(Header Image: Shorebirds At Dusk)

There are some occasions when birding becomes secondary. (GASP!!) This was one of those times. The birds were numerous, it was exciting to see species we don’t normally encounter at our inland home turf, observing feeding behavior was fascinating – it was a birders dream day.

The mid-afternoon sun was warm and the breeze from the Atlantic Ocean was gentle and kept the air refreshed and comfortable. I was with the most important person in my life. Our range of conversation ranged from birds to nature to childhood memories to episodes in our life together to family – our normal pattern. We take so much for granted each day and I am all too guilty of that transgression. Birding is fun. Her, standing right next to me – THAT is what life is all about.

(We now return you to our normally scheduled broadcast.)

“I think I got some on my shoes.”

“Some what?”

“Primordial ooze.”

The Horseshoe Crab is not a crab at all. It is more closely related to scorpions and spiders and is in the Order Xiphosura. There are three separate species, one in North America and two more in Asia. Fossilized remains of relatives of the “modern” horseshoe crab have been dated to over 400 million years ago, before dinosaurs roamed around the planet.

Humans have eaten Horseshoe Crab but it has never caught on as a dietary staple. Commercial fishermen use them to catch eels which they in turn use for bait to catch fish. In the spring and early summer, Horseshoe Crabs crowd the Atlantic Ocean beaches in spots where they dig a shallow burrow and deposit millions of eggs. To the delight of shorebirds.

In the 1960’s, biomedical researchers discovered an anti-coagulating agent within Horseshoe Crab blood. Since then, they harvest thousands of the creatures each year, extract some of their blood and return them to the sea. Survival rate for the crabs is around 70%.

The combined pressure of fishermen, biomedical use and those pesky hungry shorebirds (who have been eating crab eggs ever since both have existed) has resulted in the Horseshoe Crab becoming close to achieving endangered status. The good news is, Asian medical researchers have learned to artificially synthesize the anti-coagulant and have stopped using the crabs. American bureaucratic processes have to date prevented the Food and Drug Administration from approving the process here in the “enlightened” United States.

Meanwhile, some shorebirds have shown population declines due to reduced availability of Horseshoe Crab eggs over the past few decades. Notably, the Red Knot seems to have been particularly hard hit.

We were, therefore, extremely privileged to observe this ancient life form come ashore along West Gator Creek Road on a warm spring day within the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and deposit their eggs in the soft sand of the Indian River. The simultaneous appearance of dozens of shorebirds and gulls was equally inspiring as we were witness to the cycle of life play out right in front of our eyes. Incredible experience!

While thoroughly engrossed in the Horseshoe Crab egg-stravaganza going on, life around us was continuing with a normal day on the marsh. A flock of Dunlins buzzed along the shoreline looking for a spot in the buffet line. Black Skimmers apparently prefer more meat in their diet and headed for deeper water. We seldom encounter all three North American “peeps” (the smallest of shorebirds) in one location so it was great to be able to compare them at close range.

The day was quickly coming to a close and we decided to go around Black Point Wildlife Drive for a grand finale to our awesome day. Good decision.

We found large numbers of ducks looking for a safe place to spend the night, egrets and herons grabbing a snack before bedtime, raptors scaring up shorebirds and, as the sun began to disappear, waves of ibises and egrets sought refuge in the tall marsh grass for the night.

This is a very special place and we had a fantastic day. Crossing over the Indian River and heading home, Gini sighed and said wistfully: “When can we do it again?”

Horseshoe Crabs laying eggs in the wet sand. Females are larger and the male fertilizes the eggs as they are being deposited.

A Ring-billed Gull scoops up eggs as quickly as they become available.

Black Skimmers present a unique profile from the rear and quite another as they make a turn.

Dunlin, in non-breeding plumage, were the most numerous shorebird we encountered on this day. You can see a horseshoe crab egg in this Dunlin’s beak.

