Birds & Viruses

 

Krrrreeow, krrrreeow, krrrreeow, three loud guttural calls repeated themselves all night long from the pond just outside our bedroom window.  This was not the melodious song and varied repertoire of the Mockingbird who is known to sing long into the night, but rather a more primitive and monotonous rattle.  I was thinking wounded Mottled or Muscovy Duck or perhaps even a sick Red-shouldered Hawk.  Lying in bed and unable to sleep, I felt the forlorn cry appropriate for our time of global pandemic.  Has the virus even infected the birds?

Simpkin, Aramus guarauna

At daybreak I found the culprit.  It was actually two healthy Limpkins foraging along the far shore of the pond, under the yellow flowering Tabebuia tree.  It was not a sick call, but rather the male’s sorry excuse for a love song, apparently attractive to his mate who was now ready to submit after a full night of begging.  Perhaps we can all sleep again tonight.

Mottled Ducks, Anas fulvigula

The Limpkins may be okay, but I couldn’t help but dust off my old virology texts to educate myself about the COVID-19 virus,  the tiny pathogen that has invaded our civilization and caused this global calamity.

Muscovy Duck, Cairina moschata

The existence of viruses was postulated long before they were seen.  In the late 19th century fine filters, usually effective in trapping bacteria from diseased tissue, were not fine enough to strain out these minute structures.  Optical microscopes, adequate for bacteria, could not resolve the much smaller viruses.  Martinus Beijerinck first described a virus, the tobacco mosaic virus, in 1898 but it wasn’t until the invention of the electron microscope in the 1930’s that we could actually see the evil doers.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

Scientists were amazed to see these geometric particles that resembled spaceships or underwater mines more than life forms.  They have no cell membrane or other standard cellular structures.  They are primarily genetic material contained within a protein capsule.  Can you even call them living?  This question is still debated as they barely meet the criteria of life; they have genetic material, they reproduce, and they evolve.  Today viruses are the most numerous life form on the planet, more than all other entities combined.

A Corona virus

How do viruses cause disease?  A virus outside a cell is a harmless, inert particle.  Inside the cell, however, it reeks havoc with the cell’s genetic apparatus and biochemical pathways, eventually causing cell lysis and death.  It first needs the cell, however, to help it replicate and spread daughter viruses into other unsuspecting host cells.  Some are even more nefarious and become latent intracellular sojourners, waiting to cause their mischief later, perhaps when the host’s defenses are weaker.

House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus

Birds, just like all other living things, are not exempt from viral infections.  Their most famous recent epidemic was that caused by the avian influenza virus in 2008.  This scourge primarily infected flocks of domestic chickens and turkeys–practicing social distancing within a coop is problematic.  Thankfully wild birds and humans were only minimally affected.

Piping Plover, Charadrius melodus

In the midst of our corona virus pandemic it is interesting to reflect on how far we have progressed in fighting infectious disease.  These are all, of course, in addition to our inherent biologic defenses.  The effects of over-crowding and poor sanitation were apparent to even the ancient civilizations.  Without even understanding the biologic mechanism or specific pathogen, Edward Jenner started vaccinating for the small pox virus in 1796.  In the 1860’s Louis Pasteur and others promoted the concept of germ theory, even before the germs themselves were identified.  This was followed by improvements in personal hygiene, isolation of infected patients, and sterilization of medical equipment.  Sulfa was the first antibiotic used against bacteria in the 1930’s, with antivirals first appearing on the scene more recently in the 1980’s.

Rose-ringed Parakeet, Psittacula krameri

At the time of this writing we are in the middle of the 15 day voluntary quarantine, attempting to dampen the rapid spread of the virus which requires coughing and sneezing humans to spread to the next nearby host.  Most of us get this, except for those foolish snowflakes on spring break crowding our Florida beaches, sharing the pathogen, and then heading back north to infect their financing parents.  Yesterday I noticed that there were hardly any other walkers on our beach as I counted birds and got some sorely needed exercise.  I found out why we were alone when escorted off the sand by the polite ranger and sheriff.  Thank you snowflakes.

Pine Warbler, Dendroica pinus

With the beach now off-limits, and after cancelling my birding trip to Costa Rica, I’ve begun an indoor birding adventure.  Andy lent me his 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle of all the North American passerines.  The pieces have taken over the den, sorted by color, body part, etc.  It helps if you know the birds, beak shapes, leg colors, and other field marks.  My wife thinks I’m practicing for the nursing home, but this exercise is just another aspect of our fascinating hobby and suits me perfectly during the lockdown.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna

They say we are in a war against this virus, and I agree.  Our most recent wars were fought by only a few, barely affecting the rest of us.  This one feels different, perhaps more like the 1940’s when the entire population was mobilized.  In those prior wars the medical corps was in the rear, but in the current struggle our nurses and their medical colleagues are the frontline. I’m now retired from their ranks but proud of them and have complete faith that they will win this war.  For the rest of us, keep calm, stay separated by six feet, and carry on.

Winter Birding in Southwest Florida

Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis

 

Referring to “winter” in the tropics of SW Florida is a misnomer and somewhat embarrassing when I see the reports of four feet of snow near my old home in Upstate New York.  The seasonal changes here, along the Gulf of Mexico are subtle.  One is more apt to describe them as hot, rainy, and humid (summer), or cooler and drier (winter), than the seasons defined by the solstice and equinox.  There is also the alligator hunting season (August to November), and hurricane season (June through November).

