In order to improve as a birder, it’s important to develop a keen awareness of all our natural senses. Sight is quite helpful in spotting large and small bundles of feathers and matching them to their portraits in a convenient field guide (or in today’s modern world, an application on a “smart” phone if you can pass the IQ test which I haven’t yet mastered). Hearing a bird’s song may be one of the greater joys in life and has inspired poets for ages. Simply knowing the calls and songs of a particular species is sufficient to identify which bird is producing the sound. Touch comes into play a bit more subtly as most birders don’t actually handle the objects of their affection (hey! we’re still talking about birds here!). The notable exception being banders (ringers) or scientists. One must hone their sense of touch to quickly and accurately focus binoculars and scopes or to change camera settings without removing one’s eye from the viewfinder. As to the sense of taste, I shall not take the easy route and make some joke about “tastes like chicken” or recount the tall tale of a tour guide who had candy in his hand and pretended to pick up an owl pellet and placed it in his mouth to the horror of the group and announced: “Yep, that owl was here an hour ago.” No, I won’t stoop to that level. Let’s just agree that by going birding we have all proven we have good taste.
This brings us to the sense of smell. You haven’t achieved birding nirvana until you’ve stood in a seabird rookery or walked along a shoreline used the previous evening as a roost by several thousand pelicans. Yes, on those occasions you’ll be thankful for that keen sense of smell of which you’re so proud. You’ll also be wishing for a breeze to hit you in the face to clear away the tears.
In recent years, many communities have adopted innovative methods for handling malodorous human waste. One such method involves combining chemical treatment with natural filtration and many man-made wetlands have resulted. Basically, after waste is chemically treated it is pumped into a holding “cell”, a pond which has been planted with vegetation which helps filter impurities from the water. This water is then pumped into another “cell” where the filtration process is repeated. There may be several “cells” involved and the end product is much cleaner water being returned into the watershed. The good news for birders is these “cells” are magnets for all sorts of birds. The better news is many water treatment facilities have opened these wetland areas to the public and some have become birding “hotspots”.
How does one locate these areas? When I was very young and we visited my grandparents who lived “out in the country” the only bathroom they had was an “outhouse”. No indoor plumbing. When I asked Grandpa how I could find the outhouse if I had to go when it was dark, he replied: “Go out the back door and just follow your nose.” Thank goodness we have evolved from those days.
As I exited the port-o-potty, the sound of Sandhill Cranes filled the morning air as they moved to the nearby sod fields to forage. We were visiting Viera Wetlands (officially known as the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands, named for a county worker killed in a traffic accident). The wetlands are on the east coast of Florida near the town of Cocoa Beach and are very easy to find. (See the links below for maps and wetlands descriptions.) The wetlands consists of four “cells” of about 35 acres each and a central lake. The berms around the lake can be driven, biked or walked and total about four miles. The cells were dug to varying depths to attract a greater diversity of water birds and each cell was planted with a different mix of vegetation to assist filtration, erosion prevention and wildlife attraction. Surrounding the wetlands is a mix of deciduous and hardwood trees and a very large commercial sod farm. The area is only a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean and, in the other direction it’s just a few miles to the Indian River.
It’s fairly routine to spot 40-50 species of birds here without leaving the comfort of your vehicle. With more effort lists of 60-70 are feasible. On this day, we listed 52 species without trying too hard. Some of the highlights included the sights and sounds of Great Blue Herons courting and building nests, finding a Wilson’s Snipe hiding in the grass, watching a Limpkin enjoy escargot and spotting two wintering American Bitterns. All of that and lunch with Gini by the gazebo as we watched sparrows, ducks, cranes, grebes and alligators under a cloudless deep blue sky – who could wish for more?
Some of this stuff made it through the rigorous photo editing process.
Pied-billed Grebes breed in central Florida but during the winter migrants swell the population throughout the state. At Viera Wetlands it’s not unusual to find several dozen of these little cuties, sometimes floating in large groups for better protection from predators.
This female Belted Kingfisher had a favorite palm tree stump from which she launched aquatic attacks and returned with her prize to devour before repeating the process. This time she grabbed a little salad along with her seafood entree.
One of our winter visitors to the wetlands is the American Bittern. Standing over two feet tall and with a wingspan of over three feet, it seems they would be easy to spot. However, their cryptic plumage and habit of “freezing” with bill pointed upward makes them almost invisible among grass and reeds. We were fortunate to find two today.
Even on our coldest days here in central Florida we can usually find a butterfly. I love it here. Apparently, so does this Fiery Skipper.
Savannah Sparrows also migrate here for the winter. Their beautiful shades of brown and rust blend in well with low ground cover. When annoyed, such as when someone’s trying to take your picture, they raise the crest on their head and give you “that look”.
Water plus mud equals turtles. Florida Redbelly Cooters and Peninsula Cooters have different appearing shells and head patterns. We caught one Redbelly practicing its ballet movements. (The green on its shell is algae.)
Great Blue Herons are quite noisy when trying to attract a mate. The males clap their beaks and flap their wings and hop and jump around and bring gifts (a stick) to their lady. You know, just like human guys. The prospective couple then picks out a palm tree and begins nest construction.
Similar to the American Bittern above, the plumage of a Wilson’s Snipe blends perfectly with the grass and mud of a pond shoreline. They rely on this camouflage for protection and will often wait until you almost step on them before flushing.
Terns are among the most graceful of birds in flight and this Forster’s Tern looks pretty good while resting, too.
Once the Blue-winged Teal finishes preening, he (and his reflection) look quite nice.
It’s hard to mistake the profile of the Northern Shoveler. This male’s green head, white breast and brown sides will become more solidly colored by breeding season.
The small Green Heron is a year-round resident and always fun to watch as it patiently stalks its prey.
More tourists. Ring-necked Ducks are often mistakenly, but understandably, called “Ring-billed” Ducks. No matter what you call them, they are a handsome species.
Taxonomically unique, the Limpkin’s closest relatives are rails and cranes. Apple Snails are this bird’s preferred meal and it’s specialized bill has evolved to allow easy extraction of the snail from its shell.
Gini and I had another wonderful day together in Florida’s natural wonderland. Just remember, to locate a birding bonanza in your neighborhood, simply “follow your nose”!
(Or – you could just click on the links below for an actual map.)
We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!
Viera Wetlands (Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands)