(Last updated August, 2016)
There are so many beautiful and interesting birds to see along the rivers and springs runs of north Florida throughout the year. Then during the winter are added the northern visitors and it gets even better. Here are some of the most commonly seen while kayaking.
ANHINGAS AND CORMORANTS
The Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) is also known as the Snake-Bird for its habit of swimming with its body submerged and only its long head and neck sticking out of the water and as the Water-Turkey for its broad tail. It has a long, thin neck and a sharp tapering bill which it uses to spear fish.
Most of the male anhinga’s body is a glossy black-green with the wings and tail being a glossy black-blue. The female anhinga is similar to the male except that it has a pale buff or light brown head, neck, and upper chest. They have white/silver patches on their wings. Young Anhinga look like the adults.
Anhinga, unlike most other water birds, do not have an oil gland so it is not able to waterproof its feathers. Thus the feathers can become waterlogged, making the bird barely buoyant. This allows the Anhinga to dive easily and search for underwater prey for several minutes at a time. But it also means that Anhinga must spend considerable time perching with wings outspread to dry them out.
Anhinga are rarely found out of freshwater except during severe droughts. Their diet consists of fish and small amounts of crustaceans and invertebrates. Anhingas typically spear fish through their sides with a rapid thrust of their partially opened bill. The Anhinga is also an adept soarer. When trying to take off with water-logged wings you may see them flapping their wings while running along the surface of the water.
Often confused with the Anhinga, the Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) is a large brown-black water bird with yellow-orange facial skin and a hooked bill. Like the Anhinga, they have little preening oil so you will also see them perched on logs and in trees drying out their feathers. In the breeding season, adults develop a small double crest of black or white feathers.
Double-crested Cormorants are the most widespread cormorant in North America, and the one most frequently seen in freshwater. They breed on the coast as well as on large inland lakes. They form colonies of stick nests built high in trees on islands or in patches of flooded timber. Males and females look alike. The plumage of juvenile double-crested cormorants is more dark gray or brownish. As a bird ages, its plumage darkens. The bill of a juvenile is mostly orange or yellowish.
You can distinguish Anhingas from Cormorants by their beaks, faces and swimming patterns. Anhingas have a long, straight, pointed beak while the Cormorant’s beak is hooked. Anhingas faces are black while the Cormorant has yellow-orange skin at the base of the beak.
When swimming, the back of the Cormorant is above the water while the Anhinga’s back is below the water surface. Both are diving birds, so you may catch one surfacing right beside your kayak.
The American White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) is a long-legged wading bird frequently seen along shorelines and shallow swamps. They have long, down-curved bills, and usually feed as a group, probing mud for crustaceans, insects and small fish. They are frequently seen with herons. They are colony nesters and flock together at night and in bad weather in trees along rivers and streams.
The white plumage and pink facial skin of adult American White Ibises are distinctive. Adults have black wingtips that are usually only visible in flight. In non-breeding season the long, curved bill and long legs are a pinky-orange. During the first ten days of the breeding season, the skin darkens to a deep pink on the bill and an almost purple-tinted red on the legs. It then fades to a paler pink, and the tip of the bill becomes blackish.
Males and females are similar in coloring, but juvenile ibis are a mottled brown to blend in to their surroundings. As it matures, white feathers begin appearing on the back and it undergoes a gradual molt to the white adult plumage. This is mostly complete by the end of the second year, although some brown feathers persist on the head and neck until the end of the third year.
The stately Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is the largest of the North American herons with long legs, a S-curved neck, and thick, dagger-like bill. Head, chest, and wing plumes give a shaggy appearance. The Great Blue can stand over 5 feet tall and have a wing span of over 6 feet. In flight, the Great Blue Heron curls its neck into a tight aerodynamic “S” shape. Great Blue Herons appear blue-gray from a distance, with a wide black stripe over the eye. In flight, the upper side of the wing is two-toned: pale on the fore-wing and darker on the flight feathers. A pure white subspecies known as the Great White Heron occurs from coastal southern Florida through the Caribbean.
