The Everglades and its Birds

 

My mother helped me hang the large colorful map of the United States right next to my bed.  Just due to their proximity I learned the geography of the southern states first, and the Florida peninsula best–it was right next to my nose.  What was this lower tip of Florida like, and why were there no cities and only a few roads there?  What is this Everglades written in bold italics across the whole region?  All questions for an eight year-old, finally answered 60 years later.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

Mel was the instigator, always pushing Andy and me to join him in exploring new Florida birding sites.  The 200 miles to Flamingo Point, the most southern tip of Florida in the Everglades did not phase him one iota, and we were game, as long as he did the driving.  We traversed Florida, west to east through the Great Cypress Swamp, bypassing thousands of waders at 65 miles per hour, turned south near Homestead, and finally entered the Everglades National Park at its eastern border.

People say there is no other place on earth like the Everglades.  The park is part of a 1.3 million acre Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness of south Florida, the largest wilderness tract east of the Mississippi.  Ironically this wild gem is hemmed in by 7 million residents and the growing urban sprawl along each coast.  The vitality of the low wetlands is dependent on surface water, slowly flowing from further north in wide, shallow, and barely perceptible  sloughs.

American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

The mantra of the Florida settlers in the 19th and much of the 20th century was to drain the swamp, divert the water into existing rivers, build canals, dikes, and a grid of roads, all to create dry land for building sites.  Swamps were bad; the home of monsters and the source of pestilence.  See my blog post, “A Real Estate Deal for the Birds”, dated 3/28/2016 for a more detailed account of this land-grab frenzy.

American Avocet, Recurvirostra americana

There is some justification for this movement.  Severe hurricanes in the early 20th century resulted in extensive flooding and loss of life when massive Lake Okeechobee overflowed its banks.  The Army Corp of Engineer’s solution was to surround the lake with the Hoover Dike and divert the overflow to each coast via canals and the St. Lucie River on the east and the Caloosahatchee River to the west.  This was a diversion away from the natural flow of water, south to the Everglades.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias (white morph)

But we went overboard.  By the 1960’s and 70’s it became apparent these policies were killing the Everglades wetlands; they were dying of thirst.  The story of the dismantling of the dikes and canals, the creation of large holding ponds for the wet season and controlled releases from them during dry periods, the government’s repurchase of land from the swindled public, and the gradual return of the Everglade’s health is a fascinating story, still being written.

Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus

The stakeholder list for this restoration is long:  homeowners and anyone who requires a viable aquifer, tax payers, developers and realtors, farmers including the huge sugar growers, sportsmen, politicians, environmentalists, birders, and everyone who values preserving some of our disappearing wilderness. The political maneuvering and posturing has been predictable.  Michael Grunwald’s great book, “The Swamp” chronicles this story up to 2006.

Roseate Spoonbill

There’s a sudden serenity one feels when entering the Everglades.  The 40 mile road from the entrance to Flamingo Point winds through a progressive series of habitats as one losses altitude, mere fractions of an inche per mile, driving toward the coast.  Initially you see the vast freshwater marsh, the famous “river of grass”, occasionally interrupted by small hardwood hammocks on slightly elevated land.  There are also scattered slash pine forests along the ancient limestone ridges, remnants of the retreated sea.  Brackish mangrove swamps, numerous ponds, and the islands of Florida Bay are the final features at the point.

Welcome shelter from a passing shower

There are numerous pull-offs from the main road with short hikes to observation towers and the ponds.  We birded most of these, seeing the usual Florida waders.  For me this trip was more about the historic land and scenic vistas than about the birds.  We did get some close shots of the Black-necked Stilts and an unexpected flock of American Avocets.  One can never see too many Roseate Spoonbills and snazzy warblers.  A snoozing American Crocodile and some lallygagging Manatees greeted us at Flamingo Point.

Black-throated Green Warbler, Dendroica virens

Mel has an admirable interest in the unusual fauna of Florida.  Andy and I were somewhat skeptical as he led us in a search for Liguus fasciatus, the Florida Tree Snail.  These colored tropical snails favor the smooth-barked trees and feed on the numerous epiphytes.  Near the end of the day Mel finally found one, than another, and another.  What do you call a flock of snails?  They are interesting creatures, another gift from the Everglades.

Florida Tree Snail, Liguus fasciatus

I used the long trip home to convince my colleagues to join me in our next birding adventure, a south Florida Big Day.  For non-birders this is a sunup to sundown scamper to find as many different bird species as possible.  It’s fast, hectic birding, ticking off the species quickly and moving on–so different than the usual slow walk in the woods, taking hundreds of pictures of each bird in all the various poses.

American Crocodile, Crocodylus acutus

The fun part of a Big Day is the strategy–what route should we take through the various habitats to maximize the species list?  Can we afford the long drive to see the Eastern Meadowlark or Red Cockaded Woodpecker when a more common bird close by counts just as much in the day’s tally?  In the end we all agreed to give it a go.  Wish us luck and look for our success or failure in a future post.

