Touch of Grey

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Lots of silver linings this morning.

It was a soggy start to the day today at Pine Island Conservation Area. To echo the somber mood, the birds that were visible looked suitably forlorn in the damp.

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Wet Turkey Vulture.

Believe it or not, I stayed in the car for quite a while until the conditions improved. The rain did very slowly taper off.

There were Barn Swallows zipping around, and I could hear Killdeers somewhere across the pond (though I didn’t see any until much later).

I managed to flush a pair of Bald Eagles, in adult plumage, from a nearby tree. In the mist I thought they were Black Vultures and didn’t have my camera ready. They flew across to the opposite side of the pond, where a nest was also visble.

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Eagle’s nest through the drizzle.

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Bald Eagle pair in the distance through the rain (really working at my camera’s limit here).

I could hear Common Gallinules in the marsh areas, but they stayed mostly out of sight. I did see one Loggerhead Shrike and various herons. Most of them seemed skittish, though one Great Blue Heron stuck around long enough for a photo-op.

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Great Wet Heron.

I did feel bad for the vultures. With the rain and lack of sunshine, there were no thermals for them to take advantage of, so they just sat in the trees, hunched like they were stuck in the rain waiting for the bus or a cab.

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Poor things looked so miserable.

As I said, eventually the rain began to let up, and with it my birding (and other) fortunes. Along the path running to the west of the pond I heard a “twit twit twit” call and came across my first Northern Waterthrush!

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The irony of finding a waterthrush on such a soggy day was not lost on me.

While I was watching that little one, I was paid an unexpected visit from a creature that was either really overly friendly or horribly near-sighted.

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Friendly neighborhood Nine-banded Armadillo.

I’ve had close encounters with armadillos while hiking and birding before, but I’ve never had one come up like this. It even sniffed by boot before scurrying off. I don’t think it was ill, just hungry and preoccupied (and nearly blind).

Quite a few butterflys were also around, despite the rain and drizzle. This Mangrove Buckeye was one of several.

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The spots on the wings are designed to ward of predators. If you were looking to make a meal, it looks like the butterfly has huge eyes on its wings, watching your every move. Better to go find a less alert dinner!

I usually see White Peacock Butterflys too. Today they were either trying to mate or really chasing each other around for territory (or both). Note the lower left wing is missing a piece on this individual.

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This species also has eye spots, though they are less obvious than on the buckeye species.

As a child who spent just about any available non-school hours outside catching frogs, snakes and anything else, I am quite familiar with garter snakes, but until today, I’ve never seen a BLUE one.

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Bluestripe Garter snakes are normall found in northwestern Florida. I must admit it was a bit of shock seeing an otherwise familiar animal with such bright blue.

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Close-up of the head. What a cutie!

[EDIT: Dr. Kenneth Krysko of the Florida Museum of Natural History and the University of Florida told me via e-mail that blue striped garter snakes are sighted all over the state. He also said, “Because of this, many of us suspect that this is another example of a named subspecies based on arbitrary color pattern.”]

As I began heading back toward the parking area, the sun started to break through the gloom. The first birds to perk up were the vultures. They used their broad wings as solar heaters to warm up and prepare to take advantage of the day’s first thermals.

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♫ Here comes the sun! ♪

I missed what could have been a pretty epic photograph because I was cleaning water off my camera lens. On one tree limb was a Downy Woodpecker, a Red-bellied Woodpecker and a Northern Flicker. They dispersed before I could get the camera set.

As I got closer to the car, I noticed a sparrow running through the grasses and undergrowth along the wide path and then in the parking area itself. Strangely, a mockingbird seemed to be shadowing its steps from atop the wooden railing around the parking area. It took some careful stalking, but I managed to flush it into a sapling long enough for some photos. I had to consult my Peterson field guide, and what do you know? It was a Lark Sparrow! Not impossible or unprecidented, but not common in eastern Florida, even in migration.

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Hello, what have were here? Welcome to Florida!

It’s continued to rain today, but I ended up not minding the touch of grey. I saw a life-lister, a blue snake and had a personal greeting from an armadillo.