Males and females are identical and immature birds are marked the same, but are duller in color with a duller blackish-gray crown. In breeding season the bill becomes orange and it has plumes on the lower back. Great Blue Herons can be found in both saltwater and freshwater habitats and range from Alaska to South America. A cold-hearty bird, the can survive harsh winters if the water remains ice-free and full of fish.
Like other herons, Great Blues are stalkers. They wade slowly or stand statue-like, watching for fish and other prey in shallow water or open fields. Then they stab with their strong bills in a lightning-fast thrust of the neck and head. Herons locate their food by sight and usually swallow it whole. They are generally solitary, except during the breeding season and nesting. Their long legs allow them to fish deeper waters than other wading birds providing them with a niche other birds do not occupy. Great Blues have a definite individual personal space. Violate it and they will fly off downstream with an annoyed squawk.
The elegant Great Egret (Ardea alba egretta) is a dazzling sight along Florida streams and is one of the most frequently seen large birds on our kayak trips. It is sometimes incorrectly called the Great White Heron, but that name is more properly applied to the white morph of the Great Blue Heron found in extreme south Florida and throughout the Caribbean. They are wary birds and will frequently take flight downstream away from you if you pass them too closely in your kayak.
Slightly smaller than a Great Blue Heron, they are still large birds about 3 feet tall with impressive wing spans of over 5 feet. You’ll find Great Egrets in both freshwater and saltwater habitats i the tropics all over the world. Males, females and juveniles are identical in appearance. During breeding season the bill becomes darker, the face patch changes to a greenish-blue, and delicate trailing feathers appear on the back.
They hunt in classic heron fashion, standing immobile or stealthily wading through wetlands to capture fish, crustaceans, frogs and snakes. Then, with startling speed, the egrets strike with a jab of their long neck and bill. All feathers on Great Egrets are white. Their bills are yellowish-orange, and the legs and feet black. They are colony nesters, typically placing stick nests high in trees, often on islands as protection from predators such as raccoons. Great Egrets wade in shallow water to hunt fish, frogs, and other small aquatic animals. Great Egrets were hunted nearly to extinction for their plumes in the late nineteenth century, sparking conservation movements and some of the first laws to protect birds. It thus became the symbol of the National Audubon Society.
The Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) is a medium-sized white bird that can be identified by their black bill, black legs and bright yellow feet. Adults have a yellow patch in front of their eyes. During breeding season the eye patch turns red and Snowy Egrets sport beautiful, shaggy plumes that once were used to decorate ladies hats. Over-hunting to satisfy the demands of the fashion industry almost caused extinction of the species, but also helped lead to the passage in 1918 of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act – one of the first federal environmental laws in the US. Today Snowy Egrets can frequently be seen in shallow water along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts as well as inland streams. They are year-round residents in Florida. They hunt by shuffling their feet in the water to stir up fish, frogs, worms, crustaceans, and insects which they then spear with their beak.
The Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) is usually seen in open fields, foraging on insects that the cattle disturb. Originally from Africa, it found its way to North America in 1953 and quickly spread from the northern United States down into South America. Adult Cattle Egrets are all white with a yellow bill and legs. During breeding season they have gold plumage on their head, chest, and back. Juveniles have dark legs and bill. Cattle Egrets stalk insects and other small animals on the ground in grassy fields, generally exploiting drier and more open habitats than other heron species. They nest in dense colonies of stick nests in emergent wetlands and marshes, often mixed with other species of herons, so you are mostly likely to see Cattle Egrets while kayaking during their summer breeding season.
From a distance, the Green Heron (Butorides virescens) is a dark, stocky bird hunched on slender yellow legs at the water’s edge hunting for fish and amphibians. They typically stand on vegetation or solid ground along quiet streams or shaded riverbanks. With their short legs they don’t wade as often as larger herons.
Seen up close, it is a striking bird with a deep green back, a rich rusty-red body, and a dark iridescent green cap that is often raised into a short crest when disturbed. The wings are dark gray. They eat mostly small fish such as minnows, sunfishes, gizzard shad; also crayfish and other crustaceans, aquatic insects, frogs, and tadpoles. They sometimes lure in fish using small items such as twigs or insects as bait.
The Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) is a medium-sized heron. They have a black crown and back with the remainder of the body white or grey, red eyes, and short yellow legs. Two or three long white plumes, erected in greeting and courtship displays, extend from the back of the head. They are relatively stocky with shorter bills, legs, and necks than other herons. They nest in colonies on stick platforms in a group of trees or on the ground in protected locations.
The Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea) is a medium-sized, rather stocky heron. They sport a black face and bill with a white cheek. The body is gray and the legs are yellow. They are best recognized by their yellowish crown stripe.
They usually nest in small colonies, sometimes with other wading birds, and forage along tidal marshes, in tide pools and the shores of water bodies where crustaceans are abundant. The vast majority of their diet consists of crustaceans.
The Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor) is a medium-sized, slender heron formerly known as the Louisiana Heron. It has a blue-gray back and neck with yellow legs, a whitish belly and a white line down the neck. The beak is yellow/gray with a black tip. The male and female are similar in appearance. The tricolored heron stalks its prey in shallow or deeper water, often running as it does so. Sometimes it stirs up the bottom sediments with one foot. It eats fish, crustaceans, reptiles and insects.
Immature Tricolors are similar to the adults, but are more reddish in color. The adult slate blue plumage comes in gradually over a couple of years. During the breeding season the bill becomes bright blue with a black tip, the neck feathers take on a purple cast, and the legs turn a deep pink. Although it is solitary in its feeding, it is sociable in nesting, often in very large colonies with other herons and egrets. The female builds the nest with sticks and grasses gathered by the male. They nest in trees or thickets. The Tri-colored Heron used to be called the Louisiana Heron. Both parents feed the nestlings who are able to fly at about 5 weeks of age.
The Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) is a fairly small heron with a slight body, slender neck, and fairly long legs. They are one of the more fascinating herons due to their color changes. Adult Little Blue Herons are dark all over. At close range in good light, they have a rich purple-maroon head and neck and a dark slate-blue body. They have yellow eyes, greenish legs, and a bill that is pale blue at the base darkening to black at the tip as they age.
Juveniles are entirely white, except for vague dusky tips to the outer primaries. Immatures molting into adult plumage are a patchwork of white and blue. The most easily distinguished characteristic of the Little Blue Heron, in all its color phases, are the light bluish-green legs and beak.
Little Blue Herons may gain a survival advantage by wearing white during their first year of life. Immature birds are likelier than their blue elders to be tolerated by Snowy Egrets and Ibis — and in the other birds’ company, they catch more fish.
Mingling in mixed-species flocks, immature Little Blue Herons probably also acquire extra protection against predators. When observing mixed groups hunting together, look for the slow, deliberate movements of the immature Little Blue Heron. This deliberate stalking pace helps distinguish the immature Little Blue Heron from the Ibis and Snowy Egret, which tend to move more quickly or erratically.
The Limpkin (Aramus guarauna) is a large wading bird, dark brown with white spots and a lighter head. It is an unusual bird because it feeds almost exclusively on apple snails, which it extracts from their shells with its long,curved bill. The closed bill has a gap just before the tip that makes the bill act like tweezers. The tip itself is often curved slightly to the right so it can be slipped into the right-handed chamber of the snail. It will also feed in freshwater mussels.
A large, white, bald-headed wading bird, the Wood Stork (Mycteria americana) is the only stork breeding in the United States. Its late winter breeding season is timed to the Florida dry season when its fish prey become concentrated in shrinking pools. The Wood Stork has a long, thick, down-curved bill and white wings with extensive black flight feathers. Juveniles are similar to adults except their necks and heads are feathered in white which gradually darkens, then the head loses its feathers.
The Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) is not a duck – they do not have webbed feet – but is the most widely distributed member of the rail family. It is gray and brown with a white flank strip and red bill and forehead. It used to be called the Common Moorhen but the name was changed a few years ago. They are also sometimes referred to as Coots, but the Coot has a white face shield, not red.
