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.

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.

Chasing the Mangrove Cuckoo

Mangrove Cuckoo, Coccyzus minor

On the face of it “chasing” birds seems like an impossible task. These birds are rare, they’re fast, they fly, and they hide. We never really catch one in the classic sense. A chase may end up with a fleeting glance or even just a few notes of a song, but more likely it ends with nothing. In the case of a dog chasing a car, one wonders what the dog is going to do when he catches it. For us birders, on the rare day when we “catch” our quarry, it will be time for high fives all around and a celebratory drink back at the lodge as we recount the adventure and tick off another life bird.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Polioptila caerulea

It never ceases to amaze me that we actually find a reported rarity on a few occasions, sometimes even in the same tree or perched on the same fence when it was reported on an eBird alert days earlier. That’s why I was only lukewarm while accepting an invitation from Andy and Sam to chase the Mangrove Cuckoo seen off and on for a week at the famous Ding Darling NWR on Sanibel Island, Florida. With eBird and their alert system, rarities are becoming less rare.

American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

The Mangrove Cuckoo had no business still being present on Sanibel. True, there are plenty of mangroves there, but the cuckoo much prefers the warmer tropics this time of year. Although our Florida winter has been mild, the last few days leading up to our chase were decidedly cooler and any self-respecting Mangrove Cuckoo should have long since headed south. Despite my seventeen years in Florida I have never seen this elusive bird, even in the heat of summer. It was also a potential lifer for my two companions on the chase.

Mangrove Cuckoo

You might picture a chase as a wind-blown jaunt in an open jeep, dust flying, screeching tires, careening around trees and through mud puddles, with four-legged creatures diving out of the way. Nothing could be further from the truth. My friends picked me up in their luxury car, soft music playing, AC cranked up, GPS tracking tuned in, with plenty of snacks and water close at hand. It was birding in fine style.

Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens
Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

Prior successful chases for me in the Sunshine State started when the Florida Scrub Jay landed on my head at the Lyonia Preserve, near Deltona in 2010 and I was able to rotate my camera upward and catch a shot of the bold life bird. In that case the bird chased me. Andy and I chased the increasingly rare Red Cockaded Woodpecker last spring at the Babcock Web preserve near Punta Gorda. That episode did involve an actual chase on foot across the wetlands, pursuing the bird for a better photo. I caught the Burrowing Owl the first time on Cape Coral, and then again, closer to home on Marco Island.

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens
Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia

We also successfully chased the Vermilion Flycatcher in the Great Cypress Preserve where we found it perched on the same fence that the helpful eBirder described in his alert. The less colorful Hammond’s Flycatcher also surprised us last year by showing up right on schedule on the boardwalk at Corkscrew Sanctuary as dozens of birders gaped and took their photos.

Vermilion Flycatcher, Pyrocephalus rubinus
Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Picoides borealis

On the road to Sanibel I tried to dampen down our expectations. We could depend on good shots of some wading birds, and maybe get a close-up of a Reddish Egret doing its captivating dance or a snoozing Night Heron, even if we didn’t find the cuckoo. We parked in the general vicinity of prior sightings and saw and heard nothing. The Mangrove Cuckoo has a low-pitched and raspy call and is often heard, rather than seen. There were a few other birders nosing around but no one had seen or heard anything of the cuckoo. We were about to pack it in when a bird, about the right size, flashed into a mangrove very close to us right alongside Wildlife Drive.

Mangrove Cuckoo, first look
Mangrove Cuckoo

The mangrove trees are dense, large-leafed affairs with plenty of hiding spaces for a bird, and this bird found them all. Finally he stuck his head out to check us out, and we all saw the characteristic black facial mask and curved bill with the yellow mandible. Successful chase! But we are also photographers and were not satisfied with that first meager look. An hour and 400 shots later the deceptive bird finally gave us what we all hoped for; a full frontal shot, gorgeous tail and all, perched in perfect sunlight with no obscuring branches or leafs. The bird itself was now singing, apparently tired of hiding from his pursuers.

