— 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.
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.
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.
The day was warm and insects were plentiful. A Rambur’s Forktail provided some color among the pond weeds.
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.
With plenty of water and plenty of weeds there is plenty of prey for a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk to pursue.
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.
Boat-tailed Grackles are loud, obnoxious bullies. But when the light hits them just right, beautiful is the only word to describe them.
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.
The bright reddish-orange of a Carolina Saddlebags can be seen from quite a distance. Dragonflies in the air herald Springtime around the corner.
Another winter visitor, a female Ruddy Duck, has long, stiff tail feathers which act as a rudder when diving for food.
When a Bald Eagle flies overhead, pandemonium erupts as American Coots scramble to avoid becoming breakfast.
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.)
A butterfly in the skipper family, a Dorantes Longtail finds an abundance of wildflowers blooming on this balmy Florida day.
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!