Swan Song for a Snow Bird

Cape May Warbler, Dendroica tigrina


The tropical heat is building and the watering holes are crowded. There’s an undercurrent of sniping between the permanent residents and migrators competing for food and space.  Many of the migrators are donning their finest garb in preparation of the trip north, hoping to find a mate, build a nest, and raise a family.  The older crowd is also anxious to return to the land of their roots, renew friendships, and enjoy the cooler breezes.  For them the trip is more strenuous but also a highly anticipated yearly event.  The full time residents left behind are anxious for them all to leave, no matter the reason.

Prothonotary Warbler, Protonotaria citrea

We’re both observers and participants in the great spring migration.  The crest of both the songbird and human waves have already passed us by in south Florida, but we plan to join in and catch up this week.

Northern Parula, Parula americana            (click on photos to zoom)

So often we search out the remote birding sites, but reliable sources alerted us to a passerine fall-out in the heart of downtown Naples.  “Just go to Cambier Park, find the stage, and nearby you’ll se a blooming bottle-brush tree full of birds, with smiling birders positioned below”.

Indigo Bunting, Passerina cyanea

White-eyed Vireo, Vireo griseus

This was great birding for old bones–I only wish I had brought a chair.  Just find some shade, adjust your camera settings, aim upward and shoot.  The only obstacles were “warbler neck”, the speed of the hyperactive birds, and an obnoxious Northern Mockingbird who was openly hostile to the more photogenic migrators passing through.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

Black-whiskered Vireo, Vireo altiloquus

The Cape May Warblers were the most numerous birds, along with a good showing of Prothonotary Warblers, Indigo Buntings, and Orchard Orioles.  Fewer Black-and-white, Blackpoll, and Black-throated Blue Warblers were also seen.  Throw in an occasional Northern Parula, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Black-whiskered Vireo, Chimney Swift, and a flock of Cedar Waxwings and you have a very productive tree and day.

Orchard Oriole, Icterus spurius

Cape May Warbler, Dendroica tigrina

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris

Somehow I had never seen a Cape May Warbler prior to this day; it was a nemesis bird no longer.  Although first described by Alexander Wilson at Cape May, New Jersey in the early 19th century, it was not reported there again for 100 years; but the name has stuck.  This interesting bird winters in the West Indies and briefly stops here on the way north.  It has a unique curved tubular tongue for feeding on nectar in the tropics.  Up north it breeds in the forests of the United States and southern Canada and nests almost exclusively in spruce trees, feeding on spruce bud worms.  Populations and success of the bird varies proportionally with abundance of this worm.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

We also visited the famous Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary to check on the spring migration there.  It’s my great fortune to have the knowledgeable Corkscrew guides, Nancy and Don, as neighbors in Naples.  They were on duty that day and reported that the colorful male Painted Buntings had already left but a few females still lingered.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

The sanctuary was relatively quiet for songbirds, but they encouraged us to check out the ponds.  It has been a dry winter and spring in south Florida and the cypress swamp was unusually arid.  All the remaining water was in a few shrinking water holes, concentrating the fish, alligators, and wading birds together, not entirely peacefully.

Great Egret, Ardea alba

You heard the guttural sounds of the waders and uhhs and ahhs of the spectator crowd, even from a great distance.  The boardwalk was packed with observers, fixated on the spectacle of life and death on the pond.  It reminded me of the childhood “Wild Kingdom” television shows of the Serengeti Plains of Africa and its watering holes, with wildebeest, zebras, giraffes, and others risking life and limb for a drink as lions skulked nearby.

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga

At Corkscrew the concentrated jumping fish had no where to escape, and the opportunistic wading birds were reaping the reward; that is as long as they could dodge the gators who were the “lions” of this scene at the top of the food chain.  The prowling gator’s only dilemma was whether to grab a fish or sneak up on a distracted bird for a larger feathery meal.  There must have been 100 or more storks, herons, egrets, anhingas, and spoonbills at the feeding frenzy.  As Andy said, “It’s a bad day to be a fish”.

American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis

Whereas the migration of birds has occurred for millions of years, migrating human snowbirds to and from Florida is a relatively new phenomena.  In 1902 25 year-old Willis Carrier of Buffalo, New York invented the first “modern” air conditioner.  I doubt that the massive population growth of Florida and the South could have taken place without AC.  Even with it, Easter seems to be the signal commencing the human migration to the north.

Corkscrew watering hole

The wide boulevards, 8-lane highways, and glass and concrete high-rises now seem empty.  There are no longer lines at the best restaurants and theaters, and you can make it through an intersection with one turn of the light.  It’s almost eerie.  The infrastructure here is built to accommodate the huge population of winter and not for the fewer year-round residents.

Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

I visited the flowering bottle brush tree in Cambier Park one last time.  It was now quiet.  The itinerant migrators had all moved on and even the Mockingbird seemed more relaxed.  The resident birds had once again reclaimed their territories and until next fall, all was well.

Birding Mount Auburn in Springtime

Mount Auburn Cemetery


I strolled by the old Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street in Boston on the way to the Park Street Station.  My final destination on this early spring morning was Mount Auburn Cemetery, but I couldn’t help comparing the two burial grounds.  The first, now surrounded by towering high rises, is a city block of ordered, simple stones arranged in precise symmetrical rows, typical characteristics of the Classical Era (1750 to 1820).  Burial then was as much for sanitation as it was for a memorial to the deceased.  You’ll find the graves of the patriots Paul Revere, Sam Adams, and John Hancock at the Granary site.

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

American Robin, Turdus migratorius

Mount Auburn Cemetery, a short bus ride from Harvard Square in Cambridge, is quite different.  It is a quintessential creation of the Romantic Era, established in 1831.  The cemetery is 174 acres of beautiful free-form landscape in the rolling hills of suburban Boston.  Winding roads and meandering paths lead one among the graves, some simple, but other quite ornate reaching high toward the heavens in celebration of both life and death.  In this era imagination and emotion ruled; it was heart over head.  There are only a few defined rows of tombstones. Instead, most are loosely clustered in groves and glens throughout the spectacular arboretum.

Among the graves you will find Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, abolitionist Charles Sumner, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, Julia Ward Howe, and the 19th century champion of the mentally ill, Dorothea Dix.  Ornithologists William Brewster and Ludlow Griscom have appropriately been laid to rest here among their cherished birds.  I also visited the modest stones marking the burial sites of my parents and father’s family.  They were Cambridge natives and Dad always hoped to be interred in Mount Auburn with them.  It’s easy to understand why.

Black-capped Chickadee, Poecile atricapillus

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

I have no guilt from birding among the dead.  It’s not macabre, but rather the activity is natural and even encouraged.  The landscape architects have purposely created an avian haven which has attracted 220 species.  Birders are commonly seen on the hallowed grounds among the 100,000 graves and bird walks are frequently scheduled.  Previously I have always birded here in the fall and so was anxious to walk the paths in April.  It was clearly too early to see evidence of migration, but that particular day was mild and sunny, sandwiched between the weekly storms that have been ravaging New England all season.

Halcyon Lake

White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis

I use to follow a map of the cemetery, but now I just wander, preferably along a shaded path away from the paved roads.  One can always find new areas to explore.  I even ran into a third large pond that I had somehow missed on multiple prior visits.

A Mt. Auburn Path

Early spring was not conducive to a long list of sightings.  I only saw 15 species on that day.  Juncos and Robins were the most common birds, found foraging among the crocuses and dead leaves.

Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo

You’ll probably run across some Wild Turkeys in the cemetery.  In my home state of Maryland the turkeys are shy, but at Mount Auburn they are brazen.  One was reported to chase an innocent walker through the gravestones and mausoleums.  Luckily, they kept their distance from me.

Brown Creeper, Certhia americana

The “bird-of-the-day” was a Brown Creeper, aka American Tree Creeper.  I consider myself lucky to see this small bird about once a year, usually blending unobtrusively with the bark as it spirals up, always up, the tree.  The long tail braces the bird against the trunk, similar to a woodpecker, and the long curved wren-like bill is perfect for picking at the bark in pursuit of bugs.  I suspect this bird was likely a year-round resident of the cemetery.  If you’re interested, I previously posted a description of a fall bird walk through Mount Auburn and a history of this famous cemetery on 2/4/2015.  You can find it in the index or by using the search device.

View from the summit

I always finish by climbing to the top of Mount Auburn to check out the view of the Charles River and Boston skyline to the south.  It’s a great place for reflection.  The gravestones in the quiet urban oasis, the gorgeous landscape, and wildlife allow one to put things into perspective.

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

At the summit you are eye-level with the tops of surrounding trees.  While scanning the canopy with binoculars I found myself face to face with a large Red-tailed Hawk, apparently checking me out as I was studying him.  Was he also in a mode of reflection among the gravestones, just like me?  I doubt it, but who knows?  More likely he was planning his next attack and meal, or perhaps hoping to attract a mate, or satisfying a more immediate concern, and content to leave the deeper reflections to Homo sapiens.

