Posts Tagged With: great egret

Balancing Act

Watching birds has the potential to generate human interest along many different planes. On a very basic level, the sheer beauty of a bird can cause us to sigh in appreciation, or is it jealousy? Some of us have a more scientific curiosity about how flight is possible or how can a duck float or why does a hummingbird seem to change colors. Birding can be a good fit for other outdoor pursuits such as camping, hiking, fishing, boating or photography. At the extreme edge of watching birds is competition. Back in the days of no computers or cell phones and precious little printed instruction, I would make a pencil mark beside birds I had observed in a pocket version of Roger Tory Peterson’s “Field Guide To The Birds”. I was happy. Then I agreed to participate in my first Audubon annual Christmas Bird Count. The fellow who was our team leader was unlike any “bird-watcher” I had ever encountered. Let’s just say he could have been a very effective sports coach – or military drill sergeant.

The ensuing years have seen the evolution of a relaxing pastime into a competitive obsession for some. With the advent of computer-maintained lists, rare bird alerts, hotlines, locally maintained listservs, guide businesses (with rare bird “guarantees”) – this ain’t Hank Thoreau’s hobby no more!

Of course, chasing birds to add to a “life list”, especially uncommon species, can be expensive (and not just monetarily). Some have spent life savings on optical equipment, travel expenses and specialty gear to add a rarity to their list. Others have done all that and missed a child’s graduation, a daughter’s wedding, sacrificed a marriage. That’s extreme!

Naturally, I have achieved a balance between enjoying bird-watching and keeping track of the species I’ve observed over the years. It’s tempting sometimes to drive six hours in the hope a seldom seen bird will wait for me to arrive, but common sense prevails. Nothing is worth going THAT crazy about chasing!

(UPDATE: I stand corrected. I just wandered by the living room and glimpsed Gini on the love seat. I would eagerly circumnavigate the world and beyond just to smooch the firmament upon which she stands.)

Zero-four-thirty. That’s early. And it’s really dark, too. The email said let’s go see if the Smooth-billed Ani is still at Viera Wetlands. It’s only a two-hour drive. I have never seen a Smooth-billed Ani. Besides, that’s a nice area to go birding even without seeing a Smooth-billed Ani. Gini says, go, have fun. She’ll sleep in. Common sense personified.

Anis are fairly common in the Caribbean and there used to be a small breeding population in South Florida. Burgeoning human development and the accompanying habitat destruction has drastically reduced the species’ numbers, if not extirpated it completely from the state. The ani is in the same family as cuckoos and consumes mostly insects but won’t turn down ripe fruit.

Close examination of the target field yielded no rare bird. No worries, Viera Wetlands is a wonderful place to leisurely drive and walk and find lots of birds! A couple of hours yielded 60 species which included a Limpkin with a young chick, a large flock of American White Pelicans, tons of water birds and as a bonus a Great Horned Owl. As we pulled out of the wetlands, a dozen birders lined the field where the ani had been spotted in previous days. Alas, they reported no sighting this morning. We birded a spot a few miles away and returned about an hour later. The group of birders had grown to at least 30 and they were all standing and pointing to a clump of Brazilian Pepper. There it was! My first Smooth-billed Ani! If only I could wedge myself between the guy with the $10,000 spotting scope and the guy with $20,000 worth of camera stuff. No use. These guys were pros and knew they were in the best spot. I slunk down the road, found a spot to sit in the grass and hoped my puny lens would focus today. Then bird karma intervened. The Smooth-billed Ani fluttered onto a slender limb nearby and spent the next ten minutes preening and watching the watchers. Adrenalin can make your shutter finger shake.

After a lunch of fresh seafood, we wandered around a few nearby parks and found some good birds to round out a special day of birding. A missed turn took us down a road which yielded another rare bird, a Short-tailed Hawk! It’s estimated there are less than 250 breeding pairs of this magnificent raptor remaining in Florida. Talk about icing on the bird-watcher’s cake!

Without further ado, the Smooth-billed Ani (and a few of his closest friends):

 

The Smooth-billed Ani was a very cooperative subject for the dozens of paparazzi on hand. It would occasionally disappear into the dense ground cover to forage but always returned to the only clump of vegetation in the field. Pretty convenient for birders. Judging by the appearance of the tail, I suspect this individual is molting and may be the reason it hasn’t flown away yet.

Viera Wetlands

vIERA wETLANDS

 

The first rays of sun and a lingering ground fog combined to give this female Common Yellowthroat a sort of ethereal look.

Viera Wetlands

 

It’s hard not to gawk at the shocking pink of a Roseate Spoonbill. Of course, be prepared to be gawked right back!

Viera Wetlands

 

Lots of Ring-necked Ducks were enjoying the wetlands and have apparently become accustomed to the busy human presence.

Viera Wetlands

 

A Limpkin keeps a watchful eye on its chick as the youngster learns to find and extract yummy Apple Snails from their not so protective shells.

Viera Wetlands

 

Great Blue Herons flock (pun intended) to this place for breeding as the numerous palm trees make perfect nesting sites.

