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.

Birding Florida in August

Tricolor Heron, Egretta tricolor

 

In early August I spent a week in south Florida.  No, I’m not crazy.  I had some indoor painting to do there, and own a perfectly functioning air conditioner.  It makes one wonder what people did in the South before AC.  And more importantly, how do the birds handle this heat?  Instead of watching the paint dry I  ventured outside to do a little summertime birding and to solve this mystery.

White Ibis, Eudocimus albus

The August humidity in Florida is oppressive; just get used to being damp while doing anything outside, including birding.  We sweat in an attempt to cool our bodies through evaporation.  Remember your high school thermodynamics; water going from liquid to gaseous phases requires energy and draws heat away from your skin.  But birds don’t sweat; they do not have sweat glands.  Despite this they still like to stay wet in the hot weather to take advantage of evaporative cooling.

Fish Crow, Corvus ossifragus

Birds have also developed other behavioral and physiologic mechanisms to deal with extreme heat.  They have a much higher metabolic rate than humans and a higher baseline temperature, as high as 108F degrees for some birds.  Ninety degree days, therefore are not as critical for a bird as for us humans, however extreme temperatures can be a problem.  Their behavioral adjustments to the heat strike me as just common sense, like things your mother would tell you.  “Stay out of the hot mid-day sun, feed and play in the early morning or evening, bathe often, and drink a lot of water.”

Brown Pelicans, Pelecanus occidentalis

I understand that soaring birds soar even higher on hot days, seeking cooler air.  If all else fails, the birds can always consider an earlier fall migration or relocation to habitats at higher elevation.  Indeed the ranges of many birds are expanding northward as the climate warms.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Avian physiologic adjustments to heat are interesting.  Birds can increase their respiratory rate and breathe with an open bill, just like a panting dog.  Think of the bird’s lungs as a heat exchanger, with heat passing from the hot blood to the relatively cooler air.  Some birds take this thermoregulation to a higher level, by including a rapid vibration of the moist throat to enhance evaporation.  This is called “gular fluttering” and can be seen with cormorants, night hawks, and doves.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

Feathers, such vital insulating structures for cooler weather, work against the bird in the hot summer.  Luckily birds also have some vascular featherless body parts, (legs, feet, bills, eye rings) that can also function as cooling heat exchangers.  The huge bills of the tropical Toucans are very vascular and a good example of this cooling technique.  When the temperature finally falls the blood flow to these parts decreases to maintain warmth.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

Vultures, as you might expect, lead the way with the most disgusting cooling method.  Urohydrosis is the sophisticated term for these birds urinating on their feet and legs to foster evaporative cooling.  The drying white urate salts also better reflect the sun’s rays than the darker clean legs and feet.  I’m told that multi-colored birds perch with their lighter and more reflective plumage toward the sun in hot weather, but have not observed this pattern myself.

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

Some of these cooling methods were evident while birding the Pelican Bay berm along the mangroves and further inland at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.  The birds were hiding from me and the heat, especially the passerines where only a few were active in the deep shade of the cypress forest.  There certainly was no shortage of water as the ditches and ponds were all full from the daily monsoons.  The Florida waders were out in force, but I only saw one shorebird; a Willet frolicking alone in the Gulf surf.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

Anhinga, a juvenile night heron, and a vulture were all seen holding their wings out, away from their bodies.  This is for drying and evaporative cooling, but also to keep the insulating wing feathers away from the body.

Corkscrew’s Lettuce Lake

Don’t forget the birder who must also adapt to the heat.  Sunscreen, hats, water bottles, etc. are obvious, but I wasn’t prepared for the severe Florida humidity.  The air temperature was similar to that of the Chesapeake region this time of year, but the humidity was brutal.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

Dripping sweat clouding glasses and lenses was a constant battle, but on the plus side, there were no throngs crowding the birding hotspots.  I made the 3 mile loop on the Corkscrew boardwalk and saw only two other birders.  There were many more guides than patrons.  The Pelican Bay berm and beach were almost empty with no joggers or bikers to dodge.  If you prefer to bird alone, Florida in August beckons.

Gulf of Mexico

August is our yearly lull on the birding calendar for more reasons than just the heat.  The excitement of breeding, nesting, and feeding hatchlings is subsiding.  Birds are lying low, molting, and building up reserves for a possible long fall migration.  For the full time residents of Florida, both avian and human, its just a time to relax, try to stay cool, and wait for the inevitable surge from the north, soon to begin.

A Big Day in Florida

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

 

The “bigness” of a Big Day is relative.  Ours was a modest affair, an inaugural venture into this world of semi-competitive birding.  Its scope and results cannot hold a candle to those with greater expertise and stamina.  The single day state record in Florida is 179 birds and was never threatened by us, but for Mel, Andy and I, it was a very satisfying day.

Snail Kite, Rostrhamus sociabilis

For the non-birders out there a Big Day is merely a day where you try to see or hear as many different bird species as possible. Sometimes you may compete against other birders, as with the yearly World Series of Birding in New Jersey, but in our case we were the solo team–we couldn’t lose.

Great-crested Flycatcher, Myiarchus crinitus

It took me a couple years to convince Mel and Andy that this would be fun; it’s so different from the usual sedate pace.  This is hebephrenic birding, sort of like the frenzied feeding forays of the Reddish Egret or Kinglet, two birds, by the way, that we did not see.

