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.

Best Birds of 2020

Boat-tailed Grackle

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

Little Blue Heron
White-eyed Vireo

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

Red-shouldered Hawk
Blue-winged Teal

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

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Sandhill Crane

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

Mallard

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

Painted Bunting
Anhinga
Short-tailed Hawk

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

Eastern Bluebird
Tricolor Heron
Loggerhead Shrike

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

White-eyed Vireo
Red-shouldered Hawks

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

Birding Et Cetera

Brown Pelicans, Pelecanus occidentalis

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

Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea

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

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

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

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

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

Red-shouldered Hawks, Buteo lineatus

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

Cooper’s Hawk, Accipiter cooperii

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

Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus

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

Loggerhead Shrikes

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

Monarch, Danaus plexippus

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

American Kestrel, Falco sparverius

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

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus

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

Cattle Egrets, Bibulous ibis

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

Blackwater Birds and Bugs

Blackwater NWR

 

I’m not a sissy, or at least I don’t think I am, but we all have our limitations.  Mine were revealed recently at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Church Creek on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  I can show you gorgeous pictures of the tidal swamp with a sea of grasses seemingly extending to the horizon, only rarely interrupted by Loblolly pine islets and areas of shimmering open water.  If you’re lucky you might see a hunting harrier there, or I can show you pictures of the Bald Eagle pair, the fishing herons, or the splendid Red-headed Woodpecker.  But all these shots tell only half the story.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

It was very hot, humid, and overcast.  We just had several days of rain and the air was still nearly saturated.  The lowlands of south Dorchester County are barely above sea level and undoubtedly were a few feet below sea level during the recent hurricane.  It all was a perfect stew for the bugs.  The people who  live here are hardy souls, they must be.  On that recent day the bugs, not the birds, drove the bus.  There were mosquitos the size of a Buick, biting flies, the green-headed and other varieties as well.  In a prior life I did minor surgery and would prepare my patients for the initial needle stick by warning they were about to feel a Dorchester County mosquito bite.  They all understood the analogy.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

The absence of other birders at the refuge should have been a clue, but I just had to get out and see some birds.  It was early for waterfowl, the refuge specialty, but one can always see eagles and waders there, or maybe even a shorebird migrant.  The reliable refuge did not disappoint.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

So, when birding Blackwater NWR this time of year you need a strategy.  Stay in the truck and keep the windows up!  But if you’re a real birder and a real bird photographer this just will not do.  The second strategy is bug spray, gallons of it, coating every  square inch of clothing and hat, not just the exposed skin.  The only problem with this is the chemicals wreak havoc with your camera and lens, and some bugs seem un-phased by the odor.  Incidentally the odor does fend off other humans, including a spouse.  A more informative blog would run down the pros and cons of the various insect repellents on the market.  You’re on your own in this regard.

Royal Tern, Sterna maxima

Another strategy is to pick a windy day to blow the buggers away.  My day was dead calm.  So in the end I tried a combination of all of the above cruising Wildlife Drive with the windows up and the AC on.  As you all know, pictures through the window glass are not ideal and the vibrations from the running engine further degrades the image.  When you sight a bird you have to decide if it’s worth the risk of venturing out of the truck for a quick shot, and then diving back in before the bugs realize what’s happening.  Even in those brief moments some invariably sneak in and must be dealt with, smished on the inside glass.  Remember to pack a fly swatter.

Red-headed Woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

In some cases you can park the truck across the trail, trying to create a good angle through an open side window, remembering to kill the engine first.  The motion of the opening window spooks some of the birds but this technique did give me that shot of the Red-headed Woodpecker above.  There must be a back story to that Bald Eagle pair I saw.  They looked like a couple who just had an argument and couldn’t bare to look each other in the eye.  Blackwater is a premier location on the East Coast to see these beauties.

Bald Eagles, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

The Kingfisher, Killdeer, and gulls were distant birds, causing me to yearn again for a 500 or 600mm lens, but they’re still only a dream at current prices.  Lunch was yogurt, granola, and a bottle of water, in the truck, windows up, and the local country music station cranked up loud; it was not all bad.

Killdeer, Charadrius vociferus

And the bugs were not all bad either.  It was just the biting ones and the resultant welts that irritated me.  But it’s also the season of the singing Cicadas and the clicking Crickets.  My urban grandson, visiting from his loud downtown apartment last summer, couldn’t fall asleep on our screened porch in the country because of the insect symphony.  His honking urban jungle, however, is never a problem.  Between bird sightings at Blackwater there was a good butterfly show.  I need to improve these skills but did see many Sulfurs (not sure if Clouded or Cloudless), a few Buckeyes, and of course the glorious Monarchs, likely just beginning their long migration to Mexico.

