The Fledging of the Brown-headed Nuthatches

Sitta pusilla

 

I was six years old and still a dog paddler.  As I stood on the diving tower my knees shook and the water, six feet below, seemed forbidding.  My older brother and sisters begged me to jump but I couldn’t take the plunge.  My father, apparently losing patience, gave me a firm nudge and I fell.  Reaching out for the tower I was able to grab a support and clung there for a few more seconds before falling the remaining three feet into the lake.  I lived.

Parent with brown head, juvenile with grayer head

My son was also six when I ran down the road behind him, holding the seat of his new 20-inch two wheeler.  He was game but his balance was precarious and I was reluctant to let go.  But our rural road was straight and the only potential obstacle was our neighbor’s mailbox 100 feet ahead.  I let go and he was on his own and doing fine.  But that darn mailbox loomed large and Murphy’s Law was upheld again.  It was a direct hit.  He also lived.

These were my thoughts as Suzanne and I sat with Mary and Gene on their porch, sipped wine, and watched the Brown-headed Nuthatches (BHNH) fledge from their Bluebird house.  Mary had called us, all excited, as she sensed that the big moment had arrived.  I was immersed in household projects and reluctant to drop them, but my wife “egged me on”.  I grabbed the camera and we arrived just in the nick of time.

#1

The first fledgling was purposeful and bold; stuck his head out the hole, surveyed the landscape, and quickly launched himself into the new world.  I can just picture him (or her) as the dominant chick of the clutch, perhaps standing on the backs and heads of the others in the crowded box to get more than his fair share of the food.  His siblings were likely relieved to see him go.

#2 clinging for dear life as parent and #3 look on

Number two was a completely different story, poking his head out and withdrawing it several times.  When he finally left the hole he clung to the side of the house before scampering back inside, just to start the process all over again.  One time he lost his grip and fell down to the metal snake guard below the house.  A parent, reminiscent of my father and the diving tower incident, finally had enough of this and pushed the timid chick into the wild.  Each fledgling’s initial short flight was to the nearby loblollies, apparently a favorite tree for the species.

Pygmy nuthatch, Sitta pygmaea

This nuthatch, along with the similar west coast Pygmy nuthatch are smaller than the related White-breasted and Red-breasted birds of the same genus.  The brown head is distinctive and its call is comical.  If you hear a Rubber Ducky in your pine tree you’ll know you’ve found a BHNH.  We Delmarva birders are lucky to be just within the range of this bird, which extends south to northern Florida and west as far as Texas.

Red-breasted nuthatch, Sitta canadensis

The social BHNHs are often found in small groups, often with young males assisting with the feeding chores.  The breeding pair are monogamous, at least for the breeding season, and bring just one brood into the world each year.  This clever bird is one of the few avian tool-users, known to use a small piece of bark to dislodge insects from the tree.  The non-migratory BHNH will also visit a feeder for sunflower seeds, especially in the cooler months.

White-breasted nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis

Gene and Mary have created a wonderful avian habitat on their narrow tidal creek of the Chesapeake Bay.  We first met this erstwhile urban couple years ago when they had just recently left the city and moved to our rural Eastern Shore.  They quickly learned the local flora and fauna and have become astute observers and conservers of the land.  Their beautiful yard is bordered by stands of pines and hollies with sizable areas of wildflowers and gardens extending down to the tidal grasses at the shoreline.  Scattered birdhouses and feeders are carefully maintained and Mary keeps a log of the comings and goings of the wildlife.  This spring the nuthatches were the primo attraction.

Juvenile and parent BHNH

She first noticed the seven eggs in the Bluebird house on April 6, thinking they were likely the work of Carolina chickadees.  But by  4/13 she noticed the busy BHNH parents at the site and the hen incubating the eggs.  They hatched on 4/21 and fledged right on schedule 18 days later.  These birds are cavity nesters, usually in old woodpecker holes, but are also known to inhabit birdhouses on occasion.

#3 & #4

Numbers 3 and 4 seemed to take a team approach to fledging.  Both heads and bodies squeezed together into the birdhouse exit, seemingly encouraging each other to attempt the flight to the nearby loblolly.  We did not observe the other three fledglings but Mary reported that the box was empty and quiet the next morning.  I suspect for a few short days the parents will assist the fledglings with feeding but soon they will be on their own; sink or swim.  If lucky they may achieve a life span approaching eight years.

Parent, showing how it’s done

What must it be like for the new nuthatches?  Leaving the warm, safe confines of the 6X6X15 inch box and launching themselves into a vast universe of entirely new sights, sounds and dangers.  Think of your first day of school, or perhaps your first date or kiss. What about that first piano recital or being left alone for the first time at summer camp.  Even these can hardly compare to nuthatches’ first flights at only 18 days of age.  And we certainly did not have a crowd of curious spectators aiming those binoculars and that long telephoto lens at us during our debut.  The fledglings were truly a sight to behold and so far, they too have lived.

Swan Song for a Snow Bird

Cape May Warbler, Dendroica tigrina

 

The tropical heat is building and the watering holes are crowded. There’s an undercurrent of sniping between the permanent residents and migrators competing for food and space.  Many of the migrators are donning their finest garb in preparation of the trip north, hoping to find a mate, build a nest, and raise a family.  The older crowd is also anxious to return to the land of their roots, renew friendships, and enjoy the cooler breezes.  For them the trip is more strenuous but also a highly anticipated yearly event.  The full time residents left behind are anxious for them all to leave, no matter the reason.

Prothonotary Warbler, Protonotaria citrea

We’re both observers and participants in the great spring migration.  The crest of both the songbird and human waves have already passed us by in south Florida, but we plan to join in and catch up this week.

