Water Creatures

For a couple of months during the winter, we usually pack up the camper and head to Florida to explore nature. And yes, to enjoy the warmer temps and sunshine. That trip usually includes bringing the canoe and spending time with friends. It allows us to see nature up close and personal. Sometimes it can be a bit “too close” and involves some maneuvering.

But what you see can be mesmerizing. Or entertaining. Or funny and cute. And sometimes not quite so calming… Sometimes it’s what’s keeping an eye on YOU.

Yes my friends, there definitely are alligators in Florida. And when you’re paddling in a canoe you see them. You also see them when hiking. But sometimes these little guys (in the photo below) fall under the category of “cute.” Unless Momma is nearby, which she probably is.

Baby gator hatchlings are only about 7 inches long, give or take, and require protection by Momma to keep predators away. Racoons, snakes, birds, otters and even other gators find these little guys appetizing. Baby gators tend to stay together in a group when they’re young, and you often see this out in the wild. Sometimes they stay close to Momma for two or even three years for protection.

But I digress. Let’s move onto the category of mesmerizing. When people hear you’ve been to Florida, the most asked question tends to be Did you see alligators? We know the answer to that one, but the second most asked question is Did you see manatees? And the answer to that is also Yes!

Paddling near the mouth of a natural spring that flows into the Suwannee River at Manatee Springs State Park we saw about a dozen manatees gently floating leisurely by enjoying the warm waters. It’s difficult to photograph a manatee. But look at the horizontal shape amongst the reflections of the trees on the surface of the water in the photo above.

Their front flippers help steer them through the water while the large tail provides the power to move them forward. These gentle giants are threatened due to a number of things including boats collisions, entanglement in fishing lines, harassment, habitat loss and starvation. They are protected by State and Federal law in Florida, and we can only hope they continue to survive.

Paddling around Florida’s waterways always provides a look at many creatures that love water. From shorebirds along coastal waterways (like this Brown Pelican that came in for a bouncing landing), to inland lakes with those creatures that focus on fish as a mainstay of their diet, like the Osprey.

Otter Lake in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is surrounded by towering Bald Cypress trees. The water is vivid blue and on windless days it’s smooth as glass. Sunlight reflects tree images on the water while Ospreys glide overhead.

The Cypress trees towering height make excellent locations for Osprey nests. The trees provide nest locations that offer easy approaches for the birds and good visibility to watch for potential predators.

An Osprey is considered a type of fish-hawk and eats almost exclusively live fish (although there are some exceptions). So having waterways nearby with ample food supply is critical.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is also a haven for water creatures. From the shy little Pied-billed grebe (which is not a type of duck) to beautiful Redhead ducks and more.

Pied-billed grebes are quite common in most of the U.S. I find it entertaining with it’s quick little dives to avoid being seen. Did you know Grebes eat large amounts of their own feathers. This helps block indigestible items long enough that they can form a pellet (which also includes those feathers amongst other things) they can regurgitate. And they’re the ONLY bird that does this.

And now on to the aforementioned Redhead ducks – a diving duck that’s interesting to observe. Talk about a beautiful creature, wow! As with many birds, the male is always the most colorful of the pair. According to Wikipedia, Redhead ducks make up just 2% of the North America’s duck population. Maybe it’s no wonder I don’t see them very often!

On this day we found them sharing the pool of water with a couple of American Coots. According to what I’ve read, Redheads are very “social” ducks and this photo appears to concur with that.

But Wood ducks are equally as resplendent as the Redheads, at least I believe so. This beautiful pair were remarkably calm and stood quite still for this photo. Generally I find Wood ducks to be quite shy.

And speaking of water creatures that are shy, how about the North American river otter? I rarely see them out of the water, and generally just see them quickly swimming away. But not on this day. Mother nature was kind to us and decided to share their beauty with observers paddling by. These guys were as curious about us as we were about them!

I’ve read river otters can be up to 4 feet long and weigh up to 30 pounds. The males are generally bigger, so I’m guessing that this might be a male due to its obvious size. They’re playful creatures, and on this day we found them scrambling about with several other otters as we paddled along.

And there you have it. Just a few of the water creatures we were able to share our time with while in Florida this year. Oh, there’s lots more photos to come in some future blogs. Nature has a way to mesmerize and amaze, and it’s so beautiful you just have to share it!

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close!