Revenge of the Birds

Mute Swan, Cygnus olor

The swan and eagle are flying high in the night sky, near the zenith in the early evening darkness. Not the real birds; I’m referring to the constellations Cygnus the Swan and Aquila the Eagle, both located in the heart of the Milky Way. They are slowly setting earlier and earlier in the west, making way for the autumn stars and the fall equinox.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

I’m renewing another hobby of childhood, that of astronomy, but now with the added twist and additional complication of astrophotography. In recent years the mounts that track the stars from the rotating earth and make long exposures possible, have become affordable. These rigs accept your already-owned camera and birding lenses; no telescope is necessary.

Constellation Cygnus, in Urania’s Mirror, c. 1825

But all this has put a crimp in my birding life, at least for now. Instead of early bird walks, I’m staying up late and observing Cygnus and Aquila and their associates. The real birds are not happy. A couple nights ago I meticulously set up the rig in the yard for twenty long exposures of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31. There is software available that stacks these multiple photos into one, bringing out the faint stars and nebulae. The camera’s exposures are all controlled by an intervalometer and the tracking is monitored by a laptop computer. This allows you to leave it all on autopilot and retreat inside to watch the latest TV series with the spouse.

Constellation Aquila, in Urania’s Mirror, c. 1825

An hour later I went out to check on it and low and behold, the computer, tripod, camera, and lens were all covered with fresh bird guano; a direct hit. I looked around for the culprit and only heard two Great Horned Owls calling to each other from the woods. I doubt it was them. The more likely villains were the resident mockingbirds or doves, seeking revenge for my recent neglect. I admit to being a little slack these days in cleaning their bath and setting out new bird seed.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

But a little, actually quite a bit, of guano will not deter me. I also had a scare last night from another nocturnal creature. I wear a red headlamp while dithering with my star rig and looked up to see two red eyes staring back at me from about twenty-five feet. It let out a loud, guttural screech like I had never heard before. Not knowing what else to do, I screeched right back and slowly retreated toward safety. I’ve since learned that this was the sound of a White-tailed Deer acting a little territorial. At least it did not deposit scat on my equipment.

Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura

The Andromeda Galaxy is one of the most distant objects visible with the naked eye. If you know where to look in the fall sky you’ll see it, perhaps only in your peripheral vision as a faint smudge. It’s still a sight to behold. The galaxy lies outside our own Milky Way galaxy and is 2.5 million light years away. That means the light that left it 2.5 million years ago, before Homo sapiens roamed the continents, just reached me last night. Who knows if the galaxy even exists today, or whose eyes it’s light might fall on millions of years from today?

Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus

Both the constellations, Cygnus and Aquila, have checkered stories in Greek mythology. Yes, these stars were in exactly the same configuration in ancient times when they inspired the Greek storytellers. Zeus figures in both cases as an unhinged God. He disguised himself as the swan to seduce Leda, the wife of the Spartan king, and used the eagle to carry the thunderbolts and kidnap the shepherd boy, Gaymede, for his personal pleasure. But forget this tabloid conspiracy theory; I’m content to just stick to the science of the stars.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris

I’ve been working on these new photography skills by repeatedly shooting the Andromeda Galaxy. My best effort is below, and leaves much room for improvement. But if you look carefully you’ll see another fainter galaxy just above Andromeda. Astrophotography is in many ways similar to bird photography. With both there is a wealth of background knowledge to learn about your aerial targets. Each have specific techniques to perfect in order to obtain a pleasing picture. And then, both require post-processing time indoors to create the final product. The avian world has its seasons: migration, mating, nesting, molting, etc. The stars and constellations are also seasonal. Except for the circumpolar stars, the skies are continuously changing as the earth revolves around our star.

Andromeda Galaxy, M31

Then there’s the unexpected and exciting events for each avocation. For astronomers it’s the exploding supernova, or a newly discovered comet, or a sudden flash of a bright meteor as space debris enters our atmosphere and is vaporized. For birders it’s the appearance of a rarity, a new tick on a life list, or even a close flyover of an eagle or hawk. Both keep me coming back for more.

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

So, I’m negotiating a truce with the birds, after all, I did recently free a cardinal and hummingbird that were trapped in the garage. No more bombing runs, and I promise, in return, to maintain at least some level of interest in your lives. I’ll check out the owls and nighthawks even as I focus on the stars. I’ll even set out some feed as the cold winter fast approaches. Just let me be.

Dog Days of Summer

We call this season the “dog days of summer”. Whoever coined that phrase must not have liked dogs. It’s been hot and humid for days. The grass has burned brown, except over the septic field, and just recently revived to a touch of green by the afternoon monsoons. When Captain John Smith first sailed into the Chesapeake Bay in 1608 he declared it “a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places known…heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation”. He must not have arrived in August.

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus

Actually “dog days” is an astronomical reference to our Sun’s August location in the zodiac, projected within the constellation Canis Major, the Greater Dog. The constellation and its brightest star, Sirius, the Dog Star, won’t be visible in the night sky, however, until winter.

Orchard Oriole, Icterus galbula

The bird behavior is also noticeably changed around my home patch. Yesterday, in the late day heat, there was an eerie silence. Even the Mockingbird and Osprey were hushed by the heat. I’ve been trying to keep the baths free of algae, but recently gave up the fight. The rains are creating enough puddles to quench the birds’ thirst.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

Birds, as you know, do not sweat–they have no sweat glands. They can’t control their body temperature by the evaporation of sweat, as we can. When you see them frolicking in the bath or puddle they are both cleaning their feathers and wetting themselves to promote evaporation. Evaporation is an endothermic event, extracting heat from the feathers.

Indigo Bunting, Passerine cyanea

Nesting must be nearing its seasonal completion here, and some early migrants have already left. I’m seeing fewer terns on the dock and the gulls, which have been absent all summer, are regrettably back, bringing their mess of mangled fish, crabs, and guano. I surmise that the gulls work of nesting is complete and they are flocking to my dock in anticipation of the fall migration. That can’t come soon enough for me. The Osprey still have another month here, before heading south.

