A Real Estate Deal for the Birds

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“Come on down and buy a piece of paradise; live like a rich man among the palms and warm sunshine of South Florida, all for just pennies”.  This was the flavor of the advertising blitz of the Gulf American Corporation (GAC) targeting gullible and foolish northerners in the 1960’s.  The Rosen brothers of Baltimore had previously become wealthy hawking an anti-baldness tonic containing lanolin or wool wax.  “Have you ever seen a bald sheep”, those adds claimed, and apparently worked.  In South Florida they bought 500,000 acres of the Big Cypress Swamp and turned a $125,000 investment into $115,000,000 by selling thousands of small lots, many underwater and un-buildable.

Tricolor Heron

Tricolor Heron (click on any picture to zoom)

The urge to “drain the swamp” has been the goal of Florida developers throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, but GAC’s plan was the most ambitious.  It created the 175 square mile Golden Gate Estates, the “world’s largest subdivision” criss-crossed by rough limestone roads and 180 miles of canals attempting to drain the standing water to the Gulf of Mexico.  Many unsuspecting buyers bought their lots over the telephone sight unseen, while others were flown over theirs in the dry season.  Twenty-nine thousand souls were duped before the extent of the deceit became apparent.  This story is just one chapter in the larger history of the water management and development affecting the Florida Everglades, from its near destruction to more recent restoration.  Read “The Swamp”, by Michael Grunwald, 2006, for the complete story.

Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis

By the 1970’s the real estate scam became clear and Collier County realized it could not support the development with road maintenance and a central water and sewerage system.  In 1978 the developer filed for bankruptcy and pleaded guilty to deceptive sales practices. The only substantial development was along the northern edge on higher and drier land.  By this time the draining canals had lowered the water table by four feet and the flora and fauna were suffering.  The majority of the land remained as undeveloped swamp but now the limestone roads were acting as runways for DC 3’s bringing drugs into Florida from the Caribbean and South America.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron

As part of the larger program to save the Everglades the state and federal governments began a complex buy-back program, bailing out the bilked landowners and then creating the Fakahatchee and Picayune Strand State Parks on their land.  www.floridastateparks.org

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret

My birding colleague Mel likes to explore these “off the beaten track” sites and the Fakahatchee and adjacent Picayune parks certainly qualify.  We saw only 2 or 3 birders all day.  It was a clear morning when we pulled through the entrance and immediately saw signs and a ranger warning us about high water on the limestone roads.  It had been a wet winter and spring in South Florida.  A SUV driver coming out, however said it was passable so with a sense of adventure we pushed on.  Ten miles later we had seen no water, but plenty of Florida waders, turkeys, and Red-shouldered Hawks.  I’ve never seen so many Gray Catbirds.  The cypress swamp, Sabal palms, and low shrubs must be their perfect habitat.

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Gray Catbird

Finally rounding a bend we came across a large “puddle” covering the road.  It was about 50 feet across and there was no way to go around it.  It seemed shallow and was not flowing water, so we pressed on.  Halfway through Mel’s SUV dropped down into a deep hole.  With water splashing over the hood he kept up the momentum and we pulled out on the other side with a sigh of relief.

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More high water ahead

Thinking the worst of it was over we continued on, but soon found more high water as far as the eye could see “down the road less traveled”.  Now there was no turning back so we continued heading north, birding from the vehicle somewhat like an inland pelagic trip.  Remember, these limestone roads and swamp were the homesites marketed by the Rosen brothers a few years earlier.

White Ibis

White Ibis, juvenile

Birding adventures such as this day in southwest Florida are part of what makes this hobby so appealing and each trek so memorable.  Beautiful wilderness, fellowship with other birders, and observing and photographing the birds; what a treat.  Put these parks on your list, but go in the dry season or try to find a “Mel”, a good driver with a large SUV, before attempting the high water.

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Leonard & Mel, my birding companions. They are NOT the Rosen brothers.

The Advanced Birder

Phainopepla

Phainopepla

 

I’m not one, but I’ve observed enough of them to legitimately list their characteristics in this post.  It’s a given that they know the field marks and have mastered bird identification.  I’m talking about the additional and more subtle traits of these masters.  Most have been birding since childhood and have stories of being introduced to birding by a parent or grandparent, often remembering their personal index bird.  They grew up with binoculars on the window sill and a well-worn bird guidebook, usually Petersen’s, readilly available.

Swamp Sparrow

Swamp Sparrow

They have mastered the difficult families and genera.  I don’t know about you but I break out in a cold sweat when a novice birder asks me about the various gulls, sparrows, terns, or flycatchers.  The advanced birder is not even phased.  Their knowledge of the changing plumages of gulls, for instance belies a lot of fieldwork and careful study.  The sparrows and terns are a piece of cake for them, whereas the flycatchers are difficult for everyone, even them.

