Posts Tagged With: horned grebe

At The Edge Of The Final Frontier

The transition from night into day is a subtle process. Our eyes perceive only that which artificial illumination permits. Beyond the edge of the bright headlamps of the car is – nothing. Just a few minutes ago, there were things familiar to us bathed in the glow of their own artificial lighting. Traffic lights, a gas station, hotel, shopping center, airplanes on approach to a multicolored-lit runway. As we zipped eastward to embrace the dawn, we traversed a vast marsh. Peering through the side window revealed – the bottom of an inkwell. Soon, shadows took shape on all sides. In front of us was a barely perceptible line of dark blue. Another mile and below the dark blue was a lighter shade of blue with a very pale pink border. An orange glow began to consume the center of our field of forward vision and almost immediately we could see that sliver of star which warms our planet to a perfectly habitable degree.

Today we were exploring the northern reaches of the Indian River. (See the previous post, Learning Something New, for what we found to the south.) The primary target of our adventure is the vast Merritt Island National Wildlife Reserve and neighboring Canaveral National Seashore. Encompassing over 140,000 acres (56,656 ha.), the area has a tremendous diversity of habitat and wildlife. Click on the link under Additional Information below to get a small idea of the possibilities.

Some of this region’s first human inhabitants were the Ais Indians. Primarily hunter/gatherers, the Ais likely had their first encounter with westerners during the 16th century as the Spanish explored and mapped the area. Indeed, the Spanish noted on their maps the Rio de Ais, which probably became River of the Indians and was eventually shortened to Indian River. These native Floridians inhabited the peninsula along with at least five other major Indian nations until contact with westerners brought disease and slavery to the territory. This and continued warring with neighboring tribes contributed to the Ais’ demise and the last record of them was in the early 1700’s.

Fast forward two-hundred years. After the end of World War II, America was developing long-range missiles and needed a place larger than White Sands, New Mexico for testing. The Atlantic Ocean is pretty big. At the time, not much of anyone was interested in living along the mosquito-infested upper reaches of the Indian River. Thus, in the area of an old light house at Cape Canaveral, a space program was born.

As we gazed in awe at yet another spectacular sunrise, it was stirring to think about a young Ais armed with his spear tipped with a hook carved from a deer hoof, pulling a fat mullet from the water just as the same orange ball broke this same horizon. The bright orb matches the color of the powerful rocket thrusters which carried the first humans to our moon, launched from this spot. Thinking of both events makes me feel humble.

The sun was up. There were birds to be seen. Fortified with one of Florida’s juiciest oranges and a swig of hot coffee, we saw birds. Lots of birds. Alongside the Atlantic Ocean, Merritt Island Refuge is dotted with marshes, ponds, stands of hardwood and pine, hammocks and beaches. Paradise for migrating as well as resident birds. Paradise for birders, too!

In a place such as this, a single day cannot possibly do justice to all that can be seen here. I guess we’ll just have to keep returning. A few of the highlights: 72 total species observed, 40+ Blue-winged Teal, 60+ Northern Shoveler, 300+ Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Mottled Duck, American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Hooded Merganser, 250+ Snowy Egret, 300+ White Ibis, 40+ Roseate Spoonbill, 3000+ American Coot, 70+ American Avocet, 50+ Yellowlegs, 100+ Dunlin, 50+ Long-billed Dowitcher, 500+ Tree Swallow and 4 Reddish Egret. An embarrassment of birding riches.

Yeah. We’ll be back.

 

Even in non-breeding plumage, American Avocet are simply beautiful. They will sometimes hold just the tip of their bill in the water and filter small morsels, or probe deeper along the bottom as they sweep their bills back and forth.

American Avocet

American Avocet

American Avocet

American Avocet

 

It is estimated there are fewer than 2,000 pairs of Reddish Egrets remaining in the U.S. This large egret has both a dark (reddish) and white form. No matter what color it is, it’s feeding behavior is quite distinct. The bird will run through shallow water hoping to scare a fish, walk slowly and reach out with one foot and “stir” the mud, stand still with wings outstretched to provide shade for fish, spin around in one spot to try and scare up a meal or hop up out of the water entirely and splash back down. These guys are a lot of fun to watch.

