Blue Birds

Bluebird at Night by Ember

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

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

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

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

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

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

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

Indigo Bunting, Passerina cyanea

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

Blue Jay

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

Western Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica

Eurasian Jay, Garrulus glandarius

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

Blue Grosbeak, Passerina caerulea

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

Eastern Bluebird, Sialis sialis

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

Western Bluebird, Sialia mexicana

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

Spring Migration 2020

San Domingo Creek

 

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

White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

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

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

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

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

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

Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus

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

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

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

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

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

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

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

Canada Geese, Branta canadensis

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

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

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

Least Tern, Sterna antillarum

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

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

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

Tree Swallow, Tachycinrta bicolor

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

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus

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

Spotted Sandpipers, Actitis macularius                               J. J. Audubon

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

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

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

 

Who’s Chuck Will and Why Did He Die?

 

 

Here’s the good news; we need some these days.  Chuck Will did not die and he has no widow, alone in the world, fending for herself.  “Chuck-will’s-widow” is just another crazy bird name, mimicking the nocturnal call of this elusive bird.  Chasing it down in southwest Florida and confirming its identification added a welcomed diversion to an otherwise monotonous lock-down week.

Eastern Whip-poor-will, Caprimulgus vociferous             photo by A. Sternick

It all started innocently enough at the end of a sunset walk to the beach with my better half.  We sorely needed some outdoor exercise and fresh air; no birding allowed.  Then we heard it and I couldn’t ignore it; an unusual but vaguely familiar call repeated over and over.  The bird was some distance away and I missed the first shorter and softer “chuck” syllable, but heard the following “will’s widow” and mistakenly ID’ed it as the three syllable call of the Eastern Whip-poor-will.

Eastern Whip-poor-will                                             photo by M. Burdette

Luckily Mel, a fellow birder, returned to the site the next evening and recorded the entire song.  He, with a big assist from the local eBird monitor, corrected my mistake.  Indeed it was a Chuck-will’s widow, a life bird for both of us, but still without a picture or visual confirmation.

Whip-poor-will, by J.J. Audubon

Both Chuck-will’s-widow and the Eastern and Western Whip-poor-wills, along with the slightly larger but otherwise similar Nighthawks, are members of the Caprimulgidae family and commonly called Nightjars.  This interesting family of birds are much more commonly heard than seen.  I’m going to go out on a limb and declare that the Nightjars are the most difficult land-based birds to see, even if one crawls out on their limb.  The plumage is superbly adapted to blend with leaves and tree bark.  At my first sighting of the Common Nighthawk a patient veteran birder spent several minutes with me before I zeroed in on the bird, a mere lump lying on a horizontal limb.

Common Nighthawk, Chordeiles minor

Don’t sign onto a birder’s tour to New Zealand looking for Nightjars.  It’s practically the only place on Earth with none.  Ninety-eight species inhabit the remainder of the globe, but despite this wide distribution the secretive birds are poorly understood.  Ancient civilizations referred to them as “goat suckers” and others, more recently as “bug eaters”.  I’m told that the moniker for the University of Nebraska used to be “The Bug Eaters”, I suppose with the appropriate bird drawing on their uniforms, before they understandably changed it to “The Cornhuskers”.

Eastern Whip-poor-will                                       photo by A. Sternick

These birds have some peculiar and questionable traits.  They don’t even bother with nests.  Just lay the eggs on the ground and hope for the best.  They like to perch on the highway, perhaps hoping to blend in with the asphalt, but often end up as road kill.  You’ll never see these birds walking.  Their legs are positioned far posteriorly, better suited for a perch than a stroll.

Eastern Towhee, Pipilo erythrophthalmus

The name Nightjar apparently comes from their jarring call after the sun sets.  Rather than jarring, the call to me is melodious and evocative.  It reminds me again of the importance of learning to ID birds by their songs and calls.  As a lock-down mind game I made a list of birds who are named for their song.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

For the first group the name is merely descriptive:  Song Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Mourning Dove, Mockingbird, Laughing Gull, Whooping Crane, Warbler, and Cackling Goose.

Black-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

For the second group the name is onomatopoetic, so helpful in the field for linking the call to a bird.  In addition to Chuck-will’s-widow and the Whip-poor-will I give you the Cuckoo, Chickadee, Phoebe, Bobwhite, Bobolink, Peewee, Veery, Dickcissel, Willet, Grackle, Towhee, Killdeer, Chat, Chachalaca, and Chukar.  I welcome any additions I may have missed.

Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe

We returned to the beach parking lot the following night, armed with cameras and a fancy flash light.  It was hot and humid with more than the usual number of biting no-see-ums and mosquitos, but we were dedicated birders on a mission.  Our eBird reports had sparked interest in another young birder and his family who joined our quest.