Heermann's Gulls

Heermann’s Gulls

The fall warblers offer another challenge.  I was birding at a local warbler haunt on Tilghmann Island, Maryland last fall when I ran across an advanced local birder in the woods.  As you have all experienced, he asked “seen anything good”?  “No, just the routine including a Yellow-rumped Warbler.”  He surprised me by replying, “I hope you didn’t really see a butter butt, as that would mean the fall migration is almost over–they migrate late, you know”.  Big swallow by me, and he continued, “I’ll bet you saw the same Magnolia Warbler I saw earlier–you  know they also have a yellowish rump.”  This was 3 traits of an advanced birder displayed at once:  1) knowledge of the timing of migration for a species, 2)  knowledge of the similar and confusing field marks among birds, 3) the ability to teach and tactfully correct the mistakes of a fellow rising birder.

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Yellow-Romped Warbler

Knowing when each species arrives in your locale and when it departs in the fall adds a whole new dimension to birding.  It speaks to years of careful observation and becomes another of our personal timepieces marking the passage of the seasons.

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt

The advanced birder depends on bird behaviors, shapes, and habitats as much as field marks to make an ID.  The nuthatch is running up and down the trunk, the Palm Warbler is near or on the ground, pumping its tail, and the tanager is found high in the canopy.  Birds often have characteristic flight patterns recognized when field marks are not visible.  There’s the alternating rapid flaps and glides of the Accipiters, The jittery soaring of the Turkey Vulture, and the undulating flight of the finches as examples of these patterns.  The advanced hawk watchers bird by silhouette recognition as describe in an earlier post, Hawk Watching.

Black Vulture

Black Vulture

The skill most impressive to me is the advanced birder’s knowledge of birdsong, even to the extent of knowing several calls for many birds.  One may be for staking out a territory and another for warning of danger from an approaching hawk.  Before I even get my binoculars and camera around my neck in the parking lot my advanced birder friends have ID’ed a dozen birds by sound alone.  I had more to say about this in a prior post, Birding By Ear.

Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlark

Advanced birders have recognized that you can’t cut corners on your choice of binoculars.  You usually see them with Zeiss, Leica, Swarovski, or other high end glass, often with the well-worn look of years in the field.  Not everyone with high-end binos is an expert, but all experts know the value of the sharp, bright image in a large field-of-view glass.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

Advanced birders are teachers.  You come away from every birding session with them acquiring new pearls, even about the common birds.  For instance:  1) the Least Sandpiper is the only peep typically found inland–look for its yellow legs, 2)  the Tree Swallow arrive first in the spring since it’s the only swallow that eats berries and seeds in addition to insects, or 3) a Blue Jay can do a remarkably good imitation of a Red-shouldered Hawk.  These and many more bird facts make your day in the field with them even more rewarding.  Have you ever noticed that they rarely carry a field guide, except perhaps to demonstrate a new bird to others?  I’ll bet it’s been committed to memory.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Golden-crowned Kinglet

The signature of an advanced birder is not the length of their life-list or the number of birding trips abroad, but rather their joy in even the routine outing where they always seem to find something new or interesting, and happy to share it with others.

Chasing Rarities in Florida

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Broad-billed Hummingbird

 

There are avid birders who are dedicated chasers, scanning e-Bird and other internet sites daily in hopes of finding the unexpected rarity, possibly blown into a new territory during migration, or just confused, or possibly exerting some bird independence and desire to “see the world”.  There are definitive definitions for a “rarity”, but I believe this a relative term determined separately for each birder by their level of experience and individual life list.  When I was a novice I remember getting excited about a “new” bird almost daily while other birders passed over the same bird with nary a glance.  But as one’s life list expands and the new sightings become less frequent it’s only natural to start chasing.

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Broad-billed Hummingbird, Freedom Park, Naples, FL

Hummingbirds other than Ruby-throateds are a rarity in the East, so I was excited when e-Bird announced a Broad-billed in Freedom Park Naples, Florida, five miles from my home.  The bird had been seen for several days and the alert described the exact location “just off the path, next to the restroom, on the flowering shrub”.  It could have said, “just look for the numerous anxious birders standing next to the bush with binoculars and cameras at the ready”.  I’m always surprised when the bird shows up, right as advertised.  My only regret was the lighting and photos were not perfect, but this was a successful chase.

