Hungryland and Florida’s weirdest hawk

My sister and I were texting and she asked what I was up to for the rest of the day. I said, “We’re heading out in the Jeep to a place called Hungryland.” She said, “Is that a restaurant?” Ha!

It would be a great name for a restaurant but it’s actually a WEA, a Florida Wildlife and Environmental Area. A restaurant for wildlife!

The John C. and Mariana Jones/Hungryland WEA comprises more than 16,600 acres in Martin and Palm Beach counties, seven miles west of Jupiter. Google maps location HERE.

From Wild South Florida

Jones Hungryland Wildlife and Environmental Area is a series of vast wet meadows and slash pine flatwoods, places that are wet even at the height of the dry season. The WEA and surrounding lands are part of the historic Hungryland Slough, an inhospitable place that gave refuge to Seminoles fleeing the U.S. Army during the mid-1800s. Later, it became cattle country and in the 1960s, was the proposed site of a housing development; builders dug a canal network through the site in an attempt to drain the land. Fortunately for us, they failed to file proper plans, Martin County successfully sued to stop the project and the land eventually ended up in state hands during the 1990s as the John C. and Mariana Jones Hungryland Wildlife and Environmental Area, preserved for all time.

More on Hungryland from Wild South Florida HERE.

We were Jeeping along next to the main canal when I spotted a raptor overhead and called for my husband to stop.

I snapped a few quick photos and this was my best shot…

It was a Snail Kite. I believe this is a juvenile, or maybe a female. Adult males are slate gray with white underneath.

It’s a bird that birders who travel to Florida definitely want to add to their life lists. Here is the range map for Snail Kites…

What is most notable about Snail Kites is that their diet is almost exclusively snails. Yes, escargot is on the menu at the Hungryland wildlife restaurant.

From All About Birds (Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

The highly specialized Snail Kite flies on broad wings over tropical wetlands as it hunts large freshwater snails. These handsome gray-and-black raptors have a delicate, strongly curved bill that fits inside the snail shells to pull out the juicy prey inside. Unlike most other raptors, Snail Kites nest in colonies and roost communally, sometimes among other waterbirds such as herons and Anhingas. They are common in Central and South America but in the U.S. they occur only in Florida and are listed as Federally Endangered.

A snail-eating hawk? The world is full of wonders.

Snail Kites do not plunge into the water to capture snails and never use the bill to capture prey. Rather, they use their feet to capture snails at or below the surface of the water.

Snail Kite habitat consists of freshwater marshes and the shallow vegetated edges of natural and manmade lakes where apple snails can be found. Snail Kites require foraging areas that are relatively clear and open so that they can visually search for apple snails. Dense vegetation is not conducive to efficient foraging. Nearly continuous flooding of wetlands is needed to support apple snail populations that in turn sustain foraging by Snail Kites. Disposal of domestic sewage through septic tanks and runoff of nutrient-laden water from agricultural lands degrade the water quality and promote dense growth of exotic and invasive plants such as cattail, water lettuce, water hyacinth, and hydrilla, thereby reducing the ability of Snail Kites to locate apple snails.

Clean water is good for everybirdy.

Culvert birding near Green River

Pink bird, gray wall.

This Roseate Spoonbill was on its way to a roadside culvert along Green River Parkway yesterday.

Spoonbills incoming.

This mucky spot has been attracting a lot of birds lately. “Something hatched,” my husband theorized. He’s been biking past this spot and telling me, almost daily, that there’s a nice concentration of photogenic birds there.

The pipes pass under Green River Parkway to a series of freshwater ponds in the fenced-in area known as Green River.

Limpkin and chick, looking for lunch.

The gangly, brown-and-white Limpkin looks a bit like a giant rail or perhaps a young night-heron. Its long bill is bent and twisted at the tip, an adaptation for removing snails from the shell. Limpkins are tropical wetland birds whose range reaches into Florida.

When I approached the culvert, there were three women and three kids there already. The women were talking while two of the three kids threw rocks and snail shells in the general direction of the birds.

The spoonbills didn’t seem to mind. The boys’ aim wasn’t very good. But I still felt someone should take the birds’ side in this matter.

“Hi,” I said. “Just letting you know, I see an alligator here sometimes. Down where the boys are.”

“We’ve seen that alligator before,” said one woman. “It’s a little one.”

Forget Florida Man, there should be a Florida Mom meme!

I’d include the time I was at the beach and saw a shark in the waves and kids swimming nearby while moms were on the beach chatting and I thought, I don’t want to be annoying but they would probably want to know about a shark. I would. So I told them and one said, “We saw it. It’s a lemon shark.”

I took a few more photos while the boys tossed stones, then I tried a new angle. I said to the little girl who was not throwing stones (loud enough for the moms to hear), “Do you see the chicks? Aren’t they cute? See that one there, all little and brown and fuzzy, hiding behind its mom?”

“Aw, it’s cute!” she said. Soon the small group of humans continued on their way.

I continued north on the bike path, scanning the drainage ditch for birds like this Great Egret.

And this Tricolored Heron.

I passed one of the side entrances to the southern section of Savannas Preserve State Park.

Wildlife enthusiasts and photographers will enjoy the diversity of habitats this undisturbed area has to offer. 

But not right now.

State parks are closed, to prevent gatherings of more than ten people in one place.

So I kept walking north, the road and ditch on my left and the forbidden state park on my right.

Behind me, the bike trail crosses over the ditch on a small bridge, perfect for bird and alligator watching. This is near the boundary between Martin and St. Lucie counties.

Savannas Preserve to my right, so inviting.

I met a man walking south along the low dike as I walked north. He had binoculars around his neck, a good sign. We talked birds and favorite places to find birds. We lamented loss of access to a park we never see anybody else in. We agreed we don’t care if handshakes, hugs, close-talking and crowds never make a comeback. Then we each continued our own solo stalk along the margins.

Great Egret.

Spoonbill above. I turned and retraced my steps back to the culvert.

A White Ibis had arrived while I was gone.

I watched Limpkins.

This one stayed close to the foraging adult.

Roseate Spoonbills and Limpkins.

Limpkins eat almost exclusively apple snails (genus Pomacea), plus at least three other native freshwater snail species and five species of freshwater mussels. They also eat small amounts of seeds and insects, along with lizards, frogs, insects, crustaceans such as crayfish, grasshoppers, worms, and aquatic midges. Where the water is clear, Limpkins hunt for snails and mussels by sight, walking along the water’s edge or into the shallows (rarely wading deeply) and seizing prey quickly with the bill. When waters are muddy, or have extensive vegetation, they probe into the water rapidly, rather like ibis, sometimes with the head submerged. If vegetation cover is extensive, Limpkins often walk out onto the mat of floating vegetation to hunt snails that cling to the undersides of leaves and stalks. To extract the mollusk from its shell, Limpkins place the forceps-like tip of their bill into the snail or mussel to cut the adductor muscle, using scissoring motions. They then discard the shells, often in a pile if prey is abundant in one spot.

I got a good long look at Limpkins, a bird I had never heard of before I moved to Florida a few years ago.

Getting a good start in life.

My final culvert bird was a solo Wood Stork.

Great spot, I shall return.

Before driving off, I decided to pop over to Green River for a quick look. I was thinking: I bet there’s one more special thing out there before I’m finished for the morning.

There was. Flying low over distant marsh, my first Snail Kite!

The highly specialized Snail Kite flies on broad wings over tropical wetlands as it hunts large freshwater snails.

The kite is blog bird #224.