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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 - Eastern Coral Snake


Emily Dickinson famously referred to a snake as being “a slender fellow in the grass.” The eastern coral snake is that, for sure. Very slim, and not a particularly long snake, either, they none-the-less have garnered an enormous reputation. Much of that reputation is exaggerated, or just plain wrong. In today’s post, I’d like to shed some light on this most beautiful of reptiles, in a balanced way that I hope will sort out some popular misconceptions, and give you a quick lesson in the easiest way to tell coral snakes apart from their completely harmless mimics. 

First, the basics. The eastern coral snake, Micrurus fulvius, is an elapid, rather than a pit viper, like all other venomous snakes in the United States. That means, it is closely related to the cobras, mambas, and sea snakes, having neurotoxic venom, which attacks the nervous system. Pit vipers have hemotoxic venom, which attacks the blood. Coral snake bites cause an interruption in communication from the brain to the rest of the body, and can result in cardiac and respiratory failure, with suffocation often being the end result. So right from the get-go, coral snakes are set apart from all other snakes in North America.

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#NotesFromTheRiver - Meet the Author Eco Tour, January 14, 2017

Captain Dooley keeps an eye out for last minute arrivals.

One of the best things about becoming a writer, besides all the havoc I get to wreak in my characters' lives, is finding opportunities to get out and meet new readers, at various events around central Florida. And none of the lovely events I've done, from slide shows, to afternoon teas, to chatting with local book clubs, is more fun than an afternoon with St. Johns River Eco Tours. Saturday, January 14, was just such a day. I've been lucky enough to go out on the Naiad many times over the years, starting way before I wrote my first book, and it's always an exceptional event. Being invited along on a tour to do a reading from one of my books is even more fun. At least for me. Hopefully the rest of the passengers enjoy it, too. (So far, none of them have put me off the boat along the way, so I'm taking that as a good sign.)

Heading for the Open River

Both Doug and I were so busy having fun on this last trip, we didn't take any pictures. (And ONE of us is a professional wildlife photographer, too. Not mentioning any names here--Doug! ) Luckily, one of our lovely passengers took quite a few, and gave me permission to share them with you. Thank you so much, Georgia.

A Symphony in Blue and Green.

Because I was gone all day today, I'm going to focus more on visuals than text, and I hope you'll enjoy these pics enough to book a tour one day, yourself. If you've never been, you'll have to take my word for it that it's an outing that's good for the soul. There's something healing and restorative about water, whether it's the seashore, a placid lake, or the ever-flowing waters of the St. Johns, with a new vista around every bend. And just look what a gorgeous day we had! A china blue sky, with fat puffy clouds kept us company the whole tour! Lovely!

Alligator and Turtles on Palm Trunk

Alligators were out in fairly good numbers, and we spotted several medium-to-large (quite large, in one case) adults. The day was warm enough for them to be up and basking in the sun. And mostly, they pay very little attention to the tour boats, so passengers are able to get lots of good shots.

Limpkin on Branch

I know this picture isn't quite as clear as some, but I wanted to show you Georgia's picture of a limpkin, one of my favorite birds. Believe it or not, people come from all over the world to see our limpkins, as they have a very limited, though slowly expanding, range. These are handsome brown and white birds that feed primarily on apple snails, and I'll no doubt do a full post on them in the future.

Yet Another Happy Gator, Busy Ignoring Us

Talk About Strange Wildlife!

Just when you thought this post was going to be all birds, reptiles, and scenic beauty, up I pop!

Doug, Trying to Get Me to Pop Back Down Again . . .

. . . But I'm Hard to Discourage! Give me an inch, and I'll read you a prologue! 

And Did I Mention All The Alligators? (Look Hard. Another One Lurking In the Middle.) 

Alligator, or No Alligator, I Just Keep on Reading, and Answering Bookish Questions.

Doug Little Holds the Audience in the Palm of His Hand.

I've been hiking and birding in Florida almost all of my adult life, in addition to a stint working at Florida Audubon, back in the day, and I can honestly say that Doug is a true fountain of knowledge about the river, its eco-system, its wildlife, and its history. I learn something new on every single cruise, and love watching passengers soak up all that good information, too, as they watch the scenery unfold in front of them. It's the best two hours you can spend in central Florida, as far as I'm concerned, and I know every person on this particular cruise would agree. Plus, the dashing Captain Dooley is filled with interesting and informative tidbits, too, which he gladly shares along the way.

This Would Be the Aforementioned Dashing Captain Dooley, Along with the Beautiful and Gracious Georgia.

All in all, this Meet the Author cruise was one to remember! I think I can safely say every one of us learned some new and interesting stuff, and a good time was had by all. So, with that, I'm going to wrap up until next week. Hope you enjoyed this little taste of what a first-class eco tour is like. Can't wait to meet you on one.

And Now . . .

. . . See Ya Later, Alligator!
(This photo by Doug Little)



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#NotesFromTheRiver - Manatees, and Sea Cows, and Mermaids--Oh, My!


Our Meet the Author Eco Tour on Saturday was so much fun! For those of you who were unable to attend, the day was positively beautiful, with puffy, white clouds scattered across an impossibly blue sky, and a cool enough breeze to keep us all comfortable. We had a full boat load of friendly, engaging passengers, and we spotted lots of alligators, all the usual wading birds, and at least two manatees. Unfortunately, we were having so much fun, we forgot to take pictures! (If you were along, and have any you’d like to share, please let me know. I’ll be happy to post them.) 

