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.

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.

Who Saw That Bird First?

Cinnamon Teal, Anas cyanoptera

If a birding year has a theme, this one has been chasing rarities in Florida. On the surface it sounds like adventure birding, combing through alligator-infested swamps and among trees dripping with Spanish moss, all to make a discovery for “science”. Not really. With but one notable exception, these are rare birds which have been discovered here, outside their normal ranges, by others; meticulous birders tuned to the minutiae of this pursuit much more than I will ever be.

Palm Warbler, Dendroica palmarum

Just this week eBird reported a Cinnamon Teal just east of Fort Myers. I had previously ticked this bird in southern Arizona in its expected range, but Andy had never laid eyes on it. After getting temporarily lost in the rural steppe of Old Florida, we came upon the reported site, easily identified by two other cars on the shoulder and birders sporting the telltale scopes aiming at a roadside pond. We were kept at bay by a wire fence and several large cows. The shallow pond or watering hole was 75 yards away and a dozen dozing ducks were backlit and poorly seen. If it wasn’t for the kind birder who invited us to peer through his scope we would have never seen the teal.

American Coot, Fulica americana

This begs the question, who saw that bird first, anyhow? Someone must have pulled over along the remote road, and carefully studied the plumage of all those distant ducks. Despite the poor viewing conditions, they recognized the plumage of the vagrant bird, and properly called it a Cinnamon Teal. Now that’s a real birder. The rest of us who flock to the site of his or her discovery are just interlopers. That first intrepid birder also had to convince the skeptics at eBird of the sighting, whereas all the rest of us had to do was report a “continuing bird”.

Mangrove Cuckoo, Coccyzus minor

There are many examples of my interloping tendencies. Take that recent Mangrove Cuckoo at Ding Darling, the Groove-billed Ani and Ash-throated Flycatcher at Festival Park, and the Hammond’s Flycatcher at Corkscrew and the Vermilion Flycatcher last season in the Great Cypress Swamp. Some careful birder had the thrill of the initial discovery and was willing to pass it along to the rest of us via eBird.

Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis

Back up north, a few years ago, I chased a Glaucous Gull reported way down in southern Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; talk about rural and off the beaten track. I amazed myself by finally seeing this white gull among many others, just as I was preparing to pack up and head home, disappointed. There it was, flying in like an apparition, allowing the perfect shot. Who saw it first among the teeming flock of similar gulls swarming around the waterman, fighting for his discarded bait?

Glaucous Gull, Larus hyperboreus

I crossed over into Delaware and to the shore of its large bay chasing a reported Sabine’s Gull. It also seemed like a hopeless task, scoping all the birds from the deck of the Dupont Nature Center. There were thousands of shorebirds, gulls, and terns on the breakwater and opposite shore of the inlet over a hundred yards away. They periodically rose and landed in a confusing and frenzied flock. Who saw that slightly different bird with a black hood and yellow-tipped bill among the many commoners? Fortunately another birder pointed the rarity out to me and I gratefully added another tick to my life list. Just a guiltless interloper.

Lesser Scaup, Aythya affinis

Andy and I did make one initial sighting of a rarity ourselves; or perhaps a semi-rarity. We were at Eagle Lake, near Naples, toward the end of our birding trek and talking more about politics than birds, when I noticed a perching black bird right off the trail. It was too large for a grackle and too small for a crow, and had a bulky bill. About the same time we both blurted out, “Ani”. We knew the bird from a prior trip to Panama, but had never seen it in Florida. It was a Smooth-billed Ani.

Common Gallinule, Gallinula chloropus

We posted our observation on eBird and had our fifteen minutes of fame in the birder’s world, as the initial discoverers. But our notoriety was short-lived. Another birder, posted the same bird a few days later and reported the Ani as “the continuing bird, first seen by…” He gave credit to someone else; we were robbed; our sighting was thereafter assigned to another! C’est la vie. We know who was really first, just that one time.

Smooth-billed Ani, Crotophagi ani

Don’t think for a moment that our chasing of rarities down here is universally successful. Careful observers have been reporting a small flock of Redheads, the duck I mean, down in Sugden Park, near Naples. I’ve seen the bird in Maryland, but never down here in the heat of South Florida, and Andy had never seen it anywhere. We got excited when we saw a single duck with a light back and dark head swimming off shore, but closer observation revealed a Lesser Scaup. Andy tried to convince me that the head had a reddish tinge, but that was just the wishful thinking of a frustrated birder.

