Through life, I have found that there are certain smells and sounds that can take you back. For me, the aroma of salt permeating the air and cry of a hunting osprey never fail to conjure up lazy Florida summers. Junes and Julys only interrupted by the booming of returning shuttles and rolling thunderheads.
In the months between college semesters, I have spent and increasing amount of time exploring the wildlife that has long surrounded my home. Besides the snow birds that come from the NE, the residents of my county include alligators, anole lizards, horseshoe crabs, fishes, tree frogs, snakes, insects, and the occasional deer… oh yeah, and birds. While at home this year in early May, I took a trip out to the local wetlands in order to better appreciate the birds that have gone long unnoticed.
The Viera Wetlands consists of four man-made marshes that surround a lake, which in turn is surrounded by gravel berms intended for pedestrian and vehicle traffic.
The wetlands are home to a typical avian cast of characters: Ospreys, Sandhill Cranes, Killdeer, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Mockingbirds, Fish Crows, Eastern Pheobes, ibises, moorhens, coots, Anhingas, Double-crested Cormorants, Limpkins, etc. There are however a few interesting types that should be noted… (the rules I referenced for capitalizing bird common names can be found here).
Shortly after walking down the left path, I spotted a strange predatory bird flying rapidly in my direction! The orange face and local knowledge should have given him away, but it wasn’t until the raptor alighted upon a branch that I recognized it to be a Crested Caracara! Normally this bird is found in South America, but FL happens to be the northern-most point of its range (also found in parts of Texas, often spotted sitting on fence posts). I also want to note and interesting behavior of this animal; caracaras typically carry their prey in their beaks rather than their talons like other raptor species.
After observing the pair of caracaras for a few minutes, I continued down the path only to come across cattle egrets forming what looked to be an aerial trading lane! They were flying from the island in the middle of the lake, across the path, and onto the other side. Upon reaching dry ground, the rather large flock of island residents were scouring the ground for useful nest materials before returning to the trade route once more to travel back to the island.
As I made my way towards the corner I saw a gentlemen sporting a rather large cannon camera lens. I decided to stop and talk photography, as well as ask him why he was camped in front of a dead palm tree. Craig told me that he had traveled down from NY in order to do some FL birding and photography. In addition to the many tips and tricks he imparted upon me during our friendly exchange, he disclosed that the reason he was standing in front a stump, was that it was the location of a Red-bellied woodpecker nest. I then noticed what i hadn’t before, Craig had his massive lens trained and pre-focused upon some point in the space in front of the trunk in order to capture the creatures as they entered the nest, wings spread. How did he know that it was an active nest site? He wasn’t a local, and hadn’t picked up the information from someone else in town, so it must be some clue sitting right in front of my nose. When I asked him what I was missing, he smiled and friendlily pointed out the two holes in front of us. The one on the top of the tree was dull and appeared vacant, but the one below had clear markings of recent access. I will have to remember this for the future.
I am glad Craig noticed her come in before I did, because mid-sentence he mashed the remote shutter button in his hand and quickly took 15-20 pictures at the wing-beat of a hummingbird! “And that is how its done”, he said. He captured a beautiful moment of the female with her wings spread, as if to show off to those who had the talent and technology to see them. Before parting Craig told me to never be afraid to ask questions of more experienced birders. “Most of them are happy to share knowledge and teach those who are eager to listen.”
When I rounded the corner I was able to spot a couple of moorhens lazily swimming amongst the cattails. I even had the opportunity to watch the humorous predicament of a mother attempting to feed her chick a fish that was apparently to large. The young bird could not seem to hold it long enough to swallow, and continuously dropped it, only to have the mother pick it up once more and attempt another feeding.
Further a long the path, while I was kneeling to take a shot of a GBHE, a curious looking bird that I hadn’t noticed before started approaching me. He only stopped his casual walk when he was no more than a few feet from my lens. I love nature moments like this, the ones where she forgets you’re from the genus Homo and decides to treat you like harmless mouse. All thoughts aside, I still had no idea what type of species he might be. I thought that after reviewing my photographs, I was going to come across some weird sandpiper or something (He actually looked more like a New Zealand Kiwi than anything). I was surprised to find, after consulting Sibley’s, that the curious onlooker was known as a Limpkin, an apparent native of Florida.
After it was clear that the Limpkin was not going to walk away from me, I decided to stand up and continue on with my wetland walk. I ended the morning with herons, and was able to get my first shot of a Tricolor Heron (formerly known as the Louisiana Heron). He was basking in the reeds, sporting what looked to be new threads (or should I say feathers) for all of the ladies! Mating season is a very colorful time for all of the bachelors of Aves!
For more information on the Ritch Grissom Memorial wetlands please visit their site at http://ww3.brevardcounty.us/environmental_management/VieraWetlands-Home.cfm or their blog at http://friendsofvierawetlands.blogspot.com/
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