Sand Castles & Seagulls on Sanibel

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

It’s said that the avian families of Larids, along with the Corvids, are the most intelligent of the birds. I have no reason to doubt this, especially after seeing the gull standing watch over the sand castle on the beach at Sanibel Island, Florida. I may not be able to convince you that the bird built the castle, but one cannot entirely rule that out. During the same birding excursion I saw this very same bird dropping shells from great heights onto hard surfaces, making use of Newtonian Laws to obtain its meal. They’re smarter than you think.

Boat-tailed Grackle, Quiscalus mexicanus

I tried to convince my birding companions into a Big Day birding in Southwest Florida, but the enthusiasm was muted, and instead we headed to Sanibel Island for a more sedate session. That’s not to say it was not enjoyable or productive. Sanibel, and its companion Captiva, are barrier islands off the west coast of Florida, formed 6,000 years ago by the currents of the Gulf of Mexico. The Calusa were the first human inhabitants, but the birds predated even them on this semi-tropical gem. A causeway was built from the mainland in 1963 and extensive human development followed. Luckily, for us and the birds, more than half of these islands are protected wildlife sanctuaries.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

The birding started while driving the long, elevated causeway. Brown Pelicans, Osprey, and gulls flew along a eye level tempting us with flight shots out of the moving car. Forget it; it never works. Our first stop was at the Sanibel Lighthouse and beach at the far southern tip of the island. During the spring migration of 2020 we witnessed an impressive fallout of warblers in the scrub brush surrounding the lighthouse. Apparently the north-bound migrants, exhausted from their long flight over the Gulf, replenish themselves at this welcome sojourn. It was quite a show then, but this January the scrubs were empty.

Sanibel Lighthouse, Sanibella illuminata

The beach however was crowded with both birds and people. The latter were busy fishing, searching for shells, sunbathing, or just strolling. We three birders, ladden with cameras and binoculars were in a definite minority. Gulls, including the Lesser Black-backed, were the most common birds seen. There was a resident Reddish Egret dancing in the surf, and a nesting Osprey as well. An informed birder clued us into a recent sighting of a Snowy Plover a half mile up the beach, but we never found it.

Lesser Black-backed Gull, Larus fuscus

The Reddish Egret deserves a special mention. Other egrets are quiet waders and patient fishers. The Reddish, however, dances and flails in the shallow water as if it is half starving. Its impatience reminds me of fishing with my grandson who is constantly moving the pole and line, checking the bait, and generally acting like a normal pre-adolescent. Some say the antics of the bird are meant to create shadows and confusion among the fish below. It must work. If you’re on the lookout for this bird, beware that “reddish” is the correct description. It is more a dirty pink / rust / purple mix, than genuine red, and has a rare all-white morph thrown in just to keep us birders on our toes.

Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens

Then it was off to the famous Ding Darling NWR, the place where we finally found the elusive Mangrove Cuckoo last year. This is one of the places east of the Mississippi that all birders have heard of, and most have visited more than once. I place it on a short list, along with Magee Marsh in Ohio, and Cape May, New Jersey as our eastern birding Meccas. The refuge is on the inland side of the island with a long one-way road cutting through the mangroves with tidal pools on each side. Mel did the driving while Andy and I called out the stops at each wide vista. If we were doing a “big day” you could drive through without stopping and still tick off most of the birds, but we decided to take our time and enjoy the scenery, birds, and fellow birders, many of whom had birding stories to share.

Snowy Egret, Egretta thula

We did not see the Mangrove Cuckoo this year, but did get some good shots of the more common waders. There were also a few shorebirds sighted at some distance. A flock of Dowitchers flew in, and as is inevitable, a debate ensued whether they were the short or long-billed species. This can quickly take you into the birding weeds, except for Andy who hedged by declaring that there were some of each.

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

Ding Darling is also noted for its wintertime flocks of the American White Pelican. Apparently the birds breed inland throughout the continent but spend their winters along the coast. It is appreciably larger than its more common cousin, the Brown Pelican, and is among the heaviest of all the flying birds. Smartly, it has given up the dangerous diving antics of the Brown for a much less showy and risky bottoms-up feeding behavior, similar to the dabbling ducks.

American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

I”m still pulling for a Big Day down here in Florida, trying to surpass our 80 species count of several years ago. But with gasoline prices rising, paling energy, and the fun of just birding slowly, it will understandably be a hard sell. The alternative is not bad.

Best Bird Photos of 2021

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

I’ve started, and then abandoned several blog postings in the last two months; life intervened. But now I find it’s time for the year-end summary of the year’s photos. I was going to write about seeing the amazing Tropical Kingbird near here in the Maryland wetlands, thousands of miles north of its usual haunt. Actually it was spotted from my backseat by the non-birder, Cora and photographed by her husband, Clyde, with his cell phone as I was showing off the scenery of the Blackwater NWR to these visitors from Arizona.

