One Thousand Birds!

Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Lepidocolaptes souleyetii

My number 1000 was a Spot-crowned Woodcreeper seen on a mountain trail above the Savegre Lodge in Costa Rica. It was one of those strenuous days when our guide, Olivier Esquivel, was pushing Mel and me past our comfort zones. I was lagging behind on the narrow trail, just putting one step in front of the next, trying to keep up. Ollie and Mel waited patiently for me to catch up whenever they spotted a new bird. Now I’m glad they did. On March 14, 2022 I saw the woodcreeper.

Red-legged Honeycreeper, Cyanerpes cyaneus

Unfortunately I did not get a picture of the now famous bird, but did get a reasonable shot of his cousin, the Streak-headed. These birds are active, medium-sized woodcreepers usually found in the highland forests. As the name suggests you’ll discover it creeping up the trunks, poking its curved bill into the epiphytes looking for insects. I remember having a hard time spotting it, but finally got a reasonable binocular view with an assist from the laser pointer.

At the time we did not know my milestone had been reached. I knew we were closing in on it, but the tabulating was left to supper time, back at the lodge where the breathing was easier and we had a chance to reminisce about our day. Raised drinks and a small celebration occurred before we planned for the next day’s birding. Dinner tomorrow would be on me, as a gesture of appreciation for the guidance of Ollie and the encouragement from Mel.

Mel and I, somewhere on the trail in Costa Rica.

Like many birders, I’m a little sheepish in admitting to the listing habit. Aren’t we suppose to revel in the mere observation of the avian world, noting bird behavior, mating and nesting habits, etc., while we explore their world in our backyard and abroad? But to my way of thinking record-keeping only enhances this pastime. Where did I first see that bird; how many birds have I seen in Florida this year; or what is my current yard or patch list? All of these are easily answered if you use eBird.

King Vulture, Sarcoramphus papa

The world has seen some serious bird listers. John James Audubon’s four volume set, The Birds of America could be considered his list of 435 species. Three birders mentioned elsewhere in this blog are Phoebe Snetsinger, Kenn Kaufman, and Noah Strycker. In her incredible lifetime Phoebe created a world list of 8398 birds, but died doing it. Ken made a record 671 sightings for a 1973 record in North America when he was still a teenager. More recently in 2015 Noah, a 28 year-old, established a one year world mark of 6042. Now that’s a big year!

Great Curassow, Crax rubra

eBird is a database of the world’s bird observations submitted by amateurs and scientists alike. It was launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society as a tool for tracking bird distribution and abundance. It accepts over 100 million bird sightings a year and makes all this data available to every user. You can easily determine what birds are being seen at virtually any location in the world on any given day, current or past. It is valuable for planning a birding trip or for chasing rarities. Your interface in the field is your smart phone. The program will even question you if you try to enter a bird not usually seen at your location. You can also add photos and birdsong recordings.

Yellow-headed Caracara, Milvago chimachima

Better yet, the tool is a permanent record of all your personal observations that can be sorted by location or date. We birders are a somewhat obsessive compulsive group and this software nicely satisfies that exact character trait. If you are a new eBird user you can add all you old sightings and bring your life list up to date. All of this is free; one of the best bargains you’ll find.

Orange-collared Manakin, Manacus aurantiacus

I was an early convert to eBird and added my hand written data going back to 1983. The first entry was an Osprey seen at an old farmhouse we rented for a couple years on the Chesapeake Bay. My 500th bird was a Bewick’s Wren we ran across high in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona on November 30, 2016.

Bewick’s Wren, Thryomanes bewickii

Now that the 1000 bird milestone has been reached and surpassed (the final count after Costa Rica is 1092), is 2000 in my sights? I don’t think so. Even though I’ve seen only ten percent of the world’s birds, adding to the list becomes harder and harder. To add more you must travel further from home and spend much more time and money. The legs and other body parts are no longer young. Oh, I’d like to take a trip to Patagonia; I’ve never laid eyes on a penguin. A trip to Alaska would be great, but I suspect New Guinea and Australia will be left for another life. For now I’m content to just return to my home patch and check up on the Cardinals and Jays. They’re pretty impressive themselves.

