Sunday, May 25, 2008

Be On The Lookout For The Snake-Bird

Where the banks of our local ponds, streams and marshes are overgrown with rank vegetation and stately pines and cypress trees are draped with long strands of Spanish moss, look for these curious birds.

Birds are known locally in different parts of the country by names based on their characteristics. Picturesque names have been hung around the neck of this strange looking bird. Depending on what section of the country you are visiting, you might hear the anhinga called the American darter, black darter, snake-bird or water turkey . . . the nickname it is known by in our area.

If it's a warm, sunny early morning you'll likely find one sitting quietly on a branch or a post with wings fully opened, drying them, as it exposes its wet feathers pleasantly to the warmth of the sun. It sees you approach but seems slow to leave its perch. As you come closer, it will slide into the pond, submerge its body and swim away under water with only its snake-like head and neck showing above the rippling greenish-colored water.

Long-necked, long-tailed and short legged, the anhinga measures around three feet from bill to the end of its light-banded tail. Its yellowish webbed feet have toes and sharp nails to use to scramble about among shrubs and trees where a pair builds their loose and bulky nest, some five to fifteen feet above the water. The nest contains lots of dead leaves, mixed with sticks. Its lining is green willow leaves.

The male claims the nest and advertises for a mate by wing waving and bowing before one or more females. Then the female chooses a mate and his nest site from one of the exhibiting males. When both are accepted by one another, she builds the nest with twigs and other plant matter brought to her by the male.

Though it breeds somewhat sparingly in the Central Savannah River Area, it spends the winters to the south along the Carolina and Georgia coasts and in Florida. Seldom do we see one in this region during deep winter.

Though slim, trim and prim in appearance when perched on a high dead branch or post, the water turkey is somewhat awkward when perched in a tree among the branches. It is the epitome of gracefulness in the air. It rises from its perch, mounting high in the air and soaring in circles gradually upwards until almost out of sight. When in flight it holds its long neck, wings and tail in a cross shape. This is a good identification mark.

Water turkeys have no song but make shrill rattlings and clicking calls. The males are blackish with silvery patches on the front part of their wings, while the females and young are more brownish. The female is the same size as the male but can be distinguished from him by her conspicuous fawn colored neck and breast. Pink eyes surrounded by bare green skin put the finishing touches on a completely weird appearance.

In the water, the anhinga swims gracefully and swiftly on the surface or sneaks away with its body submerged and only its snake-like head and neck showing in sinuous curves.

In the deep solitude of swamps lives a bird that soars like a hawk, perches like a cormorant, and swims like a snake. When his body is underwater with only his small head and long slender, curved neck showing, he does indeed, look like a snake slicing through the water with head back, poised to strike!

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