White Ibises gather in groups in shallow wetlands and estuaries in the southeastern United States. At each step, their bright red legs move through the water and their curved red bill probes the muddy surface below. White Ibises nest in colonies in trees and shrubs along the water’s edge, changing locations nearly every year. Fun Fact: Male White Ibises are super protective. They guard the nest and their female to prevent other ibises from stealing sticks from the nest and from advances of other males during nest building and egg laying. It’s not until night when the risks are lower that the female is left alone.
You’ll need sharp eyes to catch sight of an American Bittern. This streaky, brown and buff heron can materialize among the reeds, and disappear as quickly, especially when striking a concealment pose with neck stretched and bill pointed skyward. These stealthy carnivores stand motionless amid tall marsh vegetation, or patiently stalk fish, frogs, and insects. They are at their most noticeable in spring, when the marshes resound with their odd booming calls that sounds like the gulps of a thirsty giant. Fun Fact: American Bitterns are heard more often than seen. Their booming, clacking, gulping calls have earned them some colorful nicknames, including “stake-driver,” “thunder-pumper,” “water-belcher,” and “mire-drum.”
Wood Storks wade through southeastern swamps and wetlands. Although this stork doesn’t bring babies, it is a good flier, soaring on thermals with neck and legs outstretched. This bald-headed wading bird stands just over 3 feet tall, towering above almost all other wetland birds. It slowly walks through wetlands with its long, hefty bill down in the water feeling for fish and crustaceans. This ungainly looking stork roosts and nests in colonies in trees above standing water. FUN FACT: When it gets hot outside to keep nestlings cool, Wood Stork parents regurgitate water over the nestlings. Maybe not as fun as a water park, but it does the trick
The flamboyant Roseate Spoonbill looks like it came straight out of a Dr. Seuss book with its bright pink feathers, red eye staring out from a partly bald head, and giant spoon-shaped bill. Groups sweep their spoonbills through shallow fresh or salt waters snapping up crustaceans and fish. They fly with necks outstretched, to and from foraging and nesting areas along the coastal southeastern U.S., and south to South America. These social birds nest and roost in trees and shrubs with other large wading birds. FUN FACTS: As humans, we are all too familiar with hair loss as we get older. Roseate Spoonbills, it turns out, are familiar with balding too, but instead of losing hair they lose feathers from the top of their head as they get older. They get their pink coloration from the foods they eat. Crustaceans and other aquatic invertebrates contain pigments called carotenoids that help turn their feathers pink.
Egrets for the most part are easy to spot their white feathers stand out against most backgrounds, (The Reddish Egret being the exception) The largest of the Egrets is the Great Egret which stands 40 inches tall with a wingspan up to 67 inches. In 1953, the great egret in flight was chosen as the symbol of the National Audubon Society, which was formed in part to prevent the killing of birds for their feathers.
The Reddish Egret reaches 32 inches in length, with a 49 inch wingspan. It stalks its prey visually in shallow water far more actively than other herons and egrets, frequently running energetically and using the shadow of its wings to reduce glare on the water once it is in position to spear a fish; the result is a fascinating dance. Due to its bold, rapacious yet graceful feeding behavior, author Pete Dunne nicknamed the reddish egret “the Tyrannosaurus rex of the Flats”. Even now that makes me smile.
The smallest of the egrets is the Cattle Egret has a short, thick-neck and spends most of its time in fields rather than streams. It forages at the feet of grazing cattle, head bobbing with each step, or rides on their backs to pick at ticks. This stocky white heron has yellow plumes on its head and neck during breeding season.
The Snowy Egret is the fanciest of the egrets. At one time, the plumes of the snowy egret were in great demand as decorations for women’s hats. They were hunted for these plumes and this reduced the population of the species to dangerously low levels. Now protected in the United States by law, under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, this bird’s population has rebounded. It uses it’s yellow feet as lures for fish.
The reason I am so drawn to the Gulf Coast, is the abundance of birds espeically the long legged waders. The most recognized and largest is the Great Blue Heron. An adult can stand 4 feet tall with a wing span of up to 6 feet. Herons locate their food by sight and usually swallow it whole. They have been known to choke on prey that is too large. The next largest is the Tricolored Heron, formerly known as the Louisiana Heron measuring in at 3 feet high with a 38 inch wingspan. I saw one tri-colored in the Everglades, fly out over the stream and dip its toes in and out of the water, then fly back to its roost to see if he attracted a fish. Then there is the Little Blue Heron at 2 feet tall. As the name suggests, as an adult it is blue, but as a juvenile it is white, as a beginner birder this was quite confusing. Little Blues tend to walk around the water looking for it’s meal. One of the most colorful is the Green Heron only 17 inches tall – one of my favorites is very chatty. I usually hear it before I see it. An interesting fact about the Green Heron, is that it can use actual bait to lure in fish to where he is hunting.
There are also 2 nocturnal feeders: the Yellow CrownedNight Heron and the Black Crowned Night Herons.
Here are a couple of my favorite shots of Herons with their feathers ruffled.
The Everglades National Park in Southern Florida is my all time favorite. Here are a few of the reasons why I love it.
It is the nation’s slowest, widest river—a constant stream of freshwater roughly 60 miles wide, moving at a speed of around 2.5 miles per day as it makes its way south to Florida Bay. There is nothing like the sound of the sawgrass as you paddle through.
The Everglades features over 350 species of birds. Although I could do without the black vultures pecking at my windshield wipers.
It is the only place on earth where Crocodiles and Alligators coexist. Luckily the crocodiles are pretty chill.
It is home to the Florida Panther, one of the most endangered species on earth. There are currently less than 100 remaining.
These= ecosystems compose the most important breeding grounds for tropical wading birds on the continent. The long legged waders being my favorite.
Both dolphins and manatees can be found in the bay.
Unfortunately Burmese pythons have invaded the park. In Everglades National Park alone, agents removed more than 2,000 Burmese pythons from the park as of 2017. The pythons are believed to be responsible for drastic decreases in the populations of some mammals within the park.
During this month the winter cold (except here in south Florida) fastens its grip, and nights are at their longest and darkest. It is also sometimes called the Moon before Yule. The term Long Night’s Moon is a doubly appropriate name because the midwinter night is indeed long, and because the Moon is above the horizon for a long time. The midwinter full Moon has a high trajectory across the sky because it is opposite a low Sun.
Join me in my monthly ritual and fill your favorite drinking glass with a beverage of your choice and toast to living the dream, or dreaming the dream. Toast to family, friends, health, and wellness.
Almost 70 miles west of Key West, FL lies a cluster of seven islands, composed of coral reefs and sand, called the Dry Tortugas. With the surrounding shoals and water, they make up Dry Tortugas National Park, an area noted for bird and marine life and shipwrecks. Fort Jefferson, Its central cultural feature, is one of the nation’s largest 1800s masonry forts.
The Dry Tortugas has been on my bucket list for decades. Not only was I surrounded by a vast expanse of sea, sky, sandy beaches, and coral reef, but I stepped into a park rich in history including a 19th century fort, The Civil War, and its most famous prisoner, Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was imprisoned for his involvement in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
What stayed with me after the tour, is that this massive six-sided building constructed of 16 million handmade red bricks was designed to be a massive gun platform, impervious to assault, and able to destroy any enemy ships foolhardy enough to come within range of its powerful guns. And, they never shot at an enemy in the whole time it was active.