To the uninitiated, visiting a wastewater treatment facility at sunrise may not sound very appealing. Birders, however, are – well – “different”.
I have heard about the Viera Wetlands for several years and was excited to finally be planning a trip to explore the area. (The name of the area was officially changed to the “Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands” in 2007, in honor of a county worker killed in a traffic accident.) The community of Viera is in Brevard County on Florida’s east coast near Cocoa Beach. The wetlands are an integral part of Brevard County’s water reuse system. The constructed wetland system processes reclaimed water for irrigation or overflow into the adjacent Four-mile Canal. This unique system results in increased water quality and cost savings over traditional water treatment. One could easily drive around the area in less than 30 minutes. Taking it a bit slower and exploring all the area has to offer might be more rewarding for some.
As I put the camera equipment and provisions into the truck, I noticed there was a thin coating of ice on the windshield. It must be cold! A few minutes later, fortified with strong coffee for me and rich hot chocolate for Gini, we were headed east to the other side of the state. As we neared the Atlantic coast, the sky began to lighten and the edge of the world glowed in a range of blue, pink and orange that no artist could duplicate.
We eased through the gate of the water treatment plant and pulled onto the berm road which winds around the four “cells” of water. Although your attention is drawn to the water, don’t forget to look the other way, too. The perimeter of the area is lined with pine and hardwood trees and there are agricultural fields throughout the area. So while the water is active with ducks, herons and egrets, the tree line holds warblers, flycatchers and woodpeckers.
The berm roads are set up so you can literally bird all day long without leaving your vehicle. The roads are wide enough for you to move to one side and allow others to pass. You can stop and walk as much as you like and that’s probably the best way to spot birds which may hide in the reeds close to the shoreline. Don’t forget, this is Florida, and alligators like to hide in those same reeds! We saw some excellent ‘gator specimens (that means BIG) during the day.
One other good reason to get out of the vehicle occasionally is to scan overhead for raptors. We saw Bald Eagles, American Kestrels, Red-shouldered Hawks, Northern Harriers, Ospreys and Crested Caracaras.
Blue-winged Teal were abundant, often mixed with rafts of American Coot. Lots of Pied-billed Grebes also hung around with the coots, perhaps believing there is safety in numbers. Pairs of Hooded Mergansers plowed the shallow water in their hunt for fish and crustaceans.
We took a break for breakfast, and were treated to the haunting calls of Sandhill Cranes as they moved from the fields to the marsh. Hundreds of coots and ducks gabbled, dove and flew from one pond to another. A Bald Eagle perched atop a palm tree stump. The air was beginning to warm and the blue of the sky deepened.
Circling the ponds revealed one unique sight after another. A secretive Green Heron stalked insects among the reeds. Ring-necked Ducks and Northern Shovelers fed, preened and napped in the warm sun. Alligators and turtles basked on the banks. Great Blue Herons are currently nesting and we saw several nests in the tops of palm trees. We watched one as she gently turned her eggs and settled down to cover them with that large blue body.
Across the street from the treatment plant are two additional ponds known as the Dan Click Ponds. It’s a bit more primitive than the Viera section but it’s easy to drive around the ponds fairly quickly and it’s a less busy area to walk or bike. We saw plenty of water birds, including fair numbers of Ring-necked Ducks and Blue-winged Teal. There was one lone male Bufflehead I would have loved to photograph but he remained a small white speck in the center of the lake. We watched a beautiful female Northern Harrier work the shoreline of these ponds and terrorize the ducks. There were a lot of butterflies in the area, mostly Zebra Longwings and Gulf Fritillaries. This was a pleasant venue for enjoying our picnic lunch.
As if all this wasn’t enough, there is a four-mile (6.44 km) road you can drive from the Click Ponds to a trail head known as Moccasin Tract. Here there are two hiking trails, about 2.5 miles (4.02 km) each. One leads to the St. Johns River and the other to Lake Windner. Much of the terrain along the trails is flat, unshaded and over uneven ground, so be sure you plan accordingly. Along the drive to and from this area, we saw Savannah Sparrows, American Kestrels, Red-shouldered Hawks, Wood Storks, Eastern Phoebes and an Armadillo.
“Ready to head home?”, I asked. By now, my beautiful bride has learned to translate what I say into what I mean. She instinctively knew that what I was actually asking was: “Would you mind if we drove around the ponds one more time?”. Most of the same birds we saw during the morning were still present. Coots and ducks were settling down further from shore as the evening approached.
As we rounded a bend, we witnessed one of those struggles nature allows us to observe once in awhile. A Great Blue Heron was attempting to pull a snake loose from his hold on the roots of a patch of reeds. (Read more of this encounter and see the series of photographs in our next post.)
Just before we left the area, we watched another hunter in action. A Tricolored Heron found a minnow in the shallow water. In the photograph of the heron stabbing the water, notice his eye. Birds have a nictitating membrane which covers their eyes to protect them, in this case from the water. It causes the bird’s eyes to appear white or gray.
The light was slowly fading and we headed home extremely content.
Here are a few images of our day.
A female Red-bellied Woodpecker searches the trunk of a pine tree for breakfast.
As we ate our breakfast, a Bald Eagle perched atop the stump of a palm tree and kept watch over the area.
A Crested Caracara zoomed in over a tree line and kept going at a high rate of speed.
“Stealthy” definitely describes a Green Heron. It’s like watching the hands of a clock. You know he’s moving, but you can’t actually see him doing it!
Crayfish are on the menu for this Great Egret. A little hot sauce, a cracker……I’m hungry again already!
Small brown birds are usually difficult for me to see. Then, when they perch on the brown ground among the brown leaves and the brown twigs – well, I think there’s a sparrow in the picture somewhere. Probably a Savannah Sparrow. It’s brown.
Earlier, I mentioned it’s a good idea to get out and walk once in awhile. This was one of those times. A Wilson’s Snipe was up against a bank and couldn’t be seen from the road.
Two Great Blue Herons in the palm tree condo community, both on nests.
Grasshoppers can’t hop fast enough to elude a hungry Cattle Egret.
A male Hooded Merganser got nervous with me skulking along the shore and took off. A short distance away, a more laid back pair fished in the shallows.
Butterfly Break! A Gulf Fritillary.
Pied-billed Grebe, the little bird with the Big Attitude!
Something disturbed these coots from across the lake and they came crash-landing close to us with a lot of noise and splashing.
American Coots resting and asking fashion advice.
I’m always surprised how quick an Armadillo can be! I had to hurry in order to get a photo of this guy who disappeared into a gully.
A Great Egret in breeding plumage.
The Tricolored Heron is great to watch as he hunts. This one spotted a minnow, stabbed and missed and squawked indignantly as it flew away. (You can see the nictitating membrane over his eye in the second picture.)
Life settled down as the evening approached. It’s a lovely place to spend a day.
Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit.