Bird Portraits – Why I Do Them

•July 24, 2015 • 24 Comments

Bird Portraits - Great Blue Heron

Nobody likes a rejection letter but I like to think it is just a necessary test that one must go through to further personal development in whatever creative enterprise you are dreaming of. Last fall I decided to submit some of my black and white bird portraits to a magazine which specialized in black and white images. What I really liked about the publication was that their mission, unlike many photographic magazines, was more about the art of photography than the gear. The format was for project and series oriented groups of images. At that point in time I had quite a few monotone portraits and thought I’d escape my usual zone of reluctance and take advantage of the invitation they extend to readers to submit projects. For the project submittal I enjoyed seeing some of my other images in a different light for a black and white interpretation  in order to provide  a varied set. Despite the fact that I could soooo see some of my pictures on their pages, obviously from my introductory line my submittal was not selected for publication. One of these days I’ll chat up the magazine here on the blog, as despite my disappointment, I enjoy what they are doing very much.

They had a very specific format for a submittal with quite a few text requirements to go with the images. A lot had to do with the artist’s inspiration to do the series. While I probably exceeded my word count which was specified, I’m not sure I could explain why I began looking at my bird shots as portraits rather than documentary observations in fewer words. One thing I debated was which birds to include and what to title the series. I was sorely tempted to call it “At Home with Herons” since so many were in a nesting colony heronry. But, I did include some other birds and decided to keep it simply “Bird Portraits.”  I hope you enjoy my attempt with the series introduction to Bird Portraits. And, the bird that really turned my thinking into making bird portraits was the Great Blue Heron image below. I thought it was an amazing bird when I saw it. Originally, a color image, I thought the fierce gaze expressed well in a black and white treatment. So this has been the Intro to sharing the Intro!! My story so similar to others who after raising children return to passions and interests of their own youth.

 

Feather left

Bird Portraits as a project arose gradually over time. When my last child graduated college, I returned to photographic interests I’d set aside so many years before. Remembering the serenity of Florida’s Big Cypress Swamp and its misty mornings, I wanted to photograph the primordial mystery of the glades and still dark waters silently mirroring majestic cypress trees. But, in the process I became charmed by the ethereal flutter of white wings dematerializing into the depths of the swamp and the haunting calls of birds unseen, but echoing in the distance. Soon, my quiet scenes of trees, water, and sky seemed empty without a bird to claim its home.

Since that time birds have increasingly occupied a special place in my viewfinder. While I did not set out to become a bird photographer, increasingly I sought out cypress scenes, mangrove settings and rookeries to observe and capture images which concentrated on the presence of the bird itself. The idea of bird portraiture hit home as I was photographing a Great Blue Heron surveying its wetland domain with such a fierce gaze and regal stance that it was surely channeling the spirit of a great Seminole Indian Chief. It seemed the ancient heart of the everglades was embodied in the bird. I wanted to capture that presence.

I could say that famed field naturalist and artist, John James Audubon, was the seminal inspiration for my work, but oddly, it is true in a reverse sense. It was only after I began capturing images of birds did I fully appreciate the complex artistry, beauty and accuracy of his drawings. Audubon captured not just the detail of feather and form, but his work was infused with a sinuous, living quality. My viewfinder became a time portal opening the view of a Louisiana heron tending its nest, or a Great Blue Heron asleep atop its incubating eggs, or a White Egret standing staunchly over its huddled chicks in a Florida rain shower. My camera provided me continuity with the past revealing glimpses of bird life much as Audubon witnessed and recorded nearly 200 years ago in the swamps of Florida and Louisiana.

According to William Faulkner, The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.” Ultimately, this was my greatest influence. I wanted to overcome the stasis inherent in any still shot and avoid a flat, immobile characterization. Portraiture should give dimension to its subject – showing more than its beauty and textures, but also, its mood, fierceness, tenderness – its life! I hope to have overcome a static portrayal to convey the intimacy of the nest, the character, and living artistry of some of the birds I’ve been privileged to observe and photograph. Whether a White Egret adorned with a bridal bustle of lacy aigrettes, the fierce profile of a Great Blue Heron, or the inquisitive meanderings of young chicks, this Bird Portrait series opens a portal into their lives.

