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 Photos of 2017

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

 

It’s a bone-chilling 16 degrees on New Year’s Day 2018.  San Domingo Creek is frozen all the way across to the islands, an unusual local occurrence.  I see 13 Tundra Swans among the myriad of geese hunkered down on the ice to protect from the northern blast.  My birdbath heater cannot keep up with the deep freeze so I make frequent trips outside with pans of hot water and a hammer to break up the ice.  Birds need fresh water, even more than seeds, when it gets this cold.

Hooded Mergansers, Lophodytes cucullatus

At year-end I like to review the photos of the previous 365 days and pick some winners.  “Best” is hard to define.  Some are favorites because I remember the effort or circumstances of their origins.  Some are photographically good but others perhaps not so, but make the cut for other reasons.  I tried to choose a variety of flight shots, feeding birds, international birds, portraits, etc.  Hope you enjoy the gallery.

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

The lead photo is a colorful Roseate Spoonbill trawling for breakfast in a Florida swamp.  Along with the unusual pink hue I think the disturbed water and reflection make it a winner.  The mergansers’ reflections in the water of the Florida drainage ditch and the pleasing green background earned those birds a place in infamy.

Sandwich Tern, Sterna sandvicensis

You all know that flight shots require a little skill and a lot of luck. I caught the Brown Pelican just at the apogee of his dive when motion was minimal, but missed his splash down seconds later.  The flyby of the Sandwich Tern is included.  I like the blurred horizon on the Gulf of Mexico and the exposure and sharpness of this less common tern.

American Redstart, Setophaga ruticilla

One could easily fill the entire year-end blog with the colorful warblers seen last May at the famous Magee Marsh in Ohio.  I’ll limit myself to just three.  Just think, these birds in alternate plumage just travelled 1000+ miles from Central or South America to the shore of Lake Erie and most still had miles to go before reaching their breeding grounds.  I was lucky enough to catch them at their rest stop.  The squawking American Redstart was telling me to back off and let him rest.  I chose the Chestnut-sideds for their unusual poses.  The obscuring leaf reminds me of the flitting, feeding frenzy of these beautiful birds.

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Dendroica pensylvanica

When you are lucky enough to find an owl in good light you can usually get a decent shot.  But the birds tend to be still and boringly cooperative; you’d rather some action and not just another portrait.  The Spotted Owlet from Rajasthan India was included not for its action, but rather for the filtered sunlight exactly striking the eye.  For owl shots, its all about the eyes.

Spotted Owlet, Athene brama

As readers of this blog know (and may be tired of being reminded) we spent October in India.  Just like Magee Marsh I could fill this gallery with the Indian lifers, but I’ll spare you and just post a few.  The Brown-headed Barbet is the strangest creature with its Groucho Marx nose and pose.  The Blue-tailed Bee-eater and Bank Myna are common birds in India but I liked these open-mouthed shots.  I spent some time trying to photograph the elusive Wire-tailed Swallow when one landed right in front of me in perfect light, practically begging for a picture.

Brown-headed Barbet, Megalaima zeylanica

Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Merops philippinus

Bank Myna, Acridotheres ginginianus

Wire-tailed Swallow, Hirundo smithii

The last Indian birds are the upside down Lesser Goldenback, and the more conventional poses of the Jacobin Cuckoo and Crested Kingfisher.  Sometimes boring is beautiful.

Lesser Goldenback, Dinopium benghalense

Jacobin Cuckoo, Clamator jacobinus

Crested Kingfisher, Megaceryle lugubris

Feeding shots are always fun.  That Snowy Egret caught the large insect on Vanderbilt Beach in Florida and spent the next 20 minutes killing it and figuring out how to swallow it.  It was quite a spectacle and that particular meal may have been a first for the egret.  The Royal Tern had an easier time swallowing the small slippery eel.

Snowy Egret, Egretta thula

Royal Tern, Sterna maxima

The same beach was blessed with a huge flock of shorebirds last November.  I planted myself right down into the sand and slowly inched forward to get some eye-level shots of the action.  That Sandwich Tern nearly landed on the backs of its companions.  The knife-thin bill of the Black Skimmer seen head-on is a favorite.  I was relishing my position within the flock when a young giggly humanoid raced forward and ended my session.  I at least captured the chaotic flock as it took off for a quieter stretch of sand.

Sandwich Tern, Sterna sandvicensis

Black Skimmer, Rynchops niger

This is the time of year that birds think about pairing up.  I caught these two Cattle Egrets likely on a first date, sizing up the possibilities.  The Red-shouldered Hawks were caught further along, probably “in the act” or at least during serious preliminaries.  There was just no privacy on that treetop.

