Last week one of my colleagues, Catlin Brewer, was in the area for work and we made a plan to spend a couple hours training on digiscoping & wildlife photographic techniques with the Leica equipment.
I picked him up at his hotel just as the sun was cresting the horizon in the early morn. Practicing digiscoping could of course be done anywhere and on any subject, but I decided to track down some of the Florida specialties found in the area. This would offer a more true to life birding experience where we’d be shooting from the hip as we searched for birds, plus he’d have an opportunity to see some species he didn’t see at home in South Carolina.
The first of these species presented itself immediately, feeding and vocalizing right in the hotel parking lot as the sun was just peeking above the horizon. A pair of Gray Kingbirds greeted the dawn enthusiastically, perched high on the hunt for large insects, their large heads and bills strongly silhouetted against the coloring sky.
“Kee-Krrrrrrrrrrrr” A clear sharp entry note followed by a rapid & loud trill, similar to the calls of the Tropical Kingbirds so ubiquitous across Central America. The Gray Kingbird is a Caribbean bird species that has found its way to Florida and inhabits most of the peninsula in the summer months to breed. Despite the appearance above, they are actually dark gray on the back with a slightly darker gray mask through the eye, and white below. In these first rays of shadowed, golden light they almost appeared to be yellow below and much darker overall. If we waited on the sun we’d have seen these more clearly, but we had just a few hours to commit and I wanted to cover some ground.
In real life suburban birding, sometimes the viewing and photo ops can require special effort and ingenuity as here. Unlike a zoo where a critter will reliably be in its predetermined spot, wild birds get to select where they will be and you then have to find them. In this instance a locked perimeter fence at a small regional airport presents a challenge to clear photography, and keeps us from approaching closer. To combat this we turned to the superior magnification of digiscoping through the spotting scope (this particular set up has an equivalent focal length of a 1,400 mm lens!) The fence itself presented a visual barrier to photography here as well. So we utilized a gap in a gate, placed the scope in the perfect location, raised it high enough to get above the center post, and then rotated the angled eyepiece back downward for viewing… as I said ingenuity! Here Catlin uses a Leica Q camera to get images of our second local specialty of the day.
When I first moved to this area there were close to 30 locations to view Burrowing Owls but now there is only one left. Many of these locations fell victim to human habituation and a construction boom. Unfortunately, this is big business here in Florida and contractors have been able to literally “take” an owl burrow by filling it outside of the breeding season. This merely required purchasing the proper permit and having a private firm document that the pair is not nesting at that point in time. This last remaining group in Charlotte County has found a stronghold behind the locked gates of the County Airport. Burrowing Owls are mostly found in the Western United States but a small isolated population in Florida exists as well. The Florida birds are paler in markings than the western birds and may well show enough genetic diversity to be considered a separate species – researchers are investigating this now. If declared a separate species, these birds would be a lot easier to protect, politically speaking than being a separate sub-species of a larger population.
The adult birds like the digiscoped bird on the pipe at top, have pale underparts with light reddish-brown, horizontal bars below, while juveniles like the one immediately above have solid colored bellies washed in a rich buffy or tan tones. The adults perched higher, watching the horizon for threats like Bald Eagles or ground predators ready to sound the alarm if necessary. The juveniles generally sat on the ground closer to the entrance to the burrow in the wet grass.
Northern Bobwhites were calling all around giving the familiar “Bob-Whiiiiite!” call for which they are named, and some were looking for drier alternatives to the dripping wet grass this AM. The male above was singing from the top of the chain link fence here until chased out by a blackbird.
Another male Bobwhite preferred the short grass, mowed margins at roadside and did not seem eager to “take a bath” in the very wet taller surrounding grass providing a nice photo opportunity.
Another tried & true, well known approach to wildlife photography is using the car as a blind, and many of our images were taken from the car including the Bobwhite in the grass above and the Cottontail below. Again note the heavy water droplets on the grasses.
