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#NotesFromTheRiver - Introduction to Central Florida Yard Birds - The Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal
(Cardinalis cardinalis)


Today, I'm beginning a series of posts about the birds that call our backyards home. You know the ones I mean. You see these guys at your birdfeeders or singing from the branches of your shade trees. Maybe you have a vague idea of what they are, but don't know much about them. Or maybe you've been trying to ID them, and haven't had any luck so far. I'm hoping this series (which will be interspersed here and there between other posts in the months ahead) will help you recognize what you are seeing and learn a bit more about each species. We'll be taking them a one or two at a time, starting with some of the most common of all. Even non-birders will likely have noticed these guys and maybe even identified a few of them, already.

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#NotesFromTheRiver - Wednesday Wonders - #wwwblogs

Sandhill Crane & Chick
(All Photos in this Post by Doug Little)

I thought it would be nice to have an occasional post featuring the best (or at least my personal favorite) photos by Doug Little. Because I think his work is wonderful, I'm going to call these special posts Wednesday Wonders. Light on narrative, but BIG on beauty. Here are today's first Wednesday Wonders. Enjoy. And, as always, all comments are appreciated, and all questions will be answered, to the best of my ability. 

Florida Black Bear Napping on the Banks of the St. Johns River

Tri-colored Heron (Background) and Little Blue Heron (Foreground)

Honkin' Big Ol' Gator Snoozin' on the Shore

Bald Eagle, Keeping Watch

Purple Gallinule 

Purple Gallinule Chick (Note the huge feet, designed for walking on lily pads.)

Buddies? Only Until Dinnertime. 

Absolutely Stunning Photo of a Wild Turkey

A Happy Meal for the Great Blue Heron. Not So Much for the Wee Fishie.

And there you have our first Wednesday Wonders post. You, too, can see these lovely birds and animals, and take your own fabulous photos. Just come on down to Highbanks Marina, in DeBary, Florida, and book a tour aboard the Naiad. Best two hours you can spend in all of central Florida, I promise! Book your reservation right here on this website. You'll be glad you did.

See you next week with a new #NotesFromTheRiver!

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#NotesFromTheRiver - Favorite of the Month - Swallow-tailed Kite

Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus)

Photo by Doug Little

I thought it might be fun to do a series of some special friends' favorite birds, animals, and plants seen along the St. Johns River, starting with wildlife photographer  and Mentor Man Extraordinaire, Doug Little. Doug says his very favorite bird is the gorgeous and graceful swallow-tailed kite, and it's very easy to see why. They are certainly my favorite raptor (bird of prey), and a bird almost everyone considers breathtaking.

The largest of the North American kites, swallow-tails have black upper parts which contrast perfectly with their white head and shoulders, and the white wing linings.

There is no mistaking this bird in flight. Nothing else moves with the same grace and agility, and has that deeply forked tail, which can reach 15" to 16" long. Swallow-tailed kites range from 19" to 25" inches in length, with a wingspan of 45 to 50 inches, perfect for their particularly buoyant flight. With slow, deep wingbeats, they steer using that deeply forked tail. They are not only graceful in flight, but the most extraordinarily nimble and acrobatic of all raptors. Feathered poetry in motion!

The diet of the swallow-tailed kite consists of large insects, lizards, nestling birds, and snakes, which they snatch right out of the tops of trees. They also really, really like frogs.

Once the bird has snatched their fly-by meal from the treetops, they generally eat it on the wing. You can see that this guy is doing just that. He brings his feet forward, and his head downward, et voila! No need to look for a landing place.

Of course, some meals are meant to be shared. The kites take their insect, or snake, or lizard, or . . . frog! . . . and return to their roosting or nesting spot,

where they share . . .whatever it is . . . it with their mate! 

Of course, if they have young on the nest, they share their fresh-caught kill with them.
(As you can probably tell, FROGS are not very fond of swallow-tailed kites! Go figger!)

Not only do kites eat on the wing, but they also drink that way, too. They swoop low over the water, dip their head down, and take a sip. (Did I mention how incredibly agile and graceful they are, especially for such large birds?)

A group of kites can be called a brood, a kettle, a roost, a stooping, or a string. I'm going with kettle,
because a "kettle of kites" is so very alliterative. (We writers think about things like that, you know.)

As you can see from the range map, swallow-tailed kites are found mostly in Florida, or parts south, though their range does spill over into the southern parts of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and, just barely, into Louisana. They are here during their breeding season, and once the summer has drawn to an end, the kites migrate back to South America. (Can't stand those freezing Florida temperatures, I guess.)

This pair of kites hasn't built a nest yet, but they are exhibiting lovely courtship behavior. How can the female resist such courtly treatment? Once he's won her heart and she's accepted his favors, she will lay 1 to 3 creamy white eggs, marked with dark brown. And after 28 to 31 days, here's the payoff:

Okay, so he's not quite as cute as the limpkin chicks from last week, but hey. He's going to be one of  the most beautiful birds in the world when he grows up! In the meantime, his doting parents will feed him loads of grasshoppers, dragonflies, lizards, and . . .you guessed it . . .FROGS! 