Indian Chief Great Blue Heron

… enjoying the view!!…

Judy

I think that you have to believe in your destiny; that you will succeed, you will meet a lot of rejection and it is not always a straight path, there will be detours – so enjoy the view. – Michael York, actor

Injured

•July 19, 2015 • 17 Comments

 

 

Injured Tri-color Heron

Despite the knowledge that survival in the wild means that sometimes you are prey, sometimes predator and sometimes injured in the process, some things are still difficult to see. Along with the beautiful Louisiana Heron (Tricolor Heron) amid the lovely pond apples leaves I took last visit to the rookery, I also observed another of its species having been dealt a difficult card. A couple of other observers saw it first and pointed out the bird with only one leg. As I was about to say that birds often will tuck up one leg curling up the toes within the body feathers and appear one legged, the heron lowered its wounded limb. So it was ‘Oh, dear…it is wounded’ instead. I took a couple of shots of the bird before it flew off into the waters of the wetland. It appeared to be able to fend for itself despite the loss of its lower leg and foot but anything that puts wildlife at a disadvantage jeopardizes its ultimate survival. I have no idea what may have happened to cause its injury, whether one of the local gators I saw highly interested in some juvenile tri-colors along marshy waterline or some other accident or predator. It does seem like a tragic end to its breeding season…its colors here fading back to the normal non breeding appearance. But, this is a feisty species and it will go about its daily life attending to its own survival with great determination.

Judy

Louisiana Heron – Pond Apple Portrait

•July 9, 2015 • 29 Comments

Elegant Louisiana Heron Perched within Green Shadows of a Pond Apple Tree

I am paying tribute once again to Audubon’s “Lady of the Waters” in this portrait of the dainty heron within the cool, verdant shadows of a Pond Apple Tree. Audubon called this elegant heron the Louisiana Heron but today most know it as the Tri-Color Heron or Egretta tricolor. It is always good to know that egrets are herons but defined by the lovely ornamental back plumes they have during the breeding season called aigrettes– so they carry both names sometimes.

This picture was taken last visit to the wetland rookery I travelled to specifically to observe the fledgling Wood Storks. Anytime a photographer strikes out seeking wildlife images, nature offers more beautiful gifts than you’d planned on!! While Spring is the time for breeding and renewal of the species, there is still breeding activity well into the summer despite the intense heat. This Louisiana Heron is still in its mating colors and plumage but I couldn’t say whether it is a parent with an empty nest or waiting to start one. Though the aigrettes appear luxuriant,  the lore is yellow and not fluorescent blue, so perhaps it has fledged its young. There are certainly many fledgling tricolors flitting about the rookery at present!!

I really loved the light on the heron and the leaves in this scene so could not resist giving it some attention.  Pond Apple trees have very nice textured leaves which catch lovely light and lend a beautiful setting for a bird portrait.

Judy

Wood Stork Fledglings

•July 4, 2015 • 21 Comments

Woodstork at about 9 wks of age already assumes a stately pose

This post marks the conclusion of what I call the Season of the Wood Storks!! I’ve been visiting the rookery at Wakodahatchee for five years now and every season brings something new. Occasionally a new species I had not encountered previously will appear in my viewfinder, but more often it is the repositioning of nests within the wetland which gives me better, closer access of a particular species for photography. My first year it was the Great Blue Heron chicks which I thought looked like little rock stars in their nests, another year it was the Louisiana Heron aka Tri-color Heron which took over with their rambunctious young scampering up and down the pond apple island like monkeys, another season it was the White Egrets with their mating rituals and glorious poses,  and more recently it was the little skin-head anhinga chicks which captured my interest. But, the season of 2015 brought the first ever Wood Stork nests on the front pond apple tree island so perfect for getting a great view. Usually, they are around but located too far for my 300mm lens to adequately record the detail I like. So what a great year!!