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Florida Scrub Jay

The Florida Scrub Jay is an endangered bird, but not necessarily a true rarity in it’s ever shrinking territory in Florida.  It prefers the sandy soil and Slash Pines of the central and eastern part of the state which required some traveling for me.  The Lyonia Preserve in Deltona, Volusia County near Interstate 95 is one of the best places to find this bird and I was excited to schedule a stop there on our annual spring drive home.  We are “snow birds”. Even the light rain would not deter me from looking for this rarity as my spouse slept patiently in the car.  Amazed again, it appeared in the pines less than a quarter mile from the trail-head. I decided to play its call on my I-phone in hopes of getting a closer photo.  As I watched through the optical finder the bird took off and surprised me by landing on my head!  That accounts for the photo below as I twisted the camera for the documenting shot. After the jay flew away I put the hat on the ground, thinking that was the attraction, set up the perfect shot and lighting angle, and replayed the call.  The jay returned, but this time landed on my bare head.  Enough of this.  I don’t think anyone would believe this story if I didn’t have the hat shot.  I’ve since learned that this is a common behavior for this overly friendly and endangered bird.

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My lucky hat shot.

Chasing rarities is occasionally a “wild goose chase”.  It took me several visits to the Babcock Webb Wildlife Management Area  near Punta Gorda before I sighted a Red-cockaded Woodpecker, another threatened bird. If you go there look for a cavity in the tall long-leafed pines and the fresh dripping sap from the woodpecker holes, making the trees look like a giant waxy candle.   That’s where the birds hang out.  Sorry, I didn’t get a good photo of this rarity, but submit this other shot of a non-rarity woodpecker from S. Florida.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

E-bird got me and a birding companion excited again with a sighting of Fulvous Whistling Ducks and a Cinnamon Teal in a flooded field waiting for drainage and planting, about 25 miles inland from our coastal home.  We had just arrived and set up our scopes along the road when a white van pulled over and a large man with more gold in his teeth than I’ve ever seen walked over to check us out.  He skeptically looked at the field when I told him I was watching birds, but was truly amazed and pleased when I showed him the wading birds through the scope.  I think we may have created a new birder.  The only down-side of his visit was the strong odor of his after-shave that lingered on my scope the rest of the day.  Note-to-self:  use that product sparingly.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks

Right after he pulled away a Collier County Sheriff’s car pulled up and the officer strolled over to also check us out.  We were relieved when he said, “don’t worry boys, I’m just on break and need to stretch.”  It was his accent that was rare–the most classic Queen’s, New York speech you’ve ever heard in S. Florida.  He’d had enough of New York and had moved to paradise a few years earlier. He spent 30 minutes of his break with us talking NY Giant football, election politics, but there was little birding conversation.  I snuck that shot of the Northern Harrier below, between police stories.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

As for the bird rarities there, we never saw the Cinnamon Teal–the photo below was taken in Arizona.  What we originally thought were Fulvous Whistling Ducks turned out to be juvenile Black-bellied, which became clear once we saw the parent with the prominent orange bill.  The true rarities of this trip were the two Homo sapiens visitors.

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Cinnamon Teal

Bunche Beach on San Carlos Bay in Lee County is a historic spot, but not just for the birding.  It is appropriately named for Dr. Ralph Bunche, the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Price.  In 1949 the Black community purchased a half acre of the beach which became the only beach available for people of color in all of S. Florida at the time.  Thankfully we have come a long way since then.

Marbled Godwit, photo by A. Sternick at Bunche Beach

Marbled Godwit, photo by A. Sternick at Bunche Beach

Greater Flamingo, photo by A. Sternick at Bunche Beach

Greater Flamingo, photo by A. Sternick at Bunche Beach

We were responding to an e-Bird alert alert regarding a Greater Flamingo, Long-billed Curlew, and Marbled Godwit sightings at the beach when 5 of us set out on the 50 mile drive to the north. Two of our party had recently seen and photographed these birds at Bunche Beach and were anxious for us to share their success. Chaser’s win some and lose some.  I did see the Godwit with a scope, maybe a quarter mile off-shore on a sandbar, but it was not a satisfying sighting and problematic whether it should even be listed. I did however get some one of my best pictures of Semipalmated and Piping Plovers in the same frame.

Semipalmated & Piping Plovers

Semipalmated & Piping Plovers

As you may know the ABA has codified the relative rarity of birds into six codes starting at “Common” and ending with “Probably or Definitely Extinct”.  In the spirit of this I submit these six progressive codes for the birders who pursue rarities.

Code 1:  Will leave favorite TV show to run to the window to view a bird at the feeder, not previously seen in the current year.

Code 2:  Will check out a “new” bird in the yard or in the neighbor’s yard if it’s easily seen over the fence, as long as its over 55 degrees and you’re not eating dinner.

Code 3:  Will chase an e-Bird rarity anywhere in the county if it’s not on your life-list or previously seen in the last year.

Code 4:  As above, but the territory is expanded to the entire state.

Code 5:  Will leave work or home and go anywhere at anytime to chase a rarity in the lower 48 states, and try to rationalize behavior to boss or spouse later.

Code 6:  Will chase a rarity anywhere on the continent as soon as you find a new job and the divorce settlement comes through.