An elegant American Avocet. No doubt this is a wading bird with those legs! Sometimes, one just has to stop and enjoy the view as she nestled among the shells and gazed at the incoming waves.

North America’s smallest shorebird, the Least Sandpiper, can be distinguished by its small size (5-6 inches/13-15 cm), slightly curved bill and yellowish legs.

The Semipalmated Sandpiper is named for webbing between its toes, but that’s hard to see in the field. They are slightly larger than the Least, have a bit shorter/stouter bill and blackish legs.

Also a bit larger than the Least, a Western Sandpiper has a bit longer and dropping bill, usually a less-smudgy breast in non-breeding plumage and blackish legs.

In non-breeding plumage, the Sanderling is pretty easy to spot as it is white below and light gray above. It is a little smaller than a Dunlin and has a shorter bill.

Here you can compare a Dunlin and Least Sandpiper. They look like twins! Except for that size thing.

A Ring-billed Gull among Dunlins and Sanderlings gives an idea of their size difference.

Along the Black Point Wildlife Drive, a Snowy Egret hunts for supper before it becomes dark.

We couldn’t tell if this Lesser Yellowlegs was hunting or simply admiring himself.

Not much doubt about a Northern Harrier being serious! He made repeated passes where dozens of shorebirds were foraging. The Harrier prefers small rodents but will readily take a shorebird, as they are apparently aware!

As the sun begins to get low over the marsh, we begin our exit, albeit reluctantly.

We watched waves of wading birds search for roosting spots in the tall grasses of the refuge. Glossy Ibises numbered over a hundred.

Over two-hundred Snowy Egrets fluttered in front of us and eventually vanished in the reeds as darkness enveloped the marsh.

A dozen Great Egret in one group is quite a sight. We saw four such groups.

The last rays of the sun ended our day in spectacular fashion!

From before sunrise to after sunset, what a day! If you have a chance to visit a similar refuge, take advantage of it as often as possible. We can’t wait for a return trip!

Enjoy your search for your own natural place and come back for a visit!

It was getting warm. Comfortable. Not hot. Blue skies, salt water and the constant sounds of birds enveloped us in a cocoon of contentment.

We exited East Gator Creek Road after thoroughly enjoying the performance of the Reddish Egret and drove out of the refuge to Parrish Park. The park is just outside the refuge at the beginning of the bridge over the Indian River to the town of Titusville. It’s a small park with a few covered picnic tables, fishing piers and boat docks. There are beach areas adjacent to and across the street from the park.

Parrish Park can be a good place to spot all sorts of birds with the combination of sandy beach, deep water under the bridge, shallow water areas, pier pilings which attract fish and crustaceans and, of course, that reliable source of free food – human beings. If one plans ahead, the park is also a good place from which to view rocket launches as Cape Canaveral is only a couple of miles away.

Today, we saw several dozen Black Skimmers napping in the parking lot and Ruddy Turnstones doing the same thing at the end of a pier. A multitude of gulls were screeching overhead, wood storks and pelicans were harassing fishermen and osprey were crashing into the water all around.

We returned to the refuge and turned onto Pump House Road. The road stops after about 50 yards and you must park and walk in order to explore this area. Hiking around here takes one along levees between vast shallow water tidal pools. I only walked about a mile and encountered a wonderful variety of water fowl. In the distance, I could see thousands of ducks massed on the surface of these impoundments. Alongside the path, I found two large groups of several hundred American Coot. Among the mass of coots were a few surprises!

As we turned back onto the main refuge road, Gini suggested (she is, you will recall, the smart one) we drive by the Black Point Wildlife Drive, in spite of the sign at the refuge entrance still flashing that it was closed. Lo and behold, it was just opening! Timing (and the right partner) is everything.

The wildlife drive is about seven miles long with occasional pull-off areas and a few spots for hiking. We found tons of birds. Ducks, waders, raptors, shorebirds.

