Learning Something New

—  Not far below New Smyrna is the north end of the Indian River, and the distance to Jupiter Inlet, its other end, is one hundred and-forty miles. The most interesting fact about this river is that it is not a river at all, but a salt-water sound.

It is a delight merely to view the river from the shore. As you look off across the blue water from the mainland you see the islands dim in dreamy haze on the other side. Schools of fishes flash their silvery sides to the sun in the shallows; farther out frolicsome mullet leap high into the air and fall back with a resounding splash; herons large and small stand and meditate in or near the water; and cormorants, black and ungainly, sit on piles of abandoned docks for hours motionless, or, if one makes a plunge for a fish, he promptly flops back to his perch. During the winter the river is a resort for innumerable ducks. In places the surface is fairly covered by them, and a boat voyaging on the river will make flocks rise from the water every few hundred yards to travel off and settle down elsewhere. —

“The East Coast and the Indian River” Highways and Byways of Florida, 1918


“What are you reading, Aunt Et?” Although not actually my aunt, she was called “Aunt Et” by everyone remotely related in our very large family tree. “War and Peace”, she replied. “For the fourth time. Seems like I learn something new each time.” Aunt Et had been a school teacher for most of her life and had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. At the age of 98, she was sharp and full of life. She didn’t hesitate to call members of the local school board to let them know whenever they made another bone-headed decision. She and her husband settled in this area early in the 20th century, raised a large family and did well in the state’s citrus industry. Along with wonderful memories of a fascinating lady, we returned to our home on the Gulf coast with a treasure trove of citrus and a few bags of “sand pears”, not great for eating but they made superb preserves.

That was over 50 years ago.

Mention the Indian River to most Floridians and many will immediately think of high quality oranges, grapefruits and tangerines. Fishermen will begin dreaming of the huge snook and tarpon which inhabit Ponce Inlet or tackle-smashing redfish cruising Mosquito Lagoon. Birders – well, their eyes just roll back in their heads trying to comprehend thousands of waterfowl, 100+ daily species lists and lifers just waiting to be spotted. There are many premier birding “hotspots” all along the Indian River of Florida’s east coast.

On this day, I was with one of Florida’s best birders and enjoyed a day-long tutorial on locating, seeing and hearing birds, many of which I very likely would not have observed on my own. We were exploring the Indian River watershed along the southern portion of its range and at day’s end had tallied over 90 species of birds. We began the day well before dawn, counting seven calling Barred Owls and snapping a quick photo of one just outside the car window. To finish the day, on the way home just before leaving Indian River County, an endangered Snail Kite coasted across the busy highway resulting in some exciting braking, swerving, U-turning and other normal birding procedures. In between these two extremes were Sandhill Cranes with young, Crested Caracara building a nest, wintering warblers, Northern Gannets plunging into the Atlantic Ocean, oil-covered snow birds, wild pigs, damselflies in distress, a commotion of coots, cute furry mammals and a turtle called a cooter all covered in duckweed.

(See “Additional Information” below for links to two of the areas we visited. Much of this was new territory for me and I look forward to discovering more of what this area has to offer.)


This Barred Owl was so intent on his potential prey that he didn’t budge when the car stopped alongside. He was less than 15 feet away and I couldn’t fit him within the frame of the lens I had on the camera. As soon as the camera shutter clicked he was gone.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl


Sunrise appears to have come a bit too soon for this sleepy-looking Turkey Vulture. Their large talons aren’t built to grasp small diameter items such as a utility line so they have to balance carefully.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture


A very young raccoon was quite curious about us and kept a watchful eye from his palm tree perch.




This Sandhill Crane family was foraging along a berm which we were traversing between two ponds. They politely moved around us as we passed them and all was well. Thank goodness. Those beaks could do some damage.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane


Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane


The day was warm and insects were plentiful. A Rambur’s Forktail provided some color among the pond weeds.

Rambur's Forktail - Heteromorph Female  (Ischnura ramburii)

Rambur’s Forktail – Heteromorph Female (Ischnura ramburii)


A pair of Hooded Mergansers are visiting for the winter. Soon they’ll head back north to breed and we hope to see them again in the fall.