Northern Parula, Parula americana            (click on photos to zoom)

So often we search out the remote birding sites, but reliable sources alerted us to a passerine fall-out in the heart of downtown Naples.  “Just go to Cambier Park, find the stage, and nearby you’ll se a blooming bottle-brush tree full of birds, with smiling birders positioned below”.

Indigo Bunting, Passerina cyanea

White-eyed Vireo, Vireo griseus

This was great birding for old bones–I only wish I had brought a chair.  Just find some shade, adjust your camera settings, aim upward and shoot.  The only obstacles were “warbler neck”, the speed of the hyperactive birds, and an obnoxious Northern Mockingbird who was openly hostile to the more photogenic migrators passing through.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

Black-whiskered Vireo, Vireo altiloquus

The Cape May Warblers were the most numerous birds, along with a good showing of Prothonotary Warblers, Indigo Buntings, and Orchard Orioles.  Fewer Black-and-white, Blackpoll, and Black-throated Blue Warblers were also seen.  Throw in an occasional Northern Parula, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Black-whiskered Vireo, Chimney Swift, and a flock of Cedar Waxwings and you have a very productive tree and day.

Orchard Oriole, Icterus spurius

Cape May Warbler, Dendroica tigrina

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris

Somehow I had never seen a Cape May Warbler prior to this day; it was a nemesis bird no longer.  Although first described by Alexander Wilson at Cape May, New Jersey in the early 19th century, it was not reported there again for 100 years; but the name has stuck.  This interesting bird winters in the West Indies and briefly stops here on the way north.  It has a unique curved tubular tongue for feeding on nectar in the tropics.  Up north it breeds in the forests of the United States and southern Canada and nests almost exclusively in spruce trees, feeding on spruce bud worms.  Populations and success of the bird varies proportionally with abundance of this worm.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

We also visited the famous Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary to check on the spring migration there.  It’s my great fortune to have the knowledgeable Corkscrew guides, Nancy and Don, as neighbors in Naples.  They were on duty that day and reported that the colorful male Painted Buntings had already left but a few females still lingered.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

The sanctuary was relatively quiet for songbirds, but they encouraged us to check out the ponds.  It has been a dry winter and spring in south Florida and the cypress swamp was unusually arid.  All the remaining water was in a few shrinking water holes, concentrating the fish, alligators, and wading birds together, not entirely peacefully.

Great Egret, Ardea alba

You heard the guttural sounds of the waders and uhhs and ahhs of the spectator crowd, even from a great distance.  The boardwalk was packed with observers, fixated on the spectacle of life and death on the pond.  It reminded me of the childhood “Wild Kingdom” television shows of the Serengeti Plains of Africa and its watering holes, with wildebeest, zebras, giraffes, and others risking life and limb for a drink as lions skulked nearby.

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga

At Corkscrew the concentrated jumping fish had no where to escape, and the opportunistic wading birds were reaping the reward; that is as long as they could dodge the gators who were the “lions” of this scene at the top of the food chain.  The prowling gator’s only dilemma was whether to grab a fish or sneak up on a distracted bird for a larger feathery meal.  There must have been 100 or more storks, herons, egrets, anhingas, and spoonbills at the feeding frenzy.  As Andy said, “It’s a bad day to be a fish”.

American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis

Whereas the migration of birds has occurred for millions of years, migrating human snowbirds to and from Florida is a relatively new phenomena.  In 1902 25 year-old Willis Carrier of Buffalo, New York invented the first “modern” air conditioner.  I doubt that the massive population growth of Florida and the South could have taken place without AC.  Even with it, Easter seems to be the signal commencing the human migration to the north.

Corkscrew watering hole

The wide boulevards, 8-lane highways, and glass and concrete high-rises now seem empty.  There are no longer lines at the best restaurants and theaters, and you can make it through an intersection with one turn of the light.  It’s almost eerie.  The infrastructure here is built to accommodate the huge population of winter and not for the fewer year-round residents.

Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

I visited the flowering bottle brush tree in Cambier Park one last time.  It was now quiet.  The itinerant migrators had all moved on and even the Mockingbird seemed more relaxed.  The resident birds had once again reclaimed their territories and until next fall, all was well.

Birding Mount Auburn in Springtime

Mount Auburn Cemetery

 

I strolled by the old Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street in Boston on the way to the Park Street Station.  My final destination on this early spring morning was Mount Auburn Cemetery, but I couldn’t help comparing the two burial grounds.  The first, now surrounded by towering high rises, is a city block of ordered, simple stones arranged in precise symmetrical rows, typical characteristics of the Classical Era (1750 to 1820).  Burial then was as much for sanitation as it was for a memorial to the deceased.  You’ll find the graves of the patriots Paul Revere, Sam Adams, and John Hancock at the Granary site.

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

American Robin, Turdus migratorius

Mount Auburn Cemetery, a short bus ride from Harvard Square in Cambridge, is quite different.  It is a quintessential creation of the Romantic Era, established in 1831.  The cemetery is 174 acres of beautiful free-form landscape in the rolling hills of suburban Boston.  Winding roads and meandering paths lead one among the graves, some simple, but other quite ornate reaching high toward the heavens in celebration of both life and death.  In this era imagination and emotion ruled; it was heart over head.  There are only a few defined rows of tombstones. Instead, most are loosely clustered in groves and glens throughout the spectacular arboretum.

Among the graves you will find Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, abolitionist Charles Sumner, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, Julia Ward Howe, and the 19th century champion of the mentally ill, Dorothea Dix.  Ornithologists William Brewster and Ludlow Griscom have appropriately been laid to rest here among their cherished birds.  I also visited the modest stones marking the burial sites of my parents and father’s family.  They were Cambridge natives and Dad always hoped to be interred in Mount Auburn with them.  It’s easy to understand why.

