Sunset Birds

Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty, if only we have the eyes to see them.

~John Ruskin

While we saw a variety of wildlife on our Florida adventure, I was a bit surprised we had not seen as many birds as I had hoped. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it has been a wet winter in South Florida, which apparently causes the birds to be more spread out than usual during the winter months.

great egret preening

Great egret preening in Big Cypress

There had been plenty of scattered sightings (and some great views) of egrets, herons, hawks, and song birds, but no large concentrations. On our last evening in Florida, I was hoping to change all that. On the advice of our kayak tour company, I had booked a sunset boat tour with Allure Adventures out of Everglades City. I was told Captain Kent was a long-time local that took small groups out to the mangrove islands at sunset with the chance of seeing lots of birds coming to roost, beautiful skies, and maybe even dolphins and sea turtles. He lived up to the promotion.

manatee sign

A nice Florida combo – osprey nest on a manatee zone sign in the channel

We met him at at the dock at 5:45 p.m., boarded his small boat, and headed out into the area known as Ten Thousand Islands. Close to shore we saw pelicans, a few egrets, some cormorants, and passed by a couple of osprey nests.

rooskery islands 1

One of several mangrove islands filled with birds coming to roost at sunset

Within a few minutes, we saw a cluster of mangrove islands dotted with birds, lots of birds.

Great egret coming to roost

Great egrets settling in for the night

As our boat slowly circled the islands, I could see hundreds of great egrets, brown pelicans, white ibis, cormorants, and other species jostling for position as more of their kind flew in to roost for the evening.

Brown pelican at roost

Adult born pelican surveying us as we cruise by the island

brown pelican head close up

Adults have yellow heads and white necks; immature pelicans are gray-brown on their head and neck

Boats are required to stay a certain distance away from the roosting birds so as to not disturb them. Our slow speed, the calm waters, and a telephoto lens (plus a cropped image) allowed great views and close-ups.

red mangrove on sandy beach

The last mangrove island before the vast expanse of the Gulf of Mexico

Promising we would return before sunset, the captain steered us out through a maze of islands until we came to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. We beached the boat and got out for a stroll for a few minutes to take in the view and immensity of the scene.

dolphins behind boat

Dolphins riding our wake

Cruising back toward the birds, we spotted a couple of sea turtles, and a small group of dolphins. As we passed through the area where the dolphins had been swimming, the captain said they often like to “play” with the boat. Sure enough, it wasn’t long until we had dorsal fins trailing in the wake of our boat, with dolphins taking turns leaping out of the water behind us.

I’m not sure who enjoyed it more, the dolphins or us.

sunset boat tour

Cruising through the mangrove islands at sunset

We spent several minutes enjoying the company of the dolphins, but the captain soon turned the boat back toward the bird islands. The sun was setting and he wanted us to see how many more birds were now occupying the mangroves.

rooskery islands

Hundreds of birds dotted the mangroves at sunset

magrove island sunset

Birds were flying in to roost from all directions

As we approached, the trees were speckled with white and dark shapes, with more coming in from all directions.

Great egrest at sunset

Spectacular scene at sunset


White ibis at sunset

White ibis coming in to roost

The color of the sky became a flame orange as we circled the islands one last time. This was what Captain Kent wanted us to see…the bird rookery with a golden sky as a backdrop.

great egret carrying stick against orange sky 1

Some of the egrets are busy building nests in the mangroves

It was a perfect way to end our trip – calm waters, a beautiful sky, and huge numbers of birds flying in for the evening. This was what I had hoped to see, the spectacle of wild Florida. And I must also thank Captain Kent for going above and beyond the call of duty. One of our party left behind a pair of rather expensive binoculars, presumably out on the mangrove island we had walked on. The captain made a special effort to look for them on his next outing, and, amazingly, found them. They have been shipped to the owner, and we all thank him for an amazing trip, and his kindness. Now, that IS the perfect ending.


Big Cypress

If, in the name of progress, we want to destroy everything beautiful in our world, and contaminate the air we breathe, and the water we drink, then we are in trouble.

