The Nictitating Membrane

When photographing wildlife, nature photographers are glued to the eyes of the subject. Sometimes at the right time pressing down on that shutter release button, photographers can capture their wildlife species, like birds and amphibians exposing their nictitating membrane. 

Kicking off the October Issue of Florida Nature Magazine is the creepy looking nictitating membrane.

What is a nictitating membrane?

A nictitating membrane is like a third eyelid. It is a thick or thin layer (depending on the species) of tissue to help protect the cornea and keep the eye clean and lubricated. Birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians have this membrane layer. Some frogs, like the Red-eyed Tree Frog have a very cool-looking nictitating membrane.

This third eyelid also protects the eye from any damage during foraging, like when herons thrust into the water for its prey. But for parents, having that third eyelid is damage control. While feeding those hungry kids, they are poking, snapping, and jabbing at their parents. That nictitating membrane is designed to help protect their eye from any scratches or other damage.

A Black-Crowned Night Heron uses its nictitating membrane to protect its eyes when feeding their young.

Depending on the species, their nictitating membranes can be very different. As you can see this beautiful Roseate Spoonbill’s membrane is thick, unlike this Glossy Ibis, which has a thinner, clearer membrane.

The Roseate Spoonbill has a thick nictitating membrane as for the Glossy Ibis has a clear and thinner nictitating membrane.

Sharks are often showcasing their nictitating membrane, especially right before taking a bite out of their prey. Their nictitating membrane is white and thicker, similar to the Roseate Spoonbill and Grackles, but honestly, I would have to say those rows of sharp teeth are more scarier than their third eyelid!

Grackle nictitating membrane

Even though the nictitating membrane is an essential part of many animal species’ anatomy, it can still look quite creepy.

Photography tips:

Again, just like any subject you are photographing in nature, patience is it. Having patience will always be the most valuable asset for nature photographers. 

There are a couple of suggestions I would like to share. 

  • Focus Point
    • Depending on the direction your subject is facing, remember to have just enough space in your frame shot. If your subject is facing the right, focus on the subject’s eye off to the left in a frame shot by merely moving your focus points. 
  • Drive Mode
    • I have my drive mode always set to high and taking up to 10 frames per second. You can save some battery life but setting your drive mode to a single shot. 
  • Observing
    • Preening
      • Sometimes usually with birds, they will use expand their nictitating membrane while preening. 
    • Foraging
      • Many reptiles, amphibians, and birds will expand their nictitating membrane while forging and eating as well. If you see them foraging, keep your focus on the eyes.
    • Feeding
      • When youngsters are bountifully and waiting to be fed this is another excellent time to capture some photos. 
  • Tripod
    • Once you have become familiar with observations, get your tripod stable and set up, but don’t forget that remote. The release of pressure staying glued to the viewfinder will make your experience more joyful!

Have fun photographing during your nature adventures and please be safe!

Do you see an error? Feel free to contact me at

Categories: Nature Photography

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