Spoonbills & Sayonara

For newbie Floridians or the uninitiated, the first sighting of a Roseate Spoonbill is a memorable event.  You might hear, “Look at that Pink Flamingo”, or from the more observant, “Look at that Pink Flamingo with that deformed flattened bill”.  A gentle correction is in order.  Our Spoonbill, the Roseate, is one of six in the genus “Platalea”.  These include the Eurasian, the African, the Black-faced from Eastern Asia, the Royal from Australia and New Zealand, and the Yellow-billed from SE Australia.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

The Roseate Spoonbill is a year-round resident of Florida and the SE Gulf States of the U.S., but also found in the Caribbean, and in large areas of Central and South America.  These large striking waders are active feeders, usually found in shallow fresh or brackish water, swinging their submerged bills side-to-side.  Along with the color, it’s the peculiar spatula bill that catches your eye.  It is lined with sensitive sensory nerves that causes it to snap shut involuntarily when it detects the unfortunate fish or crustacean.  The chicks hatch with a straight bill; the spatula shape develops with maturation.

A “bowl” of Roseates at Ding Darling

Roseates were pursued close to extinction by the plume hunters of the early 20th century, but they survived and have made a comeback since.  They seem to be more numerous now, even compared to when I first started coming to Florida regularly, a dozen years ago.  A “bowl” of Spoonbills are often found feeding along the berm, close to our home and have given me many close-up photo ops–they’ve adapted to the morning parade of human walkers and gawkers near their feeding pools.

click on any photo to zoom to full screen

The pinkness of the bird is determined by the amount of carotenoids in the ingested crustaceans.  The juveniles are less pink and lack the more intense coloring seen at the shoulder in the adults.

It’s about time to say sayonara to Florida; our seasonal sojourn is drawing to a close and we are about ready to migrate northward with the other “snowbirds” and genuine aves.

Without breaking a sweat our Florida seasonal bird count has reached 97 this year, with a couple birding days still left.  These are primarily resident birds, as the spring migration seems less evident down here.  Oh, you do notice the newly arrived Swallowtail Kites soaring above and the occasional colorful warbler passing through, but for most they ask, “why leave”?  This is the land of sunshine, plentiful food, beaches, and swamps, where the living is easy, even for the birds.

Chasing a closely related, White Ibis

But there are new adventures waiting up north along the Chesapeake.  I know the migrating Geese, Ducks, Swans, and likely the Loons will have left and the annoying non-migratory resident Canada Geese will have already built their nests at the shoreline.  Bald Eagles and Osprey will be far along their reproductive pathways and the Osprey will become the most boisterous voice, calling warnings from their nesting platforms.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

The monotonic but rhythmic call of the White-throated Sparrow will no longer be heard, but the Mockingbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Chipping Sparrows will have joined the chorus.  I’m looking forward to seeing the acrobatic Swallows, Swifts, and Martins, as well as the Kingbird staking out his territory in the back yard.  And I must quickly break out the Hummingbird feeders before these unique migrators pass me over and all settle in my friend Barbara’s yard–she keeps many more feeders than me, all filled and ready.  I believe she has the local “record” for the most Hummers seen simultaneously at her feeders.  Wasn’t it twelve, Barb?  Keep up the good work, but leave a few for me.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris

The Birds & The Bees

 

Great Blue Herons, Ardea herodias

 

Birds do it, bees do it,

Even educated fleas do it.

Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.

Cole Porter

You don’t have to be an astute observer to notice that something’s up in the avian world right now.  It’s springtime and once the birds have recovered from the stress of migration or the burdens of winter, their raison d’etre becomes reproduction. The hormones from brain and adrenal glands rule the roost and result in both physical and behavioral changes, all focused on reproducing and preserving their species.

Rose-ringed Parakeets, Psittacula krameri

Claiming a territory is step one in this process.  In my neck of the woods this is most noticeable with the boisterous Red-winged Blackbird, perched on the tallest reed, sporting his bright red and yellow epaulets, warning other males to stay clear and beckoning females to come and check him out.  He hopes they are attracted by his beauty, health, and strength.

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

There are numerous avian signs of courtship, some common and others quite bizarre.  The common include colorful breeding plumage, such as the striking migrating Warblers and their melodious songs, all evolved to attract a mate.  The more bizarre include the Magnificent Frigatebird’s inflation of his giant red throat (which other jealous males attempt to puncture), the water ballet of courting Grebes performed in perfect unison, or the Baryshnikov-like leaps of the Sandhill Crane.

Burrowing Owls, Athene cunicularia

There are the gentle offerings of food and mutual grooming, or the spectacular flight and airshows of the Hawks, or the lower nighttime air dance of the Woodcocks.  I don’t quite get the courtship practice of the male Parrot vomiting into the mouth of the female, allowing her to sample the prospective mate’s taste in food, nor do I condone the Mallards’ gang rape of a cornered female, so common with that specie.  But these are all signs of spring, evolved over millions of years to recreate and preserve life.

