White pelicans

New bird for the blog: American White Pelican!

We found a small group of them at the Port Mayaca lock and dam between Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie Canal, in Martin County. It is a consistent winter location for these unusual birds.

American White Pelicans breed mainly on isolated islands in freshwater lakes or, in the northern Great Plains, on ephemeral islands in shallow wetlands.

And….

In the winter, they favor coastal bays, inlets, estuaries, and sloughs where they can forage in shallow water and rest on exposed spots like sandbars. 

There were two groups of White Pelicans at the dam last Saturday. This group was resting and preening on a sort of a sandbar.

Note the Snowy Egret on the left, for size. White Pelicans are one of the largest birds in North America, almost one-third bigger than Brown Pelicans.

Another small group of White Pelicans was dip fishing nearby. So different from the way Brown Pelicans dive.

On the water they dip their pouched bills to scoop up fish, or tip-up like an oversized dabbling duck. Sometimes, groups of pelicans work together to herd fish into the shallows for easy feeding.

Strange and lovely birds, wonderful to get a good look at them.

One man’s work to protect White Pelicans from plume hunters in the early 1900s led to the creation of the first U.S. National Wildlife Refuge at Pelican Island in Vero Beach. Read the story at Atlas Obscura: Pelican Island.

Unique place

We love the ocean around here.

This is just one part of a gorgeous large sculpture by renowned local artist Geoffrey C. Smith, on display in the new Ocean EcoCenter at Florida Oceanographic on Hutchinson Island in Stuart, Florida.

This is a view of the new Ocean EcoCenter from the other side of the Gamefish Lagoon. It opened last July. Read about it here and here.

Inside, there was a lot to learn about. Or you could just flow through and get a quick general impression.

This is a view from the observation deck on top of the center, looking northwest down into the gamefish lagoon. The pavilion on the left side of the photo overlooks the sea turtle enclosures.

Beyond the green of the mangroves is the Indian River Lagoon, most biodiverse estuary in North America.

This photo from the third floor deck does not do justice to what is swimming around in the gamefish lagoon. Just go see for yourself!

The Gamefish Lagoon is a 750,000 gallon saltwater aquarium. It is home to over 20 different fish species, including stingrays and nurse sharks, and 4 non-releasable sea turtles.

More info plus livestream FISHCAM HERE.

View to the northeast. You can catch a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean a short distance away.

Salt water from the ocean gets pumped into the lagoon.

Here’s a fish from a tank inside the EcoCenter. It is some type of filefish I believe. But this is a bird blog not a fish blog so let’s cut to the chase…

There are nature trails through mangroves out to the Indian River Lagoon. MAP.

The southern section of trails was closed because it was underwater so we went out and back on the northern trail, with a series of boardwalks over the wettest parts.

We came upon a strange little gathering of Tricolored Herons. There were actually five that we spotted here, walking in and out of the shadows, standing on logs.

I have never seen even two Tricolored Herons together at one time! I have seen them with other wading birds, and ducks and anhingas, but never another member of their own species. Breeding season is late spring and summer, I believe, so it’s not that.

I got a good look at the elegant Egretta tricolor.

The Tricolored Heron is a sleek and slender heron adorned in blue-gray, lavender, and white. The white stripe down the middle of its sinuous neck and its white belly set it apart from other dark herons. This fairly small heron wades through coastal waters in search of small fish, often running and stopping with quick turns and starts, as if dancing in a ballet. It builds stick nests in trees and shrubs, often in colonies with other wading birds. It’s common in southern saltmarshes and was once known as the Louisiana Heron.

Three long toes pointing forward and one behind seems to do the trick for herons. It’s the same arrangement as perching birds but their much longer toes are good for spreading their weight out as they walk on soft surfaces.

Also elongated compared to other birds: their bills! Good for harpooning fish.