The Quetzal Quest

Costa Rican montane cloud forest

It was 1530 when Tecun Uman decided he and his Mayan people had had enough from the Spanish conqueror Pedro de Alvarado. He entered battle armed with just a bow and arrow and a beautiful green bird perched on his shoulder for good luck. He was fighting the armored conquistador mounted on horseback. It was unfair from the start and after a heroic fight Tecun was run through with a spear and killed. The quetzal, however, survived, landed on his vanquished master’s chest and bathed himself in the red blood. The previously all-green bird now donned the amazing resplendent colors we see today, but as a sign of grief it vowed to never sing again until the land was free.

Resplendent Quetzal, Pharomachrus mocinno (photo by Ryan Acandee, CC by Wikimedia Commons)

When a birder chooses to visit Costa Rica for the first time the Resplendent Quetzal is usually the number one target on the list. Olivier, our guide, and my birding companion Mel, designed the itinerary with a two-night stand at the beautiful Savegre Hotel and Spa with this in mind. It’s in the foothills of the Talamanca Mountains, several winding miles off the Pan-American Highway. The gravel road descended into a valley along the Savegre River to the lodge, still nestled 7000 feet above sea level.

The Quetzal inhabits the montane cloud forests of southern Mexico and Central America and is a cavity nester, often taking over and remodeling the vacant homes of woodpeckers. In fact, our guide and many of the hotel’s guests knew the location of an active nest just up the road. The cameras were loaded and with great anticipation that was our obvious first stop at the break of day.

Collared Trogon, Trogan collaris. (female, orange-bellied)

The Resplendent Quetzal is the largest bird in the Trogonidae family. All of the members are large and colorful, and so very different than any of our birds. They are generally sedentary and if you’re lucky you may spot one between the branches posed for a photograph. We were fortunate to see seven of the ten Costa Rican species on our recent trip.

Gartered Trogon, Trogon caligatus

The resplendent male is an amazing emerald green that seems to glow in the sunlight. The lower chest is red with the lower body and tail showing areas of contrasting white and black. The male sports long green plumes that trail behind in flight. When perched these feathers hang several feet below the bird. My first photos were zoomed too tightly before I realized the extent of the tail.

When we arrived at the hollow tree there was already a small crowd gathered staking it out. I noticed that among the obvious birders there were many brightly dressed tourists without binoculars and cameras other than their smart phones. This bird clearly draws fans from far and wide, even the non-birders. The watchers told us that in the very early dawn light the male emerged from the hole and flew off, and was replaced with the less resplendent female. We could barely detect her head in the dark hole, and after a short wait and several poor photographs we decided to resume the quest for the male elsewhere. Apparently their tag-team approach to nesting and incubation is characteristic of the species.

Quetzal hole with female barely visible

Less than a mile up the dirt road we found a parked tour bus and a much larger crowd. This time there was clearly more excitement in the air with scopes and cameras aimed out over the ravine toward a dense tree. Somehow someone had spotted the well camouflaged bird and cameras were clicking away. I had great difficulty seeing the bird but finally took a few shots through a small gap in the foliage, zoomed to the maximum. Suddenly the bird took off and flew right over the road and crowd, with feathers streaming behind. I wish you could have heard the squeals of delight from everyone. I was much too slow to get a flight shot, but he landed just a hundred yards down the road. I was swept in the stampede toward the new perch. This one was a bit better, but his back was still turned to the crowd. I never did get a photo showing that red breast.

