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.

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.

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.

Night Herons

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

 

If you’re looking today for action photos of birds or acrobatic flight shots, you’ve come to the wrong place.  The hunch-backed, thick-necked, short-legged Night Herons will not tear up the dance floor, but on further review they do have some interesting characteristics.  The Bird-naming Gods nailed it with the “Night” part, but not so much with “Heron”.  These birds are clearly nocturnal; I’ve only infrequently seen them foraging or flying in daylight.  But their body type is not typical of the long-legged and graceful posture of most other herons and egrets.

Black-crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

The world’s Night Herons are divided among three genera with the most cosmopolitan bird, the Black-crowned Night Heron (BCNH), found on all continents except Antartica and Australia.  It belongs to the genus Nycticorax which has a Greek origin meaning “night raven”.  This refers to its croaking wock wock Raven-like call.  The BCNH is also our most common and widespread Night Heron in the New World, found from Canada to Patagonia.

BCNH                                                  click on any photo to zoom

The genus Nycticorax also includes the extant Rufous or Nankeen Night Heron (N. caleconicus) found in SE Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, and at least five extinct endemics that didn’t survive on Bermuda and the Ascension and Mascarene Islands.

YCNH

The Yellow-crowned Night Heron (YCNH) belongs to the genus Nyctanassa and is found exclusively in the New World and primarily in the SE United States, Mexico, and Central and northern South America.  For completeness I mention the the third and last genus of Night Herons, Gorsachius.  It contains four species only found in the Old World, three in Asia and one in Africa.

YCNH, juvenile with black bill

So what’s so special about these herons, other than their nocturnal hunts?  You will on occasion catch them foraging in shallow wetlands in daylight, especially during nesting season when they are struggling to satisfy their famished young heronettes.  Night Herons are one of the few bird groups to employ “baiting” techniques to attract small fish.  They spread small twigs and food on the water’s surface to lure the unsuspecting.  If that doesn’t work they also vibrate their bill in the water to attract the curious but less intelligent Pisces.

BCNH, juvenile with yellow in bill

There’s no problem IDing the adult birds.  You’ll usually find them snoozing in shrubs along the water’s edge at about 3 to 15 feet elevation.  The juveniles are not so colorful and quite similar to each other, but if you pay attention to their bills the ID becomes easy.  If there’s yellow in the bill you have a BCNH and if its entirely black, the bird is a juvenile YCNH.  Guide books also mention the different patterns of white spots on the brown plumage, but those field marks have not been as obvious or useful for me.  The juveniles will obtain the adult plumage in their third year.

YCNH, juvenile

BCNH tend to nest in large rookeries, often with diverse species, while the YCNH tends to nest alone or in small groups.  It’s the courtship displays of the BCNH that are most interesting.  Apparently due to hormonal fluctuations the male becomes aggressive and begins a “Snap Display”, clicking his bill while crouching and pacing in his staked out territory.  This is followed by the “Stretch Display” as he extends his neck fully, bobs his head, and begins hissing.  For some reason all this commotion attracts curious females and spurs on nearby males to start their own competing displays.  But wait, it’s not over yet.

BCNH, my only flight shot of these birds so far.

The male initially rejects the females, taking his sweet time to pick the perfect mate.  Monogamous pair formation occurs when one lucky female is finally allowed to enter his territory and rewarded with mutual preening and billing.  Finally, at or near the time of copulation, the legs and feet of both partners turn pink.

BCNH, Hmm…aren’t those legs and feet a little pink?

I’m fortunate to see the two species of Western Hemisphere Night Herons all year long in my patch in SW Florida, and was also surprised to recently see the BCNH at dusk on the Ganges River.  We had a nesting pair of YCNH’s on the edge of the mangroves of Clam Pass in Florida for the last two seasons, but unfortunately their favorite tree did not survive the recent hurricane and I have not seen them this year.  But from now on, whenever I do see a Night Heron, I’m going to pay more attention to leg and foot color.  That observation offers just another glimpse into the private lives of these interesting birds.

Spoonbills & Sayonara

For newbie Floridians or the uninitiated, the first sighting of a Roseate Spoonbill is a memorable event.  You might hear, “Look at that Pink Flamingo”, or from the more observant, “Look at that Pink Flamingo with that deformed flattened bill”.  A gentle correction is in order.  Our Spoonbill, the Roseate, is one of six in the genus “Platalea”.  These include the Eurasian, the African, the Black-faced from Eastern Asia, the Royal from Australia and New Zealand, and the Yellow-billed from SE Australia.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

The Roseate Spoonbill is a year-round resident of Florida and the SE Gulf States of the U.S., but also found in the Caribbean, and in large areas of Central and South America.  These large striking waders are active feeders, usually found in shallow fresh or brackish water, swinging their submerged bills side-to-side.  Along with the color, it’s the peculiar spatula bill that catches your eye.  It is lined with sensitive sensory nerves that causes it to snap shut involuntarily when it detects the unfortunate fish or crustacean.  The chicks hatch with a straight bill; the spatula shape develops with maturation.

A “bowl” of Roseates at Ding Darling

Roseates were pursued close to extinction by the plume hunters of the early 20th century, but they survived and have made a comeback since.  They seem to be more numerous now, even compared to when I first started coming to Florida regularly, a dozen years ago.  A “bowl” of Spoonbills are often found feeding along the berm, close to our home and have given me many close-up photo ops–they’ve adapted to the morning parade of human walkers and gawkers near their feeding pools.

click on any photo to zoom to full screen

The pinkness of the bird is determined by the amount of carotenoids in the ingested crustaceans.  The juveniles are less pink and lack the more intense coloring seen at the shoulder in the adults.

It’s about time to say sayonara to Florida; our seasonal sojourn is drawing to a close and we are about ready to migrate northward with the other “snowbirds” and genuine aves.

Without breaking a sweat our Florida seasonal bird count has reached 97 this year, with a couple birding days still left.  These are primarily resident birds, as the spring migration seems less evident down here.  Oh, you do notice the newly arrived Swallowtail Kites soaring above and the occasional colorful warbler passing through, but for most they ask, “why leave”?  This is the land of sunshine, plentiful food, beaches, and swamps, where the living is easy, even for the birds.

Chasing a closely related, White Ibis

But there are new adventures waiting up north along the Chesapeake.  I know the migrating Geese, Ducks, Swans, and likely the Loons will have left and the annoying non-migratory resident Canada Geese will have already built their nests at the shoreline.  Bald Eagles and Osprey will be far along their reproductive pathways and the Osprey will become the most boisterous voice, calling warnings from their nesting platforms.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

The monotonic but rhythmic call of the White-throated Sparrow will no longer be heard, but the Mockingbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Chipping Sparrows will have joined the chorus.  I’m looking forward to seeing the acrobatic Swallows, Swifts, and Martins, as well as the Kingbird staking out his territory in the back yard.  And I must quickly break out the Hummingbird feeders before these unique migrators pass me over and all settle in my friend Barbara’s yard–she keeps many more feeders than me, all filled and ready.  I believe she has the local “record” for the most Hummers seen simultaneously at her feeders.  Wasn’t it twelve, Barb?  Keep up the good work, but leave a few for me.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris