Posts Tagged With: butterflies

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

A Little Seasoning Whets The Appetite

My eyes strained to make out shapes which should be familiar but no images were forming. I knew there was a line of trees to my right along a fence and there was water to the left. A splash, perhaps a frog moving from his hiding spot on the bank, confirmed I was correct about the water. I could barely discern the spot onto which I stepped. Lightning punctuated the inky blackness far to the south. We might have rain today but it likely wouldn’t form until the afternoon. The other-worldly calls of Limpkins began sounding from around the marsh. (Limpkin Call) Almost imperceptibly the sky shifted from nothingness to dark blue and blobs which I knew to be trees gradually materialized in the distance. As the curtain of the morning was slowly drawn back, large formations of Ibises and Egrets moved across the edge of the horizon from their roosts as they dispersed to feeding areas. Water birds were becoming active nearby and myriad Herons, Egrets and Ibises flapped just above the tops of the vegetation and settled into spots likely to hold abundant prey. Mosquitoes buzzed incessantly around my eyes, ears and mouth. A sliver of orange fire in the east punctured what remained of the night and our day was truly in progress.

It’s September in central Florida. Still very hot. Still very humid. Thunderstorms are scheduled every day by mid-afternoon and seldom disappoint. It has been a wetter than normal summer. We hope for cold fronts to form in Canada to energize migration. Soon. In the meantime, Nature teases us with a Yellow Warbler overhead, a chip from a Northern Waterthrush in the understory, a fleeting glimpse of a Blue-winged Teal quartet zipping across the sky. The season is changing. Even in our sub-tropical environment we can feel a difference in the air. We look forward to the surprise of discovery experienced twice each year which serves as a booster shot of excitement and insures we remain forever hooked to our sweet addiction.

As we progress through this life, we encounter “key” people. Those individuals who by position or force of personality cause things to happen and can be relied upon to “get things done”. When I was a manager, I was constantly on the lookout for this type of person because I knew they would be instrumental in the success of any venture. In birding, I have discovered it’s still important to identify and have access to “key” people. In this case, that would be the person with the key to the gate you’re trying to get beyond! I have found such a person. Shh! Don’t tell him the real reason I like his company.

Once the “key” person accomplished his vital role, we once again entered the Lake Hancock Outfall Wetlands on the southeast side of Lakeland in Polk County, Florida. It may be another year before this area is open to the public. In the meantime, that feller with the key in his pocket has been gracious enough to schedule several tours for anyone interested in experiencing some the best birding in central Florida. Drop me an email if you’re interested and I’ll get some information to you.

Our day ended before noon and we had tallied just under 70 species. Highlights for me included a Short-tailed Hawk, a Willet (common along our beaches but rare at this inland area), Gull-billed Terns and over 30 Black-necked Stilts. Add to all of that patches of blooming flowers, colorful butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies, Bobcat tracks, alligators and two of the state’s most accomplished birders who see and hear subjects long before I’m aware of them – and it was a very good day indeed.

 

Sunrise. Now I could actually see how many mosquitoes were in the cloud surrounding me.

Sunrise

Sunrise

 

Here’s a view of a small portion of the wetlands area. There are three “cells” of water which have been constructed in the wetlands which covers about 1,000 acres. A pump station on the south shore of Lake Hancock will pump lake water into one of these cells where specially planted vegetation will act as natural filters to clean the water. The clean water will be pumped into another of the cells for further filtration before being released into nearby Saddle Creek which feeds the Peace River and eventually the improved water will flow into the Gulf of Mexico at Charlotte Harbor. A small effort in the grand scheme of water management, but multiplied many times around our state it can make a difference.

Northeast Cell

Northeast Cell

 

A Dorantes Longtail dries out its wings after a heavy dew.

Dorantes Longtail (Urbanus dorantes)

Dorantes Longtail (Urbanus dorantes)

 

From the top of a small tree a Northern Parula sings as if Spring was here instead of Fall.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

 

A curious Tufted Titmouse didn’t take long to start his alarm call to let the world know where we were. “Intruder Alert!”

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

 

It’s hard to miss the Scarlet Skimmer. There were dozens of these gaudy dragons around the marsh.

Scarlet Skimmer (Crocothemis servilia)

Scarlet Skimmer (Crocothemis servilia)

 

The Gull-billed Tern makes you do a double-take. Nice slim body and wings of a tern, then you see that thick bill and it just looks odd.  The first image is a bird already in winter plumage and the second individual still retains the black cap from the breeding season.

Gull-billed Tern

Gull-billed Tern

Gull-billed Tern

Gull-billed Tern

 

American White Pelicans enjoy the fishing at Lake Hancock year ’round and their numbers can swell during migration to several thousand.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

 

A group of Black-necked Stilts and Lesser Yellowlegs enjoy foraging and preening in a shallow section of water.

Black-necked Stilts, Lesser Yellowlegs

Black-necked Stilts, Lesser Yellowlegs

 

Male and female Needham’s Skimmers are quite different in appearance. The male’s coloration can range from orange to almost red. Immature males are similar to the female until they become adults.

Needham's Skimmer - Male  (Libellula needhami)

Needham’s Skimmer – Male (Libellula needhami)

Needham's Skimmer - Female  (Libellula needhami)

Needham’s Skimmer – Female (Libellula needhami)

 

A Cattle Egret may not be the most beautiful of birds but doesn’t look half bad with his hair combed.

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret

 

Great Blue Herons are masterful fishermen and all the other birds are keenly aware of his prowess. A White Ibis hopes for a morsel.

Great Blue Heron, White Ibis

Great Blue Heron, White Ibis

 

The smallest butterfly in North America is the Southern Skipperling, one of the grass skippers. We’re fortunate that with Florida’s climate they remain here all year long.

Southern Skipperling (Copaeodes minima)

Southern Skipperling (Copaeodes minima)

 

 

If you hunger for a birding trip, check your seasoning and enjoy cooking up a great day outside! Don’t forget to locate a “key” person to assist you in overcoming the occasional locked gate life may place in your path.

 

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: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

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