The species list for the day, including Pine Island Road (in and out bound):

  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Common Gallinule
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Mourning Dove
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Killdeer
  • Bald Eagle
  • Black Vulture
  • Barn Swallow
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Osprey
  • Green Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Snowy Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Common Ground Dove
  • Northern Waterthrush
  • Anhinga
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Carolina Wren (♫)
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Northern Flicker
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Lark Sparrow (*)
  • Rock Pigeon
  • European Starling

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I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?

Return to Pine Island, June 1, 2014

At sunrise on Sunday, I drove out to the Pine Island Conservation Area to see how the area is like in summer. Although astronomical summer doesn’t “officially” start until June 21st, it’s important to note that just about everywhere in North America is in meteorological summer by early June.

In any event, as you’ll see by my species list, things have mainly stabilized here in central Florida as far as bird movements and the species that are present. You’ll see the same mix, more or less, through the summer until the early migrants appear in September. That’s not to say things can’t be exciting. There are chicks fledging and late in the summer some birds will start to gather in larger groups and move into different habitats.

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Plenty of cardinals about. I think this was a juvenile male.

For this trip to Pine Island, I kept off the path that I encountered a feral pig on a past visit. I stuck to the central and western portions of the park. Despite the closeness of the Indian River Lagoon and the pond and wetlands in the center of the park, many of the birds I encountered were upland species. The ecosystems change over short distances in this part of Merritt Island, which can lead to a wide diversity of wildlife at times.

Near a pump-house at the southern end of the North Pond there was a small gathering of Black Vultures sunning themselves before starting their day. This one was particularly obliging to my photo-taking.

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A very accomodating Black Vulture.

I went out to what a sign near the parking area said was a “wildlife blind.” The path clearly hadn’t been used in a while. Much of it was elevated wood planks. The blind itself seems oddly constructed. If you stand, there a trellis panel in the way of good observing, and if you sit to look through the area below it, there’s not much visibility except for the mangrove canopy. In any case, there wasn’t much to see so I came back out and decided to walk some paths I’ve not tread before at this park.

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The wildlife blind, as advertised. Plank walkway, as not.

Along the long canal path heading toward the lagoon, I could hear herons squawking and barking to my left, and I managed to flush several species out. Most stayed out of sight. I wonder if that is their rookery, but most of the birds seemed to be on the ground rather than in the tree tops.

This nervous Turkey Vulture let me take a few photographs before flapping off to its mate nearby. Vultures have a bad rep, and I sort of understand why. They eat dead things (and have naked heads to keep the blood from caking on), they poop on their own legs to keep cool, and they use projectile vomit as a weapon. Gross, right? Yeah, but I love them anyway. Vultures are an essential part of a healthy environment. They help clear away the dead and decaying animals, stopping the spread of disease and parasites.

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You don’t really appreciate how big these birds are until you’re this close. But there was no menace in its eyes at all. In fact it seemed intensely curious and a bit reserved.

The most obvious bird species of note were the Purple Martins. This year I’ve seen more of these birds than ever. At Pine Island it appeared that many were fledglings, testing out their flight skills and diving around the sky with their siblings and parents. A few were resting on some dead trees between the pond and the lagoon.

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Purple Martin youngsters taking a break.

Along the narrow shore of the canal, I kept seeing movement and hearing little splishes when my shadow fell along the water’s edge. I looked closer, and there were hundreds of tiny crabs foraging along the sand. They’d dart to the comparative safety of the deeper water in the canal if they felt threatened (like, say, the shadow of a large bipedal predator).

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One of hundreds of tiny blue crabs in the canal.

Out over the lagoon, there was a pod of dolphins, with some interesting industrial infrastructure as a back drop. I don’t know what these are, but they’d make a great movie setting or something.

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Power plant related things?

I also flushed a Southern Leopard Frog out from the canal. You can see that with its coloration and the spots/squares over its skin that is can actually blend in pretty well with sandy stream or pond bottoms and even dead palmetto fronds.

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Southern Leopard Frog.

While walking around I had all the usual summertime birds: Carolina Wrens, Northern Cardinals, White-eyed Vireos, Eastern Towhees, various doves and more. Most conspicuously absent here, and from many areas this spring, have been birds of prey. There are plenty of Ospreys, to be sure, but very few hawks or falcons have been evident just about everywhere. This puts a little more credence behind the thought that it’s not just bad luck that make some populations seem so lackluster, but perhaps a real population dip in this area. No prey, no predators. It could be part of a natural cycle, or it could be an environmental indicator. Time, observation and experience will tell.