Mangrove Cuckoo

By this time a birding crowd had gathered and some were downright giddy with happiness at the sighting. For many of them it was also a lifer, and just like us, had been sought for years. The non-birders hiking and biking through the reserve watched our reaction, shook their heads, and wondered who were the real cuckoos that day. But you birders all understand. There is a welcomed satisfaction as we tick off life birds. But there are obviously fewer of these un-ticked birds out there for each of us, and their sightings are becoming difficult, requiring more and more effort, longer birding trips, and a bit of luck. The years also keep ticking by and I still have 9,078 birds to chase worldwide, but that’s one less than I had last week.

Just Another Goose Post

I’m a bit of a schizophrenic birder when it comes to policing my patch on the Chesapeake Bay. In the front yard my feeders attract birds, (and squirrels) and supply nonstop entertainment through the window as I sit at the desk and write this. These are the typical passerines you all see, cardinals, jays, finches, chickadees, and titmice, with an occasional woodpecker or nuthatch thrown in to make it more interesting. On the waterside of the house however, it is very different. I’ve declared war on the dock, boat, and swimming pool desecrators, and those large birds that feed off my grass. We’re talking gulls, terns, and osprey, on the dock and those pesky Canada Geese fouling the pool and denuding the lawn.

Tufted Titmouse, Baeolophus atricristatus

A real birder and naturalist would welcome them all and put up with the guano and a mudflat for a lawn, as he or she observed our avian friends. They would tell me that I have invaded the their space and that I should be thankful that the birds even allow me a home on the bay. Not me. Recently my warfare has escalated and I believe that I have won, at least the latest battle.

Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla

It’s election season and time to exercise our democratic right to vote. It’s a time for patriotism and flag waving, or in my case, banner waving. For less than $20 you can purchase red, white, and blue, star-spangled windsocks. With perhaps a 10% split for patriotic fervor, and 90% for bird deterrence, I’ve hung them on poles up and down the dock and on the sailboat stays. It has helped somewhat, at least when the wind’s blowing. I still haven’t solved the flyover bombardment, though.

Carolina Chickadee, Poecile carolinensis

My greater victory has been against those nasty Canada Geese. James Michener in his classic novel “Chesapeake”, waxed poetic about these birds, mating for life, and traveling great distances from the arctic tundra to grace us with their temporary presence every fall and winter. That was before the geese learned that migration was not everything it was cracked up to be; why not just stay put on Steve’s lawn all year, get fat and happy, and raise a big family of sedentary resident goslings. The number of these non-migrators has skyrocketed and I hear grumbling even from my nature loving neighbors. After spending big bucks to reseed the lawn this fall I decided to try a new approach.

Canada Goose, Branta canadensis

On the way home from Blackwater Refuge in Dorchester County, a flat, rural land of large farms and fields, I noticed huge, perhaps 6 feet tall, Bald Eagles scattered throughout a field. From a distance they looked real, but obviously were not, at least to this discerning human. They were tall plywood birds, presumably erected to keep out the geese and save the crops. Why not give this a try at home?

A trip to Loew’s for 3 sheets of 2×4 foot plywood, a few cans of paint, and after the resurrection of some latent artistic skills (with a big assist from the spouse), I had three Bald Eagle decoys ready to go. My only blunder was the way too small feet and talons that can be corrected on later editions. These likenesses will not upstage Audubon, but everyone has to start somewhere.

Previously my typical day involved 3 or more mad dashes out the door, waving my arms to shoo away the 50-75 feeding geese, and even a few that were bold enough to lounge around the pool closer to the house. They would just honk a little, briefly fly away by making a wide circle, and return as soon as I went indoors. The recent addition of the migrating crowd to the resident geese made things even worse. But now, 3 weeks after the erection of the Bald Eagles I have not had a single Canada Goose land! They fly over, look, and keep going. Now the question is how long can I keep this deception going.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

My first step has been to occasionally move the eagles to keep the geese off balance. Unfortunately my bluebirds are threatening to blow my cover. This week these beautiful passerines have been perching on the eagles’ heads and soiling my paint job. Zippity-doo-dah. I’m afraid the geese will notice the boldness of these little birds and finally realize that they’ve been duped. How is it that a little bluebird brain has figured this all out but the much larger goose brain has not. Size is not everything when it comes to birdbrains. I’m considering marketing these effective decoys, so don’t tell anyone about my invention. Maybe it will finance my retirement. If you check on-line you’ll see that people spend big bucks on devices to scare off geese.