Our next stop was Biolab Road. We had started our day at the Biolab boat ramp where we took sunrise photos. Now we drove the length of the road which travels along the western shore of Mosquito Lagoon. A nice surprise was finding evidence that spring is fast approaching – dragonflies and damselflies. Also, a woodpecker excavating a nest and alligators acting territorial confirmed that Mother Nature may not read a calendar but sure knows when the time is right for a renewal of life.

Time for lunch. Scenic spots everywhere. Oh, great! Now what? Take a bite of chicken, grab the binoculars. Take a bite of chicken, grab the camera. Life is tough for birders in paradise.

At Parrish Park, we found Black Skimmers dozing in the parking lot. Interestingly, Ring-billed Gulls were standing around the perimeter of the sleeping birds. As a car approached too close, the gulls would fly up noisily and the skimmers would look up. Avian alarm system?

Ruddy Turnstones seem to like the ends of piers. We often see them resting in such locations.

The impoundments at Pump House Road contained several large groups of American Coots. The poor Coot is often disparaged as not very photogenic. I happen to think they’re quite handsome with those red eyes, white bills, black feathers and those feet!

Hiding among the coots were several other species of water fowl. Here, a Lesser Scaup shows its iridescent head. (Sorry for the poor quality. Distant shot, highly cropped.)

American Wigeon were numerous at most stops we made and they seemed to enjoy the company of coots just fine.

I couldn’t manage a good photograph of a Redhead, but several were busily feeding along with their fowl friends.

“One of these things is not like the others.” A lone Canada Goose does its best to appear coot-like.

A short walk around the levee provided looks at a lot of birds! We found more American Avocets, some taking advantage of the protected area to snooze under the warm Florida sun.

American White Pelicans are a common sight here and large numbers are often seen along the Atlantic Ocean beach nearby.

The happy occasion of Black Point Wildlife Drive being open found us stopping often to gawk at stupendous numbers of birds. Spring is surely not far away as territorial squabbles were breaking out all around. Male Blue-winged Teal were busy biting and trying to drown each other as innocent-looking females floated nearby.

A Green Heron knows the water flowing through a culvert is quite likely to eventually deliver a meal to its waiting beak.

Shallow salt water studded with mangrove trees is a perfect place for waders such as a Tricolored Heron to hunt.

This group of three adult and two juvenile Little Blue Herons were across the street from the above Tricolored Heron. In a couple of months, the young herons will begin to become mottled blue/white/gray and they will attain their adult plumage by this time next year.

We came across a couple of palm trees with interesting fungus growing on the trunks. Looks like something melted.

Biolab Road also had its share of interesting life for us to enjoy. Here, a Northern Flicker excavates a nest cavity in a palm tree. (You can see a chunk of wood flying through the air behind her.)

More signs of spring! A collection of Rambur’s Forktail in several forms kept us busy for quite awhile. We counted at least a dozen individuals of this beautiful damselfly in less than ten square feet.

Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii) – Male
Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii) – Immature Heteromorph Female
Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii) – Immature Andromorph Female

One of the larger members of the dragonfly family, a Common Green Darner (Anax junius), was kind enough to pose for a few minutes. We normally only see these big insects in flight.

A NEW Odanata species for us! An Ornate Pennant (Celithemis ornata) landed in view for a millisecond before heading for the salt marsh.

We were having so much fun with birds and bugs that we almost forgot to acknowledge who owns this part of the marsh. Good afternoon, Ms. Gator!

American Alligator

The middle of the day had been filled with Florida residents (such as alligators and coots), winter tourists (ducks and a goose), a surprise opening of the wildlife drive and even strong hints of impending Spring (damsels, dragons and fighting teal).

Next – creatures with ancestors over 400 million years old, a plethora of peeps and the end of the day.

Enjoy your search for natural place and come back for a visit!

(Header Image:  Egrets and Ibises head for their nightly roost.)

Traffic was relatively sparse as we left the interstate highway at the sign announcing “Disney World!”. We drove past that exit and continued toward Orlando International Airport. It was a Thursday. The glowing green digits of the car’s information panel displayed “4:45 a.m.”. My hand rested comfortably in Gini’s.

