Outtakes from Melbourne and Viera Wetlands

Here are a few outtakes from some recent outings near my work and at the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands in Viera, FL.

  • Swallow-tailed Kite flying low over my work’s parking lot
  • A lonely Black-necked Stilt resting on one leg.
  • This Great Blue Heron chick is getting pretty big!
  • A pair of Anhinga chicks.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Striking it Ritch in Viera

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:

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To this:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

photo ibis-head.jpg

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).

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“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.

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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.

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A duck social mixer.

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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:

  • Cattle Egret
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Forster’s Tern
  • Great Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Northern Harrier
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • American Coot
  • Common Gallinule
  • Palm Warbler
  • Wilson’s Snipe
  • White Ibis
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Limpkin
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Ring-necked Duck
  • Eastern Meadowlark (♫)
  • Black-crowned Night Heron
  • Anhinga
  • Turkey Vulture
  • American Kestrel
  • Fish Crow
  • Eurasian Collared Dove
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Snowy Egret
  • Crested Caracara
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Black Vulture
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Royal Tern
  • Caspian Tern
  • Roseate Spoonbill
  • Northern Shoveler
  • Green Heron
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Osprey
  • Lesser Scaup
  • Redhead
  • Canvasback
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Loggerhead Shrike

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.

No Bittern Tears of Egret

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.

photo coot-couple.jpg 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.

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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.

photo bittern.jpg
“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.

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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.

photo great-egret-frog.jpg
“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

  1. Gray head
  2. Yellowish breast and belly
  3. Greenish back, getting brighter and yellow-greenish on rump
  4. No wing-bars
  5. 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).

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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.

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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.

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“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:

  • Bald Eagle
  • Turkey Vulture
  • American Coot
  • Common Gallinule
  • Common Grackle
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Great Egret
  • Northern Harrier
  • Black-crowned Night Heron
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Northern Shoveler
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Osprey
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • American Bittern
  • Snowy Egret
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Anhinga
  • Barn Swallow
  • White Ibis
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Black Vulture
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Green Heron
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Palm Warbler
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Limpkin
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Gray Catbird (♫)
  • Eastern Meadowlark (♫)
  • Common Yellowthroat

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Wet Turkey Vultures coping with the weather.

Transitions, Part II: Viera Wetlands

[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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

  • American White Pelican
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Mourning Dove
  • Common Grackle
  • Tree Swallow
  • Purple Martin
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Great Blue Heron
  • American Crow
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Bobolink
  • Wilson’s Snipe
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Great Egret
  • White Ibis
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Roseate Spoonbill
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • House Wren
  • Northern Cardinal
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Grey Catbird
  • Common Ground Dove
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Blue Jay
  • Green Heron
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Osprey
  • Anhinga
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • American Coot
  • Common Gallinule
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Snowy Egret
  • American Kestrel
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Wood Stork

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.

photo stilt.jpg
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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Lovely.

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.

//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).

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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.