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

 

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

 

The Snowy Egret may not go through quite as many antics as her big red brother, but even on a bad hair day she gets the job done.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

 

Some of our winter visitors, the Hooded Merganser and family, enjoy the warm shallow waters of the Sunshine State.

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

 

A pair of Lesser Yellowlegs surprised me by jumping up from the mangroves and I was only able to snap a quick shot of their departure.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

 

Not a clear photograph, but I’m happy to get any shot of a Northern Harrier during the short time they visit us in the winter. This one has what appears to be a shorebird leg in his beak.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

 

Sunlight reveals a whole spectrum of colors on the Northern Shoveler. Another migrant, it’s hard to miss this bird’s unique silhouette.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

 

This Forster’s Tern objected, loudly, to me standing along the shoreline snapping photographs. I finally took one of HIM and he left me alone.

Forster's Tern

Forster’s Tern

 

The large Royal Tern can be identified from the similar Caspian Tern by an orangish (instead of deep red) bill and a mostly clear (instead of black) forehead.

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

 

Even in winter, butterflies abound. This Great Southern White will only live five or six days. There were so many in some areas it looked like snow falling.

Great Southern White  (Ascia monuste monuste)

Great Southern White (Ascia monuste monuste)

 

American White Pelicans exhibit “cooperative feeding”. They work together to “herd” a school of fish to a certain area and almost in unison plunge down to fill their large pouches. It all resembles a choreographed ballet. Minus the swans.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

 

Roseate Spoonbills are pretty at any time of year. However, as breeding season nears all their colors become deeper and their head and breasts take on additional markings.

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

 

Banded Water Snake is on the lunch menu for this Great Blue Heron. The big bird tries to kill the snake by bashing it on the ground before swallowing it whole.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

 

In the middle of a construction equipment storage yard, we spotted a Great Horned Owl sitting on a nest atop a utility pole. Soon there will be the pitter-pat of little talons.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

 

We apparently found a favorite wintering spot for the Northern Pintail. Over 300 birds were busily feeding in the late afternoon in a large open water area. A very handsome bird.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

 

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

 

A Ring-necked Duck, riding low in the water, doesn’t see what’s so special about these Pintails.

Northern Pintail, Ring-necked Duck

Northern Pintail, Ring-necked Duck

 

As we reluctantly headed home at the end of the day, a wintering Horned Grebe popped up from a small bay to say good-bye.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

 

The last rays of the sun warmed a group of Black Skimmers on the beach all huddled together for the night. Sounds like a good idea.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

 

We hope to return soon for another overdose of birding! Whether you are interested in history, enjoy birding or are fascinated with space exploration, visit Merritt Island if you possibly can!

(Huh? I don’t know. Soon. — Gini is punching me in the side wanting to know when we can go again. Sigh.)

 

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

 

Additional Information

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 38 Comments

If You Can’t Find The Bird You Want, Want The Bird You Find

(With apologies to Stephen Stills and Clifton George Bailey.)

 

Although we don’t often respond to “rare bird alerts”, it does happen occasionally.  This wasn’t actually a “response”.  A friend called and asked if I’d like to go birding and we decided to go to the coast and see if we could locate the Bar-tailed Godwit which had been seen for the past two weeks.  (See – not exactly an urgent “response”!)  It would be a life bird for both of us.

Our target was Fred Howard County Park in Tarpon Springs (Pinellas County), just north of Clearwater.  The park is a pleasant place to visit any time and has a nice beach, great picnic areas under large pine trees and plenty of facilities to make a family outing a success.

The good news about visiting the beach in winter is there aren’t too many beachgoers.  The bad news about visiting the beach in winter is, well, it’s winter.  Wind chill can be brutal!

We knew we were in the right place as the shoreline was dotted with lumps in down-filled jackets and ski caps all bearing enough optical gear to make the shareholders of Canon, Nikon and Swarovski rub their collective hands together in glee.  Happily, the shoreline was also crowded with smaller lumps wearing their own down.  Of course, the guest of honor had yet to make an appearance.