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser


With plenty of water and plenty of weeds there is plenty of prey for a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk to pursue.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk


The Green Heron is not a very large bird to begin with (18 inches/46 cm long) but when he turns to face you he almost disappears. A handy trick if you’re trying to pretend you’re a reed.

Green Heron

Green Heron


Boat-tailed Grackles are loud, obnoxious bullies. But when the light hits them just right, beautiful is the only word to describe them.

Boat-tailed Grackle

Boat-tailed Grackle


This Peninsula Cooter is covered in duckweed, just like the area of the pond he frequents. He’s hoping the sun will dry some of the stuff so it will fall off his back. Then he can go get a fresh coat of green.

Peninsula Cooter

Peninsula Cooter


The bright reddish-orange of a Carolina Saddlebags can be seen from quite a distance. Dragonflies in the air herald Springtime around the corner.

Carolina Saddlebags - Male  (Tramea carolina)

Carolina Saddlebags – Male (Tramea Carolina)


Another winter visitor, a female Ruddy Duck, has long, stiff tail feathers which act as a rudder when diving for food.

Ruddy Duck - Female

Ruddy Duck – Female


When a Bald Eagle flies overhead, pandemonium erupts as American Coots scramble to avoid becoming breakfast.

American Coot

American Coot


Yet more tourists, the Redhead and Northern Shoveler try to blend in with a group of coots as they know there is safety in numbers. (They also know coots are easier for eagles to catch – see the previous photograph.)

American Coot, Northern Shoveler, Redhead

American Coot, Northern Shoveler, Redhead


A butterfly in the skipper family, a Dorantes Longtail finds an abundance of wildflowers blooming on this balmy Florida day.

Dorantes Longtail  (Urbanus dorantes)

Dorantes Longtail (Urbanus dorantes)


To paraphrase my Aunt Et, each time I go birding I seem to learn something new. We hope you do, too!


Enjoy your search for a natural place an come back for a visit!



Additional Information

Lake Blue Cypress

West Regional Wastewater Treament Facility (entry from Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail map)

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 31 Comments

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31 thoughts on “Learning Something New

  1. I didn’t know Bald Eagles preyed on Coots. Cute raccoon you found…among all the other treasures.

    • Bald Eagles usually prefer fish but will eat just about anything, including carrion. Slow-moving waterfowl such as the coot are a favorite target.

    • Bald Eagles usually prefer fish but will eat just about anything, including carrion. Slow-moving waterfowl such as the coot are a favorite target.

  2. Wally, this area sounds like an absolutely delightful place for birders, photographers and nature lovers and I really enjoyed the “tour” you’ve provided along with the photos. Your Aunt Et sounds like my kind of person.

    • It’s fun discovering “new” areas so relatively close to home. Aunt Et was truly a great person in my mind’s eye. We need role models such as she was more than ever today.

  3. Such gorgeous photos of the creatures who frequent this fascinating area! I loved reading about Aunt Et also…we need more women like her these days!

  4. Great shots and words – its always a good day when you need less zoom / magnification than you have!
    Cheers – Stewart M – Melbourne

    PS: glad you like the head, body and tail of the fish!

    • G’Day, Stewart! Amen to the “need less” situations! Loved your story very much. It triggered a whole chain of memories. Thank you!

  5. Just getting back in the saddle after a week or so away, Wally, but I’m very pleased that I didn’t miss this post.

    I was really enjoying your preamble (as usual!) and then I got to the images, and you really grabbed my attention!! How amazing to be that close to a beautiful owl.

    The rest of the images and the account were superb too. At that length, no wonder they call it a ‘river’. A fabulous environment.

    Best wishes – – – – Richard

    • I was hoping that owl would wait for me to change lenses, Richard, but I believe you understand how uncooperative these guys can be as photography subjects! Coming up soon will be more exploration of the Indian River. Take care!

  6. I am always in AWE after viewing your posts. The things you see and the details you capture are always incredible. That turtle covered in duck weed—poor guy! The Barred Owl reminded me of our own nesting pair who are about to become parents yet again. Always a treat every year.