The Quetzal Crowd

You have to wonder at the selective advantage of evolving such bright colors and long gaudy feathers. They must make take-offs and landings difficult. I’m told that the iridescent green feathers resemble wet leaves and helps the bird hide in the forest from his main predators, the hawks, eagles, and owls. I’m sure the female quetzal must have played a critical role in this evolution, likely demanding the resplendent display when choosing a mate.

My photo of the Resplendent Quetzal

Unfortunately the population of the Resplendent Quetzal is decreasing, but not yet severely depressed. It’s estimated that up to fifty thousand birds remain. Their primary threat is from deforestation and loss of habitat. The conquistadors have long since moved on, Costa Rica is free, and once again the wicka-wicka call is heard as this spectacular bird flies by.

A Costa Rican Birding Adventure

Scarlet Macaw, Ara macao

How can this small tropical Central American country, the size of West Virginia, be home to so many birds? It claims 903 species, significantly more than all the mainland United States. In thirteen days of what this somewhat out-of-shape, 70 year-old birder would call hard core birding, we saw 381 different birds.

Pale-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus guatemalensis

I was fortunate to join my Florida birding companion, Mel, and be guided by Costa Rican Olivier Esquivel as we travelled and sampled most of the various habitats of this beautiful land. The narrow country is bordered on the east by the Caribbean Sea, and on the west by the Pacific Ocean. Shifting tectonic plates have raised towering volcanic mountain ranges aligned along the center of Costa Rica, exactly at right angles to the northeast hot and humid trade winds of the Caribbean.

Olivier, me, & Mel

My initial impression of the land was from the air as we landed at San Jose. Other than the coasts and Central Valley, this is sparsely populated and rugged terrain. As Olivier said, “if they ironed the country flat it would be the size of Texas”. As we careened around the hills and switchbacks, often on gravel roads, this became quite clear to Mel and me.

Turquoise-browed Motmot, Eumomota superciliosa

When the prevailing trade winds meet the the uplands they unload their moisture on the Caribbean slope. This creates the specific wet habitats both in the lowland jungles, and further up the cooler slopes. On the opposite Pacific side the uplands and coast are dry; all this explains the many varied habitats, home to differing and often unique bird species.

The view from Copal Lodge

We birded and sweated in the steaming lowlands and on the next day donned down vests, birding at 10,000 feet. The various habitats, along with the numerous migrants, make Costa Rica a bird-friendly locale and a paradise for birders.

Costa Rica with our birding sites highlighted

The country is a safe, stable democracy, being one of only a few sovereign nations without a standing army. Its economy was initially dependent upon agriculture, but more recently has become a Mecca for ecotourism. My visit was a second attempt, the first cancelled in 2021 due to the pandemic.

Crimson-collared Tanager, Ramphocelus sanguinolentus

Olivier and Mel designed an ambitious itinerary of dawn-to-dusk birding, with even an evening session for nightjars and owls. We sampled most of the habitats and rarely entered a restaurant, morning, noon, or night without binoculars or cameras; you never know when a new bird will show up. Our lodging was generally spartan. As Olivier said, why waste money on luxury when we will only be stopping for some sleep. If I go again I might upgrade the accommodations somewhat.

Magnificent Frigatebird, Fregata magnificent, on the Tarcoles River

One’s first exposure to the stunning colors of the tropical birds is unforgettable. The Toucans, Parrots, Hummingbirds, Tanagers, and Trogons are spectacular and so different from our home species. You wonder why the bland Clay-colored Thrush is the national bird. As Olivier quipped, “that’s what you get when you let politicians pick the bird”.

Emerald Toucanet, Aulacorhynchus prasinus

Most of our lodges had surrounding gardens, short trails, and feeders that would have satisfied me with photographic opportunities for hours, but Olivier wanted us to also sample the shier species that lived more remotely. We might trek three or fours hours, up hills and deep into ravines in order to find a few more birds, but at the end of the day there was great satisfaction with these more rare sightings.