Forster’s Tern, Sterna forsteri
The flocking Ring-billed Gulls, Larus delawarensis

This month, for me has been very slow on the birding front. Much of it has been done from the hammock, or through the windows of the air-conditioned office. It’s a good time to catch up on some reading and preparation for fall, which is a glorious season on the Chesapeake.

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

My reading list includes two new purchases; A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, and How to be an Urban Birder by David Lindo. The first was recommended by a birder friend and does look interesting. It’s a naturalist’s classic, written in 1949, but somehow missed by me all these years. The latter is also destined to become a classic, written primarily for the urban-trapped birder, but is also full of suggestions for us country folk who occasionally venture into the concrete jungles.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius

Leopold’s book is a collection of his essays and begins with this declaration; “there are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.” Lind, on the other hand, is a thoroughly modern, urbanized resident of downtown London, who despite that became an avid birder. His book is full of tips for urban birding, and sprinkled with wonderful photos documenting his success, even in that environment.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

So, my routine in these waning days of summer will be to read these books in the hammock, between rain showers. I’ll have the binoculars ready, just in case, and occasionally turn on the Merlin APP on my cell phone to check on any strange birdsongs. Yesterday it identified the Chimney Swifts and a distant call of a Red-tailed Hawk. Life is sweet, even in the dog days.

Book Review: Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, published by Norton, 1970.

I’m no different than you. My reading list includes books that share my interests, be it travel, politics, history, warfare, medicine, sailing, weather, or astronomy. The book doesn’t have to be entirely about these subjects but must at least touch on some of them as the plot unfolds. And, of course, if the book includes birds and birding, all the better. Author Patrick O’Brian has managed to include everyone of these topics in his saga of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, starting with the first volume, Master and Commander, and continuing for twenty more. I’ve read and savored them all, multiple times.

Black-footed Albatross, Phoebastria nigripes

As you know, once you become a birder you look for the feathered friends constantly, birding here, there, and everywhere. I’ve known some who identify birds by song during telecasts of golf tournaments. I’ve had many a meal disrupted by a bird flying by the dining room window. We birders don’t always make the best company at mealtime. I perked up when I first ran across Stephen Maturin who demonstrated these same bouts of birding distraction, even while shipwrecked or dodging icebergs in the South Atlantic or French cannonballs in the Bay of Biscay.

Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus

The Master and Commander series is set during the Napoleonic Wars and the naval warfare of the tall sailing ships of the era. The plots take you to the seas around every continent, including Antarctica where the ship and sailors are practically encased in ice. These are not just about naval engagements, but include indepth descriptions of the ships of the period, celestial navigation, weather, geography and the politics of the cultures encountered.

Magellanic Penguins, Spheniscus magellenicus (photo by A. Sternick)

The protagonists are Jack Aubrey, a swashbuckling sailor who over the series rises from midshipman to captain, and eventually admiral, but not without countless scrapes with both the enemy and his commanders, a gambling habit, debt and debtor’s prison, and a fragile family life back on the home turf. His hero is of course, Lord Nelson whom he emulates in many ways.

Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus

The other is his best friend and companion, the complex Stephen Maturin. He is the illegitimate offspring of an Irish officer and Catalan lady, talented physician and the ship’s surgeon, a naturalist and renown collector of specimens of both flora and fauna. His leading avocation, however is birding which he practices all around the globe. Stephen has also been recruited by British intelligence and his espionage adds to the complex story line.

Chimango Caracara Milvago chimango

Maturin’s medical exploits on board, especially after an bloody engagement are remarkable, and include a craniotomy to relieve a subdural hematoma as the aghast crew looked on. Large pox, from indiscretions while in port, and scurvy are the crew’s two most frequent maladies. His ship mates go out of their way to protect their beloved surgeon as he could barely swim, was clumsy, and frequently fell overboard. Stephen battled a long addiction to laudanum and infatuation with the beautiful Diana Villiers, Jack Aubrey’s cousin.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

The unlikely friends first met sitting next to each other at a chamber music performance of Locatelli’s C-major quartet in the Governor’s House at Port Mahon. Large and loud Aubrey, crammed into the formal wear of a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, unconsciously beat the time of the musicians, greatly annoying the civilian surgeon Maturin, who finally asked the officer if he must beat the rhythm, at least do it correctly. It almost led to blows, but instead it was just an inauspicious start to a deep friendship that lasted twenty volumes and throughout the entire Napoleonic Wars. Some say it is the greatest friendship in modern literature. Their classical duets, Jack on violin and Stephen on cello, were often heard from the captain’s cabin, at any time and in any ocean.

Western Gull, Larus occidentalis
Laysan Albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis

For the sailors and naval warfare aficionados in the crowd, O’Brian has at least one battle and an encounter with severe weather in every volume. The primary tactics of naval warfare then were to gain the windward side of your foe and then decide whether to bombard from a distance, or close, board, and fight hand-to-hand on the deck. Aubrey suffers many wounds over the years, and is always patched up by Maturin. The ships encounter typhoons, dead calm in the equatorial heat, and severe cold near the poles, all described in detail by O’Brian.

King Penguin, Aptenodytes patagonicus (photo by A. Sternick)

Stephen Maturin is a 19th century birder par excellence. He trained the crew to rouse him whenever another pelagic bird appeared and was especially enamored by the various species of Albatross. He spent a happy few months shipwrecked and marooned with Aubrey and crew on Desolation Island in the Indian Ocean, happily observing and collecting specimens while the rest planned their escape. His collections usually made it home to England; his intelligence commander was especially fond of beetles. On another voyage Stephen lived several months among the Boobies; his scientific paper describing these birds made him famous in ornithological circles. Once, in Boston, he was given beautiful large paintings of American birds by a then unknown Creole artist by the name of Audubon.

