Duane K. McCullough

Artwork image of birds in Florida Bay
Artwork image of birds in Florida Bay by Author

With the exception of one island in this area of Florida Bay, Everglades National Park rules restrict anybody from going ashore any island because there is a need to protect nesting birds from human activity. Walking in less than three feet of water 100 feet from any island shoreline is also prohibited for the same reason and also protects the sea grasses from being destroyed by the action of stepping onto the plants.

Ironically, the only island in this area of Florida Bay one can go ashore is an island named Nest Key where there is a small beach and dock with two outhouses. An overnight permit is needed to camp on Nest Key -- but most overnight visitors will just stay aboard their boats.

Some marine birds that can be found in this portion of the bay are the Laughing and Herring Seagulls, Common and Royal Terns, Brown and White Pelicans, Cormorants and Frigate birds. The most common wading birds are the Herons, Egrets, Ibises, Sandpipers, and Rosette Spoonbills. With a body that looks like a cross between a Wood Stork and a Flamingo with a spoon-like beak, the Rosette Spoonbill is perhaps the most colorful of the shorebirds.

The easiest way to tell the difference between a Great White Heron and an Egret is that Egrets have black legs whereas Herons do not. Herons and Egrets are usually the large white birds we see along the mangrove shoreline wading in the shallow water on the calm side of the islands.

Other common birds found out here are the White-crown Pigeon, Ringed Turtle Doves, Kites, Ospreys, Bald Eagles, Hawks, Falcons, Turkey Vultures, King Fishers, Woodpeckers, Cuckoos, Owls, Goatsuckers, and Ducks. Of course many perching birds like Redwing Blackbirds, Cardinals, Blue jays, Cat Birds, Kingbirds, Vireos, Warblers, Sparrows, and Swallows are also found. The Bald Eagle is the at the top of the food chain and can be a real problem to other nesting birds like Ospreys and Cormorants.

And speaking of Ospreys, there's one now flying over that island to our left at 10 o'clock. Ospreys mate for life and show up in the late Fall to repair their old nest from Summer storm damage and raise two chicks over the Winter and Spring . In early Spring a common sight to see are the baby Ospreys peeping just over the nest while the nesting parent gives the repetitive peeps if someone gets too close.

In late Spring the chicks are ready to fend for themselves while the parents fly north along the Atlantic seaboard or the Mississippi River Valley for the Summer and raise two more chicks on their northern nest.

Although Ospreys are smaller than Bald Eagles -- they are smarter, because every time they catch a fish they aim the payload into the wind which makes the bird fly faster and farther relative to the size of an Eagle. Eagles have not figured that problem out yet -- they carry their fish sideways which causes more drag.

Look -- there's a Cormorant in the water about 100 feet away in front of us at 2 o'clock. When not flying very fast just off the water, Cormorants -- also know as "water turkeys" or "snake birds, can be found swimming with their heads just out of the water looking like a snake. They can also be seen drying their wings in the air perched upon channel markers or mangrove trees because, unlike ducks, they do not have oil glands to keep water from soaking their feathers like ducks have.

Similar to the Cormorant bird is the Anhinga bird which can also be found in this area of Florida Bay -- but prefer freshwater areas to roam. Unlike the Cormorant, the Anhinga has a pointed beak like a Heron's beak whereas the Cormorant has a hook beak like a Pelican or other marine birds. Mature male Anhinga birds also have some white feathers in their wings whereas mature Cormorants are all black in color.

Near sunset time at the bird rookeries can be found the grunting sounds of Cormorants as they argue for overnight parking space among the branches during landing attempts.

The dry white paste all over the mangrove leaves that cover the rookery area is not snow -- it is the bone meal material of the fish that falls out of the many birds perched overnight while they sleep safely in numbers. Behind the rookery islands and out of the trade wind breezes, lies floating mats of algae near the shoreline fed by the nutrients of calcium, potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen waste from the birds. The area smells heavy with ammonia.

In the still of the night the Great White Heron will make several deep cracking sounds like some prehistoric bird monster while in the dark morning hours before sunrise the Chuck-will's-widow call will make you wonder what kind of animal could make such a loud namesake sound.

Just before dawn in the Spring, the song of the Mockingbird can be heard by itself as it tries to break the silence of the long night. Daybreak can bring the quick chatter sound of the Kingfisher as it flies away down the mangrove creeks if it is disturbed. And the squeaky iron gate sound of the Redwing Blackbird call during the day will signal warmer weather in the days to come.

Summer brings the Swallows darting and dancing around the islands with their mouths open trying to catch mosquitoes on the fly while at dusk the Nighthawk's wing will make a short vibrating humming sound when it rises rapidly from a dive as it also tries to swallow bugs on the fly.

Laughing Seagulls raise their noisy young on several islands among the bushy ground cover between the mangrove and buttonwood trees while small flocks of Ibises can be seen grunting along the Key Largo shore areas looking for bugs and worms in the soil. Nicknamed "swamp chickens" by early hunters, the Ibis represents the Egyptian symbol of wisdom because, as the legend suggest, a flock of Ibises are the last birds to seek shelter during hurricane threats and the first to return when the threat is over.

During the Fall cold fronts, Grebes begin to appear on the water in numbers. Swimming and flying like Cormorants, Grebes can be seen ducking fast underwater -- or running on the water so fast, they have earned the nickname of "super Jesus duck".

Winter brings the small kitten cry of the Catbird and the repetitive screech cry of the Red-tail Hawk along the shores and woods of Key Largo. The loud kiwi call of Blue Jays and the piercing whistles sounds of Cardinals can also be heard through the trees.

The wooing moans of Ringed Turtle Doves with their squeaky wing sounds while flying also add to the chorus of bird sounds from the foliage. And of course, the chirping background sounds of the Sparrows and Warblers are part of the experience when close to shore.

To watch the flight of a Swallow-tail Kite or the soaring glide of a Frigate Bird, are joys to behold. The birds of the bay are wonderful beings to experience.


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