Very vocal, they can sometimes be heard chattering away in the stream-side vegetation long before they are seen. They eat the seeds of grasses and sedges, and some snails. Males and females are similar, but the juveniles are browner, have the red beak but lack the red frontal shield. Babies have a featherless bald spot on the top of their heads and spurs on their wings to help them climb into the nest. Gallinules will frequently raise two broods per year – the first in early spring and the second in the summer.
The American Coot (Fulica americana) is sometimes referred to as the mud hen and is another member of the rail family commonly mistaken for a duck. They are common sights in nearly any open water across North America – from city parks to saltwater marshes – and they often mix with ducks. Coots have dark-gray to black bodies with a bright-white bill and forehead. At close range you may see a very small patch of red on the forehead. Males and females are similar in appearance. They feed on aquatic plants and small insects, crustaceans and tadpoles. Their nests are almost always built over water on floating plant platforms.
One of the most colorful ducks, the male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) sports a crested head that is iridescent green and purple with a white stripe leading from the eye to the end of the crest, and another narrower white stripe from the base of the bill to the tip of the crest. The throat is white and the chest is burgundy with white flecks, gradually grading into a white belly. The bill is brightly patterned black, white and red. The legs and feet are a dull straw yellow and the iris is red.
Female wood ducks have a gray-brown head and neck with a brownish-green crest. A white teardrop shaped patch surrounds the brownish-black eye. The throat is white and the breast is gray-brown stippled with white, fading into the white belly. The back is olive brown with a shimmer of iridescent green. The bill is blue-gray and the legs and feet are dull grayish-yellow.
Wood ducks prefer wooded swamps and freshwater marshes. Females nest in tree cavities or nest boxes. If you see a nesting box along Florida streams it is usually a Wood Duck box. They are one of the few duck species equipped with strong claws that can grip bark and perch on branches. We see Wood Ducks a lot year-round on the Rainbow and Silver Rivers.
The Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) is a familiar duck in Florida during the winter. The males have a glossy bottle-green head, yellow-orange beak tipped with black and a white collar. The females have mainly brown-speckled plumage with dark beaks ranging from black to mottled orange. Females have buff cheeks, eyebrow, throat and neck with a darker crown and eye-stripe. Both male and female Mallards have distinct purple-blue trailing wing patches edged in white.
The American Black Duck (Anas rubripes) is another winter visitor to Florida. It hides in plain sight in shallow wetlands. They often flock with their close relatives the Mallards and they look quite similar to female Mallards. But the dark chocolate-brown flanks, pale grayish face, and olive-yellow bill distinguishes the American Black Duck. Unlike the Mallard, the Black Duck’s purple-blue trailing wing patches are NOT edged in white. They eat aquatic plants, invertebrates, and occasionally small fish in shallow water.
The large head of the Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) male is black with a large fan-shaped white crest. The back is black with white stripes. The breast and belly are white and the flanks are brown. The hen has a brown crest and a grayish brown body. They are winter visitors in Florida, rarely seen near saltwater, preferring the larger rivers and lakes. The hooded merganser is a diving predator that largely hunts by sight while under water.
The Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) with its ruffled crest is an easy to identify aquatic diving bird on Florida’s rivers and lakes, although you will probably hear its chittering call echoing up and down the river long before you see it. The crest and top of the wings are blue-gray while the undersides are white with a broad white collar around the neck. The male belted kingfisher sports a blue band high across the chest while the female has both the blue band and a lower rust-colored band that extends down the legs. Juveniles are similar to adults, but both males and females show the rusty band on the upper belly. Florida has a resident population of kingfishers as well as winter commuters.
Kingfishers like to perch on trees, posts and telephone poles above the water from which they plunge head-first after their prey. They feed almost entirely on aquatic animals – fish, frogs and crayfish. You are most likely to see this bird flying away from you as they disturb easily and fly away from you quickly. The oldest known fossil in the kingfisher genus is 2 million years old and was found in Alachua County, Florida.