~Marjory Stoneman Douglas, in response to critics saying that conservationists were trying to halt progress in Florida by preserving Big Cypress Swamp

Big Cypress National Preserve was once called the Western Everglades, and was originally supposed to be part of the national park, but was removed from protection before the park was created in 1947. An elevation difference of 1 to 2 feet makes Big Cypress a vastly different ecosystem than the river of grass of much of the eastern portion of Everglades National Park. Big Cypress is home to deep water cypress sloughs and strands (linear cypress islands) and is underlain more by peat than the limestone deposits more common in much of the park. The result is more of a “swamp feel” than the open grass prairies we experienced on our first two days in Florida.

pond at Big Cypress Gallery

Pond behind our lodging in Big Cypress (click photos to enlarge)

It wasn’t until I returned home that I found out about the contentious history of the effort to preserve what is now Big Cypress National Preserve, the first national preserve in the United States. After the virgin cypress were essentially logged out throughout much of the region in the 1930’s and 40’s, the area was proposed as part of Everglades National Park. But, when the park was created, the lands encompassing Big Cypress were excluded. More controversy erupted in 1968, when plans were unveiled to create a huge jetport (what would have been the largest airport in the world) in part of Big Cypress. Conservationists joined the fight and the struggle went back and forth until the creation of the 720,000+ acre preserve in 1974.

sAScott leading swamp walk

Our Swamp Walk guide, Scott, pointing out an alligator at the end of our trail

When planning the trip a few months ago, I learned about some unique lodging in an in-holding in Big Cypress – the cabins at the Big Cypress Gallery of famed landscape photographer, Clyde Butcher. I have been aware of Clyde’s images for many years and he really is the Ansel Adams of the swamp. He is also an ardent conservationist, and has done a great deal to bring the beauty and plight of the region to the public’s attention. When I found out he had lodging in Big Cypress, I couldn’t resist booking it. In addition to the wonderful accommodations and surrounding property, he offers guided swamp walks for a fee. Though it is a bit pricey, I am glad we did it. Our guide, Scott, is a wonderful person (as were all the staff we met) and very knowledgeable about the plants and animals of Big Cypress. The swamp walks usually take a couple of hours. You walk with a sturdy hiking stick (they provide those) on a flooded trail behind the lodging that passes through a variety of habitats, including swamp, prairie edge, and dwarf cypress stands. There was both excitement and some slight apprehension when we began the hike, and I particularly liked Scott’s answer to the question, “how deep does it get”? He said this winter has been unusually wet, so the deepest part was 38 inches. Nothing like a precise answer! Of course, he is 6 feet 5 inches tall, so the deep water comes a little farther up on our bodies than it does on his.

Scene along the swamp walk trail

Bromeliads are very abundant in Big Cypress

We walked at a slow pace, taking in all the sights, and sounds, that the swamp had to offer. The grunting calls of pig frogs were particularly evident here as they were elsewhere on our trip. And the diversity of plant life is amazing!

dwarf cypress along swamp walk

An old growth cypress stand looks quite different than our old growth forests

At one point, the trail opened up into a mix of small cypress trees and grasses. Many of these trees are surprisingly old, stunted due to growing on the porous limestone bedrock of this particular part of Big Cypress. We saw relatively few animals until we got right to the end of the trail.

Alligator at Big Cypress 1

Large female alligator greets us at trails’ end

There, in a small pond behind one of the cabins, was a large female alligator (maybe 7 ft+ in length), along with several of her babies and a few 1 and 2 year old gators. She came over to greet us as we stepped out of the swamp onto dry ground, and hissed loudly to let us know we should not disturb her youngsters. Not to worry, we gave them a wide berth.

alligator at Big Cypress close up 1

Big mama watching us as we look back

Gators have a toothy grin when viewed through binoculars or a telephoto lens, enough so that you respect their space…

gator sign

A sign that states the obvious

and shouldn’t need to be reminded with signage:) We did all wonder what it must be like to live next to such large reptiles. I will admit, I scanned the surroundings with my flashlight more than usual when I went outside at night.