Not willing to commit to standing and shivering for hours, we decided to explore the beach for other goodies and figured we would know if the Bar-tailed Godwit showed up as the crowd would likely go wild.  We were rewarded with quite a variety of birds and left quite happy.

We visited three other areas in the vicinity and had a great day along the coast despite not seeing the object of our trip.  Worth exploring are:  Robert K. Rees County Park, Anclote Gulf County Park and William E. Dunn Water Reclamation Facility.  The latter is where we found over 1500 Redhead Ducks.

On our way home, we stopped in at Ben T. Davis Beach (at the western end of Courtney Campbell Causeway, Hillsborough County) and found a nice collection of shorebirds at dusk preparing to roost for the night.

Some of the highlights of the day included the aforementioned large group of Redheads, a large number of Common Loons at each stop we made, large numbers of Marbled Godwits, Willets and Black Skimmers, a half-dozen Red Knots and a flock of Nanday Parakeets.

 

A few photographs survived my cold and shaky hands.

 

Wintering Redheads found a refuge in the protected area of Tarpon Springs’ water treatment facility.  There were also a few Lesser Scaup, Northern Shoveler, Ring-necked Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Ruddy Duck, Bufflehead, Pied-Billed Grebe, Gulls and Terns here.

Redhead

Redhead

 

A Red-breasted Merganser was busy feeding under a fishing pier, oblivious to the dozens of people stomping overhead.

Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

 

This Anhinga will eat well after spearing a delicious Mangrove Snapper!  It’s really interesting to be able to watch from above as this large bird dives for fish, using its wide tail as a rudder to abruptly change directions.  The bird eventually positioned the fish to toss it into the air and swallowed it head first so it wouldn’t be stuck by the fish’s dorsal fins.

Anhinga

Anhinga

 

An Osprey flies away with a Needlefish for brunch.

Osprey With Needlefish

Osprey With Needlefish

 

Horned Grebes were actively feeding but were some distance from shore, making a decent photograph (for me) a challenge.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

 

This winter has seen an uncommon number of Common Loons.  They were numerous at each stop we made along the coast.

Common Loon

Common Loon

 

A Great-blue Heron seemed to take perverse pleasure in marching through groups of resting shorebirds.  He walked through the same group of birds six times in about ten minutes.

Black Skimmer, Great Blue Heron, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull

Black Skimmer, Great Blue Heron, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull

 

Black Skimmers look for a suitable landing area after flying in from the Gulf of Mexico.  Once they settled down, they fixed their gaze on me.  I backed away and left them in peace.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

 

Not very common is the Piping Plover.  This little fellow simply wouldn’t turn around for a better photo.

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

 

Another not-so-common species in our area is the Red Knot.  Up the beach from this one, I found one with a leg band and flag.  After submitting its identification number, I discovered he was originally caught and banded in New Jersey six years ago and has wintered on the same beach (Ben T. Davis) every year since.  He normally stops in August and September along the central Georgia coast.

Red Knot

Red Knot

 

With such a large bill, preening must be a challenge for the Black Skimmer.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

 

Marbled Godwits and Willets settle down for the night.  A close-up shows a comparison in their bill design.

Marbled Godwit, Willet

Marbled Godwit, Willet

Marbled Godwit, Willet

Marbled Godwit, Willet

 

American Oystercatchers hunt for a late evening snack as the tide begins to recede.

American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatcher

 

Flashes of bright green caught our eye as Nanday Parakeets began to gather for their nightly roost.  Also known as the Black-hooded Parakeet and in the pet trade as Nanday Conure, this species has settled along the central-west coast of Florida after escaping or being released over a period of several decades.  It’s estimated that over 1,000 birds now exist in the wild in Florida.

Nanday Parakeet

Nanday Parakeet

Nanday Parakeet

Nanday Parakeet

 

 

So, we never did see the Bar-tailed Godwit.  We did, however, see an incredible number and variety of beautiful birds, breathed in fresh salty air, walked in sugar-white sand and found some new places which will be more fully explored in the future.

 

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

 

Additional Information

Fred Howard Park

Robert K. Rees County Park

Anclote Gulf County Park

William E. Dunn Water Reclamation Facility

Ben T. Davis Beach

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 33 Comments

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