Today we had another unexpected benefit from the decoys. A beautiful adult Bald Eagle landed near one of his plywood brothers to have a closer look. What was he thinking? Was he amazed at this amazon-sized relative, intimidated, or perhaps just being a critic of my paint job? I don’t think I’ve ever been closer to one of our national birds and grabbed this shot through the window.

Bald Eagle

It was all so patriotic with waving red, white, and blue banners, real and fake eagles on the lawn, election day fast approaching, and finally, beautiful green grass. I’ll permit the geese to also admire it all, but only from the neighbor’s yard.

Blackwater Birds and Bugs

Blackwater NWR

 

I’m not a sissy, or at least I don’t think I am, but we all have our limitations.  Mine were revealed recently at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Church Creek on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  I can show you gorgeous pictures of the tidal swamp with a sea of grasses seemingly extending to the horizon, only rarely interrupted by Loblolly pine islets and areas of shimmering open water.  If you’re lucky you might see a hunting harrier there, or I can show you pictures of the Bald Eagle pair, the fishing herons, or the splendid Red-headed Woodpecker.  But all these shots tell only half the story.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

It was very hot, humid, and overcast.  We just had several days of rain and the air was still nearly saturated.  The lowlands of south Dorchester County are barely above sea level and undoubtedly were a few feet below sea level during the recent hurricane.  It all was a perfect stew for the bugs.  The people who  live here are hardy souls, they must be.  On that recent day the bugs, not the birds, drove the bus.  There were mosquitos the size of a Buick, biting flies, the green-headed and other varieties as well.  In a prior life I did minor surgery and would prepare my patients for the initial needle stick by warning they were about to feel a Dorchester County mosquito bite.  They all understood the analogy.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

The absence of other birders at the refuge should have been a clue, but I just had to get out and see some birds.  It was early for waterfowl, the refuge specialty, but one can always see eagles and waders there, or maybe even a shorebird migrant.  The reliable refuge did not disappoint.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

So, when birding Blackwater NWR this time of year you need a strategy.  Stay in the truck and keep the windows up!  But if you’re a real birder and a real bird photographer this just will not do.  The second strategy is bug spray, gallons of it, coating every  square inch of clothing and hat, not just the exposed skin.  The only problem with this is the chemicals wreak havoc with your camera and lens, and some bugs seem un-phased by the odor.  Incidentally the odor does fend off other humans, including a spouse.  A more informative blog would run down the pros and cons of the various insect repellents on the market.  You’re on your own in this regard.

Royal Tern, Sterna maxima

Another strategy is to pick a windy day to blow the buggers away.  My day was dead calm.  So in the end I tried a combination of all of the above cruising Wildlife Drive with the windows up and the AC on.  As you all know, pictures through the window glass are not ideal and the vibrations from the running engine further degrades the image.  When you sight a bird you have to decide if it’s worth the risk of venturing out of the truck for a quick shot, and then diving back in before the bugs realize what’s happening.  Even in those brief moments some invariably sneak in and must be dealt with, smished on the inside glass.  Remember to pack a fly swatter.

Red-headed Woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

In some cases you can park the truck across the trail, trying to create a good angle through an open side window, remembering to kill the engine first.  The motion of the opening window spooks some of the birds but this technique did give me that shot of the Red-headed Woodpecker above.  There must be a back story to that Bald Eagle pair I saw.  They looked like a couple who just had an argument and couldn’t bare to look each other in the eye.  Blackwater is a premier location on the East Coast to see these beauties.

Bald Eagles, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

The Kingfisher, Killdeer, and gulls were distant birds, causing me to yearn again for a 500 or 600mm lens, but they’re still only a dream at current prices.  Lunch was yogurt, granola, and a bottle of water, in the truck, windows up, and the local country music station cranked up loud; it was not all bad.