On the walk back, we passed the northern side of the Gamefish Lagoon where this sea turtle was maneuvering into a shallow sunny spot. I believe it’s one of the Green Turtles at Florida Oceanographic, but I’m not sure if it’s Hank, Abe or Turtwig.

First Day Walk, with catbirds

Catbirds are abundant in Savannas Preserve right now.

I could hear them more than see them, but sometimes one or two would pop up out of the shrubs and palmettos and perch in plain sight.

Catbirds are gray with black caps and a telltale rusty red patch under their tails.

This is gallberry, in the holly family of plants.

A catbird’s diet is about 50% fruit and berries. They also eat a variety of insects, spiders, worms and ants.

Catbirds nest in much of North America and are winter visitors to Florida and Central America. It is likely that the Florida birds nest in the mid-Atlantic and New England and Midwestern birds head south to Mexico and beyond.

A lot of human snowbirds are flocking here this winter from other states. But there were no other cars in the small gravel parking lot of the southern entrance to Savannas Preserve State Park, off Jensen Beach Boulevard in Jensen Beach just after 8 a.m. this morning.

I had been up since 5 a.m. since I love mornings, new days, fresh starts, new years.

The Gray Catbird belongs to the genus Dumetella, which means “small thicket.” And that’s exactly where you should go look for this little skulker.

(Have I mentioned how much I love Cornell Lab of Ornithology? They are my main source of bird knowledge and quotes via All About Birds. I support them with my annual membership . Or donate HERE to make a difference for the future of birds.)

The preserve was intensely peaceful this morning – just the sound of distant traffic and the close-by gentle mewing of these birds. (Sometimes the sound they make is more like the waah of a quiet-ish baby.)

It’s a mewing time of year for catbirds, not a singing time. In nesting season the males are as creative in their songs as other members of the mimid family.

Holly berries (food for catbirds) are Christmas-seasonal here in Florida too. I think this is Dahoon holly.

Here is where I took a detour off the main trail in search of the edge of a wetland and maybe a Wilson’s snipe, a bird that has been eluding my efforts to photograph it for a few years now.

New year, new bird was my plan. Alas! I did not find a snipe. So much for my Snipe hunt.

Low sun and a misty morning made spider webs visible. It’s been warm and humid for early winter.

Some webs were more geometric than others.

The edge of the first wetland was too muddy and so I tried a second trail that branched off the main trail.

The combination of crispy dry plant life and mud underfoot is characteristic of the lower-elevation seasonal wetlands in the Savannas.

I saw signs of wild pigs on my walk, and I found a couple of what looked like pig traps. There was a bit of grain left in this one, but the “gate” was held open with a strap and a couple of S hooks, so I’m not sure how the trap works.

Feral pigs are a problem in the Savannas and pretty much all of Florida.

…the problem can be traced to 1539 when Hernando DeSoto brought hogs into southwest Florida, and some of them found freedom in the New World. Nearly 500 years later, there are some 3 million descendants of these “pioneer pigs” across the nation.

Something made a slippery splash near here, like a small gator, big snake, maybe an otter. Or a small pig? I did not see it but I remained quite vigilant, stepping carefully, scanning near and far.

I believe this type of attention to our surroundings is something we are losing to screens and the Great Indoors, so I like to refresh my skills now and then.

When the trail degraded into a network of pig paths, all dug up and snout-rooted, I decided to backtrack to more comfortable walking.

One of the many problems caused by the pigs…

Rooting — digging for foods below the surface of the ground — destabilizes the soil surface, uprooting or weakening native vegetation, damaging lawns and causing erosion. Their wallowing behavior destroys small ponds and stream banks, which may affect water quality.

This is a yellow milkwort.

It was growing in the middle of one of the lesser-used trails I walked this morning. It’s a Florida native annual herbaceous wildflower, and so named because it was thought that milkwort growing in cow fields would cause cows to give more milk.

I think it looks like a little yellow fireworks explosion. Happy New Year!

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world. – John Muir