"Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1963 as an overlay of NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center for the protection of migratory birds. Consisting of 140,000 acres, the Refuge provides a wide variety of habitats: coastal dunes, saltwater marshes, freshwater impoundments, scrub, pine flatwoods, and hardwood hammocks that provide habitat for more than 1,500 species of plants and animals and 15 federally listed species." (https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Merritt_Island/wildlife_and_habitat.html).
We went to the visitors center where a Ranger gave us day trip ideas and a map. Very friendly people. Suggested Black Point Rd, a 7 mile one way sand road winding through the marshes and impoundments.
Along this road we saw a greater variety of birds than we've seen in one place. Just yards onto the road we saw wood ducks, an alligator and multiple wading birds. Most common were white ibis. It wasn't long before I realized just how few of the birds I could identify. I knew white egret and great blue heron, but there were variations on size and coloring that told me there was more to it and I hate not knowing what I'm looking at. So when we got back to the trailer, I compared my photos with data from web sites to help.
In the end, I believe we saw an Anhinga, white ibis, glossy ibis, great egret, snowy egret, reddish egret, small blue heron, tri-colored heron, great blue heron, and a belted kingfisher along with several unidentified ducks.
I had a heck of a time identifying one particular white wading bird:
At first I thought it was simply a white egret. After looking it up on several different web sites, I became more confused. The best source I could find that compared the different varieites was this: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/how-to-identify-white-herons-excerpt-from-better-birding-book/
One confusion lies in the bill – My bird's was bi-colored with a black tip with the rest gray or pale. A Great Egret (photos below) has a yellow bill and black legs so rule that out. A Great Egret also is a larger bird with a longer neck. A Snowy Egret has a slim dark (looks black) bill. Not a match.
Then there is a Great White Heron. This bird only exists in central and predominantly southern Florida. The bill is very thick which did not conform to my bird, so I ruled this out.
A little blue heron has a “bi-colored bill and is slightly droopy”. Sounds like a match.
Mine also has a yellow lore (the lore is between the eyes and the nostrils on the bill). Still seems like a match. The caveat is that only first year birds are white and they are supposed to have “dusky” (darker, almost dirty looking) wingtips. Mine does not. So still looking.
Then we come to the Reddish Egret. I have a photo of an adult reddish egret easily identifiable and not white at all. These (and the one we saw) were fun to watch as they run and flare their wings up making a shadow in the water before striking. It really looked like a dance.
The web site cited above says that the immature Reddish Egret is white and easily mistaken for a snowy egret! Bills change from completely dark on young juveniles to bi-colored (could be a match). There are only 2,000 pairs of them on the coast so I'm weary of saying I'm seeing something this rare. However one photo is almost an identical match to my bird – especially in size (see photos below). The web site places the Reddish Egret's size between a great and snowy egret so that could be a match for my bird (I also took a photo of a snowy egret sitting on a bush, which was definitely smaller than my bird).
Reddish Egret (morph white) note dark legs, short straight bill (not bi-colored)
“Juveniles [Reddish Egret] lack plumes and may show yellowish in the lores [match] and a mostly dark bill [not match]. They may appear similar to Snowy Egrets, but note that Reddish Egrets are larger and sturdier and have bigger, stronger, grayish legs [match]. Reddish Egrets are intermediate in size between Great and Snowy egrets [match]. They are slender, long legged, and long necked and have a fairly thick, straight bill [not match] and long, dark gray legs. [not match].
“Determining the age of Reddish Egrets can be difficult. Bill color changes from all dark on fresh juveniles to bicolored on adults. By fall juveniles usually have some hints of pale in the base of the bill...
They hunt in an animated, acrobatic fashion, engaging in dashes, leaps, jogs, and sprints, raising their wings for balance or to startle or detect prey. An actively foraging Reddish Egret, with all of its antics, can scarcely go unnoticed. They also commonly employ the technique of Canopy feeding, in which they raise their wings in a circle to shade the water and attract their prey. They will also raise and flick their wings to startle prey.”
So after some thought, I don't think this is a match. Even though the photo of an immature Reddish Egret from the web site seems to match the body size, neck [maybe a little long?] and feathers. Note, my bird has pale legs and the bill appears to me to be droopy – not straight like the reddish egret. Also my bird did not display the animated hunting ritual of a Reddish Egret, but instead was very still and prowled slowly like the other egrets and herons.
“My Bird” note pale leg color, lores, and bi-color bill
Note that the bill on my bird doesn't look as straight as that of the Reddish and certainly not the long skinny Snowy Egret. The bill on the Little Blue Heron is supposed to have a droop which mine seems to have. Also the legs look more like mine. On the other hand, going by body size the Little Blue Heron appears to be too small.
Little Blue Heron (first year) from web site
Overall, I think the Little Blue Heron best matches my bird. Especially, the bi-colored bill, bill size, leg color, and the lores. The neck and pale legs also seem a match. The only thing is that mine appears to be fully white and does not have the dark “dusky” wings. However, the web site states that this happens over time, so that mine could be a complete match if it is a first year bird.
“first-year birds are white or mostly white...The white first-year birds remain white through the first winter but then become dappled with slate blue鉾ray feathers as they transition to adult plumage in their first summer...
The following description is a match. Note the two toned bill, yellowish lores, sluggish movements, bill pointed down.
"It is the white juveniles that are most confusing for birders. Similar in size to Snowy Egrets, juvenile Little Blues are slightly heavier, with thicker necks and a heavier, droopier, usually two-toned bill that is paler at the base. The lores are grayish or yellowish (never bright yellow) and blend into the gray-based bill, which becomes darker toward the tip. Note their structure and generally sluggish movements. When they forage, the bill is usually pointed down (not horizontally)."
Now that I've demonstrated my obsessiveness with being accurate, I am going with a first-year Little Blue Heron unless someone can demonstrate otherwise (I'm obviously not positive).
P.S. If you have read this far, then you are as detailed oriented as me :)
The following photos are of the remaining birds and gators we saw:
This first photo is my mysterious bird fishing near a gator who didn't seem to care.
Aren't they cute when they're napping?
White Ibis were most common bird at the Sanctuary. Easily identified by the curved beak.
Snowy Egret. Compare the small size and thin pointy beak to my mystery bird above. Different birds!
Glossy Ibis fishing.
Glossy Ibis prunning.
Tri-Colored Heron. Note the spotted markings under neck not on a Great Blue.
Pardon the blurry, photo, but the only one I could get of the Belted Kingfisher . Almost all the photos on this blog are cropped to zoom in on the subject. Many birds were 50-100 yards away. Photos taken with a 300mm lens.
The wonderful hunting antics of the Reddish Egret. What fun to watch!
Only photo I captured of a Roseated Spoonbill. It would fish by swinging its bill side to side.
This is a photo of a bird.
The majestic Great Blue Heron
The black legs and yellow bill of the Great Egret. Only the rare White Heron is a larger white wading bird.
I was really excited to capture this Anhinga sunning. It is a little blurry as he was pretty far away.
Don't get me started on the ducks. Too many varieties! And, most of them too far away to capture well. These travelled very tightly together like mergansers (which I also saw). American Coots (Thanks for identifying for me Judith!).
Never get tired of watching Pelicans in flight. How can such an ungainly looking bird be so graceful in the air?
Note the little gator head in the water to the lower right!
This big boy seems pretty happy.