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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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.