Focus on Bird Behavior

Admiration and familiarity are strangers.–George Sand

Sunning Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Paark, Texas
Ta-Dah! Sunning Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP), Texas. This bird was exhibiting gular fluttering while sunning. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Last week we finally got back into the field for a few hours. Although one of the best birding spots in the country, Brazos Bend State Park is not what we consider a fall migration hot spot. But we decided to visit the park because our photographic skills are rusty due to summer traumas, and we thought that a familiar place might make getting back into the swing of things easier.

Admittedly, it’s sometimes difficult to maintain a fever-pitch of enthusiasm for such a familiar place. At BBSP I find myself looking for subtle new details I’ve not noticed before to stay interested and energized. For example, I’ve seen Yellow-crowned Night-Herons sunning in the above fashion several times before. But when I first saw this bird at distance, it had splayed out its primaries into a spiky display. By the time I hustled into shooting distance, though, the bird had settled into the somewhat familiar pose above—although the feathers at the wingtips were still a bit splayed. Maybe some day I’ll catch one of these birds in the act of the aforementioned display, perhaps providing clues as to what they’re really up to with this sunning behavior. Are these waders just drying the morning dew from their plumage? Or perhaps they’re treating parasites or infections with the purifying rays of the sun (as I’ve seen Green Herons do), or heating up bellies to aid in digestion–or something else? Further study is needed.

Also on Elm Lake, I caught the Pied-billed Grebe below as it took an exceptionally violent bath. At times it looked like a fountain was springing forth from the lake’s surface! As in the case above, I missed the real action as moments before this tough little bird had just grabbed a fish about one-third its size and . . . . down the hatch. Perhaps this grebe felt like cleaning up after a particularly tough fight and messy meal.

Finally, on this trip I was also trying to get used to my new Canon EOS 7D Mark II. This was only the third time in the field for the new body. I don’t feel I’ve achieved any better results yet with the Mark II than with my old 7D’s, although the new camera certainly feels better. It’s just a ridiculously well-made object. Frankly, it’s one of the best-built cameras I’ve ever held in my hands—even nicer than my old Leica and Contax cameras, which I consider to be works of art. At this point, this lack of better results is almost certainly due to operator error, as this camera is a technological tour de force. With practice, I hope to be able to live up to the potential of this remarkable instrument.

Bathing Pied-billed Grebe, Elm Lake, BBSP
Motor Boat: Bathing Pied-billed Grebe, Elm Lake, BBSP. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

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