Pied-billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps

I’ve made two more “empty” trips to the park to see this duck and Andy is now up to six excursions, still with no luck, even on a day when other birders had reported the target Redhead. His greater efforts reflect that urge to add a life bird, something that all birders will understand.

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

Those trips are really not “empty”. Birders also know that there is never a bad birding day, but rather a chance to see some antics of common birds, try a new photographic technique, or catch a bird in an unlikely pose. Those coot and gallinule shots are from the Sugden trip. The Limpkin seemed like an uncommon bird here just a few years ago, but not now. In fact one keeps us awake nightly with its ghastly call, right outside our condo window.

Muscovy Ducks, Cairina moschata

I ended the Sugden Pond trip witnessing the almost brutal copulation of two Muscovy Ducks. Ducks are known for their aggressive breeding habits, and now I can attest to that. The larger male chased and finally caught the female and almost drowned her in the long process. She finally did escape and survive, but barely. It was all just another sighting on an “empty” trip chasing rarities in south Florida.

Birding Cape Coral, Florida

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

As I walk through these beautiful and lush tropical gardens of southwest Florida, I often stop and think, if I was a bird, this is exactly where I’d be. What more could I ask for, surrounded by flowering shrubs too numerous to name, orchids and bromeliads clinging to the trunks of palms, and a climate to die for. So I sit and wait with the binos at the ready, and no birds show up. I guess I don’t think like a bird and should perhaps take some comfort in that. But just remember, in terms of weight of gray matter per body weight, the birds stack up quite well against me, and unfortunately their advantage seems to be growing.

Palm Warbler, Dendroica palmarum

So where are all the birds hanging out down here? At least in the last several weeks, many of them, including a couple rarities, have chosen the unlikely habitat of Cape Coral, slightly west of Fort Myers. Cape Coral is another planned Florida community. In 1957 the Rosen brothers of Baltimore flew over what was then known as Redfish Point and had a vision. They purchased 103 square miles for $678,000 and sub-divided it into a grid of small, affordable lots. An extensive canal system was dug to drain the swamp, eventually measuring 400 miles in length.

Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia

The Rosens marketed this land throughout the U.S., offering free dinners and a money-backed guarantee if a buyer should change his mind when he finally examined his purchase. By 1963 2850 souls lived on Cape Coral; today there are 194,000.

American Kestrel, Falco sparverius

There are still many empty lots available. I first saw a Burrowing Owl on a vacant lot there several years ago and recently eBird has been reporting sightings of Florida Scrub Jays, and a single Groove-billed Ani and Ash-throated Flycatcher. The temptation was just too much to resist, so Andy and I took the drive north to check it out–twice in one week.

Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus

The report said the birds were located in Festival Park, but you won’t find such a park on any map. Luckily eBird also shows you a map with latitude and longitude, and with a GPS it should be easy to find. Actually, it was not all that easy. Remember, Cape Coral is crisscrossed with canals, interrupting streets and avenues, seemingly in every direction. We got lost, even on the second visit, but eventually found the park on the corner of NW 26 Street and NW 11 Place. If you see some gas-powered model airplanes buzzing overhead, you know you are getting close.

There is no discernible park there; just more vacant lots with a somewhat larger area set aside with a barely mowed field containing a few stands of taller shrubs and wild palms. This is not the Florida landscape that would attract me, but these birds think differently–big time. On our first visit we parked the car off the dirt road when we saw the telltale group of birders, all looking in the same direction. That’s a sure sign you’re in the right place and sure makes your job easier. The Ani would occasionally poke his head out and fly 100 yards to another perch, and the flock of birders would follow. We finally got some good shots with the sun behind us. A black bird is a tough photographic challenge.

Groove-billed Ani, Crotophaga sulcirostris

The Groove-billed Ani is a Mexican and Central American bird, rarely seen in Florida. It appeared to be alone and obviously was lost. Perhaps the sandy soil and scant vegetation reminded him of home. We’ll never know for sure. This bird should be differentiated from the Smooth-billed Ani which is much more common in the Caribbean and south Florida.

