“May I Take Your Order?”

When I was a teenager, you knew you had achieved a true milestone in life when you got your first car. It might not have actually been “yours” since your parents likely sent the bank a monthly sum for the privilege of letting you drive the thing. And it probably wasn’t exactly fresh out of the factory either. Which is why there was a class in high school called “auto shop”. Way back then cars were still mechanically simple enough that a few hand tools and enough oil could nurse most vehicles through a couple of years. Prior to this significant event, you were relegated to riding with someone who did have a car (immediately elevating them to the status of “best friend”) or suffering the ultimate ignominy – gulp – riding your bicycle. Once you achieved “car owner” status, one of the requirements was to be seen in the new machine on Friday nights after the football game at the Drive-In. Hamburgers, French fries, a frosted mug of root beer – all brought right to your car and affixed to the window of YOUR CAR on a tray – life was good.

Then came the Drive-Thru. Our planet’s quality of life has declined ever since.

At first, it was a wonderful experience. Drive up, tell the speaker what you want, pick up your food and go – where? Home. Open the bag. Eat your food. Throw away the bag. No one saw you in your cool car. You didn’t visit with your friends. You became surly if the “fast food” wasn’t ready fast enough. As a culture, we became impatient with everything. Quick service replaced quality service in every facet of our lives. The trend continues.

So it was with a huge dose of skepticism and trepidation that I first visited a location touted as a “drive-thru nature experience”. Yikes! Will there be a clown taking my order for which birds I want to see?

I have written a few times here about the truly wonderful Viera Wetlands (officially known as the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands) located near Florida’s east coast in Brevard County. It takes us about an hour-and-a-half to get there but it’s worth it to be able to experience the diversity of life in the area. Part of Brevard County’s water treatment efforts, the wetlands consists of 200 acres and includes four “cells” of about 35 acres each and a central lake. The cells are of differing depths to attract a variety of wildlife including thousands of migrating waterfowl each winter. There are berms around the facility which can be driven, biked or hiked. (See the link below for a number to call and check the condition of the roads as they are often closed during the rainy season. They can be accessed by foot almost any time.) More and more communities are beginning to follow this model for water treatment facilities and we hope it will be as successful as this one. What a wonderful boon to those who are not physically capable of hiking who can now enjoy nature just outside the car window!

Gini and I visited the wetlands this spring and were treated to a very healthy dose of pure Nature. Although our species list of birds (40) was less than prior trips we had some pretty neat highlights: two dozen Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, over a dozen Anhinga and Great Blue Herons (most nesting and/or with juveniles), almost 250 American Coot, several migratory Marsh Wrens, Savannah Sparrows and Swamp Sparrows, a couple of calling King Rails and a half dozen Least Bitterns.

Following our picnic lunch, we paid a visit to Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area, near Christmas, Florida. This is a huge area (almost 31,000 acres) bordered by the Indian River and has over 60 miles of trails to explore. It was late in the day and we didn’t get to do a lot of birding but sure found a host of beautiful blooms!

Photographs can’t really do justice to the experience of all we found, so, you’ll just have to go and see for yourself!

 

Old palm tree stumps make good potential nesting sites for Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

 

Many of the palm trees in the wetlands were in use as nesting platforms by Great Blue Herons. This parent was very attentive to its chick and when Junior raised his head for a better look at this grand-paparazzo, Mama placed a foot on his head and gently persuaded him to keep a lower profile.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron - Juvenile

Great Blue Heron – Juvenile

 

Great Blue Heron - Juvenile

Great Blue Heron – Juvenile

 

Nest building and decoration were the order of the day. Here, an Anhinga moves a newly harvested green twig for better Feng shui. Below, four young Anhinga juveniles impatiently await someone to bring fish for breakfast. (Did you know young Anhinga were almost all white?)

Anhinga

Anhinga

Anhinga

Anhinga

 

For me, Least Bitterns are usually heard but seldom seen. I felt fortunate to actually spot three different individuals today.

