Bird Photography

How to Photograph Birds in Flight

How to Photograph Birds in Flight

One of the hardest things to photograph in nature is a bird in flight. It’s a technique that takes both study and practice. If you’d like to improve your bird in flight (BIF) photos, then this post is for you. It will help you learn to take your first BIF photos, and then how to improve your technique to get the best photographs of flying birds.

Step 1: Find Some Birds!

The first thing to do is to find some birds to take photos of! Some places might be easier than others, so I would suggest places where:

  • the birds are larger – small songbirds are fast and hard to focus on
  • the birds aren’t hidden by foliage or other elements that make them hard to find
  • the light is good

Some ideas that fit these criteria are shore birds at the beach or at a lake or pond, or even birds in a parking lot. Pigeons are a great bird to learn on! I know they’re probably not your favorite bird, but if the goal is to practice – and it is – then easy-to-find and easy-to-see birds are the best. Fortunately it’s easy and cheap to practice with a digital camera; thankfully most of us are not shooting on actual film these days!

If you need more help, check out my post on Where to Find Birds.

Step 2: Choose a Time of Day

The best time of day to shoot birds in flight is the first hour or two after sunrise, or the last hour or two before sunset.

You want the light to be bright enough that you can set your shutter speed fairly high, since you’ll be moving your camera and the birds will also be in motion. But you don’t want the sun so high that you’re just getting a dark silhouette against a bright sky.

Position yourself so that the sun is behind you, or at least to the side. Don’t shoot directly into the sun. (Although there are times to break every photography rule, learning to shoot birds in flight isn’t one of those times.)

How to Photograph Birds in Flight
Bird in flight photography: Swallow-tailed kite with prey, Wildwood, Florida

Step 3: Prepare Your Camera For BIF Shots

There are several camera settings that are generally best for in-flight bird photography. If you’re still shooting in automatic mode, then please take some time and learn to shoot in aperture priority mode, shutter priority mode, and even manual mode.

For BIF photos, you want a fast shutter speed to compensate for your movement and the movement of the subjects. So you’ll need to shoot in shutter priority mode, or even better, manual mode. If the light allows, shutter speeds of 1/1000 and higher should produce the best results. For super fast birds, like least terns, you’ll probably want something closer to 1/3200. (As a quick note, the larger the number on the bottom, the faster the shutter speed. 1/500 means the shutter is open for 1/500th of a second. The shorter it’s open, the less light is let in, but it better compensates for movement.)

If your camera supports burst mode, set it to that as well, so we can use something called the “spray and pray” method. This basically means you’ll be shooting a sequence of images very quickly, one after another, and praying that you get one or two good photos out of the batch!

Finally, set your camera to back-button focus and learn how to use that. This will allow you to control your focus with a different button than what you’re using to release the shutter. It will give you much better results.

How to Photograph Birds in Flight
Crows and rooks taking flight, Cley Marshes, England

Step 4: Get out and Practice

Now head to your chosen location because it’s time to practice. Pack some water and maybe a snack, and a lot of patience.

Why patience? You’ll have to wait for the birds to take off! This will get easier as you learn the behavior of the birds you’re photographing. If you’re shooting in a park or at a populated beach, just wait for someone to walk by and the birds will scatter. If you’re in a more natural area, the birds will fly if a predator comes by or if they are startled by something. Nesting birds will fly off to find their mate a meal, or to gather nesting materials.

Focus your camera on the birds at their current location, and leave it on. Don’t zoom in too far, because the further in you zoom, the harder it is to track the birds when they move. Then, wait for them to fly.

When the bird flies, aim your camera towards them and use your back button to focus. Track your camera along the same path that the birds take. This is easier with large birds, who tend to fly more slowly and in direct paths, when compared to small songbirds. Press the shutter button, and if you have your camera in burst mode, continue holding it down.

This definitely gets easier with practice. You can practice tracking birds’ movement in flight even without taking photos; I did a lot of that when I was learning to take BIF photos. Tracking is probably the hardest part!

Some Helpful Notes for to Help You Photograph Birds in Flight

Here are some helpful notes for helping you photograph birds in flight.

Watch your step! Don’t try to balance precariously only something. Find a solid stance and don’t move too much if you’re close to a curb, a shoreline, or anything else that can trip you up.

