Pat’s Wildways: Sundown Shows

By Pat Foster-Turley

Sunset around large retention ponds is the time to watch roosting waterbirds.

Every evening around some retention ponds there is a show that is worth looking for. Herons, egrets, ibis and their relatives roost at night in massive groups. Right before sunset, they fly into the trees, where they rest together all night in a noisy huddle.

During the daytime, many of us admire the waterbirds that fish in our backyard ponds, the Greenway channels, and any other fish-full bodies of water around us. But for the most part we see single birds, or maybe a few in a shared good fishing spot, sometimes two or three species side by side. But never a large group. During the day it is all business for these birds—the hard work of fishing for a living. But in the evening it is a social gathering of many of these birds from around the area. Evening is the time they vie for their preferred spots on tree branches, sometimes crowding out others that are late to arrive. Usually, there is a bit of squawking and shuffling and even a few feathers flying as they settle in to rest for the night.

The birds in our area have had to make a lot of concessions and adaptations to continue living in their increasingly urbanized world. When we first moved here more than 20 years ago, we often drove “over the bridge” (OTB) to watch this wildlife show at the entrance to Marsh Lakes, not far off the island. The roosting trees were tall and far enough away from the homes to be able to be safely viewed without disturbing them, and far enough away from the inevitable bird droppings that rain below.

But then disaster hit them. Developers cut down all these trees at the entrance with plans to put in a commercial development along the highway. Well the trees were cut down, despite the loud complaints from residents and nature loving people like me. And guess what? The trees and birds were gone but the commercial development never materialized.

Birds flock to their current roost on Amelia Island.

A number of waterbirds took to a new roost on Escambia Slough near the Port of Fernandina.  For years people in the neighborhood enjoyed the sound of groups of birds flying overhead to get to their preferred branches to spend the night. But in the past year or so this rush of birds has been reduced to a trickle. According to one local resident the majority of the roosting birds flew the coop, so to speak, right around the time the Port stored a number of bags of cement that split open with clouds of cement dust blowing in the area. Apparently birds don’t like to be covered in cement dust and I don’t blame them. So much for that roost too.

Recently I’ve learned of another large grouping of birds flying into another group of trees on the island but I hesitate to say exactly where it is. The last thing I want is to be responsible for crowds showing up in this neighborhood at dusk to see the birds fly in. The roosting area is in low trees right beside a neighborhood road. Would more people parking and slamming car doors disturb the birds? I really don’t know and don’t want to find out.

An egret and ibis share a roost close to people.

Waterbirds like herons, egrets and their kin usually roost at night in trees near bodies of water, that in our area often includes retention ponds. If you look for groups of birds flying low at dusk you may well find your own bird roost to watch.

And if you want an even more exciting birdwatching experience, make plans to visit the St. Augustine Alligator Farm this spring. Beginning this month hundreds of birds arrive here to nest, a much more active time than those roosting the rest of the year. Here you can walk on a boardwalk around ponds full of alligators with islands of trees where roseate spoonbills, herons, egrets, wood storks and other waterbirds build their nests and raise their young. You can even purchase a special membership pass that lets you arrive early in the morning when few other visitors are around and the light is great for photography.  And for those dedicated birdwatchers the Alligator Farm posts a schedule of when certain bird species most often show up.

Here’s hoping these hints will get you on your way to witnessing these groups of waterbirds en masse yourself. It’s another Florida experience that shouldn’t be missed!

Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations [email protected].


1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Mark Tomes
Active Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
1 month ago

Another great wildlife column. Thanks, Pat. And thanks so much for not identifying the special spots you have found for wildlife congregations. I would suggest that for other things in the future, too, such as bald eagle nests. While it’s nice for people to go out and be able to appreciate nature, sometimes it’s too much for the animals, and we end up loving them to death.