Neotropical migrant birds are beginning to appear in South Florida (and should be here in NC soon, if not already). On a short walk at our lodging, I saw Northern Parula Warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warblers, and several Ovenbirds.

sunrise kayak trip on Turner River

My kayak buddy at sunrise on the Turner River

Our first full morning in Big Cypress was spent with Shurr Adventures on their sunrise kayak tour on the Turner River Paddle Trail. I had picked this group since they were highly rated online, and I saw they do Yellowstone tours in the summer (how could I go wrong with that combo?). It turned out to be a great choice. The kayaks were very stable, with comfortable seats, and the guide was very personable and knowledgeable. The morning started out foggy, and we saw, and heard, lots of wildlife.

common moorhen

Common moorhen on the river

Green heron

This green heron allowed a close approach while it squawked its guttural call

osprey on Turner River

Osprey near its nest on the river

All sorts of bird life was active that morning, and the kayaks allowed us to get close to several species. When we headed south of the put-in point, we even got a pretty good view of one of my target species, a limpkin (unfortunately it was in thick vegetation , so not the best photo op).

two species of apple snails

Exotic apple snail (left; smaller, native apple snail (right)

Florida is awash in exotic invasive species, both plant and animal. While paddling the Turner River, we were introduced to one of the more recent invaders, the island apple snail. Believed to have been introduced by releases from the exotic pet trade, this, and a few other species of exotic apple snail, are creating real concern for scientists in the Everglades. The native Florida apple snail, Pomacea paludosa, is much smaller than this invader, and is the primary food source for the endangered snail kite. The larger size, fecundity, and voracious appetite of the invader snail, P. insularum, is cause for concern, both in terms of altering the wetlands plant community, and out-competing the native species of snail, with potentially disastrous results for the kite.

apple snail eggs - invasive sp.

Egg masses of the exotic island apple snail are pink; eggs of the native species are larger, and white

During our stay, I found one egg mass of a native apple snail, but we saw many egg masses of the invader, especially in the Big Cypress Swamp area.

mangrove tunnel on Turner River

Kayaking through a mangrove tunnel

When we headed south of the Tamiami Trail in our kayaks, the plant community changed from a cattail fringed swamp forest to an expanse of red mangrove tunnels. Kayaking through the mangroves turned out to be a lot easier than paddling a canoe through them, like we had done at Nine Mile Pond, but you did need to break down the longer kayak paddle to avoid catching it on every prop root. After finishing our morning trip, we returned to Clyde Butcher’s place for some rest and exploration. I drove out to scout our route for our final day in the area (a dirt and paved thoroughfare called the Loop Road), and came across all sorts of birds and a seemingly endless supply of alligators. If you have the time, I recommend the Loop Road as a leisurely pathway to observe some of the scenery and critters of Big Cypress. The entire wild region was a great way to relax before heading back to the hectic pace of Miami for our flight home. Below are some more images of our time in Big Cypress. I look forward to a return visit in the near future.

red-shouldered hawk

Red-shouldered hawks were seen everywhere we traveled

anhinga on limb

Anhinga along the boardwalk at the Oasis Visitor Center

Florida softshell turtle

Florida soft shell turtle along Tamiami Trail

Pied-billed grebe on Turner River

Pied-billed grebe along the Turner River

alligator black and white head

Gators in black and white…

alligator black and white body

alligator black and white tail


great blue heron

Great blue heron along the Loop Road


There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth, remote, never wholly known.

~Marjory Stoneman Douglas, author of The Everglades: River of Grass, 1947

Sitting by the fire yesterday afternoon, I can hardly believe I spent last week in the Florida heat and humidity, in one of the most extensive wild places I have ever been – Everglades National Park. Years ago, I drove across the state on I-75 (aka Alligator Alley) going from Miami to Tampa Bay, but I had never been in the park. So, it didn’t take much convincing when a group of friends asked if I wanted to join them on a trip. After flying into Miami (and getting a bit lost trying to get out of the city), it is a relatively quick drive through extensive farm fields, of every imaginable type of crop, to the sudden transition to the park.

anhinga trail

The Anhinga Trail can be crowded, but still has great wildlife (click photos to enlarge)

Our first must-see stop was the famed Anhinga Trail, on the east side of the park. It is not far from the entrance and is said to be one of the best places to see some of the park’s iconic wildlife up close and personal. And even though it was crowded with visitors (and, I am happy to report, several school groups), it did not disappoint.

double-crested cormorant head

Double-crested cormorant along the trail

After spotting an alligator near the trail head, we walked by a double-crested cormorant, standing right next to the paved trail, and panting in the 80+ degree heat. I shot several close-up photos before moving on. I must admit, I always love seeing their emerald green eyes.