Black-capped Chickadee, Poecile atricapillus

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

I have no guilt from birding among the dead.  It’s not macabre, but rather the activity is natural and even encouraged.  The landscape architects have purposely created an avian haven which has attracted 220 species.  Birders are commonly seen on the hallowed grounds among the 100,000 graves and bird walks are frequently scheduled.  Previously I have always birded here in the fall and so was anxious to walk the paths in April.  It was clearly too early to see evidence of migration, but that particular day was mild and sunny, sandwiched between the weekly storms that have been ravaging New England all season.

Halcyon Lake

White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis

I use to follow a map of the cemetery, but now I just wander, preferably along a shaded path away from the paved roads.  One can always find new areas to explore.  I even ran into a third large pond that I had somehow missed on multiple prior visits.

A Mt. Auburn Path

Early spring was not conducive to a long list of sightings.  I only saw 15 species on that day.  Juncos and Robins were the most common birds, found foraging among the crocuses and dead leaves.

Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo

You’ll probably run across some Wild Turkeys in the cemetery.  In my home state of Maryland the turkeys are shy, but at Mount Auburn they are brazen.  One was reported to chase an innocent walker through the gravestones and mausoleums.  Luckily, they kept their distance from me.

Brown Creeper, Certhia americana

The “bird-of-the-day” was a Brown Creeper, aka American Tree Creeper.  I consider myself lucky to see this small bird about once a year, usually blending unobtrusively with the bark as it spirals up, always up, the tree.  The long tail braces the bird against the trunk, similar to a woodpecker, and the long curved wren-like bill is perfect for picking at the bark in pursuit of bugs.  I suspect this bird was likely a year-round resident of the cemetery.  If you’re interested, I previously posted a description of a fall bird walk through Mount Auburn and a history of this famous cemetery on 2/4/2015.  You can find it in the index or by using the search device.

View from the summit

I always finish by climbing to the top of Mount Auburn to check out the view of the Charles River and Boston skyline to the south.  It’s a great place for reflection.  The gravestones in the quiet urban oasis, the gorgeous landscape, and wildlife allow one to put things into perspective.

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

At the summit you are eye-level with the tops of surrounding trees.  While scanning the canopy with binoculars I found myself face to face with a large Red-tailed Hawk, apparently checking me out as I was studying him.  Was he also in a mode of reflection among the gravestones, just like me?  I doubt it, but who knows?  More likely he was planning his next attack and meal, or perhaps hoping to attract a mate, or satisfying a more immediate concern, and content to leave the deeper reflections to Homo sapiens.

Chasing the Red-cockaded Woodpecker

RCW

 

Technically a birder does not chase a Red-cockaded Woodpecker (RCW), but rather finds the typical old growth pine forest that they prefer and waits; patiently waits.  A sighting is more a test of one’s patience than his endurance, but if you frequent the proper habitat and are lucky, you’ll find this small endangered woodpecker as Andy and I did this spring in southwest Florida.

Common Ground Dove, Columbina passerina

Our first attempt ended in a smoky failure.  E-bird was reporting a RCW in the Picayune State Forest near Naples several days in a row.  But we were taken aback as we pulled into its parking lot.  There had been an extensive controlled burn there since our prior visits and the air was currently smoke-filled, apparently from several new uncontrolled fires caused by recent lightning strikes. A ranger advised us to not venture too far from the car.  Our only sightings that day were a single Red-bellied Woodpecker and two Common Ground Doves, all ignoring the smoke.

Smoke and fire at Picayune SF

I had previously seen a RCW once but only had poor photos of it, taken in my early photography days when I still stubbornly clung to my point-and-shot camera.  I wanted better pictures and Andy yearned for a new life bird, so we headed to the 80,000 acre Babcock/Webb WMA, a good bet for seeing this bird about 75 miles north, near Punta Gorda.  It turned out to be a great decision and a five-woodpecker day.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

RCW’s are finicky birds and this has cost them dearly.  Their numbers are down 99% from the 1880’s due to habitat loss in the eastern US.  They insist upon nesting in cavities in tall, old growth pines, preferably living long-needled trees, and trees standing in areas of limited understudy growth due to frequent fires.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Picoides borealis

The birds were declared endangered in the 1970’s and currently number only 14,000 survivors.  All the more reason for us to see it now before it shares the fate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  Visit Ralph Costa’s article for an in-depth discussion of the RCW and the efforts to save both it and its specific habitat.  http://scholarworks.sfasu.edu/forestry/426

Babcock/Webb WMA

RCW’s are nonmigratory.  When they find a suitable territory they stay put.  They also have an unusual social system.  An extended family composed of a breeding pair and several younger birds, usually males for some reason, stay together and all assist in incubation and feeding the new chicks.  The nests are all in cavities in living pines that have ample sap.  The birds create resin wells in the bark around the cavities to trap the sap, apparently to help ward off predators such as snakes.  The sticky yellow resin near the hole is a good indicator of an active RCW nest.

RCW cavity with yellow resin

Before you credit Andy and me as being hardy explorers, risking life and limb, trudging miles through snake infested forests looking for a rare bird, let me dispel those thoughts right now.  The rangers at Babcock/Webb have conveniently painted white rings around all the trees that contain RCW cavities and have even reinforced some of these holes with PVC pipe.  The designated trees are often just a short walk from the gravel road. All the birder has to do is plant himself amongst the circled trees and wait.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker was inappropriately named by Alexander Wilson in 1810.  A cockade was an ornament commonly placed on a hat in that era but the red cockade is rarely seen on the woodpecker.  Instead look for the large white cheek patch and the laddered black and white bars on the back. It does not have the elongated white stripe seen on the backs of the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers.  It also has an unusual and distinct call that finally led us to our birds.

RCW

Even with all these aids the RCW’s remained elusive.  We stood among the white circled pines in several locations but saw nothing but a Black Vulture and a Great-crested Flycatcher.  I could tell that Andy was losing patience when the conversation turned from birds to politics, the stock market, and Syracuse University basketball.  I convinced him to try one more location, I think the same place I saw my first RCW several years ago.

Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus

I saw the bird fly in first.  It was clearly a small woodpecker but could not see it well among the pine needles.  I was able to get off a few poor shots with the camera but they were also inconclusive.  Andy insisted it was just a Downy, while I favored a RCW–wishful thinking.  We chased this bird several hundred yards into the pine stand, still debating its ID when Andy heard the characteristic call of an RCW coming from elsewhere.  The Downy had led us to not one, but two RCW’s, likely a breeding pair, foraging and singing in fine light.  Success!  Hundreds of photos later we were still enamored and loathe to leave.

A happy birder with new life bird at Babcock/Webb

Along with the RCW’s and Downy, we also saw a Northern Flicker, Red-bellied, and Pilated Woodpeckers, all in the same stand; five of the seven woodpeckers possible in the area.  We were only missing the Hairy and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker for a perfect woodpecker day.  On the triumphant trip home we could help debating who actually saw the RCW first.  No conclusion was reached, but both agreed that the RCW is an extraordinary bird and the chase was well worth it.

Birding Old Florida

Once a year we pile into Mel’s large SUV at dawn, grab a quick breakfast and coffee at Panera Bread, and head inland looking for birds in “Old Florida”.  Florida was the last of the southern states to be settled and civilized, in its case centripetally, from the east and west coasts first, and then gradually and progressively inland.  It’s in this sparsely populated inland region where one can still get a feel for what Florida once was in the 19th century and earlier.  You can also find the birds that thrive on the dry flat savanna and open spaces.

My birding colleagues

When I first started visiting South Florida in the 1970’s development along the coasts only extended perhaps 5 miles inland, whereas now one has to travel 15 or 20 miles inland to leave the strip malls, gated communities, and golf courses behind.  The coastal development of the 19th and early 20th century was spurred on by the construction of the 275 mile Tamiami Trail, (Tampa to Miami), begun in 1915, and the Florida East Coast Railway (St. Augustine to Miami, and later all the way to Key West), by Henry Flagler in 1885.  Florida’s history is a colorful account of land management and mismanagement, with the legal disputes still occurring today.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna

This history of Florida is skillfully portrayed in the historical novel “A Land Remembered” by Patrick D. Smith.  It describes three generations of a pioneer family and their struggle to survive on a difficult frontier.  You’d think you were reading about the Wild West instead of the Sunshine State.  It’s a tale of cattle drives, crackers, rustlers, range wars, dust storms, hurricanes, vigilante justice, and Native Americans unfairly confined to reservations.  The narrative begins just after the Civil War and ends with the glass and steel skyscrapers of modern Miami Beach.

Osceola Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo osceola

Our birding technique for this trip was four sets of eyes scanning the, roadside ditches, wires, and shrubs at 30 MPH, calling out for Mel to pullover for any interesting bird.  Then silently lower the window for an initial shot and kill the engine to mitigate vibration if the bird was particularly photogenic.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

You were lucky if the sighting was on your side of the SUV.  If not, after a courtesy few minutes you could try to open your door for a shot, hoping the bird would not spook.  They usually did, especially the frustrating American Kestrel which seemed to know the limits of my 400mm lens.

The big sky, flat grasslands, and grazing cattle could easily be Oklahoma or Texas, that is, except for the alligators lurking in each watering hole and the tropical Florida flora.  The roadside ditches and wet sinkholes were good bets to find Kingfishers Egrets, Herons, Cormorants, Spoonbills, and Anhinga, but we were more interested in seeing and photographing Caracara, Sandhill Cranes, Meadowlarks, and maybe even a Snail Kite.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

Almost at the center of the state, but slightly southwest of Lake Okeechobee you’ll find our final destination, the Dinner Island Ranch.  This is a 21,000 acre wildlife management area of uplands and wetlands with scattered palm and oak hammocks festooned with Spanish moss.

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

Calusa Indians frequented the region from 800 AD until the 17th century, but we saw nary a soul on the day of our visit.  Make sure you have a full tank of gas, food, and water for your visit, and don’t get stuck in a muddy sinkhole or sandpit as Mel has learned the hard way.  Tow trucks won’t readily respond to this remote location.

Dinner Island Ranch

This was the start of the breeding season for the Eastern Meadowlarks and they were out in great numbers singing for any potential mate.  They were the consensus photogenic bird-of-the-day, seemingly posing for us on every fence post, as if we were a mate option.  The striking yellow bird in the bright sun gave us dozens of great low-ISO shots, some of which you’ll see here.

Eastern Meadowlark

Add to them the pair of Crested Caracaras on the telephone pole, the Cattle Egrets faithfully following the herd, an unusual flyover of a large flock of White Pelicans, and the engaging banter of fellow birders, and you have a satisfying day in Old Florida.

Cattle Egrets, Bubulcus ibis

To top it off, Mel has a great knack for finding the perfect, out-of-the-way human watering hole to end our day.  Next time you’re in Immokalee check out the “Roma In Havana Ristorante” for great Italian and Cuban cuisine.  It was our chance to imbibe, tally our bird list (46 species), and make plans for next year’s visit to Old Florida.

