Monday, March 25, 2013

Clapper Rail

Florida 2013 continued

This year's Florida blog is taking a long time. That's OK, really, since winter is in no hurry to loosen its grip here in Michigan. A few more posts and I should be done.

While I was photographing the American bittern that my mother had spotted from the van, she had wandered farther down the road.  Withing a few minutes she called out yet another bird. Bob and Joyce, the birders we'd met along the way, and I rushed to see what she'd found this time.

There in the ditch was a rail, working its way from the far to near shore. I only managed a few shots before it was out of view. I was so excited to have seen yet another new bird, but frustrated at not getting good shots or even knowing exactly what it was.

A rail, but which one??

I went back to shooting the bittern when mom found another rail on the other side of the road. We all jockeyed into position. "Clapper rail!" someone called out. I really couldn't believe my luck. They started calling my mother Ol' Eagle Eye.

Clapper rail working the mudflats along the ditch.

She worked her way through the mangrove knees, then veered away from the water and out of sight. I got distracted by a pair of Great Southern white butterflies feeding along the side of the road.

Within a few moments the rail emerged again. You can see why they're so hard to find! Anyone cruising down the road at 10 mph would never see this bird.

She made her way into deeper water. None of these birds were living up to their shy reputations. Perhaps the rather cold night (lower 40's) had caused them to burn more calories to stay warm and forced them to feed a bit more carelessly.

She continued down the water's edge, belly deep in the muck, until she moved off again into the mangroves and out of sight.  

How far would you or I sink in this muck?!?

What an amazing morning it had been. I took this image at around noon, which meant in about two hours I'd seen and photographed four new species. That would be the end of the firsts for me (bird-wise anyway) but there were still some exciting encounters to come.

Next: Finish the Black Point Drive, morning version, then off to the Visitor Center.

Friday, March 22, 2013


I am not sure what it is about giraffes but I discovered pretty early on in my art career that people are nuts about them. I did a couple of giraffe pieces when I first started doing shows because I happened to have a bunch of images from a trip to the Brevard County Zoo in Florida from years back. They were in graphite, done before I switched to pen and ink and colored pencil.

This happens to be one of those pieces I did eight years ago, and I decided to reproduce it in color because I have always liked this pose. It was taken from an observation deck and so is from an angle one would not normally see a giraffe from. This is a young female, several feet shorter than the adults that were in the enclosure with her.

"Spot On", colored pencil and ink, 22.5 x 11.5, $950.00

Prints will be forthcoming and can be ordered directly from my website,

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

American Bittern!

Florida 2013 continued

After seeing the sora and the loggerhead shrike I was pretty geeked. We'd only been in the park for 45 minutes or so and I already had two new birds (the reddish egret and the sora) and had seen a behavior I'd never witnessed (the shrike impaling the warbler). I'd also met some birders who we ended up hanging with for a little while, Bob and Janet Sanders of Crow Tours, who lead birding tours in Central Florida (you can reach them at 407-454-0542).

We returned to our vans and crept along the Black Point drive. It was not too long--only a few tenths of a mile perhaps--before my mother pointed out another bird on the far bank of the canal that runs along the road. I leaned forward and looked out her window to see an American bittern standing motionless in the water, right out in the open. I couldn't believe our luck!

The ever watchful American bittern.

Bob and Joyce pulled in behind us and we all got out to photograph and gawk. It's fun when people who see lots of birds still get as excited about a bird they've seen dozens of times as someone who has never seen one. I think we feed off each other.

I moved a little farther down the road to get some profile shots.

Then the bittern started to walk away through the shallow water. I hoped we weren't bothering it--the bird was literally less than 10 feet away.

I think it looks like an armadillo from behind.

 I finally picked up the tripod and scurried around to catch up.

I thought for a moment it was going to assume its defensive position, where it lifts its head up and points its beak to the sky in an attempt to look like grasses and reeds along the bank. That would have been neat to see, but instead the bird continued down the canal.

This image has great possibilities!

Herons and cranes, with their eyes located pretty far forward, have limited binocular vision which helps with depth perception when hunting prey. Here the bittern is clearly studying the water off to the side...


...while here it is looking forward.

It is amazing to me how perfectly colored and patterned this bird is, mirroring the colors and patterns of its habitat, right down to the greenish-yellow bill and legs.

It looks like it's about to call out, but it never made a sound.

I kept waiting for the bird to strike, but it never did. Ah well, you can't have everything!

As I was taking in the bittern I heard my mom, from farther up the road, announce that she'd found another bird....

Next:  The firsts continue!

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Sora and the Butcher Bird

Florida 2013 continued

I could have stayed with the reddish egret all day, but we had a lot of ground to cover yet. My plan was to get around Black Point Drive, head over to the Visitor Center to look for songbirds, then do the Black Point Drive again in the evening. We hadn't gotten far when I spotted three Northern shovelers close to the road. I stopped and hopped out. This is a bird I've seen before but didn't have very good images of. Unfortunately I didn't do much to improve on what I already had.

Northern shovelers, two males and a female.

For the most part, this was all I saw of them.

"Um, excuse me? Over here! Oh hell...."

Where the drive makes its first big turn to the right there is a large parking area (sponsored, I think, by Ducks Unlimited) and a couple of short trails along the levee tops. One of them has two wooden observation platforms, so we parked and walked down to the first platform. There were many shorebirds in the shallow water and mud flats along the levee. My heart sinks a little when I see these birds because they are so damned hard to identify.

I think these are dunlin. Hard to tell so far away.

These least sandpipers were quick to take to the air, zipping here and there, alighting and taking off again en masse. How do I know they are least sandpipers? I can assure you I didn't when I took the picture. I got home and looked them up in Sibley's....

Least sandpipers on the wing.

...and ID'd them thanks to these two birds. Considering range and habitat is important, too, but three things stood out:  Greenish-yellow legs (unique among sandpipers, or peeps, according to Sibley); white outer tail feathers and dark, V-shaped upper tail coverts; and the white wing bar.

This is why it is important to have a bird guide that shows them in flight!

Going through my photos I discovered this little guy, different still from the other shorebirds. This bird's short, thick beak puts it in the plover family. Based on size and winter range I think it's a black-bellied plover.

ID-ing shorebirds would be so much easier if I saw them in summer, wearing their breeding plumage. They all look the same in winter!!

When we had first pulled up to the parking area there was a group of birders with cameras and scopes pointed into the shrubbery. They were leaving by the time we got to the trail, but I overheard one say something about a shrike. I looked around but didn't see one. But while I was watching the shorebirds someone flew past. I looked and saw this loggerhead shrike perched atop the signpost. I was thrilled to get a few good images before it flew off again. I had seen one before but at a much greater distance.

Loggerhead shrike posing nicely. Later he would not be so nice....

On our way back to the car from the observation platform we met up with another group of birders. I have decided that this is one of the best things that can happen when you're birding alone, especially in an area you're not all that familiar with. The fellow leading the group (I forget this name now) had a pretty good idea where certain birds tended to be, and within minutes he had pointed out one of my target birds for the trip--a SORA! (This was probably what the first group had been watching.)

I have to admit here that I was one of those really annoying people who, no matter how hard I looked, could not find this bird at first. I could see where everyone else was looking but I just couldn't find it. I didn't realize she was in the water. Just a little embarrassing.

Most of the images I got looked like this, with some part of her blocked by foliage.

Male and female soras look alike, so I have no real idea if this is a male or female.

I did get a few clear shots. I was just excited to have seen one! She was either eating the algae off the roots of this mangrove or picking something out of the algae, I couldn't quite tell which.

While this was going on one of the fellas in the group announced that behind us, in a shrub on the other side of the levee, a shrike (possibly the one I'd photographed earlier) had caught a common yellowthroat (a warbler) and impaled it on a branch and was eating it.