Killdeer, Charadrius vociferus

And the bugs were not all bad either.  It was just the biting ones and the resultant welts that irritated me.  But it’s also the season of the singing Cicadas and the clicking Crickets.  My urban grandson, visiting from his loud downtown apartment last summer, couldn’t fall asleep on our screened porch in the country because of the insect symphony.  His honking urban jungle, however, is never a problem.  Between bird sightings at Blackwater there was a good butterfly show.  I need to improve these skills but did see many Sulfurs (not sure if Clouded or Cloudless), a few Buckeyes, and of course the glorious Monarchs, likely just beginning their long migration to Mexico.

Monarch, Danaus plexippus

But there is a definite downside to birding like this, largely confined to the truck.  You miss the valuable auditory component, especially for the little songbirds that are often heard before seen.  You miss the fresh air and breeze, the smell of the tidal marsh, and the sorely needed exercise gained by trudging along the waterside trails.  Despite this it was a good day of birding–do you ever have a bad one?  You should check out Blackwater NWR.  In a few weeks the wintering waterfowl will be in, the bugs will be on the decline, and the scenery is something to behold.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

I must take a moment to pay tribute to the recent passing of one of our area’s pre-eminent birders.  Les Roslund was a lifelong birder, first in the Mid West and later here on the East Coast.  His extensive knowledge was kindly shared with all, especially the new birders whom he was the first to welcome to the local birding club.  I frequently ran into Les birding alone at the Pickering Creek Audubon Center near his home.  He always asked what I was seeing, especially the sparrows, in which he had a keen interest and extensive knowledge.  He was a gentleman birder, a friend to us all, and will be sorely missed.

Blue Birds

Bluebird at Night by Ember

When you get the viral blues, when you think you are actually living “Ground Hog Day” every morning when the alarm goes off,  just when the lockdown has you at the end of your rope, you can really benefit, as I did, from the artwork of a 5 year-old.  She knew I was a “bird person” and possibly sensed my blues, so she sent me “Bluebird at Night”.  It worked.  The blog is back.

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

We have four relatively common birds that share the striking blue plumage, but all with slightly differing hues:  the Indigo Bunting, Blue Jay, Blue Grosbeak, and Eastern Bluebird.  I have shared the physics of the blue coloration with you in prior posts, but it’s an interesting story and worth repeating.

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

The coloration of a bird’s feathers can be caused either by pigments, or the actual structure of the feather itself.  Pigments are ingested by the bird and become part of the feathers.  The depth of color reflects the amount of carotenoids, melanin, and other pigments in the diet and may indicate the health of the bird.  The color we perceive is the reflected light from the visible spectrum of color; the other wavelengths are absorbed by the pigment molecule.  The color reflected by pigments is not dependent on the position of the viewer.

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

There is no blue pigment for the birds.  Any blue pigment that the bird eats is destroyed by the digestive process.  Instead, their blueness is dependent upon a complex structure of layered keratin and air pockets within the feather that reflects the blue light in the spectrum.  This structurally dependent color may vary with the positioning of the observer.  The selective advantage for the intensity of the male’s color might reflect the preference of the female in choosing a healthy male, or may possibly just indicate her appreciation of his beauty.

Indigo Bunting, Passerina cyanea

Most birder’s remember the day they first saw the intense color of the Indigo Bunting, the bird most likely singing near the treetop at the edge of a wood.  Oohs and ahhs, and a double check in the guidebook to confirm.  For me it was a decade ago at the Corkscrew Swamp in Florida, at least as recorded in my eBird, however, in reality I think it was during childhood in Upstate New York.  It’s a blue like none other; difficult to describe.  The much drabber color of the female, as with other dimorphic birds, indicates that she does much of the clandestine nesting chores.  It’s interesting to note that sexual dimorphism is much more prevalent among migrating birds such as the Indigo Bunting, whereas it is much less common among non-migrators.

Blue Jay

The Blue Jay is an under appreciated beauty, perhaps due to its obnoxious loud call or aggressive behavior.  The bird is also one of the smarter of the Aves.  They often hide their food for later in the day or season.  Some ornithologists claim that when a Blue Jay notices another bird watching him hide the food, he will return a few minutes later when the other bird is no longer watching, and move the cache to a safer place.  That takes quite a bit of reasoning and brain power.

