Posts Tagged With: american bittern

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

New Wetlands Survey – Part Two

(This is a follow-up report on a “new” wetlands being developed.  See the report of our initial visit in the post, “I, The Beholder“.)

 

Hello.  My name is Wally and I’m a curmudgeon and it’s been eight days since I last curmudged.  At least, I feel that way at times.  When a salesman arrives at the door ready to deliver his polished presentation, I normally cut them off with a curt “not interested” followed by a quick shutting of the door.  Same with phone calls.  The poor souls never get a chance to read more than a sentence of their “surefire sale” script.  The dictionary defines curmudgeon as:  “a crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old man”.  Yep.  That’s me once in awhile.  Especially the “usually old” part.  I’m trying to improve.  That’s why Gini usually handles our public relations department.

Of course, one does not dare NOT answer the door.  It might be opportunity!  Thus it was recently.  Well, to be honest, opportunity didn’t actually knock at the door.  It emailed.  I was invited to participate in a second survey of bird life at a wetlands being developed to see if there was much change from our first endeavor in September.  (Maybe I’m not a lost cause yet – these folks KNOW me and actually invited me back!)  I jumped at the chance.  The area is not yet open to the public and this would be a rare opportunity to observe a relatively undisturbed environment.  There are three man-made “cells” which have been planted with natural-filtering vegetation.  The cells are dug to varying depths  allowing for shallow water waders as well as deeper water diving birds.  Water is pumped from an adjacent large lake, held for a time in one cell while natural filtration occurs, pumped to a second and then third cell where the process is repeated.  The cleaned water is then pumped into a creek which flows into a river which flows to the Gulf of Mexico.  Man imitating nature trying to reverse the pollution man caused.  A noble effort.

We met at dawn and by mid-afternoon had circumnavigated the area and ended with a very impressive tally of birds enjoying this wonderful “new” wetlands.  The total species count was 96.  Included in the count:  45 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, over 400 Blue-winged Teal, 50 Northern Shoveler, 25 Wood Stork, 100 American White Pelican, 110 Great Egret, over 160 Snowy Egret, 350 Glossy Ibis, 11 Sora (a conservative count, mostly heard), over 200 American Coot, over two dozen Black-Necked Stilt, over 20 American Avocet, 20 Lesser Yellowlegs, 40 Long-billed Dowitcher, an uncommon inland Dunlin, 120 Least Sandpiper, 70 Cattle Egret.  Among Passerines were: Black and White Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Palm Warbler, Pine Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Vesper Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow and Swamp Sparrow.  Representing the Raptors:  Osprey, Northern Harrier, Cooper’s Hawk, Bald Eagle, Red-shouldered Hawk, American Kestrel and a Barred Owl.

Whew!  No wonder I went home tired!

Once complete, this will be an outstanding venue for the public to enjoy a day in nature and, hopefully, realize how important it is to preserve such places.

Please enjoy a few images of our day.

 

American Avocets and Long-billed Dowitchers busily probed the shallow water for breakfast.

American Avocet, Long-billed Dowitcher

American Avocet, Long-billed Dowitcher

 

Least Sandpipers seem to fly as a single unit, responding to some unseen signal as they wheel, glide and land together.

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

 

A few Blue-winged Teal look for a spot of open water among the grass to settle down.

Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal

 

There was a nice variety of winged creatures other than birds, too, such as this Four-Spotted Pennant.

Four-spotted Pennant (Brachymesia gravida)

Four-spotted Pennant (Brachymesia gravida)

 

Throughout the day, Osprey let us know the fish population in the newly created ponds was quite robust.

Osprey

Osprey

 

A flock of White Ibis in the bright blue sky circled for awhile trying to find a “vacant” parking spot in which to forage.

White Ibis

White Ibis

 

Scarlet Skimmers brightened up the landscape as these large dragonflies hunted for smaller prey.

Scarlet Skimmer (Crocothemis servilia)

Scarlet Skimmer (Crocothemis servilia)

 

The air seemed to be filled with birds all morning.  A small group of American Avocets move to a less crowded shallow sand bar.

American Avocet

American Avocet

 

This young Red-shouldered Hawk seemed to be still a bit sleepy as the rising sun reminded him it was time to get busy.

Red-shouldered Hawk (Immature)

Red-shouldered Hawk (Immature)

 

A Long-tailed Skipper probes the pretty flower of an invasive nuisance plant, Ceaser’s Weed (Urena lobata).

Long-tailed Skipper (Urbanus proteus)

Long-tailed Skipper (Urbanus proteus)

 

The bright male Roseate Skimmer seems like a neon advertisement for Dragonfly makeup.  The female is not nearly as gaudy looking.

Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea) - Male

Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea) – Male

Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea) - Female

Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea) – Female

 

A pair of Long-billed Dowitchers show their beautiful plumage, including the characteristic white wedge on their backs.  (The Short-billed Dowitcher also has this wedge.)

Long-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher

 

We were fortunate to spot an American Bittern.  This one shows why they’re easily overlooked.  When sensing a threat, they point their bills skyward and “freeze”.  This position, along with their striped plumage, allows them to blend in nicely with the surrounding grass.  They’ve even been known to sway if it’s windy in synchronization with the grass to lessen their chances of being seen.

American Bittern

American Bittern

 

The female Eastern Pondhawk is really bright green and the male is a more subdued powder blue.

Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis)

Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis)

 

I believe this is a member of the Baskettail species, possibly Epitheca?  Any help in a correct identification would be very much appreciated.

Baskettail sp. (?) (Epitheca ?)

Baskettail sp. (?) (Epitheca ?)

 

The Barred Owl is a denizen of the swampy woods and it’s not unusual to see them in the daytime.  This one was very alert to our presence but didn’t flush.  He appeared to keep his right eye partially closed, due, I think, to the strong sunlight coming from that direction.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

 

 

Although I may continue to have my curmudgeonly moments, I hope I’ll still at least answer the door just in case another opportunity comes to call.

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

 

See more birds at:   Paying Ready Attention   (Check out Wild Bird Wednesday.)

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 56 Comments

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