Seashells and Shorebirds at Sanibel Beach

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Rich and I visited Sanibel Island last week on our trip to Cape Coral to see Burrowing Owls. I’ve always heard how beautiful the Sanibel beaches are, and how great the shelling is there. There were shells, and lots of people out in the early morning scouring the piles of shells to find the perfect ones.

Sanibel Seashells
Sanibel Seashells

I took a few quick pictures of the shells but was quickly distracted by the birds. ;-) I spotted a few shorebirds, Sanderlings and Black-bellied Plovers coming into their breeding plumage. Terns flew by, giving me nice opportunities for flight shots.

Royal Tern in Flight
Royal Tern in Flight

As we meandered down the beach, we came across a colony of nesting Least Terns. These tiny birds are such fun to photograph in their springtime courtship displays!

Shorebirds in Flight
Shorebirds in Flight – Least Terns, Royal Terns, Sandwich Terns, and a Laughing Gull

Least Tern courtship is all about the fish. Males fly out over the ocean and grab tiny fish from the water. They bring the fish back and present them to a prospective mate. It’s like a birdie way of saying, “will you marry me?” I had to laugh as one bird showed off his fish to a wooden decoy placed in the roped-off nesting area.

Will You Marry Me?
Will You Marry Me?

I’ve never had much luck with Least Tern flight shots. On this particular morning, opportunities abounded as the colony repeatedly spooked and took to the air. As the birds returned to the beach, they often came in with fish…

Least Tern in Flight
Least Tern in Flight

One of the females accepted the male’s proposals. He flew in with an exceptional fish, and he danced it in front of the female’s face for a couple of minutes. Then she accepted him. I think it’s safe to say that we’ll have baby terns on Sanibel in a month or so!

Least Tern Fish Exchange
Least Tern Fish Exchange

Burrowing Owls in Cape Coral

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For years I’ve been wanting to visit Cape Coral during Burrowing Owl nesting season. Cape Coral has the largest population of breeding Burrowing Owls in Florida. I’ve enjoyed photographing Burrowing Owls in the past, both in Central Florida and at Brian Piccolo Park in southeast Florida. The attraction of Cape Coral is the large number of nests. While I’d heard that it would be easy to find owls, it surprised me just how easy. Rich and I had a fun afternoon of driving around, looking for burrows, and then photographing one nest in gorgeous golden afternoon light.

Burrowing Owl at Burrow
Burrowing Owl at Burrow

The Burrowing Owl is one of the smallest owls, and it’s the only one that nests underground. The above photo shows an adult owl just outside the burrow, which can extend 10 feet underground. All the known burrows in Cape Coral are marked with PVC pipe and little crosses. When we first drove into town, I started saying “there’s one! There’s another one! Wow, they’re all over!” Rich got to be a very good owl-spotter. Thanks, honey! :)

Burrowing Owl Family with Large Babies
Burrowing Owl Family with Large Babies

The birds begin to breed in February, and babies come out of the burrows starting in April. Before the babies hatch, the dad usually stands watch outside the burrow while Mom incubates below. The best nests to photograph are the ones with babies. There’s never a dull moment with a bunch of young ones to feed!

Burrowing Owl Parent and Chick
Burrowing Owl Parent and Chick

As the afternoon light improved, I settled down by a nest with (I thought) two babies. Many of the well-photographed burrows are now empty due to too much love from humans, so I was careful to approach quietly, sit still, use my Beast, and not stay as long as I really wanted to. :) By sitting low to the ground, you get a beautiful blurred background and wonderful portraits of these fun birds.

Burrowing Owl Babies
Burrowing Owl Babies

The babies are so cute! Their downy feathers and big eyes are great. They are such fun to watch as they come out of the burrow, stretch their legs and wings, and beg for food from their parents. They bob their heads repeatedly and move their heads in funny circles as they watch their nest area.

Burrowing Owlet
Sleepy Burrowing Owlet

The parents sit close by, watching carefully over their little family. Dad sat on a nearby cross and Mom alternated between perching above the nest and standing outside the burrow. She looked tired – raising a family takes a lot of energy!

Burrowing Owl – Tired Mommy

When I first spotted the nest, I thought there were two babies in it. Then a surprise popped out of the burrow…three babies! The two younger babies stood begging for dinner while the older baby ran around stretching his wings. He did these little hop-skip-jumps that were just adorable. Look at the pin feathers on his wings!

