A taste of Florida

The trouble with going to Florida for bird photography at this time of the year isn’t the distance involved and certainly not the weather (even if like me you prefer colder climates to hotter ones). No it’s the fact that it’s long been a birdwatchers mecca and with good reason – there are birds everywhere and they are incredibly approachable by comparison with here in Europe – so when it comes to blogging about the last couple of weeks I’ve just spent there (1 week holiday 1 week running a Natures Images trip) it would be all to easy to simply roll off image after image of different species in an almost tick list manner.

Given that I have the luxury of being able to post across 3 different blogs though, I’ve decided to use that to my advantage and concentrate here (the first post) on how I always seek to get as much in depth coverage of species as I can when travelling as that’s what really motivates me. You can see more coverage of the trip here and also here .

There are two types of Pelican to be found in Florida at this time of year – the resident Brown Pelican and the winter residents the White Pelican.  Behaviourally very different from each other the resident browns can be seen in a bewildering array of plumages from mature adults as above through juveniles and breeding adults (with a chocolate brown neck) as below.

The Brown Pelican is actually a common sight around the coast and associated lakes and lagoons across the state – every fisherman there (and there are many) knows them well as they regularly hang out at fishing piers and around boatyards in search of any throwaways.  They may be highly visible now but back in the 1970’s they were in serious decline as the local equivalent to peregrines here in Britain being at the top of the food chain that suffered with heavy use of DDT and similar pesticides in the food chain.  thirty or so years of conservation work and they are now recommended to come off the threatened species list here which is great news, as an evening spent sitting on a fishing pier watching them splash around like swans as the day drew to a close was particularly enjoyable.

Unlike their White relatives who fish as a group, herding their prey for a collective feeding frenzy, Brown Pelicans act as individuals, either diving from flight or skipping across shallow lagoons to grab at fish, holding them tight in their enormous pouches until they have manoeuvred them into place and drained the water out in order to swallow them down.

Occasionally though they attract the attention of the local Gull population when they have made a catch and some of them can be particularly keen to get part of the meal that’s on offer and take full advantage of the delay time that draining takes!

White Pelicans move up country and away from the coast to breed and certainly live a much more co-operative lifestyle – it was rare to see one on it’s own and if it was it was never to far away from others, and they help each other when it comes to herding fish all of which are caught from the water surface. As they enter the beginnings of the breeding season they also grow unusual plates on their upper mandibles, no doubt to show off their prowess.

Ever since I first became interested in US birds one species that I have always wanted to spend time with is the truly unique and quite extraordinary Black Skimmer.  In past attempts both here in Florida and also in California I had always been unlucky and so it was with great relief and with many thanks to local photographer Michael Wolf who very kindly pointed me in the direction of his local late wintering resident group that I was finally able to spend some time with these fabulous birds.

It didn’t look particularly hopeful when we first arrived – the beach was heaving with people and was overlooked by huge buildings and I simply couldn’t believe they would be there.  But Michael was true to his word and sure enough we found a group settled up on the sand and enjoying the afternoon sun just like the human visitors!

All they wanted to be doing for the afternoon was resting and the occasional beak stretch and preening exercise.

This extraordinary proximity to large numbers of people is one of Florida’s highlights, but sadly the birds are not always respected.  Michael told frustrating tales of parents setting their phones on video and sending their children charging into the group to film them all taking off, and although illegal here people walking dogs who chase them around.  Even while we were trying to take pictures people seemed quite oblivious to their presence (and ours) and simply walk right through them!  Definitely some scope for a bit more local awareness methinks!

As the day came to a close the birds would head off individually or in small groups for a drink and a bathe, very occasionally dragging that characteristic lower mandible through the water (their feeding style – a nerve in it snaps it shut when it touches a fish or similar object) before eventually flying off en masse to their overnight roost.

Two magnificent species, real highlights of Florida in my opinion and certainly among the many highlights of a great trip.  Look out for more on the Natures Images blog soon too!

4 thoughts on “A taste of Florida”

  1. A great account Mark and thanks for sharing your experiences. You mention the ease of getting close to these birds in comparison to here in EU. What did you find was your most useful lens on this trip? I guess in EU most people would reach for a 500mm or 600mm but I imagine that might be too long for Florida. Thanks

  2. Thanks both – Austin a 600mm will be too much for sure but I would definitely take a 500mm (I like the perspective of a long lens) but you do find yourself backing off a lot of the time! I used the 70-200mm with a converter a fair amount of the time too. Practicalities of travel aside a 300mm is a great option there too or if you shoot Nikon then the 200-400mm would be perfect.

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