Groove-billed Ani, Crotophaga sulcirostris

This “park” attracts many other species of birds as well. Loggerhead Shrikes perched on every telephone wire, vying for a spot with the occasional American Kestrel. Eastern Meadowlarks loved the uncut fields and led us on a merry chase as we tried to get a good flight shot. It didn’t happen. We were trudging through the short grass when we flushed a bunch of quail, scampering away upright, as they do. Andy attributed this to fate. He had never seen a Northern Bobwhite and just happened to be working on a jigsaw puzzle of quail back at home. Jigsaw puzzling is a major pastime down here in Florida. I tried to reward him by setting him up for the perfect flight shot, as perhaps Steven Spielberg might do. He got ready, feet apart, camera up and in rapid fire mode, no zoom, etc., while I inched forward to flush the Bobwhites. Usually a bird will fly away from you when you do this, but this time, in a flurry of commotion and beating wings, they flew right at Andy, He was too busy ducking to get off a shot.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna

For some reason, on that first visit to Festival Park we ignored the flycatcher reports. The Ash-throated Flycatcher is also way out of its usual range which is normally the Rocky Mountains, Western U.S. and Mexico. There are no mountains at Cape Coral. Since the sighting persisted on eBird we returned specifically to see it a few days later. Again we found a small group of birders led by an alpha male walking through the park. Andy hooked up with that group while I set out alone. Sure as shooting, the alpha male found the bird first. By the time I showed up, the best poses were done and the bird had spooked to the denser underbrush. I did get enough of a look to honestly tick it as my latest life bird.

Ash-throated Flycatcher, Myiarchus cinerascens (photo by A. Sternick)

Think Great-crested Flycatcher when looking for this bird. To me it’s just a slightly smaller version, with perhaps a paler throat. I’m guessing these two birds shared a common ancestor recently–perhaps ten million years ago, and one went west while the other came east on our continent. This western bird on Cape Coral is likely just searching for his long lost cousin.

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.

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

 

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.

Black Birds

Smooth-billed Ani, Crotophagia ani                                   photo by A. Sternick

 

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise

 

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these sunken eyes and learn to see

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to be free.

Paul  McCartney

Boat-tailed Grackle, Quiscalus major

At first we thought it was just another Boat-tailed Grackle.  Common things are common, but we simultaneously called out “Ani” after getting a better look through the binoculars.  A little more in-depth birding identified it as the Smooth-billed Ani, not the rarer Groove-billed cousin.  All black bird with long tail and bizarre oversized bill with a small rhino hump on top.  The cat-like whining call nailed it down.  What we didn’t know at the time was that the sighting was the first eBird record of the bird at this hotspot.

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

The walk in Eagle Lakes Community Park in Naples, Florida was intended to be for exercise.  We had recently arrived from the frigid north and needed to attend to the extra layers of insulating fat acquired over the holidays.  Our spouses, true to the mission, took off at a power pace, but Andy and I got hung up counting coots at the gazebo.  At least I had left the camera home–Andy had not.

Smooth-billed Ani, Crotophagia ani      photo by A. Sternick

When will I learn?  Always bring the camera.  You never know when you’ll see something unusual, a new bird, a flight or feeding shot, etc.  I had only seen the Ani in Panama, and never in south Florida.  It is much more common in the West Indies and South America with a declining population in Florida.  Our theory is that recent Atlantic storms may have blown it in from the Bahamas.  In any case it was a great find and was posted on the eBird rarity alert for the county, triggering a lot of frenzied birders’ visitations to Eagle Lakes.

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga

I don’t usually publish other birder’s pictures, but Andy graciously lent me these two to document the sighting, (he only took several hundred shots of the bird).  That’s another plus of digital photography.  When you have a good bird or pose, just start snapping away; check your settings after the first 10; readjust and keeping snapping.  Post-processing and deleting is done later at home.

Black Kite, Milvus migrans

Photographing a dark or back bird is not easy, and practically impossible if the subject is backlit.  Even with the sunlight behind the camera you’ll need to raise your exposure compensation settings several steps.  The goal is to resolve the subtle shades and textures of the dark feathers, even bringing out some of the irridescence often seen in the male grackles and starlings.