American Wigeons, Anas americana

As a Radiologist I have a special interest in the comparative anatomy of humans and birds.  First for the male, the avian testes, the producers of sperm, are located high in the abdomen, near the upper poles or the kidneys–male birds have no scrotum.  The sperm travel down through the deferent duct and seminal vesicles and empty into the cloaca at mating.  As with mammals, sperm require lower than normal body-temperatures to mature.  Birds solve this by lowering their body temperature at night and by storing sperm in the cooler seminal vesicles in the lower pelvis.

Copulating Black-necked Stilts, Himantopus mexicanus

Most male birds have no penis.  Mating occurs with “kissing cloaca”, the brief and often repeated contact of the male and female cloacae.  But a few male birds including Ducks, Storks, Flamingos, and Ostriches do have an erectile penis arising in the cloaca.  In the mating duck this is quite large and has a corkscrew configuration while the complementary female anatomy has a reverse corkscrew shape to accept it.  Some have said that these birds, who often mate in water, use this penetrating copulation to prevent water from washing the sperm away.

Red-shouldered Hawks, Buteo lineatus

The most interesting aspect of bird anatomy is that most female birds have only left-sided internal genitalia–the right sided structures are involuted or completely absent.  There are a couple potential explanations for this.  It may serve to reduce body weight and make flight easier, and it also prevents bilateral ovum forming simultaneously with opposing eggs obstructing each other in their passage to the lower genital tract.

Cactus Wrens, Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus

The ovary is positioned high in the abdomen, similar to the testes, and its eggs pass to the cloaca via the oviduct, uterus and vagina.  Grossly these three structures appear to be a continuous tortuous tube, but microscopic anatomy reveals differing functions.  At ovulation the soft ovum enters the upper oviduct and becomes coated with albumin and keratin as it proceeds downward.  The limey shell and egg coloration is added in the uterus and the finished egg is stored in the vagina.  It appears that the fertilization with sperm occurs in the upper oviduct.  The entire process from ovary to cloaca takes about 24 hours.

Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca

The structure and function of the avian egg is a fascinating topic by itself, but best left for a later posting.  Just as a trailer however, consider that a bird’s egg must be strong enough to withstand the weight of the incubating parent but fragile enough to allow the hatching chick to escape.  It must be a protective barrier, but also porous enough to allow oxygen transport and respiration.  It must also contain all the nutritional and energy requirements of the developing embryo.

Hooded Mergansers, Lophodytes cucullatus

So as you head out this spring remember the raging hormones have expressed themselves in many ways, some visible and some unseen.  The males are carrying testes that have increased their volume 100 times and are trying to find and impress a mate in any way possible.  The female, her own genitalia markedly enlarged for the season is the egg producer, primed and ready, hoping to find a worthy mate.  If successful, the real work will have just begun.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Book Review: The Heart of the Valley by Nigel Hinton

Published by Harper & Row, copyright 1986, 236 pages.  Cover art by Pam Stephens.

 

During a recent bird outing in rural England a Dunnock was pointed out to me.  It was warily perched on the far side of a shrub, as if purposely defeating my efforts to get a good shot.  This was a life bird for me so I inched closer, but it flew, leaving me only some unpublishable blurs.  This common, drab, brown songbird is not a great discovery for an English birder, but reminded me of Nigel Hinton’s wonderful story of a year in the life of a Dunnock.  I read this tale years ago, read it again after this sighting, and have loaned my copy to multiple birders.  It’s received their universal acclaim.

White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

Hinton chose to write about a common, non-flashy bird, living in common, rural Kent County, in a common valley, near a common Brook Cottage and Forge Farm, inhabited by common folks living typical common lives.  Although common, the trials and tribulations of these lives, both the birds’ and humans’, are gripping and existential.

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus

The main character is the female Dunnock, barely surviving the cold blasts of the particularly hard winter, her first.  The optimistic stirrings of early spring lead to a timid introduction to her first mate, nest-building, and egg-laying.  I know, it all sounds so corny, but the author avoids the pitfalls of some anthropomorphic literature.  These are not talking birds and this is not “Watership Down” or “Bambi”, but rather a compelling and detailed account of life, perseverance, and also of death.

