The name anhinga, which comes from the Tupi-speaking natives of the Amazon basin, means “evil spirit of the woods.” Locally it is often referred to as the snakebird because of its ability to swim through the water with only its long, snakelike neck exposed.
When in full breeding plumage, the male anhinga sports a stunning black and white neck, back, and forewings that resemble piano keys. The female has a brown neck and breast. Because of its similar size and feeding habits, the anhinga is easily confused with the cormorant. Unlike the cormorant, however, the anhinga is an excellent flyer and can sometimes be seen soaring with wood storks and vultures high above the peninsula.
The anhinga, a distant relative of the pelican, has evolved a unique style of fishing. Unlike the cormorant and most diving ducks, the anhinga has no natural oils in its feathers. That, coupled with its dense bone structure, allows the anhinga to sink once its feathers become saturated with water. Also unlike the cormorant, the anhinga seldom grasps its prey but instead impales the pinfish or sand trout on its sharply pointed, dagger-like beak, which it uses to impale the unfortunate fish. The anhinga carefully flips the minnow off of its beak, eventually working its way around to its mouth where it swallows the minnow whole.
Its unusual perching behavior, with its large wings spread wide open, occurs because the anhinga becomes completely waterlogged after fishing. Sometimes, when startled and still too wet to fly, the anhinga will tumble back into the water creating a loud, unexpected splash.
Although its principal diet is fish, the anhinga has been known to eat baby alligators, water snakes, leeches, and frogs. Monogamous and colonial, it often nests with egrets and herons. Aside from alligators and great horned owls, the anhinga has few natural predators.
Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) Other names: snakebird, water turkey, darter / Status: FL=stable, IUCN=LC / Life span: Life span: to 11 years / Length: 30-37 in. (75-95 cm) / Wingspan: 45-48 in. (114-123 cm) / Weight: 2.7 lb. (1.22 kg) / Nests: throughout SW Florida / Found: All SWFL counties, coastal, near coast, mainland / Months found: jfMAMJjasond (caps indicated breeding season).
Perhaps the single most colorful bird that passes through Southwest Florida, the male painted bunting is a curious palate of blue, lime-green, red, and gray. The female is more of a greenish-yellow color and nowhere near as brilliantly colored as the male.
The painted bunting has two distinct populations: eastern and western. The eastern bird that comes through Florida generally winters in Cuba and Central America, while the western race winters in Northern Mexico.Some birds remain in South Florida for the winter; locating any during the summer is very difficult. One of the best places to find the painted bunting consistently is near the bird feeder located just off the main boardwalk at Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Collier County, where it comes to feed throughout the winter.
This bird has one unexpected characteristic, especially because of its small size: the male is very territorial and aggressive toward other male buntings. Fights between rival males can become extremely animated, involving fierce pecking, beating each other with their wings, and grappling, sometimes resulting in the death of the defeated bird, a highly unusual outcome among avian rivals.
The painted bunting is approaching threatened status primarily because of habitat loss in its eastern population. It prefers dense thickets and mixed pine and hardwood forests. A handful of birds never leave Florida, nesting along the southern edge of the great Eastern deciduous forest along the border of Georgia and Alabama. It is not adapting well to human alterations to the environment, although it can be spotted on occasion in urban locations.
Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) Other names: nonpareil / Status: FL=declining, IUCN-NT / Life span: to 9 years / Length: 4.7-5.1 in. (12-13 cm) / Wingspan: 8-8.5 in. (20-21 cm) / Weight: 0.5-0.7 oz. (13-19 g) / Nests: along the Eastern Seaboard to North Carolina, and a separate race nests in east Texas through Arkansas / Found: AC, near coast, mainland / Months found (in caps): JFMamjjasoND.
This article is an excerpt from “The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida,” which is available online and throughout Southwest Florida.Charles Sobczak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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