Springtime preview: Florida’s birds are looking for love

A Great Egret in breeding plumage

One of the most striking springtime transformations among birds is the Great Egret’s. Its eyes turn a lime-green and feathers develop exotic strands of white that blow in the wind like the finest wedding dress.

Our swing through Florida the past few weeks provided a captivating preview of the mating season ahead of the rest of the country. Great Blue Herons are gathering nesting materials deep in the southern Everglades. A little further north in Palm Beach County, the state’s most accessible rookery is brimming with egrets, herons, anhingas and gallinules, elbowing each other as they pair up with mates. Smack in the middle of our busy campground on the Northeast coast, we had the luck to see a Sand Hill Crane launch into its wild mating dance in hopes of warming up his partner. (See the video below.)

A pair of Great Egrets

The Great Egret’s mating rituals are our favorite for the contrast of those green eyeliners against the snow-white plumage. We got to watch several pairs working together to build nests at the Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach, where the boardwalk passes within a few feet of the islands of rookeries. These birds strike elegant poses, huddled together as the first of their eggs are arriving. Here’s a gallery of the scene:

Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Herons’ conversions are equally dramatic. Their mating-season strands extend all down their front like a stole. Their bills turn a brighter orange-yellow, and the impact is made all the more pronounced when they stand like statues at the top branches above their nests.

Many of the birds can be seen gathering twigs, leaves and even whole branches for their nests. None match the images of the huge Wood Storks wrestling with their construction materials as their gawky forms come down with their orange feet extended like landing gear.

Once in a while, you’ll catch a mating dance in full swing. The most memorable of our trip this year was right at a campground in Melbourne along the northeast coast. A pair of Sand Hill Cranes can be found many day this time of year strolling through the campers, trucks and bikes without hesitation.

One day, the male suddenly went into its mating dance a few feet from where we were walking. He began by leaping into the air, a move meant to stir up his partner. When that didn’t seem to work, the bird jumped so high he nearly fell over backward. Then he began reaching down and pitching grass into the air. The female watched impassively, apparently not in the mood. Eventually, the male gave up and went back to grazing. His mate wasn’t impressed, but we certainly were:

A final footnote: The birds, of course, aren’t the only residents of these marshlands. Here are two of our favorites that come without wings — and are a reminder of what a varied and hazardous place these wetlands can be. All day long at Wakodahatchee, this hungry alligator struck this inscrutable pose, waiting for one of these wading birds to make a wrong step.

Not far away, this giant Iguana watched all the clamor from a tree overlooking the main pond. It’s a good reminder that despite the awe in which we hold birds, most visitors are more excited about these reptiles.


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One response to “Springtime preview: Florida’s birds are looking for love”

  1. Wonderful piece, as always. Loved the crane mating dance. Poor guy, it didn’t look like he managed to score even after all that effort. We just preordered A WING AND A PRAYER!

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