Phainopepla, Phainopepla nitens

The wide range of bird feather coloration is caused by either of two factors:  pigmentation, or the microscopic structure of the feather, or a combination of both.  The three pigments of note are the carotenoids (giving vivid yellows and oranges), the melanins (giving black and browns), and porphyrins (resulting in a variety of pinks, browns and red).  In each case the resultant color is due  to the reflected wavelength, the other colors and wavelengths are absorbed by the pigment.

Raven, Corvus corax

The other color-determining factor is the microscopic structure of the feather’s keratin proteins.  These layered proteins refract the incident light to varying degrees with our eyes perceiving the resultant composite wavelengths.

Brown-headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater

It’s interesting to note that there is no blue pigment.  The blue coloration of blue birds is entirely due to refraction.  The iridescent feathers seen in some birds, including many hummingbirds and some black birds, is also do to this refraction of light by the prism-like protein layers and the viewing angle of the observer.

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

Black birds are black primarily due to melanin pigments which absorb all the incident wavelengths of light.  White birds on the other hand reflect all wavelengths of the visible spectrum and absorb nothing.  It interesting to note that melanin pigments also add strength to the feathers.  This may well be why some of the white birds have black wingtips, edges, and other sites of wear and tear.  The White Ibis and Wood Stork are good examples of this.

White Ibis, Endocimus albus

When talking about black birds, especially the Corvids, the topic of bird intelligence invariably comes up.  Corvidae is a large family of blackbirds including crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, and magpies, all known for their mental capacity.

Pied Cuckoo, Clamator jacobinus

People who know and measure these things put Corvid intelligence right near the top of the animal kingdom, surpassed only by man and some other higher mammals.  Their brain-to-body mass ratio is similar to that of the Great Apes and whales, only surpassed by Homo sapiens.  Observation of their feeding habits, memorization skills, use of tools, problem solving, and organized group behavior all speak to this higher level of intelligence.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

I’m not generally a paranoid person, but these days, whenever I hear a “black bird singing in the dead of night” I’ll wonder what he’s saying and what he’s thinking.  Is it just an innocent song of aspiration, or could he be hatching some nefarious plot?  While walking through the woods, if a cawing murder of crows passes overhead, I’ll keep an eye on them, just in case.  They’re smarter than you think.

Chasing Rarities in Florida

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Broad-billed Hummingbird

 

There are avid birders who are dedicated chasers, scanning e-Bird and other internet sites daily in hopes of finding the unexpected rarity, possibly blown into a new territory during migration, or just confused, or possibly exerting some bird independence and desire to “see the world”.  There are definitive definitions for a “rarity”, but I believe this a relative term determined separately for each birder by their level of experience and individual life list.  When I was a novice I remember getting excited about a “new” bird almost daily while other birders passed over the same bird with nary a glance.  But as one’s life list expands and the new sightings become less frequent it’s only natural to start chasing.

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Broad-billed Hummingbird, Freedom Park, Naples, FL

Hummingbirds other than Ruby-throateds are a rarity in the East, so I was excited when e-Bird announced a Broad-billed in Freedom Park Naples, Florida, five miles from my home.  The bird had been seen for several days and the alert described the exact location “just off the path, next to the restroom, on the flowering shrub”.  It could have said, “just look for the numerous anxious birders standing next to the bush with binoculars and cameras at the ready”.  I’m always surprised when the bird shows up, right as advertised.  My only regret was the lighting and photos were not perfect, but this was a successful chase.

IMG_3968

Florida Scrub Jay

The Florida Scrub Jay is an endangered bird, but not necessarily a true rarity in it’s ever shrinking territory in Florida.  It prefers the sandy soil and Slash Pines of the central and eastern part of the state which required some traveling for me.  The Lyonia Preserve in Deltona, Volusia County near Interstate 95 is one of the best places to find this bird and I was excited to schedule a stop there on our annual spring drive home.  We are “snow birds”. Even the light rain would not deter me from looking for this rarity as my spouse slept patiently in the car.  Amazed again, it appeared in the pines less than a quarter mile from the trail-head. I decided to play its call on my I-phone in hopes of getting a closer photo.  As I watched through the optical finder the bird took off and surprised me by landing on my head!  That accounts for the photo below as I twisted the camera for the documenting shot. After the jay flew away I put the hat on the ground, thinking that was the attraction, set up the perfect shot and lighting angle, and replayed the call.  The jay returned, but this time landed on my bare head.  Enough of this.  I don’t think anyone would believe this story if I didn’t have the hat shot.  I’ve since learned that this is a common behavior for this overly friendly and endangered bird.

