At first you’d think it’s the name of an athletic team, but what jock wants to be linked to the ponderous sedentary birds. Even a non-birder coming to Florida for the first time can’t help but notice these ubiquitous creatures–they’re everywhere you find water. In roadside ditches, waste-water treatment plants, backyard ponds, as well as at the more picturesque shoreline, marshes, and swamps.
They are the herons and egrets. Also throw in the ibises, bitterns, storks, and an occasional spoonbill and you have a very successful and easily observed and photographed segment of Florida aviculture.
We left our northern home soon after Christmas with mixed feelings. They say that birds don’t depend on the feeders for survival–they are more for the birder who wants to attract and observe the birds up close. I hope they’re right. It was a banner fall and early winter at the feeders with the Red-breasted Nuthatches leading the charge, but there will be no more sunflower seeds at my feeders this winter. I’ll miss all the excitement, along with the waterfowl and the change of seasons from winter to early spring.
But Florida beckons and certainly has it’s own rewards including the climate, the beaches, and the Florida waders. My favorite and most frequented patch here is the “berm”, a raised, paved three mile trail through the wetlands, with tall high-rises looming to the east and an extensive tidal mangrove swamp to the west. Two boardwalks through the mangroves take you to a beautiful gulf beach where you can get a cup of coffee and check out the shorebirds.
I often walk the berm bare (no binoculars or camera) for exercise, dodging all the power walkers, bikers, and roller skaters. There’s no need for magnification to count and watch the waders who seem oblivious to the passing throng. But when I do bring the binos an additional world of the passerines opens up and makes the jaunt even better.
For those of you who like to classify the birds into the larger scheme of life, the waders are members of the Ciconiiformes order, which in turn contains six families. Herons, egrets, and bitterns are in the Ardeidae family and characterized by a long neck of 20-21 vertebrae (you and I only have 7). In flight all members of this family hold the neck in a “S” configuration, compared to the straight necks of all the other waders.
The storks are in their own Ciconiidae family, and may be incorrectly classified, as DNA evidence suggests they are more closely related to the vultures than to the other waders. Nesting storks on your roof ensures household fertility, so they say. It’s too late for me to verify this.
The family Threshkiornithidae includes the ibises and spoonbills. These birds, and all the waders, have a very primitive vocal apparatus that results in the low, guttural croaks you often hear when they take to flight. In ancient Egypt the ibis was felt to be the embodiment of the God of Wisdom. It seems that the crows and jays are vying for this title in the modern world.
I’ll warn the novice birder about the three “foolers” among the waders. The first is the so-called Green Heron. If anyone can find a speck of green on this bird, I’d like to see it. It’s a wonderful bird, but poorly named.
The second is the juvenile Little Blue Heron. It’s as white as the fresh fallen snow up north. It will turn a deep blue in its second year but loves to fool the uninitiated for a year. The green legs, however, give it away and differentiate it from the similar sized Snowy Egret which has black legs and yellow feet.
The last fooler is the white morph of the Great Blue Heron. I have not yet seen this bird, or maybe I’ve been fooled like the rest of you into calling it a Great Egret. The heavier bill is its distinguishing characteristic. I’ll remain on the prowl for this one.
For those new to bird photography the waders are a great subject. They usually hold still, they’re large and usually close, and when the do fly it’s in a straight line and slow. But beware of over-exposure. The most common error in shooting these birds is blowing out the whites, especially in the bright Florida sun. You’ll need to dial back the exposure compensation several notches to preserve that subtle texture in the white feathers.
Whenever someone mentions record-keeping the eyes glaze over and the ears tune out. I get it. But before that happens let me quickly extoll the useful eBird app for your smart phone. It makes recording your sightings simple and painless. Your location is tracked by GPS and the birds are tabulated by date and location for you and the rest of the birding world to see. You can see other birder’s results from the same location and determine what you’re missing, like that white morph heron. The findings go into your eBird account allowing you to compare year to year what is happening in your patch. And it’s all free. This app has significantly added to my birding pleasure.
Intimacy with your patch is one of the joys of birding. And it’s not just about the birds. My Florida patch has frolicking otters, prowling alligators, and basking turtles. You even get to know the trees, like the one that usually hosts a night heron’s nest, or the hollow tree that was the favorite perch of the screech owl, until hurricane Irma blew it down. But the leading role here clearly belongs to the Florida waders, who patiently fish along the berm, just as they did last year and for millions of years prior.