The next specialty bird required us getting out of the car and taking a short walk, braving some of that wet grass, but the sacrifice was well worth the reward! At the far end of a nearby field sat three of Florida’s most iconic & special bird species. The Florida Scrub Jay is the only true endemic species to Florida (meaning it can literally be found nowhere else in the world). They are an intelligent, social species breeding in co-operative family groups where siblings from past broods assist in raising the new young. Many of the corvids (Jays, Magpies, Crows & Ravens) show higher intelligence than many bird species so this is not surprising. I think it is safe to say that this is not only the MOST special bird species we would see this day, BUT is also undoubtedly Catlin’s new BEST digiscoped image ever. I must be a great teacher…. OK or maybe it’s the incredible optical prowess of Leica lenses, but either way a stunning image! 😉
As we drove the roads we’d add more and more species, the ever graceful Swallow-tailed Kite bounding overhead, Limpkins at roadside, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks roosting communally by day, diminuative & flashy Common Ground-Doves, and that skulking pinewoods specialist the Bachman’s Sparrow to name a few. Limpkins are not difficult to see but definitely unique and again found mostly only in Florida in the US. They are closely related to rails, but look more similar to a heron, approaching 3 feet tall. They are a snail specialist utilizing that large bill with the fine tip to extract the snail meat. Their loud trumpeting calls can be heard from great distance.
I was explaining how the Limpkin feeds almost exclusively on Apple Snails and how their populations have really been aided by introduction of a non-native larger Apple Snail species which has invaded Florida and was just going to speak about another species that had benefitted from this when, I caught a flash of wings bounding low over the flooded shallow marsh to our left.
I quickly pulled over and pointed out two male Snail Kites to Catlin, yet another bird he wouldn’t expect to see back home! Dark slate gray plumage with broad paddle-shaped wings, barring on the flight feathers with a light slash near the wing tip. The bright contrasting white tail base and matching white undertail coverts are quite noticeable at great distance sharply separated from the slate gray belly, back and distal half of the tail. Rare & endangered in the US, Snail Kites have also benefitted from this new resource of non-native Apple Snails.
Snail Kites have sharply-hooked, thin beaks that are specially adapted for sliding inside the Apple Snail’s curved shell. This adult male actually carried and deposited a stick in the fronds of this Sabal Palm and we wondered if it was possibly building a nest. There were at least two adult males here and an adult female was perched atop another palm tree a few hundred feet further back. Hmmm?!?….
Dragonflies fed over the wet areas here to include the stunning male Scarlet Skimmer. The image above was taken with the Leica V-lux (typ 114) point and shoot with its built in 28-400 mm lens.
Digiscoping allowed an even closer view without having to wade through water or getting closer. The image above here was taken with an iPhone 6s through the Leica APO Televid spotting scope and a matched “PhoneSkope” brand phone scoping adapter. Note how the digiscoped image allows macro like quality, showing greater detail on the tiny bristles on the legs and veins on the wings from a distance of 16 feet (~5 meters) away.
Once again at roadside we ran into a small group of hen Turkeys with young chicks or “poults” as they are sometimes called colloquially. While not a unique Florida bird species these are of a recognizable Florida subspecies or race known as the “Osceola race” and they look different than Wild Turkeys found across the rest of the United States.
It was getting late and I’d made a couple stops for another of my favorite residents of the Florida native prairies, but had not found one, a bit of a disappointment but we’d seen close to 60 bird species in just a few hours and barely left the car! It was beginning to cloud up and rain was falling nearby and I’d just said, “Well we’re still in good habitat maybe we’ll see one as we drive back.”
As if the bird had heard me, an adult Crested Caracara swept across the road and landed briefly in a field to our right. I turned into a pull-off and took a quick documentary image at great distance of the stunning bird with the phone through the spotting scope. It was dark beginning to rain, and again at great distance. I had to utilize the full zoom on the spotting scope and even some of the digital zoom on the phone (generally a no-no on the tiny cell phone sensors). It will not o down as the best image taken that day, you can see how the small sensor over-saturated the white breast and how the severely magnified image is slightly soft. The Leica Q camera would have handled this much better but the bird was only in view for a short period, so I took what I could get. I was at least relieved to have the opportunity to share this amazing bird with Catlin as our final bird for this fun morning and the many quality photo ops we had!