Pied-billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps

One can have a Big anything, a Big Day, Big Month, or Big Year, sometimes confining your search to a specific geographic region.  You can even do a Big Sit, where you stay within a yard or small confined space and wait for the birds to come to you.  I aim to try that some day on my pool deck with friends, complete with barbecue, chaise lounges, sun umbrellas, pina coladas, and periodic cooling dips in the pool.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

Mel picked us up at dawn and by the time we finished loading our gear and food into his SUV we had already recorded singing Cardinals, Blue Jays, and a Mourning Dove–a great start.  I had previously compiled a list of 153 reasonable target birds and created an itinerary for our route throughout southwest Florida.  By sundown we had driven over 150 miles and walked an additional eight.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

The first stop was right in our neighborhood, the Pelican Bay berm.  There we recorded almost all the target waders including Roseate Spoonbill, and had an additional surprise. Catherine, our tram driver slammed on the brakes and gave us time for photos of a Louisiana Waterthrush just off the path.  She was as excited as we were in finding this somewhat unusual bird who had not even made my target list.

Louisiana Waterthrush, Seiurus motacilla        photo by A. Sternick

Nearby Clam Pass on the Gulf of Mexico beach was up next.  We found the huge flock of Black Skimmers and Royal Terns that had been present all winter, with fewer gulls, smaller terns, Sanderlings, and Willets mixed in.  You get no extra credit for large flocks; all birds, rare or common, just got one tick on the growing list.

Black Skimmers, Rynchops niger, and mixed flock at Clam Pass

We picked up a few birds without even stopping the SUV.  Cattle Egrets and Grackles were seen at 30 miles per hour along the streets of Naples, and Mel spotted an American White Pelican in the Great Cypress Swamp at 60 mph.  We watched and counted copulating House Sparrows on a traffic signal on Marco Island, waiting for it to turn green.

Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus

If you get a chance to bird this area check out Eagle Lake Community Park.  You can usually see 40+ birds there, but on our Big Day we had already seen most of them.  We did add the Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Cormorant, Coot, Common Gallinule, and Blue-winged Teal and were treated to a flyover of a Swallow-tailed Kite.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Dendrocygna autumnalis

Marco Island was on our route to pick up the Burrowing Owls, digging in the sandy, vacant lots.  I was hoping for a quick drive-by, but Andy was captivated by the cute, photogenic birds standing there in perfect light–too good a picture to pass up.  We obliged.

Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia               photo by A. Sternick

Our main goal on Marco however was the famous Tiger Tail Beach where we hoped to mop up the shorebirds not previously seen at Clam Pass.  We did add a Black-necked Stilt, Western Sandpiper, and Semipalmated Plover, but were hoping for much more.  A consolation prize was an American Kestrel on a wire, posing for us as we left the island.  But just keep moving on; time waits for no man or birder.

Semipalmated Plover, Charadrius semipalmatus

The next stop was Ten Thousand Islands NWR.  It has a tall tower with commanding views of the expansive swamp–a great place to set up a scope.  Other birders on the platform were enthusiastic supporters of our Big Day and egged us on, pointing  out a Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs in the distance.  Another birder had just seen and American Bittern down the trail, but it was gone by the time we got there, replaced by several huge gators.

American Kestrel, Falco sparverius

Sandwiches on the run, supplied by Andy, were devoured as we headed east into the Great Cypress Swamp.  By now Mel and Andy were admittedly having fun, and fully bought into the race for more birds.  I had initially planned on taking a long dirt road north through the swamp, but Mel rightly suggested that it would slow us down too much.  We opted instead for paved highway 29 as the fastest route to one of our favorite spots–Oil Well Road.  This is where we grabbed the Crested Caracara, Snail Kite, and Western Kingbird.

Painted Bunting, Passerina ciris

I made another mistake in forgetting that the Corkscrew Swamp Audubon Center closed at 5 PM.  That was where we planned on adding most of our songbirds.  We arrived there just before 4 and hightailed it around the boardwalk.  A non birder showed us a picture of a Barred Owl she took right along the path.  We must have zoomed right by it, but didn’t have the time or energy to go back.  Still, we did tick off the Painted and Indigo Buntings, Ground Dove, Ovenbird, and another 10 songbirds there before finishing the loop right at 5 PM.

Ovenbird, Seiurus aurocapilla

After adding a Merlin on the access road to the Bird Rookery Swamp we headed home, birded out but satisfied with our tally of 85 birds.  But there were still numerous common birds we had not seen and Mel just wouldn’t quit as long as we had daylight.  He remembered seeing some Killdeer just off the road earlier in the week and sure enough, they were still there when we cruised by; #86.  This seemed to reenergize us for more birds.  We hoped for an Eastern Bluebird or Flicker at North Collier Park at dusk, but were rewarded with only a Brown Thrasher building a nest near the parking lot, our last bird, #87.

Brown Thrasher, Toxostoma rufum

Tired bones, sweaty bodies, chaffing underwear, and contented smiles all around ended our day.  You can’t pull this off alone.   You need good friends with a sense of humor and enthusiasm for the birds and process.  We had them all, and immediately began planning for another Big Day in 2020 when we’ll strive for 88, at least.

 

Key West

Brown Pelican, Pelicans occidentalis

 

John James Audubon, Henry Flagler, Ernest Hemingway, Harry Truman, and Joseph Long are all notable people, each with a different life story that brought them to Key West, at our nation’s southernmost point.  My recent trip to the island allowed me to reflect on each of them, relax with family in this small corner of paradise, and do a little birding.

Sunset in the Keys

Key West sits at the literal end of the road, the last stop.  The remote tropical setting has attracted travelers, including writers, drifters, gawkers, and pirates for years.  In the mid 19th century it was actually the largest city in sparsely settled Florida. I had previously driven the spectacular highway bridging key after key, but last month we opted for the high speed ferry from Marco Island.

