Wildlife on Florida’s East Coast – Part 1

Florida Sandhill Cranes at Orlando Wetlands

This is Part 1 of a report on the photography along Florida’s East Coast.

The last two weeks of February I flew to the East Coast of Florida to scout for a future photo workshop in March of 2021 or 2022.  In the past, I have conducted several workshops in Florida but on the west coast and in the Florida Everglades.  This time, I spent 12 days visiting 18 locations along the east coast from St. Augustine to Boca Raton.  Sites included wildlife refuges, state parks, zoos, gardens, and wastewater reclamation wetlands.  I spent the majority of time at locations where wildlife was abundant and accessible.  At other sites, I limited my visit to just enough time to evaluate the area for inclusion in a workshop.
Because of my busy lecture schedule, my visit was limited to late February.  Even though it is a month earlier than I plan to offer a workshop, wintering birds were present and nesting was beginning. Breeding birds were carrying sticks, constructing nests, fighting over territory, mating, and displaying.  Many wading birds displayed nuptial plumes and the color changes that come with breeding.  In a few nests, chicks were present. In late March and early April, heron rookeries are much more active with screeching, hungry chicks and parents busy feeding in order to care for their young.

Sandhill Crane Feeding in field. Orlando Wetlands.
Snowy egret photographed at Orlando Wetlands

Two sites covered by this newsletter are Orlando Wetlands and Blue Heron Water Reclamation Facility and Wetland Area.  These are natural and man-made wetlands fed by reclaimed wastewater, creating an environment beneficial to wildlife.  Both are within a short drive from Titusville. Florida has a number of these sites with some open to visitation by birders and photographers and others are closed to the public.  Some encourage visitation with boardwalks for easy access and viewing of wildlife.  Several have bird rookeries within their boundaries. 

Limpkin with snail at Orlando Wetlands.

What is reclaimed waste water?  It is raw wastewater that has passed through a sewage treatment plant to remove solids, toxic contaminants, and some nutrients.  To kill pathogens, the waste is treated with chorine which dissipates before entering the wetlands.  This “reclaimed,” non-potable water is sometimes discharged into waterways or dedicated to uses like watering lawns and other purposes, but not as drinking water.    However, in some cases when discharged to waterways, the nutrient loading may be high enough to create choking algal blooms which can lower oxygen levels as the algae dies and is decomposed by bacteria.   Low dissolved oxygen in waterways can produce “dead zones” where aquatic animals cannot live.  On the other hand, when discharged into man-made or natural wetlands, the marsh plants take up the phosphorous and nitrogen and flourish, creating environments suitable for wildlife.  For sites using wetland treatment of waste, they are proactively managed and the water tested.  Their condition is monitored to benefit flora, fauna, and biochemical processes.  In simple terms, at both Orlando and Blue Heron Wetlands, sections of natural or man-made marsh populated with native aquatic plants are impounded and surrounded by dikes with provisions for adjusting the water level as needed.  Wetland plants support large populations of tiny aquatic organisms that form the basis of a food chain that supports higher organisms.  This rich supply of food acts as a magnet attracting wildlife. In addition, wetlands provide shelter and nesting habitat for birds and serve as a nursery for aquatic organisms.  

Double-crested Cormorant at Blue Heron Wetlands Facility

In the case of Orlando Wetlands, you can walk along the extensive series of dike roads. At certain times, you can take a tram tour of the facility. In the case of Blue Heron Water Reclamation Wetland Area, you must sign-in & out at their administrative office on site. When I was there, you could drive selected dike roads that provided great opportunities for photography with animals at close range and use to human presence. However, for all locations that I mention in this and the following newsletter, you must check current conditions and regulations. 
A number of images in this newsletter are labeled with the location where they were taken.  I first visited Orlando Wetlands about a half hour from Titusville.  I walked along the dike roads expecting wildlife to be far away and intolerant of my presences.  I was pleasantly surprised that many animals just ignored me and went about their normal activities. Alligators, limpkins, ibis, egrets, gallinules, and sandhill cranes were within easy camera range for photography.  After conducting several December photo workshops at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge where thousands of sandhill cranes spend their time from mid-November to mid-February, I was surprised to see several cranes feeding in the first field I encountered. These Florida Sandhill Cranes are resident birds that nest in Florida and don’t migrate. They are omnivorous eating seeds, insects, frogs, mice and other organisms abundant in the marsh.  Near Viera Wetlands, I actually saw a crane feeding in someone’s front lawn in the middle of a development. Later I discovered that they can be found on golf courses, parks, and in other public places. 

Wood Stork sitting on branch at Orlando Wetland.

To visit Blue Heron Wetlands on weekends, you must make prior arrangements.  In general many of the locations I visited were closed on certain days of the week.  Those providing early entry for photographers who have purchased photo passes, such as St. Augustine’s Alligator Farm and Gator World’s rookery near Orlando, limit this privilege to certain days of the week or particular months, unfortunate for me February was not included.  It is critical to check each location before visiting for rules, open dates, and conditions.  For example, a favorite of many photographers, Green Cay Wetlands was closed to visitation due to renovations starting in November 2019.  I had visited it several years ago and was impressed with its long boardwalk and large population of nesting birds.

Great Blue Heron at Blue Heron Reclamation Wetlands exposing underside of wings.

In following newsletters, I will cover Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Cape Canaveral National Seashore plus several other areas along Florida’s east coast. The pelican/spoonbill photo at the opening of this newsletter was shot on Merritt Island one morning during my recent visit.

Great Blue Heron resting at Blue Heron Reclamation Facility.
Great Blue Heron at Blue Heron Reclamation Facility.
Red-shouldered Hawk perched in tree on Blue Heron Reclamation Wetland.
Purple Gallinule Feeding ay Blue Heron Reclamation Wetlands walking on vegetation.
Purple Gallinule Feeding ay Blue Heron Reclamation Wetlands.
Tricolor Heron stretching on Merritt Island NWR Subject of next blog.


White Pelicans and Spoonbills at Merritt Island NWR.

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