Least Bittern

Least Bittern

 

Least Bittern

Least Bittern

Least Bittern

Least Bittern

 

A Great Blue Heron is called a wading bird for a reason. This one didn’t get the memo and attempts to swim after a meal. He soon realized those long legs weren’t long enough and when he regained solid footing took off for the shallow end of the pool.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

 

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

 

Pacing like an expectant father in a maternity ward, a Crested Caracara waits for a Softshell Turtle to finish laying eggs. The turtle nest was adjacent to the road and passing traffic flushed the hungry Caracara. We don’t know if he returned. (This bird has appeared in our blog previously. See: East Coast Adventure and Crested Caracara – An Update. We found out this guy was originally banded/ringed here at Viera Wetlands on October 16, 2006 and was estimated to be two years old at that time. He’s still here which underscores one of the traits of this species which is being very site faithful.)

Crested Caracara, Softshell Turtle

Crested Caracara, Softshell Turtle

 

Only seen here during migration, a Savannah Sparrow forages for seeds and insects.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

 

Yes, it’s one more picture of an American Alligator. This one shows off the results of excellent dental hygiene.

American Alligator

American Alligator

 

At Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area, we found Ying and Yang the twin turtles (Florida Peninsula Cooter).

Florida Peninsula Cooter (Pseudemys floridana peninsularis)

Florida Peninsula Cooter (Pseudemys floridana peninsularis)

 

As we drove toward the Indian River along a very dusty dirt road, it seemed every few feet displayed a different type flower. In a wet section shaded by oak and bay trees was a large section of Lizard’s Tail.

Lizard's Tail (Saururus cernuus)

Lizard’s Tail (Saururus cernuus)

 

In a more prairie-like area we found the showy Largeflower Rosegentian.

Largeflower Rosegentian (Sabatia grandiflora)

Largeflower Rosegentian (Sabatia grandiflora)

 

Near the ground peeking out from leaves of larger plants was the very small but bright Narrowleaf Blue-eyed Grass.

Narrowleaf Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium)

Narrowleaf Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium)

 

Eastern False Dragonhead is also known as Obedient Flower, due to the fact a flower can be turned to face a different direction and it will stay there instead of returning to its original position.

Eastern False Dragonhead (Physostegia purpurea)

Eastern False Dragonhead (Physostegia purpurea)

 

Almost anywhere there was standing water we saw the beautiful Prairie Iris, also called Dixie Iris.

Prairie Iris (Iris hexagona)

Prairie Iris (Iris hexagona)

 

In water that was shallow and not moving, a blanket of yellow signified the presence of carnivorous Bladderwort. The damselfly on this bloom is probably too large to worry about being devoured.

Damselfly On Floating Bladderwort

Damselfly On Floating Bladderwort

 

We had a fantastic day with birds, babies and blooms and we didn’t even have to get out of the car. Don’t be afraid to explore your local drive-thru nature center and maybe order up a Crested Cararcara with a side of Least Bittern!

 

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

 

Additional Information

Viera Wetlands

Tosohatchee WMA

 

Linking to Stewart’s “Wild Bird Wednesday”.  See more birds from around the world at Paying ReadyAttention for

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A Census For The Senses

“For Better Or Worse.” She had no idea.

From braving blizzards, sleeping on rocky ground, suffering heat exhaustion on a small boat 30 miles from land, being lost in the forests of Germany, dodging hailstones in the desert – to being my constant companion no matter the adventure – to raising two perfect children – my wife has no equal. Her positive spirit continued to manifest itself when our bird watching hobby was elevated to a new level recently.

The second Florida Breeding Bird Atlas project began in 2011 and will continue through 2016. When completed, scientists will have data on which species of birds breed within Florida and can compare trends with the first atlas from 25 years ago. Volunteer birders have spent countless hours attempting to sample portions of every county in the state. An ambitious undertaking. As a fellow birder put it, it’s “birding with a purpose”.

A couple of things have happened along the way as I’ve tried to contribute to the atlas effort. I have become a better birder. Although I had an awareness of which birds are residents, this has really fine-tuned my sense of the rhythm of the seasons. My knowledge of the natural history of birds has increased substantially. In addition to just trying to identify a bird, I’ve learned to actually “observe” birds – are they carrying nesting material, where do they nest, when do they breed, how long does it take a chick to fledge, will they have a second (or third) brood during the year – all fascinating stuff! Habitat is everything for attracting birds and I’ve learned about trees, flowers, grasses and unique ecosystems.