J.J. Audubon’s Osprey

The Audubon House in Key West is somewhat of a misnomer, as historians have learned that the famous birder spent a few days at this site in 1832, but the house itself was built after his short stay.  Be that as it may, the beautifully restored period house is filled with Audubon’s phenomenal artwork and the museum shop on the grounds gives one the opportunity to own one of his prints.  Notables of his Florida birds includes the Osprey, Brown Pelican, Snowy Egret, and the Spoonbill, which he called a Roseate Curlew.  Remember, he birded in the pre-binocular era, shooting his birds before posing them dead for his paintings.

John James Audubon

One theme of the history of the Florida Keys is the periodic hurricanes that devastate the low-lying islands, and man’s persistent, almost fool hearted rebuilding, in preparation for the next inevitable onslaught.  Henry Flagler’s railroad from Miami to Key West was the epitome of that persistence as several powerful storms delayed this monumental project.

Audubon’s Snowy Egret

You might say that Flagler was the builder of modern Florida, at least the east coast.  He made his fortune as John D. Rockefeller’s partner in Standard Oil of New Jersey, but spent most of his later years at his various Florida ventures.  Building a railroad down the east coast of Florida in small sections and planting a luxury resort hotel at each terminus was his successful strategy in bringing the well-heeled Easterners and their cash to the sunshine state.  His last and greatest challenge was to connect Miami with Key West by rail, an engineering feat for the ages.  Read Les Standiford’s riveting book, “Last Train to Paradise” for this story.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

The final track was laid in 1912 as a satisfied and elderly Henry Flagler rode the first train into town amidst a joyous celebration.  But Mother Nature was not done with the keys.  The severe unnamed Labor Day hurricane of 1935 flattened the islands, the railroad, its bridges, and everything else in its path.  Today one can still see the Stonehenge-like remains of the trestles from Highway 1.  The railroad was never rebuilt.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway, an injured ambulance driver from World War I left the expatriate crowd in Paris and arrived in Key West with wife Pauline in 1928.  He finished the classic “A Farewell to Arms” in his first weeks on the island.  Their house and its artifacts are well-worth your visit.  The hedonistic life style of Key West seemed to suit him well and evidence of those 12 years of writing, fishing, and partying are all apparent in their restored home on Whitehead Street.

Key West Rooster

My recent trip to Key West was not, strictly speaking, a birding excursion, but you birders all know the drill.  Carry the binoculars at all times and sneak in an early morning trek while your travel companions are still sleeping or reading the NY Times at the local coffee shop.  If roosters are your target bird, you are in luck as they awaken you each morning and seem to be taking over the town.  More serious birding is done at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park.  Its varied habitat is a magnet for migrants as well as the more common south Florida birds.  Visit http://www.keysaudubon.org for a good list of the local birding sites.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

By November of 1946 President Harry Truman was exhausted.  The war was over but the doctor’s orders were for a warm, southern vacation.  He chose the former officer’s quarters at the Key West Submarine Naval Base, hereafter known as the “Little White House”.  It worked like a charm as he visited it for 175 days on 11 occasions during the remainder of his presidency.  It’s now a museum with excellent docents.

Double-crested Cormorant. Phalacrocorax auritus

I’ll conclude this post with Joseph Long’s story–you probably have not heard of him.  He was one of the countless patriots that volunteered to serve in World War II.  At the age of 17 he enlisted in the Navy and was shipped to the South Pacific, serving as a gunnery mate on an LST, nicknamed by its sailors as a “Large Slow Target”.  He did his part in the closing campaign of Okinawa and was present in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered.  He concluded his service mustering out his colleagues at the relative paradise of the Naval Base at Key West.

Joseph, on the left, with buddies at Key West

Joseph Long

Thirty years later I had the good fortune to marry Joe’s daughter, and after another 38 years she and I were privileged to escort him back to Key West to visit the old Naval Base one last time.  The current Naval Air Station rolled out the red carpet for Joe, welcoming him as another revered member of that “Greatest Generation”.  As most of his fellow vets, he didn’t speak much about those war years, but you could sense his rekindled memories of those consequential days as we toured the site.  Joe is no longer with us, but our memories of him were renewed during my recent trip to Key West with his daughter, daughter-in-law, and son.

Joseph with daughter, Suzanne at Key West

The Everglades and its Birds

 

My mother helped me hang the large colorful map of the United States right next to my bed.  Just due to their proximity I learned the geography of the southern states first, and the Florida peninsula best–it was right next to my nose.  What was this lower tip of Florida like, and why were there no cities and only a few roads there?  What is this Everglades written in bold italics across the whole region?  All questions for an eight year-old, finally answered 60 years later.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

Mel was the instigator, always pushing Andy and me to join him in exploring new Florida birding sites.  The 200 miles to Flamingo Point, the most southern tip of Florida in the Everglades did not phase him one iota, and we were game, as long as he did the driving.  We traversed Florida, west to east through the Great Cypress Swamp, bypassing thousands of waders at 65 miles per hour, turned south near Homestead, and finally entered the Everglades National Park at its eastern border.

People say there is no other place on earth like the Everglades.  The park is part of a 1.3 million acre Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness of south Florida, the largest wilderness tract east of the Mississippi.  Ironically this wild gem is hemmed in by 7 million residents and the growing urban sprawl along each coast.  The vitality of the low wetlands is dependent on surface water, slowly flowing from further north in wide, shallow, and barely perceptible  sloughs.

American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

The mantra of the Florida settlers in the 19th and much of the 20th century was to drain the swamp, divert the water into existing rivers, build canals, dikes, and a grid of roads, all to create dry land for building sites.  Swamps were bad; the home of monsters and the source of pestilence.  See my blog post, “A Real Estate Deal for the Birds”, dated 3/28/2016 for a more detailed account of this land-grab frenzy.

