by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist
The Anhinga, a year-round resident to Southwest Florida, is a long-necked, long tailed swimmer of Southeastern swamps and is often seen all around water bodies here on Sanibel. Commonly, they are seen perched on a snag, dead tree or limb, above the water with its wings half spread to dry after a swim.
Similar in size and shape to a previously highlighted bird, the Cormorant, the Anhinga will resemble the Cormorant when perched, but with a closer look there are distinct differences that make it pretty easy to distinguish between these two. The Anhinga has a narrow, pointed daggerlike bill that is used for stabbing fish while hunting underwater, whereas the Cormorant has a thicker bill with a hooked tip used for clasping and hooking the fish it hunts. Other key differences are that the Anhinga has a much larger tail than the Cormorant and the Anhinga will completely submerge it’s body when swimming, just leaving it’s snake-like neck and head above the water. The Cormorant however, does not completely submerge its body unless actively diving for prey.
You guessed it, the diet of the Anhinga consists mostly of fish. It consumes a variety of fish, but will also eat aquatic insects, crayfish, shrimp and even some small reptiles such as young alligators, snakes and turtles.
Typically, four eggs are laid in a sturdy nest that is often on branches that extend over the water or are right along the waters edge. Eggs are incubated for 3-4 weeks and once hatched, both parents feed the young. The chicks, as photographed, are much lighter in color than the parents and unlike the relatively silent adults, can make quite a racket when asking for their next meal! The age of first flight varies but one things for certain, by the time they leave the nest there is very little room in the nest as all four are nearly the same size as an adult. Once they do fledge, around six weeks, they will often stay near the parents around the nest for a few more weeks.
Beyond the sightings of them swimming and perching near the waters edge, the Anhinga can be seen as an excellent flyer, soaring very high, riding thermals. The distinctive shape, an outstretched cross, easily differentiates them from other high soaring birds.
The Anhinga isn’t the most conspicuous of our island birds but it could be considered one of the more popular ones. Our great island habitats support the fish-life that makes this bird a successful resident and year after year I’ve seen successful nesting all around our course lakes and at nearly lagoons and waterways. Hopefully with a little inspecting along the waters edge, you can spot an Anhinga nest soon too!
Four Keys to ID
1. Size and Shape – Large, slender waterbirds with long fanlike tails and a dagger bill. In flight, they look like a flying cross.
2. Color Pattern – Adult males are black with silvery to white streaks on the backs and wings. Females and immatures have a pale tan head, neck and breast.
3. Behavior – They swim with their bodies mostly to completely submerged and their long necks sticking out of the water. After swimming, they perch, holding their wings out and spreading their tails to dry.
4. Habitat – Inhabit freshwater lakes, ponds and streams with open tree canopies, branches or logs that they can perch on. Less commonly, they use brackish bays and lagoons along the coast, but seldom are seen in expansive open water.
Like many other birds, the Anhinga has other namesakes such as the “water turkey” for its turkey like tail and “snakebird” for its long snakelike neck.
Like the Cormorant, the Anhinga doesn’t have waterproof feathers. The wet feathers, along with dense bones, actually help the Anhinga to submerge itself under the water so it can stalk fish.
The name Anhinga comes from the Tupi Indians in Brazil, meaning “Devil Bird”.