Posts Tagged With: viera wetlands

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: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

“May I Take Your Order?”

When I was a teenager, you knew you had achieved a true milestone in life when you got your first car. It might not have actually been “yours” since your parents likely sent the bank a monthly sum for the privilege of letting you drive the thing. And it probably wasn’t exactly fresh out of the factory either. Which is why there was a class in high school called “auto shop”. Way back then cars were still mechanically simple enough that a few hand tools and enough oil could nurse most vehicles through a couple of years. Prior to this significant event, you were relegated to riding with someone who did have a car (immediately elevating them to the status of “best friend”) or suffering the ultimate ignominy – gulp – riding your bicycle. Once you achieved “car owner” status, one of the requirements was to be seen in the new machine on Friday nights after the football game at the Drive-In. Hamburgers, French fries, a frosted mug of root beer – all brought right to your car and affixed to the window of YOUR CAR on a tray – life was good.

Then came the Drive-Thru. Our planet’s quality of life has declined ever since.

At first, it was a wonderful experience. Drive up, tell the speaker what you want, pick up your food and go – where? Home. Open the bag. Eat your food. Throw away the bag. No one saw you in your cool car. You didn’t visit with your friends. You became surly if the “fast food” wasn’t ready fast enough. As a culture, we became impatient with everything. Quick service replaced quality service in every facet of our lives. The trend continues.

So it was with a huge dose of skepticism and trepidation that I first visited a location touted as a “drive-thru nature experience”. Yikes! Will there be a clown taking my order for which birds I want to see?

I have written a few times here about the truly wonderful Viera Wetlands (officially known as the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands) located near Florida’s east coast in Brevard County. It takes us about an hour-and-a-half to get there but it’s worth it to be able to experience the diversity of life in the area. Part of Brevard County’s water treatment efforts, the wetlands consists of 200 acres and includes four “cells” of about 35 acres each and a central lake. The cells are of differing depths to attract a variety of wildlife including thousands of migrating waterfowl each winter. There are berms around the facility which can be driven, biked or hiked. (See the link below for a number to call and check the condition of the roads as they are often closed during the rainy season. They can be accessed by foot almost any time.) More and more communities are beginning to follow this model for water treatment facilities and we hope it will be as successful as this one. What a wonderful boon to those who are not physically capable of hiking who can now enjoy nature just outside the car window!

Gini and I visited the wetlands this spring and were treated to a very healthy dose of pure Nature. Although our species list of birds (40) was less than prior trips we had some pretty neat highlights: two dozen Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, over a dozen Anhinga and Great Blue Herons (most nesting and/or with juveniles), almost 250 American Coot, several migratory Marsh Wrens, Savannah Sparrows and Swamp Sparrows, a couple of calling King Rails and a half dozen Least Bitterns.

Following our picnic lunch, we paid a visit to Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area, near Christmas, Florida. This is a huge area (almost 31,000 acres) bordered by the Indian River and has over 60 miles of trails to explore. It was late in the day and we didn’t get to do a lot of birding but sure found a host of beautiful blooms!

Photographs can’t really do justice to the experience of all we found, so, you’ll just have to go and see for yourself!

 

Old palm tree stumps make good potential nesting sites for Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

 

Many of the palm trees in the wetlands were in use as nesting platforms by Great Blue Herons. This parent was very attentive to its chick and when Junior raised his head for a better look at this grand-paparazzo, Mama placed a foot on his head and gently persuaded him to keep a lower profile.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron - Juvenile

Great Blue Heron – Juvenile

 

Great Blue Heron - Juvenile

Great Blue Heron – Juvenile

 

Nest building and decoration were the order of the day. Here, an Anhinga moves a newly harvested green twig for better Feng shui. Below, four young Anhinga juveniles impatiently await someone to bring fish for breakfast. (Did you know young Anhinga were almost all white?)

Anhinga

Anhinga

Anhinga

Anhinga

 

For me, Least Bitterns are usually heard but seldom seen. I felt fortunate to actually spot three different individuals today.

Least Bittern

Least Bittern

 

Least Bittern

Least Bittern

Least Bittern

Least Bittern

 

A Great Blue Heron is called a wading bird for a reason. This one didn’t get the memo and attempts to swim after a meal. He soon realized those long legs weren’t long enough and when he regained solid footing took off for the shallow end of the pool.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

 

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

 

Pacing like an expectant father in a maternity ward, a Crested Caracara waits for a Softshell Turtle to finish laying eggs. The turtle nest was adjacent to the road and passing traffic flushed the hungry Caracara. We don’t know if he returned. (This bird has appeared in our blog previously. See: East Coast Adventure and Crested Caracara – An Update. We found out this guy was originally banded/ringed here at Viera Wetlands on October 16, 2006 and was estimated to be two years old at that time. He’s still here which underscores one of the traits of this species which is being very site faithful.)

Crested Caracara, Softshell Turtle

Crested Caracara, Softshell Turtle

 

Only seen here during migration, a Savannah Sparrow forages for seeds and insects.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

 

Yes, it’s one more picture of an American Alligator. This one shows off the results of excellent dental hygiene.

American Alligator

American Alligator

 

At Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area, we found Ying and Yang the twin turtles (Florida Peninsula Cooter).

Florida Peninsula Cooter (Pseudemys floridana peninsularis)

Florida Peninsula Cooter (Pseudemys floridana peninsularis)

 

As we drove toward the Indian River along a very dusty dirt road, it seemed every few feet displayed a different type flower. In a wet section shaded by oak and bay trees was a large section of Lizard’s Tail.

Lizard's Tail (Saururus cernuus)

Lizard’s Tail (Saururus cernuus)

 

In a more prairie-like area we found the showy Largeflower Rosegentian.

Largeflower Rosegentian (Sabatia grandiflora)

Largeflower Rosegentian (Sabatia grandiflora)

 

Near the ground peeking out from leaves of larger plants was the very small but bright Narrowleaf Blue-eyed Grass.

Narrowleaf Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium)

Narrowleaf Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium)

 

Eastern False Dragonhead is also known as Obedient Flower, due to the fact a flower can be turned to face a different direction and it will stay there instead of returning to its original position.

Eastern False Dragonhead (Physostegia purpurea)

Eastern False Dragonhead (Physostegia purpurea)

 

Almost anywhere there was standing water we saw the beautiful Prairie Iris, also called Dixie Iris.

Prairie Iris (Iris hexagona)

Prairie Iris (Iris hexagona)

 

In water that was shallow and not moving, a blanket of yellow signified the presence of carnivorous Bladderwort. The damselfly on this bloom is probably too large to worry about being devoured.

Damselfly On Floating Bladderwort

Damselfly On Floating Bladderwort

 

We had a fantastic day with birds, babies and blooms and we didn’t even have to get out of the car. Don’t be afraid to explore your local drive-thru nature center and maybe order up a Crested Cararcara with a side of Least Bittern!

 

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

 

Additional Information

Viera Wetlands

Tosohatchee WMA

 

Linking to Stewart’s “Wild Bird Wednesday”.  See more birds from around the world at Paying ReadyAttention for

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel, Wildflowers | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 37 Comments

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