double-crested cormorant feathers

Feather pattern on the cormorant

This bird was so close to the trail, and seemingly so unafraid, that it also allowed me to appreciate the delicate feather pattern on its back.

great egret head

Great egret hunting next to trail

A few feet further along, a very tame great egret was  hunting in a culvert that passed under the paved trail and spearing small fish. This time of year is the start of their breeding season and these elegant birds undergo a dramatic color change on their face – the lores (the skin between the eye and bill) turns from the usual yellow to a chartreuse green, and the bill changes from yellow to blackish-orange. They also develop long nuptial plumes, called aigrettes. These elegant feathers almost led to the extinction of egrets by plume-hunting in the early 20th century, when the feathers were used to adorn ladies’ hats. Luckily, conservation efforts helped stop the demand and the birds have recovered over much of their range.

anhinga with wings spread

An anhinga, with wings spread, along the boardwalk

Walking out on one of the boardwalk sections, we spied numerous green herons, some more alligators, and the trail’s namesake, an anhinga.  Anhingas are oddly beautiful birds that go by other names such as water turkey (their tail does resemble that of a wild turkey) and snake bird (for their habit of swimming with just their neck and head above water). This wing spreading behavior is to allow them to dry their feathers after swimming for their favorite prey, fish. Anhingas and cormorants are primitive birds that lack the oil glands to waterproof their feathers that other water-loving birds possess. During the breeding season, the skin around their eyes turns a bright blue.

halloween pennant

Halloween pennant

Probably the most common flier we saw was not a bird, but a species of dragonfly, the Halloween pennant. It is easily recognized by its distinctive wing colors – orange with dark splotches and bands. It is often seen perched atop vegetation, swaying in the wind.

blue tilapia

Blue tilapia

The clear water allowed us to see many species of fish along the canals and pools throughout the park. At the Anhinga Trail, one of the most common was baffling at first. It turned out to be an introduced exotic, the blue tilapia, native to Africa and the Middle East. These fish were everywhere in the canals and their large excavated nests were clearly visible in the dark water. South Florida is, unfortunately,  a haven for all sorts of exotic plant and animal species. A few native fish species are also very abundant and easily observed including largemouth bass, various species of sunfish, and Florida gar.

strangler fig

Strangler fig

While many of the birds and other wildlife are species that I found familiar, many of the plant species in this portion of the park are more tropical in origin, but were vaguely familiar from my museum trips to Belize years ago. One we saw throughout our travels is the bizarre strangler fig, Ficus aurea. The life cycle starts when a bird or other animal eats the fig fruit and deposits the sticky seed on the trunk of another tree. The fig often begins as an epiphyte, but soon sends roots twining down the trunk of its host to reach the soil. It then grows to the top of the host, sends down aerial roots, and leafs out in the crown of the tree, shading out the leaves of the host plant. The fig continues to develop its crown and root system, often completely enveloping, and eventually killing, the host tree.

morning canoe trip

On our second morning, I had arranged a ranger-led canoe trip at Nine Mile Pond. We had 6 canoes, plus the ranger, on a 4 hour paddle through mangrove tunnels and marshes.

nine mile pond 2

Mangroves and marshes along the paddle trail

We started with a fantastic sunrise and enjoyed numerous alligator sightings, a gentle breeze that helped with the rising heat, and blue skies punctuated by white puffy clouds.

nine mile pond alligator

Another alligator gives us the eye

The highlight for me was some serious alligator bellowing at one of our stopping points. It is the start of the gator breeding season and the big bulls bellow to attract a mate. It is one of the most impressive wild sounds in the southeast, reminding me of a roar of a lion or a bison bull.

birds at Flamingo

Can you find and identify the three bird species in this tree?

