As I’ve mentioned in the past, I love Avian Photography, and for many reasons.
It allows me to combine my passion for photography and art with my interest in ornithology. It affords me the opportunity to spend a lot of time out of doors, communing with nature, which is always a wonderful thing. And, of course, birds don’t require model releases when I display their images!
Today I’d like to give the spotlight to a bird that, in my experience, is underappreciated and seldom fully understood: The Anhinga. These birds are cousins of the cormorant, booby, gannet and pelican, and are known by a variety of names, including "darter," "snake bird," and even "water turkey."
We’ll get to the naming in a moment, but for now suffice to say this is a rather large, aquatic bird, sometimes up to about 3 feet long and with a wingspan up to nearly four feet. You may have seen them sitting on a tree limb, stump, rock, or other perch near the water, hanging their wings out to dry:
The Anhinga has a dark, almost black body, with hints of green in the wings and hints of blue in the body and tail. They have white markings on their wings and tip of the tail, and their heads and necks may be flecked with white hairy feathers, especially in the juveniles. They have a long, pointed bill that makes them easy to distinguish from cormorants (which have shorter, hooked bills). Females have primarily brown head, neck and shoulder feathers, and so are easily distinguished:
The babies and youngsters also have a lot of brown feathers on the head and neck. Aren’t they cute? 🙂
Now for the variety of names. These birds swim in the water, and lack the oily coating that ducks have, and as such their feathers become waterlogged. The result is that as they are swimming, their body is mostly submerged, and only their head and neck sticks out of the water – thus, they resemble a snake moving across the surface, and have been
dubbed "snake bird." The name "Anhinga" derives from a Brazilian dialect, meaning "devil bird," or in some translations, "snake bird." That they are also referred to as "Darter" comes from their prodigious swimming ability; they can dive with ease and their large webbed feet give them a big advantage in catching fish and amphibians.
The fact that their feathers become easily waterlogged leads to the need for them to "hang their feathers out to dry," so to speak. One of the most easily recognizable traits of this interesting bird is that they stand for long periods with their arms spread – a very photogenic pose, in my opinion!
The Anhinga is primarily found in the southeastern US, favoring Florida and the Gulf Coast states, but is also found up the Atlantic Coast as far as the Carolinas. In fact, Anhinga have been spotted as far north as the Midwest and Pennsylvania. They are found throughout the Central American coasts as well, and into eastern parts of South America. In my wanderings, I’ve found them to be frequent companions of other birds including cormorants, herons and egrets.