American Avocet, Recurvirostra americana

There is some justification for this movement.  Severe hurricanes in the early 20th century resulted in extensive flooding and loss of life when massive Lake Okeechobee overflowed its banks.  The Army Corp of Engineer’s solution was to surround the lake with the Hoover Dike and divert the overflow to each coast via canals and the St. Lucie River on the east and the Caloosahatchee River to the west.  This was a diversion away from the natural flow of water, south to the Everglades.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias (white morph)

But we went overboard.  By the 1960’s and 70’s it became apparent these policies were killing the Everglades wetlands; they were dying of thirst.  The story of the dismantling of the dikes and canals, the creation of large holding ponds for the wet season and controlled releases from them during dry periods, the government’s repurchase of land from the swindled public, and the gradual return of the Everglade’s health is a fascinating story, still being written.

Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus

The stakeholder list for this restoration is long:  homeowners and anyone who requires a viable aquifer, tax payers, developers and realtors, farmers including the huge sugar growers, sportsmen, politicians, environmentalists, birders, and everyone who values preserving some of our disappearing wilderness. The political maneuvering and posturing has been predictable.  Michael Grunwald’s great book, “The Swamp” chronicles this story up to 2006.

Roseate Spoonbill

There’s a sudden serenity one feels when entering the Everglades.  The 40 mile road from the entrance to Flamingo Point winds through a progressive series of habitats as one losses altitude, mere fractions of an inche per mile, driving toward the coast.  Initially you see the vast freshwater marsh, the famous “river of grass”, occasionally interrupted by small hardwood hammocks on slightly elevated land.  There are also scattered slash pine forests along the ancient limestone ridges, remnants of the retreated sea.  Brackish mangrove swamps, numerous ponds, and the islands of Florida Bay are the final features at the point.

Welcome shelter from a passing shower

There are numerous pull-offs from the main road with short hikes to observation towers and the ponds.  We birded most of these, seeing the usual Florida waders.  For me this trip was more about the historic land and scenic vistas than about the birds.  We did get some close shots of the Black-necked Stilts and an unexpected flock of American Avocets.  One can never see too many Roseate Spoonbills and snazzy warblers.  A snoozing American Crocodile and some lallygagging Manatees greeted us at Flamingo Point.

Black-throated Green Warbler, Dendroica virens

Mel has an admirable interest in the unusual fauna of Florida.  Andy and I were somewhat skeptical as he led us in a search for Liguus fasciatus, the Florida Tree Snail.  These colored tropical snails favor the smooth-barked trees and feed on the numerous epiphytes.  Near the end of the day Mel finally found one, than another, and another.  What do you call a flock of snails?  They are interesting creatures, another gift from the Everglades.

Florida Tree Snail, Liguus fasciatus

I used the long trip home to convince my colleagues to join me in our next birding adventure, a south Florida Big Day.  For non-birders this is a sunup to sundown scamper to find as many different bird species as possible.  It’s fast, hectic birding, ticking off the species quickly and moving on–so different than the usual slow walk in the woods, taking hundreds of pictures of each bird in all the various poses.

American Crocodile, Crocodylus acutus

The fun part of a Big Day is the strategy–what route should we take through the various habitats to maximize the species list?  Can we afford the long drive to see the Eastern Meadowlark or Red Cockaded Woodpecker when a more common bird close by counts just as much in the day’s tally?  In the end we all agreed to give it a go.  Wish us luck and look for our success or failure in a future post.

 

Florida’s Raptors

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

 

 

I’m life untethered, soaring upward

on itself, sharp of talon and lethal of

beak, leaving nothing in my wake but

warm blood and gristle.

Taylor Rosewood

Maybe that first stanza in Rosewood’s poem is a little gruesome, but probably a fair description of the raptors or birds-of-prey who fill the niche at the peak of their food chain.  These predators include the hawks, falcons, harriers, osprey, owls, and kites, and also the scavenging vultures, eagles, and caracara.

Barred Owl, Strix varia

Raptors are characterized by keen eyesight for hunting, strong feet with talons for killing, and a sharp, curved beak for tearing flesh.  They are powerful in flight, some plunging from great altitude at high speed to take their unsuspecting prey.  A few, however, subsist on carrion, leaving the killing to others.

Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura

The hearts of birders and non birders alike speed up when we spot a bird-of-prey, and in Florida this occurs almost daily.  Not so much with the vultures, which only a mother could love, but definitely with the rest.  The most common hawk here is the Red-shouldered, which tends to perch and call from seemingly every woodlot and residential neighborhood.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

I’ve been accused, rightly, of failing to read the fine print.  A recent birding example of the malady was my futile attempt to find a Florida specialty bird, the Short-tailed Hawk.  Everyone else was reporting it but me.  Finally I read the fine print in Dunne, Sibley, and Sutton’s classic, “Hawks In Flight”.  This bird hides itself well and is practically never seen on the ground, but hunts from great soaring heights.  To see it “look up, way up, and be grateful for the backdrop of white cumulus clouds that enrich the Florida skies.”  Sure enough, there it was just as advertised, thousands of feet above me, soaring with the vultures.

Short-tailed Hawk, Buteo brachyurus

My pictures of this hawk are not ideal given the distance, however hawk ID is not about subtle field marks, but rather about the grosser patterns of light and dark, wing and body shape, and the cadence of the flapping wings and their attitude while gliding.  The Short-tail Hawk comes in two varieties or morphs.  I saw the light morph, which reportedly is less common in Florida compared to the dark one.  These are tropical raptors of Central and South America that reach the northern limit of their range in Florida.  Unlike most buteos, they are hunters of other birds, taking them unawares from above.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

Other birds-of-prey that might be considered a Florida specialty (not as widely seen in other states) are the Crested Caracara, Snail Kite, Swallow-tailed Kite, and Burrowing Owl.  The caracara vie with Bald Eagles for “king-of-the-road-kill” supremacy.  They displace the Black Vultures from the carrion, who have displaced the Turkey Vultures, who previously shooed away the crows.  It’s a real-life pecking order.