The road through this section of the park ends at Flamingo, a small enclave along Florida Bay with a marina, visitor center, and cafe. We spent time here on both of our first two days, enjoying the breeze and the abundant bird life.  Osprey nests dotted the trees, mangrove islands, and man-made towers. At one point there were three great bird species in a tree near the parking lot – an osprey in its nest, a red-shouldered hawk, and a pileated woodpecker.  Out in the Bay, we spotted American white pelicans, white ibis, brown pelicans, black skimmers, and numerous gulls, terns, and shorebirds. And, on a stroll to the marina (without my camera, unfortunately), we had great views of a huge American crocodile (this is the best place in the park to see this rare reptile) and four manatees. Needless to say, Flamingo is well worth the drive.

boardwalk at Pa-hay-okee

Vast saw grass prairie at Pa-Hay-Okee boardwalk

When I started planning the trip, I bought a copy of Exploring Everglades National Park and the Surrounding Area (A Falcon Guide), and it proved a valuable asset in choosing which of the many trails and boardwalks to visit in our brief stay. One of the highly recommended stops is the Pa-Hay-Okee Trail. The name is derived from a Seminole word meaning “much grass in water”, a reference to the vast saw grass prairies that make up much of this region. There is an elevated section to the boardwalk which gives an incredible view of the “river of grass” that is the lifeblood of the Everglades.

little blue heron head

Little blue heron up close

Another must-see stop is Shark Valley. We arrived mid-morning and drove right in (there can be considerable wait times to get in on busy days – but you can drop your riders off and park along the main road outside the entrance and walk back in). There is a small visitor center, restrooms, a few picnic tables and a 15-mile paved trail  (accessible by walking, bicycling, or taking a concession-operated tram tour) through the saw grass prairie. Along the trail is a canal that retains water even in the dry season, concentrating wildlife such as alligators and wading birds, for easy viewing.  Even though this winter has been an unusually wet one, which has caused much of the wildlife to remain dispersed throughout the vast wetlands, there were still plenty of things to see as we walked a short distance along this easy path.  A little blue heron hunted patiently within a few feet of the walkway, periodically snapping up tiny fish and gulping them down. Several species of warblers and other songbirds were seen and heard in the thickets along the canal (especially the ubiquitous white-eyed vireo).

Purple gallinule

Purple gallinule

And we finally caught a glimpse of one of the “specialty birds” of this trail, a purple gallinule. These brightly-colored members of the rail family feed on a variety of plant material and invertebrates. Their enormous feet are useful for clinging to shrubbery and walking on floating vegetation such as lily pads.

baby alligator

The first of many baby alligators we saw

Alligators were all along the canal, and we even had several baby alligators sunning themselves on lily pads. One walked across the pavement, as people stopped and wondered where the usually protective mother gator might be hiding and watching her brood. After a brief stay at Shark Valley, we headed out of the park and to our next destination, Big Cypress National Preserve. I feel like I only scratched the surface of the Everglades experience. It is the third largest national park in the continental United States at 1.5 million acres and is one that lies just outside the major metropolitan areas of Miami and South Florida, and the huge agricultural lands that provide food for countless Americans. Even though the park represents a large portion of land, the ecosystem is highly altered from its original condition. Roads and drainage canals have greatly reduced the flow of water from lands north to Lake Okeechobee, and agricultural chemicals are impacting the water quality. But, the Everglades still present a wild side of Florida that people need to experience. A visit to this park helps you understand why we must all continue to work together to protect out public lands and the incredible diversity of life that call them home.

The Long and Short of It

I admire herons, herons of all sorts. They have a stately posture, epitomize patience, and have bright eyes that can stare down anyone. My recent trip to Florida had lots of heron highlights. Here I report on the long and short of it, Great Blue Herons and Green Herons.

Standing four feet tall with a wing span of six feet, Great Blue Herons are among our largest birds, even though they weigh in at only 5 or 6 pounds. I was surprised to see them already nesting at Viera Wetlands. In fact, a volunteer said that they were re-nesting, as a recent storm had destroyed several nests that already had eggs. I have seen nesting colonies in NC that were in tall dead trees in swamps, but the ones at Viera were on top of palm trees out in the wetlands.

Great Blue Heron pair at nest silhouette

Great Blue Heron nesting pair at Viera Wetlands

The herons were sitting quietly on their nests early in the day, but as the sun got higher, the male flew off and began collecting sticks. He would drop down to a broken branch laying on the ground and inspect it, before twisting off a section and flying back to the nest. Occasionally, a male would go to an unoccupied nest and steal a stick to take back to his mate.

GBH flying into nest with sticks

Male Great Blue Heron flying into nest with a stick

Great Blue Heron arriving at nest with sticks 1 Great Blue Heron arriving at nest with sticks 3 Great Blue Heron arriving at nest with sticks

Once he lands, he presents the stick to the female, and she accepts it (not sure what happens if she doesn’t like a stick).

