Civilization?

Canada Geese, Branta canadensis

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

Eastern Bluebird, Scalia sialis

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

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

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

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

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

European Starlings, Sturnus vulgaris

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

Missouri River at Eagle Bluffs

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

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

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

Blue-winged Teal, Anas discors

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

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

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

Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas

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

Good-bye to the Strange Birds of Florida

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

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

Anhinga (female), Anhinga anhinga

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

American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis

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

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

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

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

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

Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

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

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

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

Short-tailed Hawk (white morph), Buteo brachyurus

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

Mottled Duck, Anas fulvigula

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

Snail Kite, Rostrhamus sociabilis

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

Groove-billed Ani, Crotophaga sulcirostris

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

Mangrove cuckoo, Coccyzus minor

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

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

The Cumberland Gap and Its Birds

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

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

Tufted Titmouse, Baeolophus bicolor

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

Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe

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

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

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

Cumberland Gap and surroundings

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

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

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

Yours truly at Pinnacle Overlook, Homo sapiens

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

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

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

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus

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

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

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

The Crimes and Violence of Birds

Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens

It’s a fairy tale or fake news to believe all is sweet and peaceful in the world of birds. We are enchanted by their melodious tweets and beautiful plumage, and are often found among them in seemingly peaceful natural settings, but don’t be fooled. Their world is one without constables or arbiters of justice. There are no rules, other than “might makes right”, “survival of the fittest”, and “it’s okay if you can get away with it”.

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

Their crimes range from petty theft to rape and murder. We birders are onlookers into this world which is similar to our old Wild West, and are grateful for our, albeit fragile, institutions of justice. As we bird we are witnesses to many of these crimes and often wonder what it would be like living in their world. Occasionally I’m even tempted to intervene on behalf of a victimized bird, but usually hold back and let nature take its course and toll.

American Wigeon, Anas americana

Many of their crimes are mere misdemeanors. This would include the holes the Red-bellied Woodpecker is making in my sister-in-law’s cedar siding. The crows, jays, and gulls are perfecters of the art of petty theft. The former two are attracted to shiny objects, while the latter steals food, literally from the mouths of their careless victims. This usually results in a chase, sometimes resulting in a maimed fish dropped back into the ocean with no party getting any satisfaction.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

A somewhat more onerous and significant crime is the practice of brood parasitism as I’ve discussed in prior posts. This disgusts our human sense of fairness and personal responsibility, but evolution has apparently blessed it as a successful tactic among many bird species. The initial crime is the stealthy planting of the itinerant egg in the nest of the unsuspecting parent-to-be, but the atrocity is magnified when the robust hatchling pushes the other weaker step-sibling out of the nest.

Brown-headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater

Many avian disputes are over territory and nesting rights, somewhat similar to those issues which crowd our human court dockets. The Red-winged Blackbird claims his territory with a beautiful song, but don’t let that fool you. He’ll attack any other bird, even a larger foe, that dares interlope into his nesting sphere of influence.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

My friends Andy and Sam were accidental witnesses to a spectacular avian air battle between an adult Bald Eagle and Osprey. Andy was even dexterous enough to grab a camera and snap off a shot or two to document the event. Unfortunately, in cases such as that one shoots the pictures first, and checks camera settings later. It seemed like the smaller Osprey got the better of that fight. It was probably a territorial spat with the eagle getting too close to the Osprey’s nest. As you know, Bald Eagles are opportunistic scavengers, often feasting on the killings of others.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

Hawks and owls, on the other hand, are merciless killers, always on the prowl to feed themselves and their offspring. Often their victims are other birds, but small mammals are also unsafe around a hungry bird-of-prey. In my yard Accipiters have become good at patrolling the bird feeders, flying in fast and low to take an innocent, unsuspecting passerine. We can take some comfort in that such killings are a necessity of life for the raptor.

Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus

In my last post I reported the rape of a Muscovy Duck. I will hazard a completely uninformed guess and venture that most sex among birds is consensual. I may be completely wrong about this, but do point out that many birds do mate for life. That lasting bond would be hard to imagine if it began with a rape, but admittedly I’m anthropomorphizing. Those ducks, however, did seem to cross a line, with no avian justice in sight.

Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens

I was recently chasing a rarity Iceland Gull on Fort Myers beach, unsuccessfully, when I snuck up on a Reddish Egret and was rewarded with my closest shots ever of the great bird. Suddenly a second egret swooped in and I witnessed a prolonged battle; or was it courtship and copulation? I find it hard to differentiate these with the birds.