Swallowtail Kite, Elacoides forficatus         (click on photos to zoom)

It’s not all happy.  The initial nest and eggs are destroyed and her mate is run over by a car.  The humans of the cottage and farm are also dealing with aging, stroke, and loss.  In the most compelling part of the novel the harrowing and fantastic migration of a female Cuckoo from Sub-Sahara Africa to the English valley is described.  Just as the reader is celebrating this successful migration, you watch in horror as the Cuckoo sneaks her egg into the unsuspecting Dunnock’s nest.  The egg hatches and this monstrous, ugly, parasitic chick wages its genetically programmed war against its smaller nest mates, duping the unsuspecting foster mother and hogging most of the food.  Even before its eyes are fully opened the Cuckoo tirelessly works to expel its rivals from the nest.  It is evil personified, or maybe “birdified”.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus americanus

I didn’t realize that the anthropomorphic nature literature was so controversial and hotly debated near the beginning of the 20th century.  The famous and “pure” naturalist, John Burroughs, felt that authors did a terrible disservice by their non-scientific attribution of human emotions and qualities to wildlife.  Among others he singled out the writings of Jack London, William Long, and Ernest Seton, who had just published a book entitled “Wild Animals I Have Known”.  In retaliation James Montague wrote this poem entitled “Proof”:

John Burroughs, who’s a shark on birds

(He classifies ’em by a feather),

Avers that they’re devoid of words

And simply cannot talk together.

He gives the nature-fakers fits

Who picture birds in conversation,

And tears their story books to bits

In scientific indignation.

 

But there’s a wren outside my door

That talks whenever I go near him,

And talks so glibly, furthermore,

That I just wish that John could hear him.

Of mornings, when I stroll about,

The while he hymns his glad thanksgiving,

He interrupts himself to shout.

“Hey!  Ain’t it glorious to be living?”

Field Sparrow, Spizella pusilla

Believe it or not, even the President of the United States weighed in upon this vital debate.  Theodore Roosevelt publicly took the side of John Burroughs and against the “Nature Fakers”, adding more fuel to the raging fire.  And as we all know and agree, if the president says it, it must be true.  Cooler heads finally prevailed and the controversy returned to a simmer.  As for me, I can’t see what harm is done by imagining what a creature may feel or think, fully knowing that it may have little or no capacity for either.

Bronzed Cowbird, Molothrus aeneus

The female Dunnock did survive, at least for one season, as did the Cuckoo chick and one of the Dunnock chicks.  But survival for them hung by a thread and was temporary, as it is for us all.  This book has given me a new insight regarding the lives of these birds.  I’ve been keeping the feeders a little fuller and their baths a little cleaner, and maybe they’ll notice and like me a little more–who knows.

London, Birding With An Ally

Guide Jack Fearnside at Chobham Commons

 

Was taxation without representation really that bad that we had to split from these good people?  I certainly felt right at home this March in the U.K., now our greatest ally.  They may talk a little funny and drive on the wrong side of the road, but otherwise this was a wonderful visit to the Motherland.

Chobham Commons

Birds and climate in Britain are influenced greatly by the warming currents of the Gulf Stream.  It may come as a surprise to many that temperate London sits at the same latitude as Newfoundland and Labrador in the western hemisphere, veritable ice boxes on our side of the pond.  Gulf Stream or not, our visit was too early for the Spring migration; most migrants arrive in the southern U.K. later in March or April.  I was content seeing the wintering birds in London alone but decided to seek the help of a guide to sample the surrounding countryside.  Good decision.

Red Kite, Milvus milvus                             click on photos to zoom

I booked a whole day with Birding in London, an English guide company, http://www.birdinglondon.co.uk.  They escort individuals or small groups to various sites in and around London.  Whenever you hire a guide you take some risks, however, I have never been disappointed and was not this time.  Jack Fearnside picked me up at 6:30AM sharp at my hotel in Kensington and we spent a productive day in the countryside to the west of London.

Reed Bunting, Emberiza schoeniclus

Our first stop was Chobham Commons, a picturesque 1400 acre preserve of lowland heath and blooming yellow gorse with scattered islands of birch and pine.  The area was initially cleared by paleolithic farmers eons ago and has remained unspoiled, even through military encampments during two world wars.  I realized that Jack knew his stuff when he started identifying birds by their songs, even in the carpark and despite the traffic noise from the nearby M3.  I was treated to seeing 20 species here including Woodlark, Goldcrest, Stonechat, and the unusual Dartford Warbler.

Stonechat, Saxicola rubicola

Even in early March the over-wintering British birds are pairing up and beginning nest-building, although most egg-laying commences in late March or April.  The Long-tailed Tit takes 3 weeks to build its intricate nest so it needs an early start, but  early nest-building and egg-laying is a mixed dilemma.  It’s great to stake out a territory and get an early start before the migrating hoards arrive.  This allows the possibility of multiple broods in a season but also raises the risk of cold temperatures and meagre food sources in early spring, just when parents and hatchlings need nourishment most.

Long-tailed Tit, Aegithalos caudatus

Our second stop was Windsor Great Park, a 4800 acre gem, first set aside in the 13th century.  The area was hunted by William the Conqueror one thousands years ago.  Victoria and Albert picnicked on the shore of its Virginia Water in the 19th century and I was lucky to traipse these same grounds this March.  You’ll find that European birds are more skittish than their New World cousins and usually don’t respond to phishing.  Many of my photos therefore are distant views taken at 400mm.  Even at great distance, however, Jack was able to point out the electric green of the Eurasian Kingfisher on the lake’s opposite shore.  We saw 28 species at this historic site including Great-crested Grebe, Red Kite, and Eurasian Siskin.

Caretaker cottage at Windsor Great Park

I sensed that Jack really wanted me to see and hear the Skylark for the first time.  We heard him high overhead during his peculiar hovering flight long before we saw him diving down into the green pasture, and then rising again, all the time singing his melodious and incessant song.  This was at our third stop, Woodoaks Farm, a quaint working dairy farm dating back to late Saxon times, 1000 years old.  The lanes and barnyard were muddy from recent rains but the stop was well worth it giving up 16 species including the Eurasian Kestrel, Mew Gull, and the memorable Skylark and song.  Here’s a verse from “To a Skylark” by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

Higher still and higher

From the earth thou springest

Like a cloud of fire;

The blue deep thou wingest,

And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

Chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs

Our last stop was Stocker’s Lake in Hertfordshire, an old 90 acre gravel pit which has been flooded and now serves as a wintering ground for numerous waterfowl and springtime stopover site for migrating passerines.  The lake is surrounded by a hiking path and numerous “hides” (blinds, in American English) and narrow canals with colorful canal boats serving as residences.

Canal Locks at Stocker’s Lake

There is a large Heronry on the shore and several islands and floating rafts serving as nesting sites.  We added more 32 species at this site for a total of 59 for the day.  The sun was setting and light becoming problematic for photography when Jack called out a flock of Northern Lapwing landing on an nearby island, another life-bird for me and a fitting ending to a great day.

Tufted Duck and Eurasian Wigeon, Aythya fuligula and Anas penelope

Birding London also arranges guided tours to the Dorset coast to the south, the channel coast to the east, and other sites.  I highly recommend Jack and his company and plan to hire him again if I ever make a return visit to the U.K.  For you poem-loving birders here is the last stanza of “To a Skylark”:

Teach me half the gladness

That thy brain must know,

Such harmonious madness

From my lips would flow

The world should listen then, as I am listening now.

 

 

Urban Birding in London

St. James Park

 

A New World birder recently visited London and for a short while became an English twitcher.  It’s with some fear and trepidation that I submit this posting as I was birding on historic grounds in a country filled with sophisticated twitchers.  But I’ll “keep a stiff upper lip” and press on.  Early March may not be the ideal time for birding in the U.K. but it’s when I visited with dear friends and spouse, primarily to sample the theater and dining options in this great city.

Greylag Goose, Anser anser

We were queuing up to visit Churchill’s War Rooms at Westminster when I noticed beautiful St. James Park and pond with obvious bird activity just across the street.  Even with no binoculars, a mere cell phone camera, and a wife more interested in Churchill than birds, this was too inviting to pass up.  My excitement grew when several of the ducks and geese, and also the giant White Pelicans were new birds for me and listed as rarities here by eBird.  But “something was rotten in Denmark”.  I later learned that these “rarities” were in fact pinioned birds, non-tickable, and transported here for the public’s enjoyment.

Great Tit, Parus major

St. James Park was set aside as a hunting ground for Henry VIII in 1536.  The White Pelicans, or more correctly their ancestors, were a gift from the Russian ambassador in 1664.  In 1834 the Ornithological Society of London erected a bird keeper’s cottage next to the pond, still standing today.  Apart from the pinioned birds I did see some tickable species including Red-crested and Common Pochards, Tufted Ducks, Golden-eye, Eurasian Wigeons and Coots, and Barnacle, Greylag, and Canada Geese. Unfortunately the cell phone shots don’t meet my photographic standards for public viewing.

Egyptian Goose, Alopochen aegyptiaca

Each morning in London started cool and damp, with a threat of rain.  “To bird or not to bird, that is the question.”  Blessed with a spouse that likes to sleep in, and a well-situated hotel in South Kensington, just a hop, skip, and jump from Kensington Gardens, that was an easy question to answer for this Hamlet.  This time I was ready with binoculars, a real camera and lens.

Mandarin Duck, Aix galericulata

You’re treading on history in this Royal Park.  It sits on the west side of Hyde Park, at the site of the Crystal Palace and Great Exhibition of 1851, the first World’s Fair.  Kensington Palace was the birthplace of Queen Victoria and a grand monument to her husband Albert stands just to the south.  Crisscrossing paths, ancient trees, and Serpentine Lake make for excellent urban twitching, even among these historic icons.

Common Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus

I learned that there were recent sightings of Tawny and Little Owls in the Gardens, apparently pairing off and preparing for nesting in the old tree cavities.  Owls always get my attention and were my primary goal that morning, however I was able to see and photograph numerous duck, geese, and passerines along the paths.  Day one produced no owl, but as a famous Brit once said about a time and situation much more serious than this, “never, never, never give up”, so I took his advice and returned to the Gardens several days later to renew the effort.