If you want to see swallow-tailed kites, the best place to look is UP. Whether alone, like this one,

or by the "kettle," like these,

you're most likely to spot them high overhead, effortlessly "kiting" along on the breeze.

If you're really lucky, you might see one "stooping." Probably spotted a tender morsel in a treetop that he'd like to have for lunch. Oh, heck. Why don't I just say it? He's obviously lookin' for FROGS!

A couple more pictures for you, because, BEAUTIFUL!

And that about wraps it up for this week. Hope you've enjoyed seeing Doug's favorite bird, up close and (sorta) personal. In another month or two, those of you in Florida might want to start sky-gazing. The kites will be arriving and settling down to raise their young. The Orlando Wetlands area near Christmas, Florida, is an excellent place to see them in large numbers. It's truly an unforgettable sight, believe me. You can watch them for hours, but be prepared . . .

. . . some of them will no doubt be watching you back!

Until next week, don't forget to keep your eyes open. Otherwise, you miss
out on cool stuff like the invasion of the swallow-tailed kites! 


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#NotesFromTheRiver - The Limpkin

Limpkins on the St. Johns River
Photo by Doug Little

As you can see from Doug's beautiful photo above, limpkins (Aramus guarauna) are striking, though somewhat shy, long-legged waders, often considered marsh birds. While they somewhat resemble the white ibis in size and overall shape, they are more closely related to rails and cranes, at least if you are the type to judge by skeletal remains and DNA. I don't have access to those things, so I'm just going to accept the latest data available, and consider these guys little cousins to our sandhill cranes, standing about 25" to 29" tall, with a wingspan of 42".

For many years, it was thought that apple snails made up nearly 100% of a limpkin's diet, and indeed, their bills are uniquely formed to extract the juicy snail from its hiding place within its curved shell. Here is a picture of a limpkin who played by the rules. He's found a nice, fat, apple snail for his lunch.

Limpkin With Apple Snail

One of the reasons it was thought that limpkins ate apple snails exclusively, is because of those adaptations to the bill I mentioned above. When the bill is closed, there is a gap just before the tip that essentially turns it into a pair of tweezers, and the tip itself is often curved slightly to the right, perfect for slipping into the right-handed chamber of the snail. While the yummy (???) snails do make up a large portion of the bird's diet, where they are plentiful, it is now known that limpkins also eat frogs, crustaceans, insects, and mussels, as seen below.

Neither man, nor limpkin, lives on snails alone. Mussels work, too.

Limpkins use marsh vegetation to build their nests, locating them just above the water line. They lay 3 to 8 olive or buff colored eggs, which are incubated by both parents, and hatch in about 27 days. They will also build a nest of sticks in low trees or bushes, though less frequently. The young are absolutely adorable when they hatch. This is scientific fact, and has nothing whatsoever to do with my personal point of view. Honest. Okay, maybe a bit. Beauty IS in the eye of the beholder, after all. But I ask you, how cute is this?

Pure cuteness, personified. The only thing cuter than this guy, would be this next one.


Oh, yeah. This guy wins.

And then there are those awkward teenage years,
where a guy's feet grow twice as fast as the rest of him!

Limpkins were named for the halting, stilted-looking way they walk. Considering that, it should be no surprise that a group of limpkins is called a Hobble. (Not to be confused with those little guys in Lord of the Rings, though. That's a whole 'nuther story.)

Does a single family of limpkins constitute a hobble? My post, my rules. I say YES.

The range of limpkins in North America is pretty much limited to Florida. That's one of the reasons why birders from all over the U. S. come here, just to add them to their birding Life List. Don't laugh. That's a real thing. And it is serious business among birders. My husband, who is not a birder, once asked me if something so valuable to a practitioner of the art of birdwatching could be willed to the next of kin when a birder passes on. Silly man. You must EARN every bird on your list, yourself, you know. And if you live in Ohio, say, and want to add limpkins to YOURS, you must come here to Florida! That's the only way to do so, without going much farther south. Like to the islands. Or the marshes of South America.


One last thought. Let's address the mating habits of limpkins. Limpkins may be monogamous, with the female joining the male's territory. (Alpha limpkins???) Or they can be, and I quote, "serially polyandrous," with two or more females joining a male. Serially polyandrous. Not sure about you, but that sounds downright creepy to me. And dangerous. Imagine two females of the human species, each armed with a long pointy weapon, sharing the same male. Yeah, like that would last very long. But hey, if it works for the limpkin, who am I to argue? I'm just sayin' if I ever find a male limpkin lying dead somewhere, with lots of little holes poked in him, I'll know what happened: serial polyandry!