Book Review: Sea Room by Adam Nicolson

Published by North Point Press, copyright 2001, 401 pages

 

The ebbing tide over-powered her desperate strokes toward the island and carried the swimmer steadily and surely away from land.  Her distraught husband on the shore knew that her rescue was impossible.  It took two strong adults to launch the heavy scow pulled high up the beach and the only other inhabitants on the small island were their infant children, safely asleep in the cabin.  All he could do was call out his love, over and over.  She did the same until just a speck in the vast sea, finally succumbing to a cold watery fate.  “The sea invites and the sea destroys”.

The Hebrides                                    photo courtesy of A. Sternick

This, and many other accounts of life and death on the Shiants, three small isolated islands in the Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland, form the basis of this wonderful book.  The author knows of what he speaks since he owns the Shiants, inheriting them from his father, who bought them for a meager sum as a young man in the 1930’s, and then passed them on to his son 40 years later.  Who would want them, four miles from the nearest port across an unpredictable and dangerous passage, bordered by steep cliffs, rocky shores, and poor anchorages?  For the author these islands “at times…have been the most important thing in my life”.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

This book represents the author’s twenty year quest to uncover everything about the 550 acre Shiant Islands.  How were they formed and will they survive?  Who were their Stone Age, Viking, and more recent inhabitants?  Did they thrive or merely survive?  He sought to understand the flora and fauna, especially the birdlife with myriad seabirds nesting on the steep cliffs.  Although this is not a birding book per se, the birds figure prominently in the author’s love affair with the islands, “moated by the sea”.  Nicolson enticed archeologists, geologists, ornithologists, and social historians to help him reconstruct the island’s colorful past.

Atlantic Puffin, Fratercula arctic                            courtesy of A. Sternick

His initial excursions to the islands were on fishing boats but Nicolson needed his own boat, something in the Norse tradition, that he could sail single-handedly.  He found John MacAulay, a salty shipwright, who designed and built him “Freyja”, a sixteen foot, stout, open cockpit, rowable sailboat, perfect for his needs. The only problem was that the author did not know how to sail.  As a sailor, I shake my head in amazement as Nicolson relates his crash nautical education and solo ventures into the rip-tides and dangerous waters of the Minches.  History reports dozens of shipwrecks and lost seamen here, but the author and “Freyja” surprisedly prevailed.

Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus

Birders will enjoy the descriptions of the abundant avian life of the Shiants.  The Skua are the “Viking birds, heroic, bitter northern, aggressive, and magnificent modern invaders whose nests are littered with bits and pieces of Puffin and Kittiwake”.  He describes the graceful headfirst dives of the sharp-billed Gannets, one piercing the floorboards and hull of one unlucky fisherman who was smart enough to keep the bird and bill plugging the hole until safely in port.  There are descriptions of Eagles, Ravens, Falcons, Guillemots, Shearwaters, and Fulmars, “the most effortless of all the seabirds” while the social wintering Barnacle Geese mark spring each year when they leave for their nesting grounds on Greenland.

Brant, Branta bernicla

The quizzical Puffins are the island’s avian stars, wonderfully portrayed by the author, whereas the Shag or Cormorants with their evil green eyes are his “trash birds”.  I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that the Puffin is still one of my nemesis birds (a life bird yet to be seen).  This book has inspired me to head north, at least to the coast of Maine and the maritime Canada provinces to correct that deficit.  Someday I may even make it to the Hebrides, if not the Shiants themselves.  We’ll see.

John J. Audubon’s Puffins

The Shiants have many abandoned ruins of various ages.  The study and excavation of them allowed the author and others to begin to reconstruct the social history of the islands.  It’s amazing how archeologists can discern patterns of human behavior from mere fragments of pottery, tools, stone ruins, or a bronze age golden torc dredged up by a Hebridean fisherman.  A discovery of special importance was a loaf-sized stone found buried beneath the floor of some ruins.  Upon rolling it over the archeologists discovered it was a deeply carved four-armed cross with circular border, likely the work of a saintly hermit of the first millennium seeking shelter, solace, and peace on the island.

Buller’s Shearwater, Puffinus bulleri

Sheep herding and even cattle grazing occurred on the grassy plateaus.  At its peak some 50 people inhabited the Shiants but by the late 19th century only one family remained.  The Campbells were a hardy clan of father, deaf mute son, and two beautiful daughters who were the toast and envy of the Hebrides.    The staid and determined mother tried, but failed to guard her daughters from visiting fishermen.  Even the Campbells left in 1901, leaving the islands to the sheep and birds.

Common Murre, Uria aalge

This is a fascinating book about eons of birds, plants, and later humans including the author, all eking out a spartan existence in this beautiful but challenging land.  There is a somewhat melancholy conclusion as Nicolson’s trips to the islands seem to be numbered.  Will his young college-aged son accept and cherish his inheritance as his grandfather and father had?  What will be the effects of climate change and progressive civilization on the island’s ecosystem?  For me, the lesson of the book is the inevitability of change.  Nothing ever remains the same, but life in some form will cope and persist, even on the weather-battered Shiants.

Florida Birding With An Eight Year-Old

 

“Where are all the pigeons?”, he asked.  That question from my 8 year-old birding companion revealed much.  This is an inquisitive child who had already noticed the differences between seaside Florida and his urban jungle of downtown Boston.  We were on an early morning 3 mile walk along the berm with a tidal mangrove swamp on the left and freshwater ditch on the right.  At first I was hesitant to attempt this birding trek with him, but I had a plan, and it worked like a charm.