    Aunt Et reading War and Peace four times was the thing that stuck out the most! What a patient woman she must’ve been. 🙂

    • Thank you so much, Gail, for your wonderful comments! We truly do live in a great area and try to enjoy every moment! (Which is easy for me as long as Gini is at my side!)

  7. Hello Wally,
    What a rich and fascinating post again!
    I can’t believe ho many bird and fauna species in general one can observe in Florida.
    I would have a ball there!!
    Each one of your photos is a must, especially the Barred owl you got so close.
    We are still far from seeing the first dragonflies here in France, the season will start only end of april.
    Wishing you a happy spring birding, keep well 🙂

    • Merci, Nouhska! We are really blessed to have so many species of life to chase and observe! Now I have to blow the dust from my Odonata field guide as I have trouble remembering their names!

      We wish you an early and long Spring!

  8. That sounds like an amazing place – and wow! 90 species of birds in one day! I like your close-ups of birds – especially the owl that sat so close and still for you to get that photo – also the Green Heron that posed for that front view. I also like the birds all scrambling up from the water and the drops of water all spraying up – perfect capture of the moment!

    • Mick, I really appreciate your nice comments. With or without photos, being able to observe our diverse bird population and their behavior is something special!

      Enjoy your week!

  9. Hi Wally. That first sentence about Smyrna and Indian River made me for a second or two think you were holidaying in India. When I visited India on several occasions I saw lots of Smyrna Kingfishers – Halcyon smyrnensis. My first question is therefore, what is the apparently unlikely Florida connection with India?

    Good to read that the location was yet another highly productive birding spot and that 100 species for a day is within reach – I wish.

    The Sandhills do look close and your near portrait is superb. Yet on other blogs I read that they are hunted in great numbers which make the species extremely wary, as per our wild wintering geese. Outside of the shooting season do the cranes lose their fear of man or is it simply that there is less shooting of the species in Florida?

    I’m looking forward to our juvenile season when the new youngsters pose up like the Racoon and the Red-shouldered Hawk. Quite quickly do they lose that innocence at the hands, lenses and binoculars of the human race.

    You just have to admire the Peninsula Cooter in covering itself in that green goo so as to become invisible. Good camouflage for a birder to get close to water birds if so inclined but only if alligators are absent?

    Re your question about Jays damaging our mist nets. The answer is that they don’t but that they are more likely to damage a finger as they have a tremendously strong grip from their bill. Once a Jay nips a finger it does not let go easily. Hence my tight hold on the bird!

    • The “Smyrna” connection is actually to the ancient city of that name in western Turkey which is known today as Izmir. It the mid-18th century, a Scottish physician attempted to create the community of “New Smyrna” on Florida’s east coast consisting primarily of Greeks, Minorcans and Italians. The project failed after about ten years. The territory reverted to Spanish control in the 1780’s and along with the rest of Florida became part of the United States in 1821.

      My understanding is that Sandhill Crane hunting in the eastern U.S. is not permitted and that strict limits prevail in the few western states where it is allowed. My information may not be current. Our Florida resident Sandhill Cranes are protected. Although they can be quite wary, they typically tolerate human presence and generally go about their business whether we are nearby or not. (The migratory Sandhills usually remain in groups of a half-dozen to several hundred and these birds are very nervous.)

      Your suggestion for a birder to adopt the turtle’s camouflage is inspired except for the “Florida Formula”: water + life forms = alligators.

      Aha! The Jay’s bill does, indeed, look as if it could get your attention!

      Thank you for your insightful comments and I forgive you for making me do historical research on my day off. (Oh, wait. EVERY day is my day off!) — 🙂

      Have a wonderful week, Phil!

  10. HI Wally Another great post and marvellous that you have found another area with wonderful birds. I love the shots of the Sandhill Cranes, Grackle plumage and the fantastic marking of the Heron. Lovely hearing about your Aunt Et and it is always good to learn new things (if only I could remember them these days!!) Have a great week.

  11. This is one of my favorite posts of yours! I need to run away from Ohio and head south.

  12. Great photos as always. Your green heron didn’t look like he appreciated being photographed!

  13. The close ups of the Sandhill and Hawk are stunning 🙂

  14. lovely shots all the way through! enjoyed this glimpse of the indian river!

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