Exploring the Mangroves by Kayak

 

Kayak 0717In the summer months I’m finally home long enough that I can turn to one of the things that drew me to southwest Florida in the first place. The amazing mangrove lined edges and serpentine waterways that surround Charlotte Harbor. This unique habitat is a variable labyrinth of narrow winding streams cutting through the dense stands of mangroves that are often only navigable by a small kayak or canoe. The maneuverability of these crafts allow you to wind through the narrowest of passages to find larger shallow bays hidden by the mangroves. It’s great fun winding through these trails, silently gliding along the tangled roots in search of who knows what… as long as you don’t get lost at least!

Charlotte Harbor has >30 miles of mangrove lined shores including a hidden National Wildlife Refuge

Charlotte Harbor has >30 miles of mangrove lined shores including a seldom seen National Wildlife Refuge

Charlotte Harbor, one of Florida’s largest estuaries, is edged with over 30 miles of contiguous mangrove forests. It is a veritable treasure trove teeming with all types of wildlife.

Mangrove Snake

 

Mangrove Snake lounges amidst the hanging roots of the Red Mangroves doing its best to blend in.

 

Mangrove Tree Crab Leica V-lux camera

Mangrove Tree Crab Leica V-lux camera

Mangrove tree crab

Mangrove Tree Crabs abound and can be seen scurrying along the hanging roots and branches everywhere throughout your run. Occasionally, one may even wind up in the kayak with you.

Mangrove Skipper butterfly

Mangrove Skipper butterfly

Strong flying, Mangrove Skippers dash across open trails and disappear back into the dense mangroves, while under the water, many fish species use the dense cover of the criss-crossed roots as a nursery. Specialists like Mangrove Snappers are found here as well and schools of Mullet that cruise through the shallow waters here.

 

bonnethead

Due to this bounty of abundant marine life, larger predatory  fish will be seen as well. Big bull Redfish, Snook, and Tarpon can be seen as well as small sharks, some of them pretty unique as well like this Bonnethead. On my last trip, I was thrilled to see an endangered Small-tooth Sawfish, a bit like a unicorn, this odd fish looks like a cross between a shark, a sting ray, and an electric hedge trimmer!

Little Blue Heron image with Leica V-lux (typ 114) camera

Little Blue Heron image with Leica V-lux (typ 114) camera

In the intertidal zone, Mussels and barnacles attached to the suspended mangrove roots are exposed at low tide. Spotted Sandpipers are plentiful in winter feeding on these exposed mussels, and it’s also really attractive for the wading birds year round. They can choose between the numerous fish or the crustaceans while enjoying the shade of the mangrove canopy above. This “piebald” Little Blue Heron takes respite from the sun while fishing. They only show this unique dappled plumage for a short period in summer near their first birthday, when they change over from their stark white immature plumage to the slaty blue-gray plumage they will wear for the rest of their lives.

A satiated Green Heron stretches its wings in the morning sun.

A satiated Green Heron stretches its wings in the morning sun.

Many Green Herons nest throughout the Mangrove forests and you will see and hear many as you paddle along. They will perch on the roots head pulled back like a coiled serpent ready to strike any passing, unsuspecting fish.

adult Yellow-crowned Night Heron tucks into the shady branches of the Mangroves for the day

adult Yellow-crowned Night Heron tucks into the shady branches of the Mangroves for the day

The kayak’s silent approach and low profile allow one to get much closer to the wildlife as evidenced by the close up below.

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As you can see, the stout bill of the Night-heron is better for crushing the hard shells of the plentiful bounty of crabs here. Note the dings on the edged of this birds bill! Much different from the dagger that the Little Blue & Green Herons are equipped with.

Fiddler Crab

 

While the Mangrove Tree Crabs dominate the roots and branches, Fiddler crabs make their living in the soft mud and detritus below, which is full of nutrients as well. So no shortage of crunchy snacks for the Night Heron to enjoy. As I said, “the Mangroves teem with wildlife”.

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The adult male Osprey above threatened to fly from its perch, but I set my paddle down and slid by rattling off a few frames as I did. After I’d passed, he went back to a more relaxed pose. With all of the fish it’s no surprise that fish eaters like Osprey and Bald Eagles are a regular sight as well!

Bottle-nosed Dolphin coming at me - Leica V-lux (typ 114) camera

Bottle-nosed Dolphin coming at me – Leica V-lux (typ 114) camera

Oh yeah and dolphins, can’t forget dolphins. It’s amazing to see their speed as they chase down fish in the shallow waters here!

Mangrove Cuckoo - Leica V-lux (typ 114) point & shoot camera

Mangrove Cuckoo – Leica V-lux (typ 114) point & shoot camera

One of my favorite critters out there though is the secretive and shy Mangrove Cuckoo. Normally a recluse hidden in the dense tangled mangroves, the Cuckoos become much easier to see and hear when nesting season comes around. Their appearance is similar to the Yellow-billed Cuckoo with a few subtle differences. A pale gray eyebrow, sets off a more prominent black mask on the Mangrove Cuckoo.

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Mangrove Cuckoos lack the reddish tinged webs on the flight feathers of the Yellow-billed. Instead, showing a uniform grayish brown cast across their entire upper surface. They sport a buffy-orange wash across the belly and flanks as well.

MACU preens 0717

 

While not always easy to see, each tail feather is edged with a large white, ovate spot offering a uniquely different tail pattern. As you can see in these images, by the time summer and the nesting season rolls around these tails can appear pretty worn & ratty.

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However, I do believe that their molt and maybe due to sitting on nests in these summer months makes these birds a bit more prone to sit on a sunny perch and preen in the morning sun. I’ve never seen them conspicuously like this in the fall & winter months, but in summer they seem to do it more frequently.

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A pair of adult Mangrove Cuckoos preen in the AM sun above.

Mangrove Cuckoo jumps up a branch - Leica V-lux (typ 116) camera

Mangrove Cuckoo jumps up a branch – Leica V-lux (typ 116) camera

Their long lean bodies allow them snake through the thick cover chasing down food. Even though most views AREN’T in the open, if you spend enough time out there during the breeding season, you will run into them. In the winter months they virtually disappear though!

 

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I think a big part of why I enjoy these birds so much, is their secretive nature and the relative inaccessibility of the habitats where they live. Extremely difficult to find by land, but comparatively easy when you get out into the heart of these mangrove forests. The mystery that shrouds these birds behavior adds to their allure. This past weekend I saw 6 Mangrove Cuckoos as well as a Sawfish it was a great day!