Blue-footed Booby, Sula nebouxii (photo by A. Sternick)

The volume I’m currently reading is The Fortune of War, number six in the series. Aubrey, Maturin, and a few surviving sailors have just been rescued after several days adrift in a lifeboat off the coast of South America. Their ship had just burned down to the waterline and sunk, taking with it all of Stephen’s latest specimens. The rescuing ship was the HMS Java, which soon encountered the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides” and lost to that new American frigate in a frightful battle. Jack and Stephen were taken prisoner and shipped to Boston where further drama awaits.

Gentoo Penguin, Pygoscelis papua (photo by A. Sternick)

Patrick O’Brian (1914-2000) is now deceased and regrettably the adventures have ended. I have also read his incomplete twenty-first volume, left on the author’s writing desk when he died. One must ask, how can a person know so much about so many different topics, in such fine detail, and present them to the reader with such style? Just his descriptions of the ships’ rigging bogles the mind. It’s said he rarely sailed and I’m not sure if he even birded. His writing and research are incredible and highly recommended.

Pomarine Jaeger, Stercorarius pomarinus

In the next decade when I reread the series one last time I intend to keep a list, a Stephen Maturin life list of his birds described in these novels. My photos in this post, and those of my colleague Andy Sternick, are some of Maturin’s birds, but most I have yet to see. They are just more items on the list in my overflowing bucket.

Sounds of the Solstice

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

Morning has broken like the first morning,

Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.

Praise for the singing, praise for the morning,

Praise for them springing fresh from the world.

Eleanor Farjeon (1931)

Too often we take sound and the sense of hearing for granted. This involves both our, and other creatures’ ability to make noise and also the parallel function of receiving it. With humans, at least, and in some other species as well, there is also the ability to react to and appreciate what we have heard.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

I have often marveled at the accomplished birders who have learned to bird-by-ear. These are the ones who have already identified the calls of a dozen birds in the parking lot while I’m still struggling with the binocular strap. But now, I can humbly say, that I have achieved some proficiency in this, and hope to learn even more. I’m sure you all know many more birdsongs than you even realize. Make a list of your repertoire and be surprised.

Black-crested Titmouse, Baeolophus atricristatus

Recent additions to my list include the Tufted Titmouse’s plaintive monotonic call, the simple two-noted song of the Great Crested Flycatcher, and the White-eyed Vireo’s much more elaborate solo. Some gifted birders can recognize the different percussion patterns of the woodpeckers. I’m not there yet.

Great-crested Flycatcher, Myiarchus crinitus

While sitting on the screen porch reading, one ear remains tuned to the yard noise. The Northern Mockingbird, Osprey, and Carolina Wren threaten to drown out the other, more subtle songs, and that mocker stills tries to fool me by mimicking the Blue Jay and Nuthatch, but I’ve finally wised up to this antic. The bird’s moniker is fitting–Mimus polyglottos.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

Yesterday my reading was interrupted by a loud murder of Fish Crows and an unusual sudden silence of the songbirds. When the music stops, beware. Cease whatever you’re doing and investigate. I did just in time to see an Accipiter, probably a Cooper’s Hawk, gliding in low and heading for the hanging feeder. I think his sortie was unsuccessful and eventually the crows dispersed and the singing resumed. I wonder if the small birds appreciated the warning they got from the crows.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

But there is still that nagging call you hear on the trail, over and over, and just can’t spot the unknown bird. Now there is a solution. Several years ago, over dinner with some tech savvy friends, they demonstrated the AP Shazam and its ability to detect a song in a noisy restaurant and identify the title and artist. We decided that a similar AP would be great for birding. I ran this concept by a engineer / business savvy member of the family who discouraged my further pursuit. Now, low and behold, Merlin has offered this very AP as part of their bird ID software and my chance for fame and riches has vanished.

Red-headed Woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

Sound is nothing more than vibrations that pass through a medium, air or water, as waves. These are transmitted to a receiving device such as our ears. The pathway from our vibrating ear drum to the brain and our final preception of the sound is thankfully beyond the scope of this birding blog. Suffice it to say that the waves of sound have a variable amplitude or volume, and frequency or pitch. The sound can be a disorganized noise such as a clap of thunder or an idling engine, but can also be an elaborate and intricate pattern designed by a sender to express an emotion or idea.

Barred Owl, “Who cooks for you?” Strix varia

In the avian world this creative ability is not shared equitably. Passerines, or songbirds, are divided into two suborders, the Passeri and the Tyranni. The former has a much more elaborate syrinx, (the bird’s voice box), than the latter and can add to a growing repertoire of intricate songs as they age. The Tyranni are born with a set and simpler play list, but they are still better off than the raptors and waders who can barely utter a screech or grunt.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

For me the sounds of the solstice also includes music. Now I’m speaking of the human-composed variety. Chesapeake Music is a two-week gathering of some of the planet’s most accomplished chamber music artists who live among us for a brief visit in June every year and share their incredible talent. We in turn, share with them the delights of rural living on the Shore. Their usual lives are within the urban metropolises and famous concert halls.

Common Loon, Gavia immer

Sitting through a recent performance of the masterpiece, Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor in the small and recently refurbished Ebenezer Theater in Easton, Maryland, brought home to me the importance of sound, both avian and human, in our lives. Brahms, somewhat like our Mockingbird, was both the composer of the intricate work, weaving harmonies in ever-changing volumes, tempos, and rhythms, as well as the performing artist. In his day there were few better pianists in Europe. The notes of his quintet, created in 1864, was brought to us again in 2021. Where would we be without such sounds?