Western Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica

Eurasian Jay, Garrulus glandarius

David Sibley, the famous birder and author, comments on the striking white and blue coloration and suggests that the bright, white flashes of the wings serve as a distraction to an attacking predator.  He also says that the tuft and resultant shape of the jay’s head confuses the attacker who can’t figure out which way the jay is looking.  These predators are not so bright.  You can add the Scrub Jay, Steller’s Jay, and even the Eurasian Jay for the small patch of blue in its wing, to the collection, but these birds are not found in this neck of the woods.

Blue Grosbeak, Passerina caerulea

The Blue Grosbeak is closely related to the jays and buntings.  It also is a highly dimorphic migrator with the males displaying a pleasing mixture of blue and chestnut.  It likes the fields and brushy habitats near water and is a rarity much further north than lower Pennsylvania.  That accounts for me not noticing this bird until I left Upstate New York and moved to Maryland.  It’s primarily a field bird and rarely visits our yard.

Eastern Bluebird, Sialis sialis

I saved the Eastern Bluebird for last.  It also has a unique shade of blue as you all know.  The bird is ubiquitous around here, probably the most common bird in the yard.  What a comeback!  The contrast of the orange breast, caused by pigments, with the structural blue is wonderful and unmistakable as the bird flashes by from bird house to bird bath and back again.  The species is a dimorphic, short distance, migrator, but our winters have become so mild that the local birds grace us with their color all year long. I would be remiss in not mentioning for my Coloradan friend John, that the same vibrant blue occurs in his Mountain and Western Bluebirds as well.

Western Bluebird, Sialia mexicana

So just remember, “It’s the truth, it’s actual, everything is satisfactual”.  Mister Bluebird is on your shoulder.  “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay.”  I hope you all have an Ember in your lives as a reminder that better days are just ahead.

Spring Migration 2020

San Domingo Creek

 

It seems trite to observe that every year is different, but this year it is certainly true.  I migrated northward on four wheels via Interstate 95 at 70 miles per hour while the birds were paralleling my route overhead along the Atlantic Flyway.  They were somewhat slower than me but did not have to contend with bathroom breaks, masks, and gasoline.  My migration from South Florida to Maryland was a substantial 1100 miles, but many of the birds far surpassed this distance.

White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

I’ve been away from my patch on San Domingo Creek, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, since the start of winter and Mother Nature, both its flora and fauna, have tried to take over.  The grass and weeds are out of control, limbs are down from winter winds that have even dislodged planks from the dock.  Deer, Red Fox, Squirrels, and Insects have had a lark with the vacant property.  Even some of the birds need to be put back into their proper place.  Homo sapiens has returned.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

The White-throated Sparrows, Juncos, Loons, migrating Canada Geese, and Tundra Swans have all exited to the north, but countless migrators have moved in from the south to replace them.  The competition for territories, mates and nesting sites has begun in earnest.

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

The male Red-winged Blackbirds are early birds on the scene and stake out prime nesting sites along the brackish cove, hoping their choice of real estate, along with their pleading trill, entice a mate.  This bird is a short distance migrator with the Chesapeake near the northward margin of their wintering grounds.

Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus

A more accomplished migrant, the Eastern Kingbird, arrived at my patch before me and established its customary territory on the north side of the house in the old oaks.  They made the trip from the western Amazonia region of South America, perhaps eastern Ecuador or Peru.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

I like to think of these flycatchers, wintering in the Andes but still retaining that vague recollection or imprinting on their brains that brings them back over the many miles to this specific patch they left last fall.  I gladly welcome them home and observe again the truce these feisty birds, (check out their Latin name) have arranged with the equally territorial  Northern Mockingbirds.  The Mockers were here all winter but seem to tolerate the Kingbirds, perhaps as a herald of spring and better days ahead.  Just stay on your side of the house.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

The Osprey also beat me home.  Luckily neighbors on both sides have platforms just off shore, so there was no need for me to crowd in another.  The fishing prowess and flight antics will provide a wonderful show all summer.  I’ve often wondered about their migration, given the year-round Osprey and active nests I see along Florida’s gulf coast all winter.

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

I’ve learned that those Florida Osprey have become a non-migratory population, whereas our Chesapeake birds have wintered further south in the Caribbean and Central America.  As they overfly Florida you wonder if they ever look down with envy at their cousins who are enjoying a more sedentary life in the sunshine state.