Zoom: Less is More – The more you’re zoomed in on your subject, the quicker you’ll lose them when they move. At rest, it looks great if the fill the entire frame in the camera. But you’ll find yourself taking lots of pictures of the empty sky or just half of a bird if you’re zoomed in too far. Try to balance the focal length so the bird doesn’t take up too much of the photograph, but so it isn’t just a tiny dot either.

Don’t hold down the back button to focus – When you follow the birds, don’t hold down the back button to maintain focus. Wait until you have the bird in your viewfinder and then press it. You can continue pressing it intermittently while you shoot.

Consider NOT using the back button focus – Although I like to use it even for flight photos, other people recommend not using it. If you want, try it both ways and see what you like best.

Turn off image stabilization – this isn’t going to be helpful for BIF photography, so turn it off to improve the performance of your lens.

Set a single focus point – set your camera to use a single focus point instead of multiple ones. Set the focal point to the middle of the viewfinder, and try to keep it centered over your subject.

Try a monopod – a monopod is like a tripod, but with only one leg. It will help you hold your camera in a ready position

Use a tripod with a gimbal head – if you really get serious about your birds in flight photography, consider purchasing a tripod with a gimbal head. You can sometimes use one with a ball head but your movement will be limited. Here’s a great post about using a long lens on a tripod.

Go easy on yourself – shooting photos of birds in flight isn’t an easy task. Don’t be too hard on yourself for clipped wings, blur, or under- and over-exposed images. Your results will get better with time and practice. An experienced bird photographer will even struggle with BIF photos sometimes!

I hope you’ve found this post about taking photographs of birds in flight both helpful and an enjoyable read. Please leave any questions or comments about wildlife photography below and I’ll try to reply back as quickly as I can. If you really liked the post, consider bookmarking it or sharing it on social media. Thank you!

General Birding

Why the Size of a Bird is Such a Difficult Field Indicator

judging the size of a bird

One useful way to identify a bird is by size. Everyone knows an eagle is bigger than a sparrow, a mallard duck bigger than a cardinal. In fact, it’s a great way to separate the identification of two very differently-sized species, such as these. But when two possibilities are more similar in size, it’s much harder.

The problem is that one rarely has an accurate measurement. Sure, if you have a bird in the hand, you can actually measure it or at least get a good idea just by looking. But that little brown job (“LBJ”) 20 feet up in the tree that’s 50 feet away? Well, that’s much harder.

A classic example of using size as a field mark is when you want to determine if a hawk is a Cooper’s Hawk or a Sharp-Shinned Hawk. They are in the same genus, and they have similar coloring and patterns, so they look a lot alike. But a sharp-shinned hawk has a size range of 24-34 cm, while a Cooper’s hawk is much larger, 37-39 cm (male) and 42-45 cm (female).

Fortunately, there are other ways to tell these two species apart, and usually you have to rely on those instead of size. Here’s why.

Things look bigger or smaller depending on how far away they are

This is the most obvious reason. The further away something is, the smaller it appears. Place two soda cans on the ground, one close, and one further away. The one further away looks smaller. If you can’t accurately judge the distance, you can’t determine that the closer soda can isn’t, in fact, larger.

One way our brains determine how far away something is by perceiving the difference each eye sees it. As you move your head slightly back and forth (even subconsciously) your brain can tell by the difference in motion how far away it is. Except, your brain isn’t perfect at this.

And if, like me, you don’t have binocular vision, this becomes almost impossible. I only focus through one eye at a time, and my brain won’t synthesize the two images properly, due to a developmental condition I had at birth. Think that condition is rare? Over half of adults have some kind of impairment that affects or completely prevents binocular vision.

Birds in flight (and photos) often have no references

A second cue our brains use to determine size is interposition. If one object overlaps another within your field of vision, you can tell which is closer and also compare relative size using only a single eye. Even if they don’t overlap, if they’re nearby (relatively the same distance) then you can compare the size. But…how often does this happen?

Having two things at known distances lets us judge the relative size of each one. So, if you’re looking at a bird perched on a stop sign, you can generally tell if the bird is smaller than a stop sign, or bigger than a stop sign. Then just find out how large a stop sign is and you can extrapolate the size of the bird.