Escorted by a couple of huge trucks, we cruised by the turnoff for the airport and left the glow of the Orlando metroplex in our rearview mirror. Morning commuters were beginning to stack up on the other side of the freeway headed for jobs in the city. I sure miss those days. HA-HA-HA-HA!! 

Ahead, darkness. We passed through the marshes of the St. Johns River where ground fog formed a patchwork quilt on either side of the road. The horizon began to lighten, not from the pending sunrise, but due to the need for humans to avoid the dark.

We drove by the roads which lead to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. Space – the final frontier. Our goal today was a bit closer.

Crossing the bridge at Titusville over the Indian River, a flashing sign informed us “Black Point Wildlife Drive Closed”. Rain the previous few days apparently caused portions of the road to be covered in water. This had been one of our primary destinations. No worries. Plenty of other spots to explore in the 140,000+ acres of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Our first stop was at the Biolab Road boat ramp. We watched as the sun broke above the far shoreline of Mosquito Lagoon. The lagoon is part of the Indian River and just beyond the shore to the east is the Atlantic Ocean. Before the sun appeared, birds of all sorts were awaking to a new day. Pelicans were already crashing into the water’s surface, gulls were trying to steal breakfast from the Pelicans, small flocks of shorebirds skittered just above the water, an Osprey circled overhead, a Red-bellied Woodpecker “churred” just behind us and a pair of porpoises chased a school of mullet a few yards away.

After enjoying a delightful dawn and since the wildlife drive was closed, we headed for East Gator Creek Road. Good choice. Hundreds of ducks, ibises, egrets, herons, shorebirds and even a pair of American Avocet were just waiting for our arrival. We gawked, we photographed, we oohed, we aahed, we sighed – a lot.

Gini and I are native Floridians. As such, we must have periodic infusions of salt air. I am pretty sure it’s a law.

We paused at a bend in the road with a view of a large section of marsh where plenty of  birds were feeding. Time for some feeding of our own. Gini had prepared her favorite breakfast: peanut-butter and grape jelly sandwiches on cinnamon-swirl raisin bread. Along with a fresh orange, we were fortified for the day’s adventures.

One of the morning’s highlights was watching a Reddish Egret perform his own very special ballet. Incredible spectacle!

We’ll take a mid-morning break and share a few images with you.

The sun makes its appearance rising above the Atlantic Ocean and peeking at us over the Indian River’s Mosquito Lagoon.

Vast shallow-water areas sprinkled with mangrove trees provide a perfect habitat for birds of all descriptions. A Great Egret soaks up the early morning sun’s rays as he prepares to look for crabs and fish all day.

Merritt Island is a magnet for wintering waterfowl and attracts tens of thousands of them each winter. A pair of Northern Shoveler are thankful for a sheltered spot to forage. On the wing, they are sleek-looking and strong, fast fliers.

A Glossy Ibis appears to float as she prepares to make a landing. The sun highlights her mother-of-pearl iridescent feathers.

The most abundant ducks on the refuge this day were Blue-winged Teal. The first image solves the mystery of how they were named. The second image provides a glimpse of a small portion of the teal we encountered. Finally, a pair of male teal escort a female during some tight-formation aerobatics.

Not as numerous, but equally attractive, there were plenty of American Wigeon in the air and on the water.

A pair of American Avocet entertained us with their sweeping motion technique of feeding. As their slim bills move back and forth, they open the bill slightly and scoop up small invertebrates. Soon, their head and neck will turn a rusty brown during breeding season. Handsome birds in any season!

The Reddish Egret goes through quite a routine to obtain a meal. He raises his wings to diminish glare on the water’s surface. This move also provides shade which attracts fish. He will run forward quickly and then suddenly change directions. Finally, he’ll stop and stab at the water and be rewarded with a fishy prize! I got tired just watching it all.