My companion is tech-savvy and has Cornell and engineering roots.  As I demonstrated the Cornell generated eBird app on my cell phone his interest picked up.  I explained how it would track our progress along the berm with GPS as we entered each bird sighting.  The program knew what birds were common in our location and would include our findings in a world-wide data base of observations.  He was further enthralled with the iBird Pro app that had drawings and photos of all the birds, showed maps of their winter and summer ranges, and best of all, played their songs and calls.  It was all I could do to hold on to my new phone.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

Not knowing the level of interest, I decided to leave the binoculars home and do some naked-eye birding.  That’s another gadget that we could always add another day.  The birding gods were favorable as a striking Red-bellied Woodpecker flew in close by for a great look right at the trail head.  Try explaining the bird’s name to a child when the head is clearly red and the belly shows just a hint of pink.  In any case it was a good start and a life bird for my fledgling companion.

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

Another good question:  Why is the water on the left salty and the water on the right fresh?  Back to the app;  I showed him the map where a small gap at Clam Pass let the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico flow into the mangrove swamp at high tide and drain out at low tide.  The standing water on the right side of the berm, however, was fresh rainwater runoff.  I was relieved he didn’t ask me about the origin of the salt in the gulf.

White Ibis, Plegadis chihi

Our next bird sighting was also red.  A beautiful Cardinal was perched and singing right along the trail, perfect for naked eye viewing.  We identified several more, just from their songs, later in the walk.  A flock of foraging White Ibises was next up, leading to a discussion of the cleverly adapted long curved bill, perfect for poking into the shallow water and soft mud looking for food.

Black-crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

We saw some less common birds as well.  A drowsy Black-crowned Night Heron was perched on the low branches of the berm and nearby two patiently posed Green Herons were waiting for passing fish.  As we watched them a small crowd of strolling adults gathered and we were able to point out these birds to the curious.  I think my young partner was impressed with everyone’s shared interest in the birds–it’s not just a peculiar trait of his grand dad.

Palm Warbler, Dendroica palmarum

I told him that a creative person we both know and love has an unusual way of remembering the field marks and characteristic yellow feet of a Snowy Egret, compared to the other white waders.  “When you pee in the white snow it turns yellow.”  Hearing this bent him over in uncontrolled laughter, especially since it had originated from his own proper grandmother.

Snowy Egret, Egretta thula

We saw a crow eating a crayfish and were able to identify it as an American Crow from its call.  I played the various crow calls on the cell phone app to make the certain ID.  My young friend was impressed.  A tail-bobbing Palm Warbler crossed our path and he spotted some non-avian fauna as well.  A rollicking family of otters were seen on the freshwater side, a rabbit ran for cover along the high-rise wall, and a gator head was seen half submerged in the ditch.  I think it was really just a rock, but didn’t want to spoil his excitement of seeing an alligator close-up.

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

Juvenile Gull

At the end of 3 miles I assumed he had had enough, but low and behold, he asked if we could board the tram and ride to the beach to look for more birds.  No problem for me; I could do this all day.  The beach gave us some good looks at adult Ring-billed Gulls and a larger juvenile Herring Gull.  He was interested that gulls reach full maturity in only four years.  I described the sharp talons and beak of the soaring Osprey and we both had to duck as one did a close flyover, as if on cue.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

At the end of the day I asked what was his favorite bird.  He quickly named the Tricolor Heron, for its beautiful three colors and long sharp bill which I explained was perfect for stabbing a fish.  But then he asked, “how does the bird get the impaled fish off its bill to eat it.”  I was stumped.  “We’ll have to figure that out on a later trip another day.”  The mind of an eight year-old is a thing to behold and helps shake six and a half decades of cobwebs from mine.

Tricolor Heron, Egretta tricolor

 

Caracara, King of the Road Kill

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

 

Just as the song says, “sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug.”  I was innocently driving my shiny new pick-up down a rural road when out of nowhere a crazy vulture swooped down and crashed into the quarter panel.  All I saw in the rearview mirror were fluttering black feathers, a new mangled roadside meal waiting for wiser vultures, and a sizable dent in my truck.  As I wrote the check to the body shop I began to reflect upon road kill and the avian community.

Black Vulture, Coragyps stratus                 click to zoom

It seems that there is a hierarchy of birds vying for the right to road kill.  One can sit by and observe the competition for the rotting carcass if you have too much time on your hands, or if like me, you are a little “bird-addled”.  My observations lead me to suggest this hierarchy arranged in order of increasing aggression:     Crows and Sea Gulls, Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures, and Crested Caracara as “King of the Road Kill”.  Eagles also fit into this scheme somewhere but are not as frequently seen at the roadside.

A Choir of Gulls

Earlier this week I noticed a dearth of good Caracara shots in my photo library so I headed to the best place in southwest Florida to correct that, the wide open flatlands along Oil Well Road in Collier County.  The stately and dashing bird is often seen there perched on a fence post or lording over road kill.  I was not disappointed.

Oil Well Road

The name “Caracara” is derived from the sound of their harsh rattling call.  Our crested northern species, also called a “Mexican Buzzard”, is most commonly seen along our southern border and into Mexico, Central, and the northern parts of South America.  The very similar Southern Caracara is found from northern Brazil south to Tierra del Fuego.  Caracara belong to the Falconidae family but are quite different from other swiftly flying falcons.  They, instead are sluggish scavengers, finding most of their dead or dying prey on foot.

Southern Caracara, Caracara plancus

Caracara are found exclusively in the New World.  In addition to the genus “Caracara”, there are four other genera of caracara.  The dissimilar Chimango Caracara belongs to the genus “Milvago”.  These pictures of the Southern and Chimango species are courtesy of Andy, my esteemed colleague, world traveller, and bird photographer par excellence, who just returned from Patagonia.

Chimango Caracara, Milvago chimango

Oil Well Road extends due east, away from the settled gulf coast and into “Old Florida”, the land of the endangered Florida panther, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and also the Crested Caracara.  After years of exploration Humble Oil Company finally drilled a producing well here in 1943, but there are no wells obvious to me along the road today.

Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura

Some of the road is a new divided highway with most of the traffic heading to Ave Maria University.  This college town is the brainchild of Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza.  The growing conservative Catholic university and surrounding town were literally built in the middle of nowhere, but seem to be growing as they celebrate their 10th anniversary this year.  Stop in there for a birder’s lunch and check out the impressive church in the center of it all.

The Oratory at Ave Maria

East of Ave Maria the traffic drops off and the road reverts to its two-lane rural character.  Wide grassy shoulders allow the birder to pull over and scan the roadside ditches for waders and alligators.  Wood Storks and Red-shouldered Hawks are plentiful here and you may catch sight of a Roseate Spoonbill.  It’s also where you’re apt to find the road kill and observe the avian clean-up crew at work.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

The Turkey and Black Vultures will not win many beauty contests but are perfectly adapted to their niche as scavengers.  The Turkey Vulture has an exquisite sense of smell and can detect that “dead skunk in the middle of the road stinking to all high heavens” from thousands of feet of elevation.  In fact the Black will often follow the Turkey Vulture to the carcass and then, being the more aggressive of the two, will chase its red-headed cousin away.  That is, until the Caracara moves in and displaces them both.

Turkey Vulture

Black Vulture

A perfect meal for a vulture is carrion that has been dead several days.  This allows the flies and maggots to tenderize the meat.  The scavenger’s strong gastric acid neutralizes the contaminating bacteria, and their featherless heads allows for effective clean-up after the meal.

Crested Caracara fighting over a dead snake

You won’t find Oil Well Road listed as a birding hotspot for south Florida, but don’t let that deceive you, especially if you are seeking the Crested Caracara.  Just be sure to pull far off the pavement onto the grassy shoulder to give those screaming 14-wheelers a wide berth.  And also, watch out for the lurking gators in the ditches.  They may look like they are sleeping in the hot sun, but could also be lying in wait for their next meal.

Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis

 

Book Review: The Evolution of Beauty by Richard O. Prum

Published by Doubleday, copyright 2017, 427 pages.

 

My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–

It gives a lovely light!

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Painted Bunting, Passerina iris                 click to zoom

The lovely light of the candle is synonymous with the lives of the bizarre and beautiful birds.  One pathway of evolution has resulted in the male’s flamboyant colors, tempting ornaments, and loud love songs, all to impress the female, even at the expense of his survival.  The other more conservative pathway has led to identical males and females of subtle camouflage coloration; the keep-your-head-down, blend in, and stay safe approach to life, with survival being the ultimate goal.

Rose-ringed Parakeet, Psittacula krameri

The conservative approach follows the classic science of evolution by natural selection and survival of the fittest, first described by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.  Darwin, however, later decided that a different theory was needed to explain the evolution of beauty; a process resulting in the dramatic bright plumages, long tails, striking crests, and unusual courtship behaviors.  The aesthetic evaluation of mate choice and pleasure become the goal of these birds, apparently trumping survival determined by the classic idea of fitness.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

Richard Prum expertly describes the consternation and debate that Darwin caused in his lifetime over the concept of evolution by sexual selection, a debate that has lasted to the present.  The author takes up Darwin’s fight and supports his argument with fascinating accounts of avian courtship, emphasizing the central role of the female choosing a mate purely for the pleasure of it.  Detractors say that assigning charm, sensory delight, and aesthetic discernment to birds is far too anthropomorphic.  Darwin and Prum disagree.

Indian Peafowl, Pavo cristatus

It was the elaborate beauty of the Peacock’s tail with its eyespots that was so unsettling to Darwin.  How could his “Origin of Species” and survival of the fittest explain this impractical plumage?  His second book, “The Descent of Man”, introduced sexual pleasure and female choice as new and different driving forces in evolution.  As you can imagine, Victorian patriarchal England had significant issues with this revolutionary concept.

Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna

Prum has impressive credentials, first as a childhood birder from New England, then from years of fieldwork in the tropical jungles, and later as a professor of ornithology at Yale.  In the chapter “Beauty From the Beast” he describes the male Bowerbirds and their construction of architecturally elaborate bowers or bachelor pads.  These males build competing aesthetic structures which have no practical use other than to charm and attract a female mate.  The evolving male animal artists must match the corresponding evolution of female preference for their art to be successful.

Blue Grosbeak, Passerina caerulea

The fossil record raises some interesting ideas about the origin of colorful feathers.  It seems that feathers evolved and adorned reptiles prior to other structural changes that would allow flight.  Recently electron microscopy has shown tiny color-forming melanosomes in the feathers of the theropod dinosaurs.  Were these early colorful feathers initially sexual ornaments that only later evolved to the avian structures of flight?

Harlequin Ducks, Histrionicus histrionicus

In the chapter “Manakin Dances” Prum describes the bizarre social world of South American Manakin leks.  A lek is a small, male-defended patch chosen as his personal stage upon which he performs to lure females.  The male, in turn, is chosen for mating by a discerning female who is impressed by his plumage ornaments, acrobatic displays, dancing skills, and acoustic signals.  It is female choice that drives male behavior and sexual evolution.

