Waiting in the Wings

It’s that strange in-between time again. The nominally “dry” season in Florida is nearing an end, and the trees are blooming. The ducks have mostly left, along with the American Robins. But the Blue-headed Vireos, along with Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers are hanging about. Some of the winter “rare-but-regulars” like the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher haven’t gone yet.

blue-headed-vireo
The Blue-headed Vireo’s song sounds like a sweet, “Be seein’ you! See you later!” which is apt for this time of year.

 

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Since this photo was taken a couple of weeks ago at the Viera Wetlands, the Ring-necked Ducks have mostly left.

But within a few weeks, the migrants will be heading north, stopping in Florida to rest and refuel, as many will still have thousands of kilometers to go to get to their breeding grounds. The local winter residents will make a similar journey and we’ll be saying “good-bye” to them until fall.

yellow-rumped
A Yellow-Rumped Warbler, finding tiny insects and mites on Spanish Moss.

During this quiet time, I’ve been out to the Viera Wetlands, Pine Island Conservation Area, Turkey Creek Sanctuary, Spruce Creek Park, and Fay Lake Wilderness Park. They all seem to be holding their breath. To me it seems like the winter residents have been holding on longer this year. This may be because, despite the record-warm winter in the U.S. (particularly the southeast), there have been strong storm systems moving through, some dumping quite a bit of snow.

common-yellowthroat
This male Common Yellowthroat, at Spruce Creek, hasn’t quite got his full “domino” (black facial feathers) yet.

However birds sense weather, it seems they “know” to hang back and wait sometimes. It’s tempting to think this is an ancient and fail-safe wisdom animals share, but the truth is weather is a major hurdle that migrating birds have to face, twice each year. Many do not make the journey due to winds or extreme temperatures. If a food source fails to appear for them during a “fallout” or a rest, or is covered in too-deep snow, they may actually starve. But nature has given birds some innate abilities to read their environment and make the best choices they can. The ability to fly gives them an edge, too. If food is scarce, they can move on – as long as they have the energy to spare.

greater-yellowlegs
Many shorebirds, like this Greater Yellowlegs, have a long trek ahead to their Arctic tundra breeding grounds. This bird was taking maximum advantage of the warm Florida days to fatten up for the journey.

Of course, as smaller birds start to make their way, predators will follow. Raptors time their migrations to coincide with their prey, who have conveniently put on plenty of fat (i.e., energy and calories).

merlin
A Merlin, scoping out her targets at the Viera Wetlands. She’ll be leaving Florida as well, following food and fortune  perhaps as far as the Arctic Circle to breed. 

 

coopers-hawk
Other raptors, like this Cooper’s Hawk, stay in Florida all year, taking advantage of the various prey that make their way here.

Readers of this and other Florida birding blogs may already know, but the past several years have been disturbingly “slow” for migration, particularly through the east-central part of the state. Many bird populations have been in a documented decline since the 1960s (or before), and Florida has seen immense residential and commercial development since that time. Even with protected habitat like our city, county, state and national parks, the continued fragmentation and elimination of key habitats are taking their toll.

fishermans-landing

What can you do to help (both in Florida, or in your own location)? Support conservation initiatives and land protection plans. Even if residential or commercial development seems inevitable, there are ways that are less harmful that the typical “bulldoze and pave”methods. Developments can be designed to work more with the environment than in spite of it. These methods may cost a bit more to implement up front, but the long-term savings and value in a better looking and healthier community are worth it. Support politicians and legislation that protect our air and water. Business can coexist with these laws, and have done so for decades. Unbridled growth may reap a lot of cash in the short term, but we all pay for it in the long run with expensive clean-ups and degraded, less livable spaces.

How Do You Prepare for Spring? Scrub!

The Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary is a small but important conservation property here in Brevard County [map]. As their brochure says:

The Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary was originally part of a larger span of high, dry scrubby habitat. Whenever possible, the EEL Program acquires land to help connect existing natural areas. However, as landscapes are developed with buildings and roadways, natural habitats become fragmented (broken up and isolated). Because scrub is favored for development, the Cruickshank Sanctuary has become an “island” in the midst of a developed landscape.

You can learn more about Brevard County’s EEL ( Environmentally Endangered Lands) Program by visiting their website.

As a scrub habitat adjacent to residential development, near the Indian River Lagoon, a diversity of species is to be expected, and that’s what I saw, including a heron fly-over. There were some Tree Swallows near the entrance, and a smattering of American Robins (small groups of robins were also seen, here and there, throughout the morning).

As with the Northern Mockingbirds around the county (and the state), the thrashers are singing in preparation of mating and reestablishing their territories. A sure sign of spring.

brown-thrasher
One of several Brown Thrashers I saw throughout the morning. Note the rich, russet brown of the back and wings.