I did see this large stick nest. It seemed perhaps too small for eagles, but not really located well for an Osprey nest. It was unoccupied, but I may try to keep tabs on it through the fall and into next spring to see who takes up residence there.

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Nobody home at this impressive address.

By this point I had run out of water and headed back to the car to call it a day. The species list wasn’t too bad for early June.

  • Mourning Dove
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Carolina Wren
  • Fish Crow
  • White Ibis
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Great Egret
  • Cattle Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Green Heron
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Anhinga
  • Common Ground Dove
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Osprey
  • Purple Martin
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Great-crested Flycatcher
  • Killdeer
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Common Gallinule
  • American Brown Pelican

It’s getting to be that time of year where I’ll need to be up very early to catch most of the birds in action, as it’s just too hot even by 9am for both the birds and the birder. I went through 2 quarts of water before 11:00am.

Pine Island Jackpot

What a difference a few months make! After the disappointing fall migration in the area, I am turning my focus to the winter residents that have arrived (with more to come). I went to the Pine Island Conservation area thinking I’d mostly be seeing the winter resident ducks and other waterfowl. Instead, I had one of the biggest single-day (well, half day for me) species haul that I can remember, outside of the SCBWF. The list I posted yesterday will follow this entry.

It took a bit of work to see 30+ species of bird yesterday. Unlike Turkey Creek Sanctuary (on a good day) or Erna Nixon Park in its hey-day, Pine Island had a fairly low bird density, apart from a few gatherings of Killdeer and Black Vultures. I walked A LOT. The morning started out promising right out of the gate.

First, I had not noticed this on my first visit here. Through the morning haze the top part of NASA’s huge Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) was visible over the tree-tops. This means I was closer to the Kennedy Space Center than I realized! I am seriously mulling over this place as a launch-viewing opportunity, especially when human flights resume.

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NASA’s VAB looms in the distance.

After scaring off a noisy contingent of Killdeers, I saw some Yellow-rumped Warblers, some sparrows (later IDed as Song Sparrows), and a Downy Woodpecker.

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Just like a Hairy Woodpecker, only more portable!

The day’s first great photo-op went to these photogenic Black Vultures. The one on the right was a bit shy, and snuggled up and behind its companion as I went by. I don’t know if they are a mated pair, or an adult and immature.

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The family that scavenges together, stays together.

Farther along the path around the pond, there was activity on the ground, with more Song Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows foraging and then flitting off the path and diving over the embankment to my left as I got too close. This Savannah Sparrow stayed behind as some sort of picket.

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“I’ve got my eye on you!”

There was also an Eastern Phoebe catching insects from a sallying perch in a palm tree. There were a few phoebes around the park, as well as an Eastern Wood-pewee.

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This phoebe was very shaded, but the relative lack of field-marks is evident (is that any oxymoron?).

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For comparison, here’s a better lit individual!

Out on the pond, quite a distance away, was a scaup, but I could not tell if it was a Lesser Scaup or a Greater Scaup. It was very wary, staying well away from me no matter where along the pond shore I was.

A few Double-crested Cormorants flew overhead, and I noticed some White Ibises along the shoreline.

A bit further down, I noticed another bird mixed in with the sparrows, showing more yellow than anything I’d seen to that point. There was a pair of Common Yellowthroats in the brush. The male took a moment to pose for me.

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Common Yellowthroat, ready for action!

There were a handful of Anhingas, drying their wings from a morning fishing expedition along the pond, and several egrets. I also flushed out an aggravated Great Blue Heron.

When I arrived at the north end of the pond, I turned left down a path. The north side of Pine Island borders the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (marked by a low wire fence). As I walked along this section, I distinctly heard the call of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I paused but was unable to see it, nor did it call again. The last time I’d seen or heard this bird was in the early 1990s in Massachusetts, so even just one call was thrilling to hear!