We all scurried to the other side of the trail, trying to catch a glimpse. There were a few gasps. This is common behavior for shrikes but the general consensus was that no one had seen a shrike impale a bird before. Grasshoppers, frogs, things like that, but never a bird. I didn't get a very clear look at the scene, but I'm kind of OK with that. Yeesh.

It's not called the "Butcher Bird" for nothing! Shrikes don't have the strong feet and talons of raptors so after they catch and kill their prey they impale it on a thorn so they can tear it up and eat it. Mmmmm!

 After the dismembered warbler fell off the thorn and out of sight, I went back over to the sora.


Next: More firsts, thanks to Mom's eagle eye!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Reddish Egret Video

After dithering around for over an hour trying to find, download and install video editing software, and then editing the video to a size Blogger would accept, I am finally done. The quality is poor--it was not shot this way but it was the only way to get it to upload. If I can get better quality video to post I will.

The wind is howling into the mic, and the rustle you can hear is the palm tree I'm standing next to, as sort of camouflage.This was taken with my Canon 60D mounted on a ball head on my tripod--not the best for shooting nice steady video, I have discovered. Plus, I am sure there is a way to adjust the exposure but I didn't know how. I will have to work on my videography!

The bird wandering around in the background is a little blue heron. Despite the poor quality this still makes me laugh every time I see it.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Reddish Egret, Clown of the Bird World

Every year before my trip down to Florida I flip through some bird guides, looking for a species or two that I really want to see. Several years ago it was a Northern shrike (check!). Last year it was a painted bunting (check!). This year I didn't have so much a specific bird in mind but any bird within a whole family of birds--the Rallidae, or rail family. Small and elusive, I had never seen one. A few years ago Lisa and Lori caught a quick glimpse of one along the road at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, but I was not quick enough and missed it

So Friday was the big birding day for my mom and me, when we drove north to the Merritt Island NWR. Entering the Black Pond Wildlife Drive I told my mom about the rails and the habitat where they're found. I figured our best bet was to look along the edges of the marshes nearest the road, where they tend to weave in and out of grassy hummocks and mangrove roots. We drove along slowly, peering into the ditches.

When we reached the first big pond, where the girls and I had seen the American avocets and had our close encounter with a roseate spoonbill last year, I caught sight of another bird I'd seen in Sibley's. I remembered thinking, as I looked at the illustration, huh, I've never even heard of that bird--that would be cool to see. 

That bird was the reddish egret.

Reddish egret at MINWR.

I of course leaped out of the van. I tried not to rush getting my equipment together but I was so excited!

I remembered that Sibley mentioned how animated these birds were when foraging. I was not disappointed. The bird ran and jumped and pirouetted through the water. He would run one way then stop abruptly and run the other way. I laughed out loud watching this clown catch fish, which he managed to do with surprising frequency.

He would often throw up his wings in a sort of semi-mantling technique, sometimes while he was running.


Occasionally he would pause,

and strike.

It was a windy and chilly morning for central Florida, about 45 degrees at 10am with north winds around 15 to 20 mph.  I had all the warm clothes on that I'd brought, along with ear muffs and gloves. But the wind made for some interesting images.

 What a joy this bird was to watch!

A rare moment of stillness.

I shot some (very) amateur video of this bird because photos didn't do justice to it energy and fishing style. I will try to figure out how to edit it and post it down the line.

Next: Target bird in sight!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Chance Encounter at the Zoo

Florida 2013 continued

Thursday was somewhat of an unplanned day. The weather had turned chilly and breezy, and I did not want to spend such a cold day out in the open at the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge. I know, I'm from Michigan and should be used to the cold, but hey, this was Florida! I decided Friday looked like a better day for the refuge, so that left Thursday blank.

