Anhingadae, Anhinga anhinga


Family, genus and species.  The taxonomists were either suffering from an acute lack of imagination when they named and classified the Anhinga, or more likely they wanted to highlight the unique nature of this bird.  Anhinga, aka “Snake Bird”, “Darter”, “Water Turkey”, and “Devil Bird”.  This last moniker is derived from the Brazilian Tupi language word “ajina” which refers to a demonic spirit of the forest.

Female in flight

The Anhingadae family only contains a single genus, and that genus contains but one species, our Florida bird, in North and South America.  It does include three other Old World species, one each in Africa, India, and Australia/Asia.  Initially taxonomists thought the bird was closely related to cormorants, however newly discovered and unique characteristics have come to light.  This bird is the only bird, and probably the only vertebrate that has a single carotid artery (a great vessel extending from the heart to the brain).

Typical drying and warming pose

The Anhinga has an adaptation of the lower cervical spine that allows a rapid forward snap and recoil of the head and neck, effectively piercing underwater the tough side of the fish with its sharp bill.  The inside of the bill is lined with multiple barbs that tightly hold the flopping prey.

Riding low with small fish

This bird swims low in the water, propelled by webbed feet, with just the head and neck exposed.  Its diminished buoyancy is due to its dense bones, the ability to deflate its air sacs, and its unique feathers.  Anhingas lack the fine insulating feathers close to the skin which are found in cormorants.  Instead their feathers contain microscopic spaces that allow water to penetrate, making diving and underwater fishing easier.

The most common Anhinga pose is with wings widespread and drying in the tropical sun.  This also serves to warm the bird and overcome the disadvantages of its poor insulation.  You won’t find any Anhinga far from the tropics.

Female with catfish

I was birding in Eagle Lake Community Park, a local hotspot near Naples, with John, an enthusiastic novice birder.  A friendly couple from Detroit, (at least he was wearing a Tigers baseball cap) came up to us and asked, “what was that strange dark bird with the peculiar head?”  A quick check with the binos showed that the “head” was actually an unlucky sunfish impaled on the bill of a lucky Anhinga.

The dark bird with the peculiar head

As we watched the fish was beaten against a branch, I suppose to kill it.  The distracted snake bird did not notice a Great Egret lurking close by.  Just when the fish was ready for head-first swallowing the squawking egret pounced, wings spread wide, and the lunch was dropped back into the pond, satisfying no one.

Nesting Anhinga

The books say that these birds nest in diverse community rookeries, but I have seen them also nesting alone.  The males are entirely black and white while the females sport beautiful buff head and neck feathers.  Surprisingly you can also see these water birds soaring high in the thermals, often with the buzzards.  They’re the ones with the long fan-shaped tails.  Why are they way up there?  Its clearly not to locate fish.  Could it be purely for the joy of flying or is that explanation too anthropomorphic?  I’ll suggest it anyway until someone tells me something different.

A young Anhinga chick

I learned something birding with John this week. He reminded me of the genuine enthusiasm one has when seeing, actually seeing, a bird for the first time.  He had a set of new and decent binoculars and could now see the red and yellow epaulets of the Red-winged Blackbird and the golden eye of the Boat-tailed Grackle, both never noticed before.  Even at 60+ years it’s not too late to become a birder.

John also prompted me to call out the field marks, relative sizes, behavior, and songs of the common birds.  Specifically, how do you know its an “x” and not a “y”.  He and I were partners in a radiology practice up north and are not strangers to observing details and using pattern recognition techniques.  When an experienced radiologist first sees a chest x-ray he almost immediately knows if its normal or abnormal; no need to study the individual structures such as heart, lungs, bones, etc.  Your eyes and brain just know it’s normal.  And if it’s abnormal you also quickly know why; pneumonia, congestive heart failure, tumor, etc.

It’s only for the few rarities, both on chest x-rays and during birding, that one resorts to more careful observation of the specific “field marks”, goes to the books, or consults a colleague.  John and I have lived this routine in medicine for years and he, therefore, is perfectly suited to use the same technique in the field and become a seasoned birder.  First learn the specific field marks and behaviors of the birds and eventually your mind will ID the common birds subconsciously.

Lastly, John reminded me of the fun of birding with a novice. The Anhinga and the 30 some other common birds we saw that day were a great start. His excitement was contagious and the questions and banter were stimulating.  I thoroughly enjoyed the teaching; maybe it’s a new calling.

