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Rare Smooth-billed Ani at Viera Wetlands

There’s a new celebrity in town: the Smooth-billed Ani at Viera Wetlands!  This bird is common on the Caribbean islands but the Florida population is on the decline.  So when a single Smooth-billed Ani was spotted at Viera Wetlands, many birders flocked there to see him.   He’s been hanging out at the entrance to the wetlands for the past couple of days.  The bird is remarkably predictable, frequenting a particular patch of Brazilian Pepper on the north side of the water treatment plant.  He’s also remarkably tolerant of the circus of cameras, scopes, and iPhones pointed in his direction.

Smooth-billed Ani at Viera Wetlands

Smooth-billed Ani at Viera Wetlands.  View larger on 500px.

When my dad and I first arrived at Viera, the ani was nowhere to be seen.  So we spent a few hours driving through the wetlands, enjoying the best morning of photography I’ve had in a long long time.  (More on that in an upcoming post!) Of course we checked for the ani on our way out, and there he was, perched up on top of a bush just a few feet from my car window.  What an incredibly cooperative lifer!

Smooth-billed Ani at Viera Wetlands

Smooth-billed Ani at Viera Wetlands

I saw a similar bird, the Groove-billed Ani, at Lake Apopka a few years ago.  The Smooth-billed Ani looks very similar, but he he lacks the indentions on his bill.  The anis are very social birds, living in family groups of birds.  Apparently they nest in a communal nest, with each female adding her eggs to the nest, and all females sharing incubation responsibilities.  Kind of like a rookery but different!

Smooth-billed Ani at Viera Wetlands

Smooth-billed Ani at Viera Wetlands

The Smooth-billed Ani feeds primarily on insects, and he forages on the ground.  So it wasn’t surprising that our bird spent a good amount of time hidden in the grass, but he popped up every 10 minutes or so.  Cue the cameras!  We spotted him in the Brazilian Pepper and on nearby bushes.  If you haven’t ever seen an ani, you might mistake this guy for a crow or a large grackle.  Until you hear him…this guy sounded like no bird I’d ever heard!

Smooth-billed Ani at Viera Wetlands

Smooth-billed Ani at Viera Wetlands

The rust-colored buildings in the distance didn’t provide the greatest background for our celebrity bird (see below image), but with a little bit of creative camera positioning (a.k.a. silly photographer contortions), I was pretty happy with the first image posted above.  The bird’s tail was definitely worn, and perhaps explains why he ended up all by himself at Viera.

Smooth-billed Ani at Viera Wetlands

Smooth-billed Ani at Viera Wetlands

While it’s fun to see a rare bird, and unusual to have the opportunity to get really good photos of him, I kind of felt sorry for this guy.  I hope he finds his way home soon.  Or maybe he’ll bring his family to live at the Viera Wetlands – that’d be ok, too! :)

Odd Couple at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

Last week I finally had a chance to take my dad to the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive.  It was one of those cold winter mornings when it was nice to be able to bird from the warmth of the car.  Although some of my best shots were taken when we left the car behind and walked the berm roads.

Our best birds of the morning were the “odd couple” – a male Hooded Merganser and a female Bufflehead.  I spotted them in the distance on the initial leg of the wildlife drive.  They were really far away, but how often do you see a hoodie and a bufflehead?  (For that matter, in Central Florida, how often do you see a Bufflehead?)  This was my best shot of the odd couple.

Hooded Merganser with Bufflehead

Hooded Merganser with Bufflehead

This Great Blue Heron had a catfish for breakfast.  It doesn’t look too appetizing to me, but he wasn’t picky.  He repeatedly picked it up, tossed it around, dropped it a few times, and angled it just so before executing the fatal gulp.

Great Blue Heron with Catfish

Great Blue Heron with Catfish

Love is in the air for the Bald Eagles in Florida.  I spotted this pair of eagles flying towards us, moving together in a courtship ritual that was fun to watch.  I hoped they would do their “lock talons” move but they didn’t.  It’s funny how the birds always leave me with an enticement to return…

Bald Eagle Courtship

Bald Eagle Courtship

The Eastern Phoebes were plentiful along the shore of Lake Apopka. This one obliged me by posing in a bush while he looked around for his breakfast.  Then he dove away to grab an insect in mid-air.

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

Although the marshes seem to be covered in Palm Warblers, and I have more photos than I care to remember, I always enjoy photographing them.  Their little tail-bobs and their happy calls always remind me how good it is just to get outside and move around.  Sometimes photographing the “common” birds is rewarding in surprising ways.  For example, I hadn’t seen the ladybug on the bottom of these flowers until I blew this image up on the computer…

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

Anhingas were sunning themselves all over the wetlands.  They weren’t quite into their breeding plumage yet.  I bet the warm sun felt good on their cold wet feathers!

Anhinga

Anhinga

We came across several Northern Harriers flying around.  This was another species that was easier to photograph when I was out of the car.  I haven’t had too many opportunities to photograph harriers so this was a fun morning for me.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

As we made our way to the wildlife drive exit, this river otter hopped out of the water and trotted across the road.  He went into the water, stayed down there for a second, and then crossed the road again.  The second crossing was very nice of him, as it gave me time to stop the car and get out with my camera.  I love how happily he seems to bound across the road.  He reminded me very much of my cat Whiskey.

Otter

Otter

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Holiday Fun at Viera Wetlands

A few days after Christmas, I visited the Viera Wetlands to photograph the nesting Great Blue Herons. Yep, springtime nesting is upon us, even though it’s January! Our Florida birds are smart. They’d prefer to shiver on their nests in January rather than raising their chicks in the hot summer months. I love watching these graceful herons as they carefully place sticks on their nests.

Great Blue Heron Courtship

Great Blue Heron Courtship

Alas, on this particular morning, we had about 60 seconds of golden light before the sun disappeared behind a bank of clouds.  So Michael and I got to photography gray birds against gray skies.  Oh well!

When the herons weren’t cooperating, I turned my tripod to the Common Yellowthroats hopping around in the bushes.  The spider webs were loaded and the little birds were stuffing themselves for breakfast.  Apparently birds aren’t taught to chew with their mouths closed…

Common Yellowthroat with Spider for Breakfast

Common Yellowthroat with Spider for Breakfast

The Palm Warblers were out also, bobbing their tails as they hopped on the ground.  I got down on my hands and knees to watch.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

The sun finally came out and it quickly got hot.  This Anhinga enjoyed the warmth on his feathers.

Anhinga

Anhinga

A pair of Hooded Mergansers spent the morning charming photographers.  When I walked past, the male Hoodie was sleepy.  He floated lazily in the water while his mate fluffed up her feathers and went fishing.  Then she swam towards him and nipped him, as if to fuss as him for napping so early in the day.  He perked up for a second and then went back to sleep.

Hooded Mergansers

Hooded Mergansers

Ursula drove by and told me where to find a family of Limpkins with small chicks.  Sure enough, a pair of small fuzzballs was peeping and playing peek-a-boo in the grass as their parents fed them apple snails.  It always amazes me how much Limpkin chicks look like Sandhill Crane colts.  These babies even stretched their legs and practiced their hop-skip-jump!

Limpkin Mom and Baby

Limpkin Mom and Baby

It felt so good to be out.  I will try to go back for better sunrise light before the heron nesting season is over.