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius

An astute observer of plants may notice some seasonal changes.  The Pond Cypress starts to leaf out in February and March.  I know this since the leaves interfere with my photography of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and other woodpeckers that love these trees.  You may also notice the arrival, departure, and flyover of migrating birds, or the nesting of full-time residents.  But each of these species seem to have their own calendar.

Boat-tailed Grackle, Quiscalus major

Right on schedule we saw our first Swallow-tailed Kite on Valentine’s Day.  They’ll return to South America around Labor Day.  Migrating warblers color our trees here in April, several weeks earlier than their big show at Magee Marsh in Ohio.  I’ve usually migrated northward myself before the late arrivals of the Mangrove Cuckoo, Black-whiskered Vireo, and Gray Kingbird.  Some year I’ll hang out here a little longer and wait for them.

Blue-headed Vireo, Vireo solitarius

The large birds pair off and nest early.  The Red-shouldered Hawks are commonly observed in February cuddling and sharing a branch.  A few months later they won’t dream of this.  The Osprey platform and nest at the beach already has several chicks and the non-stop grocery runs of the parents is well underway.

Red-tailed Hawks, Buteo lineatus

My Florida “patch” is a three mile berm separating the residential high-rises from the brackish mangrove swamp and beach.  I walk it three or four times a week, partly for the exercise, but more importantly for the birds.  The birds are use to all the human traffic and one usually sees 15 to 20 species.  These are primarily the Florida waders but an occasional Cooper’s Hawk, Kingfisher, or Killdeer add some interest.

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga

But its good to leave the familiar patch and explore the rest of SW Florida.  This season we’ve chased three rarities so far.  I described the Vermillion Flycatcher on the prior post of 11/24/2019.  Since then we’ve also chased a Hammond’s Flycatcher sighted at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and a White-cheeked Pintail found relaxing on the Lely Resort Pond.

Blue-winged Teal, Anas discors

The accurate identification of flycatchers in the Empidonax genus sends chills up and down the spines of most birders.  It’s one of our greatest challenges with many of the similar small birds only differentiated by their songs.  The Hammond’s, a bird usually found in the coniferous forests of the western U.S., somehow ended up at one of the Lettuce Lakes at Corkscrew and has remained there for most of the winter.  At first he was reported as a Least Flycatcher, but some smart birder insisted it was a Hammond’s and the birding Gods eventually agreed.

Least Flycatcher, Empidonax minimus

I saw the bird, along with a hoard of curious birders from far and wide.  The little bird seemed to be playing to us as he swooped past the the crowded boardwalk and perched in the open, until the repositioned birders caught up and he returned to his prior perch.  I never did get a good shot but did meet some new birders in the stampede.  The picture above is a different bird from another trip.

Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea

The White-cheeked Pintail was not as geographically dislocated as the flycatcher.  This striking duck is usually a resident of South America and the Caribbean, but somehow made its way to the west coast of Florida.  Was it a storm, a GPS failure, or was this duck just a wanderlust?  In any case he seemed to be very content swimming with the Blue-winged Teal and Mottled Ducks at the resort.

White-cheeked Pintail, Anas bahamensis

It was an interesting sighting for me since I had previously seen this bird, also out of place, along the west coast of Italy.  I still remember the excitement of the guides, yelling in Italian, as the bird landed near our skiff.  See my post dated 2/26/2015.  Maybe these pintail have an urge to see the world.

Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus

We depend on Mel, a long-time Florida resident, to take us to the remote birding hot spots, usually in the center of the state.  It was a bit of a surprise therefore, when we pulled into the Lakes Regional Park, just outside Fort Myers.

Lakes Regional Park

A large paved and pay parking lot, concession stands, bike rentals, amusement rides, playground, and even an impressive small gauge railroad greeted us.  But don’t let all that fool you.  This turned out to be a great urban birding site, well worth checking out.

Short-tailed Hawk, Buteo brachyurus (light morph)

We also recently revisited the Harns Preserve in Lehigh Acres.  This picturesque birding hot spot seems to be a well-kept secret as we only saw a few other birders along the trail.  It’s one of the best locations to see Snail Kite, Limpkins, and Sandhill Cranes.

Harns Marsh Preserve

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

At first we thought we were seeing many Purple Gallinule, but finally ID’ed them all as the invasive Gray-headed Swamp Hens.  Unfortunately, this bird who’s usually found in Turkey, India, China, and Thailand, is expanding rapidly into the Florida swamps.  I described this expansion in a blog post on 2/26/2015.

Purple Gallinule, Porphyrio martinica

Gray-headed Swamp Hen, Porphyrio poliocephalus

The bird-of-the-day, however, was the Sandhill Crane.  One hears their plaintive honk long before you see this majestic bird.  There are only a handful of them at Harns, not the impressive large flocks of New Mexico, but enough to get some good shots.  I believe there are several nesting pairs and they graciously treated us to several close flyovers, as if they knew what we photographers wanted.

Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis

The Crane is a revered and mystical bird in many Asian cultures.  For some people it signifies happiness, eternal youth, long life, prosperity, and fidelity.  The birds are depicted in ancient Asian art, often in their neck-stretching courtship dance.  The famous Aesops fable quote compared the flamboyant, strutting, flightless Peacock to the blander, but flight-worthy Crane.  “Fine feathers don’t make fine birds”.  That’s a version of my favorite line, so appropriate to us birders. “Life is not a fashion show”.

My “fashionable” companions at Harns Marsh Preserve