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

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