Monarch, Danaus plexippus

But there is a definite downside to birding like this, largely confined to the truck.  You miss the valuable auditory component, especially for the little songbirds that are often heard before seen.  You miss the fresh air and breeze, the smell of the tidal marsh, and the sorely needed exercise gained by trudging along the waterside trails.  Despite this it was a good day of birding–do you ever have a bad one?  You should check out Blackwater NWR.  In a few weeks the wintering waterfowl will be in, the bugs will be on the decline, and the scenery is something to behold.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

I must take a moment to pay tribute to the recent passing of one of our area’s pre-eminent birders.  Les Roslund was a lifelong birder, first in the Mid West and later here on the East Coast.  His extensive knowledge was kindly shared with all, especially the new birders whom he was the first to welcome to the local birding club.  I frequently ran into Les birding alone at the Pickering Creek Audubon Center near his home.  He always asked what I was seeing, especially the sparrows, in which he had a keen interest and extensive knowledge.  He was a gentleman birder, a friend to us all, and will be sorely missed.

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

Best Bird Photos of 2019

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

 

Time may be infinite, but our small slice of it is not.  Tempus fugit.  So yet again it’s time to submit these best-of-year photos and wrap up another memorable 12 months of birding.  Each shot has a back story, but this year I’ll just let the photos speak for themselves.  Hope you enjoy them.

Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus

Wood Duck, Aix sponsa

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

Eastern Screech-Owl, Megascops asio (I believe Andy took this shot while I expertly held the light)

Black Skimmers & Sandwich Terns, Rynchops niger & Sterna sandvicensis

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

Tree Swallows (juvenile), Tachycineta bicolor

Snail Kite, Rostrhamus sociabilis

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga

Pied-billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps

Great Horned Owls (juvenile), Bubo virginianus

 

I can’t help but wonder where all these birds are today.  Their slice of time is even smaller than ours.  Best wishes for the holidays, Happy Hanukkah, and Merry Christmas to all.

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 With a Guide vs. Going Bare

Mount Desert Island, Maine

 

When one charters a sailboat, you have a choice; board a craft with a captain, possibly even a cook, and just relax, or you can go “bare”.  Going bare does not imply complete nakedness.  You still have a seaworthy boat, stocked with food and plenty of navigation charts and devices.  You supply the seamanship, experience, and reap the rewards of independence and a heightened sense of adventure.

Eurasian Jay, Garrulus glandarius, from Italy

It seems to me that one makes a similar choice when birding.  I’ve done it both ways, using guides on four continents, as well as bare birding, both domestically and abroad.  I’ve come to appreciate the challenges of guiding as well as the traits of an ideal guide–I’ve never had a poor one.

Spotted Owlet, Athene brama, from India

But first let me point out some of the joys of going bare.  As in boating, you are not really all that exposed, eBird has seen to that.  All-star birder Phoebe Snetsinger’s technique of preparation before birding a new site has been a great lesson for me, and eBird has made that so much easier.  Just review their hotspot sightings for your trip, specific for the month of departure, and study those birds in your guidebook.

Red-breasted Nuthatches, Sitta canadensis, irruption this fall?

“Photo-birding” is a valuable tool when going bare, when there’s no guide at your side with a ready ID.  Generally I’m out to get the perfect shot; sharp, great background, lighting, and pose, but with photo-birding its all about the ID.  Just get something on “film” and make the ID later, over coffee and out of the wind.  Or you can send the picture to an expert for help.

Red-whiskered Bulbul, Pycnonotus jocosus, in India

Am I strange in finding some exhilaration in finally matching the picture to guidebook, and claiming a new tick on my life list?  I remember going bare in India with colleagues, photo-birding, and sitting around a table for hours, reviewing shots and guidebooks, and arguing about the finer points and field marks–sort of sharing our ignorance.  It was fun and it worked.

Crested Kingfisher, Megaceryle lugubris, in India

When overseas on a “non-birding” trip (is this ever the case?), I try to book hotels near parks or hotspots that can be easily visited while my spouse still sleeps.  This seems to work for us.  I’m sure I would have seen many more birds with a guide when we visited Japan, but those dawns alone, among the beautiful temples and gardens of Hakone, near Mount Fuji, or among the deer in Nara Park were unforgettable.  It was hard work to finally match that enchanting call to the elusive Japanese Bush Warbler, Uguisu. See posting “Birding Hakone, Japan”, dated April 17, 2015.