Male and female Eastern Towhees were scrambling around in the underbrush, scratching for insects in the leaves and other debris. The birds were calling out to each other a lot, with their “chewINK” calls, but very little singing by the males. The males were more bold and inquisitive when I approached a few times, popping out into the open to check out what I was doing, and sometimes scolding me.

another-eastern-towhee
“Hey! Get off of my scrub!”
eastern-towhee
Before the mid 1990s, Eastern and Spotted Towhees were considered a single species, “Rufous-sided Towhee”. Here, you can see why that was an apt name.

The Sanctuary is a great home for various woodpeckers, including the elsewhere-rare Northern Flicker. I heard it mentioned during the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival that Northern Flicker numbers are declining, with the exact cause not yet known (though habitat loss and development pressure are always likely candidates). In addition to several flickers, I also saw Downy, Pileated, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. A Red-headed Woodpecker was reported earlier in the week, but I did not find that bird during my visit.

northern-flicker
Even in bad light, you can see the yellow feather shafts that gave this species it’s former name “Yellow-shafted Flicker” before it was merged with the “Red-shafted” variety into the Northern Flicker. A reminder that genetics aren’t always as ordered and simple as we think.

Of course the star “attractions” of the Sanctuary are the Florida Scrub-Jays.

scrub-jay-1
As usual, one of two birds will perch up on higher branches to act as look-outs for the rest of the family group as they forage and fly around their territories.

Many of the jays are banded, as researchers use these birds (and other scrub-jays on other properties) to research and conserve this endangered species. Naturally inquisitive and bold, this long-running research has also made the birds acclimated to human presence, making them approachable and easily photographed.

Long-time readers of my blog have seen some of the photos of Florida Scrub-Jays perched on my head. The birds look for people to hand them food (usually peanuts), as researchers had trained them to make it easier to band and examine the birds, and returning visitors used that “trick” to get close and personal with the jays.

Much of that has stopped, and with education and signage, the birds seem to expect handout less, and not a single bird landed on my head this time.

scrub-jay-2
This bird was warily watching a pair of Ospreys build a nest nearby. 

There was an Osprey pair building a nest, carefully placing large twigs and branches, one by one. Although Ospreys are fish eating raptors, small birds and other animals are always careful to watch for anything hawk or eagle-like in their skies.

osprey-nest
There had been a largely complete nest here last year, but winds (likely from Hurricane Matthew) knocked it down. 

After placing some branches another Osprey couple approached. There was a brief fight over the nest site, with the building couple chasing the others away.

Meanwhile, the scrub-jays looked on and continued on their business. There were other raptors around, including a Red-shouldered and a Red-tailed Hawk, but they did not seem interested in the jays.

scrub-jay-3
Another sentinel.

I also scared up a flock of mixed sparrows into some scrub, where they lingered for a few minutes, allowing me to get some reasonable looks at them. There were Savannah, Field, and Chipping Sparrows, as well as two rare Clay-colored Sparrows.

chipping-sparrow
One of the Chipping Sparrows, with the distinctive rusty cap and black eye-line.

Clay-colored Sparrows are rare visitors to Florida. They breed in the north-central United States and south-central Canada and winter in Mexico. According to published information, they like to stick to scrub and brush along field edges, even in winter, so finding it in a scrub sanctuary, surrounded by residential development made this species a nice find.

clay-colored-sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrows have a bold cheek pattern and darker grey collar, on an unstreaked breast, which help identify them.

Most of these sparrows will soon be departing for their breeding grounds, well north of here. Their presence, along with the Osprey nest-building and increased singing and displaying of resident species indicates that we’re on Spring’s doorstep.

For those who like to follow along with eBird, here’s the “official” list.

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34511049

I haven’t been posting links to my eBird lists lately, but I think there’s some value to making that information more easily available, so I’ll start doing it again more regularly.

After wrapping up my hike at the sanctuary, I did a quick stop by Riverwalk Family Park, but it was mostly quiet there, so I headed for home.

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.

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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.

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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.

Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands – February 16, 2014

Yesterday saw me at the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera again.

Heron activity was more restricted to the reeds, compared to last week, and there were fewer Wood Storks. I noted at least one Sandhill Crane nest mound being constructed and several species gathering nest material.

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Sandhill Crane pair getting their nest in order.

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Great Blue Heron gathering sticks.

I watched a Wilson’s Snipe forage through the reeds and water lettuce for a while. It’s usually pretty easy to flush this species out before you even see one, so it was a treat to get to watch this one for several minutes.

There were at least a few dozen American White Pelicans on the ponds. On one pond, each bird was swimming more or less alone. Some are beginning to grow “horns” or “mortarboards” on their bills – a sign the breeding season is near.

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American White Pelican, gearing up for spring.

On another pond, there was a close group swimming together. I caught them on video as they surged into the center of the pond to gobble up some fish that had evidently schooled there.