If you’re watching a bird flying, there’s often nothing next to it for comparison. There might be clouds in the sky, or it might fly past a tree, but unless you know the size of the cloud or the tree, neither does you any good.

Even birds perched somewhere may not be in an environment that provides sized-based clues based on other nearby objects.

This becomes even harder when looking at a photograph of a bird where the photographer has zoomed in for a tight shot, or has cropped out any comparison objects. A bird at the shore or standing on a perch of unknown size really gives the viewer no clue about its size compared to any known objects.

Really far-away birds are even harder

The third way your brain perceives distance is by distortion in clarity or color caused by the scattering of light. The further away something is, the more distance there is for the light to be scattered.

That means objects that are further away look more hazy and lack the same amount of detail, to our viewing eye, as things that are closer to us.

But with this, you’re still working off comparison, and you need something to compare it to that is closer and offers more detail and color. Plus, by the time something is so far away that you’re losing visual detail, the other cues you have to identification – color, markings, and behavior – are also diminished.

Should you rely on size when identifying a bird?

One of the things I will consistently mention on this site, when it comes to bird identification, is to use as many clues as possible when trying to determine the species of an individual bird.

You should absolutely use size as part of your identification efforts, but it shouldn’t be the only element. Look at color, patterns, habitat, and behavior as well as size. And give yourself the benefit of the doubt when it comes to perceived size. If everything else says sharp-shinned hawk to you, but size says Cooper’s hawk, then remember that size has a greater possibility for error than many other field marks.

Featured Posts General Birding

Where to Find Birds

Where to find birds

Birds are everywhere, right?

That’s totally true, except when you’re armed with your field guide, a pair of binoculars, a packed lunch, and a camera. Then they’re nowhere to be found.

Birds really like Murphy’s Law. Or maybe it’s similar to the old saying, a watched pot never boils? But nothing is more frustrating than wanting to find birds and having absolutely no luck.

Fortunately, help is on the way! There are tons of places to look for birds, so let’s start with some areas to consider.

Your Yard

I can almost guarantee there are birds in your yard…if you have one! Even if you live in an apartment complex, there are still likely birds in the parking lot, the landscaping, or simply out your window. (Here’s my own yard list if you’re interested!)

Now, they may not be the species of birds you were hoping to see, and you may have to look for them. The best two places are up (up, up!) in the branches of trees, and on the ground, especially in protected areas, like under cars or bushes. These two locations will usually have different types of birds, depending on the birds’ feeding preferences and other habits.

The Local Park

Birds are often attracted to green spaces, and parks are an easy place to look This is true whether your closest park is nothing more than a swing set, or if you live near Central Park in New York City!

So head to the nearest park and look in the same kinds of areas: up in trees and down at the ground. If your park has a pond or lake, check there too, particularly along the shoreline and within vegetation that grows near the water. Also watch the actual water itself; birds like cormorants and anhingas dive for fish to eat, and can be completely submerged while they hunt.

Cemeteries

Cemeteries are amazing places for birds! They are generally quiet and many have trees and bushes that birds like to use for cover and protection. One of my favorites is Evergreen Cemetery in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which even has a small creek beside the property.

When you visit, keep in mind that birding isn’t the primary activity here. People are burying loved ones or visiting their graves, so make sure you remain quiet and respectful. Try not to walk on grave markers, either. This good behavior also keeps you from scaring away the very birds you’re looking for, so it’s a win-win situation.

Schools and Churches

Schools often have play yards and other green spaces, making them a good spot, too. Just make sure to read or learn any rules and don’t trespass, regardless of whether you’re there when school is in session, or not.

The same is true of churches and other religious grounds., particularly if they have some green spaces around them, which many do.

Fast Food Joints and Restaurants with Patios

Some birds love to forage for the food we leave behind! In fact, there are several species that people commonly call “drive-thru birds”, because they like to hang around fast food restaurants. Herring gulls, great-tailed grackles, and house sparrows are commonly seen nearby.

Sit-down restaurants with patios are another good option. Birds love to watch for a fallen French fry, or they may head straight for an unsecured garbage can. My local Panera Bread has tons of birds! In most cases, these may not be birds you’re particularly interested in, but it’s a good consistent place if you just want to work on photography skills or practice your identification.