After another left, the path led south, parallel to the pond, but on the other side of some mangroves and other swampy vegetation. I noticed some rather large animal droppings, most of which had berries in them. There was also areas of the ground tore up and the soil turned over. It took a while for my brain to figure out what I was seeing, but my thoughts were interrupted by some large splishing in the wooded swamp to my right. I saw some brown animal legs, and though, “Oh, a deer!” and stopped and tried to peer into the underbrush to get a look as it passed by. I could hear walking, but nothing came into view. I stepped back onto the path and caught my breath.

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Wild pig, hogging the path. I kid. Sort of.

Wild pigs can be aggressive, so I was unsure what to do. I only managed this photo, because my presence was not welcome. She grunted at me a couple of times, then splashed back into the swamp. I took a few breaths and continued on the path, looking back into the swampy area to catch another look. I did this a few times, and each time, I heard a low grunting growl that sounded “big”. I realized that while the legs I saw were a light brown or tan, the female I saw was decidedly dark. There was a good chance I was being threatened by a male, so I stopped looking back and headed briskly down the trail.

Along this section, there were some Grey Catbirds and Northern Cardinals, but not much else visible. I assumed the path would eventually join up at the south end of the pond and I could get back to where i started. Unfortunately, the path ultimately broke right, away from where I needed to go, so I had to hike the whole length back.

Just before getting to the end of the path again, I saw another flycatcher. I have not yet been able to identify it. The main field mark I noted was a distinctly yellowish throat and breast. I did not see any strong head markings, and I was unable to tell if it had wing-bars or not. It was about the size of a phoebe (perhaps a bit larger). If any of my blog readers would like to suggest candidate birds, they are most welcome to offer them. There were some Palm Warblers along this path, too.

When I got back out to the pond, I decided to circle around to the east side and around. As I looked across the pond, I saw something a bit peculiar.

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Mokele-mbembe, is that you?

What manner of monster was this? Seconds later the beast’s head appeared.

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Oh, what great teeth you have!

This was the largest of 5 adult alligators I saw. This one was at least about 8 feet long. Some of them were basking along the pond’s shore and were not very pleased with my disruption of their morning. Luckily, they all chose to break for the water, making a tremendous splash each time.

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It was careful to keep facing toward me as I walked past.

As I approached the southern end of the pond, there were more Killdeers, some Cattle Egrets, a Great Blue Heron and, on the water, some Pied-billed Grebes. I love grebes. In Massachusetts, where I started birding as a teenager, a old traditional name for Pied-billed Grebes was “Water Witch” because of the ability of these birds to slowly submerge while swimming upright, then “disappearing” without a ripple only to reappear some distance away in the same manner. Early and, unfortunately, superstitious settlers thought it was by dark magic, and that these birds might in fact be witches disguising themselves as birds.

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Which is witch and who is who?

As nuts as this sounds, recall that the Great Auk was thought to be a witch as well (though its demise was a much due to exploitation as a food source).

There were more herons at the southern most end of the pond. This pair of cousins paused in their foraging to pose for this lovely shot.

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Tri-colored Heron and Snowy Egret, sychronized staring.

At this point it became clear that the path along this side of the pond did NOT connect around to the other side, so I had to hike my way all the way back around to get to my car. At first I was fairly aggravated, as my feet and ankles were very sore (and ant-bit from earlier). But there wasn’t much I could do about it, so I held my head up and started back. I saw a Red-shouldered Hawk and more Anhingas, among other birds. Back on the western side of the pond were more Savannah Sparrows and Palm Warblers.

I took one more look across the pond to the VAB, this time in full sun (with heat ripples). My feet were tired, and it was about an hour beyond when I expected to be finished, but it was a banner day with 33 definitive species identifications! Just think of how it will be when the waterfowl and other winter residents arrive.

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VABulous parting shot.

Here’s the complete list of birds (taken from yesterday’s quick post):

Winter residents FTW! (not in order seen)

  1. Black Vulture
  2. Boat-tailed Grackle
  3. Palm Warbler
  4. Song Sparrow
  5. Savannah Sparrow
  6. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  7. Killdeer
  8. Osprey
  9. Downy Woodpecker
  10. Great Blue Heron
  11. Common Gallinule
  12. Belted Kingfisher
  13. Common Yellowthroat
  14. Anhinga
  15. Double-crested Cormorant
  16. White Ibis
  17. Great Egret
  18. American Kestrel
  19. Turkey Vulture
  20. Eastern Phoebe
  21. Northern Cardinal
  22. Grey Catbird
  23. Common Ground Dove
  24. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  25. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  26. American Coot
  27. Pied-billed Grebe
  28. Snowy Egret
  29. Tri-colored Heron
  30. Cattle Egret
  31. Red-shouldered Hawk
  32. Tree Swallow
  33. Eastern Wood-pewee

Bonanza!

