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Springtime Bird Photography at Fort De Soto

April is my favorite time to visit Fort De Soto in St. Petersburg, Florida.  The sandy beaches are beautiful, the spring winds are cool, and my toes get to wiggle in the ocean water as I photograph the birds molting into their breeding plumage.  An April visit always has the possibility of a fallout, where migratory birds are caught by rainstorms as they cross the Gulf of Mexico, so they land at the first opportunity – Fort De Soto!  But even if it’s a slow day for migrants, the North Beach springtime bird photography opportunities are spectacular.

Fort De Soto Sunrise

Fort De Soto Sunrise

My husband thinks I’m nuts, but I love to start a good morning at Fort De Soto with a sunrise, even though that means getting up early enough to drive from Orlando and still arrive 30 minutes before sunrise.  Yep, I’m crazy, but at least I’m not the only one.  It was great seeing Michael, Donna, Susan, and Daniel at the park this morning.  We all had the same problem with the sunrise – lens fog!  My early shots were long exposures with my ND filter, but I didn’t move into position with the palm trees in the foreground until well after sunrise, when my lens fogged up and I didn’t realize it.  Oh well, it’s a good reminder to check that next time!  As I stood photographing the sunrise, a small flock of Canada Geese flew overhead.  It’s the first time I’ve seen them in Florida.

Wilson's Plover

Wilson’s Plover

I moved to North Beach as the sun rose.  North Beach at sunrise is easily one of my favorite places to photograph in Florida.  The light is wonderful!  My first birds were some Wilson’s Plovers, who posed in their characteristic habitat as I asked them to please start nesting and put their eggs in good photogenic spots!  :)  It was a pleasure to meet some other birders/photographers, who gave me some advice about where to find Snowy Plovers in Florida.  I’ve now seen the Piping Plovers, but I’ve yet to see a Snowy.  Yet!

Red-Breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

There were lots of Red-breasted Mergansers that morning, and they were so tame!  I waded into the water to get on the good side of the light.  It amazed me when the mergansers swan right up to me, as if they didn’t care a bit that I was there.  The Beast was too much lens.  It’s always great when you put the camera down and gaze in awe at the birds around you.

Reddish Egret with Tongue Out!

Reddish Egret with Tongue Out!

The star of the North Beach birding show right now is definitely Big Red.  The Reddish Egrets are in wonderful breeding colors right now.  Look at those electric blue eyes and legs, and the hot pink beak!  His cousin, the White Morph, is equally spectacular, but didn’t grace me with a visit on this particular morning.  These birds are a hoot to watch as they perform their “drunken sailor dance” while they fish in the shallow tidal pools.  I was very lucky when a Reddish Egret flew in right in front of me, and posed nicely for a long time.  I got some beautiful head shots, but my favorite photo was the bird with his tongue out.  See, Rich, maybe that’s where I get it from! :)

Marbled Godwit with Wings Spread

Marbled Godwit with Wings Spread

The Reddish Egret wasn’t the only show-off.  A nice flock of Black Skimmers rested along the beach, and a couple of Marbled Godwits went fishing in the great morning light.  I was debating wading into deeper waters to get the godwit, when he decided to move closer to me and do a nice wing-flap!  Sometimes birds cooperate so nicely for the camera.

American Oystercatcher Fly-in

American Oystercatcher Fly-in

A pair of American Oystercatchers fed right in front of me.  I got down really low and got some great shots of the birds calling, but when I looked at the pictures, I realized that I was so low that I couldn’t see their feet!  The background was gorgeous but foot-less birds look pretty funny.  So instead I’ll post this fly-in shot.  This was right before the birds teased me.  We’d been watching them do some courtship rituals, and we begged them to do a piggy-back ride for us.  (OK, it’s not exactly an innocent piggy-back ride, but this is a family-friendly blog!)  They almost cooperated.  One bird was hopping onto the back of the other bird, when the second bird decided that she wasn’t interested and scooted away.  The top bird was left flapping his wings and running after his mate.  One of these days I’m going to get that shot!!

Laughing Gulls Mating

Laughing Gulls Mating

So my consolation prize was this Laughing Gull pair, who definitely did sound as if they were laughing during their entire piggy-back ride.  The gulls do this pretty commonly on the beach at this time of year, but I was excited to get a nice uncluttered shot with a beautiful Fort De Soto beach background.  Even my 1D camera’s buffer filled as this pair danced in front of me!