And on that note, I'll wrap up this post, silliness and all, with my apologies for it being a day late. Real Life very rudely got in the way this week, but if the bridge don't go, an' the creek don't rise, as they say, I'll be back on track by next week. Meanwhile, to make you smile, check out the crazy call of the Limpkin, and then come to Florida to take a tour on the Naiad, and see some for yourself. Go HERE to listen.

Limpkin with White Ibis for comparison.

Thanks for reading, and next week, I'm adding a new "Feature" to #NotesFromTheRiver. Be sure to stop by!
Until then, keep your eyes open. You never know what you'll see!





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#NotesFromTheRiver - Barred Owl



"Who cooks for you? Who cooks for YOU-aaallllll?" 

Some of you may be familiar with the entity that shrieks out this phrase in the middle of the night, often right outside your bedroom window, while others of you are probably scratching your heads. I can assure you of two things: 1) I didn't make it up, and 2) it is actually a remarkably apt attempt at putting the call of the barred owl, Strix varia, into words.

Barred owls are among my favorite birds, which is one of the reasons I’ve chosen to focus my second Notes From the River post on them. I hope you’ll enjoy reading along, and perhaps learning some things you didn’t know before. (And hey, if the text gets boring, you can always just admire the wonderful photographs, most of which are courtesy of St. Johns River Eco Tours’ own Doug Little, wildlife photographer extraordinaire.)


 According to several online articles I googled, just to double check my facts, barred owls live in large, mature forests made up of both deciduous trees and evergreens, often near water. This is true, but I have them in my neighborhood, as well, and often in my own yard, and I do not live in a large, mature forest, or near water, other than my goldfish pond. There are some big laurel oaks on my block, and that seems to suit a small group of barred owls just fine, as they have been nesting here for years. I’m less than half a mile from Seminole Towne Center, off a pretty busy road, so you can see that the owls forgot to read what the books say on the matter of their habitat. (And by the way, a group of owls can be called a bazaar, a glaring, a parliament, a stooping, or a wisdom, in case you were wondering. I'll go with wisdom. Therefore, I have a wisdom of owls in my neighborhood.)

 The rest of the statistics I found online seem to be more or less accurate. Barred owls are large, mostly brown and white striped birds, lacking the “ear” tufts of the even larger great horned owls, and the tiny screech owls. Instead of the golden eyes of Florida’s other owl species, a barred owl’s eyes are dark brown. The owls range from 17” to 24” in height, and have a wingspread of 50” to 60”. That large size, combined with their round heads and dark eyes, makes them very easy to identify. In addition, they are seen in daylight hours much more often than other owls, so the opportunity to spot them is greatly increased.

 Like most of their kin, barred owls hunt largely at night, and dine on rodents and other small prey. They are also fond of fish, and I have seen the ones around my house fly across my pond and snatch up unwary goldfish swimming too near the surface. Here, a parent has just given a small fish to an owlet, on the left.

 A fun to thing to do on a nighttime hike is to play a recording of a barred owl’s call. In moments, any owls residing in the area will come swooping in to check out the “newcomer,” and will often engage in a back and forth dialogue with your recorder. In addition to their normal call, they can produce some very startling cackles and hoots, sounding like something from an old Tarzan movie. This is not something I recommend doing very often. No need to harass the birds. But it is a technique that is often used on annual bird counts, to get a feel for the number of owls in a given area.

If you are very good at mimicking, you can skip the recording, and imitate the call yourself. I can do it fairly well, successfully pulling in a few owls while on camping trips and even here at the house, but I once knew a gal who sounded more like barred owls than they do! 

 Click here to listen to some of their calls, yourself.

 Barred owls nest in tree cavities, or in abandoned red-shouldered hawk nests, and produce 2 to 3 white eggs, with an incubation time of 28 to 33 days. The incubation duties are the esponsibility of the female bird.

 Originally a bird of the eastern states, during the 20th century, the range of the barred owl extended to the northwest part of the country, and has now spread a bit south into Oregon. This strikes me as an unusual pattern of distribution, but I haven’t found any explanation for it, so far. 

 If you are in the central Florida area, a cruise aboard the Naiad is not only a great way to spend an afternoon, it’s a very good way to spot owls and other birds and wildlife. Barred owls are seen along the shores very frequently, and often up close and personal enough to get some good photos. I highly recommend it!



 Other Florida owl species include the eastern screech owl, the barn owl, the burrowing owl, and the great-horned owl. We’ll talk about some of those another day. In the meantime, please feel free to let me know if you have any questions about barred owls at all. I’ll do my best to answer them for you. And remember, look UP now and then. You never know what might be watching YOU from a perch overhead.


 And that's all for this week, folks. Hope you enjoyed learning a bit more about one of central Florida's most interesting birds, and seeing some of Doug Little's beautiful photography. And if you're in the area this Saturday, 1/14, come join me for a 1:30 departure on the Naiad, for a Meet the Author Tour. Would love to see you! For more info on that, click HERE.



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