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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
I assumed this quietly resting Limpkin was the female, resting quietly and seeming to ignore the raucous goings on over her head.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My species list for the morning in no real particular order:
Great Blue Heron
Eastern Meadowlark (♫)
Carolina Wren (♫)
Little Blue Heron
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).
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.
The bird population at the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands continues to change and grow as winter sets in. I identified almost 50 different bird species on Sunday, plus a handful of ambiguous sightings. More duck populations are arriving, with Lesser Scaups, Ring-necked Ducks, Blue-winged Teals, Canvasbacks, Redheads, and a Hooded Merganser all present.
It was cloudy most of the morning with a few breaks of sunshine which transformed the Wetlands from looking like this:
There were several species of terns flying and diving for fish. I didn’t see any Least Terns, but in addition to the larger Caspian and Royal Terns there were several Forster’s Terns making circuits over the water. The terns were using the stiff northerly breeze to help them hover over a promising spot before diving in. Then they turned and used the tail-wind to speed around for another pass. Forster’s terns come to the Wetlands every winter and are among the most active feeders.
In the summer Forster’s Terns have entirely black caps, but here you can see the extended black “ear patch” of its winter plumage.
There have been Northern Harriers patrolling the Wetlands for the past two visits. This harrier was resting after cruising the marshes and stirring up trouble, scattering coots and ducks everywhere.
Male Northern Harriers are gray and the females brown. Have a look at those talons.
Most visits to the Wetlands include a Crested Caracara sighting. Longer-time followers of the blog know that I don’t manage to get many photographs of them, for some reason. This time there were two in flight a bit of distance away.
Even from this distance, the Crested Caracaras’ distinctive field marks are obvious.
Living in Florida, it is easy to overlook the White Ibis. Here they often descend on lawns and golf courses in small flocks. Ibises use their long curved bills to probe deep in the mud and soil for insects, crustaceans and small invertebrates.
Ibises look kind of like Gonzo, from The Muppets. Also, I never realized they had blue eyes!
There were plenty of Palm Warblers and some Yellow-rumped Warblers along the edge of the outer driving loop. I saw a few Eastern Phoebes and a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Woodpeckers will often hide behind tree trunks, alternating between sidling up the tree, out of view, and popping out to have a look at where the potential predator is (that would be me, from a woodpecker’s perspective).
“Hey, are you still here?”
Roseate Spoonbills don’t often come down to feed at the Wetlands, but this one obliged and let observers come within 10 feet or so before briskly walking away until it felt a bit safer. Spoonbills use their unusually shaped bills to sense for small prey items in the mud and water.
The head makings make it look like this bird has headphones on.
Spoonbills are pink because they often eat prey that are high in pigments called carotenoids. This is the same reason why flamingos are pink.
I was pleasantly surprised by a grouping of mixed ducks. There were Ring-necked Ducks (male and female) and a male Redhead with a couple of females. Also present were two female Canvasbacks. I had to double check that the male Redhead was not a Canvasback, as the species do look similar.
A duck social mixer.
Female Canvasback on the left, female Redhead on the right. It’s a little hard to see because of the viewing angles, but the Canvasback has a longer, straighter bill that starts at her forehead.
The American Coots continue to gather in larger groups, or “rafts.” When a harrier or other bird of prey flew by (not always making a hunting run), the entire raft scrambles. Coots are poor flyers and generally make a loud, splashing ruckus as they skitter along.
Panic At The Disco. You can see a Blue-winged Teal on the left about 15 seconds in.
Here is a list of the identified species from the day, roughly in the order I saw them:
Little Blue Heron
Eastern Meadowlark (♫)
Black-crowned Night Heron
Eurasian Collared Dove
I believe this was the single “biggest” day in terms of species count since the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival for me. I don’t normally focus on that, but given the level of activity I felt it was noteworthy. The 2015 SCBWF registration should open soon, and I am really looking forward to that.
Monday was a vacation day for me, and I used it to head back to the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera. It was overcast and a few sprinkles were falling, but I was hoping to see additional waterfowl and perhaps some more winter residents birds.
As I pulled into the parking area, I saw an immature Bald Eagle being harassed by an Osprey and some Turkey Vultures trying to get airborne. The morning was cool, so there didn’t seem to be any thermals to get them aloft.