Song Thrush, Turdus philomelos

This morning I stumbled upon a fenced-off woodlot with the Gardens with several stocked feeders drawing in Great, Blue, and Long-tailed Tits, Nuthatches, Wrens, Chaffinches, Robins, and even a Great Spotted Woodpecker.  This was a bird photographer’s Mecca.  The chore was to catch the birds away from the feeder in the morning’s low light.  While working on that a young Brit walked up and asked the usual question, “seen anything good?”  He obviously knew his birds and the Garden and graciously escorted me to the very tree where he had seen a Little Owl earlier that day.  Thanking him I aimed my lens at the hole, checked out all the exposure settings and waited for the bugger to peek out. And waited, and waited, and waited.

Little Owl, Athene noctua

Tired of waiting and again resigned to a no-owl day I was preparing to press on when I noticed the eyes peering down at me from another tree, off to the right.  What a hoot; exhilaration that only another birder understands; it was the Little Owl, probably watching me for the last half hour.  A hundred pictures later I returned to the hotel satisfied.  In addition to the owl I saw six other life birds in St. James Park and Kensington Gardens, including the Barnacle, Egyptian, and Greylag Geese, Red-crested and Common Pochards, and Tufted Duck.

He’s still watching

The urban birding I did alone, but hired an excellent bird guide to take me to sites and additional new birds outside the ring road.  I plan to describe that in a later post.  In the meantime, “stay calm and bird on.”

 

Harns Marsh Preserve and the Swamphen Saga

img_1888

 

Harns isn’t listed with the famous birding destinations in south Florida (Corkscrew, Ding Darling, the Everglades, and Big Cypress) but maybe it should be.  This is a 578 acre preserve in Lehigh Acres set aside in 1985 for stormwater control along the Orange River.  Half is an open water lake but the more interesting half for birders is the shallower marsh and surrounding trail.  If you bird in the morning the sun will be at your back and allow some great shots of the waders and flyovers.  Bring a scope as many of the birds tease you from a distance.

img_3317

Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis

In my experience Harns is the best place to see Snail Kites.  The imposing Sandhill Cranes approached me so closely I was a little worried about their intention, but it did allow some great closeups.  The abundant non-native Apple Snails also attract Limpkins, while Bald Eagles, Harriers, Red-shouldered Hawks, Bitterns, and Vultures galore complemented the usual Florida waders.  My personal life list here is 37, but locals report up to 100 species at Harns.

Black Vulture

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

The reason for our recent visit was to chase the unusual Grey-headed swamphen (Porphyrio poliocephalus), listed on eBird as a rarity at this location.  “Porphyrio” is Greek for purple, “polio” is Greek for grey, and “cephalus” is Latin for head.  I had previously seen the bird only once at great distance and it was a life bird for my colleague.  The large purple and blue bird was easily spotted among the grasses almost as soon as we arrived.  The grey head was subtle if present at all.  Apparently it is most obvious on the male; the female head is blue.

Grey-headed swamphen

Grey-headed swamphen, Porphyrio poliocephalus

The swamphen saga in Florida is either one of escape and survival, or invasion and alarm depending on your point of view.  The Purple swamphen is a native of Turkey, India, China, and Thailand and has recently been split into 6 separate species, the Grey-headed being one.  There are two stories of the origin of this large tropical rail in south Florida.  One account claims they escaped from the Miami Metro Zoo during hurricane Andrew in 1992.  The other story blames careless aviculturalists allowing them to roam freely in Pembroke, Florida at about the same time.  In any case the birds were sprung and made the most of their new freedom.

Tricolored-heron

Tricolored-heron, Egretta tricolor

This bird has been described as “a Purple Gallinule on steroids”, it being much larger but otherwise quite similar to its native cousin.  The non-migratory rail has quickly adjusted to the good life in the freshwater marshes of sunny Florida, primarily feasting on plants and supplementing the diet with mollusks, and small animals.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

Up the food chain their threats are from alligators, large mammals, birds-of-prey, and for a while, man.  The swamphens often raise several broods a year and their population has grown.   With some alarm regarding their potential threats to the natives, authorities started a program of eradication, shooting 3100 birds over 27 months.  This campaign ended in 2008 with the birds still  surviving and thriving.

Grey-headed swamphen

Grey-headed swamphen, Porphyrio poliocephalus

What do you think about the non-natives moving in?  My feelings are colored by the Mute Swans that almost took over our tributary of the Chesapeake Bay several years ago.  At their peak I could count several hundred of these alien, aggressive, non-migratory birds on the river with multiple nest along the shoreline.  They were displacing the native, migratory, and more humble Tundra Swans and devouring the vital submerged grasses, roots and all.  They clearly went too far when they attacked us in our canoe, (I fended them off with the paddle), and played chicken with me on the riding mower.  Thankfully an eradication program ended all this and I have not seen one on the Chesapeake in years.