So with all the violence, what is the mortality rate among birds? In this year of the pandemic our human death rates are plastered on the headlines daily. A few things are clear in the avian world. Larger birds live longer than smaller birds, but why is this so? Perhaps it’s because the larger birds are near the top of the food chain and less often preyed upon. Banding data has reported some longevity record life spans: Red-tailed Hawks and Brown Pelicans, 28 years; American Robin, 14 years; Eastern Bluebird, 10 years; and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 9 years. Most birds, however have much shorter lives.

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

It’s estimated that 80-90% of birds do not live to maturity. This is a striking number, but when one remembers the numerous eggs laid and multiple broods per year created by a mating pair, it makes perfect sense. If they all survived we would be inundated with birds, just like an Alfred Hitchcock film. It’s also said that the mortality rate of birds is six times higher during spring and fall migrations. Travel is risky, as we all know.

Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna

It’s difficult to determine how many birds die at the hands or feet of other birds, or from avian diseases. Data regarding bird deaths caused by us humans is more readily available. Collisions with buildings and glass claim an astounding 600 million birds a year; collisions with vehicles, 200 million, and electric wires, 25 million. Six million birds succumb to electrocution each year and one such case was chronicled in my post of 17 November 2019. Our pesticides claim another 72 million per year, and who knows how many die from their loss of habitat. But all these numbers pale next to the 2.4 billion birds killed yearly by domestic and feral cats. That shocking number is hard to believe.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

How can I conclude such a morbid post of avian crime and death? Perhaps by showing you two Great Blue Herons in love, or by simply stating that these are observations of life on our planet as it is, and not as we wish it to be. It’s merely a description of both the beautiful and fair, right along with the ugly and unjust.

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.

Best Birds of 2020

Boat-tailed Grackle

How can there be a best of anything in 2020, you say. To quote my young friend, “The only thing that’s open is nothing!” Isn’t this another year that will live in infamy, similar to Queen Elizabeth’s recent personal annus horribilis. It’s true that I couldn’t take any foreign birding trips and had to stick to the local patches, but even those gave up some decent shots.

Little Blue Heron
White-eyed Vireo

It seems I have quite a number of shots of passerines, peaking out among the leaves and only partially visible. But isn’t this just the way of our birding lives; fleeting glances of beauty, here for a second and then gone forever. Sounds like there’s a sermon in there, waiting to be preached.

Red-shouldered Hawk
Blue-winged Teal

I’ve chosen the inevitable “F” shots, feeding, flocking, and flying. Birds just being birds while we voyeurs, aka birders, watch and shoot.

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Sandhill Crane

I know it’s just a Mallard, but if you put the accent on the second syllable and look very closely you’ll see some real beauty in that common puddle duck.

Mallard

I try to avoid the classic poses or portrait views, however some sneak anyway by virtue of color, background, or other photographic features. I don’t usually get a clear shot of the Painted Bunting in the “wild” away from the Corkscrew Swamp bird feeder, so I’ve included that lucky view and marvel again at this spectacular bird.

Painted Bunting
Anhinga
Short-tailed Hawk

The Short-tailed Hawk shot is not technically anything special, but reminds me of my first sighting of this nemesis bird. Everyone was reporting this bird in Florida, except me. Finally I learned to look up, way up and found him circling in a kettle of vultures. Looking up; you’d think that would come naturally to a true birder. Sounds like the makings of another sermon.

Eastern Bluebird
Tricolor Heron
Loggerhead Shrike

Lastly, there are shots that just strike my fancy because of color, texture, background, or lighting. In particular I like that dark Grackle posed on nature’s blues and greens, and that Bluebird in a similar setting.

White-eyed Vireo
Red-shouldered Hawks

There’s only six shopping days left before Christmas and perhaps a last chance for a few more lucky shots. Until next year, hope your Christmas and New Year’s holidays are joyful and safe, and thank you again for your interest and comments over this last annus horribilis.

Birding Et Cetera

Brown Pelicans, Pelecanus occidentalis

I had to cancel birding trips to upper Michigan and Costa Rica, twice because of this dastardly virus. A small price compared to the plight of many, but sometimes I think of all the birds I have not seen, and now may never see. Today as I performed by autumnal chore, raking leaves, it dawned on me that this was a lot like birding. You’ll never get every leaf, they’re still more to fall, in fact they are falling right behind you as you rake. It’s a perfect example of my favorite mantras of life; “just get the worst of it”, “do your best”, “make a small differene”, or “just save one”.

Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea

The reservoir of new birds for me may as well be infinite, not the 10,000+ we are told about. Even with Michigan and Costa Rica, I’m just scratching the surface. I have to chuckle when I check the “yes” box on eBird that queries whether you reported every bird that was seen or heard on the trip. We all know “yes” is a white lie. It’s good to realize your limitations right up front and then adjust your attitude to “just get the worst of it”.

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

For birders that involves adding some variety to your hobby as you visit the same patch for the umpteenth time and see the same old birds. I recently visited Florida again, post-election; it’s still there. It still had the feel of the summertime tropics, hot and humid, with afternoon brief monsoons. Andy and I birded our two favorite spots, Bird Rookery Swamp and Eagle Lake Community Park. I was hoping to visit the famous Corkscrew Audubon Sanctuary but they required an advanced reservation; much too formal and confining for our style.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

The obvious birding enhancements include keeping the daily list and hopefully adding a lifer now and then. No matter where I bird, 30 species is a good day. A really good day is 40 and above and usually necessitates several sets of eyes, some audible-only ticks, a visit to multiple sites, seeing some uncommon birds, and a long evening soak in the hot tub. Three of us in south Florida got to 70 once. It was a long day.

Red-shouldered Hawks, Buteo lineatus

But I’m talking about more unusual enhancements. Let me pass on a few that we’ve discovered. The first involves photography. One should always strive for the sharply focused and perfectly exposed shot, but we’re on the lookout for something additional; perhaps feeding, flying, or mating birds. The moon was still visible that day and the air was filled with birds. Let’s set up the perfect shot with bordering branches and the moon and wait for a bird to fly into our field, or maybe even right across the face of the moon. We waited, and waited, how long does one wait for something like this? Our limit was 10 minutes. It never happened and we moved on. We did get a decent close flyover of a Cooper’s Hawk but he was a long way from the moon.

Cooper’s Hawk, Accipiter cooperii

As we walked the fence line I asked Andy, “what bird we invariably see perched right here.” He correctly responded, the Loggerhead Shrike. Almost immediately one flew in and posed on the chain link fence. But then a second flew in and perched right next to the first. Now it became more interesting. And then the male started a courtship dance, right before our eyes, and became more frantic when his lover seemingly ignored it all. But for us it was a home run.

Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus

The fence surrounded a baseball field and green scoreboard. It was Andy’s idea to line up the mating Shrikes with the “Strike” sign in the background. Weird, but very interesting. The male was busy, bowing down, tilting his head back, singing, and displaying his tail feathers and never noticed us edging closer for the perfect shot of the not-so-private lives of these birds. The male did not strike out.

Loggerhead Shrikes

When you run out of birds, think butterflies. It was a big butterfly day, great light, flowering Florida shrubs, and migrating Monarchs on their way to Mexico. I’m making a New Year’s resolution to learn my butterflies and plants better; it’s just another enhancement to your birding day.

Monarch, Danaus plexippus

The Shrikes brought up other possibilities. What about creating a portfolio of birds perched on signs. Maybe “keep of the grass”, or “no loitering”, or “beware of the dog”. Not a bad idea, and one that has not been previously done, I’m sure. I’ll begin working on that for a future post, but the Kestrel is a good start.

American Kestrel, Falco sparverius

But there has to be a limit. We always seem to meet interesting people and other birders on the trail. One guy finally revealed in conversation that he grew up in Branchport, New York, one tiny town away from my childhood haunt in Penn Yan, on Keuka Lake. Small world. It was the second guy, however, that left even us shaking our heads.

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus

After the usual pleasantries he pointed out a small flock of Common Gallinules on a pond. So what, I thought to myself. But he then went on to relate that he had been observing them for days, nesting, laying eggs, hatching, etc. He knew that there were initially two families and which hatchlings belonged to which parents. He also knew that some of the young had changed parents and nests and were being raised by the “wrong” adult. How did he know all this? Think of the hours he must have spent, sitting on the shoreline of the pond and taking this all in. We shook our heads, thanked him for the info, and moved on.

Cattle Egrets, Bibulous ibis

Then he called us back to warn us about an unusual large lizard that he had observed nearby in the tall grass. Of course he knew both the common and Latin names, genus and species, as well as the details of the reptile’s life story, recently imported from somewhere, I can’t remember where. Too much information. We wondered, are we becoming just like him in our retirement? But I recognize that it takes meticulous observers, just like him, to move the ball of knowledge forward. Think of Darwin and his cataloging of those bland finches, and his spectacular contribution to science. We just decided, however that we had reached our personal limits with the mating Shrikes and the moon shots.

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.