Sweet April Birding

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With thee the swallow dares to come

And primes his sutty wings

And urged to seek their yearly home

Thy suns the Martin brings

And lovley month be leisure mine

Thy yearly mate to be

Tho may day scenes may brighter shine

Their birth belongs to thee

John Clare

Tree Swallows

Tree Swallow (click on any photo to zoom)

So much has happened since I left the Chesapeake region 3 weeks ago.  The Tree Swallows, Forster’s Terns, Chipping Sparrows, and Osprey have returned and the Canada Geese have left.  I still heard one White-throated Sparrow in the underbrush, but he was nearly drowned out by the cacophony of other morning calls. The symphony includes the continuous trill of the sparrow, the endless repertoire of the mimics, and the territorial postings of the blackbirds and Osprey along the creek.

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Brown Thrasher

The early morning walk was just perfect.  The new leaves have their varied hues of light green, the air is still cool, the slanting light just right for photography, and the smell of wet dirt and fresh blossoms makes me agree with Clare’s “sweet april”.  Most of these photos were taken on that late April walk.

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

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Male Red-winged Blackbird staking out the territory

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while female Red-winged blackbird works at nest-building

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Northern Cardinal

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brown-headed Cowbird, likely celebrating the laying of an egg in another bird’s nest.

House Finch

House Finch

Osprey

Osprey with one more stick for the nest

Thou lovley april fare thee well

Thou early child of spring

Tho born where storms too often dwell

Thy parents news to bring

Yet what thy parting youth supplys

No other months excell

Thou first for flowers and sunny skyes

Sweet april fare thee well

                                                                                                                   John Clare

The two verses by John Clare are from The Shepherd’s Calendar chapter entitled “April”, first published in 1827. The work was compiled and edited by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield, and republished by Oxford Press in 1964.

The White Waders

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A visitor to Florida cannot help but marvel at the myriad of white wading birds seen everywhere from the airport runway to the roadside ditches, shopping center parking lots, freshwater ponds, brackish swamps, and sandy beaches.  On closer inspection one notices that these striking birds are not all the same, sometimes sparking an inquiry or a run to the guidebook and the birth of a new birder.

Great Egret

Great Egret

The Great Egret is the tall, statuesque, and often solitary beauty posed along the waterside.  For me, a birder and photographer who is looking for more action, the bird can be boring.  You might wait for many minutes to see it move, stab at a fish with its long yellow bill, or take off.  The wait is worth it if you can get a flight shot like above.

Great Egret

Great Egret, click on any photo to zoom

The smaller and more abundant Snowy Egret is a more active bird, often found in foraging groups in either fresh or saltwater.  Notice the handsome crest, black legs, and most importantly the yellow slippers as seen in the title photo.

Agressive Snowies at Sanibel Is.

Agressive Snowies at Sanibel Is.

The Cattle Egret is the smallest white heron and usually found inland on grassy pastureland.  Short legs, a subtle buff-colored head and neck, and the appropriate habitat are the ID clues.  It’s always helpful if there’s a cow nearby.  This is an African bird first blown our way in the 1950’s and has become more numerous in recent years.

Cattle Egret; what's your first clue?

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret

White birds present significant challenges for photographers, especially in the bright sunshine of South Florida.  Most photos of these birds are overexposed.  Your goal is to see feather texture even in the brightest white areas, rather than an uniform bright white bird.  Many cameras will point out the overexposed light-saturated pixels in the review mode.  If that happens, simply adjust your exposure compensation dial further back into the negative zone and try again.  These birds will generally wait for you as they seem to like being photographed.

There are more White Waders to learn.  I call them “The Imposters” since their plumage is not always white.

White Ibises, adults

White Ibises, adults

The first imposter is the White Ibis.  There’s no mistaking this striking white adult bird with the orange/red legs and bill, decurved to enhance feeding from deep in the sand and mud.  Black wing tips are most obvious during flight.  I like the blue eye and aim there with the center-spot focus during photo shoots.  Their preferred food is crawfish, but any of the similar animals will do.  The imposter is the brown juvenile that slowly progresses to white in its first year. The bird below is halfway there.

White Ibis (juvenile)

White Ibis, juvenile

The Little Blue Heron plays the opposite game, all-white as a juvenile and striking grey/blue/purple as an adult.  The first year birds are often confused with the similar-sized Snowy Egret, but note the different bill color and green legs without yellow slippers.  The Little Blue is also a more sedate and deliberate feeder.  These juveniles also confuse the snowies themselves.  Snowy Egrets often feed in groups, churning up the water for food, aggressively chasing away non-white birds.  The juvenile little blues have acquired the selective advantage of staying white in their first year, giving them a chance to learn feeding techniques from the snowies who seem tolerant of their similar appearing apprentices.