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis
Carolina wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus
Tricolor Heron, Egretta tricolor
Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

I meant to write about the recent excursion to the Dinner Ranch with Andy and Mel in remote southern Florida, far from the populated coast, and our sighting of 40+ species (depending on who’s counting) including those of the omni-present singing Meadowlarks.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna
Sandhill Cranes, Grus canadensis
Common Gallinule, Gallinula chloropus

Or I could have written about my reluctant conversion to a mirrorless camera, leaving behind the heavier but reliable Canon DSLR. I’m increasingly using a Pansonic Lumix G9 camera which has a small 4/3’s sensor and an array of lighter lenses. The reduced weight will be welcome on the 13-day trip to Costa Rica we’re planning this spring.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway
Great Egret, Ardea alba
Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga
Grooved-billed Ani, Crotophaga sulcirostris

I’ve been having this debate with myself; when does one have enough bird photos? How many shots of fishing Osprey, diving Pelicans, or singing Meadowlarks is enough? Maybe it’s time to bird without a camera, enjoying the view through the binoculars without worrying about the sun angle, camera settings, and obtaining the perfect shot. This debate will go on, and may never conclude, but in the meantime these are my favorite photos from 2021.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus
Mottled Ducks, Anas fulvigula
Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon
Black-crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

One last triumph to end the year. Two nemesis birds, which did their best to evade me over the years, finally succumbed to my persistence, or more likely, just dumb luck. One was that Mangrove Cuckoo which we saw at Ding Darling on Sanibel Island, Florida, posing in plain sight and creating a traffic jam of grateful birders on the causeway.

Mangrove Cuckoo, Coccyzus minor
Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
American Kestrel, Falco sparverius
Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe

The other was the Snowy Owl spotted just this week on the dilapidated lighthouse in the Choptank River, off Cambridge, Maryland. My daughter sent me a stuffed Snowy Owl last Christmas, commiserating with my fruitless efforts to see this bird, but I can now return the gift to her. I almost gave up on seeing the bird that was reported on eBird along the Cambridge waterfront, when I noted a small white lump on the side of the lighthouse, about 3/4 mile offshore. A scope and heavily cropped picture below certifies the sighting to the left of the “danger” sign. The picture does not really qualify as great, or even good, but I include it to celebrate this great ending to another year.

Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus
Reddish Egrets, Egretta rufescens

I admit to some birding fatigue as the year winds down and as the new hobby of astrophotography takes root, but that Snowy Owl, the celebrating Reddish Egrets above, and the upcoming Christmas Bird Count have revived my enthusiasm once again. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.

Mystery Birds on Nantucket

Brant Point

It’s just a bowl-shaped pile of sand left behind by the retreating glacier at the end of the last Ice Age. I visited the island off the coast of Massachusetts recently, and of course found it to be more than a geological afterthought. In fact, Nantucket, the prior home of whalers, has become a tourist destination for humans and a popular layover site for migrating birds. Some, birds and humans, have set up permanent housekeeping on the picturesque island, and I’m fortunate to know a couple of the human variety.

American Crows, Corvus brachyrhynchos

When we arrived the island was still abuzz about the recent sighting of a rarity; a Gray Heron and record new bird for the state. The first time this species was seen in North America was on the Pribilofs of Alaska in 2007, with later appearances in Newfoundland and the Caribbean. What makes the sighting even more unlikely was the astute birder; Skyler Kardell, an eighteen year-old working as a costal steward at the Tuckernuck Land Trust.

Sankaty Head Light

He could have easily dismissed the bird as just another of our common Great Blue Herons, since the Gray Heron is very similar. I know that I would have just ticked another GBH and moved on. But the young birder felt the bird was a little paler and the neck, bill, and legs slightly shorter than those of the Great Blue. Luckily he took pictures and presented them to the “Birding Gods” who concurred with his rare find.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

As you can imagine this led to a feeding frenzy of birders wishing to view the rarity and add it to their state or U.S. lists. Flight shots of the bird showed a missing flight feather. Some impressive observer recollected an earlier sighting of a similar bird last summer in Nova Scotia, missing that same feather. Subsequent views of the bird, presumably a vagrant from Europe, with the missing feather were recorded in Chincoteague, Virginia, likely during its migration to warmer climes. Mystery solved.

A Sconset cottage

My professional training was as a radiologist; an observer of fine details, small deformities and deviations from normal anatomy that may presage serious disease. I remember being chastised as a budding resident physician by a professor for jumping to conclusion before considering other less likely diagnoses. I’m still doing that as a birder, forty years later.

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus

Andy and I were birding near Madaket at the western end of Nantucket last week. It was a beautiful Indian summer day, which unfortunately also brought out the mosquitoes and probably some ticks as well. We were trudging across one of the island’s vast, undeveloped moors when I spotted a bird perched on a distant shrub. It was too big for another of the ubiquitous Song Sparrows that we were seeing.

Merlin, Falco columbarius

We crept closer, stopping to take shots every several strides, me with my 400mm and Andy with his cannon-like 800mm lens. I declared it to be an American Kestrel, but Andy was not so sure. He favored Merlin, pointing out some markings that I had dismissed. As you know these falcons are quite similar with a female Kestrel about the same size as a male Merlin. The bird spooked before we could get a good picture, and we debated the issue as we returned to the car. But just as we were pulling away the same bird flew by and perched on a roadside post close by.

Colleague with the 800mm

I fired away from the passenger-side window, while Andy quietly snuck out and got a much better view with the sun at his back, allowing a pleasing bokeh background. He flaunted the risk of Lyme Disease and Eastern Equine Encephalitis to get that perfect shot. The posing bird seemed unusually comfortable with us so close. I took fewer shots from the car, but enough to realize that once again I had spoken too soon; it was a Merlin.

Andy’s Merlin

The lesson is that first impressions and intuition are often wrong. But I’m in good company. We thought the Earth was flat for eons and up until 100 years ago we assumed that the Milky Way was the entirety of our universe. Both wrong, making my mistaken Kestrel pale in comparison.

