Travel

Photographing Endangered Snail Kites in Central Florida

by Jim Neiger | May 1, 2006

© Jim NeigerThe only place in the United States where the beautiful and endangered Snail Kite is found is in the southern half of the state of Florida. Snail Kites are abundant in parts of Central and South America but, in the U.S., these birds number less than two thousand and are considered the rarest bird of prey in the nation.

Snail Kites are large hawk-like birds with a long hook-shaped bill and a wingspan of nearly four feet. The males are slate grey in color and the females are dark brown with white streaks. Their long bill allows them to feed on their primary food source, the Apple Snail. The Apple Snail is thought by many to be the only prey of the Snail Kite, but I have also observed them eating baby turtles and in one case, a crawfish. During the last few years, Florida has become home to an ever-increasing number of exotic South American Channeled Apple Snails – much larger and more invasive than the Florida Apple Snail. This seems to be a good thing for the Snail Kites as they have adapted to feeding on the larger, exotic snail which now makes up the majority of their diet.

Snail kite © Jim Neiger

Snail Kite landing with an Apple Snail in its bill

Snail Kites live and thrive in freshwater marshes and shallow lakes that make up large portions of central and south Florida. This vast watery wilderness covers millions of acres and easily swallows up the less than 2,000 Snail Kites that live here. These birds are nomadic and they follow their prey, the Apple Snails. The Apple Snail’s existence is dependent on shallow water vegetation. As seasons change and water levels fluctuate, the snails move, and so do the kites. The size of the area and the movement of the birds can make locating and photographing them very difficult. In most cases, a boat is a requirement.

Shooting Locally

I live on Lake Tohopekaliga in central Florida. Living here has given me the opportunity to spend many days studying and photographing Snail Kites. My approach to photographing these birds is similar to my approach for photographing wildlife in general. First, I spend lots of time in the areas where the subjects live. During this time, I try to locate the subjects and observe their specific patterns of behavior. As I’m observing, I note behaviors that I find interesting or attractive. This leads to visions of images that I would like to capture. I then create a plan to actually capture these images and, finally, I go out and try to execute that plan.

Snail kite with wings spread © Jim Neiger

Male Snail Kite, wings spread

Snail kit in flight © Jim Neiger

Snail Kite banking in flight

In the case of Snail Kites, most of the really interesting activities are only photographable from a boat capable of maneuvering in very shallow water. I use an old bass boat equipped with an electric trolling motor that is controlled with a foot pedal. The electric motor allows silent movement and the foot pedal permits me to pilot the boat and take pictures at the same time. I photograph with a Canon 20D camera and a Canon 500mm f4 IS L lens; often, I also add a Canon 1.4x teleconverter. I use a hand held technique that I have been working on specifically for capturing birds in flight using the 500mm lens. This technique works well with the kites and with the boat, allowing me to capture images that would not be possible otherwise. When planning my outings, I watch the weather conditions and limit my attempts to when I know it will be most favorable for photography. My planning and persistence have resulted in a few images that come close to what I had envisioned.

During my time observing Snail Kites, I have watched with fascination as they glide along low to the water, heads down searching for snails clinging to vegetation just below the surface. They soar back and forth making banking turns with occasional stalls or loops when they spot something promising. They are beautiful, graceful birds. Unfortunately, their low flight patterns with their heads turned downward towards the water make them easy targets for attackers. Red-winged Blackbirds, grackles, and crows often harass the kites as they hunt. Smaller birds tend to dive down on the kites from above and behind. The Snail Kites react with evasive maneuvers in an attempt to escape; an amazing sight but difficult to photograph. I shoot in manual exposure mode, which makes it possible to capture images of birds in flight as they fly across changing backgrounds.

Female snail kite © Jim Neiger

Female Snail Kite plunging for a snail

Once a Snail Kite has spotted prey, it must plunge into the water to get it. This is when things get really interesting. The bird will nearly stop in flight then loop around while diving down at the same time. It will hover just a few feet over the water to position itself, then lift its wings straight up and drop into the water. Sometimes the birds will go in deep enough for the water to cover their head. Their powerful wings are needed to then lift themselves from the water, dragging prey and anything clinging to the prey with them. Sometimes the bird loses its grip and drops the snail, and it must return to hunt all over again. Another feeding technique sometimes used is thrusting downward with feet first as they enter the water, punching through the thick matted vegetation to get at the snails below. These behaviors inspire images to be pursued. To formulate a plan, I try to determine where activity is most likely to take place, then position myself for the best light and pleasing backgrounds—not always an easy task.

After a Snail Kite has successfully captured a snail it must perch somewhere and consume the snail, posing some challenges for the bird. It must choose between trying to land with one foot while holding the snail with the other, or must transfer the snail to its bill to use both feet for landing. The kite must also evade any attackers along the way without dropping its prey. These transfer and landing behaviors inspire more visions of images and plans to get them. Time spent observing has helped lead to an understanding of where the birds may likely capture snails and then perch, crucial to getting images of these activities.

After a long day of hunting, capturing snails, evading attackers and eating, Snail Kites like to find a perch where they can rest and preen and presumably pose for the camera. This also affords spectacular images of this magnificent species which, like many of us, appears to be taking great pleasure in the wonders of tropical Florida.

Tips for photographing birds in flight, hand held:

  • Shoot in manual exposure mode. This allows you to get proper exposure even when backgrounds are changing.
  • Use continuous focus with only the center AF sensor active. This allows you to track a moving subject with better precision.
  • Use the largest aperture that gives you enough DOF and the highest ISO that will produce a clean image. This allows you to keep your shutter speed as high as possible to freeze the action and produce sharp images.
  • Use the lens foot like a handle to carry and hold the lens.
  • Practice acquiring your subject in the viewfinder quickly. I look directly at the subject and then quickly bring the camera and lens up to my eye in line with the subject, so that the subject is centered in the viewfinder immediately. I have practiced this a lot and I can now do it almost every time. This is one of the biggest advantages of shooting hand held.
  • Shoot efficiently. Try to minimize the time spent in one shooting position to avoid arm fatigue.
About the Author

Jim Neiger lives in the birding paradise of central Florida, using his knowledge of local birds to provide private guided photography tours by land or by boat. He has also published a "Central Florida Canoe Creek Road Area Site Guide" which includes a guide to some of his favorite places and more information about his hand held techniques. For more information on Jim, please visit his website at www.photosbynature.com or email him at JimN@cfl.rr.com. His Central Florida Site Guide is available in the NatureScapes store.

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