Canada Geese, Branta canadensis

Speaking of nonmigratory, please make those ornery residential Canada Geese go away.  Every year their ranks grow and these bold, fat birds refuse to yield when I return home.  They’re giving geese a bad name in these parts.  The fall-seeded lawn is practically bare from their work and their turds fill the pool.  They are not dumb and have figured out that a half dozen in the middle of the mesh pool cover weighs it down enough to create their own private pond.  They have the audacity to honk at me when I break up the party and chase them away.  I did notice only one small gosling in the flock this year.  The Red Fox did look well fed when he pranced by yesterday.

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

The loud keyew, keyew, of the Osprey dominates the avian chorus on the waterside, but the newly arrive Chipping Sparrow holds its own on the land side of the patch, even among the residential choir of Northern Mockingbirds, Cardinals, and Carolina Wrens.  There seems to be more than ever of these rufous-headed migrators in the Loblolly pines.  They’ve wintered along the southern U.S. border, Mexico, and Central America.

Least Tern, Sterna antillarum

The Least Terns I saw fighting over a small fish, scolding each other with their high-pitched chippering, are also new arrivals.  Their wintering grounds are not well established, but is likely off the coasts of Caribbean islands and Central America.

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

I put new roofs on the bluebird houses last fall and am pleased to see a breeding pair move into the best water view house.  These are beautiful year round residents of the patch and at least this year they beat the migrating Tree Swallows to the prime real estate.  The swallows have returned from the southern states and Central America but will have to settle for the lower rent houses.

Tree Swallow, Tachycinrta bicolor

I tried to be a nice guy and hung the “squirrel proof” feeder by the pool, but those dastard varmints, frustrated by the cage, just ate through the hanging rope and enjoyed a feast when it crashed to earth and scattered the sunflower seeds.  But I fixed their wagon and won round one.  It now hangs by a steel cable.  The European Starlings are dumber, but equally persistent.  I’ve now cleared out their nest from the housing of the boat lift motor twice.  Last year it took five evictions before they learned.

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus

Yesterday the bird du jour on my patch walk was a Spotted Sandpiper seen bobbing along the cove’s mudflat at low tide.  I only got a brief look before it spooked, but the ID was definite.  This bird, our most widespread breeding sandpiper in North America, also migrated from Central and South America and may choose to breed here or continue further north into Canada.  I have yet to get a good picture of this shorebird.

Spotted Sandpipers, Actitis macularius                               J. J. Audubon

It’s the female of this species that arrives first in the spring, chooses a territory, and attracts an interested male.  When the eggs hatch the male takes on the leading parental role while the polyandrous female moves on to another mate.  How many times she pulls this off per season is unclear.

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

My only other innovation this spring is a small solar-powered fountain to go in the large concrete birdbath.  I’m hoping the aeration will hold down the algae growth and cleaning chores.  The birds may also welcome an occasional shower.  The reviews seem too good to be true, but I’ll let you know.  In the meantime, stay well.

 

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

 

Bird Sleep

 

Just after sunset, with fading light and falling temperature, wave after wave of Canada Geese circled our cove and gracefully landed.  They joined a raucous flock of geese, perhaps 500 or more, apparently judging the cove to be a safe haven for the night.  But with all the honking I wondered if any, myself included, would ever be able to fall asleep.  With darkness, however, they did quiet down, except for the occasional honk from a vigilant sentry goose proclaiming all is well.

Canada Geese, Branta canadensis

As one ages sleep patterns become an issue, and sometimes even a topic of conversation and concern.  Being a curious birder I decided to do a little research, emphasis on little, as to the sleeping habits of our feathered friends.  What’s their sleep pattern, how much do they need, where do they go at night, can they sleep while flying, etc.?  I also scanned my photo archives looking for pictures of sleeping birds.  Unfortunately I usually delete pictures of birds with their eyes closed, but did find a few suitable for this post.