Sanderlings, Calidris alba

I suspect our favorite place to bird on Nantucket is at Great Point, a long sandy spit projecting northward from the far eastern edge of the island and punctuated by an old abandoned lighthouse. Getting there is a bit of an adventure requiring a four-wheel drive, half deflated tires, and some perseverance to follow the rutted paths through the loose sand until finally reaching the hard packed beach. The best birding there is with frequent stops along the breaking surf, positioning the car to get shots out the window, while keeping a wary eye on the rising tide.

Lesser Black-backed Gull, Larus fuscus

There were no unusual birds sighted that day, but it’s always fun debating the leg color of the gulls; are they yellow or pink? Is that a Lesser Black-backed or Herring Gull. And the scampering Sanderlings are entertaining as they run from the waves like frolicking children. In the evening there is the enjoyable task of reviewing and sorting the hundreds of pictures to find the few “keepers”. On that day the scenery shots almost outnumbered the birds. And even better, the prospect of dinner with friends at one of Nantucket’s finest restaurants was a perfect punctuation of another good day. Life is sweet.

Great Point, Nantucket

In closing, let me pass on this personal note. I’ve started another blog, this one about my resurrected hobby of astronomy, now adding an astrophotography flavor. You can check out “Night Skies” at http://www.nightskies.blog and click on the word “blog” to see the first post, “A Shot in the Dark”. I’m not closing out this birding blog, but you might notice that the postings are a little less frequent. I’m just filling out the entire 24-hour rotation of the Earth; you cannot photograph birds at night or stars during daylight. But in other respects the two avocations are quite similar, both using optics to observe and record the fascinating and vast universe we inhabit.

Revenge of the Birds

Mute Swan, Cygnus olor

The swan and eagle are flying high in the night sky, near the zenith in the early evening darkness. Not the real birds; I’m referring to the constellations Cygnus the Swan and Aquila the Eagle, both located in the heart of the Milky Way. They are slowly setting earlier and earlier in the west, making way for the autumn stars and the fall equinox.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

I’m renewing another hobby of childhood, that of astronomy, but now with the added twist and additional complication of astrophotography. In recent years the mounts that track the stars from the rotating earth and make long exposures possible, have become affordable. These rigs accept your already-owned camera and birding lenses; no telescope is necessary.

Constellation Cygnus, in Urania’s Mirror, c. 1825

But all this has put a crimp in my birding life, at least for now. Instead of early bird walks, I’m staying up late and observing Cygnus and Aquila and their associates. The real birds are not happy. A couple nights ago I meticulously set up the rig in the yard for twenty long exposures of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31. There is software available that stacks these multiple photos into one, bringing out the faint stars and nebulae. The camera’s exposures are all controlled by an intervalometer and the tracking is monitored by a laptop computer. This allows you to leave it all on autopilot and retreat inside to watch the latest TV series with the spouse.

Constellation Aquila, in Urania’s Mirror, c. 1825

An hour later I went out to check on it and low and behold, the computer, tripod, camera, and lens were all covered with fresh bird guano; a direct hit. I looked around for the culprit and only heard two Great Horned Owls calling to each other from the woods. I doubt it was them. The more likely villains were the resident mockingbirds or doves, seeking revenge for my recent neglect. I admit to being a little slack these days in cleaning their bath and setting out new bird seed.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

But a little, actually quite a bit, of guano will not deter me. I also had a scare last night from another nocturnal creature. I wear a red headlamp while dithering with my star rig and looked up to see two red eyes staring back at me from about twenty-five feet. It let out a loud, guttural screech like I had never heard before. Not knowing what else to do, I screeched right back and slowly retreated toward safety. I’ve since learned that this was the sound of a White-tailed Deer acting a little territorial. At least it did not deposit scat on my equipment.

Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura

The Andromeda Galaxy is one of the most distant objects visible with the naked eye. If you know where to look in the fall sky you’ll see it, perhaps only in your peripheral vision as a faint smudge. It’s still a sight to behold. The galaxy lies outside our own Milky Way galaxy and is 2.5 million light years away. That means the light that left it 2.5 million years ago, before Homo sapiens roamed the continents, just reached me last night. Who knows if the galaxy even exists today, or whose eyes it’s light might fall on millions of years from today?

Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus

Both the constellations, Cygnus and Aquila, have checkered stories in Greek mythology. Yes, these stars were in exactly the same configuration in ancient times when they inspired the Greek storytellers. Zeus figures in both cases as an unhinged God. He disguised himself as the swan to seduce Leda, the wife of the Spartan king, and used the eagle to carry the thunderbolts and kidnap the shepherd boy, Gaymede, for his personal pleasure. But forget this tabloid conspiracy theory; I’m content to just stick to the science of the stars.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris

I’ve been working on these new photography skills by repeatedly shooting the Andromeda Galaxy. My best effort is below, and leaves much room for improvement. But if you look carefully you’ll see another fainter galaxy just above Andromeda. Astrophotography is in many ways similar to bird photography. With both there is a wealth of background knowledge to learn about your aerial targets. Each have specific techniques to perfect in order to obtain a pleasing picture. And then, both require post-processing time indoors to create the final product. The avian world has its seasons: migration, mating, nesting, molting, etc. The stars and constellations are also seasonal. Except for the circumpolar stars, the skies are continuously changing as the earth revolves around our star.

Andromeda Galaxy, M31

Then there’s the unexpected and exciting events for each avocation. For astronomers it’s the exploding supernova, or a newly discovered comet, or a sudden flash of a bright meteor as space debris enters our atmosphere and is vaporized. For birders it’s the appearance of a rarity, a new tick on a life list, or even a close flyover of an eagle or hawk. Both keep me coming back for more.