Willet Wing Flap

Willet Wing Flap

One of my favorite shots of the morning was of Florida’s most common beach birds, the Willet.  These drab-looking shorebirds are so easy to find feeding in the surf.  I usually don’t stop to take many pictures of them, but when this one started bathing right in front of me, I couldn’t resist snapping the shutter.

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

As I waded and enjoyed the great Florida springtime weather (yep, it’ll last about two weeks and then be sweltering hot!), this Roseate Spoonbill flew in.  She fed quietly in the lagoon for most of the morning, and as I left, she posed prettily in front of the cool blue water.  What a great way to end a great springtime bird photography trip to Fort De Soto!  I look forward to going back over there later in the month to try for more migrants.

Out of the Egg: I Saw a Sandhill Crane Hatch!!!

This Wednesday I experienced one of the most incredible evenings of nature photography ever.  So to make up for a couple of missed blog posts this week, you get an extra-long post about a great experience:  Rich and I saw a Sandhill Crane hatch!!!

Sandhill Cranes make their nests in marshy habitat, typically in a small pond where the nest is surrounded by water.  The water keeps predators from the eggs.  Both parents incubate the nest in the daytime, but Mom gets the whole night shift.  The babies are precocial, meaning that they are born with some ability to care for themselves.  Several hours after hatching, they are able to walk (wobble), swim, and begin feeding.  The eggs are laid 24-48 hours apart, so they hatch asynchronously, with one colt slightly older and feistier than the second.  I had lots of time to read about the cranes during my nest watches, and I found this website really interesting.  The Florida subspecies of Sandhill Cranes is threatened, so it was extra special to have this opportunity to view the birds up close.

Sandhill Crane on Nest

Sandhill Crane on Nest

I’ve been watching this nest for four or five years.  It’s in a small retention pond that I drive by every day.  Last year, bad rains caused the nest to flood – twice!  So this year as I secured permission to photograph at this property, I hoped and hoped that the rains would stay away.  The birds went on eggs around March 10 (this pair tends to nest a little later than other area cranes, who often have colts by that time.)  Sandhill Cranes incubate for 29-32 days, so my Hatch Watch started last Friday.  I checked the nest regularly, imploring the weather to please let this year’s babies have a chance at survival.  After Tuesday’s thunderstorms passed and the nest was still intact, I breathed a sigh of relief.  Then on Wednesday afternoon, Rich and I spotted a baby.  The first colt had hatched!!

The Sandhill Crane Family in the Retention Pond

The Sandhill Crane Family in the Retention Pond

I think the first colt hatched early Wednesday morning.  He was already all dried off and fluffy, sunning himself on the top of the nest.  The light was harsh, but my subjects were adorable.  The first colt sat on the nest, next to his unborn sibling, while Mom stuck her head down to check on them both.  Then I looked a little closer and realized that the egg had a hole in it.  The second baby was trying to come out!

The Hatch Has Started!

The Hatch Has Started!

The hatch starts with a small hole, called a pip, in the egg.  The unborn bird uses his beak to break through the egg.  It’s not an easy task, and it can take hours.  The last hatching I saw was a Snowy Egret, which took about three hours.  Mom kept turning the egg to help the little guy break free.

Are You Coming Out Soon?

Are You Coming Out Soon?

I loved how the photo above shows Mom turning the egg, with her beak so close to the hatch hole.  Then I blew up the photo and saw that I could clearly see the little guy’s beak coming out of the hole.  How cool is that!?  Here’s the enlarged version:

Beak Poking Through the Egg

Beak Poking Through the Egg

I also used the Beast to take a short video of the egg.  At the time, I didn’t realize that I could so clearly see the beak coming through.  I just saw motion coming from the hole that I tried to catch on video.  I had left my tripod in the car, and I didn’t think to send my Filter Boy to go get it, so I tried to hold my breath and hold the Beast still, and then I used iMovie to reduce the camera shake.  If it doesn’t make you nauseous (sorry about that!), the video does show the little guy’s beak as he breaks out of his egg.  It was pretty cool.

At one point, Mom stuck her beak down into the hole, just for a second or two.  It made me wonder why she didn’t help her little baby work its way out of the egg.  Then again, I’ve read that the hatching is part of the survival of the fittest.  If the chick isn’t strong enough to break through the egg, then he won’t be able to survive once he’s born.  Mom was certainly attentive to the little guy, though, and she turned the egg repeatedly.  I guess that’s her way of helping.