Chasing the Red-cockaded Woodpecker



Technically a birder does not chase a Red-cockaded Woodpecker (RCW), but rather finds the typical old growth pine forest that they prefer and waits; patiently waits.  A sighting is more a test of one’s patience than his endurance, but if you frequent the proper habitat and are lucky, you’ll find this small endangered woodpecker as Andy and I did this spring in southwest Florida.

Common Ground Dove, Columbina passerina

Our first attempt ended in a smoky failure.  E-bird was reporting a RCW in the Picayune State Forest near Naples several days in a row.  But we were taken aback as we pulled into its parking lot.  There had been an extensive controlled burn there since our prior visits and the air was currently smoke-filled, apparently from several new uncontrolled fires caused by recent lightning strikes. A ranger advised us to not venture too far from the car.  Our only sightings that day were a single Red-bellied Woodpecker and two Common Ground Doves, all ignoring the smoke.

Smoke and fire at Picayune SF

I had previously seen a RCW once but only had poor photos of it, taken in my early photography days when I still stubbornly clung to my point-and-shot camera.  I wanted better pictures and Andy yearned for a new life bird, so we headed to the 80,000 acre Babcock/Webb WMA, a good bet for seeing this bird about 75 miles north, near Punta Gorda.  It turned out to be a great decision and a five-woodpecker day.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

RCW’s are finicky birds and this has cost them dearly.  Their numbers are down 99% from the 1880’s due to habitat loss in the eastern US.  They insist upon nesting in cavities in tall, old growth pines, preferably living long-needled trees, and trees standing in areas of limited understudy growth due to frequent fires.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Picoides borealis

The birds were declared endangered in the 1970’s and currently number only 14,000 survivors.  All the more reason for us to see it now before it shares the fate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  Visit Ralph Costa’s article for an in-depth discussion of the RCW and the efforts to save both it and its specific habitat.  http://scholarworks.sfasu.edu/forestry/426

Babcock/Webb WMA

RCW’s are nonmigratory.  When they find a suitable territory they stay put.  They also have an unusual social system.  An extended family composed of a breeding pair and several younger birds, usually males for some reason, stay together and all assist in incubation and feeding the new chicks.  The nests are all in cavities in living pines that have ample sap.  The birds create resin wells in the bark around the cavities to trap the sap, apparently to help ward off predators such as snakes.  The sticky yellow resin near the hole is a good indicator of an active RCW nest.

RCW cavity with yellow resin

Before you credit Andy and me as being hardy explorers, risking life and limb, trudging miles through snake infested forests looking for a rare bird, let me dispel those thoughts right now.  The rangers at Babcock/Webb have conveniently painted white rings around all the trees that contain RCW cavities and have even reinforced some of these holes with PVC pipe.  The designated trees are often just a short walk from the gravel road. All the birder has to do is plant himself amongst the circled trees and wait.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker was inappropriately named by Alexander Wilson in 1810.  A cockade was an ornament commonly placed on a hat in that era but the red cockade is rarely seen on the woodpecker.  Instead look for the large white cheek patch and the laddered black and white bars on the back. It does not have the elongated white stripe seen on the backs of the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers.  It also has an unusual and distinct call that finally led us to our birds.


Even with all these aids the RCW’s remained elusive.  We stood among the white circled pines in several locations but saw nothing but a Black Vulture and a Great-crested Flycatcher.  I could tell that Andy was losing patience when the conversation turned from birds to politics, the stock market, and Syracuse University basketball.  I convinced him to try one more location, I think the same place I saw my first RCW several years ago.

Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus

I saw the bird fly in first.  It was clearly a small woodpecker but could not see it well among the pine needles.  I was able to get off a few poor shots with the camera but they were also inconclusive.  Andy insisted it was just a Downy, while I favored a RCW–wishful thinking.  We chased this bird several hundred yards into the pine stand, still debating its ID when Andy heard the characteristic call of an RCW coming from elsewhere.  The Downy had led us to not one, but two RCW’s, likely a breeding pair, foraging and singing in fine light.  Success!  Hundreds of photos later we were still enamored and loathe to leave.

A happy birder with new life bird at Babcock/Webb

Along with the RCW’s and Downy, we also saw a Northern Flicker, Red-bellied, and Pilated Woodpeckers, all in the same stand; five of the seven woodpeckers possible in the area.  We were only missing the Hairy and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker for a perfect woodpecker day.  On the triumphant trip home we could help debating who actually saw the RCW first.  No conclusion was reached, but both agreed that the RCW is an extraordinary bird and the chase was well worth it.