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

So, I’m negotiating a truce with the birds, after all, I did recently free a cardinal and hummingbird that were trapped in the garage. No more bombing runs, and I promise, in return, to maintain at least some level of interest in your lives. I’ll check out the owls and nighthawks even as I focus on the stars. I’ll even set out some feed as the cold winter fast approaches. Just let me be.

Dog Days of Summer

We call this season the “dog days of summer”. Whoever coined that phrase must not have liked dogs. It’s been hot and humid for days. The grass has burned brown, except over the septic field, and just recently revived to a touch of green by the afternoon monsoons. When Captain John Smith first sailed into the Chesapeake Bay in 1608 he declared it “a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places known…heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation”. He must not have arrived in August.

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus

Actually “dog days” is an astronomical reference to our Sun’s August location in the zodiac, projected within the constellation Canis Major, the Greater Dog. The constellation and its brightest star, Sirius, the Dog Star, won’t be visible in the night sky, however, until winter.

Orchard Oriole, Icterus galbula

The bird behavior is also noticeably changed around my home patch. Yesterday, in the late day heat, there was an eerie silence. Even the Mockingbird and Osprey were hushed by the heat. I’ve been trying to keep the baths free of algae, but recently gave up the fight. The rains are creating enough puddles to quench the birds’ thirst.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

Birds, as you know, do not sweat–they have no sweat glands. They can’t control their body temperature by the evaporation of sweat, as we can. When you see them frolicking in the bath or puddle they are both cleaning their feathers and wetting themselves to promote evaporation. Evaporation is an endothermic event, extracting heat from the feathers.

Indigo Bunting, Passerine cyanea

Nesting must be nearing its seasonal completion here, and some early migrants have already left. I’m seeing fewer terns on the dock and the gulls, which have been absent all summer, are regrettably back, bringing their mess of mangled fish, crabs, and guano. I surmise that the gulls work of nesting is complete and they are flocking to my dock in anticipation of the fall migration. That can’t come soon enough for me. The Osprey still have another month here, before heading south.

Forster’s Tern, Sterna forsteri
The flocking Ring-billed Gulls, Larus delawarensis

This month, for me has been very slow on the birding front. Much of it has been done from the hammock, or through the windows of the air-conditioned office. It’s a good time to catch up on some reading and preparation for fall, which is a glorious season on the Chesapeake.

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

My reading list includes two new purchases; A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, and How to be an Urban Birder by David Lindo. The first was recommended by a birder friend and does look interesting. It’s a naturalist’s classic, written in 1949, but somehow missed by me all these years. The latter is also destined to become a classic, written primarily for the urban-trapped birder, but is also full of suggestions for us country folk who occasionally venture into the concrete jungles.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius

Leopold’s book is a collection of his essays and begins with this declaration; “there are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.” Lind, on the other hand, is a thoroughly modern, urbanized resident of downtown London, who despite that became an avid birder. His book is full of tips for urban birding, and sprinkled with wonderful photos documenting his success, even in that environment.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

So, my routine in these waning days of summer will be to read these books in the hammock, between rain showers. I’ll have the binoculars ready, just in case, and occasionally turn on the Merlin APP on my cell phone to check on any strange birdsongs. Yesterday it identified the Chimney Swifts and a distant call of a Red-tailed Hawk. Life is sweet, even in the dog days.

Book Review: Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, published by Norton, 1970.

I’m no different than you. My reading list includes books that share my interests, be it travel, politics, history, warfare, medicine, sailing, weather, or astronomy. The book doesn’t have to be entirely about these subjects but must at least touch on some of them as the plot unfolds. And, of course, if the book includes birds and birding, all the better. Author Patrick O’Brian has managed to include everyone of these topics in his saga of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, starting with the first volume, Master and Commander, and continuing for twenty more. I’ve read and savored them all, multiple times.

Black-footed Albatross, Phoebastria nigripes

As you know, once you become a birder you look for the feathered friends constantly, birding here, there, and everywhere. I’ve known some who identify birds by song during telecasts of golf tournaments. I’ve had many a meal disrupted by a bird flying by the dining room window. We birders don’t always make the best company at mealtime. I perked up when I first ran across Stephen Maturin who demonstrated these same bouts of birding distraction, even while shipwrecked or dodging icebergs in the South Atlantic or French cannonballs in the Bay of Biscay.

Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus

The Master and Commander series is set during the Napoleonic Wars and the naval warfare of the tall sailing ships of the era. The plots take you to the seas around every continent, including Antarctica where the ship and sailors are practically encased in ice. These are not just about naval engagements, but include indepth descriptions of the ships of the period, celestial navigation, weather, geography and the politics of the cultures encountered.

Magellanic Penguins, Spheniscus magellenicus (photo by A. Sternick)

The protagonists are Jack Aubrey, a swashbuckling sailor who over the series rises from midshipman to captain, and eventually admiral, but not without countless scrapes with both the enemy and his commanders, a gambling habit, debt and debtor’s prison, and a fragile family life back on the home turf. His hero is of course, Lord Nelson whom he emulates in many ways.

Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus

The other is his best friend and companion, the complex Stephen Maturin. He is the illegitimate offspring of an Irish officer and Catalan lady, talented physician and the ship’s surgeon, a naturalist and renown collector of specimens of both flora and fauna. His leading avocation, however is birding which he practices all around the globe. Stephen has also been recruited by British intelligence and his espionage adds to the complex story line.