IMG_4925

My lucky hat shot.

Chasing rarities is occasionally a “wild goose chase”.  It took me several visits to the Babcock Webb Wildlife Management Area  near Punta Gorda before I sighted a Red-cockaded Woodpecker, another threatened bird. If you go there look for a cavity in the tall long-leafed pines and the fresh dripping sap from the woodpecker holes, making the trees look like a giant waxy candle.   That’s where the birds hang out.  Sorry, I didn’t get a good photo of this rarity, but submit this other shot of a non-rarity woodpecker from S. Florida.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

E-bird got me and a birding companion excited again with a sighting of Fulvous Whistling Ducks and a Cinnamon Teal in a flooded field waiting for drainage and planting, about 25 miles inland from our coastal home.  We had just arrived and set up our scopes along the road when a white van pulled over and a large man with more gold in his teeth than I’ve ever seen walked over to check us out.  He skeptically looked at the field when I told him I was watching birds, but was truly amazed and pleased when I showed him the wading birds through the scope.  I think we may have created a new birder.  The only down-side of his visit was the strong odor of his after-shave that lingered on my scope the rest of the day.  Note-to-self:  use that product sparingly.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks

Right after he pulled away a Collier County Sheriff’s car pulled up and the officer strolled over to also check us out.  We were relieved when he said, “don’t worry boys, I’m just on break and need to stretch.”  It was his accent that was rare–the most classic Queen’s, New York speech you’ve ever heard in S. Florida.  He’d had enough of New York and had moved to paradise a few years earlier. He spent 30 minutes of his break with us talking NY Giant football, election politics, but there was little birding conversation.  I snuck that shot of the Northern Harrier below, between police stories.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

As for the bird rarities there, we never saw the Cinnamon Teal–the photo below was taken in Arizona.  What we originally thought were Fulvous Whistling Ducks turned out to be juvenile Black-bellied, which became clear once we saw the parent with the prominent orange bill.  The true rarities of this trip were the two Homo sapiens visitors.

IMG_2223

Cinnamon Teal

Bunche Beach on San Carlos Bay in Lee County is a historic spot, but not just for the birding.  It is appropriately named for Dr. Ralph Bunche, the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Price.  In 1949 the Black community purchased a half acre of the beach which became the only beach available for people of color in all of S. Florida at the time.  Thankfully we have come a long way since then.

Marbled Godwit, photo by A. Sternick at Bunche Beach

Marbled Godwit, photo by A. Sternick at Bunche Beach

Greater Flamingo, photo by A. Sternick at Bunche Beach

Greater Flamingo, photo by A. Sternick at Bunche Beach

We were responding to an e-Bird alert alert regarding a Greater Flamingo, Long-billed Curlew, and Marbled Godwit sightings at the beach when 5 of us set out on the 50 mile drive to the north. Two of our party had recently seen and photographed these birds at Bunche Beach and were anxious for us to share their success. Chaser’s win some and lose some.  I did see the Godwit with a scope, maybe a quarter mile off-shore on a sandbar, but it was not a satisfying sighting and problematic whether it should even be listed. I did however get some one of my best pictures of Semipalmated and Piping Plovers in the same frame.

Semipalmated & Piping Plovers

Semipalmated & Piping Plovers

As you may know the ABA has codified the relative rarity of birds into six codes starting at “Common” and ending with “Probably or Definitely Extinct”.  In the spirit of this I submit these six progressive codes for the birders who pursue rarities.

Code 1:  Will leave favorite TV show to run to the window to view a bird at the feeder, not previously seen in the current year.

Code 2:  Will check out a “new” bird in the yard or in the neighbor’s yard if it’s easily seen over the fence, as long as its over 55 degrees and you’re not eating dinner.

Code 3:  Will chase an e-Bird rarity anywhere in the county if it’s not on your life-list or previously seen in the last year.

Code 4:  As above, but the territory is expanded to the entire state.

Code 5:  Will leave work or home and go anywhere at anytime to chase a rarity in the lower 48 states, and try to rationalize behavior to boss or spouse later.

Code 6:  Will chase a rarity anywhere on the continent as soon as you find a new job and the divorce settlement comes through.