Hakone, Japan

Japanese White-eye, Zosterops japonicus, in Nara Japan

Bare birding in Kensington Gardens and St. James Park, London, walking the path that Kings & Queens have trod, and near the bunker where Churchill resisted evil a generation ago, was also memorable.  A local twitcher showed me the Little Owl in the Gardens, but I admit I did see more birds when excellent guide, Jack Fernside, took me outside the ring road for a day.  http://www.birdinglondon.co.uk

St. James Park, London

Little Owl, Athene noctua, in Kensington Gardens, London

A good guide tailors the outing to meet the needs of the client.  In Tuscany, along the west coast of Italy, we hired Marco Valtriani for a day, informing him that among the six of us, I was the only birder.  Now that’s a real dilemma.  He arrange birding by skiff, amidst the beautiful tidal wetlands, followed by exquisite cuisine on a cliff overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.  After lunch we hiked the hills, exploring Etruscan ruins.  It was a home run for us all.  http://www.Birdinginitaly.com

Tuscan birding with Marco, on Tuscan coast of Italy

There are some locations where a guide is almost a necessity, both for safety and his local knowledge.  The Himalayan foothills, Corbett National Park, and Ramnagar Jungle of India were examples of this.  Our guide, Bopanna Patada, was the ultimate guide; the equivalent of yachting with captain and cook, with all the accoutrements.  He met us at the airport, rented a van and hired a driver for the week, booked us into first class accommodations, and hired local guides to assist him at each stop in northern India.  This was in addition to his infectious enthusiasm and knowledge of birds of the subcontinent.  http://www.indiabirding.com

Bopanna & colleagues in northern India

We’re planning a cultural trip to Russia next spring.  I hope to squeeze in some birding, but doubt that it’s a good idea for a lone American to be traipsing around Moscow with binoculars and telephoto lens these days.  I’m currently trying to find a guide for birding St. Petersburg.  If anyone has a suggestion, please send it my way.

Jacobin Cuckoo, Clamator jacobinus, in India

But the birds don’t always cooperate, even with the best of guides.  Last month I hired the guru of birding at Mount Desert Island and Acadia NP in Maine.  The fall scenery was spectacular as he guided three of us to his favorite hot spots, but it was just not a “birdy” day.  I felt sorry for the guide as he repeatedly apologized on behalf of the hiding birds.  Not to worry–there is never a bad day birding.

Acadia National Park, Maine

In addition to knowing the local birds and hotspots, what are the characteristics of a good bird guide.  Enthusiasm and patience are near the top of the list.  Also, the ability to succinctly point out a new bird, making sure everyone in the group has seen it.  He needs to describe its field marks and behavior, why its an x and not y.  Having a field guide handy to illustrate these points is also a plus.  Lastly the guide needs to judge the mental and physical stamina of the group–when is it time to quit?

Wood Ducks, Aix sponsa, near Bar Harbor, Maine

Just as there are bird-less days, there are also days when the birds come fast and furious, almost too much of a good thing.  The guide is rapidly calling out the birds while we frantically try to keep up, lucky to actually see every other one.  A hard core lister may tick them all, but I’d rather get a good look, before claiming a new life bird.

Hermit Thrush, Catharus guttatus, in Blackwater NWR

I recently tagged along with a novice birding class visiting Bombay Hook, Delaware, one of the birding meccas on the East coast.  Wayne, the guide is an especially talented birder and teacher.  There was a mixed flock of blackbirds on a wire some distance away.  Wayne ID’ed the back lit Cowbird by its signature pose with raised beak tilting toward the heavens.  This was new info for me.  We saw 50 some birds that day but he was especially pleased when at the end of the session he saw a small flock of Marbled Godwits landing on a distance mudflat.  It was the bird we were all hoping for all day.

American Avocets, Recurvirostra americana, at Bombay Hook, Delaware

So which is better, guided or bare birding?  You decide, while I keep doing some of each.

Birding Jim Corbett National Park and Tiger Preserve

 

The Anglo Saxon name “Jim Corbett” practically leaps off the map of northern India, surrounded by all the Indian names of towns, rivers, lakes, and mountains.  Who is this person and why is his name given to India’s oldest and most prestigious national park?  I sought to answer this question as we began our final three days in India, birding and hiking in and around the park and tiger preserve.

Green-billed Malkoha, Rhopodytes tristis

The park is 260 kilometers northeast of Delhi in Uttarakhand, covering 1300 square kilometers of forest, low hills, grass and marshlands, and a large lake.  It is home to 650 species of birds and a relatively large populations of tigers, leopards, cobra, and other wildlife making safaris one of its prime attractions.

Grey Bushchat, Saxicola ferreus

The realization of being in an actual jungle dawned on me at our first breakfast at Jim’s Jungle Retreat when I asked about all the “barking dogs” which kept me awake at night.  “Those aren’t dogs”.  “They’re barking deer warning each other about a prowling tiger near by”.  I paid a little more attention to my surroundings, kept up with the group, and snuck an occasional glance over my shoulder throughout the remainder of the trip.