Chimango Caracara Milvago chimango

Maturin’s medical exploits on board, especially after an bloody engagement are remarkable, and include a craniotomy to relieve a subdural hematoma as the aghast crew looked on. Large pox, from indiscretions while in port, and scurvy are the crew’s two most frequent maladies. His ship mates go out of their way to protect their beloved surgeon as he could barely swim, was clumsy, and frequently fell overboard. Stephen battled a long addiction to laudanum and infatuation with the beautiful Diana Villiers, Jack Aubrey’s cousin.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

The unlikely friends first met sitting next to each other at a chamber music performance of Locatelli’s C-major quartet in the Governor’s House at Port Mahon. Large and loud Aubrey, crammed into the formal wear of a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, unconsciously beat the time of the musicians, greatly annoying the civilian surgeon Maturin, who finally asked the officer if he must beat the rhythm, at least do it correctly. It almost led to blows, but instead it was just an inauspicious start to a deep friendship that lasted twenty volumes and throughout the entire Napoleonic Wars. Some say it is the greatest friendship in modern literature. Their classical duets, Jack on violin and Stephen on cello, were often heard from the captain’s cabin, at any time and in any ocean.

Western Gull, Larus occidentalis
Laysan Albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis

For the sailors and naval warfare aficionados in the crowd, O’Brian has at least one battle and an encounter with severe weather in every volume. The primary tactics of naval warfare then were to gain the windward side of your foe and then decide whether to bombard from a distance, or close, board, and fight hand-to-hand on the deck. Aubrey suffers many wounds over the years, and is always patched up by Maturin. The ships encounter typhoons, dead calm in the equatorial heat, and severe cold near the poles, all described in detail by O’Brian.

King Penguin, Aptenodytes patagonicus (photo by A. Sternick)

Stephen Maturin is a 19th century birder par excellence. He trained the crew to rouse him whenever another pelagic bird appeared and was especially enamored by the various species of Albatross. He spent a happy few months shipwrecked and marooned with Aubrey and crew on Desolation Island in the Indian Ocean, happily observing and collecting specimens while the rest planned their escape. His collections usually made it home to England; his intelligence commander was especially fond of beetles. On another voyage Stephen lived several months among the Boobies; his scientific paper describing these birds made him famous in ornithological circles. Once, in Boston, he was given beautiful large paintings of American birds by a then unknown Creole artist by the name of Audubon.

Blue-footed Booby, Sula nebouxii (photo by A. Sternick)

The volume I’m currently reading is The Fortune of War, number six in the series. Aubrey, Maturin, and a few surviving sailors have just been rescued after several days adrift in a lifeboat off the coast of South America. Their ship had just burned down to the waterline and sunk, taking with it all of Stephen’s latest specimens. The rescuing ship was the HMS Java, which soon encountered the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides” and lost to that new American frigate in a frightful battle. Jack and Stephen were taken prisoner and shipped to Boston where further drama awaits.

Gentoo Penguin, Pygoscelis papua (photo by A. Sternick)

Patrick O’Brian (1914-2000) is now deceased and regrettably the adventures have ended. I have also read his incomplete twenty-first volume, left on the author’s writing desk when he died. One must ask, how can a person know so much about so many different topics, in such fine detail, and present them to the reader with such style? Just his descriptions of the ships’ rigging bogles the mind. It’s said he rarely sailed and I’m not sure if he even birded. His writing and research are incredible and highly recommended.

Pomarine Jaeger, Stercorarius pomarinus

In the next decade when I reread the series one last time I intend to keep a list, a Stephen Maturin life list of his birds described in these novels. My photos in this post, and those of my colleague Andy Sternick, are some of Maturin’s birds, but most I have yet to see. They are just more items on the list in my overflowing bucket.

Sounds of the Solstice

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

Morning has broken like the first morning,

Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.

Praise for the singing, praise for the morning,

Praise for them springing fresh from the world.

Eleanor Farjeon (1931)

Too often we take sound and the sense of hearing for granted. This involves both our, and other creatures’ ability to make noise and also the parallel function of receiving it. With humans, at least, and in some other species as well, there is also the ability to react to and appreciate what we have heard.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

I have often marveled at the accomplished birders who have learned to bird-by-ear. These are the ones who have already identified the calls of a dozen birds in the parking lot while I’m still struggling with the binocular strap. But now, I can humbly say, that I have achieved some proficiency in this, and hope to learn even more. I’m sure you all know many more birdsongs than you even realize. Make a list of your repertoire and be surprised.

Black-crested Titmouse, Baeolophus atricristatus

Recent additions to my list include the Tufted Titmouse’s plaintive monotonic call, the simple two-noted song of the Great Crested Flycatcher, and the White-eyed Vireo’s much more elaborate solo. Some gifted birders can recognize the different percussion patterns of the woodpeckers. I’m not there yet.