Mom Stuck her Beak into the Shell - Encouragement for the Little Guy to Keep Working?

Mom Stuck her Beak into the Shell – Encouragement for the Little Guy to Keep Working?

The older chick was off the nest for most of the afternoon.  He wobbled his way down to the water, swam a foot or so, then fought his way through the thick pond vegetation to crawl up onto a grassy hill with Dad.  I wonder if Dad wasn’t intentionally keeping him away from the hatching at the nest.  He was adorable to watch as he waddled around, learning how to use his legs.  Rich laughed every time he tumbled to the ground.  He just got right back up and kept exploring!

The Older Colt - Already An Explorer!

The Older Colt – Already An Explorer!

Mom left the hatching egg on the nest for 15-20 minutes and went to stretch her legs on the hill.  Both parents started feeding the older colt, and I had to laugh as they simultaneously tried to hand him an insect each.  I bet it was his first feeding.  The attention they paid to their colt was touching.  I made another video, and this time iMovie did a great job at stabilizing the camera motion:

When Mom came back to the nest, she didn’t walk – she flew!  It surprised me to see her fly the 5-6 feet, which she can easily cover in a couple of steps with those long legs.  Then as I watched for longer, I realized that the nest is built on top of mud, and it shifted each time the cranes walked near it.  If they took a wrong step, they sank part of the nest.  So I guess it was safer to fly in and land squarely (and gently) on the center of the nest.

Flight to the Nest

Flight to the Nest

The world is a dangerous place for tiny colts, and even unborn eggs.   Mom and Dad were constantly vigilant of everything that moved in the nesting area.  At one point, Mom quickly hopped off the nest and splashed down into the adjacent water.  It surprised me – she was leg-deep in water, which means the water was deeper than I thought!  Both Mom and Dad were peering with great concern into the water, then Mom reached down to snatch something.  She made a good splash.  I never did see the cause of her concern, but she relaxed and so did Dad.

On the Lookout for Trouble

On the Lookout for Trouble

As the sun set, I realized that something special was happening with the egg.  The hole had extended all the way around the top of the egg, and hatching was eminent.  I dared the light to fade before I got a chance to welcome my little buddy into the world! :)  Mom at this point was back on the nest, alternating turning the egg and brooding the egg.  Each time she stood up, I got a better look at the emerging colt.

Sandhill Crane hatch: The First Wing is Out!

The First Wing is Out!

The wing (ok, the stub that will grow into a wing!) was the first to emerge from the egg.  Rich and I did a little cheer when we saw it.  ”Come on, little guy, you can do it!” we said.  We couldn’t believe we were getting to watch a Sandhill Crane hatch.

Sandhill Crane hatch: One Last Push to get the Head Out

One Last Push to get the Head Out

After the wing came the head.  The baby had broken his hole across the top of the egg.  In the shot above, you can see him wiggling to free his head.  The whole time, he made the same little “peep peep peep” call that the little colts make to talk to their parents and siblings.  Actually, I think I heard the little call coming from the egg hours before his head emerged, which coincides with what I’ve read about the parents and unborn chick communicating prior to hatching.

Sandhill Crane hatch: The Head's Out Too!

The Head’s Out Too!

Then his head was free!  Mom looked on as he lay resting, with his face down on the nest.  You can see his little eyeball just above the “u” in my copyright.  Mom continued poking at him and sitting on him.  His big feet appeared as he continued to exit the shell.  The next time Mom stood up, he made one last big effort to pick up his head, wiggle his front, and maneuver his back out of the egg.  Welcome to the world, little one!

Sandhill Crane hatch: Welcome, Baby Sandhill Crane!

Welcome, Baby Sandhill Crane!

The first rule of nest photography is that there’s always one stick too many.  In this case, the stick stretched over the baby’s back and head.  It looks like it’s crushing him, but as he wiggled his way out of the egg, he just pushed the stick out of his way.  It was fun to see how quickly the egg collapsed as its inmate took his first breaths.

Sandhill Crane hatch: Announcing the New Arrival

Announcing the New Arrival

Dad came over to the nest to say hello to his second baby.  As the colt lay resting, both parents threw their heads back and started calling.  If you’ve ever heard Sandhill Cranes on golf courses or in your neighborhood, you’ll know how loud their calls are.  In this case, I think their message was, “It hatched!  Baby Number 2 has Arrived!  Hatch time 7:33pm, Mom and Baby are doing well!”

