The St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
As you browse through its miles of unspoiled natural habitat you can see animals and birds that aren't to be found anywhere else. As you are slowly driving the blacktop road that winds through the park, you are treated to the sight of an American Alligator floating serenely in the lake. There in the foreground you see a log piled high with something... on closer inspection you see a mass of Suwannee Cooters sunning themselves. You have to be fast, they startle easily and leave the log for the safety of the water in a hurry. At the picnic area you notice a small shape moving through the grass and find a Gopher Tortoise making his ambling way towards the marshes and his succulent dinner. If you have the luck of the Irish and quick eyes, you might spot a Sherman's Fox Squirrel. You continue on through the park, finding areas where you can overlook the water and perhaps you'll see a slow moving West Indian Manatee. Butterflies migrate through the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge in September and October. While the butterflies aren't endangered, they are certainly an interesting sight to see.
The entire coastal region on the southern shores of Wakulla is known as the Coastal Marsh Belt. Saltwater marshes are the transitional waters between the fresh water of the rivers and the salt water of the sea. Saltwater marshes are characterized by grassy plants such as cordgrass and needlerush. Freshwater marshes, found up river from saltwater marshes are characterized by sawgrass, bulrush and pickerel weed.
These areas are home to the West Indian Manatee, providing food and shelter. The Coastal Marsh Belt extends along the entire coast of Wakulla, where marsh grass gives way to a coastal beach at Mash Island Park at the mouth of Ochlockonee Bay. Prime examples of the Coastal Marsh Belt Region can be easily seen at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and along stretches of Highway 98.
Marshes are important protectors of the natural environment. They function as natural sponges in times of floods. They absorb and hold water, then release it slowly, which helps prevent severe flood damage. Marshes help protect the coastline from storng storm winds and waves which cause coastal erosion. Marshes also act as natural filters for pollutants carried by storm water runoff. Coastal marshes serve as protective nursery areas for most fish and shellfish of commercial and recreational importance. Without an abundance of healthy coastal marshes we would not enjoy the abundance of fresh seafood available in the area.
Marshes offer feeding and nesting habitat for large numbers of wildlife Beautiful herons and egrets are often seen stalking their prey in roadside marshes.
The St. Marks Wildlife Birds
The St. Marks Wildlife Refuge is a year round home for the Limpkin, and now is the perfect time to see these rare birds. As more Limpkins stop by on their way to their wintering grounds, our population grows. Combined with the beautiful weather and visiting birds, you're bound to have a wonderful time catching both. Be sure to bring your binoculars, cameras and birding equipment to record your visit with the Limpkin. Visit our guestbook to record your sightings for other eager birders to read.
Birds in the order Falconiformes have strong bills which are hooked at the tip and sharp on the edges; fleshy ceres (soft skin) at the base of the bills; feet with sharp, curved talons; an opposable hind toe; and keen vision. They are generally strong flyers and carnivores. Because they eat other animals, Falconiformes are commonly called birds of prey or raptors.
More specifically, they hunt during the day and thus are called diurnal birds of prey. The bald eagle can fly 20 to 40 mph in normal flight and can dive at speeds over 100 mph. Bald eagles can actually swim! They use an overhand movement of the wings that is very much like the butterfly stroke. As for their diet bald eagles prefer fish swimming close to the water's surface, small mammals, waterfowl, wading birds, and carrion.
The eyes of diurnal birds of prey are set on either side of the head, facing forward.The eye is protected by an upper and lower eyelid as well as a nictitating membrane. The nictitating membrane acts as a third eyelid, moving horizontally across the eye starting at the inner corner. A bird can close the clear membrane to protect the eye without losing vision. The membrane spreads fluid across the eye, keeping the eye moist. Birds most likely use the membrane when flying on windy days or when dust and debris are in the air. Most hawks, eagles, and falcons have a distinctive shelf or "eyebrow" above and in front of the eye. The eyebrow is thought to shade the eye from the sun and provide some physical protection.