Great-crested Flycatcher, Myiarchus crinitus

While sitting on the screen porch reading, one ear remains tuned to the yard noise. The Northern Mockingbird, Osprey, and Carolina Wren threaten to drown out the other, more subtle songs, and that mocker stills tries to fool me by mimicking the Blue Jay and Nuthatch, but I’ve finally wised up to this antic. The bird’s moniker is fitting–Mimus polyglottos.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

Yesterday my reading was interrupted by a loud murder of Fish Crows and an unusual sudden silence of the songbirds. When the music stops, beware. Cease whatever you’re doing and investigate. I did just in time to see an Accipiter, probably a Cooper’s Hawk, gliding in low and heading for the hanging feeder. I think his sortie was unsuccessful and eventually the crows dispersed and the singing resumed. I wonder if the small birds appreciated the warning they got from the crows.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

But there is still that nagging call you hear on the trail, over and over, and just can’t spot the unknown bird. Now there is a solution. Several years ago, over dinner with some tech savvy friends, they demonstrated the AP Shazam and its ability to detect a song in a noisy restaurant and identify the title and artist. We decided that a similar AP would be great for birding. I ran this concept by a engineer / business savvy member of the family who discouraged my further pursuit. Now, low and behold, Merlin has offered this very AP as part of their bird ID software and my chance for fame and riches has vanished.

Red-headed Woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

Sound is nothing more than vibrations that pass through a medium, air or water, as waves. These are transmitted to a receiving device such as our ears. The pathway from our vibrating ear drum to the brain and our final preception of the sound is thankfully beyond the scope of this birding blog. Suffice it to say that the waves of sound have a variable amplitude or volume, and frequency or pitch. The sound can be a disorganized noise such as a clap of thunder or an idling engine, but can also be an elaborate and intricate pattern designed by a sender to express an emotion or idea.

Barred Owl, “Who cooks for you?” Strix varia

In the avian world this creative ability is not shared equitably. Passerines, or songbirds, are divided into two suborders, the Passeri and the Tyranni. The former has a much more elaborate syrinx, (the bird’s voice box), than the latter and can add to a growing repertoire of intricate songs as they age. The Tyranni are born with a set and simpler play list, but they are still better off than the raptors and waders who can barely utter a screech or grunt.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

For me the sounds of the solstice also includes music. Now I’m speaking of the human-composed variety. Chesapeake Music is a two-week gathering of some of the planet’s most accomplished chamber music artists who live among us for a brief visit in June every year and share their incredible talent. We in turn, share with them the delights of rural living on the Shore. Their usual lives are within the urban metropolises and famous concert halls.

Common Loon, Gavia immer

Sitting through a recent performance of the masterpiece, Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor in the small and recently refurbished Ebenezer Theater in Easton, Maryland, brought home to me the importance of sound, both avian and human, in our lives. Brahms, somewhat like our Mockingbird, was both the composer of the intricate work, weaving harmonies in ever-changing volumes, tempos, and rhythms, as well as the performing artist. In his day there were few better pianists in Europe. The notes of his quintet, created in 1864, was brought to us again in 2021. Where would we be without such sounds?

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

Unfortunately, as I rapidly approach my eighth decade, the ability to hear birds and Brahms is waning somewhat. They say the higher pitches go first–too many hours on the lawn mower. I’m not hearing the front doorbell or the Northern Parula and Chipping Sparrow like I used to. Cherish the sounds while you can. Beethoven eventually became deaf, but his genius allowed him to feel the sound as he continued to write masterpieces. I’m no Beethoven and probably am overdue for a hearing aid.

Civilization?

Canada Geese, Branta canadensis

I’m again reminded at how fast “nature” attempts to undo our efforts at civilizing the world. When we recently returned home to Chesapeake country after six months in Florida the meadow around the house was three feet tall, the deer, red fox, and ground hog were crisscrossing the land as if it was theirs, turtles were digging nests in the the weed covered gravel driveway, and the starlings were nesting in my boat lift cover again. At least the eagle decoys had spooked the geese into the neighbor’s greener pastures

Eastern Bluebird, Scalia sialis

We returned late this season; the forsythia blooms were long gone and the daffodils had just passed their peak, but the peonies were still bursting upward, inches every day. The watermen on the bay had put away their oyster tongs and were now running the trotlines and netting the delectable Blue Crabs. The corn was two inches tall and it will soon be summer with crabs, sweet corn, and strawberry shortcake on the menu. But first I would have to regain control of this yard.

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

It occurs to me that we humans are also a part of the natural world, seeking to survive and create a safe abode. My house is in many ways similar to the Osprey nest built on the channel marker or the Barn Swallows who build their muddy home under the dock. The difference is the width of the swath our species cuts, at least in its modern version.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Another difference is our unique awareness of the effects of our swath on the world and our attempts to mitigate them. The bay is clearer and the underwater grasses more abundant than in prior decades and the air is cleaner. We can celebrate these improvements knowing that there is still work to be done.

European Starlings, Sturnus vulgaris

On my recent road trip through middle America I traced in reverse the route of the European colonists who finally broke through the Appalachian Mountains at Cumberland Gap and elsewhere into the unspoiled lands of Kentucky, Tennessee, and later into Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. They understandably cleared land for planting, hunted the abundant game, and built their hovels, filling a new niche, much different than that of their nomadic forerunners.

Missouri River at Eagle Bluffs

I crossed the mighty Mississippi and Missouri Rivers which still scoff at our human efforts to control them by periodically flooding their banks. We build dikes and dams, but cannot completely stem the flow. I birded one of these areas, Eagle Bluffs, on the banks of the Missouri, near Columbia. This is a 4400-acre wetlands and marsh providing habitat for year-long and migrating birds. A network of gravel roads on the dikes separates the numerous ponds and gives excellent views of the wildlife.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

During the visit in late April waterfowl were the leading species; I don’t ever recall seeing more Blue-winged Teal. Living up to the locale’s name I saw a nesting Bald Eagle and several fishing kingfishers, but no migrating warblers.