Early birders may not get worms, but we certainly had a wonderful start to our day! Next up – gorging on crab eggs. Don’t miss it!

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

Additional Information

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Florida’s Space Coast

Up the creek

(Header Image: Morning In The Swamp)

It’s true. We’re spoiled.

We have access to some of the best birding locations on the planet. Within a couple of hours, we could be at the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, Ocala National Forest or the vast “river of grass”, the Everglades. Or, we could sleep in, enjoy a leisurely breakfast and saunter over to our local state park, which doesn’t swing open the gate until 8:00 a.m.

On this day, we chose the latter.

Just beyond the ranger station at Colt Creek State Park, a pair of Killdeer were hunting for their own breakfast along the main park road. In a tall pine tree at the first curve was a loud Red-shouldered Hawk. A swampy spot across the road from the hawk still had a few red maple leaves showing as the early morning sun filtered through the trees.

For the first couple of hours, every time we stopped the car, Gini heard a smorgasbord of songs and chips and chirps. The fields and forest seemed filled with birds today. Some were residents but most were winter migrants still enjoying the Sunshine State’s hospitality before they responded to the urge to return north.

White-tailed deer munched grass near the tree line, unconcerned by our presence as they have become accustomed to tourists gawking at them. Eastern Gray Squirrels scampered up trees to enjoy an acorn on a sun-drenched limb. Young alligators relaxed in the warm mud on the bank of Colt Creek. A Limpkin cried in the distance.

A new day was in progress.

We drove the park road slowly, stopping now and then to explore a short path. Turkey Vultures spiraled upward as warm thermal air buoyed their efforts. A horse rider flagged us down and asked for help. Her mount appeared to have injured a knee. I stayed with the horse as Gini drove her to retrieve her truck and trailer. We hope the animal recovers.

As usually happens, the noon hour came and went without us noticing. Reluctantly, we left the birds singing and hunting as we re-crossed the creek on our way home. Another beautiful day.

We are SO spoiled.

A few images somehow made their way into the camera.

Supposedly, the Killdeer was named because of its call. I don’t hear it, but I probably need a better imagination.

Soon, the American Goldfinch will turn brighter yellow and return a bit further north. We will miss them until next fall.

We are continually surprised at the variety of songs the small House Wren produces! Their pugnacious attitude belies how sweetly they can serenade the forest.

One of our year-round residents, the White-eyed Vireo, is quick to jump out to see who is invading their territory.

In the right light, it’s no mystery how the Red-shouldered Hawk received its name. This medium-sized raptor is by far the most common in our area.

Usually observed feeding on the ground, we found a trio of Common Ground Doves napping in a small tree. They went right back to sleep after I clicked a photo.

A long, loud call got my attention. It also got the attention of a male Red-shouldered Hawk which flew over my head as he responded to his female mate. She was ready to copulate, he obliged. They rested a few moments and then soared together in a bright blue Florida sky. Spring is on the way!

A gray squirrel offered a nice portrait with the sun behind him.

“CAUTION!” There are all sorts of predators out here! If you’re a bug, the Eastern Phoebe is a nemesis which should be feared! Sadly, we only get to enjoy these wonderful birds who sing their name during the winter.

Our morning up Colt Creek and back down again and through the forest and around the swamp was simply exquisite! My beautiful companion beside me made the day perfect. Next time, the coast. Or the big swamp. Or, just maybe we’ll sleep late again.

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

Additional Information

Colt Creek State Park

(Header image: American White Pelicans)

Sunrise will happen in about 45 minutes. I’m on the way to a spot where there have been reports of a couple of uncommon winter migratory waterfowl. As darkness gives way to the early morning light, I approach the target area and search for a place to park. I have calculated where the sun will rise in order to have it behind me as I  hope for a decent photograph of the visiting ducks. There! The perfect spot to park, at the – public library??