Looking over some literature I'd brought, (I am a brochure whore, picking up fliers and pamphlets and maps at every rest area and hotel), I found a brochure for the Brevard County Zoo. Only about a half hour away in Melbourn, I hadn't been there in years. The pamphlet was old so I got online and checked their website. Looking over the list of animals I saw they had a jaguar. That settled it for me! Off to the zoo we went.

I am on the fence about zoos. I hate caging animals--I don't even like having our chickens penned. Zoos are certainly getting better about providing their animals with stimulating environments but some do it better than others. The Brevard Zoo is small so the enclosures are small, and I couldn't help but feel bad for some of the animals who where clearly suffering in their confinement.

We made our way to the Central/South American section of the zoo and to the jaguar enclosure. He was up on a platform, with his back to the glass, snoozing. It is, after all, what cats do best. He stirred occasionally, but he refused to look toward the viewing area. Can't say as I blame him.


I got a few shots that might be usable but nothing that I am real excited about. If I'd been by myself I would have sat there pretty much all day, but I wasn't going to leave my mother to wander the zoo by herself so we came and went a few times.

On our last visit he had moved off the platform to a sunny patch on the ground near the glass, but still had his back to me. Mom went out to the car to have a cigarette and I stayed, waiting for him to move. He did, finally, walking to the back of his cage then around to the platform. I got one good shot of him as he glanced my way. Hopefully I can find something in the batch of photos that I can use for a new piece. I love the big cats, so intelligent and intense.

The highlight of the day was completely unexpected and did not involve a zoo resident. We had lunch at the cafe, which I was delighted to see had black bean burgers and sweet potato fries.  While we sat in the picnic area and ate, my mom asked what the brown bird behind me was. I turned and saw an immature boat-tailed grackle on a fence post--nothing to get excited about. A few minutes later she asked me again. I got a little annoyed and repeated, boat-tailed grackle! But she pointed and said, no, that one on the ground behind you. I turned around and looked, and gave a little yelp, and grabbed my camera. There, rummaging through the wood chips, where four or five Northern bobwhite!

Sweet little chicken face! Northern bobwhite hen.

We have bobwhite here, have heard them on our property, but I'd never seen one before. (That's not quite true--Lori and I were out doing some target practice with the .22 a few years ago and on the first shot flushed a bobwhite and a pheasant. But I only caught a glimpse and obviously didn't get a picture!)

Male Northern bobwhite.
The Northern bobwhite is a game bird with a pretty wide distribution. There are 22 subspecies of bobwhite, most of which inhabit Mexico and Central America.  This is probably the Florida bobwhite, Colinus virginianus floridanus, although I am not certain about that. As these were clearly not zoo inhabitants I am counting them on my life list (I only count birds seen in the "wild"). Perhaps a pair of bobwhite will be on my list of future works!

Next up:  Many firsts at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Skimmers Take Flight

Florida 2013 continued

As folks strolled or jogged up and down the beach at Sheppard Park, the black skimmers seemed to be particularly disturbed. The other birds, including these royal terns in the foreground, watched as the skimmers took to the air over and over again. For me this was an opportunity to get some shots of these odd birds in the air.

I have remarked on their unusually long and narrow wings but have not read anything specific about why they are built that way. My assumption is it aids in their low-to-the-water flight, perhaps allowing for more lift with a necessarily foreshortened down stroke as they fly just inches above the water.

While the body length of a skimmer averages around 18 inches, its wingspan averages 46 inches, or nearly four feet!

In any case they are nearly as gangly looking in the air as on the beach, but to watch them fly in such close formations mere feet above the ground is a beautiful sight.

Up in the air they'd go, flying down the beach, only to circle around and land pretty much where they'd started.

I didn't mind. I had fun shooting them on the wing, learning to trust the camera to focus on a subject.

I really like this image, with the wave rolling in behind the birds. So much movement and energy.

 Without question, dawn on the beach is one of my favorite things about Florida.

Next: A surprise at the zoo