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An elusive Everglades species tests a photographer's patience

Snail kite over water

LAKE OKEECHOBEE, EVERGLADES :: FLORIDA

In 2013, I undertook one of my hardest photography projects ever: capturing images of endangered snail kites. These striking raptors—which I wanted to include in a book about Everglades species—live mostly around Lake Okeechobee, in the northern Everglades. Their diet is almost 100% apple snails, which they snatch up in their wickedly sharp talons when the aquatic snails surface to breathe, mate, or lay eggs.

To photograph the kites, I knew I’d have to use their prey, mimicking the technique biologists use to equip the birds with satellite tags. A state wildlife biologist helped me build a platform just under the surface of the lake near my camera trap. Then I walked around barefoot in the shallow water finding live snails with my feet. (Snail kites are so attuned to the movements of their prey that we couldn’t fool them with empty shells or even shells filled with mud.) We put some snails on the platform and waited through nine-hour shifts of heat and mosquitoes.

After six days, not a single kite had approached. I decided to give it one more day. Finally, a kite soared overhead, saw the snails, and went straight for them. It flapped off with its meal—and I headed home with some breathtaking images.

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World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

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