Otterly Fantastic (and more)

The heron and the otter are my friends

And we are all connected to each other

In a circle, in a hoop that never ends!

~Carl Binder

A few days after our virtual program outing, I decided to make a day trip to the refuges for some quiet time watching wildlife. I headed out last Friday about 6 a.m. and pulled into the Pungo Unit on what started as an overcast, drizzly morning. A refuge worker was just beginning to grade D-Canal road and there was a long row of debris in what would be the right lane of the dirt road. I veered over to the left, which turned out to be fortunate, as it gave me a better view down into the canal. As I passed what I call “New Bear Road”, I spotted movement in the canal. It was three River Otters, my second group of these amazing animals that week. They did their typical otter thing of undulating motions in the water while glancing up at me as I was trying to ease the truck into position for a photo. One otter suddenly emerged on the far bank with a decent-sized fish in its mouth. It moved quickly to subdue it while tossing its head back and forth and chomping down on the fish (it looked like a young Bowfin). The low light, their quick movements, and my excitement at seeing the otters, made for less than ideal images, so many of the shots are blurred. But, I enjoyed watching the one otter claim its catch and turn away when others came too close.

River Otter chowing down on a Bowfin caught in a canal on the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

Here’s a brief clip showing the otter enjoying its breakfast (and not wanting to share with another otter)…

The otters eventually swam to my side of the canal, making them difficult to see from he truck, so I slipped out to look where I last saw their ripples. They were gone! There is a large culvert under the road right there so I guessed they had swam under the road and disappeared into the much smaller canal leading away from the road. I looked, but didn’t see them…were they still under the road? I went back and forth a couple of times looking and finally saw them about a hundred feet away looking back at me. Nice move on their part!

I continued driving down towards “Bear Road”, but saw several cars already there, so I decided to forego scratching my bear itch for the time being. I headed over to spend some time with the swans at Marsh A and saw a car stopped in the middle of the road with a photographer out looking into the flooded swamp along the canal. I didn’t want to disturb whatever she was seeing, so I stopped and looked down the road with my binoculars. Otter again! And again, three of them. I seriously doubt it was the same three otter because I was now a couple of miles from where they were last seen. The photographer finally walked back to her car and I drove on, seeing the wake of the otters as they swam down the canal and in and out of the trees. They kept diving and swimming great distances, their pathway marked by a trail of air bubbles at the surface.

An otter cruising the canal

Then one would suddenly pop up, scan around, snort, and then take off underwater once again. I took a few photos and then drove on, leaving them to their otter doings

Two otters keeping a wary eye on me as they swim the forested edge of the canal

The gray skies and almost no wind made for some nice views of swans at Marsh A. I have found that if I park near the edges of the flock I have more time to view the swans by myself (most photographers go to where the flock is most dense), which causes them to relax more and just do what they do. I also stay in the vehicle, which causes less concern for any nearby birds. A group of three swans were close to the road and after I stopped, they settled back down and started napping again, with an occasional stretch for good measure.

Tundra Swan resting in soft light
Elegance
Not so elegant

As usual, I could have stayed all day with the swans, but the sun started to pop out making the light much less appealing for images, and I wanted to head to Mattamuskeet to see what I might find over there. I’m always amazed at how different the wildlife can be in a place at different times. At Mattamuskeet, the waterfowl were further out in the marsh now compared to our virtual program day, and things were much quieter – no eagles scaring up the ducks, no kingfisher in its usual spot, but there was a nice Great Blue Heron standing quietly on a log.

A Great Blue Heron looking serene at Mattamuskeet

A large flock of American Coot were crowded in the canal along Wildlife Drive, feeding on submerged aquatic vegetation. I sat with them a few minutes, listening and watching their antics. Here is a brief clip…

On my way back out, I spotted an Anhinga on a log in the canal. I drove by and parked, and, next thing I know, it comes swimming by me, with only half its neck and head above water. Snake bird is an apt moniker as that skinny neck bobs back and forth just above the water as they swim.

Anhinga swimming with just its neck above water. Like Pied-billed Grebes, Anhingas can submerge without diving, much like a submarine, by regulating their buoyancy. As I watched, the long neck and dagger-like bill seemed to just slide under the water as it swam.