Our Veranda and Lodge

Jungle Jim was a great accommodation.  http://www.jimsjungleretreat.com  This several acre compound featured 18 comfortable individual residencies, each designed and furnished in a late 19th or early 20th century style.  Ours was elevated 15 feet off the jungle floor and had a large wrap-around veranda with a picturesque view of the surrounding forest and fields.  It was a great temptation to just bird, read, and meditate on this porch and skip the jungle treks, but I didn’t yield to it.

Changeable Hawk Eagle, Nisaetus limnaeetus

Bopanna, our guide, continued to push us to see as many birds as possible, starting at dawn and birding until dusk.  Looking back I appreciate his energy, but remember one evening in failing light we all sat high in a treehouse, waiting and listening for owls. I admit to dozing off; the only owl-like sounds I heard were growling stomachs, anxious for Jungle Jim’s evening buffet.  Someone in the group did miraculously sight a Jungle Owlet on our way to dinner.

Himalayan Bulbul, Pycnonotus leucogenys

I don’t recall all the names of the sites we visited in and around Corbett NP, but the local guide did escort us to a variety of habitats including forests, riverine regions, and fields.  I fondly remember a walk through the humble village and fields adjacent to our compound where we saw the Paddyfield Pipit as well as people harvesting the fields by hand–no mechanized assistance here.  School children were returning home while mothers hung out the wash, all a colorful glimpse of rural Indian life.

Village birding in Dhela

Paddyfield Pipit, Anthus rufulus

Two birds from Corbett stand out for me.  The bizarre Greater Racket-tailed Drongo is a large blackbird with two long tail streamers, each terminating in a small twisted racket.  I can’t imagine any earthly use for such an appendage, except perhaps as a sexual lure.  It must hamper maneuvering through the forest but if it enhances mating, perhaps it benefits the species as a whole.

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Dicrurus paradiseus

The other bird is the Crested Kingfisher.  All of us but Andy had seen and photographed this great bird earlier in the trip but on one our last days we luckily spotted another one perched near the river as all Kingfishers like to do.  The plan here is to fire off a few shots, check photographic technique, make adjustments, and move closer ten feet.  Repeat again and again, getting as close as possible before spooking the bird.  The ultimate goal is to catch a shot with the bird launching and flying away.  Bopanna warned us to change our settings and prepare for flight, but even with that admonition most of us missed it.  Oh well.  At least Andy got his bird.

Crested Kingfisher, Megaceryle lugubris

Edward James Corbett (1875-1955) was of Irish ancestry but born in Nainital, India where his father was postmaster.  He left school at age 17 and joined the Bengal and North Western Railroad where he became an accomplished manager and problem solver.  His leadership style fostered respect among the locals and his successes were many.  My knowledge of his life is based on an engrossing book of his short stories, “Jim Corbett’s India”, edited by R.E. Hawkins.

Corbett’s fame is due to his skill as a hunter, tracker, and killer of man-eating tigers and leopards, and his later conversion to naturalist, conservationist, and photographer.  He authored six books including “Man-eaters of Kumaon”, “Jungle Lore”, and “My India”.  Corbett persuaded India to create the Hailey National Park in the 1930’s which was later named for him posthumously in 1957.

Rufous Treepie, Dendrocitta vagabunda

For the listers out there here are our final stats from India.  We saw 57 birds around the hotels, palaces, and park during the initial tour, and added 35 during the interlude at Hyderabad.  Bopanna guided us to an additional 33 species in the Himalayan foothills, and 46 more in and around Corbett NP.  That gives a grand total of 174 different birds, of which 148 were “life birds” for me.  This of course just scratches the surface of 1200 species possible on the sub-continent.

Nepal Wren Babbler, Pnoepyga immaculata

Our passage to India left me with memories for a lifetime.  These are rekindled by the photos, writing this blog, and a few souvenirs accumulated along the way.  My favorite is a picture of a White-throated Kingfisher, uniquely painted on an antique document by an artist Suzanne met in Jaipur.

This picture and bird hearken back to our mad dash at dawn in Agra, trying to be the first to photograph the deserted Taj Mahal, right at sunrise.  I hit the brakes when I saw the kingfisher perfectly perched in the reflecting pool, just too tempting to pass by.  At that exact moment I had to answer the key question nagging me for the entire trip.  “Was I in India, halfway around the world, for the culture and enchanting sites, or was I there for the birds”?  My definitive answer was simply “YES”.  I took 15 seconds to fire off a few shots of the bird and then resumed the charge to the monument, catching up with my companions in time to see the Taj Mahal in all its glory at sunrise.  You CAN have it all.