Cattle Egrets, Bubulcus ibis

Red-shouldered Hawks, Buteo lineatus

I’ll end 2017 with a boring portrait of a Tricolor Heron, saved from the delete bin by the beautiful texture and detail of its close-up feathers captured on the field of green.  It’s now time to bundle up and head out to start the 2018 collection.  You never know what may turn up.  There’s a rumor that Snowy Owls have been spotted on Assateague Island.

Tricolor Heron, Egret tricolor                     (click on images to zoom)

 

 

Spring Migration 2017

Baltimore Oriole

 

Take a deep breath, it’s over for now.  Birders can relax as all the birds have finished their northward spring migration and have settled into their breeding territories, some here, and many others much further north.  But believe or not, the fall southbound migration of shorebirds begins the first of July so our respite will be short-lived.

Blackburnian Warbler, Dendroica fusca

Of the 10,000+ species of birds only 40% are migratory, the others seemingly content year-long residents of their chosen habitat.  Of those that migrate, each species has a different strategy; long vs. short distance, daylight vs. nighttime, early spring vs. later, overland vs. overwater, and short hop vs. long haul.  Each strategy has advantages and short-comings.  For example, flying at night when it is cooler saves energy and avoids predators, while daytime flying allows feeding on insects cut during flight and navigation over recognized land masses.  I thought it might be interesting to look at a few migrating birds I photographed this spring and tell their migration story.

Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula

The orange and black blur streaking through the trees at Magee Marsh last week was usually not a Blackburnian Warbler, but much more likely the larger Baltimore Oriole.  In any other setting a birder would rejoice at the chance of observing and photographing the gorgeous oriole, but at Magee Marsh they suffered from overexposure–it was one of the most common birds there.  This tropical appearing bird is exactly that, a bird of the tropics spending most of the year migrating or wintering in Mexico, Central America, or Columbia, and only 4 months of the year in our temperate breeding zone.  Given this, it’s a bit presumptuous to name it a “Baltimore” Oriole, but being from Maryland I’ll live with it.

Shore birds at Mispillion Harbor           (click on photos to zoom)

I took a day this week to check out the migrating shorebirds along the western shore of Delaware Bay.  There were thousands feeding a long scope-distance away on the jetty across the harbor, with Ruddy Turnstones being the most numerous and good number of Red Knots and peeps mixed in.  I’m sure you’ve heard the Red Knot story of their long trek from the tidal flats of Patagonia, up the S. American coast, and the 7000 mile flight over ocean, bringing them to Delaware Bay just in time to feast on the trillions of Horseshoe Crab eggs.  See my blog dated 5/30/2015 “Spring Migration II:  The Red Knots vs. The Horseshoe Crabs” for more details.  But their rest stop in Delaware is just temporary with many miles to go before reaching their breeding grounds in Canada.

Red Knot, Calidris canutus

I also stopped off at Slaughter Beach.  The name seems appropriate.  I was there at low tide and the shorebirds were feeding far away on the tidal flats.  The beach above the high water mark was littered with thousands of overturned horseshoe crabs, likely upset by the surf as they were trying to lay or fertilize eggs.  From the smell I thought they were all dead but after kicking one over he or she started crawling down the beach toward open water.  So I tried another, and another, and so on, with perhaps half still living and saved by me for another season.  But there were thousands.  When do I stop turning them over?  Finally I did stop but could not help wondering what the very next crab thought of me as I turned away and left him to his fate upside down.

One of my rescued crabs heading out to sea

The Ruddy Turnstone shares in the feast on Delaware Bay but due to its shorter migration route is not as dependent on the crab eggs.  Turnstones can be found all winter along the Atlantic coast from New England to S. America and I see them frequently on the Florida coast in their non-breeding attire, (they are rarely found inland).  But seeing them in their spectacular spring plumage is a real treat.  They’ll soon be heading to their breeding grounds on the far northern coastal tundra of Canada and Alaska.

Ruddy Turnstone, Arenaria interpres

The Black-billed Cuckoo is a specie of concern due to declining numbers.  Its breeding territory is the eastern U.S. and southern Canada and migrates over the Gulf of Mexico in fall, wintering in northern South America.  I was happy to stumble across this difficult and stealthy bird, just off the trail near the visitor’s center at Magee Marsh, while scanning the underbrush for thrushes and low-foraging warblers.  He or she may have chosen the marsh as a breeding location, but more likely it was part of the throng of birds waiting for an opportune wind before crossing Lake Eire.

