January 31 ~ Fort Myers Beach, FL
My good friend and bird photographer Scott Keys had told me I must visit Bunche Beach while I was in Florida so I ended up making it my first main outing during my time on the gulf coast. I woke up well before sunrise and drove to Bunche Beach Preserve in San Carlos Bay just north of Fort Myers Beach. As I walked out on the beach I saw a group of people waiting to view and photograph the upcoming sunrise. While it looked like it could be a nice one I was there for the birds.
Bunche Beach is a wide open area of shallow water flats. The tide was almost at full height and on its way out that morning so most of the area was covered with water. Standing on the beach looking out to my left I could see Fort Myers Beach along with all the hotels and to my right an open expanse of flat water extending about as far as I could see. It appeared I wasn't going to get the first rays of the sun due to a bank of clouds on the eastern horizon. As I walked along the beach with the rising sun to my back the first bird I came upon was a Willet hanging out by some sort of wood debris as though it was home base. I first took the photo above with the early dawn light shining on the bird and moved on. As I passed the bird and it was behind me I turned back to notice its silhouette against a spot of sun that managed to shine through the clouds.
Moving on from the Willet my attention was immediately grabbed by a pair of feeding Reddish Egrets. These large egrets are very handsome with their brown to gray feathers and pink bill with an accent of black on the tip. They were feverishly running around the shallows chasing small fish but quickly moving away from me. I tried my best to keep up with them but they were fast. Thankfully one of the pair took a few moments to stop and clean its feathers for a moment. At this point the morning light had an incredible purple hue to it that really accentuated the colors of the Reddish Egret. Even better the sky behind the bird was glowing with a soft pink and purple color, as I took the photo, I knew I had just taken a unique image. Moments later the egrets quickly moved on and out of reach, that was the last I saw of them as more and more people started arriving at the beach.
Now with the Reddish Egrets gone on I noticed a large flock of gulls, terns and Black Skimmers all resting in very shallow water that was roughly 250 feet from the shoreline. What I didn't know at the time was they were standing on a sand bar that would later be exposed as the tide lowered. I was wearing shorts and sandals and prepared to wade in the water a bit but this seemed out of reach and not being familiar with the location I wasn't about to walk out that far. Thankfully some other photographers who seemed to know the area better then I did began walking out to the sand bar. I saw it was no more then knee deep and began my walk out there as well. Just as I got close to the flock, a handsome Brown Pelican flew by gliding a foot or so above the surface of the water. I quickly took a photo of it as the morning sun was shining a little stronger now.
I was now standing in only an inch or two of shallow water. It was a calm morning with light winds so the waves were very minimal, with the underwater sandbar quickly diminishing what little wave action there was. I set up my camera and lens on my ground pod and began to photograph some overall shots of the mixed flock of birds in the morning sun. One of the Laughing Gulls broke free of the flock and began bathing in the shallow water. I was able to capture the gull with its wings raised high over its head and a subtle reflection visible in the foreground. This outing was turning out great already and it was only 10 minutes after sunrise.
That was the last I would see of any direct sun the rest of the morning. Normally the loss of the early morning sun would upset me but this Florida morning wasn't about to do that. The clouds that moved in were thankfully thin enough to let some very soft sun through and I was able to take advantage of this wonderful quality light for the next 3 hours.
After photographing the Laughing Gull playing around in the water I was able to move in very close for a couple of portraits of the striking Black Skimmer with its very unique bill. The next two photos show this off rather well. The Black Skimmer feeds, as its name suggests, by flying along and skimming the surface of the water with its long and razor thin bill. As it feels fish or any other prey it snaps the bill shut and catches the prey, all while flying. You can see in the photos below how wide the bill looks from the side and how incredibly thin it looks from the front. On the side view you may even be able to see the textured grooves that help the water flow around the bill smoothly. Most of the Skimmer flock started moving away from me so I backed off and left them alone.
The tide had gone out enough to start exposing the sand and mud and with that the small sandpipers and plovers began to show up and feed. I started with the very tiny and cute Least Sandpiper pictured just below. These tiny sandpipers feed in the wet sand, probing their beak in and out like a tiny jackhammer. Watching them do this is always enjoyable and I find myself wondering how they don't get a headache moving around so fast.
The exposed sand quickly became filled with all sorts of tiny shorebirds looking to feed including Semi-palmated Plovers, Wilson's Plovers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Willet and more Least Sandpipers. I had a blast photographing these little birds all around me. They gave me opportunities to photograph them feeding, preening, relaxing and sometimes bathing. I finally had my fill with all the tiny shorebirds and decided to head back out to the now fully exposed sand bar.
There was one other photographer set up on the sand bar so I quietly approached and asked if she would mind if I joined her. She politely accepted and I set up laying on the wet sand. The next thing I knew a pair of Marbled Godwit began feeding right in front of me. While not my first time seeing this gorgeous bird, this was by far the closest I had ever been to them. One of the pair walked across the sand bar right in front of me, the soft sun lighting up the bird perfectly. I managed to capture the photo below with the graceful crossed legs and the white sand looking like a soft pillow the bird was walking across. The day somehow just kept getting better and better.
After some time the pair of Godwit moved on and I focused my attention back to the flock of Black Skimmers resting on the sand bar. I was able to move in rather close to part of the flock and I just stayed put. The flock was slowly relocating to another area on the sand bar and almost one at a time the Skimmers would take off right in front of me. I was able to set up my camera with all the right settings to capture each bird as it would takeoff. From my low perspective it made them look like they were floating just over the sand. I left the Skimmer flock and thought I'd make my way back to my car but I didn't realize the morning wasn't over for me yet.
On my way back I stumbled into a small group of Ruddy Turnstones so I stopped to grab a few shots of them. I also found a Wilson's Plover feeding in an area that had some short grass that provided a different background then the earlier birds had. Amazingly the lighting was still gorgeous, thanks to those thin clouds. Normally I would have wrapped up my photography much earlier because the sun would be to bright and harsh.
Out further in the water I saw a Little Blue Heron feeding so I set up on this bird and waited to see if it would approach any closer. To my delight this heron walked right up me and continued hunting. I was able to capture a good variety of interesting poses from this bird as well as it catching a few fish no more then 15 feet in front of me. At one point the bird came in too close for me to even focus on. It was a fitting end to an outstanding morning at a new location.
If you ever have a chance to visit this wonderful preserve I urge you to do so, hopefully you will have just as much fun as I did. I would be visiting this spot once more before I left Florida for the winter with an altogether different and unexpected bird. Join me on the next part of this series when I hang out with some of my favorite birds, the Burrowing Owls of Cape Coral.