I noticed more Pied-billed Grebes than the last time. There were also small groups of Northern Shovelers (all female) and Blue-winged Teals (both sexes). The rafts of American Coots have grown a little larger, though there were some pairs skulking closer to shore.
What a coot couple!
I noticed several Black-crowned Night Herons in the reeds, some distance away. Both species of night herons here are actually crepuscular (a fancy term for being most active at dusk or dawn) rather than nocturnal. They were roosting quietly and grooming themselves a little.
Black-crowned Night Heron.
I had something happen to me then that always fascinates me when something like it occurs. Normally one would chalk it up to a coincidence, but when it happens, the experience can seem so uncanny that we ascribe it to outside forces or fate. I was thinking to myself how great it would be to see every species of resident heron or egret in one outing. I was mulling that over and said to myself, “it would be pretty awesome if I did see an American Bittern.” Immediately, there was a squawk and flurry of wings to my left, and a chunky, brown and striped bird rose out of the reeds and flew across my line of sight. I first grabbed my binoculars and to my glee, it was indeed an American Bittern! It landed on the far side of the pond and tried to adopt the characteristic freeze posture the bird is known for, to blend in with the reeds. With the distance and low light levels, here’s the best shot I got.
“I am a reed. Nothing to see here.”
I love it when these things happen! I was not able to conjure up a Whooping Crane or a Kirtland’s Warbler, though!
Palm Warblers were plentiful. They seemed equally at home among the wetland and upland vegetation. Palm Warblers are also getting a little more numerous near my workplace. Last year there were dozens each morning as I walked through the turnstile onto the work campus ground, each winter morning.
Palm Warbler says, “Hey there!”
As I said above, there was a good variety of herons and egrets. At one point I heard some loud splashing and commotion behind me and saw a Great Egret wresting with a really large lunch! This bullfrog must have been at least 6 inches long (not counting the legs). It took some effort, but the egret finally got its meal down. I did feel a little bad for the frog.
“What are you looking at? Is there something in my beak? Oh gosh, there is! How embarrassing!”
The Ospreys were not diving or flying much. I don’t know if the water surface or wind conditions were unfavorable or not, but they seemed mostly content to sit and look around. This one watched me intently the whole time I was in its vicinity.
Osprey chillin’ out.
One can usually count on interesting non-bird encounters at the Viera Wetlands as well. I encountered some small alligators trying to get some glimpses of sun in between the sprinkles and clouds. Since it was a cool day, they were a bit sluggish and I was able to approach a bit closer than normal.
Young gator showing us its happy face.
But most exciting was the almost run-in with a Water Moccasin in the grass. Water Moccasins are notoriously aggressive, and will often stand their ground when approached. I kept my distance, but still managed some great shots.
Don’t let this pretty face fool you. Water Moccasins can be very aggressive. I kept a respectful distance from this beauty.
As I made my way across the far end of the wetlands, I saw a few Limpkins carefully walking along the water’s edge. I was a little surprised to find so many Limpkins present, because their preferred food, apple snails, are not plentiful at this location. One individual was trying to make a meal out of a tiny snail about a centimeter across, before it flew away, calling loudly.
Limpkin in flight.
As I continued along the western edge of the Wetlands, I was accompanied by loose groups of Palm Warblers and Savannah Sparrows along the grassy borders and small pines and brush that parallel the driving paths. I also heard a few Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. I paused at one point to check the Palm Warblers more closely and was surprised to see a different warbler flitting among the rest. My first thought was that it might be a Common Yellowthroat, but I’ve never seen one in brushy pine edges before (but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be). On closer notation of the field marks and behavior I am left with a bit of a dilemma.
If I enumerate my notes thus:
Yellowish breast and belly
Greenish back, getting brighter and yellow-greenish on rump
Flipped it’s tail (not bobbing or wagging like a Palm)
The closest match I get is a Nashville Warbler (a first for me!). However, there are problems with that identification. First, it’s not 100% certain that the bird wasn’t a slightly odd (or “aberrant”) plumage of a female or immature Common Yellowthroat. Second, the last time a Nashville Warbler was credibly reported in this area this late in the season was on November 8, 1999. Of course this doesn’t mean it is impossible, but without good photographic proof and a little more study of field marks, I cannot be 100% sure I saw a Nashville Warbler. Such is the way with birding. Sometimes not knowing for sure, but using all your skills to try to figure it out, expands your knowledge and experience and makes you a better birder. As Laura Erickson said to me, “Experiencing the bird itself is ever so much more fun than simply identifying it.”