Farms / Agricultural Fields

Agricultural fields around farming areas are also great places for birds. In Florida, you might see meadowlarks sitting on fenceposts, or swallow-tailed kites swooping over fields with ripe watermelons, scooping up the insects that feed on the rotting fruit.

Think about it: What do farmers often put in fields? Scarecrows! And what are scarecrows supposed to do? Yep! Scare away crows!

Local Ponds and Lakes

Ponds and lakes support many kinds of birds, from shorebirds like herons, to diving birds like cormorants. And birds don’t just like large lakes, even small ponds attract them. I live on a retention pond (in Florida, that’s the term for usually-manmade ponds found beside roads, shopping centers, and in suburban neighborhoods). My pond isn’t very big at all, but I’ve seen more than 15 species there, including popular ones like white pelicans and roseate spoonbills.

The Beach

If you live close enough to the ocean, then a beach is a great place to find birds. Shorebirds are often plentiful on the sand, and gulls, pelicans, and perhaps osprey fly overhead. Also use your binoculars to look way out over the ocean and you may spot some pelagic species. (“Pelagic” refers to birds that spend most of their time out to sea.)

The “beach” can also refer to the sandy shores of lakes, too, and they also attract shorebirds.

Power Lines

You can often see birds perched on power lines and utility poles. Even raptors are down to them; here in central Florida it’s common to see red-shouldered hawks on power lines, and osprey perched on poles. Just be careful and don’t “bird while driving”…it can be dangerous!

Thanks to my friend Heather E. for this tip!

Nature Preserves

Thankfully there are lots of nature preserves, where mankind has set aside land not to be developed. These may include state and national parks, but there are plenty of others as well. Head over to Google and do a search for “nature preserve near me” and you’re very likely to get a list.

A nature preserve may be large or small, but it often exceeds community parks and has less recreation that might disturb the birds and other residents. You won’t generally find playgrounds and tennis courts there!

Nature preserves often have very specific rules, so do as much research as you can before you go. Many do not allow animals other than registered service animals. Parking may be limited. And there may be other rules you need to follow as well. So check out the place you want to go online first, as best you can. And make sure to take water with you if you’ll be going any distance from your vehicle.

Wildlife Management Areas

WMAs are similar to nature preserves, but they “manage” the wildlife by allowing hunting and other recreational activities that nature preserves often do not. Again, find out the rules for the area you want to visit. Make sure to take any seasonal advice or rules to heart, as well. For example, you may need to wear bright clothing or stay clear of certain areas during hunting seasons.

However, like nature preserves. wildlife management areas have usually large areas of undeveloped land, perfect for attracting birds.

I’m not sure whether all states have WMAs or not, but many do.

The Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail

This only applies to Florida, but lots of birders live here, or travel to destinations within our sunny state to look for birds. One of our best natural resources is the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.

The name is a slight misnomer as this isn’t a trail you can hike from one end to another. Instead, it’s a series of more than 530 sites that are known for offering great views of birds and other wildlife. Here in Brevard County, there are 38 sites alone.

If you go to their website, you can click Trip Planner in the menu to really map out your visits and make the most of your time birding in Florida.

If you’re so inclined, you might also want to participate in their Wings Over Florida program, where you can earn beautiful paper certificates based on how many species you have seen. They have a program for butterflies too, so make sure to look for smaller flying creatures while you’re out birding!

Thanks to my friend Bert A. for suggesting this section.

Use eBird

eBird is a website and smart phone app created by Cornell University. Birders use it to record sightings and keep lists, especially their life lists. If you go to their homepage, near the bottom, there’s a form labelled “Explore Regions”. Use that to search for areas near you, to the county level.

For example, if I search for Brevard County, Florida, I’m taken to this page. There I can see a table of recent bird sightings. The location column lists where each was seen. Some of them are clickable “hot spots”, which are known locations for birding – as opposed to someone’s house, or the side of the road where someone pulled over to write an incidental sighting. Click the hot spot name to learn more about the area.

The great part about eBird is you can see what species was seen there. The table lists all recent species, with its most recently-recorded location. You can skip over the ones that don’t interest you and keep scrolling until you see something that does.

