Viera Wetlands, Take Two!

I met with my friend Camille on Sunday to have a look at the Viera Wetlands (Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera, formally). Camille has been a conservationist and wildlife watcher for a long time, but birding as a dedicated activity is new for her, with all the excitement and wonder it comes with. She’s already upgraded her camera and lens to get the kinds of photographs she wants. The two of us had a fun morning, with some new “lifers” for her. It was a privilege to be able to show her some aspects of birds and birding that are new to her.

It’s mid-February in Florida, and that means Spring! Many of the waterfowl have already begun moving out of their wintering spots, herons and egrets are building nests and mating, and Sandhill Cranes are making arrangements for eggs and babies.

Some birds, like male Great Blue Herons will fly to the margins of the Wetlands and pluck branches or even small saplings, fly to the nest site, and present the object to their mates. Each species has its own rituals and methods for preparing for the next generation.

gbh-stick
This Great Blue Heron male seemed quite pleased with his stick selection.

Another sure sign of Florida spring is the dispersal of waterfowl. Although the number and density of duck species was down this year in the Wetlands, there has been a clear exodus. We saw a handful of Blue-winged Teals and a small group of Ring-necked Ducks in the western ponds, but that was it. Even the coots are starting to move out and separate. There was still one large raft of coots in one pond, but the other larger congregations seem to have gone. The Common Gallinules were a little less conspicuous than usual, although this rather large individual really caught our eye. I speculated it might be a gravid (with eggs) female, but I can’t be sure, because even its head seemed larger.  It was clearly at least 50% larger than the other adult gallinules in its vicinity. We did not see the Purple Gallinule that’s been reported in the past few weeks (though Camille did see during the prior weekend).

huge-gallinule
Everything about this Common Gallinule seemed big.

We saw both species of bitterns, too. The first American Bittern was in no mood for photo-ops and stayed well hidden in a clump of vegetation. In fact, it was quite impressive that a bird the size of an American Bittern could be that well concealed. If the volunteer who spotted it hadn’t alerted anyone to it while it was still more in the open, I don’t know if anyone would have noticed it, and it was only 10 feet away.

But in one area that Camille has said Least Bitterns have been in consistently, we saw an adult creep out between the reeds. Least Bitterns prefer to climb through vegetation rather than fly, though while raising chicks they will make brief forays into the open. Least Bitterns are the smallest of the herons, not much bigger than many song birds.

least-bittern2
If you look closely, you can see the Least Bittern’s relatively large feet and toes which it is using to easily grasp the reeds. Like most herons, Least Bitterns wait patiently at the edge of the water for a prey item to get in striking range.

Quite a few immature Pied-billed Grebes were present, along with adults in various stages of molting into their breeding plumage. Pied-billed Grebes lack the more gaudy breeding plumage some of their cousins have, but they do perform ritualistic dances and displays during mating season. They will do pirouettes, dives and even submerged swimming races!

2-grebes
The younger bird, in the back, still has a relatively thin bill, while the adult in the foreground is sporting the “pied bill” that gives the species its common name.

We could hear a lot of Palm Warblers and other small call notes along the outer edge of the road, but it was surprisingly difficult to see any of these birds in the thick underbrush and palm branches. At one point, we both saw a warbler that stood out because of its lack of tail-bobbing. Luckily, I got a descent enough shot of it to confirm later in the evening that it was Pine Warbler.

pine
This isn’t a glamor shot, I know, but more representative of what you’re likely to see when birding.

While trying to get good views of the warbler, some bright colored movement caught my eye in some lower branches. Sitting in the sun was a lime-green little bird. In my binoculars the shade of green was almost shocking in its intensity. As my mind went through the usual identification characteristics (size, overall shape, bill shape, etc.) a description my Peterson Guide had to knock at the back of my head a few times before it clicked. There are no bright green North American birds except for Painted Buntings; specifically immature males and mature females are described as “electric green above” fading to an olive or yellowish below. I’ve seen female Painted Buntings at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge Visitors’ Center, and while clearly green, I would never venture to call it “electric green.” This bird, however, was brilliant green. I don’t know if it was a fresh plumaged female or an immature male, but it was stunning.

painted2
It’s hard to explain how much more vibrant this bird looked in the binoculars vs. what the camera captured, but you can see that this bird is GREEN.