Sandhill Crane hatch: Meet your Little Sister

Meet your Little Brother

Dad had kept the older colt off the nest during the hatching.  After the birth announcement, the older colt came squirming his way back onto the nest.  Mom stood up when he arrived, letting him get a look at the new arrival.  It’s easy to attribute human-like qualities to the animals that we admire, but it really looked as if she was saying, “Hi, honey, meet your baby brother.”

Then Mom lay back down on the newborn colt.  The older baby had a problem.  He wanted to wiggle under Mom’s feathers, too, but he didn’t know how to get in!  He spent a few minutes walking around his mom, trying to figure it out.  Mom fluffed up her feathers to help him.  He posed for a cute bedtime shot, then finally got himself under Mom’s wing.  Good night, little ones!

Getting Tucked in for Bed

Getting Tucked in for Bed

As we left, Rich and I were giddy with excitement.  We saw a Sandhill Crane hatch!  It was so incredible!!  Rich doesn’t often accompany me on my photo expeditions, since I tend to be a little boring, sitting in the same place photographing the same bird for hours on end.  But Rich was there on this evening, and he was so excited to share in the joy of this hatching.  He said he finally understood how I could sit for 12 hours watching my newborn swan cygnets last year.  These moments spent with Nature are precious, and the last few days have been such a gift.  You’ll get to read more in my next posts!

Note: Please do not ask me where this nest is.  It’s on private property, and I had to get special permission to photograph there.  Thanks, Byron and Jeff!

Spring Morning at Orlando Wetlands Park

On the morning that Deb and I saw Rich’s awesome turtle, we also saw a bunch of fun birds.  Springtime is the best time of year for Central Florida nature photography.  Some of our winter visitors are still hanging around, the migrants start to move through, and the local birds get all spiffy-looking for courtship and breeding.  So I was excited to get out and see what we could find on a nice spring morning at Orlando Wetlands Park.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Black-bellied Whistling Duck Eating Flowers

There are so many Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at Orlando Wetlands Park right now!  Deb and I were greeted with their happy, cheerful whistling calls.  The whistling ducks are my favorite ducks.  The large flocks were on the wrong side of the light, but we found a small group of them in a shaded spot.  As we watched, one reached up to nibble on some flowers.  It was really cute.

Glossy Ibis in Breeding Colors

Glossy Ibis in Breeding Colors

The wading birds are all ready for springtime in their bright pretty breeding colors.  We saw Great Egrets with green lores, a Tricolored Heron with a nice white plume, Snowy Egrets with lacy plumes and red lores, and this Glossy Ibis with his blue face.  I like how the vegetation at Orlando Wetlands is nice and low, which lets me get down low with my lens to photograph the birds at eye level.  It’s very different than Circle B, where the berms block some of the best views.

Blue-Winged Teal

Blue-Winged Teal

A lot of the wintering ducks have left.  But the Blue-winged Teals are still around.  We got good views of both the male and female teals.  There was a Cinnamon Teal sighted recently at Orlando Wetlands Park, but we didn’t see him.  Too bad, he would have been a lifer for me.

Snowy Egret Courtship

Snowy Egret Courtship

Our best birds of the morning were the Snowy Egrets, who put on a good show for us.  I spotted them mating from a good distance away.  We got closer and sat for a long time, encouraging them to do a repeat performance.  Of course they didn’t cooperate, but they did do some nice courtship dances for us.  I love the little noise they make when they are fussing at each other!  The Snowy Egrets get beautiful lacy feathers on their necks and backs, and they puff up their feathers to strut for potential mates.

Snowy Egret Fishing

Snowy Egret Fishing

The light was definitely not on our side on this morning.  We were shooting against strong sidelight, or full backlight, for a good part of the morning.  But it was great to catch up with Deb, and we laughed together at the silly Snowies as they danced and fed.  I loved the shot above of the fisher-bird as he struck the water to grab a fish.  I think he missed!

Egrets on the Run

Egrets on the Run

Every time Deb and I would decide to get up and leave, the silly Snowy Egrets would start a courtship dance.  Of course!  They couldn’t do it while we had our cameras ready.  They had to wait until we’d packed up, and then start!  At one point they did a great mid-air dance that was just amazing to watch.  I hope Deb got it – I had too much lens!  I moved along to photograph some Roseate Spoonbills, and when I looked back, I saw the two clowns above chasing each other.  Yep, it’s definitely that time of year…I love springtime in Central Florida!!