American White Pelicans at Ritch Grissom Wetlands at Viera from CJSF on Vimeo.

There were even fewer ducks than last week. The most numerous are now the Ring-necked Ducks, who were swimming more in their own groups rather than mingling with the American Coots (which were still there in the hundreds).

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Some Ring-necked Ducks and Blue-winged Teals.

More evidence of Florida Spring would be found in the territorial calls and displays of the male blackbirds. Both the Red-winged Blackbirds and the Boat-tailed Grackles were calling out, chasing other males away and displaying their plumage to its best effect.

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Red-winged Blackbirds show off their brilliant red epaulets to attract mates and impress rivals.

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Boat-tailed Grackles rely on their irridescent feathers and loud calls and bill-snapping to stand out.

Here are the species I saw (* denotes species gathering nest material):

  • American Robin
  • Ring-necked Duck
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • White Pelican
  • Great Blue Heron *
  • Snowy Egret
  • Cattle Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Green Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Palm Warbler
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Grey Catbird
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • American Coot
  • Common Gallinule
  • White Ibis
  • Glossy Ibis *
  • Forster’s Tern
  • Bonaparte’s Gull
  • Osprey
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Black Vulture
  • Crested Caracara *
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Blue Jay
  • Fish Crow
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Wilson’s Snipe
  • Mottled Duck
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Common Tern
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Red-winged Blackbird *
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Tree Swallow
  • Killdeer
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Wood Stork
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker

I’ll post some more photos later this week.

Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands – February 16, 2014

Yesterday saw me at the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera again.

Heron activity was more restricted to the reeds, compared to last week, and there were fewer Wood Storks. I noted at least one Sandhill Crane nest mound being constructed and several species gathering nest material.

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Sandhill Crane pair getting their nest in order.

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Great Blue Heron gathering sticks.

I watched a Wilson’s Snipe forage through the reeds and water lettuce for a while. It’s usually pretty easy to flush this species out before you even see one, so it was a treat to get to watch this one for several minutes.

There were at least a few dozen American White Pelicans on the ponds. On one pond, each bird was swimming more or less alone. Some are beginning to grow “horns” or “mortarboards” on their bills – a sign the breeding season is near.

photo 100_2198.jpg
American White Pelican, gearing up for spring.

On another pond, there was a close group swimming together. I caught them on video as they surged into the center of the pond to gobble up some fish that had evidently schooled there.

//player.vimeo.com/video/86967865

American White Pelicans at Ritch Grissom Wetlands at Viera from CJSF on Vimeo.

There were even fewer ducks than last week. The most numerous are now the Ring-necked Ducks, who were swimming more in their own groups rather than mingling with the American Coots (which were still there in the hundreds).

photo ring-necked-ducks.jpg
Some Ring-necked Ducks and Blue-winged Teals.

More evidence of Florida Spring would be found in the territorial calls and displays of the male blackbirds. Both the Red-winged Blackbirds and the Boat-tailed Grackles were calling out, chasing other males away and displaying their plumage to its best effect.

photo red-winged-black-bird-display.jpg
Red-winged Blackbirds show off their brilliant red epaulets to attract mates and impress rivals.

photo boat-tailed-grackle-calling.jpg
Boat-tailed Grackles rely on their irridescent feathers and loud calls and bill-snapping to stand out.

Here are the species I saw (* denotes species gathering nest material):

  • American Robin
  • Ring-necked Duck
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • White Pelican
  • Great Blue Heron *
  • Snowy Egret
  • Cattle Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Green Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Palm Warbler
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Grey Catbird
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • American Coot
  • Common Gallinule
  • White Ibis
  • Glossy Ibis *
  • Forster’s Tern
  • Bonaparte’s Gull
  • Osprey
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Black Vulture
  • Crested Caracara *
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Blue Jay
  • Fish Crow
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Wilson’s Snipe
  • Mottled Duck
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Common Tern
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Red-winged Blackbird *
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Tree Swallow
  • Killdeer
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Wood Stork
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker

I’ll post some more photos later this week.

Return to Moccasin Island (and Viera Wetlands)

It’s about 10 months since I last visited the Moccasin Island Tract, so I thought it was a good place to resume my post-festival birdwatching. It also gave me another opportunity to check out the “Dan Click ponds” adjacent to the Viera Wetlands property.

By far the most numerous bird species on the ponds were Green-winged Teals. There were also many Blue-winged Teals, and a smattering of dowitchers, American Avocets, White Pelicans, and some other shore birds and gulls.

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Green-winged Teals (with some Blue-winged Teals nearby).

Both yesterday and a previous “drive by” of the ponds were curious to me in that the “first” pond (the southernmost one) was devoid of any visible bird life, while the “second” pond seemed almost overcrowded (especially when I drove by them a couple of weeks ago).