Our hometown, Lakeland, Florida, has a population of a little over 100,000 and is situated almost half-way between Tampa and Orlando. Similar to many cities, at some point planners were convinced to “enhance” urban lakes with exotic waterfowl. In the early 20th century, the tale is told of swans which took up residence at Lake Morton near the center of downtown. They were promptly eaten by alligators. Some enterprising citizen wrote to Queen Elizabeth (no, really) who authorized the donation of a pair of royal swans in the 1950’s. With proper management, swans have proliferated here ever since.

With a vibrant population of swans, exotic geese, the ubiquitous mallard, a steady source of food (albeit not necessarily healthy food, tossed by a well-meaning public) and protection from predators (the city learned its lesson and keeps the urban lakes ‘gator free) – many migratory species now visit these watery oases during the winter months. Occasionally, a few less-common birds show up and cause a ruckus among local birders. (Hey, that would be me!)

It was too easy. The two ducks I went searching for were waiting as I got out of the car. Just as the sun’s rays streaked over the library, a small female Bufflehead swam from the lily pads near the shore toward open water. A few steps to the north and there was the Northern Shoveler, feeding and paddling and totally ignoring me. Mission accomplished. Time for coffee. Well, maybe a few shots of the locals. Since I’m already here.

“We can forget all our troubles, forget all our cares …  So go downtown …” (Downtown, written by Tony Hatch, recorded in 1964 by Petula Clark.)

Each winter, we usually see a couple of Bufflehead at the downtown lakes. Usually it’s females, like this pretty one.

A Northern Shoveler or two also pay us a visit. Soon, this male will be sporting his breeding plumage with all-green head, white chest and rusty brown sides.

Other migrants, very common and numerous during the winter, Ring-necked ducks can be found on many of our smaller lakes and ponds.

Similar in size and appearance to the Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup show up in small groups on city lakes but can occur in flocks of several hundred on our larger bodies of water. If you visit the coast you may encounter thousands in a single area!

A smaller wintering duck, this male Ruddy Duck will soon have a fairly bright blue bill and chestnut sides as it heads north to its breeding grounds in the north-central United States and Canada.

Not lacking in the bright color department, Wood Ducks are residents here and have already begun courtship and mating as they get a head start on spring.

Within the city’s parks and lakes, Mallards abound. In all sorts of configurations. All white to all black and everything in between. I managed to find a “normal-looking” male flying by. This bird is in “eclipse” plumage and is a bit scruffy looking as it molts into full breeding color.

But wait – there’s more! We not only have ducks, but many other water-loving fowl as well. Such as the Tricolored Heron. Beautiful, as the morning sun highlighted the subtle colors on its back. Impressive, as it sprang into action chasing breakfast!

The pure white of the Snowy Egret is interrupted by those golden eyes concentrating on a fish under a lily pad. The equally golden feet suddenly seemed to be walking on water as said fish was swallowed faster than the camera could click.

Several dozen American White Pelicans normally roost at Lake Morton (I counted 42 this morning). They spend a little time preening (like in the header image) and take off in small groups, circling high over the town center and head for nearby feeding areas before returning at dark. One was curious about me.

Brown Pelicans are found locally in our area also but in smaller groups than the American White Pelicans. They are just as curious as their cousins.

Overhead, a Wood Stork lumbered toward shore where a couple of his friends were waiting. Looked like a morning meeting of the chamber of commerce.

Always stately in appearance, a Great Blue Heron passed nearby.

Lake Morton is currently host to about 80 Mute Swans. Too many for this size lake. Every couple of years, some birds are sold to maintain a more balanced population. Is this one a descendant of royalty?

Could be …

Ahhh, a bird to which I can relate! Despite the hustle and bustle of a city awakening to a new day, the Limpkin is unperturbed. “Wake me when the coffee is ready.” I hear ya!

At times, in our rush to reach the “wilderness”, we forget to look in the other direction. Admittedly, a sunrise within the “concrete canyon” of an urban center may not have the same impact as dawn in the forest, swamp or shore, but a short drive might reveal unexpected rewards once we arrive – Downtown.

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!