Monday, May 30, 2011

The snowy egret

Memorial weekend provided me quality time at the rookeries. I spent the first day on Biscayne Bay (see the previous post titled "Cosmopolitan bird") and the second day at the pelican rookery in the Everglades (see previous post titled "The great white egret"). During other visits to the rookery, I have watched several snowy egrets and rarely got an opportunity to photograph them. First, they are very shy, they hide well and their flight pattern changes to avoid an intruder. Second, their nests sit low inside the tangled mangrove branches where they cannot be seen well. And third, there are fewer of them compared to the pelicans and great white egrets. So capturing a snowy egret nest scene has been impossible. In my three years visiting this rookery, I've captured one shot of a snowy flying in with a twig in its mouth, the closest I have come to photographing a nesting behavior. And only once have I witnessed a snowy adult feeding its babies. Unfortunately, I could barely see what was happening over the mangroves and certainly not well enough to photograph.

I keep trying to photograph these yellow-slippered birds, graceful in their flight. They tend to fight amongst themselves and sometimes this is demonstrated with crest raising, a beautiful display of feathers. The snowy egret is a very fierce defender of its nest and the surrounding area. I watched one or two of the adults stand alert in a fairly high position on the mangroves and call out frequently with a sharp squacking tone, I suspect a warning to the other birds to stay away. But again, capturing any of this is so difficult, sometimes because of poor lighting and most often because everything gets in the way.

Today, I had a bit more luck with these birds. One thing they do often is forage around the muddy ground along the mangrove roots. If I am lucky enough, one will walk itself into good light removed from the shadows of the mangroves. Here's one shot, although the bird decided to stand alert as it felt exposed.

There were a concentrated number of snowys in one end of an island that is about 6 ft from the end of a second island. This was a challenging location to photograph a bird with lots of shadows and busy background and foreground. I managed a few flight shots but no interaction between birds. Notice the great white egret chick looking up, a frequent posture for those birds as they wait for mom to come back with food.

There were a couple juvenile birds in one particular spot. One was brave and stood out among the mangroves well enough to photograph. My first thought was that this was a juvy snowy egret; after all, it was among adult snowy egrets. Later, I was speaking with Jason, one of the eco tour guides in the Everglades and he thought it was a reddish egret. If it was, that would be quite a remarkable find. So I did some investigating when I got home. I found my answer in the Stokes field guide to birds book.

Reddish egret - all black bill
Snowy egret - bright yellow facial skin at base of bill clearly distinguishes it from the similar immature little blue heron
Little blue heron - gray facial skin at base of the bill clearly distinguishes it from the similar snowy egret

Here are a couple photos of the bird. What do you think? Definitely a snowy egret!

If I ever get a good shot of a snowy egret, I consider myself lucky. Generally, I do not see many snowy egrets close enough to photograph on Biscayne Bay or out here in the Everglades. Once, I sat for an hour in my boat near a lone snowy egret on Biscayne Bay. It was so intent on fishing that it barely took notice of me, only 10-15 ft away. Another time I was on Florida Bay in front of the Flamingo marina where a large mud flat was covered with birds. There were several dozen snowy egrets wading around; a one time event for me. What was so fun about this scene were the equal number of laughing gulls that would chase the snowy egret after it worked to capture a bait fish. In flight, one or more gulls would try to gang up on the snowy and steal its booty. Here is a photo from each of those lucky moments.

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