I accidentally blogged this to my main blog! Sorry for the cross post in this case.

Great morning at Pine Island today!

Expanded blog entry to come, but I didn’t want to lose the list from today. Winter residents FTW! (not in order seen)

  1. Black Vulture
  2. Boat-tailed Grackle
  3. Palm Warbler
  4. Song Sparrow
  5. Savannah Sparrow
  6. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  7. Killdeer
  8. Osprey
  9. Downy Woodpecker
  10. Great Blue Heron
  11. Common Gallinule
  12. Belted Kingfisher
  13. Common Yellowthroat
  14. Anhinga
  15. Double-crested Cormorant
  16. White Ibis
  17. Great Egret
  18. American Kestrel
  19. Turkey Vulture
  20. Eastern Phoebe
  21. Northern Cardinal
  22. Grey Catbird
  23. Common Ground Dove
  24. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  25. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  26. American Coot
  27. Pie-billed Grebe
  28. Snowy Egret
  29. Tri-colored Heron
  30. Cattle Egret
  31. Red-shouldered Hawk
  32. Tree Swallow
  33. Eastern Wood-pewee

In additon to these, I saw one scaup (it was too far away to know if it was a Lesser Scaup or a Greater Scaup) and an unidentified flycatcher. It seemed to have a yellowish throat and breast, but I couldn’t see any other field marks before it flew away. 

Pine Island Conservation Area

This is part 1 of my birding adventures this weekend. I decided to scout out the Pine Island Conservation Area for future trips, since I hadn’t been there before.

Pine Island is very pretty, but as I elected to park on the west side of the lake, I was looking into the sun most of the time I was there. Then, after only a few photographs, my batteries gave out on my camera.

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Pretty, but headache-inducing lighting.

The most significant sightings here were 2 new life-listers!

  1. Dark morph of a Short-tailed Hawk on a bare nest platform outside the park
  2. Least bitterns (including 2-3 chicks!) in the reeds (more on that below).

Conservation areas like this are usually multi-purpose. Pine Island is advertised, somewhat, as a sport fishing spot, and that is what most of the people I saw there were doing. I have mixed feelings on fishing, as I do with hunting, livestock farming and the like. I do my best to integrate my ideals with reality, and it’s possible many of my more activist friends feel that’s not enough. In any case, i was heartened to overhear a conversation between two fishermen that went something like:

“So, I make sure I have these hooks. They break-down pretty quickly and don’t stay in the fish’s mouth.”

“Oh, I hadn’t ever thought of that. I hate it when you step on or accidentally grab an old rusted hook, too.”

“Well, yeah, but it’s better for the fish and the environment.”

That was somewhat heartening.

There were Barn Swallows making periodic runs along and over the lake, and quite a few Ospreys. Watching the Ospreys soar overhead really made the sky feel open and free.

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Osprey commanding a endless sky.

I also saw one Common Gallinule (I so keep wanting to call these birds Common Moorhens, but such is the way with the IOU), a pair of Snowy Egrets, some Common Ground Doves, Boat-tailed Grackles and a Turkey Vulture.

Then, my eye caught some motion in some reeds in the lake. Though quite backlit, the silhouette of a small heron was unmistakable as it flew from one clump of reeds to another. Then, I saw more movement the first bunch of reeds. Through my binoculars I could make out the same small heron shapes, but with a noticable amount of downy fuzz. The only reasonable photo I got was at the limit of my camera’s zoom. Least Bittern chicks!

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Baby Least Bitterns!

They and at least one adult were straddling and climbing through the reeds. The only reason I could reliably pick them out was the backlit haloing of the down on the chicks. Otherwise they were very hard to spot. This is how bitterns avoid preadators.

It was at this point that my batteries went out. That, plus the really bad sun angle convinced me to head out and drop by the nearby Enchanted Forest Santuary and see what was happening there. I’ll have a separate post for that.