Sea Greatest

I came upon this Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus) one sunny afternoon. It didn’t seem too concerned about my presence as the ablutions continued unabated for at least another ten minutes.

This is one of the largest tern species in my area. Easily differentiated from the similar Caspian Tern by the bright white forehead which is visible outside of breeding season.

The Latin binomial translates as sea greatest (though personally, it’d make more sense as great of the sea).

Back in the Day

Took advantage of the sunshine this past Monday and wandered through the Manatee Village Historical Park in downtown Bradenton. Thanks to the foresight of Manatee County back in the 1980s, this site preserves 14 historic buildings along a stretch of brick-paved Manatee Road.

Only the visitor center, which occupies the old Wiggins Store/Hotel Dixie Grande, is original to the site. All the others were relocated from various locations across the county.

According to their signage, the town of Bradenton owes its existence to a storm. In 1865, Captain John Fogarty’s fishing vessel was beset by wind so he turned up the Manatee River for protection. The natural harbor and thick woods enticed John to move his entire family from Key West.

The family claimed 132 acres and established the Fogarty Boat Works. Boats were in high demand at the time for two reasons; the consequences of the Civil War and waterways were Florida’s highways. The rest, as they say, is history…

Sea Pie

I snapped these photos of an American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) last January. Sadly, they were lost in the shuffle until now (in my defense, I have over 3,000 photos from last year Рand those are just the ones I deemed worthy of keeping).

As their common name implies, they munch on oysters as well as other bivalves. The key to success is to stab into a partially open mollusk and detach the muscle. A mistake could cost the bird its life if the shell closes around the bill and holds the bird under water.

The historic name of Sea Pie comes from their coastal residencies and piebald coloring. They are decidedly more colorful than their cousin, the Black Oystercatcher (found along the Pacific coast of North America).

Kayaking Downtown

I joined a local ladies meetup group on Facebook last May, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve yet made (besides the one that landed me here). Not only have I met some amazing women who inspire me (looking at you, Katie) but I’ve taken part in some fun adventures along the way.

Last night’s sunset kayak in downtown St. Pete was one such outing. One of the members of our group Christine (owner of Wandering Adventures a kayak rental/guide company), hosts this monthly paddle at the municipal marina.

It was a bit breezy which kept us close to shore since there were some novices in our group. The sunset’s afterglow was stunning, the conversations were fascinating, and we were escorted around the bay by a couple of dolphins. What a fantastic way to spend an evening!

Wherever It’s Warm

During January, the water temperature along the Gulf Coast dropped to a cool 60 degrees. Like me, our local sea cows (officially known as West Indian Manatees (Trichechus manatus)), aren’t fond of cold water. Though they appear quite blubbery, manatees do not have a thick layer of fat, most of their chest cavity contains their massive lungs.

Therefore, these floating potatoes migrate seasonally to warmer waters, often up rivers to one of Florida’s over 700 springs. I don’t blame them, those natural upwellings average 72 degrees year round.

Fortunately for the manatees residing in the Tampa Bay area, Tampa Electric’s Big Bend power generating station releases warm water every day. Even better, this output raises the local water temperature to a balmy 78 degrees.

I finally had a chance to visit the adjacent manatee viewing center this past weekend. Considering it was a chilly and breezy day, the manatees certainly were more comfortable than I was! While I’ve encountered manatees before this was my first time with such a large number of them.

As you might imagine, it wasn’t the most action-packed morning. Manatees can rest up to 12 hours a day. The highlights of the visit were watching Sheepshead fish eat algae off the backs of manatees and giggling over the constant stream of bubbles from manatee farts. Riveting, let me tell you!

Smart Bird

Note the use of the foot to stir up potential small fish or other edibles.

After visiting with the swamp puppy at Walsingham Park a couple days ago, I spotted a Wood Stork (Mycteria americana). Since I’m fascinated by these stocky, prehistoric looking, bald-headed birds I wandered over for a closer look.

I’ve had limited success photographing them in the past so I was thrilled that this mature, adult bird was intently feeding and completely ignored me. This single-mindedness was probably due to the fact that nesting season has begun and, if this bird is lucky, it will soon be feeding several hungry hatchlings.

While reading up on the species I learned that these intelligent avians carefully select their nest trees, preferring ones in alligator occupied territory. Apparently, gators are very good at keeping egg-stealing raccoons away. As they say, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Hatchling success is important since this bird was recently on the Endangered Species List. Thankfully, they have rebounded and Florida has the largest population. In 2019, 1,000 nesting pairs were documented here in the Tampa Bay area, the densest in the state. I don’t blame them, this is a beautiful place. Like I said, smart birds!

Soon to be Momma?

I most often see American Alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) resting, either in the water or sunbathing on land. They aren’t the most active of creatures, though they can be surprisingly quick when the mood strikes (ie- feeding or protecting their young).

I watched this alligator meander through Walsingham Lake before it turned and swam toward me. Don’t worry, I was using the zoom on my camera, I was a safe distance away at all times.

My first thought was that perhaps the gator was used to being fed. But really, would anyone be that stupid? I know, I know, sadly the answer is probably yes. However, after spending more time with the gator I am now thinking she has staked out a nesting site.

There was a low, shrubby palm near her pullout which would be a protected location for her eggs. After all, Spring is just around the corner. It is an educated guess, for the only way to truly determine the sex of a gator is to turn it over and insert one’s finger into the genital slit and probe for a certain structure (there are videos online, feel free to search for them). Trust me, I don’t think either of us would enjoy that experience!

I’ll check back in a couple weeks and see if I can confirm my guess.

Morning Discovery

I found this female* Lined Seahorse (Hippocampus Erectus) during my beach walk this morning. Relatively poor swimmers, this specialized species of fish is usually attached to seagrass or soft coral.

However, the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico was recently churned up by passing storms, so the sand was littered with detritus. Sadly, this girl was one of the casualties.

Thankfully, this species has a wide distribution, from Nova Scotia to Brazil, so one local disturbance shouldn’t negatively impact the population. Well-camouflaged, predation is not a major worry (also they are quite bony and therefore, not a favored food). The main threats to the species are bottom trawling, seagrass bed destruction, and usage in Chinese medicine.

My walk coincided with slack water so the serene gulf belied the previous tumult…

*Male seahorses have a brood pouch which extends past the lower dorsal fin.