Follow Your Nose

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.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

 

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.

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

 

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.

American Bittern

American Bittern

 

American Bittern

American Bittern

 

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.

Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phylus)

Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phylus)

 

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”.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

 

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.)

Peninsula Cooter  (Pseudemys peninsularis)

Peninsula Cooter (Pseudemys peninsularis)

 

Florida Redbelly Cooter  (Pseudemys nelsoni)

Florida Redbelly Cooter (Pseudemys nelsoni)

Florida Redbelly Cooter  (Pseudemys nelsoni)

Florida Redbelly Cooter (Pseudemys nelson)

 

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.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

 

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.

Wilson's Snipe

Wilson’s Snipe

 

Terns are among the most graceful of birds in flight and this Forster’s Tern looks pretty good while resting, too.

Forster's Tern

Forster’s Tern

Forster's Tern

Forster’s Tern

 

Once the Blue-winged Teal finishes preening, he (and his reflection) look quite nice.

Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal

 

Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal

 

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.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

 

The small Green Heron is a year-round resident and always fun to watch as it patiently stalks its prey.

Green Heron

Green Heron

 

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.

Ring-necked Duck

Ring-necked Duck

 

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.

Limpkin

Limpkin

 

 

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!

 

Additional Information

Viera Wetlands (Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands)

Domestic Wastewater To Wetlands Program

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments

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26 thoughts on “Follow Your Nose

  1. There’s always at least one gem in your narrative, Wally – for me this time it was the following: “most birders don’t actually handle the objects of their affection (hey! we’re still talking about birds here!)”. I really enjoyed the photos too. We have one of those “follow your nose” places here in Utah – Farmington Bay when they dump loads of dead carp to attract Bald Eagles. Those fish, combined with our very warm weather this winter, have produced a malodorous mess!

    • In order to locate gems, it helps to be a gemologist, and you’re one of the best, Ron! Thanks for the kind comments. Yep, sometimes we have to endure a little unpleasantness to discover our treasures. Judging by the jewels you produce, you must have some awesome hip boots!

  2. Incredible pictures as always and another Florida place I’d love to visit during our season here.. (I have such a long list.) Two of the best birding places we’ve been are those kind of reclaimed wetlands. One owned by the city of Arcata California and one in Port Aransas Texas. But it looks like yours is better (based on the birds you saw)… but I’m sure you’d see see more in either of those places than I did.

    • It’s worth a visit if you get a chance, Sallie. I know about long lists of places to visit! I need to find a way to prioritize them but haven’t figured that out yet. Thank you so much for dropping by!

  3. What a great day you had. You have shown your great taste! :I love that Limpkin with Apple Snail photo.

  4. Another very entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking account, Wally. And your images are a real feast for the eyes!

    It’s over a year since I visited a large cliff nesting seabird colony, but the deafening sound and pungent smell still lingers! Mentally, that is!!!

    Best wishes to you and Gini – – – – Richard

  5. Oh, the pelican poop will burn your eyes out! LOL A residential street in Texas was infiltrated by nesting herons one year. The smell was awful and everything looked whitewashed. It is a Federal crime to remove the birds or scare them away so the residents just had to tolerate it. But the next year they were all trimming their beautiful oaks like crazy.

    A sensational collection of wildlife here. I’ve never heard of, nor seen, the Cooter turtle. Your images are always so crisp and clear. Love that!

    An hour west of us there has been a Ringed Kingfisher sighted, the furthest east it has ever been seen. The birding community is all a-twitter. 🙂

  6. Beautiful birds and great photos. Shorebirds, terns and pelicans definitely leave lots of smells and when the tide comes over a roost even the receding water smells!Your description of the plantings for filtration of the wetlands is very interesting. Smaller Aussie councils still have to catch up with the total concept!! and most birders out here know which places have the best “poo ponds”! So far as the birds are concerned – the smellier the better!

    • Thanks, Mick. Yep, birders know the location of all the sewage plants and landfills in the area! Hope your kayak keeps you in clean water!

  7. Not being an avid birder, I never thought about birding by smell!
    Your photos are splendid.

  8. Hi Wally and thank you for that most helpful exposition of your early days and Grandpa’s outside loo. Happy days indeed pre Angel Soft when a newspaper was more than just something to read and then throw away.

    Now I must admit that my birding is at least 50/50 split between using eyes and ears but at certain times of year the ears have it almost entirely. Rarely do I sniff out birds but based on your expert advice I’m going to give it a try very soon but sadly we do not have the equivalent of the Viera Wetlands in Pilling and the nearest sea bird colonies are hundreds of miles away. We do have winter Starling roosts of 30 – 50 thousand birds though – places to avoid.

    Super shots of the American Bittern – boy am I jealous when our own European Bittern is renowned for hiding away for ever.

    Funny, but I get “the look” when I try to take Sue’s picture. Is that Savannah Sparrow a female by any chance?

    Your cooters look very impressive – so colourful. And lovely portraits of the wildfowl Limpkin to finish on.

    Take care my friend and remember when you’re out birding miles from anywhere to always take the essentials of life.

    • Good afternoon, Phil, and thank you for your always insightful remarks! Gini said to tell you she really enjoyed your commentary and to tell Sue that “look” is apparently a universal female trait. And when I’m away from civilization I always carry a newspaper crossword page and front page in my pocket. One for entertainment, the other not.

      Enjoy the upcoming week for me as I may be unable to get much birding done. All the best.

  9. OH my!!
    These photos are amazing!
    As for sharpness, the Blue heron and the Limpkin are just fabulous, I envy those 2 birds!!!
    But the Redbelly Cooter posing on its stand is really my favorite, a prize shot 🙂
    About smelling birds, I will go a step further…
    As you might know by now we were parrot breeders. Well I can tell you every species has its own smell, and eyes closed I could tell which birds were in a room!
    Great post, Wally, keep well!

    • Thank you, Noushka! Very interesting about your parrots. I love our diversity of turtles and it’s still a challenge for me to identify them.
      Take care and have a great week!

  10. Beautiful bird photos. Not sure I could pick a fave 🙂

  11. Hi Wally, I always love the weather report on your comments….BUT these photos are too good. They put all others bird photogs to shame. The bittern is wonderful. Wow 40 – 50 species of birds from your car, I better go back and read more. I sometimes am too excited about the photos to read it at first. Have a happy Valentines Day Wally.

    • Hi, Nora! Hope you’re having a good day today. We sure appreciate your visits and all the nice things you say. Have a great week and enjoy all that northwest color!

  12. HI Wally Although i am commenting on this post, i have yet to read you last post. It came in when I was very busy and I do like to take plenty of time over your posts as I enjoy them so much. I will get round to the other post – I promise!! Now as I have said before, the humerous way you have with words and situation really make me laugh and to day is no exception. All your photographs are top notch and I love the Grebe and teal shots with the wonderful reflections. Finding the Bittern and Snipe was fabulous and the stance of the Turtle is priceless. Loved the close up of the Limpkin with the snail – excellent. Now as this is St Valentine’s Day, I hope you are spoiling your Gini. I hope you both have a wonderful weekend.

    • Margaret, thank you for visiting and being so gracious with your remarks. No worries about Gini being spoiled, she came that way. 🙂

  13. laughed at your sensory suggestions. 🙂 loved all your photos, though! love those pied-billed cuties. the bittern is awesome! the happy turtle makes me smile!

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