Green Bee-eater, Merops orientalis

So why do I give this book only 4 stars out of 5?  To me the wheels seemed to come off a bit in Chapter 5, “Make Way For Duck Sex”.  The description of the ducks’ displays, female and male urogenital tracts (males are endowed with a long retractile penis), and the description of copulation, both consensual and otherwise, were fascinating.  But the author at this point begins to enter into a highly speculative correlation of avian behavior with human sexuality, including female autonomy, feminism, fashion, eugenics, and even homosexuality.  Although these are worthwhile topics, the jump from avian evolution which occurs over millions of years to human sociology and cultural evolution, which may change yearly, seemed somewhat farfetched and out of place.

Yellow Warbler, Wilsonia citrina

But this book will have great appeal for birders and non-birders alike.  As I read other reviewers it is clear that birders favor the first half of the book and its wonderful accounts of avian behavior, while non-birders relish the second half which evolves into a parallel discussion of human sexuality and social issues.  Clearly the book will foster many interesting discussions and I can picture it as a popular book club selection.

Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula

The next time I am traipsing through the underbrush and see the brilliant crimson flash of the male Cardinal, the iridescent body of the Hummingbird, or hear the loud melodic call of the Carolina wren, I’ll remember Darwin and Prum and the millions of years of sexual selection that have created pleasure for both the birds and the birder.

Anhingadae, Anhinga anhinga

 

Family, genus and species.  The taxonomists were either suffering from an acute lack of imagination when they named and classified the Anhinga, or more likely they wanted to highlight the unique nature of this bird.  Anhinga, aka “Snake Bird”, “Darter”, “Water Turkey”, and “Devil Bird”.  This last moniker is derived from the Brazilian Tupi language word “ajina” which refers to a demonic spirit of the forest.

Female in flight

The Anhingadae family only contains a single genus, and that genus contains but one species, our Florida bird, in North and South America.  It does include three other Old World species, one each in Africa, India, and Australia/Asia.  Initially taxonomists thought the bird was closely related to cormorants, however newly discovered and unique characteristics have come to light.  This bird is the only bird, and probably the only vertebrate that has a single carotid artery (a great vessel extending from the heart to the brain).

Typical drying and warming pose

The Anhinga has an adaptation of the lower cervical spine that allows a rapid forward snap and recoil of the head and neck, effectively piercing underwater the tough side of the fish with its sharp bill.  The inside of the bill is lined with multiple barbs that tightly hold the flopping prey.

Riding low with small fish

This bird swims low in the water, propelled by webbed feet, with just the head and neck exposed.  Its diminished buoyancy is due to its dense bones, the ability to deflate its air sacs, and its unique feathers.  Anhingas lack the fine insulating feathers close to the skin which are found in cormorants.  Instead their feathers contain microscopic spaces that allow water to penetrate, making diving and underwater fishing easier.

The most common Anhinga pose is with wings widespread and drying in the tropical sun.  This also serves to warm the bird and overcome the disadvantages of its poor insulation.  You won’t find any Anhinga far from the tropics.

Female with catfish

I was birding in Eagle Lake Community Park, a local hotspot near Naples, with John, an enthusiastic novice birder.  A friendly couple from Detroit, (at least he was wearing a Tigers baseball cap) came up to us and asked, “what was that strange dark bird with the peculiar head?”  A quick check with the binos showed that the “head” was actually an unlucky sunfish impaled on the bill of a lucky Anhinga.

The dark bird with the peculiar head

As we watched the fish was beaten against a branch, I suppose to kill it.  The distracted snake bird did not notice a Great Egret lurking close by.  Just when the fish was ready for head-first swallowing the squawking egret pounced, wings spread wide, and the lunch was dropped back into the pond, satisfying no one.

Nesting Anhinga

The books say that these birds nest in diverse community rookeries, but I have seen them also nesting alone.  The males are entirely black and white while the females sport beautiful buff head and neck feathers.  Surprisingly you can also see these water birds soaring high in the thermals, often with the buzzards.  They’re the ones with the long fan-shaped tails.  Why are they way up there?  Its clearly not to locate fish.  Could it be purely for the joy of flying or is that explanation too anthropomorphic?  I’ll suggest it anyway until someone tells me something different.

A young Anhinga chick

I learned something birding with John this week. He reminded me of the genuine enthusiasm one has when seeing, actually seeing, a bird for the first time.  He had a set of new and decent binoculars and could now see the red and yellow epaulets of the Red-winged Blackbird and the golden eye of the Boat-tailed Grackle, both never noticed before.  Even at 60+ years it’s not too late to become a birder.

John also prompted me to call out the field marks, relative sizes, behavior, and songs of the common birds.  Specifically, how do you know its an “x” and not a “y”.  He and I were partners in a radiology practice up north and are not strangers to observing details and using pattern recognition techniques.  When an experienced radiologist first sees a chest x-ray he almost immediately knows if its normal or abnormal; no need to study the individual structures such as heart, lungs, bones, etc.  Your eyes and brain just know it’s normal.  And if it’s abnormal you also quickly know why; pneumonia, congestive heart failure, tumor, etc.

It’s only for the few rarities, both on chest x-rays and during birding, that one resorts to more careful observation of the specific “field marks”, goes to the books, or consults a colleague.  John and I have lived this routine in medicine for years and he, therefore, is perfectly suited to use the same technique in the field and become a seasoned birder.  First learn the specific field marks and behaviors of the birds and eventually your mind will ID the common birds subconsciously.

Lastly, John reminded me of the fun of birding with a novice. The Anhinga and the 30 some other common birds we saw that day were a great start. His excitement was contagious and the questions and banter were stimulating.  I thoroughly enjoyed the teaching; maybe it’s a new calling.