Awesome Anhingas

Awesome Anhingas

June 15, 2018 ~ Well, they are! After a couple of hot trips to Brazos Bend State Park we came back with quite a few shots and I realized it is one bird I have never written about. Anhingas are sometimes called Snakebirds (they swim submerged with just the long snake-like neck above the water) or Water Turkeys (after the fan-like tail) or even Darters. There are four species, but our Anhinga occurs in fresh water lakes, swamps and lagoons of both North and South America. In fact, the name Anhinga comes from Brazilian Indians and means "devil bird" or "evil spirit of the woods."

Male just before take-off
Sony A700 with Sony 70-400 mm f/5.6 G ~ 1/640 sec f/6.3 ISO 1000

This is one of the first photos I ever took of an Anhinga. It might have even been the first time I ever saw one. The stump at Brazos Bend no long exists (a casualty of Harvey) which is a shame as it was a great perch close to the trail at 40-acre Lake. I was using Bill's ancient Sony A700 and just learning to expose manually. No doubt he coached me on the settings. 

This male is getting just a few tufts around his head and neck and showing off his silvery-white back. The date of the image is March 19, 2014 so he is tuning up for breeding season; nesting starts in April and May and ends in August. They nest in colonies most frequently in swamps and other forested wetlands. And if you see one in the above posture, neck thrust out and calling... he is announcing his departure so up that shutter speed, he is going to fly!

Wing drying or thermoregulation?
Sony A700 with Sony 70-400 mm f/5.6 G ~ 1/500 sec f/5.6 ISO 1000

And another taken in May of 2014 at a still existing perch at Elm Lake. Now the male has turquoise lores, serious fluffy contrasts (decomposing black feathers) on his neck and you can see the tips of his tail feathers are also bright. Shame the guy wouldn't turn around and show his back. 

I didn't find any Anhinga photos in my archives for 2015 (the year of the baby owl next to the front parking lot!) and we only went to the park three times in 2016 (park was closed in aftermath of flooding). 

Male Anhinga against a blue sky
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1600 sec f/6.3 ISO 1600; tripod

One bright day in January 2017 we went out and this male finally turned around for us, but no wide-wing display. Notice he has no prominent neck feathers and no blue around his eyes, which is normal for this time of year. Some Anhingas migrate to warmer climates for the winter, but ours generally tough it out in sheltered rivers and lakes. They are not open water birds. 

Anhinga from May 2018
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1000
 sec f/8.0 ISO 1000; tripod

You often see Anhingas drying their wings and preening like this after diving and feeding.  He was perched just off the trail to the Observation Tower at 40-acre Lake and we had to slip by him to get the sun at our backs.  I was kneeling on the grass on a folded towel from the cart with my tripod to get this. I couldn't back up anymore or I would have been in the lake! He was almost too close and I struggled to keep from clipping off the tail. I could have removed my TC but it is a lot of trouble if I can't have a clear space to work. 

Attention to detail
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/1000 sec f/8.0 ISO 1000; tripod

And a close up of him working on his back. See how the skin around his eyes (the lores) still has some blue color? Other males in breeding colors have bright silvery back feathers, but this one has russet shades. I don't know if it is stain from the water or just his individual genetics. I did find a few images (in South Carolina) with the brownish feathers in Google Images. The juveniles go through a brown phase but this one definitely had blue lores for breeding, so he is not a youngster. Females have a plain light brown neck with a wide collar where the lighter color stops.  

Male Anhinga at Elm Lake
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR ~ 1/800 sec f/10 ISO 2000; tripod

This may very well be the same male. We saw him late one afternoon while driving around Elm Lake and quickly parked and headed down. He wasn't on the familiar snag where we saw him the time before (the light was so awful that time I deleted all of those). This was a low slanted branch a bit to the left of his old perch; very near the cypress the Vermilion Flycatcher used to frequent. 

This had the added bonus of green reeds just behind the limb, nothing in the foreground and easy access to the edge of the lake.  

We were pretty excited :-)

Showing off a wing pattern... 
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR ~ 1/1000
 sec f/8 ISO 2000; tripod

He preened and did some elaborate stretching. We eased in a bit closer. A White Ibis showed up and a Purple Gallinule walked by. We became non-threatening blobs and they all ignored us. The structure of the Anhinga's feathers causes them to become "wettable" which reduces buoyancy and allows them to stay submerged looking for prey to spear with that long bill. Drying and preening are necessary behaviors. 

Rubbing his head on the base of his tail
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR ~ 1/800
 sec f/9 ISO 2000; tripod

Part of his preening involved rubbing his head along the base of his tail. Older sources state Anhingas do not have a Uropygial gland which secretes an oil to keep their feathers waterproofed. More recent literature states the gland may be "poorly developed". Seems like a really stoopy evolutionary outcome for a bird that feeds by diving and is in the water a lot of the time, but hey, I am just an amateur. They have been observed flying off just after getting out of the water so it must not be impossible to fly with wet feathers. Cormorants do it all the time and I think the standard internet research has not been updated. 

One source I read (with photos of this same tail spot and behavior) states they do spread their wings to aid in drying but also for thermoregulation. Expanding on that is the thought that a low metabolic rate and unusually high rates of heat loss from their bodies causes them to often adopt a spread-wing posture to absorb heat from the sun.  

Calling, or maybe squawking at us? 
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E VR ~ 1/1000
 sec f/10 ISO 2000; tripod

He did a lot of calling. I took 537 photos. Bill probably took close to a thousand. You just don't get a lot of chances with these birds and even though this one's breeding colors have already faded, he is a very handsome bird. I didn't have my 1.4x TC on my big camera, and I could have used a slower shutter speed as he really wasn't moving very much. The f/stops of 8-10 were necessary for sufficient depth of field; he is good-sized bird and it is a long way from the tip of his tail to his head. It was late afternoon and a bit dark by the lake, so most of these were shot at ISO 1600 or 2000. We have started going much later because of the heat. 

So, I know there are Anhingas other places (Cullinan Park has some) but you will nearly always see a few at Brazos Bend. Have you seen Anhingas there?  Are you still hiking around in this heat? Is it time to start working on macro stuff you can do in the shade or in the house? Let me know how you are handling this endless summer in the comments below. 

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