Black-capped Chickadee, Poecile atricapillus

They say you can use a flash light and occasionally detect Nightjars by carefully scanning the underbrush and low branches for their retinal shine.  No such luck this time.  Bugs and bites were taking a toll and just as we were packing it in a phantom dark shape flew into the tree right above us.  It immediately began the repetitive “Chuck-will’s-widow” song loud and clear.  We could’t find it with the light and it did not stay long, but a small group of satisfied birders could at least claim a sighting of sorts and tick off another life bird.

Killdeer, Charadrius vociferous

On the way home it occurred to me what a suspicious sight we scruffy birders would have conjured up if one of Naple’s finest had cruised by.  We three, huddled in the darkest corner of the deserted parking lot at dusk, as if transacting an illicit deal.  The streets were all empty and eerily quiet due to the virus.  If he stopped and asked what was up I would have honestly replied that we were waiting for Chuck Will’s widow.  “And who might she be”, he would ask as he radioed downtown for backup.

Birds & Viruses

 

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

Simpkin, Aramus guarauna

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

Mottled Ducks, Anas fulvigula

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

Muscovy Duck, Cairina moschata

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

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

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

A Corona virus

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

House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus

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

Piping Plover, Charadrius melodus

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

Rose-ringed Parakeet, Psittacula krameri

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

Pine Warbler, Dendroica pinus

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

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna

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

Winter Birding in Southwest Florida

Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis

 

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

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius

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

Boat-tailed Grackle, Quiscalus major

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

Blue-headed Vireo, Vireo solitarius

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

Red-tailed Hawks, Buteo lineatus

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

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga

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

Blue-winged Teal, Anas discors

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

Least Flycatcher, Empidonax minimus

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

Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea

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

White-cheeked Pintail, Anas bahamensis

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

Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus

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

Lakes Regional Park

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

Short-tailed Hawk, Buteo brachyurus (light morph)

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

Harns Marsh Preserve

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

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

Purple Gallinule, Porphyrio martinica

Gray-headed Swamp Hen, Porphyrio poliocephalus

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

Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis

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

My “fashionable” companions at Harns Marsh Preserve

 

Birding Clam Pass, Naples Florida

Clam Pass

 

When one tires of birding while slogging through the Everglades, Panamanian jungle, or Himalayan foothills, there’s always a beach chair waiting at Clam Pass in Naples, Florida.  There’s even a new take-out store on the beach to enhance this sedate version of the sport.  This was my preference this week as the early February temperatures reached the 70’s and the humidity remained low, just about perfect for some casual beach birding.

I must stand out like a sore thumb, sitting on my low beach chair by the water’s edge, clothed in long-sleeved and long-legged attire and hiking shoes, while surrounded by barely clad bathers frolicking in the Caribbean aqua surf.  The camera, long telephoto lens, and binoculars should declare my birding intentions, but I still get some curious looks.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

I wonder if the bathers grasp the significance of this unusual intertidal habitat, surviving in the midst of elegant high-rises and urban sprawl.  Our predecessors have done well to preserve it.  Clam Pass is a narrow cut through the otherwise uninterrupted miles of white sand beach.  It is a Chesapeake-like estuary in miniature, bringing saltwater inland on the tide, into a myriad of channels among an extensive mangrove swamp.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

Fresh rainwater enters the swamp from the inland side, but during the dry winter it’s mainly the washing of the tides, in and out, that allows the mangroves to survive.  They are unique tropical and subtropical shrubs that come in three varieties, red, white, and black.

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

The Red Mangrove, named for its red roots, is the most salt tolerant of the three and thrives in the deeper water.  Its roots form a buttress at the base, protecting it from the waves.  The Black and White Mangroves are named for their bark color and are found on slightly higher and drier mud.  All three have evolved a root system that filters salt from the water and have additional aerial roots or pneumatophores that absorb oxygen from the air.

Ruddy Turnstone, Arenaria interpres and Black-bellied Plover, Pluvialis squatarola

It was a bit of a struggle to preserve Clam Pass a few years ago. A strong storm and high surf nearly choked it off and moved it a few hundred feet to the south, threatening the beach store and restaurant.  While waiting for the Army Corp of Engineers to come to the rescue, our neighborhood armed dozens of hearty volunteers with shovels to restore the channel by hand.  At times it all seemed hopeless, but today the pass remains open, at least until the next great storm.