Eastern Screech Owl, Megascops asio

On my bedside nightstand there is a fascinating book by Matthew Walker entitled “Why We Sleep”.  It’s mostly about humans but does include a great chapter about the evolution of sleep.  According to the author a biologic sleep requirement must have evolved very early, as all animals, even insects, demonstrate sleep cycles.  You can confirm this with the characteristic brain waves on the EEG’s of sleeping animals and by periodic cycles of non-arousal of small insects.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

Although all animals require some sleep, the amount and style vary considerably.  Walker states that the length of the restorative sleep requirement is determined by the complexity of the animal’s nervous system.  Both the length and type have evolved separately for every species and are balanced by the equally important need for wakeful hunting, eating, nest-building, and blog writing.

Dunlins, Calidris alpina

We are all familiar with the two types of sleep, REM and non-REM, identified by their characteristic brain waves.  It’s interesting that REM, the shallower sleep stage associated with dreaming, only occurs in mammals and birds.  It is, therefore, a later creation in the evolutionary sequence.  I consider it an “eye opener” to think of birds actually dreaming.

Common Nighthawk, Chordeiles minor

Although there are similarities between avian and human sleep, there are also many differences.  Birds demonstrate hemispheric sleep, the amazing ability to let half the brain sleep while the other half stays wide awake, perhaps as a defense for lurking predators.  At some point this split reverses and the other half falls asleep.  It’s interesting that this hemispheric sleep only occurs with non-REM sleep; REM for some reason, requires total brain participation.

Barred Owl, Strix varia

Frigatebirds are amazing seabirds that can stay aloft without landing for up to two months.  They have one major deficit–they cannot swim.  If forced to land at sea they quickly become water-logged and drown.  So curious Niels Rattenborg and others from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology figured they would be the perfect bird to evaluate for in-flight sleep.

Magnificent Frigatebird, Fregata magnificent     photo by A. Sternick

Rattenborg fastened EEG leads to the skulls of 15 frigatebirds and attached a device to monitor flight speed.  The study confirmed that birds do indeed sleep while flying, but not in the expected manner.  They slept only in short bursts of 10 seconds and only for a total of 45 minutes each day, a much shorter duration than their sleep cycle on land.  They also only used hemispheric sleep while flying, and only slept while gaining altitude in a thermal.  They were completely awake and alert in every gliding descent, perhaps to avoid a lethal crash landing at sea.

Black Skimmers, Rynchops niger

Birds assume many different sleeping positions on land, but I’ve not yet seen one on its back with feet pointing heavenward.  Shorebirds sleep standing up, often on one leg, and usually facing into the wind.  Night herons, owls, and woodpeckers sleep  perched upright.  Their leg muscles in a relaxed state result in a clenched claw, firmly grasping the branch.  Many birds such as the nighthawks sleep horizontally, while some parrots sleep hanging upside down in a bat-like manner.  Many cavity nesters seek out a vacant cavity for the night.

Bonaparte Gull, Larus philadelphia

Birds, like humans, are susceptible to sleep deprivation.  Walker reports that the U.S. government has spent millions investigating the sleep pattern of the lowly White-crowned Sparrow.  If you deprive this bird of sleep during the season it would normally be migrating, it experiences no ill effects.  But similar sleep deprivation at any other time results in catastrophic physiologic brain and body dysfunction.

White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys

I’m not sure how they deprived the little bird of sleep; perhaps with bright lights and continuous Barry Manilow songs at high volume.  In any case, this bird has apparently evolved some protective mechanism for sleep deprivation that the U.S. government would love to uncover.

Black-crowned Night-Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

Have you noticed how difficult it is to sleep the first night in a new hotel and bed?  I now believe this is a throwback to my evolutionary past.  Is there a Sabre-toothed Tiger lurking in the bushes or a Wooly Mammoth lumbering past my cave?  Just like the birds I require safe sleep, but haven’t yet mastered that hemispheric trick.  I guess I need that sentinel goose, standing guard and signaling all is well.

Chasing a Vermillion Flycatcher

Vermillion Flycatcher, Pyrocephalus rubinus                             photo by A. Sternick

 

He was only a few months old, but felt that same peculiar urge of his parents and siblings to head south and leave his Texas birthplace behind.  The storm blew up unexpectedly from the west, quickly separating him from the flock.  The wind carried him over open water, big water, and for two tiresome days he rode the storm eastward.  Finally the fury calmed and the green Florida coastline beckoned the exhausted solitary Vermillion Flycatcher.