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

Unfortunately, as I rapidly approach my eighth decade, the ability to hear birds and Brahms is waning somewhat. They say the higher pitches go first–too many hours on the lawn mower. I’m not hearing the front doorbell or the Northern Parula and Chipping Sparrow like I used to. Cherish the sounds while you can. Beethoven eventually became deaf, but his genius allowed him to feel the sound as he continued to write masterpieces. I’m no Beethoven and probably am overdue for a hearing aid.

Civilization?

Canada Geese, Branta canadensis

I’m again reminded at how fast “nature” attempts to undo our efforts at civilizing the world. When we recently returned home to Chesapeake country after six months in Florida the meadow around the house was three feet tall, the deer, red fox, and ground hog were crisscrossing the land as if it was theirs, turtles were digging nests in the the weed covered gravel driveway, and the starlings were nesting in my boat lift cover again. At least the eagle decoys had spooked the geese into the neighbor’s greener pastures

Eastern Bluebird, Scalia sialis

We returned late this season; the forsythia blooms were long gone and the daffodils had just passed their peak, but the peonies were still bursting upward, inches every day. The watermen on the bay had put away their oyster tongs and were now running the trotlines and netting the delectable Blue Crabs. The corn was two inches tall and it will soon be summer with crabs, sweet corn, and strawberry shortcake on the menu. But first I would have to regain control of this yard.

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

It occurs to me that we humans are also a part of the natural world, seeking to survive and create a safe abode. My house is in many ways similar to the Osprey nest built on the channel marker or the Barn Swallows who build their muddy home under the dock. The difference is the width of the swath our species cuts, at least in its modern version.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Another difference is our unique awareness of the effects of our swath on the world and our attempts to mitigate them. The bay is clearer and the underwater grasses more abundant than in prior decades and the air is cleaner. We can celebrate these improvements knowing that there is still work to be done.

European Starlings, Sturnus vulgaris

On my recent road trip through middle America I traced in reverse the route of the European colonists who finally broke through the Appalachian Mountains at Cumberland Gap and elsewhere into the unspoiled lands of Kentucky, Tennessee, and later into Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. They understandably cleared land for planting, hunted the abundant game, and built their hovels, filling a new niche, much different than that of their nomadic forerunners.

Missouri River at Eagle Bluffs

I crossed the mighty Mississippi and Missouri Rivers which still scoff at our human efforts to control them by periodically flooding their banks. We build dikes and dams, but cannot completely stem the flow. I birded one of these areas, Eagle Bluffs, on the banks of the Missouri, near Columbia. This is a 4400-acre wetlands and marsh providing habitat for year-long and migrating birds. A network of gravel roads on the dikes separates the numerous ponds and gives excellent views of the wildlife.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

During the visit in late April waterfowl were the leading species; I don’t ever recall seeing more Blue-winged Teal. Living up to the locale’s name I saw a nesting Bald Eagle and several fishing kingfishers, but no migrating warblers.

Blue-winged Teal, Anas discors

Other birders have also wondered at the apparent scarcity of migrators this spring, but Cornell’s BirdCast has a reassuring report. Their research, including radar data, showed a whopping 400 million birds aloft on the night of May 14. “These massive flights may not, however, have produced spectacular birding on the ground…as meteorological phenomena that normally concentrate migrants are absent”. In other words, the weather has been favorable for the birds to keep pressing north rather than land and treat us birders to the typical spring show.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

Standing on the banks of the Missouri I was impressed by the force of the downriver flow, draining much of our continent. One can picture the steamships of an earlier era; in fact, the “Plowboy” sunk there and is said to be buried in the sand and silt at Eagle Bluffs. I didn’t have time to dig around for it. My next stop heading east was the Audubon Museum in Henderson, Kentucky on the Ohio River perhaps a post for another day.

Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas

The recent road trip and my return to the home patch in Maryland emphasize again to me that we are not just onlookers or observers of nature, but rather full-fledged participants. In fact, a substantial partner given our relatively late arrival on the scene and our ability to alter the world for better or worse. But just when we think we are becoming the masters, the earth quakes, the tides roll in, the river valley floods, the virus spreads, the wells run dry, and we are again put in our place.

Good-bye to the Strange Birds of Florida

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

They’re no longer strange to me, but to the non-Floridian this area has more than its share of unusual endemic birds. I remember my first days here, seventeen seasons ago, when I kept Kaufman’s Field guide to Birds of North America handy as I trudged through the swamps and upland savannas. Now these birds are like old friends that I’m leaving behind once again as we embark on our own spring migration to the north.

Anhinga (female), Anhinga anhinga

Strangeness is really a measure of familiarity, but even while I run across the Anhinga everyday in Florida, it remains a strange creature to me. The long gawky neck, bright red eye in the male and blue eye-ring of the female, and its underwater fishing, characterize this bird. You find it with its wings spread wide, drying in the hot sun–it doesn’t have the oil glands common in other water birds. And why do they soar at great altitude with the vultures when their food is underwater and invisible? Both it’s appearance and behavior are strange.

American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis

That confounded calling Limpkin persists on the pond, just outside our bedroom window. Other non-birders in the condo have complained to the authorities, as if they could intervene. It is a nerve-racking chorus every night, but one I’ll soon miss hearing back in Chesapeake Bay country. The call is less frequent and energetic these nights; I think he’s giving up on attracting a mate this year.

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

The Florida Scrub Jay is an increasingly rare bird that is too familiar with us humans. It’s strangeness is shown by its unbridled curiosity about us, even lighting on the heads of birders as they seek out the jay to add another tick to their life lists.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

Another strange one is the Roseate Spoonbill. Just start with the pink plumage. Why pink? It seems unnatural in the brown and green mud of the swamp, more suited to your baby girl’s nursery. It surely offers no camouflage for the lurking alligator. It took me several seasons down here before I realized the risk from dozing alligators, both to birds, pets, and humans. Keep a wary eye on them. And regarding those spoonbills, don’t overlook that spatula bill, an evolutionary experiment that hasn’t progressed much further.

Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

Why would anyone choose a stork to deliver a baby, as legend teaches? At least here in south Florida our Wood Stork is a leading candidate for ugly and strangeness. Despite that, we are grateful for the bird’s resurgent population, now an easy sighting almost any day.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

I’ll not forget my first sighting of a Crested Caracara. I had pulled over on the shoulder of Oil Well Road, right where an eBird report had recorded a recent bird, and sure enough, one flew over this excited birder, as if on cue. I was too unnerved to get off a shot. Now, years later, I’m completely familiar with this bird. Don’t let its debonair stature fool you. He’s a scavenger and more than holds his own with the vultures dividing the fresh roadkill.

Short-tailed Hawk (white morph), Buteo brachyurus

The Short-tailed Hawk taught me a valuable birding lesson that is probably obvious to most of my readers. A birder needs to keep looking up. You won’t find this raptor perched along the roadside as you commonly see our abundant Red-shouldered Hawk. Instead this bird is a soarer, often very high in the clouds. You’ll need to learn the appearances of the underside of the wings in the two variants–the dark and white morphs. It still is an unusual sighting for me, but as long as my stiff neck allows, I’ll keep looking up.

Mottled Duck, Anas fulvigula

When I first came to Florida I noted a slew of female Mallards, but never saw a male. Was this the result of some pathologic scourge affecting the green-headed males? But I couldn’t explain the smaller ducklings, recently hatched–someone was mating with the females. Of course, you astute readers know the answer that I finally learned. There are no Mallards in south Florida. These are Mottled Ducks, where the male and females are a very similar mottled brown, only differentiated by the lighter yellow bill of the male. You won’t find this duck up north.

Snail Kite, Rostrhamus sociabilis

It’s a risky and strange experiment of nature for a bird to subsist solely on apple snails, but that pathway has evolved for the Snail Kite, an uncommon endemic of inland Florida. That may be why we’re having a harder time finding this bird each winter. This year we did get a good look at one flying over at Harnes Marsh, near Fort Myers. It’s always a good birding day to make that sighting.

Groove-billed Ani, Crotophaga sulcirostris

We’ve done a lot of rarity chasing in Florida this year; Glaucous Gull, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Groove-billed Ani, White-faced Ibis. Just yesterday I got a polite note from the eBird referee informing me that my White faced Ibis was actually a hybrid of that bird and our common Glossy Ibis. It cost me a life bird, but teaches me again that there are very smart birders out there paying attention to the details. The rest of these are birds that have become confused or blown off their normal flight patterns. But one of the rarities of the season, the Mangrove Cuckoo, is a Florida endemic that has eluded me for all these seventeen years. I finally saw one and photographed it on Sanibel Island this winter–a gratifying day. Only other birders know that particular satisfaction; its a nemesis bird no longer.

Mangrove cuckoo, Coccyzus minor

As I say good-bye to Florida and my birding colleagues here, I’ll leave them this: never, never, never give up on you quest to see your nemesis bird; for Andy that’s the Least Bittern. Your family and I understand your obsession, even when you go looking for the bird several times a day and don’t understand why everyone else is seeing it except for you. Someday you’ll likely succeed, but even if you don’t, just relish the hunt as you stand among the reeds and alligators of our beautiful and strange south Florida.

The day after I drafted this post and the day before I left Florida for the year, Andy, with an assist from Mel, found his nemesis Least Bittern. His tenacious search and Mel’s encouragement are marks of birders extraordinaire. I’m already looking forward to another winter of birding with these guys in south Florida or wherever strange birds are to be found.

The Cumberland Gap and Its Birds

Daniel Boone escorting settlers through the Cumberland Gap, 1851-52, by George Caleb Bingham

Humans have migrated through the gap in the Cumberland Mountains, both to the east and to the west, for eons, and before that the trail was pounded hard and widened by the bison searching for pasture and salt licks. It is named for the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II of England and has always attracted my attention as a possible destination. This was heightened by the messianic picture above showing Daniel Boone leading his entourage into the promise land to the west. In a recent road trip from Kansas City to Baltimore I purposely chose a route through the historic gap; it also gave me a chance to do a little birding in the historic park.

Tufted Titmouse, Baeolophus bicolor

The geology of the gap’s formation is fascinating but beyond the scope of this so-called birding blog, but let me make this one point. I spent two nights at the gap in the town of Middlesboro, Kentucky, not realizing at the time that I was smack in the middle of a 300 million year-old meteorite impact crater that contributed to the formation of this mountain pass.

Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe

It is difficult for us moderns to understand the formidable barrier that the Appalachian Mountains presented for the early colonists along the east coast. For a hundred years only a few intrepid explorers, traders, and missionaries ventured over the range. Eventually several gaps and trails, previously blazed by the large game and Native Americans were rediscovered by the colonists.

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

The Cumberland Gap was the premier passage, right at the boundaries of Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky. By the mid 18th century settlers had broken through and poured into the fertile region and cheap or free land in Kentucky and in the Ohio River Valley. By 1810 two to three hundred thousand new settlers had made this journey over the Wilderness Road, through the gap, and to the west. Quoting Moses Austin from 1796, “Ask these Pilgrims what the expect when they git to Kentucke. The answer is land. Have you any? No, but I expect I can git it. Have you anything to pay for land? No. Did you ever see the country? No, but everybody says it is good land”.

Cumberland Gap and surroundings

Today, when one drives through the gap you actually go through a tunnel which, in typical 20th century fashion was blasted through the Cumberland Mountains. But near the gap there is a wonderful historic park with myriad trails offering many birding opportunities. My road trip traced in reverse the westward migration of humans, but cut across at right angles the springtime avian migration to the north. It was mid April and my hopes were high for encountering some of those flocks.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

Pinnacle Overlook is at the mountain top, guarding the northern edge of the gap and commands a marvelous view to the south. In the early morning I decided to test the endurance of my old but faithful car by tackling the switch-backs up the mountain. At the top I was rewarded with the view as the solitary morning visitor. The bird life there, however, was sparse with only the incessant call of the titmouse and a couple of nesting phoebes disturbing the peace.

