Where Waders Fish

When you find a great spot around Florida’s freshwater or coastal areas to hang out for a while watching birds’ free dive or spear for a meal, it is a fantastic experience to see as well as to photograph. 

What is a wader bird? Waders are birds commonly found along shorelines and mudflats that wade to forage for food (such as insects or crustaceans) in the mud or sand. They are called shorebirds in North America, where the term “wader” refers to long-legged wading birds such as storks and herons. Wader – Wikipedia

Capturing that precise moment when a Great Egret’s bill just pierces the water’s surface or when a Little Blue Heron pulls its head up from a quick-strike grasping a fish in between its bill is a nature photographer’s dream shot. Usually, that photograph includes a beautiful landscape, but for this article, we will shift to a different landscape- Mudflats.

Your first thought would be, “Geez, this isn’t a very eye appealing landscape.” The charcoal gray muddy saturated soil shows exposed red mangrove roots and clusters of jagged oysters, but actually, it is the perfect scene. Nature photography isn’t always about getting that serene background; it’s also about photographing subjects in their natural habitat.

Let’s take this time to learn more about marshes. Why learn this? Because learning is awesome, and that knowledge can help you capture some of your best photos.

Florida has several different marsh habitats, and each one is an essential part towards the ecosystem. It is also a valuable environment for wildlife.

What is a marsh: Classification and Types of Wetlands | Wetlands Protection and Restoration | US EPA

Since we are focusing on photographing in low tides, I wanted to share some information about the layers that make up saltwater marshes (tidal marshes). *Non-tidal marshes are mostly freshwater marshes that occur along streams and poorly drained depressions. They are lakes, ponds, and rivers, which vary in water levels. At times, they may dry out completely.  


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
 (NOAA) – Ocean Service Education – Salt Marshes

During low tide gives any photographer a different opportunity to photograph wading birds. Low tide provides accessibility for birds to forage further away from the bank. While more fish are congregating in smaller spaces during that fluctuation, wading birds are also taking advantage of that opportunity.  

Zonation- Different water and land elevation. 

High Marsh

Low Marsh

Mudflats

Subtidal Channels

Mudflats are exposed during low tide. When low tide is approaching, fish, crabs, clams, and crawfish instinctively follow the current or dig just beneath the sediment surface. However, some fish and crustaceans get caught. It’s nature’s natural way of providing food sources for many other aquatic organisms, including birds.

TIDAL ZONES

Of course, understanding how tides occur can be a little confusing for those who haven’t had a reason to research or even ‘google’ what causes tides. Most of the time, we are just trying to remember the name of that white bird.

NOAA has an excellent section about tides. I suggest bookmarking the website just in case you would like to read it at another time.  Tides and Water Levels: NOAA’s National Ocean Service Education

The word “tides” is a generic term used to define the alternating rise and fall in sea level with respect to the land, produced by the gravitational attraction of the moon and the sun. NOAA Tides & Currents

TIP: You can find when low tide occurs in your area by visiting Tide Times and Tide Charts Worldwide (tide-forecast.com)

Another website I would like to share with you is from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – National Wetlands Inventory called the Wetlands Mapper: Wetlands Mapper (fws.gov)

I wish I knew about this website while enrolled in the Florida Master Naturalist program taking the Freshwater and Coastal Systems courses. As we adapt to virtual learning, I feel this site can help those who want to learn about Florida’s different water systems. I never knew how many systems there were just in my county. As a nature photographer and writer, this is valuable information, and excited to explore it further.   

Wetlands Mapper is a useful resource for photographers who want to venture to another county to photograph wading birds. Please read all the information provided on the website and make sure those areas are open to the public! *

Following up on a previous post –Birds of the Estuaries – Florida Parks & Nature Magazine (floridanature.net), each wading bird has its own foraging behavior. For this article, I concentrated on a few commonly seen wading birds.

While there are many species of wading birds throughout Florida, I focused on Great Egrets, Little Blue and Great Blue Herons.

When I was researching the internet, I came across James A. Kushlan (Welcome – James A. Kushlan), writer, ornithologist, educator, and conservationist. He wrote an article on the Feeding Ecology of Wading Birds. The report contains detailed observations that can be useful when photographing wading birds in their natural habitat.

Nature photographers who want to learn more could benefit from being more observant. Trust me, it takes the strongest will not keeping your finger on the shutter button. I firmly believe that practicing this nature will repay you with a great photo op!