 

Book Review: Gulls Simplified

published by Princeton University Press, copyright 2019, 208 pages

 

Most birders have a nemesis group of difficult birds, or two, or three.  Flycatchers, sparrows, and winter warblers all come to mind.  But I suspect the gulls are the leaders of the flock of baffling bird identifications.  I’m even hesitant to label some of my pictures in this post and may end up with egg on my face.  It’s not just their similar plumages; it’s hard to admire birds that frequent the dump, crave McDonalds french fries, and steal your hot dog right out of your hand at a Super Bowl tailgate party.

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis        (non-breeding adult)

They’re all black, white, and shades of gray.  The only color breaking the monotony is the occasional red spot on the bills of some, the pink you see inside their mouths when open (which is often), the shades of yellow, pink, or green on their legs, and the drab brown feathers of the immatures.  And these young birds take their own sweet time maturing, some requiring up to four years to don the adult monotones.  Add to this the different breeding and non-breeding plumages and you have an identification nightmare.  Give me a Cardinal or Blue Jay, thank you very much.

Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla        (adult, non-breeding)

But then I ran across Pete Dunne’s and Kevin Karlson’s new book and decided to give them and the gulls another shot.  My first impression was positive; this book is short, only 200 pages.  I don’t need another encyclopedic guide to all the variations in first-summer or second-winter plumages, or the subtle field marks of some hybrid gull.  Their goal in writing this shorter guide seemed to be KISS (keep it simple stupid), one of my favorite life axioms.

Lesser & Greater Black-backed Gulls, Larus fuscus & marinus

The introduction grabbed my attention.  The authors don’t claim to be gull specialists, but rather birding generalists who seek to apply the popular GISS technique (general impression, size, and shape) to the confusing gulls.  This strategy features the grosser physical characteristics and behavior over specific field marks, and has been successfully used with raptors and in the popular Crossley guide books.  Luckily the gulls are frequently in mixed flocks that allow a direct comparison between the species.

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus                         (immature)

Right off the bat the authors dispel my impression of the gulls being the junkyard dogs of the avian world.  They extoll the virtues of the 22 species of regularly occurring gulls in North America as “intelligent, inquisitive, socially complex, and acrobatic aerialists,” well worth our scrutiny.  No other birds are so adept “at foraging on land, air, and sea”.  Seagulls however, with the exception of the Sabine Gull and kittiwakes, are not real sea birds or pelagics.  They are littoral, preferring the margins of rivers, lakes, and the seashore, rather than the open ocean.

Heermann’s Gull, Larus heermanni

The layout of this book is simple and effective.  The initial pages are profile shots and silhouettes of the 22 gulls and the introduction and first chapter explain the authors’ GISS approach to the gulls.  They caution us to relax and accept that we will not get a definite ID for every bird.  Learning the common ones in your area first will make the ID of the less common easier, later on.  And forget about all the plumage designations of 2nd and 3rd winter, etc.  Dunne and Karlson greatly simplify this to just three:  immature, sub-adult, and adult, the latter with breeding and non-breeding varieties unfortunately.  I like this “Readers Digest” approach.

Herring Gulls, (non-breeding adult & immature)

Each subsequent chapter is devoted to one gull with many good comparison pictures of the bird in mixed flocks of gulls and other shorebirds.  There are 35 quizzes scattered throughout the book but don’t panic.  The answers are all given in the back and no one will know if you peek.

Western Gull, Larus occidentalis

There are many advantageous aspects of gull ID.  The birds are abundant and worldwide, found on virtually every lake, river, and seashore, as well as on freshly plowed fields, landfills, and McDonald’s parking lots.  They are large and generally allow you a close approach to observe their feeding, fighting, and other comical antics.  Photography, however does offer some challenges due to their white and dark plumage.  I’ll leave that discussion for a later post.

Ring-billed Gulls (with Herring Gull in background)

I don’t generally chase rarities, but unusual gulls do turn up, not infrequently.  On two occasions I jumped into the car on short notice and was pleasantly surprised to find both birds, just as advertised.  The first was a Glaucous Gull reported on an isolated creek off the Chesapeake, about 40 miles south of me on Hooper’s Island, Maryland.  This pale, large gull (larger than a Herring Gull) is not a rarity, but still somewhat unusual and a lifer for me.  I waited alone at a parking lot of a seafood packing plant for several hours and was just getting ready to leave when it flew in and splashed down within 30 feet.  What a surprise and thrill.

Glaucous Gull, Larus hyperboreus

The second chase was to Delaware Bay, about 60 miles to the east.  A Sabine Gull was reported to be buzzing the Dupont Nature Center several Mays ago.  This small, hooded, and fork tailed gull winters in the tropics off South America and Africa and was likely blown ashore as it migrated north over the Atlantic, bound for its breeding site in Greenland or the Canadian Arctic.  As opposed to my solitary Glaucous Gull experience, the Sabine drew a large throng of birding paparazzi.  This actually was fortunate as I needed help in locating the bird amidst the vast flock of its more common and less famous cousins.

Herring Gull, (breeding adult)

Back to the book.  I do recommend it and believe Dunne and Karlson were successful in presenting this new approach to gull ID.  I note, however, that even they reverted to the more traditional plumage designations in some of their captions.  It will be hard to completely abandon that nomenclature, especially for the hard core gullers.  Also the GISS identification process is not really that simple.  It takes experience, years of experience, and many hours of observation to get good at it.  But I’m gullible and willing to give it a shot.  Wish me luck.