Wood Storks take 4 years to mature and can live as long as 30 years, so they are a long lived species. I’ve always thought the appearance of the adults was so interesting and as I followed my favourite nest this season I did wonder when the chicks would lose their juvenile feathered neck for the flinty neck texture for which they are known or when they would develop the frontal forehead plate and bald head. I do not have an answer to that by my own observation as they fledge with brown neck feathers and just a small remnant of their nestling white head feathers on the center of the upper forehead. Although, by the 12 week mark the hairline has receded quite a bit and the beginnings of a flattened dark area where the forehead plate will be are evident.   But, from the first couple of weeks the nestlings already exhibit a rather stately carriage. I will say that Wood Stork chicks for all their elegance are truly the messiest birds while they are growing up and with the pounds of fish they consume, it is understandable. Even now they could use a bath!!

I have enjoyed watching these birds nest and fledge and have loved sharing some of the images with you as they have grown!! The first three pictures are of the chicks at about 9 weeks. The latter three of the fledglings learning to fish out in the shallows are at about age 12 weeks.

Three Woodstork chicks ready to fledge

 The nest I have been following had all of its chicks survive to fledge. In the Wood Stork world this is a very good outcome!! The youngster on the upper left appears to have fought the good fight somewhere along the line as its bill is damaged as you can see; that is not just fish stuck to the bill.

Woodstork Chick at about 9 wks old tilts its tail to preen

 Wood Storks have a short black tail. This chick looks rather cute trying to tilt its tail to preen!

Empty Woodstork Nest

I had intended to return to visit much sooner to see the birds fledge, but after a delay of one month, I found the empty nest. I wandered until nearly sunset but the fledglings did not return during that time. As you can see below, I found them fishing off in the distant shallows.

Woodstork Fledgling at about 3 months of age learning to use the foot swish technique

Wood Stork Fledgling at about 12 weeks old. Already it was performing the foot swish technique to stir up a meal.

 

Woodstork Fledglings learn to fish - about 3 months old

 These two fledglings are trying out their tacto-location skills but look more like they are playing with the turtle making its way past them.

Woodstork Fledglings learning to fish-about 3 months old

 

Well, it has been fun watching these creatures grow up and go off on their own. I did see that there were adults not too far from the juveniles–maybe monitoring their fishing lessons!! I am sure I will see them around again.

Judy

 

Crimson Slippers – Mating Colors of the Snowy Egret

•May 21, 2015 • 20 Comments

Snowy Egret in Bright Mating Colors Peers through the branches of the nesting colony

Wood Storks aren’t the only species nesting at Wakodahatchee these days. In between being entertained by Wood Stork chicks, it was also fun to watch a couple of pairs of Snowy Egrets fly onto the Pond Apple branches, their temporary home,  and disappear into the dark recesses of the tree island where a nest is hidden from view. I included an assortment because I find the aigrettes and head plums so beautiful to see, erect and all fluffed out when they are excited.  Like the Louisiana Heron aka Tri-Color, they are a sprightly, quick species and you must be equally quick to catch a moment. Two of these images show how very bright red the normally yellow lores and feet get under the influence of mating hormones. Golden slippers have turned a passionate red for dating and mating!! The lores (skin between the beak towards and around the eyes) are startling to see in person, truly fire engine red. With most herons the mating colors are brightest as they attract and begin to mate. Once the eggs are here, the colors will begin to fade and aigrettes will slowly diminish.  Two of these images exhibit exorbitant lore color and the other two are just beginning to show red. The length of time chicks stay at the nest does seem somewhat relative to size as the young of this small heron will leave the nest at 20 to 25 days. The Great Blue Heron chicks will stay close to the nest for 2 up to 3 months with periods of foraging on their own.

It is Spring and all the colors are gorgeous, the birds with their mating garb and the beautiful deep greens and yellow greens of the Pond Apple tree islands they call home.

Snowy Egret Landing at Nesting Site

 

 