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle torquatus

The jury’s still out on the swamphen.  Can they assimilate and play well with others, or will they follow the lead of the Mute Swans and try to take over and dominate the Florida marshes?  The bird is clearly a survivor.  I admire that and so far I am not aware they have caused any substantial damage, but only time will tell.  In the meantime, check out this photogenic bird and the other avifauna at Harns Marsh Preserve.

Bird Digestion

Florida Scrub Jay

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

 

I know this may be an unappetizing topic for some, but being a physician I find the comparative anatomy and physiology of avian digestion fascinating.  Don’t confuse my title and posting with the venerable and recommended periodical “Bird Watchers Digest”, mainly for their sake.  Check it out at http://www.birdwatchersdigest.com.

Herring Gull with lunch

Herring Gull with crab, Larus argentatus

I reckon that a bird spends the majority of his life eating or hunting for food.  Even the apparent sedentary perching owl or hawk is likely planning his next attack and contemplating the next meal.  And this is time well spent since the survival of these warm-blooded, active birds, with very high metabolic rates requires a constant source of energy.  Reproduction (breeding, nest building, and rearing of the young) along with migration are also time consumers, but take a back seat to eating and daily survival.

Piping Plover

Piping Plover, Charadrius melodus

Given the requirements of flight, birds do not have the luxury of storing heavy layers of fat or foods internally, with the one exception being the preparation for migration.  For this some songbirds increase their body weight by 40% and need every last ounce and calorie for the rigors of migration.  But generally most birds need a steady and constant inflow of food and energy to survive.  This is even more critical in the cold of winter.

IMG_3091

Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea

Luckily birds have evolved a rapid and efficient digestive system, able to cope with a varied diet.  For some birds and food types the transit from beak to cloaca can be as rapid as 30 minutes.  The beak and toothless mouth are for stabbing, carrying, crushing, and tearing the food, quickly sending it downstream to the tubular esophagus.  Fortunately, given their diet, birds have a small tongue with few, if any taste buds.

img_5018

Gull demonstrating the edentulous mouth, small tongue, and no taste buds.

Many have a widened area in the mid-esophagus called the crop.  This is the site of short-term parking for a big meal as is often demonstrated by the tell tale neck bulge of the heron who recently swallowed the large fish, always head first.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

The bird stomach is very different than ours.  It is a two-part affair with a glandular first sac called the proventriculus.  Strong acid, enzymes, and mucus start the digestive process here, before transporting the food to the second part called the gizzard.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret with large insect, Egretta thula

The gizzard is a thicker muscular sac with a rough sand-like lining, perfect for grinding and mixing.  Some contain sand and stones further aiding the process.  Pellets containing the non-digestible waste such as bone fragments, hair, shells, and feathers are passed and often mark the roosting sites of owls and other birds-of-prey.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon eating a Lesser Black-backed Gull, Falco peregrinus and Larus fuscus

The actual absorption of nutrients occurs in the small intestine where food is mixed with the enzymes from the pancreas.  Birds-of-prey have a relatively short small bowel, whereas herbivorous birds have a longer one, needed for the slower digestion of the tougher cellulose-rich food.  Multiple small sacs off the small bowel are called caeca and harbor beneficial bacteria, further aiding digestion.

Limpkin with Apple Snail

Limpkin with Apple Snail, Aramus guarauna

A bird’s colon or large bowel is short, just serving as a conduit to the final cavity, the cloaca.  The cloaca empties to the outside world via the vent, sometimes onto the unsuspecting birder.  As you know the cloaca is the common chamber for both sexes receiving the products of the gastrointestinal, urologic, and genital tracts.  The close and rapid contact of the vents and cloacae is when and where the genetic material is exchanged.

img_9622

Its a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher so it must be eating a gnat. Polioptila caerulea

The Cattle Egret below was finally fed up with his diet of insects and mice and got in the drive-thru lane at McDonalds thinking that they might offer a better menu.  I’m not so sure.

cattle-egret-at-mcd

Cattle Egret, Bubulcus ibis

Bird of the Day

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Mergansers

 

When you return to the car, a little weary and sweaty after birding you may ask the same questions we often ask.  What was the most memorable bird of the day?  Or maybe, how many species did we see today, or were there any year-birds or life-birds, or did we finally connect a bird with its song?  These are mind games that we birders commonly play.

Great Egret

Great Egret, Ardea alba

I had planned a solo outing to Corkscrew Sanctuary in southwest  Florida, but choking smoke from a controlled burn there chased me to the nearby Bird Rookery Swamp.  The ditch along the gravel access road had been recently dredged and waders in large numbers were apparently feasting on the stirred up fish and crustaceans.  I was already having a great day when the Hooded Merganser pair turned up in the same ditch.

img_1843

Lophodytes cucullatus

I find these small diving ducks, sometimes called “Hoodies” or “Sawbills” difficult to photograph.  Not only are they skittish, but the male’s jet black face and head sharply contrasts with the white hood.  One is invariably either under or over-exposed.  The larger female has a more subtle tawny beauty.  The ducks are winter residents here but breed further north, nesting in tree cavities or houses, similar to Wood Ducks.  Its hard to believe but the mother calls the hatchlings to the forest floor only 24 hours after exiting the egg, and leads them to water where they start swimming and feeding themselves.  Literally “sink or swim”.