Night Herons

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Nyctanassa violacea


If you’re looking today for action photos of birds or acrobatic flight shots, you’ve come to the wrong place.  The hunch-backed, thick-necked, short-legged Night Herons will not tear up the dance floor, but on further review they do have some interesting characteristics.  The Bird-naming Gods nailed it with the “Night” part, but not so much with “Heron”.  These birds are clearly nocturnal; I’ve only infrequently seen them foraging or flying in daylight.  But their body type is not typical of the long-legged and graceful posture of most other herons and egrets.

Black-crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

The world’s Night Herons are divided among three genera with the most cosmopolitan bird, the Black-crowned Night Heron (BCNH), found on all continents except Antartica and Australia.  It belongs to the genus Nycticorax which has a Greek origin meaning “night raven”.  This refers to its croaking wock wock Raven-like call.  The BCNH is also our most common and widespread Night Heron in the New World, found from Canada to Patagonia.

BCNH                                                  click on any photo to zoom

The genus Nycticorax also includes the extant Rufous or Nankeen Night Heron (N. caleconicus) found in SE Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, and at least five extinct endemics that didn’t survive on Bermuda and the Ascension and Mascarene Islands.


The Yellow-crowned Night Heron (YCNH) belongs to the genus Nyctanassa and is found exclusively in the New World and primarily in the SE United States, Mexico, and Central and northern South America.  For completeness I mention the the third and last genus of Night Herons, Gorsachius.  It contains four species only found in the Old World, three in Asia and one in Africa.

YCNH, juvenile with black bill

So what’s so special about these herons, other than their nocturnal hunts?  You will on occasion catch them foraging in shallow wetlands in daylight, especially during nesting season when they are struggling to satisfy their famished young heronettes.  Night Herons are one of the few bird groups to employ “baiting” techniques to attract small fish.  They spread small twigs and food on the water’s surface to lure the unsuspecting.  If that doesn’t work they also vibrate their bill in the water to attract the curious but less intelligent Pisces.

BCNH, juvenile with yellow in bill

There’s no problem IDing the adult birds.  You’ll usually find them snoozing in shrubs along the water’s edge at about 3 to 15 feet elevation.  The juveniles are not so colorful and quite similar to each other, but if you pay attention to their bills the ID becomes easy.  If there’s yellow in the bill you have a BCNH and if its entirely black, the bird is a juvenile YCNH.  Guide books also mention the different patterns of white spots on the brown plumage, but those field marks have not been as obvious or useful for me.  The juveniles will obtain the adult plumage in their third year.

YCNH, juvenile

BCNH tend to nest in large rookeries, often with diverse species, while the YCNH tends to nest alone or in small groups.  It’s the courtship displays of the BCNH that are most interesting.  Apparently due to hormonal fluctuations the male becomes aggressive and begins a “Snap Display”, clicking his bill while crouching and pacing in his staked out territory.  This is followed by the “Stretch Display” as he extends his neck fully, bobs his head, and begins hissing.  For some reason all this commotion attracts curious females and spurs on nearby males to start their own competing displays.  But wait, it’s not over yet.

BCNH, my only flight shot of these birds so far.

The male initially rejects the females, taking his sweet time to pick the perfect mate.  Monogamous pair formation occurs when one lucky female is finally allowed to enter his territory and rewarded with mutual preening and billing.  Finally, at or near the time of copulation, the legs and feet of both partners turn pink.

BCNH, Hmm…aren’t those legs and feet a little pink?

I’m fortunate to see the two species of Western Hemisphere Night Herons all year long in my patch in SW Florida, and was also surprised to recently see the BCNH at dusk on the Ganges River.  We had a nesting pair of YCNH’s on the edge of the mangroves of Clam Pass in Florida for the last two seasons, but unfortunately their favorite tree did not survive the recent hurricane and I have not seen them this year.  But from now on, whenever I do see a Night Heron, I’m going to pay more attention to leg and foot color.  That observation offers just another glimpse into the private lives of these interesting birds.

Best Photos of 2017

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja


It’s a bone-chilling 16 degrees on New Year’s Day 2018.  San Domingo Creek is frozen all the way across to the islands, an unusual local occurrence.  I see 13 Tundra Swans among the myriad of geese hunkered down on the ice to protect from the northern blast.  My birdbath heater cannot keep up with the deep freeze so I make frequent trips outside with pans of hot water and a hammer to break up the ice.  Birds need fresh water, even more than seeds, when it gets this cold.