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

I lived here several winters before I saw my first Snail Kite, formerly called the Everglades Kite.  This picky raptor’s diet is exclusively the apple snail, which it searches for in freshwater wetlands.  Issues with water management seriously threatened this raptor in the 1950’s with the number of surviving birds reportedly as few as 50.  Better management since has seen a recovery to 1000 or more birds, but it’s still a great birding day when you see a Snail Kite.  Look for a white base of tail in flight, not to be confused with the Northern Harrier which has a white rump.

Snail Kite, Rostrhamus sociabilis

The Swallow-tailed Kite makes it spring debut in Florida on Valentine’s Day, migrating across the Gulf of Mexico from its wintering grounds in South America.  Dunne, et-al gush, “some may argue that this kite is the continent’s most beautiful bird.  Elegant, almost rakish in design, it dresses formerly in black and white attire, tails and all.”  I do not disagree.

Swallow-tailed Kite, Elanoides forficatus

The “cute award” for raptors must go to the Burrowing Owl.  This diminutive raptor seem to thrive here, often digging their burrows in sandy vacant building lots.  Driving through Marco Island’s residential neighborhoods you see these birds sitting at their burrows with nearby stakes marking their protected nests.  It must drive the homeowners crazy while they wait for the owls to move out so they can finally build their Florida dream house.

Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia

I was birding at Clam Pass last week when a kayaker landed, pulled out a large net on a long handle and tried to sneak up on a Black Skimmer which appeared to be disabled by a broken leg.  Tim Thompson, I later learned was a good Samaritan and volunteer at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.  Along with many research and educational functions this venerable organization has an animal rescue hospital, http://www.conservancy.org.  I joined in Tim’s effort to net the bird, but to no avail.  It could still fly.

Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus

But I learned that Tim did this type of rescue work on a regular basis and had recently worked with others rebuilding a wind-damaged Great Horned Owl’s nest. They successfully returned two flightless downy owlets to their home, high in a slash pine, all under the watchful eyes of concerned parents.  He offered to take Andy and I back to the site, inside an exclusive golf community, check on the nest, and give us an opportunity for some owl photos.

Great Horned Owlets, Bubo virginiaus                          photo by A. Sternick

We found the owlets still safely perched in the same tree, even after the thunderstorm of the previous night.  While dodging golf balls and golfers, (who were also seeking birdies) we also found one parent watching us warily from across the fairway.  Several hundred shots later, we finally called it a good day of birding.

Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus

So what is it about these birds-of-prey that makes them so compelling?  We’re in awe of their size and fierce countenance.  We’re shocked by their ruthless killings which keep their prey ever wary.  But there’s also a calm confident majesty they possess as the lords of their food chain.  They only kill to survive, and are superbly equipped to do just that, with an occasional leg up from Tim and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

The Florida Waders

Tricolor Heron, Egretta tricolor

 

At first you’d think it’s the name of an athletic team, but what jock wants to be linked to the ponderous sedentary birds.  Even a non-birder coming to Florida for the first time can’t help but notice these ubiquitous creatures–they’re everywhere you find water.  In roadside ditches, waste-water treatment plants, backyard ponds, as well as at the more picturesque shoreline, marshes, and swamps.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

They are the herons and egrets.  Also throw in the ibises, bitterns, storks, and an occasional spoonbill and you have a very successful and easily observed and photographed segment of Florida aviculture.

Great Egret, Ardea alba

We left our northern home soon after Christmas with mixed feelings.  They say that birds don’t depend on the feeders for survival–they are more for the birder who wants to attract and observe the birds up close.  I hope they’re right.  It was a banner fall and early winter at the feeders with the Red-breasted Nuthatches leading the charge, but there will be no more sunflower seeds at my feeders this winter.  I’ll miss all the excitement, along with the waterfowl and the change of seasons from winter to early spring.

American Bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus

But Florida beckons and certainly has it’s own rewards including the climate, the beaches, and the Florida waders.  My favorite and most frequented patch here is the “berm”, a raised, paved three mile trail through the wetlands, with tall high-rises looming to the east and an extensive tidal mangrove swamp to the west.  Two boardwalks through the mangroves take you to a beautiful gulf beach where you can get a cup of coffee and check out the shorebirds.

Great Blue Herons, Ardea herodias

I often walk the berm bare (no binoculars or camera) for exercise, dodging all the power walkers, bikers, and roller skaters.  There’s no need for magnification to count and watch the waders who seem oblivious to the passing throng.  But when I do bring the binos an additional world of the passerines opens up and makes the jaunt even better.

Great Egret, Ardea alba

For those of you who like to classify the birds into the larger scheme of life, the waders are members of the Ciconiiformes order, which in turn contains six families.  Herons, egrets, and bitterns are in the Ardeidae family and characterized by a long neck of 20-21 vertebrae (you and I only have 7).  In flight all members of this family hold the neck in a “S” configuration, compared to the straight necks of all the other waders.

Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea

The storks are in their own Ciconiidae family, and may be incorrectly classified, as DNA evidence suggests they are more closely related to the vultures than to the other waders. Nesting storks on your roof ensures household fertility, so they say.  It’s too late for me to verify this.

Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

The family Threshkiornithidae includes the ibises and spoonbills.  These birds, and all the waders, have a very primitive vocal apparatus that results in the low, guttural croaks you often hear when they take to flight.  In ancient Egypt the ibis was felt to be the embodiment of the God of Wisdom.  It seems that the crows and jays are vying for this title in the modern world.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

I’ll warn the novice birder about the three “foolers” among the waders.  The first is the so-called Green Heron.  If anyone can find a speck of green on this bird, I’d like to see it.  It’s a wonderful bird, but poorly named.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

The second is the juvenile Little Blue Heron.  It’s as white as the fresh fallen snow up north.  It will turn a deep blue in its second year but loves to fool the uninitiated for a year.  The green legs, however, give it away and differentiate it from the similar sized Snowy Egret which has black legs and yellow feet.

Little Blue Heron (juvenile), Egretta caerulea

The last fooler is the white morph of the Great Blue Heron.  I have not yet seen this bird, or maybe I’ve been fooled like the rest of you into calling it a Great Egret.  The heavier bill is its distinguishing characteristic.  I’ll remain on the prowl for this one.

Glossy Ibis, Plegadis falcinellus

For those new to bird photography the waders are a great subject.  They usually hold still, they’re large and usually close, and when the do fly it’s in a straight line and slow.  But beware of over-exposure.  The most common error in shooting these birds is blowing out the whites, especially in the bright Florida sun.  You’ll need to dial back the exposure compensation several notches to preserve that subtle texture in the white feathers.

White Ibis (juvenile), Eudocimus albus

Whenever someone mentions record-keeping the eyes glaze over and the ears tune out.  I get it.  But before that happens let me quickly extoll the useful eBird app for your smart phone.  It makes recording your sightings simple and painless.  Your location is tracked by GPS and the birds are tabulated by date and location for you and the rest of the birding world to see.  You can see other birder’s results from the same location and determine what you’re missing, like that white morph heron.  The findings go into your eBird account allowing you to compare year to year what is happening in your patch.  And it’s all free.  This app has significantly added to my birding pleasure.

Little Blue Heron (entering year 2), Egretta caerulea

Intimacy with your patch is one of the joys of birding.  And it’s not just about the birds.  My Florida patch has frolicking otters, prowling alligators, and basking turtles.  You even get to know the trees, like the one that usually hosts a night heron’s nest, or the hollow tree that was the favorite perch of the screech owl, until hurricane Irma blew it down.  But the leading role here clearly belongs to the Florida waders, who patiently fish along the berm, just as they did last year and for millions of years prior.

Birding While Kayaking

Glossy Ibis, Plegadis falcinellus

 

When bit by the birding bug your behavior becomes bizarre, according to belittling bystanders.  Be that as it may.  One of our traits is the need to bird constantly.  As you know, birding can be accomplished at many levels of intensity.  There’s the full court press of binoculars, scopes, telephoto lenses, guidebooks, and computers on the one extreme, and the casual noting of birdsong and flyovers as you live the rest of your life, on the other.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon                    (click to zoom)

I’ve birded while sailing (see a prior posting), during a pelagic expedition off the coast of California (another prior posting), and now while kayaking.  I can testify that the latter is the most rewarding aqueous birding for me.  A kayak allows a stealthy approach to the quarry, the bird almost accepting you as part of the water.  There’s no flapping sail, noisy engine, or chumming (either intentional or due to sea-sickness).  As opposed to a tippy canoe, with a kayak you sit right down in the water, at eye level with the surface, giving a pleasing angle for viewing or photography.

Least Tern, Sterna antillarum

A couple practical hints:  wear gloves to avoid blisters, plan on getting wet (you might want to leave your expensive photography equipment on dry land), and if in a dual kayak, take the back seat (you get to steer, the other person can’t whack you with the paddle, and you can take a clandestine break while your partner keeps paddling).  Also, check the boat for varmints.  I keep my kayak turned over on the bank and wasn’t aware I had a large black snake onboard until well underway.  So much for the birding that day.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

I’ve birded from a kayak in the mangrove swamps of southwest Florida and near home on tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.  The Florida excursion was with six people in three boats.  The leading kayak contained the alpha males whose quest was to traverse the swamp and inland waterway and make it to the Gulf of Mexico and unknown distant shores as quickly as possible.  The second boat was made up of young, physically fit bones that could paddle all day.  They weren’t really interested in birds.  The last boat was mine, with two sixty something year old birders trying to keep up and see some interesting birds.  I was in the stern seat.

A mangrove tunnel, from the back seat

The mangrove swamps south of Naples bordering the gulf coast are an extensive tropical tidal ecosystem covering 2700 square kilometers and sometimes extending up to 30 miles inland.  They are the final watershed of the Everglades and Great Cypress Swamp.  The mangrove are crisscrossed by a myriad of navigable tunnels and a few wider waterways.  Its very easy to get turned around and lost if you don’t keep up with your leader, assuming he knows where he’s going.  A handheld GPS is invaluable.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

White Ibis, Eudocimus albus

We saw no rarities, but that did not detract from the adventure.  A Bald Eagle perched high on a tall pine bade us adieu as we entered the swamp.  The most common birds were egrets, herons, and ibises, with an occasional kingfisher.  I have yet to see a Mangrove Cuckoo.  We packed subs from Subway and passed the perfect sandy island on the way in, with plans to stop for lunch there on the return trip.  But time and tides wait for no man and we settled for lunch standing on this submerged island in 12 inches of water a few hours later.  It was still welcome food and a chance to stretch.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

There are no mangroves in the Chesapeake Bay.  My Eastern Shore is characterized by uncountable tidal creeks, ideal for kayaking.  These are not your typical babbling brooks one thinks of as a “creek”, but rather wide, sometimes as wide as a half mile, of irregular fingers of the vast shallow estuary.  Think oysters, crabs, bluefish and rock bass, as well as sailing and kayaking.

