Florida Birding With An Eight Year-Old


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

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

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

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

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

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

White Ibis, Plegadis chihi

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

Black-crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

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

Palm Warbler, Dendroica palmarum

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

Snowy Egret, Egretta thula

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

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

Juvenile Gull

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

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

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

Tricolor Heron, Egretta tricolor


Caracara, King of the Road Kill

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway


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

Black Vulture, Coragyps stratus                 click to zoom

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

A Choir of Gulls

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

Oil Well Road

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

Southern Caracara, Caracara plancus

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

Chimango Caracara, Milvago chimango

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

Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura

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

The Oratory at Ave Maria

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

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

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

Turkey Vulture

Black Vulture

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

Crested Caracara fighting over a dead snake

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

Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis


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

Published by Doubleday, copyright 2017, 427 pages.


My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–

It gives a lovely light!

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Painted Bunting, Passerina iris                 click to zoom

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

Rose-ringed Parakeet, Psittacula krameri

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

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

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

Indian Peafowl, Pavo cristatus

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

Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna

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

Blue Grosbeak, Passerina caerulea

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

Harlequin Ducks, Histrionicus histrionicus

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

Green Bee-eater, Merops orientalis

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

Yellow Warbler, Wilsonia citrina

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

Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula

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