We’ve talked briefly about alligators, and last week’s post featured barred owls (which we did not spot this time around), but we haven’t yet had a chance to talk about that perennial favorite, the Florida manatee. Until now.

 Let’s start with the basics. The manatee is Florida’s state marine mammal, and is a large, completely aquatic, relative of the elephant. Mostly gray to grayish brown, their thick skin often has a growth of greenish algae that provides a moving buffet for little fish.

 Manatees propel themselves through the waters of Florida’s coasts, rivers, and springs via their strong, flattened tails. Using their flippers primarily for steering, or crawling along river bottoms while feeding, it’s that powerful tail that allows them to move at speeds of 5 to 19 mph, though the higher end of that range is limited to short bursts. The manatees cruising Florida’s waterways have a range that extends southward clear to Brazil.

 Being large, slow-moving animals, manatees can be quite vulnerable, and their numbers declined dramatically during the last century, primarily due to hunters seeking hides and oil. Today, of course, manatees are fully protected, as they are considered an endangered species. Thus, harming or harassing them in any manner is prohibited.

(Unless you have a deep desire to get to know a jail cell,
up close and personal!) 

Born underwater, manatee calves have to be helped to the surface by their mamas for that first breath of air, just like whales, but the new arrival is capable of swimming on its own in an hour or so. Typically, only one calf is born at a time, though twins are seen on occasion.

 I’m sure manatee moms are just as nonplussed by those infrequent cases of double trouble as human moms are. But, also like human moms, they adjust. The calves, 3 to 4 feet long and weighing 60 to 70 pounds at birth, nurse under water, but while mother’s milk is all the little ones need, adult manatees are voracious grazers.

Nursing Manatee

 They consume water grasses, weeds, water hyacinths, algae, and pretty much anything green that they can reach, eating as much as a tenth of their own body weight each day! (That amounts to something in the neighborhood of 120 pounds of vegetation every day! Needless to say, manatees play an important role in regulating plant growth in areas where they feed often.)

 Manatee as seen from the deck of the Naiad.

 A few interesting manatee factoids, for those who enjoy such things: 

  • Scientific name: Trichechus 
  • Weight: 1,200 lbs (Adult) 
  • Speed: 15 to 19 mph (Maximum, Adult, In Short Bursts) 
  • Cruising Speed: 5 mph 
  • Length: 9.2 – 9.8 ft. (Adult) 
  • Teeth: Molars only, replaced as they are ground down 
  • Population Today: Exact number unknown, but estimated at around 6,000 
  • Respiration: Through nostrils only. (Mouth is busy eating!) 
  • Lungs: Take up 2/3’s of body length. (Great for staying under a long time!) 
  • Farthest Known Northward Visits: Cape Code, Massachusetts  
  • Communication: Underwater squeals to express fear, stress, or excitement 

The next three photos were all taken by Doug Little, from the deck of the Naiad.

Lovely shot of adult manatee.

Lovely shot of very large alligator, looking at adult manatee?

Close up of manatee surfacing to breathe.

 While manatees are often seen throughout the year on the St. Johns River, the highest concentrations of them occur during cold weather, when they seek the warmer waters of our springs. Large numbers can be counted at Blue Springs State Parks, and various other locations, as these gentle giants try to stave off the cold.

 I’ve been on several eco tours when the manatees cooperated and were visible long enough for everyone to get some good photos, but even though we did see two on Saturday, they weren’t as eager to have their pictures snapped as they sometimes seem to be. We could follow their progress by the large rings they leave as their tails propel them through the dark water, but for the most part, the only part of the animals we could actually see were their snouts, as they raised them to breathe. Still, it was exciting to know they were there, this most interesting and unusual of animals.

 And if you are wondering about the title of this post, it harkens back to the days of early sailors, who claimed they had seen mermaids with babies at the breast. Many have said these sailors were actually catching brief glimpses of manatees with young. Personally, I’ve always found that pretty hard to imagine. I’d have to have drunk my entire week’s worth of grog at once to mistake a manatee for a mermaid, but hey. I wasn’t there! Maybe they ran across some very pretty manatees. Or some really unattractive mermaids.

I mean, really? THIS . . .

. . . looks like THIS? You'll have to make up your own mind,
but personally, I'm not buyin' it!

 And on that note, I’ll wrap up today’s post. If you have any questions on manatees, or any comments you’d like to share, please let me know below. And remember, when you are out on the river, PLEASE follow all posted speed limits. A manatee’s worst enemy is the propeller on your boat, and 2016 was a record year for manatee deaths caused by speeding boaters. Manatees simply aren’t fast enough to get out of the way, so it’s up to us to slow down, and keep an eye out for these gentle giants. THANKS!

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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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#NotesFromTheRiver - Welcome

Welcome to #NotesFromTheRiver! My name is Marcia Meara, and I'm one of those increasingly rare Florida natives, you've heard tell about. (There’s me, and some guy up in the panhandle, I think.) I not only was born here, I’ve lived here just about all of my life, and I’ve spent a good portion of those years hiking and canoeing the woods and rivers of central Florida. Those experiences—combined with several years of volunteer work, back in the day, with both Florida Audubon and the Central Florida Zoo—have given me an undying love of the St. Johns River Basin and all the critters contained within. Except maybe hairy-legged spiders, but that’s a topic for another day!

#NotesFromTheRiver will be a way of sharing some of the beautiful sights and interesting facts I’ve discovered over the years, many while aboard the Naiad. My thanks goes out to Jeanne Bell and Doug Little for asking me to be part of their new blog, and my hope is that this weekly feature will be something everyone can enjoy, no matter their personal level of knowledge or experience about this part of our state.

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