Those are my thoughts on where to look for birds when you don’t know where to find them. Please feel free to chime in with your own suggestions in the comments below. I’m sure there are TONS more ideas than what I came up with here.

Featured Posts General Birding

Not All Blue Birds are Bluebirds

Eastern bluebird, Flagler County, Florida

For beginning birders, the easiest way to identify a bird is by color. Northern cardinals are red, American goldfinches are yellow, eastern bluebirds are blue. (After all, that’s why they’re called bluebirds!) Identifying birds by color is common, easy, and useful.

In fact, perhaps I shouldn’t have put “beginning” in my introduction, because color reigns supreme as an identification tool for birders at any level.

Eastern bluebird, Flagler County, Florida
This one is an Eastern bluebird, though! Flagler County, Florida

However, you can’t assume that, just because a bird is blue, it’s a bluebird. And you can’t assume that just because a bird isn’t (mostly) blue, that it’s NOT a bluebird!

In this post, I want to talk about using color as a field identification mark, and when it works versus when it doesn’t. Because you absolutely should identify birds by color, you just shouldn’t rely on it 100%.

Color is Easy to See (For Most of Us)

The reason that color is so useful, is that it’s easy for most of us to see. Unless you have some form of colorblindness, or you’re birding in near-dark conditions, it’s generally a sure-fire identification field mark.

No one looks at a male cardinal and says it’s black. Nor do people look at blue jays and think they’re orange. (Well, some creative Photoshopper decided to fool about fifty percent of Pinterest users into thinking that there are rainbow blue jays, but that’s another story!)

Sure, there are other field marks, like shape, size, and markings. These are harder for various reasons, however:

  • Shape takes some experience. I think many people know the difference between the shape of a songbird and an eagle. But it’s much harder to differentiate an eagle from a hawk. And within the songbird (aka passerine) group, how many people can distinguish a sparrow from a thrush, or a warbler from a bunting? Those are much harder and take time to learn.
  • Size is too subjective. I mean, a bird is the size it is, but our perception of it depends on a lot of things, like distance, movement, and relations to known objects that may be close to the bird (or not so close)
  • Field marks are hard to learn, and also sometimes hard to see without a scope or binoculars. Words like “eyerings” and “wingbars” can make a new birder’s head spin!

For that reason, color is one of the first ways we learn to identify birds.

When is a Blue Bird not a Bluebird?

There are lots of “blue birds”. In Florida, where I live, you have three blue songbirds year round: the eastern bluebird, the blue jay, and the Florida scrub jay. If you add in wintering birds, you’ll have to include the indigo bunting, the blue grosbeak, and the purple martin in certain light. Outside of Florida, that list gets even bigger.

Identify birds by color, but understand that a bird that's blue isn't necessarily a bluebird. This is an indigo bunting
Indigo Bunting, Fort DeSoto, St. Petersburg, Florida (admittedly, not my best shot by a long mile!)

Expand your pool of candidates to include other birds that aren’t songbirds, and you will find even more blue birds. Examples are the great blue heron, little blue heron, tri-colored heron, gray-headed swamphen, and the purple gallinule, all of which are wading birds you’ll find near water.

Florida scrub-jays are also blue birds, but they aren't named bluebird
Florida scrub-jay, Central Florida

Even the belted kingfisher is mostly blue, and it’s small enough to look a bit like a songbird! (It’s in the order Coraciiformes, however, and songbirds generally refers to anything in the order Passeriformes, aka passerines.)

Each and every one of those species is a blue bird.

But only one is a bluebird.

When is a Non-Blue Bird Actually a Bluebird?

It also might surprise you to know that eastern bluebirds aren’t always blue! Granted, they generally have some blue on them at any stage. But a juvenile bluebird is gray with white spots, with only a bit of blue on its wings. An immature or female bluebird (difficult to tell apart) is more orange and brown than blue. In fact, even the adult male looks more orange and brown if you look at it directly from the front!

These are bluebirds! But they're very young so they aren't very blue.
Immature eastern bluebirds, photo by “Betty4240”, courtesy Canva

Give Me More Examples!