Blue-winged Teal, Anas discors

Other birders have also wondered at the apparent scarcity of migrators this spring, but Cornell’s BirdCast has a reassuring report. Their research, including radar data, showed a whopping 400 million birds aloft on the night of May 14. “These massive flights may not, however, have produced spectacular birding on the ground…as meteorological phenomena that normally concentrate migrants are absent”. In other words, the weather has been favorable for the birds to keep pressing north rather than land and treat us birders to the typical spring show.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

Standing on the banks of the Missouri I was impressed by the force of the downriver flow, draining much of our continent. One can picture the steamships of an earlier era; in fact, the “Plowboy” sunk there and is said to be buried in the sand and silt at Eagle Bluffs. I didn’t have time to dig around for it. My next stop heading east was the Audubon Museum in Henderson, Kentucky on the Ohio River perhaps a post for another day.

Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas

The recent road trip and my return to the home patch in Maryland emphasize again to me that we are not just onlookers or observers of nature, but rather full-fledged participants. In fact, a substantial partner given our relatively late arrival on the scene and our ability to alter the world for better or worse. But just when we think we are becoming the masters, the earth quakes, the tides roll in, the river valley floods, the virus spreads, the wells run dry, and we are again put in our place.

Good-bye to the Strange Birds of Florida

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

They’re no longer strange to me, but to the non-Floridian this area has more than its share of unusual endemic birds. I remember my first days here, seventeen seasons ago, when I kept Kaufman’s Field guide to Birds of North America handy as I trudged through the swamps and upland savannas. Now these birds are like old friends that I’m leaving behind once again as we embark on our own spring migration to the north.

Anhinga (female), Anhinga anhinga

Strangeness is really a measure of familiarity, but even while I run across the Anhinga everyday in Florida, it remains a strange creature to me. The long gawky neck, bright red eye in the male and blue eye-ring of the female, and its underwater fishing, characterize this bird. You find it with its wings spread wide, drying in the hot sun–it doesn’t have the oil glands common in other water birds. And why do they soar at great altitude with the vultures when their food is underwater and invisible? Both it’s appearance and behavior are strange.

American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis

That confounded calling Limpkin persists on the pond, just outside our bedroom window. Other non-birders in the condo have complained to the authorities, as if they could intervene. It is a nerve-racking chorus every night, but one I’ll soon miss hearing back in Chesapeake Bay country. The call is less frequent and energetic these nights; I think he’s giving up on attracting a mate this year.

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

The Florida Scrub Jay is an increasingly rare bird that is too familiar with us humans. It’s strangeness is shown by its unbridled curiosity about us, even lighting on the heads of birders as they seek out the jay to add another tick to their life lists.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

Another strange one is the Roseate Spoonbill. Just start with the pink plumage. Why pink? It seems unnatural in the brown and green mud of the swamp, more suited to your baby girl’s nursery. It surely offers no camouflage for the lurking alligator. It took me several seasons down here before I realized the risk from dozing alligators, both to birds, pets, and humans. Keep a wary eye on them. And regarding those spoonbills, don’t overlook that spatula bill, an evolutionary experiment that hasn’t progressed much further.

Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

Why would anyone choose a stork to deliver a baby, as legend teaches? At least here in south Florida our Wood Stork is a leading candidate for ugly and strangeness. Despite that, we are grateful for the bird’s resurgent population, now an easy sighting almost any day.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

I’ll not forget my first sighting of a Crested Caracara. I had pulled over on the shoulder of Oil Well Road, right where an eBird report had recorded a recent bird, and sure enough, one flew over this excited birder, as if on cue. I was too unnerved to get off a shot. Now, years later, I’m completely familiar with this bird. Don’t let its debonair stature fool you. He’s a scavenger and more than holds his own with the vultures dividing the fresh roadkill.

Short-tailed Hawk (white morph), Buteo brachyurus

The Short-tailed Hawk taught me a valuable birding lesson that is probably obvious to most of my readers. A birder needs to keep looking up. You won’t find this raptor perched along the roadside as you commonly see our abundant Red-shouldered Hawk. Instead this bird is a soarer, often very high in the clouds. You’ll need to learn the appearances of the underside of the wings in the two variants–the dark and white morphs. It still is an unusual sighting for me, but as long as my stiff neck allows, I’ll keep looking up.

Mottled Duck, Anas fulvigula

When I first came to Florida I noted a slew of female Mallards, but never saw a male. Was this the result of some pathologic scourge affecting the green-headed males? But I couldn’t explain the smaller ducklings, recently hatched–someone was mating with the females. Of course, you astute readers know the answer that I finally learned. There are no Mallards in south Florida. These are Mottled Ducks, where the male and females are a very similar mottled brown, only differentiated by the lighter yellow bill of the male. You won’t find this duck up north.

Snail Kite, Rostrhamus sociabilis

It’s a risky and strange experiment of nature for a bird to subsist solely on apple snails, but that pathway has evolved for the Snail Kite, an uncommon endemic of inland Florida. That may be why we’re having a harder time finding this bird each winter. This year we did get a good look at one flying over at Harnes Marsh, near Fort Myers. It’s always a good birding day to make that sighting.

Groove-billed Ani, Crotophaga sulcirostris

We’ve done a lot of rarity chasing in Florida this year; Glaucous Gull, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Groove-billed Ani, White-faced Ibis. Just yesterday I got a polite note from the eBird referee informing me that my White faced Ibis was actually a hybrid of that bird and our common Glossy Ibis. It cost me a life bird, but teaches me again that there are very smart birders out there paying attention to the details. The rest of these are birds that have become confused or blown off their normal flight patterns. But one of the rarities of the season, the Mangrove Cuckoo, is a Florida endemic that has eluded me for all these seventeen years. I finally saw one and photographed it on Sanibel Island this winter–a gratifying day. Only other birders know that particular satisfaction; its a nemesis bird no longer.