Black-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

The Blackpoll Warbler, despite its lack of dramatic color, is the superstar of warbler migration.  Its breeding ground is the furthest north of all warblers, in western Alaska and stretching across the continent to Labrador and northern New England.  And its wintering territory is the furthest south of any warbler in the western Amazon and rainforests of S. America.  The bird I photographed at Magee Marsh was only halfway through its spring journey north, perhaps heading to Alaska.  In the fall even the birds far west in Alaska decline the straight route south and instead fly eastward to New England and then turn right, following the east coast of North America, the Caribbean, and open ocean before arriving exhausted in S. America, thousands of miles later.

Blackpoll Warbler, Dendroica striata

So as we settle down observing our familiar nesting and resident birds, we have again been refreshed by the less common spring sojourners and marvel at their semiannual feats on the wing.  You won’t want to miss Act II this fall.

Birding Bombay Hook Delaware

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I had to get out of the wind.  The blue sky and fleecy clouds belied the penetrating chill from the 30 mile per hour late October wind gusting from the north down Delaware Bay and across the vast wetlands.  The birds were hunkered down, barely visible in my wind battered scope, and I needed some relief as well.  The Parson Point trailhead looked inviting, winding through a sheltered deciduous woods.  The only sound there was the wind rustling the high canopy, the crunching of dry leaves underfoot, and the distant call of a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca

The last thing I expected to see was an old crumbling concrete structure just off the trail.  A worn sign indicated it was the ruins of the foundation for a Army Air Force World War II radio and observation tower.  In the midst of an innocent birding trip I was reminded again of that existential struggle waged by an earlier generation worldwide, and that today’s relative peace and freedom has been bought with a price.

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Ruins of WWII tower; click on any photo to zoom

Bombay Hook is a 16,251 acre National Wildlife Refuge established in 1934 along the western shore of Delaware Bay.  The name comes from the Dutch “Bompies Hoeck” meaning little tree point.  The Dutch colonial settlers harvested salt hay from the marsh and found sustenance from plentiful muskrat, water fowl, fish, oysters, and crabs.  The Allee House is a large 18th century home in the preserve, currently closed and awaiting restoration.  The attraction for me, however, is the birding, scenery, and photography.

Short-billed Dowitcher

Short-billed Dowitchers, Limnodromus griseus

The refuge is a popular breeding, wintering, and migratory stopover location along the Atlantic Flyway.  Meandering tidal rivers crisscross the marsh where low grasses seemingly stretch to the horizon.  In the slightly higher areas one finds small hummocks filled with blackbirds, perching herons, and the occasional kingfisher.  Larger wooded areas contain trails leading to several observation towers which allow an expansive view of the entire preserve.

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Water control dikes have been built creating three large pools.  Gravel access roads on the dikes wind their way around these pools giving both close and distant views of the wildlife.  If you are lucky you’ll catch some shorebirds feeding on the near mudflats in perfect light.  But more often it seems, you’ll be using your scope and telephoto lens to see the mixed flocks on the opposite shore, often back-lit in the afternoon sun.

Snow Geese

Snow Geese, Chen caerulescens

I bird Bombay Hook both from the car and on foot.  By car I make frequent stops shooting through the open windows, and occasionally exit to set up the scope in the lee of the car or to catch a flyover of a Bald Eagle, harrier, or flock of shorebirds heading from the marsh to the pools’ mudflats.  The cold, wind, and/or mosquitoes favor birding from the car, but don’t forget to sample the wooded trails and an opportunity to observe the Passerines.  I especially recommend the trail to the Shearness Pool Tower from which you can see the vast panoramic expanse of the preserve.

View east from Shearness Pool Tower

View east from Shearness Pool Tower

Memorable trips to BH for me include a wintertime visit and the racket and spectacle of thousands of Snow Geese rising out of the marsh at dusk, the variety of wintering waterfowl, and my first sighting of Horned Larks in the snowy fields near the refuge entrance.  I’ve seen large flocks of American Avocets there and a huge flock of mixed shorebirds rising as one, spooked by an approaching Northern Harrier.  Even when the birds are sparse the vistas surround and reward you.  Visit in any season but pack some fly dope in the warmer weather.  Bombay Hook NWR easily makes my list of top ten birding sites.

Fall Shorebird Migration

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I live on the Delmarva Peninsula.  It is aptly named since it encompasses Delaware to the east, the Eastern Shore of Maryland to the west, and Cape Charles Virginia at its southern tip.  It’s bordered by Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Chesapeake Bay to the west.  Delmarva is a flat, rural lowland with abundant farms and tidal wetlands.  There is not a rock in sight as the glaciers of the last Ice Age never made it this far south.  All in all it’s a perfect stopover and refueling site, or even a final destination for migrating shorebirds.  There are 50 species of shorebirds that breed regularly in North America and 217 species worldwide, just a small percentage of the total avian population of over 10,000 species.