White Ibis, Eudocimus albus

The birds of Clam Pass include large flocks of Black Skimmers, sleeping Willets, Terns, and Sanderlings chasing the waves at the water’s edge.  White Ibises occasionally fish in the surf but are more often seen in the calmer waters of the swamp.  There’s an Osprey platform and active nest in the dunes, even in February.  There is really no off season for mating here in southwest Florida.

Black Skimmer, Rynchops niger

Willets, Catoptrophorus semipalmatus

The most valuable pointer I can give fledgling shorebird photographers is to get low.  The low eye-to-eye angle is much more pleasing than the downward shot.  I usually plant a low beach chair right among the birds and after a few minutes they approach me closely, as if I was a member of their flock.  I’ve seen fellow photographers actually lay down in the wet sand and crawl across the beach, but I’ll leave that technique to younger bones.

Black Skimmer, Rynchops niger

Sanderling, Calidris alba

To access the beach one must travel on the boardwalk which tunnels through the mangroves.  Along the way you may be lucky to spot a Roseate Spoonbill or Belted Kingfisher.  You’ll undoubtedly see or hear a Red-bellied Woodpecker or Red-shouldered Hawk.  We had a resident Eastern Screech Owl perched daily right along the boardwalk for several years, but alas, it has not been seen this year.

Mangrove boardwalk

Low tide at the swamp

But the bird-of-the-day for today was the Brown Pelican, dive bombing the surf amidst the bathers, right where the Clam Pass waters merge with the Gulf of Mexico.  The blending of brackish and saltwater here must have attracted fish and the Pelican air show.

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

The prehistoric-looking birds are truly ancient with a skull fossil found in France dating back 30 million years.  They were one of the large birds that bordered on extinction due to DDT and soft egg shells in the 1970’s, but have rebounded since.  The popular pelican poem came to mind, yet again:

A wonderful bird is the Pelican.

Its beak can hold more than its belly can.

He can hold in his beak

Enough food for a week!

But I’ll be darned if I know how the hellican?

                                                        Dixon Lanier Merritt

Christmas Birding in the City

 

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

 

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks

Dressed in holiday style

In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas.

Children laughing, people passing

Meeting smile after smile

And on every street corner you’ll hear

Silver bells.

 

Strings of streetlights, even stoplights

Blink of bright red and green

As the shoppers rush home with their treasures.

Hear the snow crunch, see the kids bunch

This is Santa’s big scene

And above all the bustle you’ll hear

Silver bells.

by Ray Evans & Jay Livingston

 

Boston Common

This was my Mother’s favorite Christmas song.  I remember her sitting at the old Chickering piano in the sunroom, belting out these lyrics as if it was yesterday.  I live in the country now, just outside a small town of a few thousand, with elbow room, trees, tidal wetlands, and only a rare passing car or visitor.

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

In the past we’ve had a house full of extended family celebrating the holiday, but those times have passed.  Understandably children and the grand-child are making their own traditions in their homes and we are welcomed and eager to be part of “Santa’s big scene” in the heart of downtown Boston.

White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

Their high-rise apartment looks down on the city streets blinking red and green, the frozen Charles River, and a small sliver of the snow-covered Common.  Their tree is a real spruce and adorned with ornaments, many of which are familiar from Christmases past.  Outside soaring gulls fly by our windows while the urban House Sparrows stay much lower on the sidewalk among the shoppers and bunching kids. The skaters crowd the Frog Pond ice, while the Nutcracker is playing at the nearby Opera House.

Opera House

One cold dawn, two days before Christmas I broke away for birding at Mount Auburn Cemetery.  I’ve previously described this birding hotspot in several posts (2/4/2015, 11/11/2016, and 4/20/2018), but this is my first visit in the winter.  In spring and fall it is a migration trap for weary travelers; a welcomed oasis of green and water amidst the urban sprawl.  It’s also the home of year-round residents, including a Red-tailed Hawk perched atop the local food chain.

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

A subway and bus ride took me to the north entrance of the cemetery.  The central “mountain” of Mount Auburn has shaded its northern side with crunching snow and ice covering the grave sites, pathways, and roads.  A sign cautioning to proceed at your own risk tried to warn me away, but to no avail.  It was a risk worth taking.

This birding site is one of my all-time favorite locations.  The birds were just the predictable, common species, and quite sparse on that cold morning, but sometimes birding is not just about the birds.

All the ponds were frozen solid.  I saw an adventurous squirrel skate across one, but there were no ducks or geese.  The deep dark glen, a sanctuary for countless birds in warmer weather was now cold and silent, except for the occasional raspy cry of a jay.

The cemetery compels one to quietly reflect on the years gone by and those still to come.  The stones mark many lives well-lived, and perhaps some, not so much.  I was happy to be there and see the nuthatches, robins, and sparrows, but also to leave the burying ground behind and rejoin the Christmas bustle.