The eBird rarity alert had been posting news of the flycatcher, with multiple sightings, all at the Oasis visitor’s parking lot of the Big Cypress National Preserve.  I had previously seen these gorgeous birds in Texas and Arizona, but for Andy it would be a lifer.  In a sense it was also a lifer for Andy’s house guest, John who agreed to join us for the chase.  John was not a birder, but an astute observer of nature, human and otherwise, and curious to see the source of all the excitement.

Vermillion Flycatcher, male                    (seen in Texas)

In a previous post called “Chasing Rarities in South Florida” (3/3/2016), I defined a birder’s increasing levels of chasing fervor.  Since this was a 100 mile roundtrip, but did not leave the expansive Collier County, it would be considered a mid-level or Class 3 adventure.  Retirement allows such fun and games.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

We all knew the chance of actually seeing our target bird was very low, as Andy quipped, “one in vermillion”.  After all, the Cypress Swamp is vast and birds have wings and fly away in the blink of an eye.  At least we could show John some impressive Florida alligators.

American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis

The flycatcher family, Tyrannidae, is notorious for its drab plumage, making the identification of its various members one of a birder’s greatest challenges.  Not so the Vermilliion Flycatcher.  The flamboyant male in breeding attire stands out from great distance as it makes its usual roundtrip from perch, to bug, and back again to the same perch.

Anhinga, Ahhinga anhinga

Our Florida bird, however, was a more muted juvenile bird, or perhaps the similar adult female, with much more subtle coloring.  You Latin scholars know that Pyrocephalus rubinus was aptly named.  Ornithologists are deep in the academic weeds sorting out the various subspecies of P. rubinus, including an isolated group on the Galapagos.  Some are for splitting the monotypic genus into multiple new species.  These DNA debates lose me quickly; wake me up when the final answer is in.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

Notorious poachers tried to capture and sell the males to pet stores, however it soon became apparent that the brilliant hue quickly dulled in captivity.  I suspect the captors failed to reproduce the bird’s native diet.  In any case, this stymied the practice before it could seriously deplete the population.

Vermillion Flycatcher                                  (seen in Arizona)

The Oasis parking lot is almost halfway across the state of Florida, along the old Alligator Alley.  It was a busy place with most, I dare say all, of the clientele there to see the large gators.  They weren’t disappointed as the boardwalk along the drainage ditch allowed great views of these slithering prehistoric monsters.    Wading birds foolishly seemed to ignore the prowling gators which I’m sure imbibe a feathery meal whenever hunger calls.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

We finally left the crowd and headed to the parking lot where the flycatcher had been reported.  An incredible drama with comedic and tragic elements ensued.  A Red-shouldered Hawk had just caught a fish from the ditch and was settling in for quiet lunch up a tree, when he was mobbed by two squawking American Crows who won the prize fish and drove the hawk from the scene.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos               photo by A. Sternick

Andy was busy taking pictures of the chaos and trying to explain to quizzical John why these were American Crows and not Fish Crows, given their obvious diet.  As he inched ever closer for the perfect shot a panel truck pulled in and parked directly between the Andy and his quarry.  Murphy’s Law strikes again.  Just about this same time I noticed a salmon-colored blur in my peripheral vision.  It was the Vermillion Flycatcher on the fence, right where the report said he had been days before.  As I turned to yell to Andy across the parking lot a motorcycle gang, finished with gator gazing, simultaneously started their bikes and drowned me out.  The bird however, luckily ignored the decibels and my frantic gesticulations, which Andy finally saw and comprehended.

The deprived hawk

Hundreds of shots later the bird moved on, perhaps to Central or South America for the winter, or maybe just to the next parking lot, while we headed back to Naples.  John got to see two happy birders celebrate a successful chase and perhaps he now understands his obsessive friends and their strange hobby a little better.  His life list is now at 1, and counting.

John & Andy

There are 20 million Vermillion Flycatchers in the world, but only 10% spend any time in the United States.  Most of those breed in the far southern portions of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.  Only a scarce few ever visit Florida, and those likely by accident and just along the west coast.  We were fortunate enough to see one of these last week.