Little Blue Heron (juvenile)

Little Blue Heron,  juvenile

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Little Blue Heron in mid-molt

Little Blue Heron, adult

Little Blue Heron, adult

The next imposter is the white morph of the Great Blue Heron, often called the “Great White Heron”.  It is usually seen in the Florida Keys and differentiated from the slightly smaller Great Egret by its stockier body, heavier bill, and pale yellow/grey legs. There is some controversy in the birding world whether this is only a color morph versus a subspecies, or even an entirely new species.  DNA evidence is needed here.

Great Blue Heron, sorry, no picture of the White Morph yet

Great Blue Heron, sorry, no picture of the White Morph yet

The last imposter is the white morph of the Reddish Egret.  My first sighting of this medium-sized and colorful egret was on Sanibel Island, Florida, several years ago.  The peculiar erratic foraging behavior on the shallow sand flats is its best identifier.  Birder Frank Graham Jr. captured it well, likening it to a bird “impersonating a tipsy sailor in pursuit of a wind-driven hat.”  You’ll see a prancing bird with one or both wings held out, charging left for two steps than right, looking for the perfect fish.

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret acting like a tipsy sailor

Reddish Egret, sorry no white morph photo yet

Reddish Egret, sorry no white morph photo yet

Thankfully the Florida plume hunters are no longer a threat to these emblematic birds of the Florida landscape.

Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

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It’s just a mundane task, taking out the trash, but not that day.  With bag in hand I opened the door from the house to the garage and came face to face with a Sharp-shinned Hawk perched no more than 10 feet away on my winter-stored boat.  Piercing startled eyes, his and mine, locked on–who would blink first?  He turned to fly to the light of a closed window and crashed, and crashed again before flying right by me, still frozen in place, to the safety of the open overhead door.

The title picture above is a Red-tailed Hawk, but reproduces well the  Sharpie’s expression during our close encounter.  I know better than to leave the overhead door open.  It has acted as a giant mist net in the past and trapped other smaller birds, Carolina Wren being the most frequent captive.  Later that day I returned to the scene with yet another bag of trash, and my forensic curiosity led me to investigate more thoroughly.  Small red feathers were strewn across the floor and a small bright orange bill lay partially detached from a Cardinal’s head.  I had rudely interrupted that hawk’s breakfast, probably procured from my feeder just outside the door.

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Northern Cardinal, RIP (click on any picture to zoom)

My hawk encounter reminded me of Loren Eiseley’s close encounter with a Crow, described beautifully in his classic book, The Immense Journey.  This naturalist’s book has been in my library for 50 years, read and reread countless times.  In the chapter titled “The Judgement of Birds” Eiseley recounts a neighborhood walk in a dense fog, so dense that “planes were grounded and a pedestrian could hardly see his outstretched hand before him.”  Suddenly a large, flying, black body with wings emerged out of the fog at eye level, barely missing the author, and emitted “a frantic cawing outcry of hideous terror as I have never heard in a crow’s voice before.”

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American Crow

In typical Eiseley fashion he searched for and found a deeper significance in this event.  “The borders of our worlds had shifted…The crow had thought he was high up, and when he encountered me looming gigantically through the fog, he had perceived a ghastly and, to a crow mind, unnatural sight… desecrating the very heart of the crow kingdom, a harbinger of the most profound evil a crow mind could conceive of, air-walking men.”

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Florida Scrub Jay

Sometimes our world’s do overlap, even to the sense of touch.  I described the Florida Scrub Jay landing on my head in an earlier post, Chasing Rarities in Florida, and we’ve all had the sensation of the friendly, light chickadee feeding from our palms.  There’s the banding operations of the ornithologists and also the charitable cleaning of oil from the feathers of birds harmed by the Gulf oil spill.

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Carolina Chickadee

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Carolina Wren

We had one other close encounter in our garage several years ago, again a result of the open door.  Dressed for dinner, my wife and weekend guests went to get in the car while I locked the house door.  It was a terrible, hideous scream, this time not from a crow but from my wife.  Everyone slowly backed away as four furry legs and a fang-bared snout and head of a Red Fox peered out from below the car.  It didn’t move and on further investigation we pronounced it dead.  The experience made for good dinnertime conversation with our more urban guests; how did it get there, was it injured, was it chased into the garage, or did it come into the shelter to die of natural causes?  As luck would have it our guest was a man of letters and literary gifts.  This poem by him arrived at our house a few days later.

The End from the Eastern Shore

Is he dead

That sneaky old fox?

What sort of grin

Peeps from his whiskers?

Take care!

He could still give you

Rabies.

Lying down inside the garage,

Grey whiskers sticking out

From the SUV’s bumper,

Was it the bell-tones

Of the chasing dogs

Or just the rigor

Of old age?

We’ll cart him out

In the wheelbarrow

And leave him

To the turkey vultures.

It’s too late now

To turn another

Trick–

We hope.

Eric Robinson, 2007

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The end of Reddy Fox, a childhood friend.