Identifying Birds of the Matanzas

Guest Blog by Matanzas Riverkeeper Intern Jenna Boerst

There is nothing better than coming across a beautiful bird while hiking on a trail, walking on the beach, or strolling through the neighborhood.  Spotting a unique bird can add some excitement into your otherwise ordinary day, and it is rewarding to be able to correctly identify a couple. With many species of birds having similar features, it can be confusing at times to truly understand what you are looking at. But with a little practice and key points to observe, you’ll find that spotting and identifying birds is easier than you think. You might even impress your friends with your avian awareness.

You won’t ‘egret’ learning this…

Living in Florida, you are bound to come across many types of egrets. The Florida wetlands and coastal areas make this place perfect for these birds. These birds prefer to make their homes in marshes, barrier islands, and coastal wetlands. They live in colonies with other species and make their nests in high trees or bushes. Egrets like to have vast vegetation around their nests to keep their young hidden and disguised from predators. As foragers, they are often spotted walking or flying around water. Their diet mainly includes fish, crustaceans, insects, and mice. While there are many types of egrets, the two most common to this area are the Snowy Egret and the Great Egret. 

A Snowy Egret is noticeably smaller in size than a Great Egret. When trying to identify a Snowy Egret, first confirm that its body is completely white. These birds do not have any sort of pattern or varying color and are known for their completely white plumage. Furthermore, their beaks are long, pointed, and have yellow skin at the base that loops around their eyes. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the Snowy Egret  are their distinct yellow feet at the bottom of their slim black legs, creating an effect that makes these birds look like they’re wearing yellow rainboots. Conversely, a Great Egret is almost twice as large as the Snowy Egret. Like Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets are also known for their all-white bodies and their long necks. What sets them apart from Snowy Egrets are their beaks and feet. They have long pointed beaks that are a light orange or yellow in color, and usually do not have any distinct varying color at the base of their beaks, except for an occasional green patch. The Great Egret has all black legs and black feet, which easily sets them apart from a Snowy Egret. 

You might need a ‘hawk eye’ to tell these two apart…

These rust-colored birds can be spotted year-round in Florida. They like to live in forested areas near water sources. You can often spot them soaring over wooded areas, or perched on tree branches or utility wires. Hawks are predatory animals and hunt using their incredible eyesight. Hawks like to scan for their food and then attack from above by swooping down to capture prey. Since their eyesight is a great tool in their hunting, the less clutter concealing their prey, the better. That is why they like to live in forested areas that are not too dense. Their diet varies but some common prey includes mice, snakes, small mammals, and other small birds.

Two types of hawks commonly found in the Guana, Tolomato, Matanzas watershed are the Red-shouldered Hawk and Red-tailed Hawk. A Red-shouldered Hawk is smaller than the Red-tailed Hawk, but they still have large wings that average around 40 inches from wingtip to wingtip. Their most distinguishing feature is the burnt orange tint of feathers along their underside and breast. These warm colors contrast with the dark brown and white checkered pattern on their wings and tails. This checkered pattern can be seen on both the upper and underside of the bird’s wings. On the Red-shouldered Hawk’s tail, there is a white and brown pattern that creates stripes that go from side to side. The best way to tell if a hawk is a Red-shouldered Hawk is to look at that their underside to see if it is a deep burnt reddish orange color and look for stripes on the tail.

Conversely, size is a key aspect to identify a Red-tailed Hawk. These birds are widespread throughout Florida and are one of the largest hawks in this state with a broader wingspan than the Red-shouldered Hawk. Red-tailed Hawks have a variety of contrasting color patterns. When viewing this bird from below, you will see that their breast area is lightly colored with a brown speckled pattern that creates a band across their chest. Their undersides are a creamy white, but you can see dark color on the edges of their wings, creating a perimeter of color. One of the most helpful ways to identify a Red-tailed Hawk is by looking at their tail. As their name indicates, these birds have a deep reddish-orange tail that is easy to spot from beneath the bird and above. If you were to view this from above, you would see a deep brown color across their bodies and wingspan. From the top, you can also spot their distinct red tail, which is even richer in color than from below. Their tail is easiest way to tell them apart from the Red-shouldered Hawk. If it has a red tail, then it is a Red-tailed Hawk.

Don’t be “gull”ible, that is a tern!

The Least Tern and Laughing Gull are two local beach birds that can be easily confused with one another. These birds can be found on beaches near inlets, rivers, and bays. Due to their small size, both of these birds thrive in groups where they can share the burden of protecting their home. Least Terns have recently been listed as a threatened species in Florida because their habitats keep getting disrupted due to development and unknowing beach goers. As they have been trying to adapt to these changes, they have taken to nesting on gravel roofs, a once uncommon place to find them. Their diet consists of mostly small fish, insects, crustations, and small worms that might be found in coastal areas. Unlike the Least Tern, Laughing Gulls are highly adaptable and are more likely to be spotted near humans then other birds. Despite their adaptability, Laughing Gulls are still impacted by beach development as this disrupts the natural habitat where they instinctively prefer to make their homes.

As the smallest tern, the Least Tern grows to 8-9 inches in length with a wingspan of 21-23 inches. Their legs and beaks are a yellow-orangish color. The body of this bird is gray and white, and they have a black streak on the outer edge of both of their wings. One of the most distinct features about these birds is their head. They have black coloring on the top of their head that extends to cover their eyes. There is a section of white that breaks up this black coloring on their forehead in the shape of a triangle. This black “helmet” is one of the key factors in distinguishing these small birds from other beach birds.

One way to differentiate Laughing Gulls from Least Terns is their size. Laughing Gulls are bigger than Least Terns growing to 15-18 inches in length, with a wingspan of 36-47 inches. The body of an adult Laughing Gull is dark grey across its’ wings and back, contrasting with a white underbelly and breast. Furthermore, they have a black tail and head, which is one of their distinct features. To differentiate a Laughing Gull from a Least Tern, the black coloring on the Laughing Gull does not have any white on the forehead, and the black usually extends to the upper neck area. These birds also have a ring of white around their eyes, making it look as if they were wearing white eyeliner. Another good way to identify a Laughing Gull is by looking at their beaks and legs. Laughing Gulls have a prominent red beak, which matches the color on their legs. The distinct red color is a characteristic that can help set this bird apart from Least Terns which have a yellowish-orange coloring on the beaks and feet.

Is that a piper or plover?

The Spotted Sandpiper and Wilson’s Plover are birds that can be found in coastal habitats. Both tend to make their homes along beaches and coastal areas around inlets, tide pools, and mangroves. Sandpipers prefer areas that have vegetation in order to shield them from predators, whereas plovers prefer sandy areas to nest in right next to a shoreline. You can often spot these two birds trotting along the shoreline looking for food. Both sandpipers and plovers use their long beaks to dig into the sand to grab worms, fiddler crabs, shrimp, and insects.

One characteristic that makes the Spotted Sandpiper easy to identify is its behavior. Since they are very active while hunting, they can often be spotted running along the shoreline inspecting the sand. Spotted Sandpipers have light brown coloring along their backs that can also contain a tint of grey, with a white belly and breast area. In breeding season, these birds will also have darker spots on their chest area. They have an orange beak, and a dark brown line that extends from their beak, across their eye, and towards the back of their head. Their legs can vary from a yellow to orange color.

Even though the Wilson's Plover’s behavior is very similar to this sandpiper, there are some differences in their coloring which can help you to tell them apart. The Wilson’s Plover has a smaller body with a light brown back, contrasting with a white belly/breast. While this is similar to the Spotted Sandpiper, the Wilson’s Plover has a defined black band around its upper breast. Above the black band, they have a white area that extends up and underneath and around the backside of their neck. They also have a white stripe that extends from their beak, onto their forehead, and past their eye. A key feature to telling these birds apart is their beak. Unlike the Spotted Sandpiper, the Wilson’s Plover’s beak is short, thick, and sharp, which allow them to grab their prey with more force. Their beaks are black in color, along with their legs, which contrasts with the Spotted Sandpiper yellowish-orange beak.

Pretty in Pink

Roseate Spoonbills and American Flamingos are striking pink birds that both like to live in mudflats, lagoons, marshes, and mangroves. Roseate Spoonbills prefer to build their nests up off the ground, while American Flamingos like to nest in mud. Due to habitat loss, spoonbills have started to migrate further north to where we can now find them in north Florida. A local place that you can usually spot them is the St. Augustine Alligator farm, where they migrate to during the spring and summer months. On the other hand, while wild flamingos can be spotted in Florida, it is a rare sight and most likely to be in south Florida or near the Everglades. Both birds feed on mostly aquatic invertebrates including crabs, crayfish, and shrimp. Their distinct pink color comes from the crustaceans they consume which contain pigments that their bodies metabolize resulting in pinkish feathers.

The Roseate Spoonbill is easily spotted due their gorgeous pink color that covers most of their body. Since their color comes from their diet and is not a natural pattern, their color can vary between deep or light pink. Typically, these birds have a light pink body and a deeper pink band that lines the top edge of their wings. Their necks are covered with white feathers that transition into creamy white skin as you get closer to the beak and eye area. The key to identifying these birds is their bills. Their unique grey bills look as if they’ve been flatted and resemble the silhouette of a spoon. This flat bill gives them the ability to scoop and sweep food out of the water as they forage. 

Like Roseate Spoonbills, American Flamingos have a beautiful pink or orange color. One difference with the flamingo’s color is that it extends all the way up their necks and onto their heads. Their necks are long and curved and can have deeper color than its’ body. The best way to tell an American Flamingo and a Roseate Spoonbill apart is to look at their beaks. In contrast to a spoonbill’s rounded bill, flamingos have a downward curved beak that is pointed on the end. The tip of their beak is black, followed by a section of pink, that eventually fades into white. Flamingos are also known for standing on one foot in order to rest and sleep.