Hooded Mergansers, Lophodytes cucullatus

At year-end I like to review the photos of the previous 365 days and pick some winners.  “Best” is hard to define.  Some are favorites because I remember the effort or circumstances of their origins.  Some are photographically good but others perhaps not so, but make the cut for other reasons.  I tried to choose a variety of flight shots, feeding birds, international birds, portraits, etc.  Hope you enjoy the gallery.

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

The lead photo is a colorful Roseate Spoonbill trawling for breakfast in a Florida swamp.  Along with the unusual pink hue I think the disturbed water and reflection make it a winner.  The mergansers’ reflections in the water of the Florida drainage ditch and the pleasing green background earned those birds a place in infamy.

Sandwich Tern, Sterna sandvicensis

You all know that flight shots require a little skill and a lot of luck. I caught the Brown Pelican just at the apogee of his dive when motion was minimal, but missed his splash down seconds later.  The flyby of the Sandwich Tern is included.  I like the blurred horizon on the Gulf of Mexico and the exposure and sharpness of this less common tern.

American Redstart, Setophaga ruticilla

One could easily fill the entire year-end blog with the colorful warblers seen last May at the famous Magee Marsh in Ohio.  I’ll limit myself to just three.  Just think, these birds in alternate plumage just travelled 1000+ miles from Central or South America to the shore of Lake Erie and most still had miles to go before reaching their breeding grounds.  I was lucky enough to catch them at their rest stop.  The squawking American Redstart was telling me to back off and let him rest.  I chose the Chestnut-sideds for their unusual poses.  The obscuring leaf reminds me of the flitting, feeding frenzy of these beautiful birds.

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Dendroica pensylvanica

When you are lucky enough to find an owl in good light you can usually get a decent shot.  But the birds tend to be still and boringly cooperative; you’d rather some action and not just another portrait.  The Spotted Owlet from Rajasthan India was included not for its action, but rather for the filtered sunlight exactly striking the eye.  For owl shots, its all about the eyes.

Spotted Owlet, Athene brama

As readers of this blog know (and may be tired of being reminded) we spent October in India.  Just like Magee Marsh I could fill this gallery with the Indian lifers, but I’ll spare you and just post a few.  The Brown-headed Barbet is the strangest creature with its Groucho Marx nose and pose.  The Blue-tailed Bee-eater and Bank Myna are common birds in India but I liked these open-mouthed shots.  I spent some time trying to photograph the elusive Wire-tailed Swallow when one landed right in front of me in perfect light, practically begging for a picture.

Brown-headed Barbet, Megalaima zeylanica

Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Merops philippinus

Bank Myna, Acridotheres ginginianus

Wire-tailed Swallow, Hirundo smithii

The last Indian birds are the upside down Lesser Goldenback, and the more conventional poses of the Jacobin Cuckoo and Crested Kingfisher.  Sometimes boring is beautiful.

Lesser Goldenback, Dinopium benghalense

Jacobin Cuckoo, Clamator jacobinus

Crested Kingfisher, Megaceryle lugubris

Feeding shots are always fun.  That Snowy Egret caught the large insect on Vanderbilt Beach in Florida and spent the next 20 minutes killing it and figuring out how to swallow it.  It was quite a spectacle and that particular meal may have been a first for the egret.  The Royal Tern had an easier time swallowing the small slippery eel.

Snowy Egret, Egretta thula

Royal Tern, Sterna maxima

The same beach was blessed with a huge flock of shorebirds last November.  I planted myself right down into the sand and slowly inched forward to get some eye-level shots of the action.  That Sandwich Tern nearly landed on the backs of its companions.  The knife-thin bill of the Black Skimmer seen head-on is a favorite.  I was relishing my position within the flock when a young giggly humanoid raced forward and ended my session.  I at least captured the chaotic flock as it took off for a quieter stretch of sand.

Sandwich Tern, Sterna sandvicensis

Black Skimmer, Rynchops niger

This is the time of year that birds think about pairing up.  I caught these two Cattle Egrets likely on a first date, sizing up the possibilities.  The Red-shouldered Hawks were caught further along, probably “in the act” or at least during serious preliminaries.  There was just no privacy on that treetop.

Cattle Egrets, Bubulcus ibis

Red-shouldered Hawks, Buteo lineatus

I’ll end 2017 with a boring portrait of a Tricolor Heron, saved from the delete bin by the beautiful texture and detail of its close-up feathers captured on the field of green.  It’s now time to bundle up and head out to start the 2018 collection.  You never know what may turn up.  There’s a rumor that Snowy Owls have been spotted on Assateague Island.

Tricolor Heron, Egret tricolor                     (click on images to zoom)