Piping Plover

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)    click on any photo to zoom

The spring and fall migrations of shorebirds are completely different animals.  In spring the birds with raging hormones are making a mad dash to arctic and sub-arctic breeding grounds.  They follow the 35 degree isotherm to ensure liquid water and insects upon arrival.  Males and females must arrive at nearly the same time to mate, establish territories, build nests, lay eggs, and raise the young, all during the short, two-month arctic summer.  Fall migration, on the other hand is a much more leisurely trip south spanning several months from late June through November.

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Ruddy Turnstone & Black-bellied Plover (Arenaria interpres & Pluvialis squatarola)

The birds that abandon the arctic first and head south, even in late June, are the unsuccessful breeders and nesters.  If their first attempt fails due to weather, predation, etc., there is simply not enough time to try again.  Better to head south early and hope for better luck next year.  Some species send one of the parents south (either the male or female) as soon as the eggs are laid leaving the other to sit on the nest and raise the hatchlings.  Luckily shorebird chicks are more precocious than most birds walking, feeding themselves, and flying at an young age.  The abiding  parent will also migrate relatively early leaving the offspring behind to gain strength.  Amazingly the juveniles will head south one month later, often flying thousands of miles to their wintering grounds without any adult supervision.

Black Skimmers

Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger)

There has been speculation about the reason for an early fall migration from the tundra, even though there are still abundant insects and other food sources.  Some have suggested that the ancestors of these birds were tropical or neo-tropical and only began migrating northward to find new and safer breeding grounds as the glaciers retreated and climate warmed at the end of the Ice Age.  Thus, their hearts are really in the south, to which they return to ASAP when their biologic duty is done.

Wilson's Plover

Wilson’s Plover (Charadrius wilsonian)

There is species-specific timing to the fall migration.  After the non-breeders, you’re apt to see adult Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Yellowlegs, and Dowitchers passing through the Mid-Atlantic region as early as the first of July.  There is a somewhat predictable parade of following species, with Dunlins being an example of a late migrant, peaking here in October and November.

Long-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus)

August is a popular month for observing the shorebird migration as most of the other bird groups have not yet felt the call.  Just be prepared for some confusing fall plumages.  Some will still have their breeding plumage while others will be in winter garb or a combination of both.  Add in the juvenile plumage and potential sex differences and you have some real ID challenges.  There’s also always a chance you might see a vagrant, often a lost juvenile far off course.  If you need a good reference book for these birds I recommend “The Shorebird Guide” by O’Brien, Crossley, and Karlson.

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)

You often hear of the amazing distances covered by these migrating shorebirds.  Hudsonian Godwits are thought to fly 8,000 miles NON-STOP between breeding and wintering grounds.  Other shorebirds “choose” a more conservative approach and forgo the longer trip to Central and South America.  The Piping Plover, for instance breeds along the Atlantic seaboard from Massachusetts to Georgia and winters in Florida.  Wilson’s Plover both breeds and winters in Florida.  The Purple Sandpiper is the most hardy of the “locals” wintering along the rocky Atlantic coast all the way up to southern Newfoundland.

Sanderlings

Sanderlings (Calidris alba)

The ubiquitous and seemingly mundane Sanderling has its own migration story.  This small wave-chasing shorebird is seen in flocks on virtually every sandy beach world-wide.  It lacks a hind toe as a special adaptation allowing it to outrun the surf.  These birds breed far to the north in the arctic islands of Canada, Greenland, or Siberia and in this hemisphere choose various temperate wintering shorelines in both North and South America.  While some of Sanderlings choose a short migration route, ornithologist have discovered that others circumnavigate the entire Western Hemisphere, leaving the breeding ground in the fall and flying along the Atlantic coast to Chile and Peru.  In the spring they return north along the Pacific coast and central corridor, finally ending up at their original breeding site in northern Canada.

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Delmarva shorebird (Erratum maximum)

Our local baseball team, a farm club for the Baltimore Orioles, is appropriately called the Delmarva Shorebirds.  It seemed like the perfect name until they chose the team logo–they really needed a birder on that committee.  I would have suggested a Sanderling, a Piping Plover, or maybe even a Black Skimmer.  Instead they ended up with some stylized nonentity that looks like a cross between a Pileated Woodpecker and a Raven.  It’s clearly not a shorebird.  C’est la vie.