Christmas Eve found us in a long line of revelers, waiting on cold Copely Square to enter the warmth of the magnificent Trinity Church.  Our seats, almost in the front row, gave us a great proud view of our grandson in the choir, as we all joined them in singing the Christmas favorites.  The soaring soprano descants brought us chills and the deep bass notes of the organ shook our seats and stirred our souls.  Music like this makes the sacred season for me.

Trinity Church

Christmas in the city with the family, great food, wine, and song–I think I can get used to this.

In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron; water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow,

In the bleak mid-winter, long ago.

 

What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a wise man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can, I give Him–give Him my heart.

by Christina Rossetti

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.

Blue Ridge Birding, Brides, and Biophilia

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

 

If you’re a urban dweller in the Washington / Baltimore corridor the urge to escape the asphalt jungle can either pull you to the east and the rural tidal wetlands of the Chesapeake Bay, or to the  west and the historic Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains.  It was the lure of the saltwater bay that won the day for us, but not without an occasional wistful glance over our shoulders to the beautiful mountains of Virginia.  Luckily a family wedding and an invitation from friends allowed us to visit this hill country in October.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Edward Wilson codified our urge to commune with nature as the “biophilia hypothesis” in 1984.  He actually suggested a genetic basis for homo sapien’s desire to affiliate with other forms of life, both plant and animal.  I suspect it’s a driving force behind increasing urban green spaces, back yard gardening, environmentalism, and the popularity of birding.  It may have also inspired an urban bride and groom to head to the mountains to exchange their vows.

It was a perfect day for a wedding with an Indian summer sun’s slanting, late afternoon rays, shining on the wedding party.  Grazing cows on the nearby hills barely noticed the nuptial festivities.  I was not unaware of the soaring birds completing the idyllic scene.  Live music and dancing, with some blue grass flavor finished the memorable day.

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

The next morning we headed further south and west, higher into the Blue Ridge, along the Cow Pasture River.  Friends from Charlottesville, two families, had jointly dreamed of owning a cabin in the hills.  It would be a rustic, secluded lodge, along a river, ideal for fly-fishing, tubing, and hiking.  It would be a country retreat for the two large families, now with many grandchildren.  It was all that and more with a large front porch, stone fireplace, and comfortable beds, with a nearby bunkhouse for the kids.

One arrives at this destination over a mile of winding, narrow, gravel road along the creek bed, past a repaired wash-out, and through the dense woods.  Several times I wanted to turn back, this couldn’t be the right route, but we pressed on.  At the edge of the forest and the top of the last hill we finally saw the house in the valley below, with barking dogs, Lang, Peggy, and Mike all welcoming us to their home in the mountains.

Right out of the car I spotted a large bird perched atop a pole and power line, maybe a quarter mile across the valley.  It had a light upper and dark lower body and I prematurely declared it must be a Bald Eagle.  I quickly unpacked my camera and proceeded to close in for a better look.  The technique is to advance 50 feet, take some shots, check exposure factors, and advance another 50 feet.  If you’re lucky you may even get a flight shot when the bird finally spooks.

Yellow-Romped Warbler, Dendroica coronata

In my experience most raptors, especially eagles, won’t let you get very close.  My goal was to hide behind the last tree, perhaps 100 yards from the perching bird.  I inched my way there and still the bird did not move; something was not right.  I took more shots and zoomed them to the maximum.  It was not an eagle.  It was a Red-tailed Hawk, upside down, and dead.  The whiteness I saw from a distance was the hawk’s lower belly feathers, not the head of a Bald Eagle.

Obviously I could now get as close as I wanted, inspect the crime scene, and get as many shots as needed, all with the correct sun angle and exposure.  This hawk was not going anywhere.  How did this proud bird reach this ignoble, inverted end, hanging earthward, limp, dead?  Death had come recently.  There were no signs of gunshot, but man was not completely blameless.  I believe this was death by electrocution.

Birds land and perch on power lines everyday with no ill effect.  The flow of electrons takes the direction of least resistance through the wire, bypassing the relatively insulated body of the bird.  If that bird, however, ever touches another wire or any grounded structure, the current will flow through the bird and kill it.  My theory is that this hapless hawk landed on top of the wooden pole and its wing or feet touched the wire, completing the circuit from wire, to bird, to pole, and the ground.

Barn Swallows, Hirundo rustica

I did more birding that day and the next as our hosts guided us over the suspension bridge and through their forest on barely blazed trails.  We saw other woodland birds but I could not get that hawk out of my mind.  A couple weeks later Peggy emailed me that it had finally fallen to earth and the vultures had picked over the corpse, leaving just feathers and some bones to mark the spot.