Besides the Bald Eagle at the Wetlands’ entrance and the Ospreys lurking on the tree-tops, there were more raptors present than I’ve seen in a while. Perhaps due to the increase in small birds in the area compared to the summer, there were Northern Harriers flying around the area all morning, and several Red-tailed Hawks were present. The one in this photo was one of the darker ones I’ve seen here (compare to the lighter one I saw a few weeks ago).
As I rounded one of the wetland cells to head back to the car, the weather turned, and the pesky on-an-off sprinkles were about to give way to steady rain. As the sky darkened, I saw this snowy egret standing on a pipe.
A Snowy Egret hunkering down as the rain approached.
You can clearly see what Peterson and others have called “golden slippers” – the bright yellow feet. It is thought that one feeding strategy the Snowy Egrets use is to shuffle their bright feet along the bottom of ponds or marshes and scare up fish, crustaceans and other aquatic life in order to catch them to eat.
“The feet! I told you about – I told you to – I told you – didn’t I tell him about the feet?”
The rain began falling soon after and by the time I got back to the car, I was pretty soaked.
Species list, mostly in order of first identification:
[For part I, from the Moccasin Island tract, click here.]
The Viera Wetlands (officially the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera) are an important wintering area for many birds. Ducks, coots and gallinules gather in large floating groups, called rafts, to feed and provide common defense. Mergansers and grebes mingle with them in pairs or small groups, and we even had Mute Swans this past year.
It’s a little early in the wintering season, but I thought it would be good to see how the Wetlands transition from summer to winter. The American Coots were already starting to gather in groups but other species, like this Pied-billed Grebe, were enjoying the larger stretches of still empty water before things get noisy and crowded.
Lone grebe as a picture of solitude.
The lake at the center of the Wetlands is a favorite place for gulls, terns and Ospreys to dive for fish. Normally when an Osprey goes after a fish, it strikes the water feet first and uses them to grab its prey and immediately flies back into the air. Osprey have special barbs, called spicules, on the underside of their feet that aid it in grasping fish and manipulating to to face head-first. This makes transporting the fish to either a nest of an eating perch more aerodynamic and therefore more energy efficient. What happens when an Osprey dives a little too hard and misses its meal?
A dejected and wet Osprey drips dry after diving in a little to hard for a meal.
Heron and egret activity was much reduced. I saw no Cattle Egrets and the rookery trees were empty. There were a few Green Herons across the lake from me, and I saw just one each Great Blue Heron and Great Egret. Now that breeding and nesting season is over, the males have molted and lost their plumes and lancet feathers, but still retain a simple beauty and grace.
A Snowy Egret standing patiently. Normally this species is an active feeder, using its bright golden-colored feet to stir up fish, crustaceans and frogs.
Herons sometimes amaze me with the focus and patience they have when stalking the edge of a pond or standing, head poised for a quick strike to grab a fish or a frog. There was a Little Blue Heron that was so intent on its foraging activities that it gave me almost no mind as I got within a couple of feet.
This Little Blue Heron was so focused, I could almost see laser beams coming out of its eyes.
Its nonchalance seemed to attract a Glossy Ibis and Common Gallinule; the normally more skittish birds hung close to it and only glanced at me once or twice before I moved on.
When you hear a Common Gallinule’s calls, you realize why this species used to be called the Common Moorhen (hen as in chicken).
Other birds have finished their end of summer molting as well. The small flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds and Boat-tailed Grackles are generally quieter now that the chaos of summer is over. The birds making the loudest ruckus were the Gray Catbirds in the trees and brush along the outside of the outer road.
This female Boat-tailed Grackles feathers looked almost like a burnished metal in the sun.
I walked back to my car and drove a partial loop to get to the exit, covering some of the same ground I did on foot. Not much had changed in the short time, except more Osprey were diving for food, and I hope this one wound up more successful, or at least less wet, than the first one I saw.
Best of luck and farewell.
Here is the complete species list, including my adventures at the Moccasin Island Tract. You can read about it in part 1.