Burrowing Owlet Stretching His Wings
Burrowing Owlet Stretching His Wings

The little owls made raspy crying noises every time the parents moved. They clearly wanted some food. The parents ignored the begging and the babies eventually gave up and ate whatever tasty morsel Dad had left at the entrance of the burrow. I could see them nibbling, although thankfully, I couldn’t see on what!

The babies make it very clear to Mom when they are hungry…

Burrowing Owlet Begging for Food
Burrowing Owlet Begging for Food

…and if Mom doesn’t respond, the babies can be a little vicious. Look at how this baby is trying to stab Mommy in the eye! Mom just sat there and took it.

Not the Nicest Little Owlet
Not the Nicest Little Owlet

The gorgeous afternoon light got sweeter and sweeter, and the surprises weren’t over for the evening. Two more little owlets made an appearance of the burrow, bringing the total to five babies. I sat mesmerized, sometimes forgetting to hit the shutter button, as I watched the nightly routine of these birds. Somehow I managed to squeeze Mom and all 5 babies into the frame at one point…but getting everybody to look at the camera at the same time was too much to ask!

Burrowing Owl Mom and her Five Babies
Burrowing Owl Mom and her Five Babies

The smallest chick spent the least amount of time outside the burrow. He came out, walked a few steps into the nearby grass, and took a nap.

Sleepy Smallest Owlet
Sleepy Smallest Owlet

The people of Cape Coral are very proud of their owls, and as I packed up my gear, I chatted with several locals about the owlets and the nest. It was such a fun afternoon! I look forward to going back another year, maybe a week or two earlier to catch the babies when they are smaller.

Colorful Migrants at Fort De Soto’s Mulberry Trees

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After Monday’s magical morning at the East Beach at Fort De Soto, I headed to the mulberry trees to look for more migrant birds. The first bird I saw was one I had missed earlier in the morning, a bright red Scarlet Tanager.

Scarlet Tanager
Scarlet Tanager

For years I drove by the mulberry trees without giving them a second glance. They’re just the trees around the ranger’s house. But during a week or two in April, they are a magical place filled with colorful songbirds passing through Florida on their migratory route north.

A pair of Indigo Buntings was hanging out in some low bushes. The beautiful male flashed his bright blue colors and the female’s brown feathers glistened in the sun.

Indigo Bunting (Male)
Indigo Bunting (Male)
Indigo Bunting (Female)
Indigo Bunting (Female)

The oak tree next to the ranger’s house is a great place to watch for warblers. Like this Black-and-white Warbler, who paused briefly in his bug hunt to stop and look at my camera.

Black-and-White Warbler
Black-and-White Warbler

There were several Black-throated Green Warblers hopping around. First they stayed high in the tree, then they headed down into some branches right overhead. At times I could have reached out to touch them. Definitely a case of “too much lens” but that’s not a hard problem to solve – you just have to zoom with your feet! ;-)

Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler

Off in the distance, I spotted a small bird with spots of yellow. I followed him for about half an hour as he came, went, and got closer. First I got an ID picture. Then I got a closer picture. Then I got a photo that I actually like! Say hello to the Yellow-throated Vireo…

Yellow-throated Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and the occasional oriole flitted in the trees overhead. There were more females than males. This one didn’t have mulberry stains on her chin.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Female)
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Female)

I moved over to the fountain area and stood watching as the colorful feathers went by. The light was really bad but how often do you get to photograph these birds in FL? This Tennessee Warbler paused in a mulberry tree before hopping over to the fountain for a drink.

Tennessee Warbler
Tennessee Warbler

A Yellow Warbler flew by the fountain but didn’t like the branches that people had placed near the fountain. He circled around the fountain a few times and then took cover in some nearby palm trees. He’s not a fan of photographer-placed perches near his favorite water hole!

Yellow Warbler
Yellow Warbler

A few minutes later, a Painted Bunting hopped over to the fountain. He’s a “greenie,” either a female or a juvenile male. In my yard, the males all disappeared around mid-April (just in time for Tax Day!) The males migrate first, followed by the greenies about 10 days later.

Painted Bunting (Greenie)
Painted Bunting (Greenie)

Sometimes it pays to just stand and watch. After a Northern Parula and a Cape May Warbler flew in front of me, I spotted a small dark warbler in the palms. She’s a Blackpoll Warbler, a bird with one of the longest migration routes known.

Blackpoll Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler

My last bird of the day was this female American Redstart. These small warblers are best identified by their fan-like tails and their propensity to hop quickly through the branches, which makes them quite a challenge to photograph. I must have taken 50 shots where the bird was blurry or just plain missing from the image. So you can imagine my happy dance when I saw a frame that was in focus! ;-)

American Redstart (Female)
American Redstart (Female)