After another trip around Wildlife Drive, I came back to that downed log, hoping for another chance at one of two Anhingas I had seen. I got lucky and had what I think was an adult female on the log along with a few Double-crested Cormorants. It was busy sunning as I pulled up. Like the cormorants, Anhingas frequently display this wing-spreading behavior. Cormorants have a dense insulating layer of waterproof feathers against their skin, so wing-spreading is believed to be primarily for drying out their wing feathers. Anhingas, on the other hand, lack that insulating layer and have a different micro-structure to their feathers which allows water to penetrate through and decrease their buoyancy. This allows them to swim and hunt with most of their body submerged. And, in Anhingas, the wing-spreading is believed to be more for thermoregulation.

Anhinga with wings spread and a Double-crested Cormorant in the background

The sunning log was partially hidden from view by some tall vegetation between the edge of the canal and where I was parked. By slowly opening the truck door and standing on the running board with the camera resting on top of the open door, I was able to get some nice shots of this beautifully patterned bird as it preened.

The large fan-shaped tail resembles that of a Wild Turkey, giving rise to another common name for this unusual bird – Water Turkey
Close up of Anhinga preening

As is common with me, I took way to many photos of the Anhinga, so the sun was starting its downward trajectory when I headed back to Pungo for the last couple of hours of my trip. Though I really wanted to see bears, there were once again just too many cars and people at Bear Road, so I opted for some more quality time with the swans. The lighting was very different in the afternoon but I always enjoy the sights and sounds of these wonderful waterfowl.

The elegant wing flap

The scene created some beautiful swan watching…

All of the corn in the fields near the refuge entrance had been knocked down for the birds since our trip earlier in the week, so I headed up there for sunset, hoping some Tundra Swans or Snow Geese would fly in for a late feeding (and hoping to see a bear). It wasn’t long until I heard them and then saw the sky filling with the silhouettes of a few thousand Snow Geese headed my way. As is common early in the season, they seemed very wary, and flew circles around the corn field a few times before starting to drop in to feed.

Snow Geese headed for the corn field for a late snack

After feeding for about 20 minutes, something startled them and they took to the sky, flying around a few times before heading back to the lake for the night. Here is a brief clip of one of the sights and sounds that make this place so special.

One Town’s Waste is Another Species’ Treasure

Without a doubt, the highlight of my trip to Florida to visit cool birding sites and see lots of birds…..was to a wastewater treatment “plant”. It seems as though it is common practice, at least in that part of Florida, to create wetlands as part of wastewater treatment for municipalities. The benefits to humans are obvious, but the resulting impoundments (they call them “cells”) and wetlands create incredible habitat for a huge variety of species. I read about a birding hot spot called the Viera Wetlands (now officially known as the Rich Grissom Memorial Wetlands, in honor of a long-time county employee) and decided to head down there after my first afternoon at Merritt Island.

Viera Wetlands habitat 1

Rich Grissom Memorial Wetlands habitat

This wildlife-rich habitat is part of Brevard County‚Äôs wastewater reuse system. According to the literature on the site, reclaimed water is “wastewater effluent that has been highly treated and filtered, resulting in a high quality water suitable for lawn irrigation and many other purposes”. It opened to the public in 2000 and has been a popular spot for photographers, bird watchers, and people that just like to hike or bike in a “natural” setting ever since (an estimated 60,000 visitors per year come to this site).

The area consists of 200 acres divided by berms into four cells (ponds) around a central lake. Dirt roads follow the berms around the wetlands and allow visitors to photograph from their cars or by hiking around the various ponds. I was told it takes about a year for the water to pass through the system. There are also two large ponds nearby, known as the Click Ponds, that are very productive. This is especially true when the water level is lowered, creating shallow pools and large mud flats that are attractive to many shorebirds, American White Pelicans, and Sandhill Cranes.