Mangrove cuckoo, Coccyzus minor

As I say good-bye to Florida and my birding colleagues here, I’ll leave them this: never, never, never give up on you quest to see your nemesis bird; for Andy that’s the Least Bittern. Your family and I understand your obsession, even when you go looking for the bird several times a day and don’t understand why everyone else is seeing it except for you. Someday you’ll likely succeed, but even if you don’t, just relish the hunt as you stand among the reeds and alligators of our beautiful and strange south Florida.

The day after I drafted this post and the day before I left Florida for the year, Andy, with an assist from Mel, found his nemesis Least Bittern. His tenacious search and Mel’s encouragement are marks of birders extraordinaire. I’m already looking forward to another winter of birding with these guys in south Florida or wherever strange birds are to be found.

The Cumberland Gap and Its Birds

Daniel Boone escorting settlers through the Cumberland Gap, 1851-52, by George Caleb Bingham

Humans have migrated through the gap in the Cumberland Mountains, both to the east and to the west, for eons, and before that the trail was pounded hard and widened by the bison searching for pasture and salt licks. It is named for the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II of England and has always attracted my attention as a possible destination. This was heightened by the messianic picture above showing Daniel Boone leading his entourage into the promise land to the west. In a recent road trip from Kansas City to Baltimore I purposely chose a route through the historic gap; it also gave me a chance to do a little birding in the historic park.

Tufted Titmouse, Baeolophus bicolor

The geology of the gap’s formation is fascinating but beyond the scope of this so-called birding blog, but let me make this one point. I spent two nights at the gap in the town of Middlesboro, Kentucky, not realizing at the time that I was smack in the middle of a 300 million year-old meteorite impact crater that contributed to the formation of this mountain pass.

Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe

It is difficult for us moderns to understand the formidable barrier that the Appalachian Mountains presented for the early colonists along the east coast. For a hundred years only a few intrepid explorers, traders, and missionaries ventured over the range. Eventually several gaps and trails, previously blazed by the large game and Native Americans were rediscovered by the colonists.

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

The Cumberland Gap was the premier passage, right at the boundaries of Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky. By the mid 18th century settlers had broken through and poured into the fertile region and cheap or free land in Kentucky and in the Ohio River Valley. By 1810 two to three hundred thousand new settlers had made this journey over the Wilderness Road, through the gap, and to the west. Quoting Moses Austin from 1796, “Ask these Pilgrims what the expect when they git to Kentucke. The answer is land. Have you any? No, but I expect I can git it. Have you anything to pay for land? No. Did you ever see the country? No, but everybody says it is good land”.

Cumberland Gap and surroundings

Today, when one drives through the gap you actually go through a tunnel which, in typical 20th century fashion was blasted through the Cumberland Mountains. But near the gap there is a wonderful historic park with myriad trails offering many birding opportunities. My road trip traced in reverse the westward migration of humans, but cut across at right angles the springtime avian migration to the north. It was mid April and my hopes were high for encountering some of those flocks.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

Pinnacle Overlook is at the mountain top, guarding the northern edge of the gap and commands a marvelous view to the south. In the early morning I decided to test the endurance of my old but faithful car by tackling the switch-backs up the mountain. At the top I was rewarded with the view as the solitary morning visitor. The bird life there, however, was sparse with only the incessant call of the titmouse and a couple of nesting phoebes disturbing the peace.

Yours truly at Pinnacle Overlook, Homo sapiens

I was soon joined by a second birder, a gentleman and octogenarian who actually claimed to be related to Daniel Boone. We enjoyed the view together while sharing birding adventures. While we were jabbering a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew by the peak at our eye level, perhaps migrating to the north on the rising thermals. Vultures circled below. My friend became excited when I told him about a trip I was planning to Wyoming and Montana, and inexplicably, he started removing his outerwear and displayed the back of his tee shirt which was a map of Glacier National Park. He implored me to enter the park at his right shoulder, the easterly gate, and proceed to his left shoulder for the best route. Just another example of a helpful birder, as one frequently meets on the trail.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

At the top of the mountain there is a ridge trail that is noted as a warbler trap during spring migration. I just found woodpeckers and jays. I believe I was early for the warblers this far north. While I was far from home searching for birds at the gap, my friend and fellow birder, Andy, was sending me pictures of all the warblers he was seeing back in south Florida, just a few miles from my home. Timing is everything in this sport.

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus

But along the ridge trail I saw something that Andy did not see. That was a Civil War cannon embankment called Fort McCook by the Unions and Fort Rains by the Confederates. It changed hands several times during the war. The gap was of strategic value during that conflict, to the extent that the armies hauled their heavy guns all the way up the mountain. Supplying the fort was difficult for both sides, and as the war progressed the real value of the mountain top fort came into question. Now the site is peaceful and just a series of grassy mounds and historic markers explaining the 160 year-old wartime scene.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

The park has a great visitor’s center at the base of the mountain and several flatter birding trails. Here, it was the welcomed spring melody of the Song Sparrow that greeted me. Overall my bird sightings were meagre but my knowledge of our human migration was enhanced. The short stay at the Cumberland Gap Historic Park was a rewarding experience. The warbler sightings will have to wait for another day.