the scene.

#yellowcrownednightheron, #heron, #nightheron, #birdphotography, #bird, #nature, #naturephotography, #wildlife, #wildlifephotography, #outdoorphotography, #florida, #sanibel, #dingdarling, #crab, #predatore, #prey, #closeup,
Yellow-Crowned Night Heron catches a crab in evening light on Sanibel Island, FL. 2020

We quietly contained our amazement (oh my God!) as the heron shook and stabbed the crab til its legs and claws came off and the prey was manageable to go down the hatch, right in front of us. I have numerous photos of this drama, and I will share them with you in the next few blog posts.

I’m now grateful that I saved this series of wildlife photos for this quiet time we are all experiencing now. Please share this blog with your friends who may enjoy it too.

Making Connections: Birds and Humans

Watching a bird preen his feathers reminds me of watching a girl brush her long hair. It’s pretty special to watch wildlife behavior and learn about what birds and other wildlife do naturally. But the cool thing about observing preening — or hair brushing in humans — is that you feel like you catch a glimpse of private time, where the bird (or the girl) takes a few minutes to think of herself and make herself look good and feel good. In a way, it’s intimate.

This Great Blue Heron was taking time to preen before low tide, which is time to hunt for food. Early in the morning, he was getting ready for his day. (I assume this heron was male, due to the breeding plumage, the long wispy feathers in front.) Here are a series of photos:

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Great Blue Heron preening, with his neck twisted around into an S curve. Sanibel Island, Florida.
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With his head tucked under his wing, this Great Blue Heron’s head is hidden. Sanibel Island, Florida.
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With a bit of down in his beak, this Great Blue Heron is preening his feathers. It’s a privilege to observe this beautiful bird up close in Sanibel Island, Florida.

As I photographed this preening session with the Great Blue Heron, I thought of Renoir’s paintings of his red haired daughter brushing her long hair. Are you familiar with that painting? Do you share the connection I make with hair brushing and preening?

He Will Not Be Stepping Back

This Great Blue Heron looks like royalty and he knows it. He lives a great life on Sanibel Island, Florida and he doesn’t mind a few photographers pointing long lenses at him first thing in the morning. In fact, he rather enjoyed it until the photographers got bloody sick of it and packed themselves and their gear in the car to go home. He just stood on the rock, posed and stared us down.

While Prince Harry and his wife Megan will be “stepping back as senior members of the royal family,” this character likes the spotlight and doesn’t mind the paparazzi. This Great Blue Heron is indeed royal.

I loved the close up view of the Great Blue Heron’s intricate feathers, brilliantly lit by the direct sun. We photographers we so lucky that he lingered with us.

Brown Pelican Yoga

Watching and waiting, and watching and waiting some more is a practice that is rewarding in wildlife photography. As you will see here, some behaviors happen so fast, that a photographer will only capture them if he or she is already poised to shoot.

Not much happening here: two brown pelicans preening their feathers in Ding Darling National Wildlife Preserve on Sanibel Island, Florida.
Whoa! One Brown Pelican stretches its neck to give me a good view of its pouch.
Brown Pelican stretches his neck even further! What a moment.
Final image in the surprising series of Brown Pelican yoga.