Bald eagles take four or five years to reach adult plumage. Adults at 4 to 5 yrs. are identified by their white head and tail, solid brown body, and large, curved, yellow bill. Juveniles have blotchy patches of white on their underside and tail. Life span for eagles is up to 30 years in the wild, and longer in captivity. Eagles usually start to breed at four to nine years of age. Bald eagles nest in coniferous trees up to 82 feet high, and are monogamous. Eagles reuse nests, adding sticks and greenery each year. The largest nest ever recorded was a bald eagle nest measuring 9.5 feet wide, 20 feet deep, and weighing more than 2.9 tons.
Eagles lay one to two eggs each breeding season during the spring when prey is most plentiful. Incubation is 31 to 45 days.
Eagles live and nest near coastlines, rivers, lakes, wet prairies, and coastal pine lands in North America from Alaska and Canada south into Florida and Baja, California.
More than 80% of the bald eagle population in the southeastern United States is concentrated within the state of Florida.
In the latter part of the 19th century and into the early twentieth, snowy egret plumes were very popular on hats. Since it takes about 4 birds to provide an ounce of plumes, these sales were responsible for the death of 192,960 birds, and several times that number of eggs or young destroyed in the rookeries.The result was that these birds were hunted until they were nearly extinct.
Found along much of the East Coast and elsewhere in the U.S., snowy egrets spend the winter from South Carolina southward. Their main foods are fish, crabs, amphibians, and insects. While wading, the Snowy Egret shuffles about with its feet to stir up food. Snowy egrets breed once a year. The snowy egret acquires long, lacy plumes just for courtship, which it raises and fans to spectacular effect. Females lay three to five greenish blue eggs that hatch in three to four weeks. Their platform-like nests are built primarily of twigs and are located in trees, usually about seven feet, more or less, above the ground, or even on the ground.
As with other herons, the crudeness of the nest, the elliptical form of the egg, and other signs suggest to some scientists that these birds are one of the lower forms on the scale of bird life, not far removed from the reptiles, when one reckons in eons of time.
The Little Blue Heron
The Little Blue Heron is dark blue. The head and neck are more maroon tinted. The legs are green or bluish. The bill is blue-gray and darker at the tip. Immature Little Blue Herons are white, but have the same bill and leg color. Older immatures are streaked with blue grey (in the late summer and fall).
Little Blue Herons are about 20-25 inches tall with a wing span of about three feet. Amphibians, aquatic insects, and fish make up the majority of their diet.
Both male and female build the platform nest. The nest itself is small and flimsy, slightly hollowed. The eggs are light bluish green. They will lay 2-5 eggs on average. Brooding lasts for three weeks and the young fledge at six weeks.
Even the non-breeders will roost with the colony. The male seldom leaves the nest for more than five minutes during the egg laying process. Nest site competition is common and even cattle egrets are vying for the same space.
The Tricolored Heron
The tricolored heron is also known as the "Louisiana heron," and while it is one of the most common herons along the Gulf Coast (the hat makers were, fortunately, never very interested in its feathers), it is also found along most of the East Coast.
The white stripe running down the front of the neck is a characteristic marking of the tricolor. The bill has often a dark coloring toward the tip. When challenging a rival, the tricolor's neck feathers become so ruffled that they have been compared to a feather boa. These herons grow to about thirty inches in height.
This heron spends the winter from Virginia southward to South America. The females breed once a year and have been known to lay up to seven blue-green eggs in their nests of twigs and plants. The nests are built in trees, high bushes, and sometimes among reeds. The eggs hatch in a little over three weeks.
Tricolor herons dine on fish, insects, and frogs. Sometimes when they sense danger nearby in the reeds or high grasses, they may conceal themselves by standing erect with their bills pointed toward the sky (rather than flying off right away), hoping perhaps, to blend in better with their surroundings.
The Osprey is a fish eating hawk (also known as a buteo) about 24 inches tall with approximately a 6 foot wingspan. It's about the size of a small Bald Eagle, the Osprey's fishing competitor. People tend to confuse the two, but the gull-like crook in the wing, the dark brown line through the eye and on the side of the face of the osprey are good hints for identification.
The slightly larger female adult bird usually has dark streaking on her chest, forming a dark necklace. The mature bird's eyes are a bright yellow, while the young show an orange iris.The Osprey is a gentle hawk, seldom harming other birds. This is evident when smaller ones, like grackles, build their nests near or even under the osprey's for their own protection.
After cleaning and repairing a nest, or starting a new site, courtship rituals take place in April, when the male will often be seen flying overhead with a fish headfirst in its talons. These are equipped with retractable outer toes and scaly spicules for a better grip of the slippery prey. During May the eggs are laid and the female takes over most of the incubation duties, while being fed by the male. In June the young are hatched and are constantly being fed by the mother with fish supplies provided by the male. At this stage the birds are most vulnerable to disturbances by man and predation by Raccoons and Great Horned Owls. After having learned to fly and fish from their parents, they leave in September for the Caribbean and Latin America, where the young remain for 2 years, then to return to the old breeding site. Only about 50% of the young survive the first year.
Osprey feed mostly on Brown Bullhead, Small mouth Bass, Pumpkinseed, Blue gill, White Sucker, Carp and Yellow Perch. Once the Osprey were threatened with extinction because of the wide-spread use of pesticides like DDT. With its long term and accumulative effects this pesticide was particularly devastating on the egg shells of this and other birds high up in the food chain. But with the ban of DDT at least in North America the population is recovering, especially where aided with nesting structure provisions and good fishing habitat.
The caring observer should remain a good distance, at least 700 feet, from the nest.
One of the most numerous wading birds in Florida, and common elsewhere in the southeast. The White Ibis is highly sociable at all seasons, roosting and feeding in flocks, and nesting in large colonies. Note the red face, long decurved red bill, and restricted black wingtips.
Immature white ibis are dark brownish with a white belly, white rump, and curved red bill. In flight, the neck is outstretched; the flocks fly in strings, flapping and gliding and often soar in circles. The White Ibis is about 22-27 inches tall. White Ibis inhabit salt, brackish, and fresh marshes, rice fields, mangroves. They may forage in any kind of shallow water, commonly flying to feed in fresh water even in coastal regions. Foraging sites include marshes, mudflats, flooded pastures, lake edges, mangrove lagoons, and grassy fields.
Their diet is varied and includes many crustaceans, with crayfish and crabs being major items. They also eat insects, snails, frogs, marine worms, snakes, and small fish. It forages by walking slowly in shallow water, sweeping its bill from side to side and probing at the bottom. White Ibis also forage on land, especially on mud or in short grass. It finds its food by touch while probing, by sight at other times, seizing items from the surface. White Ibises may steal food from each other and, in turn, have food stolen from them by larger species.
The White Ibis breeds in colonies, sometimes mixed with other wading birds. Displays of the male include ritualized preening, leaning over and grasping a twig in its bill, pointing his bill skyward and lowering his head onto his back. Nest sites are in mangroves, trees, and thickets, usually 2-15 feet above ground or water, sometimes higher or on the ground. The nest is built by both sexes, with the male bringing most material, and the female doing most of the building. Nesting material is often stolen from nests of other pairs. The nest is usually a platform of sticks, sometimes of cordgrass or reeds. Up to 5 eggs are laid, they are pale blue-green to white, blotched with brown. Incubation is by both sexes, and averages 21 days. Both parents feed the young, by regurgitation. The young may clamber about near the nest after 3 weeks, and can make short flights after 4-5 weeks, are capable of sustained flight at 6 weeks, and may leave the colony to forage with adults after 7 weeks.