Viera Wetlands

 

A male Hooded Merganser is really showy with that white hood and bright golden eye. He and his mate spent more time with their heads under water than above.

Viera Wetlands

Viera Wetlands

 

It’s becoming more difficult to find a Mottled Duck which does not have some characteristics of a Mallard. The inter-breeding may eventually wipe out the wild Mottled Duck altogether.

Viera Wetlands

 

I’m used to seeing large numbers of Lesser Scaup in the winter on our larger lakes but in the quiet waters of these small ponds this single bird was content to hang with the above Mottled Duck.

Viera Wetlands

 

I seem to have a knack for photographing peek-a-boo birds. Oh, well. A peeking Marsh Wren is better than none at all.

Viera Wetlands

 

Savannah Sparrows are typically our most numerous winter sparrow. They usually have no problem posing for the patient photographer.

Viera Wetlands

 

Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I am the beholder here, I think this plain female Brown-headed Cowbird is beautiful. So there.

Viera Wetlands

 

Early in the morning, we spotted this Great Horned Owl trying to snooze in a palm tree. Later on, as we were ogling the ani, the owl slipped onto the top of a light pole behind the conga line of birders snapping pics of the visitor from the tropics. I wondered if the owl was also ogling the ani?

Viera Wetlands

Viera Wetlands

Viera Wetlands

 

After lunch, we visited a park on the shore of the Indian River (just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean on Florida’s east coast) and found a manatee who refused to pose for me. I consoled myself with shots of a Great Egret looking for a handout and a very young Brown Pelican. I managed one flight shot of an adult Brown Pelican while still sulking about that manatee.

Viera Wetlands

Indian River

Indian River

 

A missed turn. A red light. A glance upward. Short-tailed Hawk! Find a place to park! Snap 20 quick images! This raptor occurs in dark and light versions. In this light individual, it looks like it’s wearing a helmet.

Brevard County

 

 

Once again I was able to maintain a perfect balance of relaxing bird-watching and common sense. Okay, okay. I went bonkers for a little while and chased a rare bird across the state, sat down on an ant mound, got so many burrs on my pants you couldn’t see the pants, got so nervous about taking a photograph my hands shook – and would do it all again tomorrow. Hopefully, you will soon have the same experience!

 

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

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Waders, ‘Gators and Spectators

High speed traffic. Billboards. Promises of fantasy, adventure and fun galore. We took the exit ramp just before becoming hopelessly ensnared in the bounty of modern Florida. Admittedly, if you have small children and a large bank account, it’s truly a place you should visit. After that, remember where this exit ramp is located.

Thankfully, it was an hour before sunrise and only a few hundred cars were racing toward the gates of Mouse Nirvana hoping to be first in line for unlimited joy. As we reached the end of the exit road, Gini and I breathed a collective sigh of relief. I looked left. I looked right. No traffic in sight. Soon we were meandering (as much as one can meander in a two ton hunk of metal) along a winding country road, all alone in the dark (one of our favorite places to be all alone …).

The gate for the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive was already open for us and we had the place to ourselves just as the sun appeared over the horizon. The one-way drive is eleven miles of unimproved road through freshwater marsh, lake shoreline, sod fields and mixed woods. It provides a terrific place for migrating birds of all types and many will spend the winter here. There are several places to pull off the road and it’s wide enough in most spots for other vehicles to pass comfortably. I was recently asked to list what we typically see on a trip. Naturally, birds “typically” seen will vary by location but hopefully this will provide an idea of what to expect in early autumn (mid-September) at this location. We were hoping to see more migrants, especially shorebirds, but the normally wet sod fields were bone dry.

The list for this trip:

55 species

  • Black-bellied Whistling-Duck  4     Flew northwest over Lust Road near entry gate.
  • Wood Duck  2
  • Mottled Duck  4
  • Blue-winged Teal  28     Group of 8 in pool on south side of Lust Rd. about 0.2 mile west of entry gate. Flock of 20 flying east parallel to Lust Rd.
  • Pied-billed Grebe  4
  • Wood Stork  3
  • Double-crested Cormorant  4
  • Anhinga  18
  • Least Bittern  4     Three seen, one heard only.
  • Great Blue Heron  16
  • Great Egret  22
  • Snowy Egret  4
  • Little Blue Heron  12
  • Tricolored Heron  2
  • Cattle Egret  36
  • Green Heron  5
  • Black-crowned Night-Heron  4
  • White Ibis  58
  • Glossy Ibis  14
  • Black Vulture  9
  • Turkey Vulture  4
  • Osprey  9
  • Red-shouldered Hawk  3
  • King Rail  1     Heard only. Fairly steady “kek-kek-kek-kek-kek” call.
  • Purple Gallinule  2
  • Common Gallinule  160     Conservative estimate. Many immature birds.
  • Limpkin  2
  • Killdeer  2
  • Common Ground-Dove  2
  • Mourning Dove  6
  • Belted Kingfisher  2
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker  3
  • Downy Woodpecker  1
  • Pileated Woodpecker  1
  • Great Crested Flycatcher  1
  • White-eyed Vireo  3
  • Red-eyed Vireo  2
  • Blue Jay  2
  • Fish Crow  3
  • Bank Swallow  4     Perched on utility wires with Barn Swallows. Smaller than Barn Swallow, dark breast band with line extending down center of breast.
  • Barn Swallow  22
  • Tufted Titmouse  3
  • Carolina Wren  2
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  4
  • Northern Mockingbird  2
  • European Starling  5
  • Black-and-white Warbler  1
  • Common Yellowthroat  4
  • American Redstart  2
  • Northern Parula  3
  • Yellow-throated Warbler  2
  • Prairie Warbler  1
  • Northern Cardinal  4
  • Red-winged Blackbird  26
  • Boat-tailed Grackle  32

It was a good day.