Anhinga on palm trunk - head tucked 1

Anhinga on palm trunk (click on photos to enlarge)

Anhinga on palm trunk - wings spread

Anhinga soaking up the morning sun

The sun was clearing the horizon as I drove through the gate, and I could see several cars already driving along the berms. My first bird was a classic Florida species, an Anhinga. Also known as Water-Turkeys or Snake-birds, Anhingas dive into shallow water and spear fish with their insanely pointed bill. This one at first had its head tucked into its back feathers, but, as I watched, it raised its head and then spread those boldly-patterned wings and assumed that classic Anhinga pose. Welcome to Florida. The next day and a half produced many memorable moments and close up observations of a variety of birds and other wildlife. Below are some of my favorites…

Common Gallinule 1

Common Gallinules are, indeed, common here

Common Gallinule calling

And they are very vocal

Blue-winged Teal pair on log

A number of species of waterfowl winter here, including Blue-winged Teal

Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorants have a similar look and lifestyle to Anhingas. Note the intense green eyes.

Tricolored Heron and reflection

Tricolored Heron and reflection

White Ibis on palm trunk

I overheard someone referring to the abundant White Ibis as “Florida chickens”

Ring-necked Duck pair

Hen and drake Ring-necked Ducks. I was close enough to actually see the brownish ring on the neck, for which this bird is so poorly named. Many duck hunters call them Ring-Billed Ducks, a much better name, in my opinion.

Hooded Merganser male with crayfish

Hooded Merganser male with crayfish

Hooded Merganser female

Hooded Merganser female

Glossy Ibis scratching

Glossy Ibis after a good neck scratch

American Bittern in reeds

American Bittern, blending in, as usual

Cattle Egret

Unlike most other waders, Cattle Egrets tend to forage along the roadside edges of the marsh as opposed to the water edges

Greater Yellowlegs and reflection

Greater Yellowlegs and reflection at the nearby Click Ponds

With all the open water and marsh edges, there are a lot of “water birds” to see. In addition to the abundance and variety of birds in Florida, I had heard that they tend to be much more approachable than what we typically find in my home state. And that was definitely the case at Viera Wetlands.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warblers were very common

Red-bellied Woodpecker on palm trunk

Red-bellied Woodpecker male on palm trunk

There were many non-water birds as well. When the temperatures warmed a little one afternoon, I could see plenty of small insects on the move, providing ample tasty treats for the many Palm Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers that were flitting about.

Tree Swallows on island

Tree Swallows on island

At one point I stopped to watch hundreds of Tree Swallows as they flapped restlessly on a marshy island.

Tree Swallows

Tree Swallows starting to move

Tree Swallows on island 1

Tree Swallows taking off

Suddenly, the entire flock was swept away by some unseen cue, and they disappeared over adjoining forest. Hundreds would occasionally swoop and swerve over the wetlands and the open water at the Click Ponds, snagging thousands of flying insects as they went.

Loggerhead Shrike on reed 1

Loggerhead Shrike

Red-shouldered Hawk 1

Red-shouldered Hawk

Bald Eagle calling

Bald Eagle calling

Bald Eagle in flight

Bald Eagle in flight

With all the wildlife in the wetlands, there are naturally a number of predators patrolling the area in search of the unwary or weak. I saw quite a few Red-shouldered Hawks and Loggerhead Shrikes, and just missed one of the hawks flying off with a snake. A nearby Bald Eagle nest brought frequent fly-overs of the adult eagles, which always sent the waterfowl and shorebirds into a panic.

Alligator head

Alligator head

River Otter napping 1

River Otter napping on one of the berms

And non-avian predators are also abundant. The cold temperatures kept Alligators relatively hidden, but I did see a couple of small ones (the county has started trapping the larger Alligators for safety concerns with the huge increase in visitation and added presence of small children and dogs). One River Otter is so accustomed to people that it regularly naps in a dirt bowl it created alongside the road, always drawing a crowd of admirers.

Two days at a man-made wildlife paradise that also serves as a functioning water reclamation facility…who knew that could be so special. I will definitely be going back, perhaps later this spring, to see what this incredible place can share in a different season.

Sandhill Cranes in flight

Sandhill Cranes calling as they fly over on my last day

Cranes at sunset

In a scene reminiscent of my trip to Bosque del Apache, Sandhill Cranes fly in at sunset at the Click Ponds

Sunset Click Ponds

A beautiful sunset at the Click Ponds