Willey’s Island

My local destination is usually Willey’s Island, one of the bay’s many disappearing islands.  People tell me that at one time there was an active farm on the property.  I have watched it shrink for 20 years till now its just several sand spits, and small surviving uplands with its shore littered by fallen trees.  More succumb with each storm.  There was a single majestic pine on one end of the island, a favorite perch of a local Bald Eagle.  It now has died, has wet feet, and will topple over soon.

The Eagle Tree

The rising sea level is not the only explanation for the disappearing islands.  I’m told that the land itself is actually sinking due to deep geologic events.  These factors together have made these silt and clay islands vulnerable to shoreline erosion.  There are no stabilizing natural rocky shores in the Chesapeake Bay.

Toppled trees along the shoreline

My recent kayak trip to the island showed that a Cormorant had taken over my dying Eagle tree.  Chattering Least Terns are more numerous than Forster’s this year, and I wonder where all the sea gulls have gone.  Most years we’re overrun with Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls by now, but this year, nary a one.  My clean dock is evidence of this.  The Osprey continue to increase in number.  There is a housing crisis for them with now almost every channel marker sporting a nest, even the triangular red markers with the pointed top.

Nesting Osprey

A birder has a subliminal urge to keep birding in some form, to fight the passage of time.  Older legs may no longer be able to scale the peaks to see the alpine birds, or endure the transoceanic flights to other continents.  Florida’s mangroves are under development pressure and the Chesapeake’s islands are disappearing.  The birds are adjusting and evolving, but the rate of change seems to be accelerating and some may not survive.  The time, tide, and birds wait for no man.  Good birding, while you can, and try out a kayak.

 

 

 

 

Swan Song for a Snow Bird

Cape May Warbler, Dendroica tigrina

 

The tropical heat is building and the watering holes are crowded. There’s an undercurrent of sniping between the permanent residents and migrators competing for food and space.  Many of the migrators are donning their finest garb in preparation of the trip north, hoping to find a mate, build a nest, and raise a family.  The older crowd is also anxious to return to the land of their roots, renew friendships, and enjoy the cooler breezes.  For them the trip is more strenuous but also a highly anticipated yearly event.  The full time residents left behind are anxious for them all to leave, no matter the reason.

Prothonotary Warbler, Protonotaria citrea

We’re both observers and participants in the great spring migration.  The crest of both the songbird and human waves have already passed us by in south Florida, but we plan to join in and catch up this week.

Northern Parula, Parula americana            (click on photos to zoom)

So often we search out the remote birding sites, but reliable sources alerted us to a passerine fall-out in the heart of downtown Naples.  “Just go to Cambier Park, find the stage, and nearby you’ll se a blooming bottle-brush tree full of birds, with smiling birders positioned below”.

Indigo Bunting, Passerina cyanea

White-eyed Vireo, Vireo griseus

This was great birding for old bones–I only wish I had brought a chair.  Just find some shade, adjust your camera settings, aim upward and shoot.  The only obstacles were “warbler neck”, the speed of the hyperactive birds, and an obnoxious Northern Mockingbird who was openly hostile to the more photogenic migrators passing through.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

Black-whiskered Vireo, Vireo altiloquus

The Cape May Warblers were the most numerous birds, along with a good showing of Prothonotary Warblers, Indigo Buntings, and Orchard Orioles.  Fewer Black-and-white, Blackpoll, and Black-throated Blue Warblers were also seen.  Throw in an occasional Northern Parula, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Black-whiskered Vireo, Chimney Swift, and a flock of Cedar Waxwings and you have a very productive tree and day.

Orchard Oriole, Icterus spurius

Cape May Warbler, Dendroica tigrina

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris

Somehow I had never seen a Cape May Warbler prior to this day; it was a nemesis bird no longer.  Although first described by Alexander Wilson at Cape May, New Jersey in the early 19th century, it was not reported there again for 100 years; but the name has stuck.  This interesting bird winters in the West Indies and briefly stops here on the way north.  It has a unique curved tubular tongue for feeding on nectar in the tropics.  Up north it breeds in the forests of the United States and southern Canada and nests almost exclusively in spruce trees, feeding on spruce bud worms.  Populations and success of the bird varies proportionally with abundance of this worm.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

We also visited the famous Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary to check on the spring migration there.  It’s my great fortune to have the knowledgeable Corkscrew guides, Nancy and Don, as neighbors in Naples.  They were on duty that day and reported that the colorful male Painted Buntings had already left but a few females still lingered.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

The sanctuary was relatively quiet for songbirds, but they encouraged us to check out the ponds.  It has been a dry winter and spring in south Florida and the cypress swamp was unusually arid.  All the remaining water was in a few shrinking water holes, concentrating the fish, alligators, and wading birds together, not entirely peacefully.

Great Egret, Ardea alba

You heard the guttural sounds of the waders and uhhs and ahhs of the spectator crowd, even from a great distance.  The boardwalk was packed with observers, fixated on the spectacle of life and death on the pond.  It reminded me of the childhood “Wild Kingdom” television shows of the Serengeti Plains of Africa and its watering holes, with wildebeest, zebras, giraffes, and others risking life and limb for a drink as lions skulked nearby.

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga

At Corkscrew the concentrated jumping fish had no where to escape, and the opportunistic wading birds were reaping the reward; that is as long as they could dodge the gators who were the “lions” of this scene at the top of the food chain.  The prowling gator’s only dilemma was whether to grab a fish or sneak up on a distracted bird for a larger feathery meal.  There must have been 100 or more storks, herons, egrets, anhingas, and spoonbills at the feeding frenzy.  As Andy said, “It’s a bad day to be a fish”.

