Critter Condo

Be as useful as a tree! Give life to others; be shelter to everyone; grant fruits to all! Be good like a tree!

~Mehmet Murat Ildan

Just beyond our deer fence is a huge old Tulip Poplar with a split at the base forming a hollow that stretches up 20 feet or so. This is the second largest tree on our property behind a giant old White Oak on the south slope across the creek bed. The Tulip Poplar is on our north slope where that species is the dominant tree. In spring, the large fragrant flowers provide an important nectar source for many types of pollinators. In autumn, the seeds are eaten by numerous bird species, especially the Purple Finches that fly south most winters from their boreal forest summer range. And the leaves are the primary food source for caterpillars of our most abundant butterfly, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (along with many other species like the magnificent Tuliptree Silk Moth). But this particular tree is important in another way – the hollows provide shelter and a forest touchstone for a variety of critters.

A giant Tulip Poplar on our property is home to a number of our wildlife neighbors (click photos to enlarge)

A large split at the base provides access to hollow spaces within this tree. But the Raccoons that use itr as a den tree climb higher and squeeze through a relatively small hole about 30 feet up the trunk

Unlike Raccoons at some of my favorite wildlife refuges, I rarely see ours sleeping out on limbs of this tree during the daytime. The one exception was many years ago when I spotted a young Raccoon out on one of the large outstretched arms of this forest giant.

-A young Raccoon that was sleeping out on a limb one day several years ago checks me out when I went out into the yard for a photograph. When I went back inside, it curled back up and went back to sleep.

Most of my knowledge of the importance of this tree to the woodland wildlife comes from a trail camera that has been watching it off and on for a couple of years. The tree has been home to a variety of wildlife including multiple generations of Raccoons, Eastern Gray Squirrels, and Southern Flying Squirrels. And, perhaps because of the comings and going of its permanent residents, it is also visited by many other forest dwellers. The camera has recorded several species stopping by in hopes of a meal, a sniff to see who has been there recently, or perhaps just to pay respect to this towering monarch of the woods. Visitors have included White-tailed Deer, a Gray Fox, many Virginia Opossums, a Cooper’s Hawk, and, unfortunately, my neighbor’s outdoor cats. The Ground Hog that wandered through our property for several days last year also sought shelter in its hollow base between raids on our garden while we were out of town.

Currently, there is a family of four Raccoons, a bunch of squirrels, and at least one Southern Flying Squirrel that call that tree home. Here are a few highlights of recent trail camera captures.

— A Virginia Opossum that frequents the base of this tree takes a selfie at the trail camera

— A squirrel spent 30 minutes one day recently carrying leaves up into the hollow for a suitable drey (a nest)

— The Tulip Poplar seems to be very “poplar” with the local squirrels (and there are too many…where are the hawks?)

— A different type of squirrel, a very active Southern Flying Squirrel, takes over at night (although I do have a clip of an Eastern Gray Squirrel out at 3:20 a.m.!)

— The Raccoons usually use the leaning cedar snag as a ladder to their den, but occasionally climb the tree trunk. This was one night recently when it briefly snowed. Note the third raccoon appearing in the lower left at the end of the clip.

Large trees that have broken limbs, knot holes, large cracks or hollow trunks are incredibly important to a forest and its creatures. They provide food, shelter, and a place to rear young and can be a focal point of any woodland tract. I hope this one continues to be the preeminent poplar in our woods for many years to come.

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