One of our favorite birds, the Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is a large, fish-eating hawk. They nest in virtually any location near a body of water that offers an adequate food supply. Males and females are very similar in coloring, being brown above and white underneath with a white head. Juvenile osprey may be identified by streaked feathers on the head. The osprey’s diet consists almost exclusively of fish. They can sight a fish in the water from over 130 feet in the air, then they swoop down, feet first, to grab it underwater. Barbed pads on the soles of the birds’ feet help them grip slippery fish and nostrils that can close keep water out during dives. They usually carry the fish up to their nest or perch on a tree branch to eat it.
They are a vocal species and can make quite a fuss when bringing a fish back to the nest as if proclaiming to the world what great hunters they are. Ospreys usually mate for life and build huge nests of sticks high in trees. Osprey and owls are the only raptors whose outer toe is reversible, allowing them to grasp prey with two toes in front and two behind. It is also unusual in that it is a single living species that occurs nearly worldwide. Osprey are found in temperate and tropical regions of all continents except Antarctica.
While paddling on Lake George near Silver Glen Springs we witnessed a pretty amazing sight. We found an Osprey nest out in the water on top of a metal sign. It was an exceptionally hot day, heat index over 100 degrees, and the nest was in direct sunlight. The three baby osprey were not yet fledged and therefore could not move into the shade or onto the water, so the two adult Osprey were providing both for them. The adults would swoop down over the water, wetting their belly and legs feathers, then return to the nest and stand over each baby in turn, both wetting them down and providing a few minutes of shade. We watched for 30 minutes as the adults alternated trips to the water and cooling the babies.
The Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is a very large and heavy-bodied raptor. Adult Bald Eagles have white heads and tails with dark brown bodies and wings. Their legs and bills are bright yellow. Immature birds have mostly dark heads and tails; their brown wings and bodies are mottled with white in varying amounts. Young birds attain adult plumage in about five years. Bald Eagles scavenge many meals by harassing other birds or by eating carrion and garbage. They will also hunt fish, gulls, and small mammals.
Florida is home to two vultures – the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura septentrionalis) with its distinctive red head and the Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus atratus) with – you guessed it – a black head. Vultures are sometimes called buzzards, but the name buzzard actually refers to members of the genus Buteo – a totally different bird. Vultures are scavengers and feed on carrion, but will also eat eggs or kill newborn animals. It finds its meals either by using its keen eyesight or sense of smell.
In the United States, Vultures are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. While little appreciated, vultures perform the valuable function of cleaning up dead animals. Lacking vocal organs their only sounds are grunts or low hisses. They are also fabulous gliders. Watching vultures soaring almost effortlessly on the wind currents is surely poetry in motion. They roost at night in large colonies, frequently covering one or more trees.
The Red-Shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) is typically a sign of tall trees and water. It displays barred reddish underparts and a strongly banded tail. The tail is dark with narrow white bands. In flight, translucent crescents near the wingtips help to identify the species at a distance. They prey on small mammals, lizards, snakes, and amphibians. You will frequently find them hunting from a perch along a stream or pond. Red-shouldered hawks search for prey while perched in trees or soaring through the air over open areas such as rivers and meadows. When they sight prey, they kill it by dropping directly onto it from the air. They live on small mammals such as mice, rats, moles, chipmunks and squirrels but their diet may also include frogs, snakes, small birds and large insects.
The Pileated Woodpecker (Hylatomus pileatus) is one of the largest birds of the forest with a wingspan of up to 30 inches and while not always seen, can frequently be heard. Their loud rat-tat-tat seems to echo through mature woods. While difficult to approach closely, you can identify woodpeckers by their swooping flight through the trees. Pileated Woodpeckers are mostly black with white stripes on the face and neck and a bright red, swept-back crest. Males have a red stripe on the cheek. Their primary food consists of carpenter ants from dead trees and rotted logs. They make unique rectangular holes in the trees – all other woodpecker holes are round. Their nesting cavities are also rectangular and abandoned holes provide shelter for many other birds including owls, ducks, swifts, wrens, other woodpeckers and bats.
Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) can occasionally be seen along rivers with wide level banks surrounded by mature forests. They generally travel in flocks and scratch the ground for nuts, berries, insects, and snails. Once very rare due to over-hunting, Wild Turkey can now be found in the 48 contiguous United States, Hawaii and southern Canada.