American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis

Whereas the migration of birds has occurred for millions of years, migrating human snowbirds to and from Florida is a relatively new phenomena.  In 1902 25 year-old Willis Carrier of Buffalo, New York invented the first “modern” air conditioner.  I doubt that the massive population growth of Florida and the South could have taken place without AC.  Even with it, Easter seems to be the signal commencing the human migration to the north.

Corkscrew watering hole

The wide boulevards, 8-lane highways, and glass and concrete high-rises now seem empty.  There are no longer lines at the best restaurants and theaters, and you can make it through an intersection with one turn of the light.  It’s almost eerie.  The infrastructure here is built to accommodate the huge population of winter and not for the fewer year-round residents.

Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

I visited the flowering bottle brush tree in Cambier Park one last time.  It was now quiet.  The itinerant migrators had all moved on and even the Mockingbird seemed more relaxed.  The resident birds had once again reclaimed their territories and until next fall, all was well.

Chasing the Red-cockaded Woodpecker

RCW

 

Technically a birder does not chase a Red-cockaded Woodpecker (RCW), but rather finds the typical old growth pine forest that they prefer and waits; patiently waits.  A sighting is more a test of one’s patience than his endurance, but if you frequent the proper habitat and are lucky, you’ll find this small endangered woodpecker as Andy and I did this spring in southwest Florida.

Common Ground Dove, Columbina passerina

Our first attempt ended in a smoky failure.  E-bird was reporting a RCW in the Picayune State Forest near Naples several days in a row.  But we were taken aback as we pulled into its parking lot.  There had been an extensive controlled burn there since our prior visits and the air was currently smoke-filled, apparently from several new uncontrolled fires caused by recent lightning strikes. A ranger advised us to not venture too far from the car.  Our only sightings that day were a single Red-bellied Woodpecker and two Common Ground Doves, all ignoring the smoke.

Smoke and fire at Picayune SF

I had previously seen a RCW once but only had poor photos of it, taken in my early photography days when I still stubbornly clung to my point-and-shot camera.  I wanted better pictures and Andy yearned for a new life bird, so we headed to the 80,000 acre Babcock/Webb WMA, a good bet for seeing this bird about 75 miles north, near Punta Gorda.  It turned out to be a great decision and a five-woodpecker day.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

RCW’s are finicky birds and this has cost them dearly.  Their numbers are down 99% from the 1880’s due to habitat loss in the eastern US.  They insist upon nesting in cavities in tall, old growth pines, preferably living long-needled trees, and trees standing in areas of limited understudy growth due to frequent fires.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Picoides borealis

The birds were declared endangered in the 1970’s and currently number only 14,000 survivors.  All the more reason for us to see it now before it shares the fate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  Visit Ralph Costa’s article for an in-depth discussion of the RCW and the efforts to save both it and its specific habitat.  http://scholarworks.sfasu.edu/forestry/426

Babcock/Webb WMA

RCW’s are nonmigratory.  When they find a suitable territory they stay put.  They also have an unusual social system.  An extended family composed of a breeding pair and several younger birds, usually males for some reason, stay together and all assist in incubation and feeding the new chicks.  The nests are all in cavities in living pines that have ample sap.  The birds create resin wells in the bark around the cavities to trap the sap, apparently to help ward off predators such as snakes.  The sticky yellow resin near the hole is a good indicator of an active RCW nest.

RCW cavity with yellow resin

Before you credit Andy and me as being hardy explorers, risking life and limb, trudging miles through snake infested forests looking for a rare bird, let me dispel those thoughts right now.  The rangers at Babcock/Webb have conveniently painted white rings around all the trees that contain RCW cavities and have even reinforced some of these holes with PVC pipe.  The designated trees are often just a short walk from the gravel road. All the birder has to do is plant himself amongst the circled trees and wait.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker was inappropriately named by Alexander Wilson in 1810.  A cockade was an ornament commonly placed on a hat in that era but the red cockade is rarely seen on the woodpecker.  Instead look for the large white cheek patch and the laddered black and white bars on the back. It does not have the elongated white stripe seen on the backs of the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers.  It also has an unusual and distinct call that finally led us to our birds.

RCW

Even with all these aids the RCW’s remained elusive.  We stood among the white circled pines in several locations but saw nothing but a Black Vulture and a Great-crested Flycatcher.  I could tell that Andy was losing patience when the conversation turned from birds to politics, the stock market, and Syracuse University basketball.  I convinced him to try one more location, I think the same place I saw my first RCW several years ago.

Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus

I saw the bird fly in first.  It was clearly a small woodpecker but could not see it well among the pine needles.  I was able to get off a few poor shots with the camera but they were also inconclusive.  Andy insisted it was just a Downy, while I favored a RCW–wishful thinking.  We chased this bird several hundred yards into the pine stand, still debating its ID when Andy heard the characteristic call of an RCW coming from elsewhere.  The Downy had led us to not one, but two RCW’s, likely a breeding pair, foraging and singing in fine light.  Success!  Hundreds of photos later we were still enamored and loathe to leave.

A happy birder with new life bird at Babcock/Webb

Along with the RCW’s and Downy, we also saw a Northern Flicker, Red-bellied, and Pilated Woodpeckers, all in the same stand; five of the seven woodpeckers possible in the area.  We were only missing the Hairy and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker for a perfect woodpecker day.  On the triumphant trip home we could help debating who actually saw the RCW first.  No conclusion was reached, but both agreed that the RCW is an extraordinary bird and the chase was well worth it.