The Click ponds are a great place to see wintering shorebirds and ducks, but since I hadn’t made time to stop there this winter, I know I missed some rarer sightings.

The drive to the Moccasin Island Tract is on a 3 mile dirt road along ranch land and through some wooded areas. This afforded some diverse species to see in a short time-frame.

First, over the roadway and some adjacent fields a trio of immature Bald Eagles were playing and squabbling in the air. They even knocked each other out of the sky a couple of times.

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“Hey! No fair knocking me down! MOM!”

There were quite a few Sandhill Cranes, too. Mostly in pairs (more on that later). These cranes are so habituated to humans in this area now that it’s possible to get amazingly close. Large birds like cranes can really reinforce the notion that we are in fact living with dinosaurs.

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Welcome to Quaternary Park!

The fence-line between the road and the ranch lands had Eastern Phoebes spaced at regular intervals. This would seem to indicate that Eastern Phoebes are territorial outside of the breeding season.

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Eastern Phoebe, king (or queen) of all it surveys…

Driving into the Moccasin Island Tract, I was greeted by this Turkey Vulture, doing its best to emulate and old western scene. The only thing missing was the cow skull laying on the ground.

photo turkey-vulture-sign.jpg
Over here’s we have The Last Chance Saloon, and Next To The Last Chance Saloon...”

I saw a few American Kestrels, including one right by the parking area. Its presence seemed to keep the robins away (though there were dozens further inside the tract to the south).

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American Kestrel.

Just like last year the Eastern Meadowlark was the bird of the day. They could be seen and heard singing everywhere. Their song is very beautiful and flute-like, though not as ethereal as some thrushes’ songs.

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Like orioles, meadowlarks are colorful relatives of blackbirds.

There is a Bald Eagle nest on the property, though I don’t know if it is where the three juvenile eagles I saw earlier were hatched and raised. One adult eagle was nearby, watching over the fields. I like to think it was the young eagles’ mom, basically enjoying some alone time while the kids roughhoused down the road.

On the way back out of the tract I saw this Loggerhead Shrike. Right after taking this photograph, it almost succeeded in catching a Yellow-rumped Warbler. Another reminder that these handsome birds are lethal carnivores.

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Loggerhead Shrikes are sometimes called Butcherbirds.

February is springtime in Florida, and many of the overwintering birds are starting to gather and head north. We’ve had rising pollen levels for weeks now, and buds are forming on the trees (in fact, the tree in our front yard is already starting to show leaves).

As I mentioned above, the Sandhill Cranes were seen all over the area, pairing up and starting their nesting behaviors. But perhaps the best evidence for Florida Spring yesterday was at the Ritch Grissom Wetlands. There were hundreds of herons and egrets along the pond and marsh edges, many of them showing breeding plumes and lancet feathers. Some were beginning territorial squabbles, too. It was fun watching the herons jostle each other and the numerous ibises and Wood Storks that were also trying stake out areas along the water’s edge.

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This Great Blue Heron is getting ready for Valentine’s Day.

The winter resident warblers are still here, though. Here you can see why Yellow-rumped Warblers have their common name, and are nick-named Butter Butts. The Yellow-rumps outnumbered the Palm Warblers, actually.

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Some warblers have the most descriptive names…

Some of the Pied-billed Grebes were showing their breeding plumage as well. In winter the dark bill stripe (making it “pied-billed”) is obscured and their plumage tends to be browner. Here you can see a grayer, more “pied-billed” grebe.

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Pied-billed does not mean these birds eat pastries.

A great aspect of the wetlands in Viera is how close you can sometimes get to the wildlife. I was able to take this photograph of a male Blue-winged Teal just after he and his mate came up from dabbling at the edge of the pond. I love how you can see the water beading up on his feathers as it runs off his bill.

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Facing off with a Blue-winged Teal.

A large mixed flock of gulls and terns was also enjoying the day. They’d alternate between rafting together on the pond and then rising up, diving for fish. The Common Terns were the most numerous, along with a few Forster’s Terns and Bonaparte’s Gulls.

Birds seen yesterday:

  • Sandhill Crane
  • Bald Eagle
  • Green-winged Teal
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • American Avocet
  • White Pelican
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Bonaparte’s Gull
  • Ring-necked Duck
  • American Coot
  • Common Gallinule
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Snowy Egret
  • Great Egret
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Northern Shoveler
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Wood Stork
  • Anhinga
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • American Robin
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Cattle Egret
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Black Vulture
  • White Ibis
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Common Tern
  • Forster’s Tern
  • Long-billed Dowitcher
  • Mute Swan
  • American Kestrel
  • Mourning Dove

All things considered, it was a lovely day in and around Viera. I expect the birding landscape will be rapidly changing over next few weeks as we head toward the spring migration in March.