Friday, January 8, 2016

Birds of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

 Not only does the Corkscrew Swamp contain the largest remnant of old-growth bald cypress in the world, it also hosts a lot of birds. Over 200 species have been sighted there, and while that's not as many as you might find on a wildlife refuge in a migration flyway, say, in rural eastern Oregon, it's still a respectable number. What was great about Corkscrew was how dang close those birds were. The boardwalk takes you deep into the swamp and there are literally birds everywhere, sometimes just a few feet from the walkway.

Before heading out onto the trail, we stopped at the visitor's center and checked the board for recent sightings. While I am happy to just go for a walk and take pictures, there's always that part of me that wants to log a new bird. I don't recall now all of the species on the list (I wish I'd taken a picture of the board) but one that stuck out was a Blue-headed Vireo. I'd never even heard of this bird (although it does migrate through Michigan) so we made that our target bird. Wouldn't you know, it would be one of the first birds we'd see, right in the area where the list said we'd find it. I wish they were all that easy!

Blue-headed Vireo in some deep shade. Pretty little bird with a touch of yellow and bold white eye ring.

Lots of little birds flitted about the swamp, including this female Palm Warbler. I wish I'd gotten better shots, but she was clinging to this branch above the water and nabbing insects from the surface. I love watching their behavior as much as I enjoy their sheer beauty.

Female Palm Warbler on the hunt.

The little birds are very difficult to photograph because they move so dang fast, and, in a situation like this, they are usually in the shade, which means slow shutter speeds and, consequently, blurry photos. I was really happy, then, to get a few decent shots of a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher more or less in focus, from tip to tip, with a bonus of a tasty morsel in its beak. I need to practice shooting with a fill flash to help stop movement and bring these guys out of the darkness.

Blue-grey Gnatcatcher with a spider--yum!

I think one of the things I love so much about photographing birds is it brings me closer to them. Not only do I get to study them in the field, through the lens, but I get to study them further at home, months or even years later. And there's always the challenge of getting a better image of a bird I've already seen. It goes like this:

1) Get an image, any image, of a bird seen for the first time
2) Try to get better images of a bird already photographed
3) Finally capture that "OMG I can't expect to do better than that" image that all photographers dream of.

I have very few number threes, which is what keeps me going back out into the field, keeps me shooting. This image is not a level three, but is certainly a number two--I'd only gotten fairly poor images of Great-crested Flycatchers until I came across this gorgeous bird. While its crest is not raised you do get a good look at those rusty primaries.

Good looks were had of a Great-crested Flycatcher.

But the birds who stole the show in the swamp were the wading birds. Holy moly, they were all over, and close. Little Blue Herons were plentiful, and we watched as this one nabbed a tasty treat then paused to scratch an itch.

Little Blue Heron.

White Ibis were everywhere, probably the most plentiful bird in the sanctuary. I was able to get good shots from a variety of angles. I like this one showing its narrow bill and blue eyes.

White Ibis in the soft afternoon sun.

This is not the greatest quality image as this bird was in some deep shade but as you can see, he found himself quite a meal in a large black crayfish. They probe the muddy bottom with that long narrow bill until they bump up against something, then bring it up and inspect it. He swallowed this crustacean whole.

Ibis and crayfish. The water behind the bird is really pretty, I just noticed.

There were a lot of immature Black-crowned Nightherons too, and we watched this youngster stalking prey. He eventually lunged but came up empty.

Imm. Black-crowned Nightheron hunting.

I waffled back and forth about whether this is an Anhinga or Double-crested Cormorant but I have finally settled on Anhinga--the red eye is what finally settled it. Cormorants have green eyes. In any case, it had speared this fish, and we watched as it worked it off it's bill and swallowed it. This is one of the only shots not obstructed by a branch, which is also another challenge when shooting in the woods.

Anhinga and an unfortunate fish.

Did I mention that the birds where really close? This is an uncropped image of a Great Egret who was just below the boardwalk, stalking prey.

Almost too close to see!

The sanctuary boardwalk closed at sunset and we were hungry, so we hustled through the last half mile or so and headed back to the van for a picnic lunch, then went back out to the boardwalk to cover that last bit more leisurely. Much to my delight, right past the visitor's center at the intersection of the loop, was a male Pileated Woodpecker, going to town on a pine tree. Oh happy day! Getting pileated shots is not easy--in most places they are pretty shy birds. But this one, well, he didn't care at all about the people milling about underneath as he searched for insects. I did a piece based on this bird as soon as I had a chance--maybe the fastest I've turned a photo around to art. It sold at the first show it was displayed. Guess I should do some more!

The magnificent Pileated Woodpecker.

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