Ice Capades

Ice is an interesting subject for contemplation.

~Henry David Thoreau

Weather changes quickly this time of year. When venturing out, we need to be prepared. Imagine if you live out in it all winter. While snow is relatively rare in our eastern wildlife refuges, ice is common. A sudden drop in temperature on a still January night can lead to quick freezes in all the puddles, ditches and other waterways.

Ice formed overnight in puddles and the edges of open water

Ice formed overnight in puddles and the edges of open water (click photos to enlarge)

Such was the case last week at the Pungo Unit when an overnight cold snap turned what had been a wet field full of hungry Wilson’s Snipe and Killdeer the previous afternoon, into a skating rink the next morning.

Snipe camouflage

Wilson’s Snipe are difficult to see in grassy areas

The day before I had counted 18 Wilson’s Snipe in this flooded portion of an old soybean field. The next morning, the pool was frozen and, at first, I didn’t see a singe bird. Then, as I opened the car door, a snipe stood up and ran. So, I got back in the car and waited.

Snipe hidden in grass

Wilson’s Snipe hidden in grass

Soon, I started seeing lots of lumps in the grass – snipe lumps. The key was to look for dark clumps of “grass” and then check them out with binoculars. Most turned out to be Wilson’s Snipe, apparently waiting for a little warmth before venturing out to feed.

Snipe walking on ice 1

A cautious Wilson’s Snipe ventures out onto the frozen puddle

I watched the first snipe approach the ice rink. It moved out across the frozen surface slowly, much more slowly than their usual walking pace.

Snipe slipping on ice 1

Wilson’s Snipe slipping on ice

The first few steps were almost graceful. But that quickly turned comical as almost every snipe that attempted to cross the ice found itself slip-sliding away. There was usually a quick wing assist to try to stay upright. A few even abandoned the attempt altogether and flew over the ice to the grassy area on the other side.

Snipe slipping on ice

The snipe slip and squat pose

One bird did a butt flop on the ice with both legs shooting out in opposite directions.

Snipe portrait

Better to sit in the grass than try to skate on a frozen puddle

When that bird finally made it across, it seemed to express the embarrassment for itself and the rest of its clan with a slight look of disgust, or maybe it was contemplating another use for that long bill besides just probing the mud for worms.

Swan on ice

A Tundra Swan stands on the frozen edge of the impoundment

After several good laughs, I drove over to the impoundment that has been so productive this season for swan watching. Most of the water was open out in the middle of the impoundment, but I noticed some swans along the edge that seemed to be standing.

Swan on ice 1

No problems walking on ice

I moved to an open spot with a good view and could see several Tundra Swans were gingerly walking on the skim of ice along the marsh edge. Their broad webbed feet have distinctive claws at the the tips of each toe. Perhaps this combination provides greater surface area contact with the slippery substrate and allows the seemingly always elegant Tundra Swan to walk gracefully atop the ice.

Swan flapping on ice

Check this out, Mr. Snipe

As if to reinforce their one-upmanship of the snipe in their ice skating abilities, one swan performed a regal wing flap at the conclusion of a short session of preening, leaving no doubt which species would receive the higher score in the marsh bird ice capades.

Swan against moon

Tundra Swan elegance

And, if there was any doubt of who is the most graceful and artistic of the birds of Pungo, a lone swan flew by the rising moon that afternoon, reminding me one more time of why these beautiful animals are my favorite bird of winter.

 

 

Snipe Hunt

 If alarmed it squats for concealment…;the longitudinal stripes on its back and head so closely resemble prostrate stems of dead grass that the bird is difficult to distinguish.

~Arthur Cleveland Bent, 1927

People often react with a bit of disbelief when I mention seeking snipe. After all, many have heard of the proverbial prank called a snipe hunt, wherein an unsuspecting city slicker is told to go out into the woods at night holding a bag with which to capture snipe, and is left there all night by the local folks. So, when I try to find a snipe for people, they are often surprised that there really is such a bird. Ours is now called the Wilson’s Snipe, Gallinago delicata. This widespread shorebird has undergone some common name changes from Wilson’s Snipe to Common Snipe, and now back to Wilson’s. They are a common winter resident in much of the Coastal Plain (and portions of the rest of our state), but are often a difficult bird for the average birder to spot, due to their habitat and camouflaged feather pattern.

Mud puddle at Pungo

Snipe habitat – a wet field at Pungo (click photos to enlarge)

Snipe prefer wet areas like marsh edges, roadside ditches, and wet puddles in farm fields. When alarmed or sitting tight, they can be very difficult to spot.

Snipe camouflage

A Wilson’s Snipe can be difficult to see in a field or along a wetland edge

In fact, when I stop at a likely-looking spot and tell folks to look for snipe, I suggest they look for something that looks like a clump of grass stems with a long bill.

Snipe camouflage 1

Snipe are well camouflaged and have an extraordinarily long bill

Indeed, a very long bill, measuring about one fourth the bird’s body length. They use this bill to probe for worms and other invertebrates in the soft ground and mud at wetland edges. Their feeding motion resembles that of a sewing machine in its rapid up and down movement, with their head often going into the water almost up to their eyes before pulling back up. They seem to feed for long periods of time without pulling their beak out of the substrate, leading some observers to wonder how they are swallowing their food. It appears that they move the prey up the backward-projecting serrations on the inside of the bill with their tongue and are thus able to swallow while the bill is still in the muck.

A short video clip shows this feeding behavior.

American Robin feeding in field

American Robin feeding in field

There were about six snipe feeding in this field puddle, along with a couple of Killdeer, and several American Robins.The low afternoon light enhanced the rust colors of the robins, making them, and the light-colored Killdeer, the most obvious birds in front of my camera when a car pulled up behind me. I can only imagine what the driver was thinking as he studied me taking pictures of such common species. I am also betting they may have totally missed my primary quarry, camouflaged amongst the soybean stubble.

Snipe threat display

Snipe threat display

At one point, one of the snipe rushed another to perhaps move it form a prime feeding spot. The bird that was rushed, squatted, and erected its tail, displaying a prominent tail spot. This may be some sort of aggressive display, and it is the first time I have ever seen that distinctive feather spot.

Snipe and reflection 1

Wilson’s Snipe and its reflection while feeding in shallow water

One reference stated that the Blackfoot Indians had a name for this bird which meant, shadow in the water, supposedly because snipe often stand in the water and admire their own reflection. Well, I know I admired it when they managed to get into the shallow puddles, but I think they were too busy probing the mud for worms.

Snipe from behind

Wilson’s Snipe from behind, showing the long bill

As it turns out, people really do hunt snipe. The daily bag limit for Wilson’s Snipe in North Carolina this year is eight birds. The season runs until the end of February. This is a far cry from the days recorded by A.C. Bent. He reported on the exploits of one particularly notorious snipe hunter, a Mr. James Pringle. He supposedly set a one day record of 366 snipe in December of 1867. He is alleged to have shot 69,087 snipe in a twenty year period from 1867 to 1887. It is no wonder that their numbers decreased during that time. And Mr. Pringle was not a market hunter, but, instead gave the birds to friends. In the days of market hunting, the most skilled hunters would often bring many birds to market earning the name “sniper” as a badge of honor for the difficulty in shooting this elusive bird. The term has evolved to now mean a skilled shooter, but one with a very different target.

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.

Willets

Willets

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.

Snipe

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.