Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Space Coast Birding and Nature Festival

(Transcript of today's For the Birds)

Belted Kingfisher

Last weekend, Russ and I attended the annual Space Coast Birding and Nature Festival, centered in Titusville, Florida. It was a splendid way to spend a few days in January, for birders of any level. The field trips give people new to the area a great overview of the best birding spots and expert help in finding and identifying the birds. Many people who live in central Florida year-round or throughout the winter learn about new hot spots, make new friends who are interested in birds, and get tips about recognizing their local birds and understanding their behaviors.

I was there to give a talk and to lead a field trip for beginners, but that left a lot of time for birding. I had three primary goals: to take a photo of a gannet, even if it was extremely far out, to take a better photo of a Black Skimmer’s eye to show the vertical pupil—something I just discovered that skimmers have, and to take a halfway decent photo of a Belted Kingfisher. For some reason that bird is my nemesis species as far as photography goes. I’ve got lots and lots of photos of kingfishers from a long distance, but none of them up close and personal.

But I also just wanted to see lots and lots of birds. Russ and I went to some of our favorite places, and ended up seeing well over 100 species. The Viera Wetlands in Melbourne, a bit south of Titusville, is great for a wide assortment of wading birds at very close range, including nesting herons and anhingas, and a generous supply of raptors. In a single day, we had 10 species of hawks and falcons in that one small area, including the splendid Crested Caracara.

Crested Caracara

We went there one day when the weather was gorgeous and the lighting perfect, and another day when the skies were densely overcast. On neither day did a kingfisher sit anywhere where we could get a photo, though one of them did a great tease, waiting on a nearby perch until my camera was almost pointed at it. At that moment, of course, it vanished.

We also visited the wildlife loop on Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge twice, again on one wonderfully sunny day, and then on a day when the lighting was awful. Hundreds of Black Skimmers were snoozing on the beach by the bridge on the way to the Island.

Black Skimmer

Although I didn’t get as close as I wanted because there were just too many people on the beach, I did get a better photo of some of their eyes.

Black Skimmer

As always, I saw bazillions of kingfishers, but only on the second day, when the light was very bad, did I get serviceable photos. They’re much grainier than I wanted, but for now they’re as good as anything I’ve ever had.

Belted Kingfisher

The bird I most wanted photos of was the Northern Gannet. I saw my lifer—both the first and the last gannet I’ve ever seen in the wild—in November 1988 on Cocoa Beach, so Russ and I spent one afternoon on Cocoa Beach, but that was unfortunately when the light was very poor. But as I said, I didn’t care how good my photo was as long as it showed an identifiable gannet, and that was easy enough. I didn’t have to work very hard to see them, this being late enough in winter that a great many have made their way to the Florida coast.

Northern Gannet

My photos show them in all plumages from immature through adult.

Northern Gannet

Russ and I also went to the Canaveral Seashore on a sunny morning, and there I got more photos. Many of the pictures are better than I expected, but it’s good that I set my goal nice and low, because not one of my photos is what anyone would call good.

I’m already making plans for next year’s Space Coast Birding and Nature Festival. It’s a great excuse to get down where an array of birds are abundant and easy to see, right when I need a little break from winter.

Belted Kingfisher pooping

Now it will be fun to return home to spend time with my own dear chickadees and other winter-hardy birds.