The Usual Suspects

I work with binoculars and camera at the ready. I never know when something interesting or even amazing is going to happen right outside my door. My office door, you see, is a sliding glass door to the screened-in balcony, overlooking what they call a “lake” around here (it’s what we’d call a pond — maybe a big puddle). Here’s where I work:

From this privileged vantage point, I see a truly astonishing parade of birds almost every day. The very first morning after we arrived, we were greeted by:

  • egret
  • Great Blue heron
  • mallard ducks
  • Muscovy ducks
  • anhingas in water and in tree
  • wood stork
  • crows
  • vultures

… and I heard the resident osprey, shown here chowing down on fish one day last spring. (We all watched for about half an hour before it got spooked and flew away to a quieter spot.)

(Note about this and any pictures taken from balcony: there’s a screen running from floor to ceiling of the balcony, which makes it challenging to get a decent shot — always a tad blurry!)

The next day, I was thrilled to see a snowy egret, a smaller white shorebird of the heron variety, characterized by its bright yellow feet (!), which it uses to stir up the bottom so it can catch whatever small fish have come to the surface. We don’t see this one very often. I was also thrilled that first day to see the wood stork, who isn’t here that often either, and who also stirs up the bottom with its feet.

By day 2, nearly all our usual feathered friends had put in an appearance, including the pelican, a green heron (which is actually blue), and a species we’ve never seen here before: some kind of tern that fishes like a pelican, divebombing from a great height and grabbing fish with its beak. What a sight!

I love them all, but I think my favorite might be the anhingas. I just love watching these birds as they go through their day. When I get up in the morning there’s almost always at least one of them on the far shore, drying its wings in the sun. Anhingas, like cormorants, don’t have the same kind of oil on their wings to repel water as ducks do. This is great for diving but not so great for flying, so, like cormorants, they have to dry their wings before they can take off for the treetops, which they eventually do.

Here’s one drying its wings on the hedge right outside the balcony, taken a couple of years ago:

There’s one that seems to live in the tree right in front of us, but you wouldn’t know it unless you actually see her land on a branch. Even when she’s on the same bare branch you see the osprey on, above, she’s hard to see. If she lands anywhere else, she completely disappears into the leaves. This is a pretty big bird we’re talking about — a bit bigger than a loon, I’d say — and yet, invisible when roosting. Amazing camouflage!

I love watching them duck underwater and disappear, surfacing somewhere else altogether, often quite some time later, just like a loon.  I also love to watch them catch a fish, drag it up onto the bank and proceed to whack it against the ground till it’s good and dead, and then flip it in the air, sometimes hundreds of times, to get it pointed exactly the right way to get down that gullet (must be headfirst). They swallow their prey whole, much like a snake. Maybe that’s why they’re also known as a snake bird, though the usual explanation is that it’s because they’re often riding so low in the water that all you can see is the snake-like neck.

The anhingas aren’t the only ones who like the top of the hedge. I’ve seen most of them sitting up there at one time or another. Here’s the egret in the pouring rain one day last week:

And the weirdest-looking heron I’ve ever seen (also drying its wings, not nearly as gracefully as the anhingas):

And, finally, a bit of a non-sequitur. I can’t resist sharing this nice close-up I got when we visited the Japanese Gardens a couple of weeks ago:

This guy just stood there stock-still, like a statue, for a good, oh, 15 or 20 minutes as we excitedly took tons of pictures. It watched us watching it, but otherwise was much more interested in the goldfish in the koi pond than it was in us, that’s for sure.

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