Another difference between this bird and the buntings at the feeder at MINWR is that this bird was “puffed out” due to the relatively cool morning (it was in the 40s when we started). Bird shape and apparent size can change a lot depending on what the bird is doing with it feathers, be it for display, warmth or alarm.

painted

In addition to the several Great Blue Heron nests, there were a few Limpkins chasing each other around in what was either a territorial dispute or an attempt to impress a female. One would fly away and land on top of a dead palm tree only to be chased off to another. This was going on constantly with the Limpkins calling out their strange wailing calls.

wind-blown-limpkin
A wind-blown Limpkin prepares for an incoming challenger to chase him off his pedestal.

I assumed this quietly resting Limpkin was the female, resting quietly and seeming to ignore the raucous goings on over her head.

resting-limpkin
Not impressed with the boys at all.

We could also hear Sandhill Cranes calling, mostly in pairs, from various parts of the adjacent ranch properties. The cranes will begin nesting very soon, including the mated pair that hangs out near the building I work in. They successfully raised one chick last year (they lost one) after losing both their chicks the year before, likely due to traffic collisions on the busy road nearby.

Herons and egrets are getting their breeding plumage, too. In addition to head plumes and aigrettes (the shaggy, pointed feathers, sometimes called lancets), many egret and heron species develop bright colored lores (the area between the eyes, below the forehead). In Great Egrets this is usually lime green, and their bills, which have become dull over the winter, become bright yellow.

great-egret
This Great Egret’s bill and lores are transforming to the brighter colors of the breeding season.

We had a couple of other interesting encounters. A Crested Caracara buzzed over our heads while we were watching a well concealed American Bittern. Later, an adult Bald Eagle stopped awhile on the top of a dead Cabbage Palm. I know there are nesting eagles in the general area, so presumably this is one of the resident adults.

eagle
Dramatically back-lit eagle poses dramatically.

In one of the dead trees on the way toward the exit, I saw this arrangement of birds. Maybe it was convenience, or the hope of a fallen morsel on the starling’s part. I’d like to think they adopted the starling into their family and love him as their own.

one-of-these-things
A peculiar family of Double-crested Cormorants?

Before leaving the Wetlands for a quick (and uneventful) stop at the Moccasin Island Tract, we saw an American Bittern walking the edge of one of the cells, occasionally walking into obscuring brush and reeds, then coming out again with just a slightly wary concern about all the humans watching and taking photographs.

am-bittern
American Bitterns are normally secretive and prefer to keep hidden. Spring time (hormones!) tend to make some species a bit bolder and conspicuous for a time.

My species list for the morning in no real particular order:

  • Tree Swallow
  • Wilson’s Snipe
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Great Egret
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Cattle Egret
  • American Coot
  • Common Gallinule
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Common Grackle
  • Boat-taiiled Grackle
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Ring-necked Duck
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Northern Harrier
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Black Vulture
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Palm Warbler
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Eastern Meadowlark (♫)
  • Carolina Wren (♫)
  • American Robin
  • Pine Warbler
  • Painted Bunting
  • Limpkin
  • Anhinga
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Crested Caracara
  • American Bittern
  • Least Bittern
  • Green Heron
  • Bald Eagle
  • Forster’s Tern
  • White Ibis
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Bonaparte’s Gull
  • Herring Gull
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • European Starling
  • Killdeer
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Osprey

I’ll note that by mid-morning, the wind had really picked up, likely grounding some species and making others hard to locate by sound. The birds most prominently perched by the end of the morning were Anhingas and Double-crested Cormorants, who seemed to take the gusts in stride (and probably using them to help dry their feathers after a dive and swim, looking for Sunday Brunch).

cormorant
“Mmmf. Sunday drivers!”

It was a nice change of pace, and it’s hard not to get excited with a new birder along. I’ve known Camille for a long time now, and I’m sure if she puts her mind to it, she’ll go a long way with birding or any wildlife observations she chooses to pursue.

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