Yours truly at Pinnacle Overlook, Homo sapiens

I was soon joined by a second birder, a gentleman and octogenarian who actually claimed to be related to Daniel Boone. We enjoyed the view together while sharing birding adventures. While we were jabbering a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew by the peak at our eye level, perhaps migrating to the north on the rising thermals. Vultures circled below. My friend became excited when I told him about a trip I was planning to Wyoming and Montana, and inexplicably, he started removing his outerwear and displayed the back of his tee shirt which was a map of Glacier National Park. He implored me to enter the park at his right shoulder, the easterly gate, and proceed to his left shoulder for the best route. Just another example of a helpful birder, as one frequently meets on the trail.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

At the top of the mountain there is a ridge trail that is noted as a warbler trap during spring migration. I just found woodpeckers and jays. I believe I was early for the warblers this far north. While I was far from home searching for birds at the gap, my friend and fellow birder, Andy, was sending me pictures of all the warblers he was seeing back in south Florida, just a few miles from my home. Timing is everything in this sport.

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus

But along the ridge trail I saw something that Andy did not see. That was a Civil War cannon embankment called Fort McCook by the Unions and Fort Rains by the Confederates. It changed hands several times during the war. The gap was of strategic value during that conflict, to the extent that the armies hauled their heavy guns all the way up the mountain. Supplying the fort was difficult for both sides, and as the war progressed the real value of the mountain top fort came into question. Now the site is peaceful and just a series of grassy mounds and historic markers explaining the 160 year-old wartime scene.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

The park has a great visitor’s center at the base of the mountain and several flatter birding trails. Here, it was the welcomed spring melody of the Song Sparrow that greeted me. Overall my bird sightings were meagre but my knowledge of our human migration was enhanced. The short stay at the Cumberland Gap Historic Park was a rewarding experience. The warbler sightings will have to wait for another day.

The Crimes and Violence of Birds

Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens

It’s a fairy tale or fake news to believe all is sweet and peaceful in the world of birds. We are enchanted by their melodious tweets and beautiful plumage, and are often found among them in seemingly peaceful natural settings, but don’t be fooled. Their world is one without constables or arbiters of justice. There are no rules, other than “might makes right”, “survival of the fittest”, and “it’s okay if you can get away with it”.

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

Their crimes range from petty theft to rape and murder. We birders are onlookers into this world which is similar to our old Wild West, and are grateful for our, albeit fragile, institutions of justice. As we bird we are witnesses to many of these crimes and often wonder what it would be like living in their world. Occasionally I’m even tempted to intervene on behalf of a victimized bird, but usually hold back and let nature take its course and toll.

American Wigeon, Anas americana

Many of their crimes are mere misdemeanors. This would include the holes the Red-bellied Woodpecker is making in my sister-in-law’s cedar siding. The crows, jays, and gulls are perfecters of the art of petty theft. The former two are attracted to shiny objects, while the latter steals food, literally from the mouths of their careless victims. This usually results in a chase, sometimes resulting in a maimed fish dropped back into the ocean with no party getting any satisfaction.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

A somewhat more onerous and significant crime is the practice of brood parasitism as I’ve discussed in prior posts. This disgusts our human sense of fairness and personal responsibility, but evolution has apparently blessed it as a successful tactic among many bird species. The initial crime is the stealthy planting of the itinerant egg in the nest of the unsuspecting parent-to-be, but the atrocity is magnified when the robust hatchling pushes the other weaker step-sibling out of the nest.

Brown-headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater

Many avian disputes are over territory and nesting rights, somewhat similar to those issues which crowd our human court dockets. The Red-winged Blackbird claims his territory with a beautiful song, but don’t let that fool you. He’ll attack any other bird, even a larger foe, that dares interlope into his nesting sphere of influence.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

My friends Andy and Sam were accidental witnesses to a spectacular avian air battle between an adult Bald Eagle and Osprey. Andy was even dexterous enough to grab a camera and snap off a shot or two to document the event. Unfortunately, in cases such as that one shoots the pictures first, and checks camera settings later. It seemed like the smaller Osprey got the better of that fight. It was probably a territorial spat with the eagle getting too close to the Osprey’s nest. As you know, Bald Eagles are opportunistic scavengers, often feasting on the killings of others.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

Hawks and owls, on the other hand, are merciless killers, always on the prowl to feed themselves and their offspring. Often their victims are other birds, but small mammals are also unsafe around a hungry bird-of-prey. In my yard Accipiters have become good at patrolling the bird feeders, flying in fast and low to take an innocent, unsuspecting passerine. We can take some comfort in that such killings are a necessity of life for the raptor.

Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus

In my last post I reported the rape of a Muscovy Duck. I will hazard a completely uninformed guess and venture that most sex among birds is consensual. I may be completely wrong about this, but do point out that many birds do mate for life. That lasting bond would be hard to imagine if it began with a rape, but admittedly I’m anthropomorphizing. Those ducks, however, did seem to cross a line, with no avian justice in sight.

Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens

I was recently chasing a rarity Iceland Gull on Fort Myers beach, unsuccessfully, when I snuck up on a Reddish Egret and was rewarded with my closest shots ever of the great bird. Suddenly a second egret swooped in and I witnessed a prolonged battle; or was it courtship and copulation? I find it hard to differentiate these with the birds.

So with all the violence, what is the mortality rate among birds? In this year of the pandemic our human death rates are plastered on the headlines daily. A few things are clear in the avian world. Larger birds live longer than smaller birds, but why is this so? Perhaps it’s because the larger birds are near the top of the food chain and less often preyed upon. Banding data has reported some longevity record life spans: Red-tailed Hawks and Brown Pelicans, 28 years; American Robin, 14 years; Eastern Bluebird, 10 years; and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 9 years. Most birds, however have much shorter lives.