Great Blue Heron arriving at nest with sticks 5

Female heron inspects the stick brought to the nest by her mate

She occasionally simply plucked the stick from him without standing up and carefully placed it in the nest. He would then fly off for another. At other times, there was more ceremony involved, with both birds stretching and bill pointing before she accepted the stick. Must have been a really good stick!

Great Blue Heron arriving at nest with sticks 4

Great Blue Heron pair with stick at nest 1

Great Blue Heron pair with stick at nestA few times there was a wing stretch display involved in the stick transfer, and often there would be a prolonged period of neck stretching and bill pointing.

Wing stretch display

Wing stretch display

Great Blue Heron pair at nest

Bill pointing and neck stretch display

The stick ferry finally ended for the morning and I walked down the border of the wetland dike. Soon I found one of the many diminutive Green Herons I saw on the trip. Green Herons are one of our smallest herons, standing only 18 inches tall with neck outstretched, and have a wing span of 26 inches (about one third that of a Great Blue Heron). They are found in freshwater swamps and marshes throughout the eastern half of the U.S. and up the west coast. Green Herons are richly colored in shades of chestnut, dark glossy green, and streaks of beige and white.

Green Heron on dried reeds

Green Herons are richly colored when viewed up close

They have piercing eyes and are slow motion stalkers of fish and other aquatic organisms at the edge of marshy areas and open beds of wetland vegetation. Green Herons are one of the few birds known to use tools to hunt. They have been observed using twigs, feathers, and other objects to create “fishing lures”. They drop the object on the water surface, luring small fish to within striking distance.

Green Heron profile

Hunting in a stand of reeds

Green Heron in pennywort bed

Green Heron hunting in bed of Marsh Pennywort

Often, as I prepared to get a shot of one that had momentarily stepped out in the open, it would raise its crest feathers and jump out in pursuit of a nearby Green Heron that had escaped my notice. I’m not sure if these were territorial interactions over food, breeding territory, or both.

Green Heron raised crest 1

Green Heron with raised crest

This display was usually accompanied by a neck stretch designed to make this tiny marsh hunter appear bigger.

Green Heron with neck stretched

Green Heron with neck stretched

Both species are a joy to watch, and I have decided that time spent with herons, short or tall, is time well spent.

Green Heron preening

Green Heron twisting itself while preening

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’s 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

This Refuge “Merritts” a Visit

Impoundment at Merritt Island

Impoundment at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (click photos to enlarge)

High on my list of places to visit on my trip to Florida was Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center. The refuge is huge, over 140,000 acres, consisting of a variety of habitats – coastal dunes, saltwater estuaries and marshes, freshwater impoundments, scrub, pine flatwoods, and hardwood hammocks. Winter brings tens of thousands of migratory birds to the refuge to join the resident species making this a mecca for birders. One of the best places for viewing wildlife is the Black Point Wildlife Drive, a 7-mile, one-way gravel road on a dike around several large impoundments.

Northern Pintail drake

Northern Pintail drake

I arrived mid-afternoon, and after a quick stop at the Visitor Center, headed to Black Point Wildlife Drive. I must admit, my first reaction was disappointment. One impoundment had quite a few Northern Pintails and some shorebirds, but that was about it. Had I driven all this way for nothing? I continued on and finished the loop road and then decided to head back through one more time, hoping more activity would now be evident as sunset approached. I reminded myself that I have seen quite a few folks do the same thing at my favorite refuge back home (Pocosin Lakes) – drive through in the middle of the day and not see much and then head home wondering where all the birds they had heard about were hanging out. The following scenes took place on two afternoons at the refuge with most of the activity on the first day.

Reddish Egret 1

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egrets

Reddish Egrets

Indeed, the second pass proved more fruitful. A pair of Reddish Egrets had flown in to one impoundment and were starting to forage. I have seen this species only a couple of times before, but remembered how energetic they can be as they scramble around the shallows looking for a meal.

Reddish Egret foraging 1

Reddish Egret foraging

Reddish Egret foraging

Reddish Egret spreading its wings while hunting

In addition to mad dashes and sharp turns, Reddish Egrets also use a “canopy” technique, where they spread their wings and hold still for a few seconds, creating shade which can attract small fish within striking range.