Snowy Egret Breeding Plumes and colors

Snowy Egret Extended Pose with fluffed aigrettes and crown

Judy

443 Pounds of Fish and it shows!!

•May 18, 2015 • 10 Comments

Wood Stork at ~ 4 weeks

Wood Stork families are said to require 443 pounds of fish in one breeding season! My recent visits to the Wood Stork nests I have been following, certainly show evidence of abundant fish consumption. When I visited in early May,  I had intended on getting a nice image to make a pretty portrait of a 4-5 week old wood stork. However, large quantities of fish remains on the bills of hungry chicks and bits of the same matting their feathers made this a somewhat unrealistic enterprise. In between meal flights from Mom or Dad, the chicks will pluck at leftovers still in the bottom of the nest, and of course,  lay down in the nest. Add to that an earthy down wind scent and a few buzzing flies, well a rookery is what it is!  They looked so cute until I  raised my camera viewfinder to find a portal to rather wretched looking nestlings in very bad need of a bath. I exclaimed out loud to that effect and another photographer on site laughed in agreement. Birds always look pretty in National Geographic don’t they? So, I made a trip a week later, thinking I might have better luck, only to find the chicks a bit taller but with no better hygiene! Barring a cloud burst sometime soon and a visit right after a natural washing, I do not think  we will see clean chicks until after they fledge. Until they learn to fly, the little ones are stuck in the nest with no chance of wading in the cleansing wetland waters.

But, despite all that, it is extremely entertaining to watch them. I mentioned before that one of the wood stork nicknames is “preacher bird.” I’ve read that this is due to the fact that they stand around after eating a look as if they are seriously contemplating life and they do in general possess a very distinguished and learned manner of bearing. It occurred to me that there might be another reason. I haven’t shown too well in the images below but when the parent lands in the nest and chicks think food is on the way, they will assume a position on their knees in the nest facing their parent and raise their heads in near unison up and down vertically, clamoring audibly for some sustenance. This creates quite a racket and they look almost in worship, rocking their bills up and down at the feet of their rather stately Mom or Dad.

 

Another observation that I never really noticed with the great herons, is that when a neighboring parent wood stork lands with food and is feeding its chicks, the nestlings of other nearby nests do not react. They must sense there is fish nearby but the chicks of a given nest only go crazy with wing flapping and the bill rocking when their own parent lands at their nest. Perhaps this is so obvious because the wood stork nests are quite close to each other and maybe the heron nests I am more familiar with are further apart.

In case you were wondering why the top image of the young wood stork looks fairly handsome, in order to show off one of these interesting fellows, I invested some Photoshop time in cleaning the bill and matted feathers. These birds at 4 or 5 weeks already look rather poised and elegant. Although the wood storks have been down listed from endangered to threatened in my area, still it is not a common sight to see wood storks nesting and especially with such a good vantage point. I am curious as to when they get the flinty neck texture, but suspect it is after they fledge and mature. It takes 4 years for a wood stork to mature and they can live 3o years.

Three Wood Stork Chicks at nest ready to be fed

 

Wood Stork Chicks at ~ 5 weeks awaiting a feeding

 

Wood Stork Parent feeding large fish to chicks

 

Wood Stork Siblings at about 4 weeks

Judy

The Anhingas are Growing Up!

•May 2, 2015 • 16 Comments

Young Female Anhinga in Spring Greenery

Watching baby birds grow up shows it is not a far reach to compare them with human young. They just go through the stages in weeks instead of years. On February the 22nd I took some pictures of baby anhingas only a couple of weeks old being fed by their parents. For reference these images are here and some previous others here  .  These interesting creatures are completely helpless and dependent on protection and feeding from their parents to survive. And, while they look a bit like space aliens or ugly ducklings they will quickly mature into one of the most elegant birds on our beautiful and diverse planet. (as here)

The two images I am sharing today are just a little later down the timeline. The image below was taken on March 3rd and shows a curious chick at the edge of its nest high above a cascading drop of leafless limbs.  Even in the early morning light, it is easy to see that this ‘teen’ is still tied to the nest awaiting the return of Mom or Dad with a meal. Although, the energetic youngster will scamper about the branches and exercise its wings greatly between parental feeding visits. Late winter’s muted light highlights the still downy feathers of the bird and the curves of the pond apple tree branches. Everything is waiting for just a few short weeks until everything erupts in a blast of green when Spring arrives.

By April the 15th when the top image was taken, Spring had most certainly sprung!! The upper portrait reveals a young lady with a shy, self-conscious demeanor in a pose alert to her surroundings. Already taking on the distinctive feathering of her kind, she sits in a glorious green glow as the branches are now as fully leaved as she is now feathered!!

Anhinga Chick in Morning Light

It is always such a pleasure watching a small new creature grow up and become itself! One of life’s purest joys!

Judy

 
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