Summer at the Viera Wetlands

This past Sunday morning I decided to have a walk around the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera, since I haven’t been there for a couple of months. I wasn’t disappointed as there was a lot of action and a good amount of birds. I walked the outer perimeter roads first, which allowed me to have pretty good views of wetland birds and habitat on the inside of the loop with transitional and upland habitat on the outside.

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A sea of reeds.

The high concentrations of American Coots and Common Gallinules from the winter have gone, but there were pairs and family groups of both still scattered around the ponds. I even got a few photos of some gallinule chicks, which are quite cute.

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“Mom! Tell this man to stop taking my picture!”

I was slightly surprised to see a few Black-necked Stilts in most of the ponds. They are very striking birds, with almost comically long legs, an adaptation that allows them to forage in places other similarly sized birds cannot take advantage of.

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Sure they may look awkward, but stilts get the job done.

The air was full of White Ibises and Cattle Egrets, as there seems to be a rookery of some sort across one of the ponds. It’s a little hard to see from the photograph, but there were dozens of birds in the trees.

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Aliteration exercise: a cadre of cacophonous Cattle Egrets.

Some were adults, but many were fledglings with varying flight experience. The young Cattle Egrets were making test flights out over the trees while the adults shuttled themselves (and food!) back and forth over the ponds. It was surprisingly hard to capture their flights, but I managed to get a few photos. I also saw individual Roseate Spoonbills in flight, but none actually wading in the wetlands.

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Egret Food Delivery Services, Inc.

Walking along the outer loop, I could hear some more upland or transitional species, like Carolina Wrens and Eastern Meadowlarks. Meanwhile, other blackbird species, like the Red-winged Blackbirds and Boat-tailed Grackles were flying about with food to feed their fledgling and near-fledgling chicks. This nearly independent Boat-tailed Grackle female was quite interested in me, and followed me around on prominent perches, as if wanting camera time. Of course I obliged.

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Female Boat-tailed Grackle, sitting pretty.

Its interesting how the demands of raising chicks change the behavior of adult birds. Normally, species like the Least Bittern are very secretive and hard to flush out into the open. But with hungry mouths, it’s important that the parents forage out to get food, and that means venturing more out into the open. I saw a good number of adult Least Bitterns dashing out of the reeds, flying low across open water, frantic to get back under cover. While most of my bittern photographs didn’t turn out, I did take this one of an overly curious chick. Right after I took this picture, an adult darted into the reeds and bodily shoved the chick into the reeds and back under cover!

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It’s a great big world outside your reed bed, little one.

Whereas there were nesting Sandhill Cranes in the wetlands earlier in the Spring, the crane families are now walking and foraging outside the wetlands in the adjacent grass areas and neighboring ranch land. I believe for some of these cranes, it is their second brood.

After I finished the outer loop, I drove the car to the center area of the park, and walked the inner road. Here there were more of the larger herons, mixed in with the smaller species.

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A truly great and blue heron.

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Green Heron.

There was one Great Blue Heron that was very patiently staring down at the water waiting for prey. It stood motionless for quite a while. In fact, I passed it twice while trying to photograph some other birds, and it never moved.

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This heron remained motionless for at least a half an hour. Patience personified… or at least avianified.

Of the smaller, non-white herons, the Tri-Colored Herons were the most active and agitated. I’ve noticed that this species seems to be the most “high-strung” of the smaller herons, though I don’t know why

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Tri-colored Herons are dainty and what people with way too much vocabulary call “gracile.”

There were a few Little Blue Herons in the midst of changing from white (immature) to dark blue (adult). I love this phase, as I think they look like living marble.

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Little Blue Marble Heron coming in for a landing.

There were a few medium sized alligators as well. When they’d pass near the gallinules, the birds would call out nervously and jump up on the nearest clump of vegetation or mud and bicker at it as it passed. I estimate the largest alligator that I saw to be about 7 feet long.

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Let’s head away from this alligator head that’s heading away from us. (Uh, wait a sec…)

As the morning warmed up, vultures, anhingas and some other birds took to the thermals. Anhingas will often soar high on thermals, a curious adaptation for a diving bird.

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“Can’t keep my eye from the circling sky.”

On the drive out, I passed a couple of large Florida Soft-shelled Turtles. Normally they bask with their long necks held in graceful s-curves, but as my car drew near, they partially retracted their necks. They can grow quite large, and in fact both specimens I saw had shells at least 18” in diameter.

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These turtles are fantastic!

Here is the total list for the morning, including First of Year (FOY) and voice only (♫) species:

  1. Northern Mockingbird
  2. Common Grackle
  3. White Ibis
  4. Common Gallinule
  5. Little Blue Heron
  6. Black-bellied Whistling Duck
  7. Cattle Egret
  8. Black-necked Stilt (FOY)
  9. Sandhill Crane
  10. Least Tern
  11. Glossy Ibis
  12. Roseate Spoonbill
  13. Anhinga
  14. Fish Crow
  15. Carolina Wren (♫)
  16. Northern Cardinal
  17. European Starling
  18. Boat-tailed Grackle
  19. Red-winged Blackbird
  20. Least Bittern (FOY)
  21. Green Heron
  22. Great Egret
  23. Great Blue Heron
  24. Snowy Egret
  25. American Coot
  26. Mottled Duck
  27. Osprey
  28. Eastern Meadowlark (♫)
  29. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  30. Purple Martin
  31. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  32. Crested Caracara
  33. Eurasian Collared Dove
  34. Double-crested Cormorant
  35. Pied-billed Grebe
  36. Common Ground Dove (♫)
  37. Mourning Dove
  38. Black Vulture
  39. Turkey Vulture
  40. Wood Stork

It was a hot day, but even in summer, these wetlands are beautiful and active, with many species successfully breeding and raising young. With the continued assault on and development of wetlands in the area, this park will remain a vital part of wildlife conservation for the species that call it home. Projects like this, born of mitigation of water treatment from the development that makes them so vital, are all the more ironic for it.

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