And time goes by.  This fall weekend reminded me of that yet again.  Mother Earth and all its creatures grow old.  If we’re fortunate aging is graceful and gradual, but occasionally unexpected tragedy intervenes.  We cling to nature, each other, and our God for solace, but time waits for no one, not even a Red-tailed Hawk.

All The Birds You Cannot See

Red-headed Woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

 

I had foolishly promised we would see the Red-headed Woodpecker at the Blackwater NWR, a site where I had seen it on almost every prior visit.  That is, until my last trip there just a few weeks ago when it was nowhere in sight.  eBird was also reporting a sighting a month ago, but none more recently.  The woodpecker was a nemesis bird for Andy.   He and his wife flew down from New York to spend last week with us on the Chesapeake and seeing that bird was high on our birding agenda–the pressure was on.

Blackwater NWR

We all have nemesis birds; unchecked boxes on our life lists of birds we should have seen but somehow have slipped through the cracks.  As we age that list shrinks for our local patch and the surge of excitement of seeing a bird for the first time becomes less frequent.  But a few birds, some of them quite common in Maryland and Florida, have avoided my detection.  I’m somewhat embarrassed to reveal that personal list:  Snowy Owl, Puffin, all the Rails, Worm-eating Warbler, and Mangrove Cuckoo among others.  The cuckoo hides from me despite my living among the Florida mangroves for a good part of the year.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

There’s some good-natured competitive chiding between Andy and me over our unseen birds.  He does not hesitate to show me his exquisite photos of Snowy Owls which frequent his patch in Upstate New York, or his Puffin shots from Iceland, while I counter with my best Red-headed Woodpecker poses.  But it’s all in fun and I truly hoped for him to finally check that box at Blackwater last week.  We failed.

Wildlife Drive at Blackwater

But Blackwater never fails to impress the first timer with other features; the great vistas of tidal grasslands, lowland pine forests, and of course the soaring Bald Eagles.  Near the beginning of Wildlife Drive there are numerous snags and Loblolly Pines covered with woodpecker holes.  We saw Pileated, Downy, Red-bellied, and Sapsuckers, but no Red-heads.  Big disappointment.  Now I understand the pressure a bird guide must feel when he fails to deliver target birds to his paying customers.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

Blackwater did seem less “birdy” that day.  Maybe it was the unusually warm weather or perhaps the prolonged drought.  Or perhaps we had just missed the songbird migration to the south and were early for the waterfowl from the north.  Even so, we did see 37 species and will never feel cheated by a trip to this phenomenal refuge on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

We detect birds by eyesight, but also by birdsong.  As a novice birder I always thought this was cheating; checking a box when never spotting the singing bird, who was often identified for me by a more seasoned birder or guide.  I’m still loathe to claim a life bird solely by song, but readily tick the common birds by song on my routine outings.  But there remain far too many songs that I have not yet matched with a bird.  It’s frustrating.

Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca

Birding by ear is an advanced skill that is slowly acquired over the years.  I’m impressed with some local birders that recognize an extensive repertoire of birdsong; some can even reproduce the song by mouth, hoping to coax the bird out of seclusion for visual verification.

Northern Harrier, Circus cyaneus

I’m working on my audio skills with the help of Larkwire, a helpful cell phone app of birdsong, complete with quizzes.  There are even apps that can detect and identify birds in the field, similar to Shazam, the app used to identify popular human song.  Among others these include Song Sleuth and ChirpOMatic.  I cannot vouch for their accuracy but their names are catchy.

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos

I’ll never forget the beautiful haunting and repetitive birdsong I heard near Mount Fuji several springs ago.  Hoh…hokeyo, hoh…hokekyo.  The bird was clearly close by, first to the right and then the left, but skillfully avoided my visual detection for days.  Finally on the day of departure I caught a fleeting glance of the elusive source.  It was a small, plain Jane bird with a gorgeous voice.  On the flight home I played various songs on my laptop, finally matching bird to song.  It was Uguisu, the Japanese Bush Warbler, a secretive bird known to frustrate birders, but also a welcome harbinger of Spring.

Blackwater NWR

The great consolation and inspiration for us birders is that there will always be more new birds to see and hear, right up to our dying day.  More than ten thousand beckon us;  I have just scratched the surface.  That rush we get form a new sighting need never grow old.  Even Phoebe Snetsinger, may she rest in peace, and Noah Strycker did not see them all.  We may need to travel further, dig deeper for airfare, and hire more guides, but the quest will never end.