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Green Cay Wetlands

January 24 ~ Boynton Beach, FL

Story by Ray Hennessy September 5th, 2016

I had been to Green Cay Wetlands for a short visit two years prior. My father and I had stopped there one afternoon hoping to find Painted Buntings that we heard could be found there. We were lucky and got to see them but I was not able to get any good photos on that trip. During that visit I got a glimpse at what looked to be a great place to spend some time doing bird photography so I planned my visit for January 2016. On a chilly Sunday morning I woke up around 5 am and walked out to a clear starry sky. I loaded up my gear, jumped in the car and started the roughly 2 hour drive south to the wetlands.

I arrived a bit before sunset just as I had planned, pulled the large 500mm lens and camera from the car, mounted it to my monopod and started my morning with high hopes. My main goal was to get some good photos of the Painted Buntings this time around, I was also hoping to get some nice photos of many of the wading birds that usually inhabit these southern Florida wetlands. Other then the Buntings I didn‘t have any specific targets in mind and was ready to photograph whatever I could find that would be cooperative.

The day started off rather slow with some Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Yellowthroats calling all around the boardwalk just before sunrise. I made my way around to one of the sets of feeders that tend to attract Painted Buntings and to my surprise I saw a female right away. I stood there for a bit and it didn‘t take long before a male showed up. Of course this feeder was positioned in a rather shady spot and the sun had still not risen yet. I was shooting in near dark conditions and while I got some mediocre photos of the colorful birds on a natural perch they were pretty grainy and not the best of quality. Still I was happy to see them. I decided to move on and I would come back later when there was more light to work with.

I walked down the boardwalk a bit further, still not seeing much of anything. The sun had risen and the light was beautiful but I didn‘t have anything to photograph. I walked around a bend in one of the boardwalks and noticed two other photographers set up. I moved up to where they were and started noticing a couple of wading birds in the tall brown grasses next to the boardwalk. I saw a Great Egret, a Wood Stork, a couple Little Blue Herons, a few Roseate Spoonbills and some White Ibis. At first it didn‘t look like a lot of birds but the longer I stood there the more birds I started noticing. After watching for a few minutes I started noticing a pattern and set up for some bird-in-flight photography. This was not what I was expecting to photograph at Green Cay but I was happy to have the opportunity.

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The majority of the flock of wading birds were on the left side of the boardwalk. Almost one-by-one they were taking off from the left side and landing on the right of the boardwalk. Thankfully the right side of the boardwalk had beautiful sunlight, the only problem was the wind direction had most of the birds landing facing away from the boardwalk. There were so many birds that occasionally one of them would land in a good direction and give me a great photographic opportunity. At this point there was quite the feeding frenzy going on in the wetlands right next to the boardwalk and birds were flying all over the place. At times it was hard to pick a target. The lighting and background setup were great for very dramatic images. With the bright early sun hitting the mostly light colored birds and a background that was mostly in shade the birds would stand out against an almost black background.

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Some of my best opportunities came about from a bird that would not land on its first attempt. Many of the Spoonbills did this and it worked perfectly for me. One of them would try to land in the middle of the flock and it would be too crowded so they would fly around in a large sweeping arch and circle back to try again. Most often when this would happen their new approach angle had them landing perfectly parallel to where I was standing and gave me a wonderful photo. I was having a blast and best of all a lot of the birds were close. It was a challenge to keep them in the frame but when I did it really paid off. I even got some photos that were just parts of the bird as they flew by such as the image below of a Roseate Spoonbill‘s legs and tail.

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Eventually the mayhem started slowing down and fewer birds took to the air. At this point I had many different species flying against a black background, some against green trees, some in the bright blue sky, it was amazing. I spent a bit over an hour with these birds before I finally walked away, it was certainly not what I was anticipating but I could not have been happier with the situation. A few locals that visited Green Cay often told me that morning that they rarely see Spoonbills there, especially in those numbers so I consider myself very lucky to have witnessed such an event.

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The rest of the morning didn‘t present too many more photo opportunities but I was able to enjoy some Red-shouldered Hawks that ended up mating in front of me and a few other sightings of the common birds found in the area. Overall it was an amazing morning and one of those days that present you with the unexpected. Later on that day I made a stop at Wakodahatchee Wetlands just a few minutes from Green Cay to see what is happening, I‘ll tell you all about that experience in the next installment of this series.

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Green Cay Nature Center & Wetlands, Hagen Ranch Road, Boynton Beach, FL, United States