The best part has been more of what made it so easy to start this avocation in the first place. We are outside a lot and have enjoyed spectacular sunrises and sunsets, explored new natural areas, marveled at how many stars are packed in a pre-dawn sky, seen a triple rainbow, watched bobcats, coyotes, deer and discovered hosts of flora, fauna and natural happenings we never could have imagined. Oh, and we saw a few birds along the way, too.

We’re looking forward to the final year of the atlas coming up but the experience has added a new dimension to our bird-watching adventures. All of our senses are more alive and each trip is a new learning experience.

The following images are from a couple of trips specifically intended to locate breeding birds in specific areas to add to the atlas data bank. As usual, I can’t resist including some “non-birding” material as well.

 

We live within a few minutes’ drive of the Green Swamp, the second-largest swamp in Florida after the Everglades. Encompassing over 870 square miles (2253 sq km) the swamp includes headwaters of four major rivers and is a vital source of filtering water which eventually enters Florida’s underground aquifer system. This field of recently rolled hay is on the edge of the swamp and is seen here just at dawn with a bit of typical fog lingering.

Morning Hay

Morning Hay

 

What the atlas is all about: babies! A Sandhill Crane chick can walk and swim within eight hours of hatching. This youngster will lose its buffy plumage and look more like Mom and Dad by the end of the summer.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

 

Black-necked Stilts find plenty of shallow water in our area for hunting and use the plentiful mud shorelines to nest. Below you can see the size of the stilt relative to a Sandhill Crane and a Glossy Ibis.

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt

 

Black-necked Stilt, Sandhill Crane

Black-necked Stilt, Sandhill Crane

Black-necked Stilt, Glossy Ibis

Black-necked Stilt, Glossy Ibis

 

Mottled Ducks may be in danger of disappearing due to extensive inter-breeding with Mallards. These two appear to be “actual” Mottled Ducks as they don’t seem to show any Mallard traits but it is becoming increasingly difficult to be certain.

Mottled Duck

Mottled Duck

 

A small island in a pond in a pasture provides a protected rookery for a couple hundred Cattle Egrets. Also present were a few Anhingas, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets. Most of these birds were sitting on nests and several had young in the nest.

Rookery

Rookery

 

Many Bald Eagle nests are monitored by different groups in the state, but this one had not yet been recorded when we found it late last year. Bald Eagles in Florida usually breed from November through May. We continued to drive by the newly built nest periodically and finally spotted this young eagle, almost ready to fledge. One of the parents flew in with a fish, deposited it in the nest and kept an eye on junior from a nearby branch.

Bald Eagle - Juvenile

Bald Eagle – Juvenile

 

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

 

A pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers had young in this cavity and the adults constantly flew back and forth providing food delivery for the kids. Here, the female had to lean to one side as the male exploded out of the cavity. Sorry for the blurry photo, it’s the birds’ fault.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

 

This Brown Anole had a close encounter of the predator kind not too long ago. Fortunately, they are designed with a “break-away” tail which allows them to escape such attacks. The replacement may not be an exact match but it sure beats the alternative! This male is displaying a throat fan, or dew lap, which is used to attract attention during courtship and for territorial defense.

Brown Anole

Brown Anole

 

We spotted a Wild Turkey hen with 12 chicks. She stood watch as all the youngsters struggled to cross a fallen log.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

 

Great Blue Skimmers love our wooded swampy areas. They are one of our larger dragonflies and are distinguished by a white face. The males are powdery blue and the females, as seen here, are brownish/orange.

Great Blue Skimmer - Female  (Libellula vibrans)

Great Blue Skimmer – Female (Libellula vibrans)

 

Many homeowners erect elaborate houses and gourd complexes in the hope of attracting Purple Martins each year. In the event of a housing shortage, no worries, the resourceful birds will find shelter. In this case, the end supports of utility line structures are hollow and make a fine place to raise little martins.

Purple Martin

Purple Martin

 

Whether we’re bird-watching, birding, atlasing or just out for a drive, Gini and I continue to be truly blessed to be able to enjoy what Nature has to offer – together. When you have a chance, take your own census of your senses and know that Life Is Good.

 

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

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