OK, no problem! Here’s one example:

Often, in this part of the world, an almost-all red bird is a cardinal. Why? Because they are common, they’re relatively large, and they readily come to feeders so they’re easy to see.

Are all red birds cardinals? Certainly not!

Consider the summer tanager:

A summer tanager is red, but it's not a cardinal. Identifying it by color is helpful, but don't assume a red bird is a cardinal.
Summer Tanager – Photo by Daniel Parent, courtesy Canva (I have photographed female summer tanagers, but they’re yellow so not a good illustration for this post!)

Or the scarlet tanager:

A scarlet tanager is red, but it's not a cardinal.
Scarlet Tanager, Fort DeSoto, St. Petersburg, Florida

Or the vermillion flycatcher:

A vermillion flycatcher is red, but it's not a cardinal.
Vermillion Flycatcher, Fort DeSoto, St. Petersburg, Florida

All of these are bright, mostly-red birds, but they aren’t Northern cardinals!

Another example is the bald eagle. Sure, it’s the symbol of America, and really big, but is a big bird with a white head always a bald eagle? Certainly not. Ospreys have a white head and similar habits of catching fish, and people mistake the two birds quite often. And a swallow-tailed kite has bluish-black wings with a white head, and is also a raptor (bird of prey), so it can be mistaken too. In my opinion, these are a little more of a stretch, but by no means uncommon.

So Can I Identify Birds by Color or Not?

Yes…but also, no.

Your best bet when identifying a bird is to use multiple field marks…the more, the better.

Some of these I mentioned above: shape, size, and markings that include feather patterns, eye-rings, and wing-bars. You should also consider the habitat, behavior, food sources, and anything else that may be different between two species that have the same color.

That said, because color is an easy way to help identify birds, you should definitely use it whenever you can. Just don’t rely on it 100% alone.

Featured Posts General Birding

How Nature Reuses Its Resources

I find it fascinating how resources are reused by nature in many ways. One example of how nature reuses things is a basic hole in a pine tree. I have really enjoyed watching the transformation of this pine tree cavity I’m about to show you.

In February of 2018, a fellow photographer found a pileated woodpecker nest in a preserve that’s not far from my home. He was kind enough to show me exactly where it was. You may recognize these birds as the inspiration for the cartoon Woody Woodpecker. They are large and loud.

A male pileated woodpecker hanging out at the entrance to his cavity
A male pileated woodpecker hanging out at the entrance to his cavity

I visited off and on for a couple of months, then one day in April I finally saw the nestlings.

Nestling pileated woodpeckers watching a parent approach the nest
Nestling pileated woodpeckers watching a parent approach the nest
Parent feeding one of the nestlings while the other looks on
Parent feeding one of the nestlings while the other looks on

By this time they were close to being ready to leave the nest, and sure enough, they were gone soon after. Many species of birds don’t continue to use the nest once their babies can fly.

I kept visiting, though, because it’s an awesome spot to find all kinds of birds (bobwhite quail, scrub jays, and lots of woodpecker species). So imagine my surprise when I checked the next in mid-July and discovered that it had been commandeered by a bunch of honeybees! I’d guess there are at least 100 honeybees visible in the photo below, and who knows how many inside.

Honey bees building their hive in the former woodpecker nesting cavity
Honey bees building their hive in the former woodpecker nesting cavity

Then two months later, in late September, check out what it looks like now!

Beehive can be seen poking out of the woodpecker cavity
Beehive can be seen poking out of the woodpecker cavity

That’s a beautiful honeycomb! There are still lots of bees around, indicating an active nest. What an awesome way for nature to reuse this nest cavity!

I also did some research online and found that pileated woodpeckers don’t tend to reuse the same nest from year to year, so hopefully these parents won’t be upset next year when they find they’ve been evicted.

Also: I half expect I’ll show up in a few weeks and find a brown bear going after the honey. (That’s a joke. But it does seem like the next step!) What other examples have you found where nature reuses something in a similar manner?

Bird Species

Species Spotlight: Florida Scrub-Jays

Florida Scrub-Jays

Many of us here in eastern North America know and love (or hate) the beautiful blue jay. But there are many other jays present in the US as well, and one of my favorites is the Florida scrub-jay.

