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 settin

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.

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