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser, Lophodytes cucullatus

The teeming ditch also afforded many chances to catch some flying shots as the waders took off and landed.  The Anhinga and Great Egret were my favorite keepers in this category.

Anhinga

Anhinga anhinga

Great Egret

Great Egret, Ardea alba

Finally, parking the car and setting out along the path into the swamp things quieted down.  The gravel path through the wetlands, gators, and Pond Cypresses must be similar to “Old Florida”.  I came across a non-birding couple, obviously out for a power walk, who had stopped and noticed a strange bird just off the trail.  Thinking it was likely just another Ibis or other common bird I stopped.  An American Bittern; great sighting!

American Bittern

American Bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus

Its funny–I’ve never seen this bird on my own.  It has always been sighted by others, usually non-birders, and then pointed out to me.  Once it was a 7 year-old boy who was tugging on my pants as I was chasing warblers high above, trying to get me to notice the strange bird he had found below, just off the boardwalk. This may say something about my observation skills but the bird is stealthy, with vertical striations blending beautifully with the adjacent grasses.  When alarmed the head and neck go straight up, further mimicking the rushes.

American Bittern

American Bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus

This short legged and thick necked wader also has multiple nicknames. “Bog bumper”, “Stake Driver”, “Bog Bull”, and “Thunder Pumper” are among the many, referring to the strange loud vocalization of this otherwise secretive bird.  To me it sounds like a toilet plunger relieving a stoppage.

So what was the bird of the day?  I has to be a dead heat between the beauty of the Merganser pair and the solitary Bittern.  It’s my game–ties are allowed.

Florida in Black & White

 

Fakahatchee

Fakahatchee

 

It’s the twenty-first century and I own a perfectly good camera and expensive lenses.  Why would I want to turn back the clock to the early days of photography and shoot in B&W?  Isn’t bird and nature photography all about color?  I live in colorful subtropical Florida and my species has been blessed with color vision.  Use it and be thankful.  Besides, color is in large part how I identify these beautiful birds and plants.  But then I ran across Clyde Butcher’s amazing Florida portfolio of fine art photography, all in black and white.

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

Clyde Butcher was an architect, sailor, and photographer from the West when he relocated to south Florida in 1983.  Apparently it was not love at first sight.  Florida does not have mountains and Redwood forests, and he initially feared the alligators, snakes, and poisonous spiders of the vast swamps.  The state’s unique beauty, however, slowly became apparent to him, especially after meeting and slogging through the wetlands with Florida native and friend Oscar Thompson.

Eagle Lakes Community Park

Eagle Lakes Community Park

Mr. Butcher’s reputation as a chronicler of Florida’s unique landscapes, flora, and fauna has grown. Some have called him the next Ansel Adams–the photos are strikingly beautiful.  He has two studios in southwest Florida, one at Ochopee in the heart of the Big Cypress National Preserve on the Tamiami Trail, and the other in Venice.  At the former you can view his gallery but also take a guided tour and experience the swamp hip-deep, up-close and personal.  Visit his website at http://www.clydebutcher.com. Be sure to check out his techniques and equipment.  He is not your typical DSLR photographer.

Florida Scrub Jay

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

Blue Jay

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

So, what are the advantages of B&W photography?  I believe there are times when color, especially vibrant shades, can overpower the photo and detract from subtle features.  B&W cancels this and brings out the variations in light, shadows, texture, and tone that you often don’t appreciate in color.  B&W can also set a noirish mood, often melancholy or foreboding, not always apparent with color.

Vanderbilt Beach

Vanderbilt Beach

Harnes Marsh

Harnes Marsh

B&W tends to accentuate the contrast of sunlight and shadows emphasizing chiaroscuro, especially when shooting architectural features with their distinct margins.  The gazebo, fence rails and shadows in the shot from Eagle Lakes illustrates this.  The soft texture of the Pelican feathers contrasts with the sharp, defined, and hard texture of the iron perch.  To Butcher “clouds are Florida’s mountains” and it’s in the clouds where one best sees the variations in tone.  I’ve tried to capture that in the Harnes Marsh and Vanderbilt beach shots.  The B&W mood also brings out the contrast between cloud, grass, and water textures.

img_5255

Glossy Ibis, Plegadis falcinellus

White Ibis

White Ibis, Eudocimus albus

I’m still experimenting with bird photography in B&W.  With monochromatic birds it seems to work well.  I don’t think I lose anything with the Crow or flying Ibises.  The jury is out regarding the Jays.  What do you think?

