Another year has gone by, and it’s time to reflect on 2014. I’m very lucky. My camera and I have captured some incredible moments together. Like most photographers, I can look at any of my thousands of images and remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I made the image. Each year, a few images stick out in my mind, whether because they were amazing photographs or because they were incredible moments. Here are my favorites from 2014.
The year began with a surprise visitor – a Snowy Owl! Snowy Owls usually winter in Canada and the far northern parts of the United States, so having one show up in Florida was nothing short of amazing. My dad and I raced to the beach at Jacksonville where the owl was found. We got there just after the bird flew off, and other birders wished us “good luck – hopefully it’ll come back for you.” Well, we chased it up and down the beach until finally, in the last rays of beautiful afternoon light (the only light we had on that vacation!), we found the Snowy Owl sitting calmly on the beach. Her feathers were so white, and they covered every part of her, even her talons. She was obviously well adapted to living in the snow, and she looked out of place on the Florida beach. It was special to get to see her.
One of my favorite early springtime subjects is the Great Blue Heron. They are easy to find and photograph at the Viera Wetlands. This year I discovered the joy of the sunrise silhouette. I saw the bright orange light of the sky and knew that I’d have a dramatic image if the birds would do something nice. There was a single adult on the nest, with a small chick underneath her. Mentally I begged that chick to reach up and poke Mom, or do anything interesting. Nope. The chick did not want to help. Just as I was thinking it was too late for an interesting image, Dad flew in and mated with Mom! I’ve always been intrigued by how the herons and egrets bite each other as part of their courtship rituals, and now I have that behavior captured in dark silhouette!
In February I got to see an amazing family of nesting Great Horned Owls. I had seen Marina Scarr’s winning photo of this Great Horned Owl mom with her baby tucked into her tummy feathers. It was such an amazing photo because the baby blended in so well to the mom’s feathers – Nature’s camouflage at work! Never did I imagine that I’d get to see a similar pose. But I did – and my photo has two tiny heads sticking out from under Mom! My dad and I observed this fun family for several hours, as Mom fed the chicks, preened them, and tried to take a nap. It’s hard to nap when your kids are constantly wiggling underneath you!
I always obsess over Sandhill Crane colts, those adorable young chicks that stagger bravely through grasses and water to keep up with their long-legged gray parents. But this year, I got to see something I never thought I’d get to see – the birth of a Sandhill Crane! I observed this nest regularly, watching during the 33 long days of incubation in the hot Florida sun. I begged Nature to be forgiving during the weekends of rain that brought water levels dangerously high over the sides of the nest. Finally a tiny orange head peeked out from under Mom. Rich and I spotted a pip in the second egg and sat down to watch and wait. We could see the colt’s beak as it poked through its captivity. Finally a head emerged, and a foot, and there lay a newborn colt, feathers totally wet, chirping a frantic hello to Mom as she bent down to meet him. Rich and I didn’t stop grinning for weeks.
I returned to the nest on subsequent mornings, and I made some of my favorite images of my life. The two-day-old colts romped, wrestled, and were fed so many bugs that it’s no wonder that they grew up quite quickly!
Fort De Soto was my favorite spring photography location in 2014. I saw my first mating Royal Terns and Willets. The Least Terns gave me several good afternoons of courtship behaviors. I finally found a Black-bellied Plover in full breeding plumage. Then the spring fallout let me photograph tanagers, buntings, warblers and all sorts of beautiful birds that pass through Florida as they fly north in the spring.
In June “real life” started to invade the photography bubble. A construction defect in our thirteen-year-old house had caused a hidden leak, and we had to rip out an entire upstairs wall and rebuild it in order to correct the problem. Despite the chaos at home, I had a few hours to slip away to a Least Tern colony, where I photographed courtship behaviors and tiny fuzzballs sticking out from under Mom. I can still remember the cool breeze on my face and the warmth of the sun on my back as I noticed this pair of birds initiating a courtship dance. Their heads shook back and forth so fast that I was afraid they were going to hurt themselves. Finally, with a foreground of beautiful shells and a soft muted green background, the male climbed onto the female and passed her a fish, a birdie “engagement ring” of sorts. She accepted his proposal and I clicked away, scarcely believing that I was finally capturing the image I’d dreamed about for several years.
Luck was on the side of the Black Skimmers this year, as no tropical storms or hurricanes interfered with the nesting colony on the West Coast of Florida. I spent several happy afternoons sprawled on the sand, photographing the tiny wonders that are newborn Black Skimmers. After several years of visiting the colony, you would think the images would all start to look alike, but they don’t. Each tiny baby is so full of life and curiosity. They dance to be fed, dream to meet the ocean’s cool touch, and finally, after many weeks, achieve that great engineering marvel – flight!
In August my friend Michael took my dad and me to see another winged wonder – the Swallow-tailed Kite. Each year the kites congregate at a particular river as they rest and feed in preparation for fall migration to Brazil. It’s great to look up and see a single kite soaring over my backyard, his namesake forked tail spread wide as he circles high overhead. It’s even better to see hundreds of them wake up high in the treetops and come whooshing down for a quick drink in the water right in front of you. It was a little like being at the puffin blinds again – you don’t know what to do first, gawk or click the shutter! (I did both.)
As the summer wanes, bird photography winds down a bit. Rich and I did a quick getaway to Fort De Soto in September, to say goodbye to the terns congregating for migration and also to do some landscape photography. My favorite sunset image was this one at North Beach. Or perhaps I’m just remembering the elation of seeing my lifer Snowy Plover. :-)
As the migrating birds began returning to Florida through the fall and winter, an incredibly cooperative Belted Kingfisher showed up at Viera Wetlands. Kingfishers are usually pretty skittish birds, and you can hear their scolding call echo through the swamp as you startle them and they fly away quickly. But the Viera bird was different. She didn’t care that the people were close, and she came regularly to the same snag to rest or eat her breakfast. My friends and I were photographing her one day when a mockingbird flew by her favorite perch. She’s very tolerant of admiring photographers, but she didn’t want that other bird near her, and she raised her wings to protest. I loved my full-frame image of her with her wings spread. She looks like she’s directing a symphony!
So it’s been a pretty incredible year. I’ve learned a lot about the finer points of photography, and I think I’ve improved on some of my post-processing techniques. (That big monitor from last Christmas certainly helped – thank you, Santa!!) But the best parts have been learning more about my subjects. I never go out in the field without learning at least one new thing about the birds that I photograph. I think that’s what keeps the hobby interesting. There’s always something new to see, explore, and experience. Getting to do those things with my dad and my good photography friends is pretty special, too. :)
Here’s to a wonderful 2015!!