About the Florida Scrub-Jay

At first glance, it looks similar to the more common and widespread blue jay – they have the same body shape and they’re both blue. But take a second look and you’ll see they really aren’t that close. A Florida scrub-jay has a blue head, wings, and tail, with the rest of its body being various shades of gray. It doesn’t have the strong patterning of the blue jay, nor the crest.

Florida scrub-jay at Cruickshank Sanctuary
Florida scrub-jay at Cruickshank Sanctuary

Jays are related to crows, ravens, and magpies – they are all members or the Corvid family of birds. Most jays have some blue on them, while crows are generally black, but don’t let that fool you. They are close relatives.

The special thing about the Florida scrub-jay is that it’s the ONLY bird that is endemic to Florida. That means not only is it a native, but it’s not found anywhere outside of the state. You can only find them HERE.

There are several other species of scrub-jays in the US:

  • the California scrub-jay, found in mainland California
  • Woodhouse’s scrub-jay, found in Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico
  • the Island scrub-jay, found only on Santa Cruz island off the coast of California

Before 2016, the California and Woodhouse’s species were considered one and the same, and were called the Western scrub jay.

The different species’ ranges don’t overlap, so you know which one you’re looking at as long as you know where you are!

Scrub Jay Habitat

A young scrub-jay, photo also shows the sandy soil common to the scrub habitat
A young scrub-jay, photo also shows the sandy soil common to the scrub habitat

The scrub jays are named after the habitat they occupy – the Florida scrub. The ecosystem has sandy soils, low scrubby brushes and oaks, and maybe a few small stands of pine trees but certainly not a forest. The sandy soil allows the jays to cache nuts for the winter, an important part of their feeding process.

Scrubs were naturally maintained by periodic fire, generally caused by lightning. Now, with mankind encroaching on many scrub areas, the habitats are maintained by prescribed burns. Both work to prevent the scrub from being converted into forest when the trees grow too tall.

Florida scrub-jay at Cruickshank Sanctuary
Florida scrub-jay at Cruickshank Sanctuary

Loss of this habitat has led to the Florida scrub-jay being added the endangered species list. The scrub areas must be maintained – and kept from being fragmented so that different populations of the species can interbreed – in order to conserve this special bird species.

Interacting with Florida Scrub Jays

The other special thing is that they’re really friendly and will often perch on your outstretched hand. But before we go any further I want to say one very important thing:

Do not ever feed scrub jays!

Many people are tempted to draw the birds in by bringing peanuts or birdseed. Please please do not do this! Why?

  1. It is illegal. I’ve seen that fines range from $175-$500.
  2. It’s bad for the birds’ health. They need a balanced diet, and eating too much seed or nuts isn’t good for their systems.
  3. They should not become reliant on humans to bring food. They need to retain their survival skills.

The great news is that you really don’t need to feed them to draw them in. Many of the birds are so friendly that they’ll land on your hand if you hold it up, or your head. Or if you’re not so lucky they will miss your head, land on your nose, and scratch your face. (That’s only happened to me once, though!)

My daughter with a Florida scrub-jay on her head
My daughter with a Florida scrub-jay on her head

If you’re tempted to give this a try, but a little scared, I suggest wearing a baseball cap with one of those little “buttons” on the top, the more brightly-colored, the better. Make sure the button is secured – no loose threads. You don’t want it being pulled off and possibly choking a bird.

Visit in the morning or late afternoon. During the heat of the day, the birds may be resting. They’ll be harder to find and less willing to land on your head or hand.

If a bird does come close, you’ll hear the flap of its wings. Try not to jump. The sound can startle you, but if you jump they may be scared in return a fly away. I’ve even had them fly up when I wasn’t trying. One recently ruined a photo I was trying to take of a Northern flicker, because it landed on my head and scared me and I missed the flicker’s take-off completely.

Where to Find Florida Scrub-Jays

My favorite place to see the scrub-jays is at the Cruickshank preserve in Rockledge. That’s mainly just because it is close to where I live. Some other places that are good are:

I’ll add in more locations here as I write more posts about them.

I hope you have enjoyed this post, and I sincerely hope when you visit that you will follow the rules for the birds’ protection. Thank you!

Florida scrub-jay closeup
Florida scrub-jay closeup