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Least Tern Courtship

After photographing the sunrise in St. Augustine in early May, I headed to the Least Tern colony for my first visit of the year.  I knew that it was the right time of the year to watch their courtship fish exchanges.  Last year I had a magical morning on the beach photographing the terns, and one of my images was commended in the Denver Audubon Society photo contest.

My first visit this year was awesome, despite the lack of light.  The weather forecast was for 30% cloudcover, but it was more like 90%!  When I first arrived at the beach, I found a very cooperative pair of birds that was in full courtship mode.

Least Tern Fish Courtship

Least Tern Fish Courtship

The male flew in with a fish, and the female was calling to him, making sure he knew that she was interested.  He dangled the fish in her face, but when she reached up to grab it, he’d snatch it away!

Fish Tease

Fish Tease

They did this several times, not minding as I crawled closer with my camera.  The female seemed to get more impatient each time she tried to grab the fish.

The Snatch

The Snatch

Finally the male hopped on her back and gave her the fish.  “It’s about time!”, she yelled at him.  Of course they turned away from me for the fish exchange.  They need a few lessons in posing for a bird photographer. :)

The Exchange

The Exchange

Maybe she punished him for being such a slowpoke.  The next thing I knew, the male was trying to hang on as the female ran away.  Oops!

Runaway!

Runaway!

I saw several similar fish exchanges in the hour or so that I roamed the beach that morning.  Here’s a video of a couple doing their fish dance.  They were interrupted by a gull overhead that startled the whole colony.

Some birds in the colony were already on eggs.  The incubation time is about three weeks, and then tiny fuzzballs will start showing up on the beach.  The babies are so cute!

Juvie Least Tern

Juvie Least Tern

A juvenile Least Tern stood nearby watching all the commotion.  I wonder if he is one of the babies that I photographed last year.

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper

I saw a few Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones at the water’s edge, and then I noticed this Semipalmated Sandpiper, who had stopped on the Florida beach on his migration path north.  He was a nice find as I said goodbye to the terns and headed to my final stop of the morning, which you can read about in my next post.

A Magical Sunrise Moment

During the first weekend of May, I headed to St. Augustine.  There’s a beautiful patch of beach there where it is so fun to photograph the sunrise.  I headed out extra early, planning to be there to capture the best colors, which often happen half an hour before sunrise.  I was driving along nicely at 4:30 am when suddenly all the cars on I-4 came to a screeching halt.  For twenty minutes I sat without moving, wondering if by the time the traffic was moving, if it would even be worth it to continue to St. Augustine.  Then as quickly as the traffic stopped, it began moving again.  By the time I got to the beach, the sky was lightening, but it was covered in clouds.  Not exactly the ideal sunrise conditions!

Clouds in the Dawn

Clouds in the Dawn

I played with my neutral density filters to capture some long exposures.  I love what extra-long exposure times do to the waves as they ebb and flow around rocks.  The clouds didn’t show any signs of clearing as the sunrise time approached.  But that’s when the magic happened…

Sunburst Sunrise

Sunburst Sunrise

The sun burst through a small hole in the clouds.  For a few short minutes, the beach was bathed in beautiful golden light.  It was amazing!  The tall breaking waves were backlit by the rising sun, and every droplet of water sparkled.  The warm sun glowed on the rocks and the sand.  It was so pretty.

The Moment Passes

The Moment Passes

The moment didn’t last long.  Within just a few short minutes, the sun passed behind the clouds again.  The dark clouds were an ominous blue, which didn’t bode well for my next stop.  More about that in my next post…

Say Goodbye to the Shorebirds

In early May I headed to Fort De Soto to say goodbye to the shorebirds as they leave for their breeding grounds up north.  According to the BirdCast Migration Forecast, most of the shorebirds leave in the first half of May.  It’s the perfect time to catch them in their spiffy breeding plumage.  I spent a happy couple of hours lying in the sand with my camera – and I found a couple of surprises, too! :)

First of all, I have to share some sunrise images from North Beach.  It’s one of my favorite places in the world. At first light it is so quiet and peaceful.  I love to dip my toes into the water as I walk along with my camera.  On this particular morning, the sky glowed pink and a few clouds glowed on the horizon.  It was so pretty.

North Beach at Dawn

North Beach at Dawn

Calm and Peaceful

Calm and Peaceful

There were fewer birds on this visit than on my previous visit in late April, when I saw my first Red Knots in breeding plumage.  But there were still plenty of bright feathers to keep me entertained.  My first good bird of the morning was this Ruddy Turnstone, who was playing with what looked like a cockroach on the beach.  He tossed it around for several minutes, giving me lots of time to get a good shot.  A very cooperative bird! :)

Ruddy Turnstone with Cockroach (?)

Ruddy Turnstone with Cockroach (?)

A Black-bellied Plover walked along the surf and showed off his black belly.  You have to come just before they leave in order to see one in full breeding colors.  In the wintertime, these plovers sport a drab grayish plumage.  Last year I wrote about my attempts to find a Black-bellied Plover in full breeding plumage.  This year, it was easy!

Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plover

Another plover was still in the process of molting.  He enjoyed a nice warm bath in the Gulf.  They are such fun to watch as they splish and splash in the water.  Then they give you a nice wing-flap!

Black-bellied Plover Wing Flap

Black-bellied Plover Wing Flap

A few Red-breasted Mergansers were still hanging around.  Again they met me in the surf right next to the beach as I crossed the bridge and stepped onto the beach.  Then I found another one swimming in the lagoon. She was pretty swimming in the early morning light.

Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

A Short-billed Dowitcher was digging for his breakfast in a small tidal pool.  The green grasses in the background cast a pretty reflection in the water.  This bird isn’t yet in his reddish-brown breeding plumage.

Short-billed Dowitcher

Short-billed Dowitcher

There weren’t a whole lot of birds in the lagoon area.  I sat in the ocean for a while, photographing the birds that were there, mostly Wilson’s Plover and a few sandpipers.  A Red-winged Blackbird caught my attention as he perched on some vegetation and sang with all his might.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Then I meandered down to the water’s edge and tried to photograph the little peeps as they ran along the waves.  They are fast!  It’s hard to catch them on a good angle when all they do is run!  This little Sanderling is looking very nice.  In the wintertime he’s basically a white bird.  Not in the spring!

Sanderling in Breeding Plumage

Sanderling in Breeding Plumage

A few Semipalmated Plovers were showing off their fresh black stripes.  They weren’t quite as fast as the Sanderlings, but they still didn’t want to cooperate with the photographer lying in the sand. :)

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

I was walking along the beach and found my big surprise of the morning – two Snowy Plovers were standing at my feet!  I’ve only seen a Snowy Plover once before, last fall at Fort De Soto.  That bird wasn’t in breeding plumage, and this pair was.  They let me take a few quick photos before they flew off.

Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover

A pair of American Oystercatchers spent the morning combing the beach for food.  I had too much lens!  So I tried to capture some  head shots.  Look at that orange eye that matches his orange beak!

American Oystercatcher Head Shot

American Oystercatcher Head Shot

As the beach started to fill with people, the birds and I headed for the hills.  As I left, I found another Ruddy Turnstone with his beak full of breakfast – this time, I think it was crab.  He seemed to be enjoying it!  He told me not to miss him too much, because he’ll be back in Florida before I know it.  It’s amazing how these birds leave in early May and then return in August.  In that short time, they fly farther north than most people ever go, raise their babies, and return.  No wonder their winter feathers look a little worn!

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone