Common Loons

It’s June again, time to head to Maine for the annual (five years and running) attempt to photograph baby Loons riding on their parent’s back. After eight days of exhaustive searching we found only one active nest with a Common Loon incubating eggs on an old derelict unused dock. On this same lake in past years we have typically found five or six nesting pairs. Also, contrary to past years, when we found nests with an incubating parent (yes, both parents incubate the eggs, unlike duck species, where only the female stays on the nest) the other parent was always in the water patrolling close by. Unfortunately, this year we saw only one such instance, while on a number of other occasions pairs of Loons were travelling together, suggesting their nesting efforts had already failed. The particular lake we surveyed has suffered considerable fluctuation of water levels as this has been the wettest spring in years. Consequently, it is easy to surmise that other Loon nesting attempts this year have been flooded out as Loons typically nest inches above the water level and right at the water’s edge.

We monitored the one nest we found daily, hoping to discover that the eggs had hatched and the babies were now happily riding on their parent’s back. Regrettably, we arrived one morning to find that one intact egg was out of the nest and the second eggshell was broken and also out of the nest. (photo 2) Our initial hope was that one egg had hatched and the baby was now happily riding on the mother’s back. Those hopes were soon dashed when we found the Loon pair not far from the nest without any young anywhere in sight. Oh well, maybe next year will be the charm.

Serendipitously, while in Maine I received an email from a reader suggesting a Hart Beat topic: “Do birds have variations in body parts like humans? … Could it be that birds have variations in bill size like humans have different noses? Maybe they do have legs longer or shorter, height differences, etc. …” Of the many Loon photos I took on this trip, one was a close-up of a pair (photo 1 at the top of the page) which clearly discloses the difference in the markings on the neck bands of each. I wondered whether these differences could be the equivalent of finger prints in humans. Despite considerable conversation with Mr. Google I was not able to find a definitive answer to this question. However, as to the reader’s suggested topic: Loons do vary in size and weight from 7 to 15 pounds; males are generally 25% larger than females; territorial males are the biggest and strongest and have the best projection in yodeling their territorial calls; relative size and weight is critical in male Loons establishing and defending their territories, as well as in challengers seeking to take over a territory; some males are sneaky and will attempt to mate with a mated female if the opportunity arises; and larger heavier birds are able to stay under water longer and thus may be more successful in catching fish.

The answer to our reader’s question: Yes, there is significant variation in the body parts of birds. A close examination of the pair in the photo above discloses different head shapes, and bill and body sizes, as the larger one is undoubtedly the male and the smaller one on the left is the female. While we humans may have difficulty noticing the variations in different individuals of a bird species, the birds themselves are certainly aware of those differences and establish their “pecking orders” accordingly.

While we were once again unsuccessful in our quest for photos of baby Loons on their parent’s backs, that does not mean we did not take pictures. Watching a Loon preen one cannot help but be impressed with the large webbed foot dangling in the air (photo 3) which the Loon uses exclusively for its underwater propulsion. When swimming the Loon’s wings are tucked tight to the body, the tail acts as a rudder, and the feet, far back on the body drive the bird forward. After a swim, as the Loon prepares to rise and flap its wings to get all the feathers back in proper alignment in a process called “rousing,” the image “aircraft carrier” came to mind. (photo 4) And finally, when the Loon rises just off the water to flap its wings it is an impressive sight. (photo 5) In addition, drifting close to islands in the lake searching for Loon nests, we had the opportunity to observe numerous Eastern Kingbirds and a Red-eyed Vireo gathering nesting material, which is a sight not likely to occur in Florida.

And so, Dear Reader, another Maine summer trip is now in the books, and while unsuccessful for our hoped for baby bird shot, it was still a fun and happy trip in all other respects. Many hours of delightful time were spent on the waters of the beautiful lake, many happy hours socializing with some of our best friends, and many photos of wonderful and exciting birds, even if not the specific shot we hoped for. In the midst of it all came a most thought-provoking email sparking a challenge to produce photos that illustrated the unique differences in individual birds within a given species. Hopefully, the above photo meets that challenge, at least in some small way. But it is probably too early to begin planning next June’s trip. We still have the rest of this summer, a winter in Florida and all of the anticipation of next spring to get through before that trip. It’s hard to think about it, but maybe actually finding and photographing our target baby birds might now be anti-climactic and we certainly don’t want to lose our excuse to take our annual Maine trip. Not any more than climate change might deprive us of our excuse to winter in Florida. Not likely!!!

For information on why baby birds of some species ride on their parent’s backs, see: blogs.discovermagazine.com/inkfish/2017/11/30/why-some-bird-babies-ride-piggyback/#.XQ06QOhKibg.

For earlier Hart Beat columns on previous Maine trips, see: Crazy About Loons and An Unsuccessful Trip?


“There is a pair of Least Bitterns on a nest down at Green Cay, and I’m pretty sure I know where it is. Do you want to go with me to check it out?” Now that is the kind of call that is virtually impossible to resist.

Off we went to Green Cay a day later. Unfortunately, the nest was not where my friend thought it was, but we found local birders who did know exactly where the nest was and informed us where to look. “The nest is so deep in the reeds that you won’t be able to see it, but the birds do move around and if you are patient, eventually you will see one or the other of the pair.” How prophetic that piece of information turned out to be! Many of you, Dear Readers, have heard me say that the one thing I have learned in all my years of birding is Patience, with a capital P. And here again it proved invaluable.

As so often happens with Least Bitterns, one of the smallest herons in the world that are frequently smaller than the leaves of plants where they love to nest, hide and hunt prey, after diligent searching we would see perhaps an eye and part of a beak, (photo 2) but with time and extreme patience the bird would finally put in something of an appearance. (photo 1, above) Note the red lores at the base of the bill, the Least Bittern’s breeding plumage indicator, similar to the Great Egret’s green lores, the Snowy Egret’s red lores, the Great Blue Heron’s blue lores or the Cattle Egret’s lavender lores.

Then again, sometimes Least Bitterns will show up right out in the open, even along the boardwalk at Green Cay or Wakodahatchee, providing outstanding opportunities to see the birds up close and personal, (photo 3) While Least Bitterns migrate north and breed all the way to southern Canada, on the east coast all the way to the Mississippi River, and at some locations along the west coast of the United States, they can be found year round in Central and Southern Florida but are much harder to find in the winter.

At first glance male and female Least Bitterns may appear to look very much alike. But if seen from the back, the male will have a darker bluish-green, almost black, crown and back, (photo 4) while the female will have a lighter brown colored crown and back with prominent white vertical streaks on both sides at the base of the wings. (photo 5) Juveniles look most like females but are generally paler in color. (photo 6)

While small fish, such as minnows are the Least Bittern’s mainstay diet, they also eat small snakes, frogs, salamanders, slugs, crustaceans, and even small shrews, mice and dragonflies. Least Bitterns do not hunt by wading in the water as other herons do; instead they hunt from a hidden location in reeds and tall vegetation where they hang onto the stalks of plants near the water’s surface with their oversized feet. In this manner they can fish in deeper water than their larger heron kin because they will hang on and just plunge their head into the water to catch a passing fish, coming up to shake off the droplets of water after a successful strike. (photo 7)

When many birders prepare for an excursion they have much paraphernalia to gather together: binoculars, telescopes and tripods, cameras, a portable seat or cushion for those long days waiting for a rare bird, lunch and beverages, (years ago I birded with a group that always carried a bottle of wine to celebrate any life birds that anyone in the group might encounter, and as you should have suspected, they always made sure to have a rank novice along for the day), and most recently, Jewel now insists I tote along a first aid kit, which sad to say has come in more handy than I ever would have expected.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we birders could pack a good supply of patience with all the other gear we carry? You know, when Bored Birder says, “Okay, I’m getting tired of waiting for this stupid bird to show up, let’s go to a movie,” you could reach in your pocket and pull out some of your supply of Patience and help Bored Birder over the rough spot.

Oh yeah, we do already have that now: it’s called a mobile device and Bored Birder can check out Facebook or Twitter. Then Bored Birder probably won’t even care if “this stupid bird” ever shows up. Patience in your pocket, a relatively recent innovation for birders: almost as good as giving up and going to a movie. Or instead of Patience, would it be more accurately called Distraction?

For more information on Least Bitterns, see: www.birdwatchingdaily.com/news/birdwatching/finding-bitterns/; and www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Least_Bittern/lifehistory; and www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/least-bittern.


“Frigatebirds don’t nest anywhere on the Treasure Coast. They only nest on the Dry Tortugas.” That’s the message I have heard ever since we started coming to the Treasure Coast of Florida, (Indian River, St Lucie and Martin Counties, Vero Beach, Fort Pierce and Stuart, for those readers unfamiliar with that area of east coast Florida) in the early1990s even though we saw Magnificent Frigatebirds flying along the coast regularly.

On March 14, 2011, I was fortunate enough to take a boat trip to a small mangrove island on the west side of the Indian River just off Sewall’s Point in Martin County, where male Magnificent Frigatebirds were displaying in full red throat regalia, obviously trying to entice females into breeding activity. Note the envious male with the deflated throat (gular) sac eyeing the magnificent performer. While there were numerous Frigatebirds, including males, females and juveniles, there was no evidence of nesting there then, and unfortunately, I was not able to get back to that island again later that year, or any intervening occasion until April 16th of this year, 2019.



Barbed wire is mean stuff. It has lots of sharp edges and can cut and cause scratches for the unsuspecting and is just a notch below razor wire for keeping unwanted “guests” out and preventing fruit trees, vegetables, cows, horses, goats and the like from wandering about.

Under no circumstances is it any bird photographer’s preferred posing pedestal for capturing the portrait of some beautiful bird. (No, I do not intend to again discuss my disdain for photographing birds on man-made objects.) But sometimes some birds just seem to prefer to spend most of their time on barbed wire fences.


“Joe Overstreet Road never ceases to amaze me. There always seems to be some new bird that I haven’t seen there before.” The speaker was a participant on a recent St Lucie Audubon field trip to this less well known, but excellent, birding location in central Florida on the southern edge of the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes just north of Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area and about 45 miles south of Orlando.

I have birded the area pretty regularly for the past 15 years and have written HartBeat columns about it twice (February 1, 2018, and July 1, 2018). We did find a couple of species on this field trip, and the scouting trip four days earlier, that I had not seen there before, or at least we saw them much better than ever before.


“Get your camera and come with me; you have to get a photo of this bird!” Jewel then showed me a cell phone photo she had taken through her telescope of a Gray-headed Swamphen (until a recent name change, Purple Swamphen), identifiable but not completely satisfactory, in her Christmas Count area earlier that very day. As it was then 3:30 in the afternoon, we still had time to go find the bird and try to get photos before the Christmas Count meeting at 5 pm.



The email asked for any photos I might have of Northern Gannets that might be used to accompany a newspaper interview on the gannets. I knew I only had a few recent photos from out on the beach during a recent trip to Merritt Island….

Sometime later I remembered that I had taken some Northern Gannet photos from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Virginia back in 2008, in the very earliest days of my attempts at bird photography, and wondered whether with the magic of modern post-processing I could rehabilitate them into passable photos for this column. I found them after some searching, (I never throw anything away) and recalled the effort I went through to get them, which is the story I recount here now, 10 years later.



You completely missed Reddish.” A relatively new HartBeat reader who had just acquired a copy of Volume 1 of the HartBeat columns (Volume 2 is currently being edited for publication by my son) was commenting on one of the early columns in the book entitled  “Red By Any Other Name.”

He was right: there was red, cardinal, scarlet, crimson, and vermilion, as the column featured the Vermilion Flycatcher. But I had failed to include reddish. Thankfully, he did not mention that I also missed rose, rosy, roseate, ruby, ruddy, rufous and rusty, all presumably additional shades of red. But for now, the focus is on reddish, as in the Reddish Egret, the only bird featuring that descriptive name.


The doctor’s new patient information form I was required to fill out included three questions I had not encountered before. They wanted to know my “color,” “ethnicity,” and my “country of origin.” “Color” was easy: I was “sun-tanned with various bruise splotches” caused by the blood thinning medications I take. I was not sure what they were asking for in “ethnicity,” so I checked the definition and found “…belonging to a social group…with common cultural tradition.” OK, I am an environmentalist, belonging to a number of environmental organizations, so “environmentalist” went down on the form. “Country of origin” proved to be a more difficult question.


“Will we see any Avocets or Stilts?” This is a question we get on almost any field trip to a location where either or both species might be expected. Clearly, these two similar black and white birds, with their long, backward bending legs, long up-curved bills and distinctive plumage, are definitely favorites for most birders. While they are similar in many ways, they are also different.