Snowy Egrets

During a recent trip to Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, I witnessed an incredible mass wildlife event. Hundreds of great and snowy egrets gathered at the edge of a small stream, drawn there by a spawn of minnows. The egrets, seemingly unconcerned by the dozens of people gathered to watch the event, spent hours plucking minnows out of the water. And I spent hours photographing the event, trying to capture compelling images of the acrobatic and showy snowy egrets, which would fly over the water, stirring up the minnows with their talons, and then without warning would suddenly drop their head into the water and emerge with a tasty prize—all while still in mid-flight. The action was fast and furious, and although after several hours my neck was sore and my trigger finger bruised, I didn’t stop until the birds ran out of minnows to catch. Why? Because for every successful shot I got, I had hundreds of failures. The egrets moved so quick, it was almost impossible to successfully lock on with autofocus to capture the moment when they dived into the water. Almost.

The egrets would find a perch which served as a good vantage point to spot minnows, such as a branch sticking out of the water. When they saw some, they would suddenly spring into action, dragging their talons over the water to stir up the minnows, illustrated by the image below.

Snowy egret stirring up minnows

Finally, the decisive moment would occur! Without warning, the egret would pop its head underwater, emerging a split second later with a minnow in its beak. I must have taken several hundred photos just to get one sharp image.

Snowy egret striking a minnow

Once catching a minnow this way, the egret must have felt pretty impressed with itself, as it proceeded to act as if it could walk on water. Oh wait, it is walking on water! It was fun to watch the egrets strut their stuff after a successful dive, and even more fun to actually get one successful image of this amusing behavior.

Snowy egret with a minnow

So the lesson here is that when you find something special, whether it is a unique wildlife event or a beautiful landscape scene bathed in killer light, keep shooting until the magic is over. Because you might never see it again!


    Thanks for sharing these great images; I’ve never seen any like the one with its head in the water. You are right on with enjoying the moment. Sometimes, I stop just to take in the whole scene instead of just what’s in the view finder to see if I’m missing something and to enjoy the special time. Any tips on how to get sharp images like these?

    Hi Chris, a fast shutter speed was necessary for these images – 1/1000th a second or higher. When the light was low, I compensated by increasing my ISO. Other than that, my best advice is shoot – a lot. The egrets were moving so fast and so unpredictably, most of my shots got thrown out, as autofocus didn’t lock on in time, I wasn’t able to keep up with the moving bird and it was half out of the frame, etc. I had only about a 5% success rate!

    Thanks for sharing these photos, and for doing such a good job describing the action and chaos. I now plan to put Ding Darling on my “must visit” list for next winter.

    Can you share which camera body and lens you used for these images?

    Just starting to learn about and take outdoor pictures… really a novice! Have to say your photos are magnificent and inspiring! Really appreciate your mentioning the 5% as my downloads have so many more deletes then saves!

    Hi Cladia, thanks for commenting. If it makes you feel any better, most of the photos I take end up in the trash. Getting the real world to align with your creative vision can be a lot like herding cats sometimes!

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