We joined a pair of Ospreys for breakfast just after sunrise. They had very fresh fish, we had egg sandwiches. On the lake shore is an old pump house which was once used to divert water into a canal system for crop irrigation. Adjacent to the pump house is a pool from which the water was further pumped into fields. As we approached this pool, we noticed a lot of activity. First, a large alligator moved across the road right in front of the truck. Then we noticed a good number of herons and egrets lining the shore and soaring above the pool. When we pulled alongside the pool, it got really interesting! We counted 40 alligators within our field of view and more were in a smaller pool near the pump house. The object of all of this attention was a very large number of shad in the pool. The alligators were feasting and the birds were wishing. I kept waiting for Tarzan to swing in on a vine from stage right.

There are a lot of pictures here so I won’t be offended if you don’t look at all of them. Well, not too much.

 

We are continually amazed at what a Great Blue Heron will try to eat. Even though this fish is a very normal part of its diet, the size of the meal makes you wonder if there is any way he’ll be able to swallow it. He always does. He made a quick check to be sure we weren’t a threat.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

 

“The Pool.” The birds appear to be assessing the risk in trying to grab a meal. At times, the ‘gators almost cleared the water as they chased fish from underneath. Quite a sight!

Feeding Time

Feeding Time

 

An immature Tricolored Heron still has quite a bit of rufous plumage but instinctively knows a threat when he sees one.

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

 

This Great Blue Heron keeps a wary eye on a large alligator under his perch until it moves away.

American Alligator, Great Blue Heron

American Alligator, Great Blue Heron

American Alligator, Great Blue Heron

American Alligator, Great Blue Heron

 

A Great Egret arrives and asks the Great Blue Heron what’s to be done about all the reptilian riffraff.

Great Egret

Great Egret

Great Blue Heron, Great Egret

Great Blue Heron, Great Egret

 

Time for a reconnaissance flight. The brave Snowy Egret volunteers to count the enemy and see if they’re showing any sign of retreat.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

 

A Black-crowned Night Heron senses a “presence” behind her. She glimpses the large eyes watching her and begins to sneak away. But wait, what’s that? Breakfast! And no ‘gators nearby! A quick plunge and – success! A short flight to the nearest perch. Now, how do I eat this thing? Where is Big Blue? He knows about these things.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

 

Immersed in trying to photograph all the action, I also became aware of a “presence”. This 10-foot fellow was measuring me for a plate. Thank goodness for l-o-n-g lenses! (And a steep bank.)

American Alligator

American Alligator

 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the road ….. A Green Heron was content to wait in the reeds for a frog or a crayfish. Not as much competition. Also, less chance of becoming breakfast yourself!

Green Heron

Green Heron

 

Above the fray, Barn Swallows perched on utility lines and hawked insects. Among them we spotted four Bank Swallows, not rare but a bit unusual this time of year. They are smaller than the Barn Swallow and have a clean underside except for a dark breast band with a line running downward from the center of the band.

Bank Swallow, Barn Swallow

Bank Swallow, Barn Swallow

Bank Swallow

Bank Swallow

 

A little further along the road, we encountered a calling Great Crested Flycatcher. They’re residents here but migrants also fly through the area.

Great Crested Flycatcher

Great Crested Flycatcher

 

An immature Red-shouldered Hawk spotted a potential meal from his perch and launched from the branches without taking his eyes from the target. He used his broad tail as a rudder and soon dropped behind a line of Willow trees, likely to grab brunch. The light “crescents” near the end of the wings are diagnostic for this species and can be helpful in identifying birds soaring quite high. (The last two images are a different bird than the first four.)

Red-shouldered Hawk - Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk – Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk - Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk – Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk - Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk – Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk - Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk – Immature

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

 

The iridescence of the Glossy Ibis helps it stand out even in a busy background.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis

 

Although Pied-billed Grebes breed in this area, the population increases as migrants fly through to Central and South America and many will overwinter here.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

 

Since we started with “dragons” it seems fitting we end with one. A Carolina Saddlebags is silhouetted nicely by the lushness of the marsh in the background.

Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea carolina)

Carolina Saddlebags (Tramea Carolina)

 

We enjoyed a lazy drive in this diverse habitat and were pleasantly surprised at the show put on by the alligators – just for us. There was no entry fee, no lines to wait in and we didn’t have to be “this tall ^” to go on the ride. And it’s all right there when we want to do it again. Which we do.

 

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

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

 

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

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

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