What are waders’ common foraging behaviors? According to Kushlan and a combination of other researchers, there are thirty-eight feeding behaviors that are presently distinguished in wading birds.

Posture and Behaviors

  • Standing – just stands in one place
  • Head swaying – moves head from side to side out of the water, in either slow or rapid sweeps 
  • Neck swaying – moves neck and sometimes body from side to side out of water
  • Disturb-and-Chase (Walking slowly, Walking quickly and Running)
  • Foot raking – the bird will use its feet, one foot at a time, to rake the bottom

Head tilting is used to overcome glare from the sun by shifting the glare away from the striking zone.  Head cocking and peering over are used to locate prey by birds with monocular and binocular vision, respectively, and probably to reduce refraction distortion. Head and neck swaying are commonly used (Meyerriecks 1962, North 1963, Ali and Ripley: 1968, Blaker l969a, Carpenter 1971, Siegfried 197lb, Dinsmore 1973) and also permit birds to obtain better parallax. (Parallax-the effect whereby the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions, e.g. through the viewfinder and the lens of a camera.) Although herons have good binocular vision, thus reducing the need for such behavior, head swaying may be used to provide a precise estimate of distance and location when only a single strike is probable.

Kushlan, J. (1997). The Conservation of Wading Birds. Colonial Waterbirds, 20(1), 129-137. doi:10.2307/1521775

Great Egret- Grace and Balance

Ya, that white bird! The Great Egret is such a beautiful bird. It reminds me of the grace and balances nature provides. The Great Egret displays many of the foraging behaviors Kushlan describes. As in many birds, some behaviors may be more prominent than others. 

They will walk gracefully from one area to another, and once a target is in sight, it will stop, displaying both neck and body swaying. 

Here’s a photo tip- keep your eyes on that plumage, especially during a windy day. You can get some beautiful shots of the feathers swaying in the breeze.

Great Blue Heron- Patience and Strength

If you feel 20 minutes is a long time to wait to take a pic, I suggest moving onward to another bird. You can be standing there for a long time waiting for something to happen, and wouldn’t you know it, that decision to move on; you end up missing a shot. That has happened to me countless times. 

The Great Blue Heron is an extremely patient bird, and it’s just very particular on how it approaches its prey. Great Blue Herons showcases strength and patience. It may often appear to be daydreaming, but actually, it is still canvassing the surrounding area. During low tide, the heron uses less effort and energy when catching an array of fishes, snakes to even hatchlings, and juvenile alligators.

Great Blue Heron displaying foot raking.

Great Blue Heron surrounded by mudflats during low tide.

Little Blue Heron- Determination and Courage

The Little Blue Herons are… yes, I am going to say it, adorable. If you watch Little Blue Herons in their juvenile stage, they are incredibly determined. They will attempt to catch that fish with every ounce of their means. You’ll know when they are ready to strike the water surface when they start neck-swaying.

Little Blues are also slow walkers during foraging. They just walk around at a slow pace scanning the water for any fish or other organisms to make some movement.  

They are pretty quick on zoning in prey and, when foraging, can catch quite a few fish and crawfish during low tide. 

Little Blue Heron taking a stroll in the mudflats during low tide.
A juvenile Little Blue displaying foraging behavior: Neck swaying.
Little Blue Heron foraging behavior: A successful targeting attempt.

Photo tips:

As mentioned before, the more you learn about their foraging behaviors, the better you can prepare and time your shooting. Not all birds, even in the same species, display the same foraging behaviors. It’s like not all photographers are alike. Each of them may learn differently as if it would be more comfortable for them, making every individual bird (and photographers) unique.

List of wading birds

  • Herons
    • Green Heron
    • Great Blue Heron
    • Little Blue Heron
    • Black-crowned Night Heron
    • Yellow-crowned Night Heron
    • Tri-Colored Heron
  • Egrets
    • White Egret
    • Reddish Egret
    • Cattle Egret
    • Snowy Egret
  • American Flamingo
  • Roseate Spoonbill
  • Ibises
    • White Ibis
    • Glossy Ibis
  • Wood Stork

Low tide also exposes trash that is not seen during high tide.

During my observation of this Great Blue, this photo was the second time the heron thought this trash or whatever it is, was food. The video below shows the first approach.

You can help by many wading birds by participating in Coastal Clean-ups. Check with your county’s extension office or visit: Trash Free Seas: International Coastal Cleanup – Ocean Conservancy

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