Monday, March 23, 2009

Best. Spring Break. Ever. (Part 3)

Everything looks better at the Viera Wetlands.

Spring break in Florida doesn't necessarily mean endless frozen Daquiris and sleeping till noon.

Or so I discovered two Fridays ago, when my alarm clock clanged to life at 4:45 a.m. in our hotel room in Titusville. I somehow made it out of bed, got my contact lenses in and struggled to figure out how to work the incredibly cheesy little coffee maker in our room. But this was all going to be worthwhile, because we headed to the Viera Wetlands, where we were going to meet up at 6:30 with one of Glenn's friend and fellow photographer Harry for a day of birding and shooting.

The Viera Wetlands, about a 40 minute drive south of Merritt Island, was another one of Glenn's grail sites. Like the San Joaquin Marsh back in southern California, Viera is a system of filtration ponds owned by the local water district that just happens to attract a large number of wading birds. Both sites are beloved by nature photographers, both for the rich variety of birds present and by the relative ease with which they can be viewed: visitors at both sites travel along elevated dikes separating the ponds, which allow unobstructed views of bird activity only feet away. At sunrise—when we arrived—it was clear why this place was so popular: even ordinary birds looked spectacular.

Harry lived close by, and had been scoping the place out for us in the preceding days. There was a lot of nesting activity, he reported, but unfortunately, he hadn't seen any Limpkins, one of the birds we told him we wanted to find there. But only minutes after arriving, we saw what we thought to be a Glossy Ibis obscured in the reeds at the edge of one of the ponds. Then it moved into the open...

Yay! This guy must have arrived after Harry's last inspection—or somehow managed to slip under his radar. Over the course of the day, we'd see several more Limpkins. They're not flashy birds, but unusual and fun to watch—and our third lifer of the trip.

As Harry promised, there was tons of nesting activity. The ponds were filled with the tall trunks of dead trees, and each of these seemed to contain a heron's or egret's nest. We got good looks at a nesting male Anhinga watching after his two chicks:

The chicks were clearly hungry, and were constantly pecking at their father and craning their necks for food. But Dad was either unwilling or unable to feed them. We waited a while for Mom to return—hopefully, with a belly full of food for sharing—but after half an hour it was still just Dad and the kids. So we moved on.

The other creatures that appeared in large numbers were photographers, all bearing cameras with very large lenses. Harry seemed to know all of them, and Glenn recognized several of them from the online forums he participates in:

It's not the size, it's what you do with it.

We explored the ponds from 6:30 until noon, returned to Harry's place and ordered a pizza for lunch, then returned for some afternoon shooting.

By 5:30, the sun was sinking and a new crop of sunset photographers and birders was arriving. But we were exhausted and suffering from sensory overload: our Limpkins had gone into hiding, but we discovered that Least Bitterns were lurking in just about every thick clump of reeds. We also spotted two Caracaras (a lifer for Glenn), an armadillo, and a large raptor we couldn't identify.

We had squeezed just about every possible bird, every possible neat thing out of those ponds in our one long day there. Not since crossing the finish line of my one-and-only marathon (so far) have I felt so good being completely wiped out.

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