More than his Belican

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the helican!

~Dixon Lanier Merritt

white pelican and friends

American White Pelican and friends at the Click Ponds (click photos to enlarge)

American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) are always a treat to see. When I first moved to North Carolina over 30 years ago, the only place I ever saw them was an occasional one out on the Outer Banks. In the past decade or so they have become more predictable in winter at places like Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. On my recent Florida trip, I had seen a few fly over at Merritt Island NWR but was pleased to find a large flock roosting and feeding on the Click Ponds, part of the water reclamation complex in Viera.

white pelicans three

American White Pelicans

I spent a couple of hours one day watching them as they flew in and out of the pond, rested, preened, and gracefully fed in their unique fashion. Unlike our more familiar Brown Pelican, which plunges headfirst into waters to capture fish, this species uses a graceful, almost ballet-like motion, to scoop up fish in shallow water. In very shallow water, they turn their head sideways, stretch out their neck with mouth agape, and plunge their bill into the water.

white pelican feeding 1

American White Pelican feeding in shallow water

white pelican feeding

A pelican pulling its beak back before squeezing out the excess water and gulping any captured fish

Here is a very short video clip showing their unique feeding behavior. They will often work cooperatively to herd fish and then plunge their beaks into the water to scoop up a meal.

And, in fact, a pelican’s bill can hold more than its belly – their large bill pouch can hold about 3 gallons of water, and their stomach only about a gallon! Pelicans have a great deal of control over their pouch – a set of tongue muscles controls movement of the pouch skin, so they can tighten it and expel water after scooping up fish. They can also cool themselves off by gular fluttering, a strange-looking flapping of the pouch skin that functions much like a dog panting. I have seen this on the young of Brown Pelicans in NC on a hot summer day when I helped band them with the Audubon Society over 25 years ago.

white pelican pouch stretch 3

Pelican pouch

But the most amazing thing I saw these pelicans do with their pouch was what can only be described as pelican pouch yoga – a series of bizarre stretches and gapes. I saw several do this maneuver, one that they can do quickly, so I was only able to capture the sequence on one bird. They start by stretching the pouch over their breast, then stand up and point skyward and snap their bill while having the pouch wide open. Very strange indeed.

white pelican pouch stretch 2

Pelican pouch stretch

white pelican pouch stretch

Stretching the pouch over the breast

white pelican pouch stretch vertical

The final upward stretch with bill agape

I guess this could be considered a part of their preening routine, something that these pelicans spent considerable time doing while I watched.

white pelican preening

Preening under the wing

white pelicans preening

Twisting and turning to preen

white pelicans

A trio of preening pelicans

Pelicans kept flying in from a large group in the center of the pond to the group closer to the small area of open water near me, so I was able to watch their graceful wing beats and landing approach with feet down, skidding to a stop as they skated across the surface. With wing spans of 9 feet (second only to the California Condor amongst North American birds), they take up a lot of space as they glide in and take off.

white pelican landing approach

Landing approach with feet down

white pelican landing

Touch down and skid to a stop

white pelicans  landing

A pair of pelicans as they land

Having watched these magnificent birds in Yellowstone, I was happy to have a chance to spend an afternoon in close proximity to appreciate their unique adaptations and interesting behaviors. I look forward to my next encounter.

white pelican pair one walking

American White Pelicans at the Click Ponds in Viera, FL

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

In a Fog

In nature, everything has a job. The job of the fog is to beautify further the existing beauties!

~Mehmet Murat ildan

Spider web with dew

Spider web in lifting fog at Viera Wetlands (click photos to enlarge)

I just got back from a whirlwind trip south to the so-called Space Coast area of Florida. I have always wanted to visit Florida in winter to see the bird life and now finally have the time to do it, although I still only managed to visit a few key places. I will post a few blogs over the next week on what I found, but wanted to start with a short post on my last two mornings. I had watched the weather and picked a week when conditions looked good for photography, so you can imagine my initial disappointment when my last two mornings were heavily socked in by fog.

Sandhill Cranes in fog

Sandhill Cranes in fog at one of the “Click Ponds”, Viera, FL

At first, I viewed the fog as a thief of the light, stealing the precious few hours of prime low-angle light that can make all the difference in a wildlife photo. The Sandhill Cranes I had hoped to photograph with the golden light of sunrise on their feathers were not much more than dark blobs in the mist. But, as I was in a place full of wildlife and I wanted to observe and photograph, I decided to move to the other side of the wetland pool and shoot into the sun that was struggling to make its presence known. Most of the cranes had already left by the time I got to the other side, but there were plenty of other subjects. So, here are some images of birds silhouetted by the rising sun as it tried to burn through the dense ground-hugging cloud. See if you can identify the birds by shape – there may be some repeats (answers are at the end of this post).

Great Egret hunting in fog

White pelicans in fog 2

Anhinga in fogBald Eagle in fog

White Pelicans and Tree Swallows in fog

You have seen one of these already – what is the other species in this image?

Great and Snowy Egrets in fog

Nice comparison

Tri-colored Heron in fog

Mixed flock of waders in fog

Now that you have had some practice….

Okay, here are the answers to the quiz:

Great Egret

American White Pelicans

Anhinga

Bald Eagle

American White Pelicans with a flock of Tree Swallows

Great Egret with Snowy Egret

Tricolored Heron

Great Blue Heron, three Great Egrets, two Snowy Egrets, four Greater Yellowlegs, White Ibis

Here are a few more images from the hour or so the fog coated the landscape…

White Pelican landing in fog 1

American White Pelican landing

Tri-colored Heron preening in fog

Tricolored Heron preening

White pelicans in fog 1

American White Pelicans in fog

Great Egret in fog

Great Egret and Greater Yellowlegs

White Pelicans as fog lifts

American White Pelicans as fog lifts

Grass seed heads in fog

Grass seed heads laden with moisture from lifting fog