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret and reflection

After about 30 minutes watching these two run all over the shallows, they moved to the far side of the impoundment and I drove on.

Wood Stork

Wood Stork

Another quintessential Florida species, a Wood Stork, greeted me at the next stop. These tall waders have a prehistoric look to them and are always a treat to see, especially in the soft light of late afternoon.



There were many shorebirds out in the impoundments, mostly Dunlin and small groups of Willets.

Northern Pintail flock

Northern Pintail flock

shorebird flock

Shorebirds flushed by a passing Bald Eagle

A Bald Eagle flew over and both the ducks and the shorebirds erupted from the shallows in circling clouds of wings before settling back on the water.


Wilson’s Snipe

Snipe at sunset

Wilson’s Snipe at sunset

On my first pass on Wildlife Drive I was pleased to find a Wilson’s Snipe foraging along the edge of a small island adjacent to the road. On my next trip, the snipe was still near the island and was glowing in the low angle light. Usually, I see this camouflaged bird in grasses and marsh edges where a decent shot is tough to come by, but this one was more cooperative as it hunted for aquatic worms and other invertebrates in the shallows just off the edge of the island.

I returned to Merritt Island on my last afternoon in Florida. There were more visitors but fewer birds along Wildlife Drive. A local birder explained that the bays were much higher salinity than normal, perhaps due to a lack of any major tropical systems hitting this part of Florida the last few years. This has caused a reduction in the usual abundance of birds foraging in the shallow marsh impoundments. As the sun was setting, the dreaded no-see-ums (tiny biting flies) started to appear and most of the birders/photographers retreated to the safety of their cars and headed out, leaving me to look for a last few images by myself.

Great Egret at sunset

Great Egret at sunset

I stopped at the impoundment where I had seen all the ducks and found a lone Great Egret bathed in soft light.

Roseate Spoonbill and Pintails

Roseate Spoonbill and Pintails

Clouds were moving in to the west so my time was getting short. I looked down the marsh and was stunned to see something I had hoped for, but had yet to see in Florida – a Roseate Spoonbill. I must have missed it flying in while I was focused on the egret. I glanced down the road, and to my amazement, there was no one else around. The spoonbill was in perfect light to highlight its gaudy pink colors and I was surprised at how small it looked relative to the ducks feeding around it. I grabbed my gear and ran down the road to get in position and got off just a couple of shots before the sun was swallowed by the cloud bank.

Roseate Spoonbill 1

Roseate Spoonbill

So, my remaining shots were taken in darkening conditions, with the no-see-ums coming out in force (but it was worth it). Roseate Spoonbills are the most brightly-colored of six spoonbill species in the world, and are the only one found in North America, primarily along our Gulf Coast states. Their common name refers to two obvious physical traits: 1) their bright pink color, which is believed to be derived from eating crustaceans (like shrimp and crayfish) that have fed on red algae ; and 2) their unusual spoon-shaped bill.

Spoonbill bill

One of the most distinctive bills of any North American bird

The odd-shaped bill is an adaptation for the bird’s tactile feeding style in shallow waters (which allows it to feed in murkier water than many other waders which rely more on sight to grab their prey).

Roseate Spoonbill feeding

Roseate Spoonbill feeding

Spoonbills wade in shallow water with their bill down in the water, slightly agape. They feed by swinging their head back and forth and snapping the bill shut when their sensitive touch receptors located inside the bill detect prey. In clearer water, they may chase after fish they see by running and flapping (as was the case in the image above).

Spoonbill captures fish Roseate Spoonbill with fish

Spoonbill with fish

I stayed with this bird for about 30 minutes, watching it move hundreds of feet back and forth in the impoundment as it swung its bill in search of food. It caught several fish and some other prey too small for me to see. Roseate Spoonbill populations plummeted in the early 20th century due to hunting for the plume trade and habitat destruction. Their numbers were reduced to only a few dozen breeding pair in Florida, but with protection, they have recovered, much to the delight of nature enthusiasts and photographers.

sunset at Merritt Island

Sunset at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

I finally had to call it a day as the sky turned a beautiful pink and gray. Even though people said it was not as good as usual, my brief time at Merritt Island had proven it to be well worth it.

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


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