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

It’s estimated that 80-90% of birds do not live to maturity. This is a striking number, but when one remembers the numerous eggs laid and multiple broods per year created by a mating pair, it makes perfect sense. If they all survived we would be inundated with birds, just like an Alfred Hitchcock film. It’s also said that the mortality rate of birds is six times higher during spring and fall migrations. Travel is risky, as we all know.

Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna

It’s difficult to determine how many birds die at the hands or feet of other birds, or from avian diseases. Data regarding bird deaths caused by us humans is more readily available. Collisions with buildings and glass claim an astounding 600 million birds a year; collisions with vehicles, 200 million, and electric wires, 25 million. Six million birds succumb to electrocution each year and one such case was chronicled in my post of 17 November 2019. Our pesticides claim another 72 million per year, and who knows how many die from their loss of habitat. But all these numbers pale next to the 2.4 billion birds killed yearly by domestic and feral cats. That shocking number is hard to believe.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

How can I conclude such a morbid post of avian crime and death? Perhaps by showing you two Great Blue Herons in love, or by simply stating that these are observations of life on our planet as it is, and not as we wish it to be. It’s merely a description of both the beautiful and fair, right along with the ugly and unjust.

Who Saw That Bird First?

Cinnamon Teal, Anas cyanoptera

If a birding year has a theme, this one has been chasing rarities in Florida. On the surface it sounds like adventure birding, combing through alligator-infested swamps and among trees dripping with Spanish moss, all to make a discovery for “science”. Not really. With but one notable exception, these are rare birds which have been discovered here, outside their normal ranges, by others; meticulous birders tuned to the minutiae of this pursuit much more than I will ever be.

Palm Warbler, Dendroica palmarum

Just this week eBird reported a Cinnamon Teal just east of Fort Myers. I had previously ticked this bird in southern Arizona in its expected range, but Andy had never laid eyes on it. After getting temporarily lost in the rural steppe of Old Florida, we came upon the reported site, easily identified by two other cars on the shoulder and birders sporting the telltale scopes aiming at a roadside pond. We were kept at bay by a wire fence and several large cows. The shallow pond or watering hole was 75 yards away and a dozen dozing ducks were backlit and poorly seen. If it wasn’t for the kind birder who invited us to peer through his scope we would have never seen the teal.

American Coot, Fulica americana

This begs the question, who saw that bird first, anyhow? Someone must have pulled over along the remote road, and carefully studied the plumage of all those distant ducks. Despite the poor viewing conditions, they recognized the plumage of the vagrant bird, and properly called it a Cinnamon Teal. Now that’s a real birder. The rest of us who flock to the site of his or her discovery are just interlopers. That first intrepid birder also had to convince the skeptics at eBird of the sighting, whereas all the rest of us had to do was report a “continuing bird”.

Mangrove Cuckoo, Coccyzus minor

There are many examples of my interloping tendencies. Take that recent Mangrove Cuckoo at Ding Darling, the Groove-billed Ani and Ash-throated Flycatcher at Festival Park, and the Hammond’s Flycatcher at Corkscrew and the Vermilion Flycatcher last season in the Great Cypress Swamp. Some careful birder had the thrill of the initial discovery and was willing to pass it along to the rest of us via eBird.

Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis

Back up north, a few years ago, I chased a Glaucous Gull reported way down in southern Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; talk about rural and off the beaten track. I amazed myself by finally seeing this white gull among many others, just as I was preparing to pack up and head home, disappointed. There it was, flying in like an apparition, allowing the perfect shot. Who saw it first among the teeming flock of similar gulls swarming around the waterman, fighting for his discarded bait?

Glaucous Gull, Larus hyperboreus

I crossed over into Delaware and to the shore of its large bay chasing a reported Sabine’s Gull. It also seemed like a hopeless task, scoping all the birds from the deck of the Dupont Nature Center. There were thousands of shorebirds, gulls, and terns on the breakwater and opposite shore of the inlet over a hundred yards away. They periodically rose and landed in a confusing and frenzied flock. Who saw that slightly different bird with a black hood and yellow-tipped bill among the many commoners? Fortunately another birder pointed the rarity out to me and I gratefully added another tick to my life list. Just a guiltless interloper.

Lesser Scaup, Aythya affinis

Andy and I did make one initial sighting of a rarity ourselves; or perhaps a semi-rarity. We were at Eagle Lake, near Naples, toward the end of our birding trek and talking more about politics than birds, when I noticed a perching black bird right off the trail. It was too large for a grackle and too small for a crow, and had a bulky bill. About the same time we both blurted out, “Ani”. We knew the bird from a prior trip to Panama, but had never seen it in Florida. It was a Smooth-billed Ani.

Common Gallinule, Gallinula chloropus

We posted our observation on eBird and had our fifteen minutes of fame in the birder’s world, as the initial discoverers. But our notoriety was short-lived. Another birder, posted the same bird a few days later and reported the Ani as “the continuing bird, first seen by…” He gave credit to someone else; we were robbed; our sighting was thereafter assigned to another! C’est la vie. We know who was really first, just that one time.

Smooth-billed Ani, Crotophagi ani

Don’t think for a moment that our chasing of rarities down here is universally successful. Careful observers have been reporting a small flock of Redheads, the duck I mean, down in Sugden Park, near Naples. I’ve seen the bird in Maryland, but never down here in the heat of South Florida, and Andy had never seen it anywhere. We got excited when we saw a single duck with a light back and dark head swimming off shore, but closer observation revealed a Lesser Scaup. Andy tried to convince me that the head had a reddish tinge, but that was just the wishful thinking of a frustrated birder.