American Crow

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

There is a technical debate whether it’s best to shoot RAW in B&W or shoot in JPEG color and then convert to B&W.  All the photos in this post used the latter technique.  Some claim that it’s best to do your post-processing in color mode, bringing out the subtle tones, and then convert to B&W.  In any case you should shoot with the lowest ISO possible to minimize graininess.  Don’t be afraid of cloudy days, shadows, and low light situations which often add drama to your monochromatic images.  I direct you to the website of a fellow blogger, Victor Rakmil at http://www.rakmilphotography.wordpress.com.  He discusses many of these issues and displays gorgeous B&W photos.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

Don’t get me wrong–I have not become an exclusive B&W photographer.  In fact I primarily still shoot in color, but experimentation is one factor making this hobby so enjoyable.  Mr. Butcher and others have shown the importance of tone, texture, contrast, and light that can only enhance one skills and results.

Birding Your Patch

img_2343

My Patch

 

Birders, primarily British birders or “twitchers”, often refer to their “patch”.  A patch is a fairly small, personal birding location that one visits and revisits often.  I’m not talking a few times a year.  A genuine patch is walked several times a week so one develops an intimate knowledge of its fauna and flora.

img_8546

Tufted Titmouse, Baeolophus bicolor

The familiarity fostered by frequent visits adds a historical and seasonal dimension to your observations.  That shrub is where a Carolina Wren often hides, and that fruit tree is where the Robin nests each year.  Or that perch is where the Sharp-shinned Hawk sizes up the bird feeder and plans his surprise attack.  The large oaks along the cove are where the Great Horned Owls calls many winter nights, the one that I have still not yet seen.

img_7447

Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla

You learn the seasonal changes specific for your patch; when the Eastern Kingbird leaves and the Tree Swallows return.  Are they early or late this year?  Will the Martins use their house this year or find the apartments already occupied by the House Sparrows?  You observe and learn the subtle behaviors of your common patch birds, enhancing your birding skills.  The unexpected visitor or migrant may add some excitement, but this is usually low-key and quiet birding.

img_5749

Neighbor’s freshwater pond

A patch may or may not be your yard.  Its obviously best to choose a “birdy” location close to home with mixed vegetation, some low level shrubs and taller trees, some open space, and preferably a nearby fresh water source.  It could be a local park but the highly pruned and manicured variety are not ideal.  It may be nothing more than your tree-lined street with neighbors’ foundations plants.  The goal is to find one close-by and convenient.

img_5472

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

If your patch is your yard, as mine is, you have some unique advantages.  You can plant bird-friendly flora and set out houses, feeders, and baths, strategically located to be visible from your windows.  Your birding becomes informal and practically non-stop.  You see the Osprey swoop down for a fish while you’re dining and the Chipping Sparrow greets you at the end of the driveway when you retrieve your newspaper each morning.  These incidental sightings all add to your yearly patch-list growing on eBird.  Mine just hit 100 species with the addition of a Golden-crowned Kinglet and Yellow Warbler this fall.  For me the record-keeping is part of the joy of patch birding.  My first entry was a Red-breasted Merganser in April 1996.

img_5605

Brown Thrasher, Toxostoma rufum

When we bought our building lot in 1995 it clearly had potential, but needed some work to become a patch.  The land was a subdivided farm on a tidal tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.  It was mainly a grass field with just a few large Oaks and Honey Locusts at the water’s edge.  The shoreline was caving in and receding, silting the bay.  There were few submerged grasses.  I did see some wading birds, Killdeer, and a hunting Northern Harrier at the site, but passerines were virtually absent.

img_8573

Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Dendroica coronata

Twenty year of management have transformed the lot into a birdy patch.  Even before building we planted 25 sizable Loblolly Pines and a hedgerow of 300 sapling Red Cedar, Pine, Russian Olive, and Black Cherry trees along the property line.  We later added Red and Silver Maples, River Birch, Weeping Willow, Willow Oak, Sycamore, Crape Myrtles, and flowering Crab Apple trees.  Happily there is a fresh water pond at the nearby neighbors.  We’ve let the grass grow high, only keeping a manicured lawn close to the house.  The shoreline has been stabilized with stone hauled in from Pennsylvania; there are no rocks on the Eastern Shore, well south of the last glacial advance.  Salt water grasses have returned along with more wading birds.  The Passerines have given us a vote of confidence and are back.  Its been fun creating our patch.

cci05042016-2

Building lot in 1995

img_8793

Same location in 2016

The concept of patch birding was introduced to me by two British blogs I follow.  One describes a patch within the city limits of London at Wanstead Flats and the other, a more rural patch at Hethersett in the county of Northfolk.  Their websites are:  http://www.iago80.wordpress.com and http://www.hethersettbirdingblog.wordpress.com.  Visit them and be inspired to begin your own patch birding.

img_9864

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis