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A White Tie Affair

A mass of wading birds feeding on concentrated prey during the dry-down on the salt marsh south of the Trail. Photo by Patrick Higgins

A mass of wading birds feeding on concentrated prey during the dry-down on the salt marsh south of the Trail. Photo by Patrick Higgins

by Patrick Higgins

Last month I was tearing along Tamiami Trail for an early morning FOF meeting when my eye was caught by one of those Florida spectacles that just stop you in your tracks.  Late or not, I squealed over onto the verge.  Hundreds upon hundreds of birds were engaged in a feeding frenzy in a series of ephemeral ponds stretching southward across the tidal marsh, just north of the East River. Crowds of great egrets, snowy egrets, white ibis, wood storks, cattle egrets and even white pelicans were hobnobbing in the pools.

As they strutted and bobbed they were perfectly reflected in the waters below. There was a constant fluttering of wings and an undercurrent of coarse “arrr, arrr, arrrs” from great egrets, and what sounded almost like a heron being throttled, followed by a hyena-like cackle from the snowys.  Scattered amongst this host were a few great blues, and a few spoonbills, but it was very much a white tie affair. They were gorging themselves almost shoulder to shoulder on the highly concentrated prey resulting from the seasonal dry-down. By my return in the late afternoon the birds had all dispersed.

But 80 years ago a Russian ecologist named Gause developed the Competitive Exclusion Principle. He postulated that two or more species, having identical patterns of resource use can not coexist in a stable environment, as one will be better adapted and eventually out-compete and eliminate the other.  So how do all these different species coexist?

This free-for-all is the exception.  The superabundance had allowed each species to temporarily step out of their niche.  Most of the year direct competition is avoided by resource partitioning. Although the birds share the same habitat, they avoid direct completion by either exploiting different resources, or the same ones but in different ways. This is largely achieved by specialized bill adaptations, varying leg lengths, and differing hunting and feeding strategies.

The ibis (Eudocimus albus) for example feeds by probing with its narrow decurved bill in a frenetic manner. It explores in, around and under obstacles. As a result it captures a higher percentage of invertebrates, typically crayfish and insect larvae in fresh water, and small crabs in salt water. Much of the ibis’ quarry is taken directly from burrows or other hiding places, and this strategy seems equally adapted to our lawns.

The wood stork (Mycteria americana ) typically feeds in water 18” or less with its head down. It’s a grope feeder – swinging its partially open beak from side to side until contact is made. This triggers one of fastest reflexes in the animal world. Its bill snaps shut in 3/100th of a second.  Sometimes the wood stork also sloshes its feet about to startle prey. Its tactile feeding technique works well in turbid water, but prey must be abundant to be effective and it’s ineffective in clear water as potential prey can see and evade them. Hence their nesting time coincides with the dry-down when prey is concentrated.

The roseate spoonbill (Ajaja ajaja), has an unusual spatulate-shaped bill which it swings from side to side, open-billed and submerged to stir up food as it wades in shallow water.  Like the wood stork when it feels a prey item it snaps its bill closed, pulls the prey out of the water, and swallows it.  Several birds often team-up forming a cooperative line. Most of their feeding is in salt water areas and their food is primarily crustaceans- especially prawns and shrimp, which aids the development of their pink coloring.

The great blue heron (Ardea herodias ) on the other hand by virtue of their large size – up to 4’6”, are able to fish in waters deeper than other wading birds. They are fairly representative of the 12 Florida species in the heron family. They are all visual hunters and mostly tallish birds that tend to stand upright and still in shallow waters or on the shore as “sit and wait predators” staring intently at the water, or patiently stalking through them. When prey is spotted they dart out their long necks to seize or spear it. Great blues tend to be solitary hunters not tolerating the close presence of other birds and are able to tackle larger fish up to 15” or even small mammals.  Some of the other herons may employ lures like the snowy wiggling its yellow feet to attract prey, or the tricolor heron may dash about in a shallow pool, then suddenly stand stock still with its wings out to create shadow to attract the panicked fish.

Resource partitioning may be temporal as well as spatial.  We have two nocturnal specialists, the black-crowned (Nycticorax nycticorax) and yellow crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea), although the former is the more nocturnal. Both of these stocky birds have larger eyes to aid night vision, but comparatively short legs for herons.  This restricts them to shallower water. They prefer wading on mud flats and sport heavy shear-like bills to tackle their favourite prey: crabs and crayfish, which they pull apart before ingesting.  Unlike most herons they prefer not to stand in the water when hunting, but to perch on mangrove roots or other objects at the water’s edge, leaning over to seize their prey.

Other wading birds like the limpkin (Aramus guarauna) are even more specialized with a chisel–like bill to tackle their favourite food, the Apple snail. After breaking through operculum,  the snail’s trap door, it slips its lower mandible into the shell to snip the muscle that attaches the snail to its shell and extracts and swallows it whole.  Its lower mandible actually curves slightly to right to accommodate curvature of shell. Although it hunts visually the limpkin can also probe tactilely under surface vegetation and in turbid water. Due to its selective diet it encounters little competition from other wading birds.

Similarly the cattle egret has carved its own niche via its association with cattle and by frequently hunting in terrestrial habitats.  Similarly differences in heron sizes sort them into what depths they can stalk. While diminutive green-backed herons are restricted to hunting on the edge and extreme shallows, great blues can wade out into substantial depths and tackle sizable fish that would be impossible for a greenback to handle.

So while the great blues, greenbacks and snowy egrets pursue fish, white ibis forage for fiddler crabs, roseate spoonbills sift in search of tiny aquatic invertebrates and least bitterns snap at dragonflies, all avoiding direct completion through resource partitioning aided by their specialized bill and other adaptations.