Pied-billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps

I’ve made two more “empty” trips to the park to see this duck and Andy is now up to six excursions, still with no luck, even on a day when other birders had reported the target Redhead. His greater efforts reflect that urge to add a life bird, something that all birders will understand.

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

Those trips are really not “empty”. Birders also know that there is never a bad birding day, but rather a chance to see some antics of common birds, try a new photographic technique, or catch a bird in an unlikely pose. Those coot and gallinule shots are from the Sugden trip. The Limpkin seemed like an uncommon bird here just a few years ago, but not now. In fact one keeps us awake nightly with its ghastly call, right outside our condo window.

Muscovy Ducks, Cairina moschata

I ended the Sugden Pond trip witnessing the almost brutal copulation of two Muscovy Ducks. Ducks are known for their aggressive breeding habits, and now I can attest to that. The larger male chased and finally caught the female and almost drowned her in the long process. She finally did escape and survive, but barely. It was all just another sighting on an “empty” trip chasing rarities in south Florida.

Birding Cape Coral, Florida

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

As I walk through these beautiful and lush tropical gardens of southwest Florida, I often stop and think, if I was a bird, this is exactly where I’d be. What more could I ask for, surrounded by flowering shrubs too numerous to name, orchids and bromeliads clinging to the trunks of palms, and a climate to die for. So I sit and wait with the binos at the ready, and no birds show up. I guess I don’t think like a bird and should perhaps take some comfort in that. But just remember, in terms of weight of gray matter per body weight, the birds stack up quite well against me, and unfortunately their advantage seems to be growing.

Palm Warbler, Dendroica palmarum

So where are all the birds hanging out down here? At least in the last several weeks, many of them, including a couple rarities, have chosen the unlikely habitat of Cape Coral, slightly west of Fort Myers. Cape Coral is another planned Florida community. In 1957 the Rosen brothers of Baltimore flew over what was then known as Redfish Point and had a vision. They purchased 103 square miles for $678,000 and sub-divided it into a grid of small, affordable lots. An extensive canal system was dug to drain the swamp, eventually measuring 400 miles in length.

Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia

The Rosens marketed this land throughout the U.S., offering free dinners and a money-backed guarantee if a buyer should change his mind when he finally examined his purchase. By 1963 2850 souls lived on Cape Coral; today there are 194,000.

American Kestrel, Falco sparverius

There are still many empty lots available. I first saw a Burrowing Owl on a vacant lot there several years ago and recently eBird has been reporting sightings of Florida Scrub Jays, and a single Groove-billed Ani and Ash-throated Flycatcher. The temptation was just too much to resist, so Andy and I took the drive north to check it out–twice in one week.

Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus

The report said the birds were located in Festival Park, but you won’t find such a park on any map. Luckily eBird also shows you a map with latitude and longitude, and with a GPS it should be easy to find. Actually, it was not all that easy. Remember, Cape Coral is crisscrossed with canals, interrupting streets and avenues, seemingly in every direction. We got lost, even on the second visit, but eventually found the park on the corner of NW 26 Street and NW 11 Place. If you see some gas-powered model airplanes buzzing overhead, you know you are getting close.

There is no discernible park there; just more vacant lots with a somewhat larger area set aside with a barely mowed field containing a few stands of taller shrubs and wild palms. This is not the Florida landscape that would attract me, but these birds think differently–big time. On our first visit we parked the car off the dirt road when we saw the telltale group of birders, all looking in the same direction. That’s a sure sign you’re in the right place and sure makes your job easier. The Ani would occasionally poke his head out and fly 100 yards to another perch, and the flock of birders would follow. We finally got some good shots with the sun behind us. A black bird is a tough photographic challenge.

Groove-billed Ani, Crotophaga sulcirostris

The Groove-billed Ani is a Mexican and Central American bird, rarely seen in Florida. It appeared to be alone and obviously was lost. Perhaps the sandy soil and scant vegetation reminded him of home. We’ll never know for sure. This bird should be differentiated from the Smooth-billed Ani which is much more common in the Caribbean and south Florida.

Groove-billed Ani, Crotophaga sulcirostris

This “park” attracts many other species of birds as well. Loggerhead Shrikes perched on every telephone wire, vying for a spot with the occasional American Kestrel. Eastern Meadowlarks loved the uncut fields and led us on a merry chase as we tried to get a good flight shot. It didn’t happen. We were trudging through the short grass when we flushed a bunch of quail, scampering away upright, as they do. Andy attributed this to fate. He had never seen a Northern Bobwhite and just happened to be working on a jigsaw puzzle of quail back at home. Jigsaw puzzling is a major pastime down here in Florida. I tried to reward him by setting him up for the perfect flight shot, as perhaps Steven Spielberg might do. He got ready, feet apart, camera up and in rapid fire mode, no zoom, etc., while I inched forward to flush the Bobwhites. Usually a bird will fly away from you when you do this, but this time, in a flurry of commotion and beating wings, they flew right at Andy, He was too busy ducking to get off a shot.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna

For some reason, on that first visit to Festival Park we ignored the flycatcher reports. The Ash-throated Flycatcher is also way out of its usual range which is normally the Rocky Mountains, Western U.S. and Mexico. There are no mountains at Cape Coral. Since the sighting persisted on eBird we returned specifically to see it a few days later. Again we found a small group of birders led by an alpha male walking through the park. Andy hooked up with that group while I set out alone. Sure as shooting, the alpha male found the bird first. By the time I showed up, the best poses were done and the bird had spooked to the denser underbrush. I did get enough of a look to honestly tick it as my latest life bird.

Ash-throated Flycatcher, Myiarchus cinerascens (photo by A. Sternick)

Think Great-crested Flycatcher when looking for this bird. To me it’s just a slightly smaller version, with perhaps a paler throat. I’m guessing these two birds shared a common ancestor recently–perhaps ten million years ago, and one went west while the other came east on our continent. This western bird on Cape Coral is likely just searching for his long lost cousin.