A roadside stop

I can give future travelers a couple hints. Bring rain gear as it can rain at anytime, especially in the eastern half of the country. Bring a flashlight for nighttime birding, but also for power failures at the lodge. Apply fly dope and sunscreen liberally; you’re only a few degrees from the equator. Watch out for poisonous vipers; they may be hanging from trees at perfect head height. And lastly, don’t stand on a highway of army ants as I did. They can spoil your whole trip.

Violet Sabrewing, Campylopterus hemileucurus

On the last day of our adventure, Mel and I, weary but happy, were looking forward to the flight home. But Olivier, ever the birder, was looking for a few more species to add to our trip list. While I was humming, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” he was pointing out new birds, even in the Walmart parking lot right next to the airport. We could not have found a more energetic and knowledgeable guide.

Welcome and refreshing Coconut milk on the go

In future posts I hope to share more observations of Costa Rican birds and describe some of the specific sites we visited. Till then.

Sand Castles & Seagulls on Sanibel

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

It’s said that the avian families of Larids, along with the Corvids, are the most intelligent of the birds. I have no reason to doubt this, especially after seeing the gull standing watch over the sand castle on the beach at Sanibel Island, Florida. I may not be able to convince you that the bird built the castle, but one cannot entirely rule that out. During the same birding excursion I saw this very same bird dropping shells from great heights onto hard surfaces, making use of Newtonian Laws to obtain its meal. They’re smarter than you think.

Boat-tailed Grackle, Quiscalus mexicanus

I tried to convince my birding companions into a Big Day birding in Southwest Florida, but the enthusiasm was muted, and instead we headed to Sanibel Island for a more sedate session. That’s not to say it was not enjoyable or productive. Sanibel, and its companion Captiva, are barrier islands off the west coast of Florida, formed 6,000 years ago by the currents of the Gulf of Mexico. The Calusa were the first human inhabitants, but the birds predated even them on this semi-tropical gem. A causeway was built from the mainland in 1963 and extensive human development followed. Luckily, for us and the birds, more than half of these islands are protected wildlife sanctuaries.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

The birding started while driving the long, elevated causeway. Brown Pelicans, Osprey, and gulls flew along a eye level tempting us with flight shots out of the moving car. Forget it; it never works. Our first stop was at the Sanibel Lighthouse and beach at the far southern tip of the island. During the spring migration of 2020 we witnessed an impressive fallout of warblers in the scrub brush surrounding the lighthouse. Apparently the north-bound migrants, exhausted from their long flight over the Gulf, replenish themselves at this welcome sojourn. It was quite a show then, but this January the scrubs were empty.

Sanibel Lighthouse, Sanibella illuminata

The beach however was crowded with both birds and people. The latter were busy fishing, searching for shells, sunbathing, or just strolling. We three birders, ladden with cameras and binoculars were in a definite minority. Gulls, including the Lesser Black-backed, were the most common birds seen. There was a resident Reddish Egret dancing in the surf, and a nesting Osprey as well. An informed birder clued us into a recent sighting of a Snowy Plover a half mile up the beach, but we never found it.

Lesser Black-backed Gull, Larus fuscus

The Reddish Egret deserves a special mention. Other egrets are quiet waders and patient fishers. The Reddish, however, dances and flails in the shallow water as if it is half starving. Its impatience reminds me of fishing with my grandson who is constantly moving the pole and line, checking the bait, and generally acting like a normal pre-adolescent. Some say the antics of the bird are meant to create shadows and confusion among the fish below. It must work. If you’re on the lookout for this bird, beware that “reddish” is the correct description. It is more a dirty pink / rust / purple mix, than genuine red, and has a rare all-white morph thrown in just to keep us birders on our toes.

Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens

Then it was off to the famous Ding Darling NWR, the place where we finally found the elusive Mangrove Cuckoo last year. This is one of the places east of the Mississippi that all birders have heard of, and most have visited more than once. I place it on a short list, along with Magee Marsh in Ohio, and Cape May, New Jersey as our eastern birding Meccas. The refuge is on the inland side of the island with a long one-way road cutting through the mangroves with tidal pools on each side. Mel did the driving while Andy and I called out the stops at each wide vista. If we were doing a “big day” you could drive through without stopping and still tick off most of the birds, but we decided to take our time and enjoy the scenery, birds, and fellow birders, many of whom had birding stories to share.

Snowy Egret, Egretta thula

We did not see the Mangrove Cuckoo this year, but did get some good shots of the more common waders. There were also a few shorebirds sighted at some distance. A flock of Dowitchers flew in, and as is inevitable, a debate ensued whether they were the short or long-billed species. This can quickly take you into the birding weeds, except for Andy who hedged by declaring that there were some of each.

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

Ding Darling is also noted for its wintertime flocks of the American White Pelican. Apparently the birds breed inland throughout the continent but spend their winters along the coast. It is appreciably larger than its more common cousin, the Brown Pelican, and is among the heaviest of all the flying birds. Smartly, it has given up the dangerous diving antics of the Brown for a much less showy and risky bottoms-up feeding behavior, similar to the dabbling ducks.

American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

I”m still pulling for a Big Day down here in Florida, trying to surpass our 80 species count of several years ago. But with gasoline prices rising, paling energy, and the fun of just birding slowly, it will understandably be a hard sell. The alternative is not bad.

Best Bird Photos of 2021

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

I’ve started, and then abandoned several blog postings in the last two months; life intervened. But now I find it’s time for the year-end summary of the year’s photos. I was going to write about seeing the amazing Tropical Kingbird near here in the Maryland wetlands, thousands of miles north of its usual haunt. Actually it was spotted from my backseat by the non-birder, Cora and photographed by her husband, Clyde, with his cell phone as I was showing off the scenery of the Blackwater NWR to these visitors from Arizona.

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis
Carolina wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus
Tricolor Heron, Egretta tricolor
Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

I meant to write about the recent excursion to the Dinner Ranch with Andy and Mel in remote southern Florida, far from the populated coast, and our sighting of 40+ species (depending on who’s counting) including those of the omni-present singing Meadowlarks.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna
Sandhill Cranes, Grus canadensis
Common Gallinule, Gallinula chloropus

Or I could have written about my reluctant conversion to a mirrorless camera, leaving behind the heavier but reliable Canon DSLR. I’m increasingly using a Pansonic Lumix G9 camera which has a small 4/3’s sensor and an array of lighter lenses. The reduced weight will be welcome on the 13-day trip to Costa Rica we’re planning this spring.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway
Great Egret, Ardea alba
Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga
Grooved-billed Ani, Crotophaga sulcirostris

I’ve been having this debate with myself; when does one have enough bird photos? How many shots of fishing Osprey, diving Pelicans, or singing Meadowlarks is enough? Maybe it’s time to bird without a camera, enjoying the view through the binoculars without worrying about the sun angle, camera settings, and obtaining the perfect shot. This debate will go on, and may never conclude, but in the meantime these are my favorite photos from 2021.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus
Mottled Ducks, Anas fulvigula
Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon
Black-crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

One last triumph to end the year. Two nemesis birds, which did their best to evade me over the years, finally succumbed to my persistence, or more likely, just dumb luck. One was that Mangrove Cuckoo which we saw at Ding Darling on Sanibel Island, Florida, posing in plain sight and creating a traffic jam of grateful birders on the causeway.

Mangrove Cuckoo, Coccyzus minor
Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
American Kestrel, Falco sparverius
Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe

The other was the Snowy Owl spotted just this week on the dilapidated lighthouse in the Choptank River, off Cambridge, Maryland. My daughter sent me a stuffed Snowy Owl last Christmas, commiserating with my fruitless efforts to see this bird, but I can now return the gift to her. I almost gave up on seeing the bird that was reported on eBird along the Cambridge waterfront, when I noted a small white lump on the side of the lighthouse, about 3/4 mile offshore. A scope and heavily cropped picture below certifies the sighting to the left of the “danger” sign. The picture does not really qualify as great, or even good, but I include it to celebrate this great ending to another year.

Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus
Reddish Egrets, Egretta rufescens

I admit to some birding fatigue as the year winds down and as the new hobby of astrophotography takes root, but that Snowy Owl, the celebrating Reddish Egrets above, and the upcoming Christmas Bird Count have revived my enthusiasm once again. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.

Good-bye to the Strange Birds of Florida

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

They’re no longer strange to me, but to the non-Floridian this area has more than its share of unusual endemic birds. I remember my first days here, seventeen seasons ago, when I kept Kaufman’s Field guide to Birds of North America handy as I trudged through the swamps and upland savannas. Now these birds are like old friends that I’m leaving behind once again as we embark on our own spring migration to the north.

Anhinga (female), Anhinga anhinga

Strangeness is really a measure of familiarity, but even while I run across the Anhinga everyday in Florida, it remains a strange creature to me. The long gawky neck, bright red eye in the male and blue eye-ring of the female, and its underwater fishing, characterize this bird. You find it with its wings spread wide, drying in the hot sun–it doesn’t have the oil glands common in other water birds. And why do they soar at great altitude with the vultures when their food is underwater and invisible? Both it’s appearance and behavior are strange.

American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis

That confounded calling Limpkin persists on the pond, just outside our bedroom window. Other non-birders in the condo have complained to the authorities, as if they could intervene. It is a nerve-racking chorus every night, but one I’ll soon miss hearing back in Chesapeake Bay country. The call is less frequent and energetic these nights; I think he’s giving up on attracting a mate this year.

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

The Florida Scrub Jay is an increasingly rare bird that is too familiar with us humans. It’s strangeness is shown by its unbridled curiosity about us, even lighting on the heads of birders as they seek out the jay to add another tick to their life lists.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

Another strange one is the Roseate Spoonbill. Just start with the pink plumage. Why pink? It seems unnatural in the brown and green mud of the swamp, more suited to your baby girl’s nursery. It surely offers no camouflage for the lurking alligator. It took me several seasons down here before I realized the risk from dozing alligators, both to birds, pets, and humans. Keep a wary eye on them. And regarding those spoonbills, don’t overlook that spatula bill, an evolutionary experiment that hasn’t progressed much further.

Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

Why would anyone choose a stork to deliver a baby, as legend teaches? At least here in south Florida our Wood Stork is a leading candidate for ugly and strangeness. Despite that, we are grateful for the bird’s resurgent population, now an easy sighting almost any day.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

I’ll not forget my first sighting of a Crested Caracara. I had pulled over on the shoulder of Oil Well Road, right where an eBird report had recorded a recent bird, and sure enough, one flew over this excited birder, as if on cue. I was too unnerved to get off a shot. Now, years later, I’m completely familiar with this bird. Don’t let its debonair stature fool you. He’s a scavenger and more than holds his own with the vultures dividing the fresh roadkill.

Short-tailed Hawk (white morph), Buteo brachyurus

The Short-tailed Hawk taught me a valuable birding lesson that is probably obvious to most of my readers. A birder needs to keep looking up. You won’t find this raptor perched along the roadside as you commonly see our abundant Red-shouldered Hawk. Instead this bird is a soarer, often very high in the clouds. You’ll need to learn the appearances of the underside of the wings in the two variants–the dark and white morphs. It still is an unusual sighting for me, but as long as my stiff neck allows, I’ll keep looking up.

Mottled Duck, Anas fulvigula

When I first came to Florida I noted a slew of female Mallards, but never saw a male. Was this the result of some pathologic scourge affecting the green-headed males? But I couldn’t explain the smaller ducklings, recently hatched–someone was mating with the females. Of course, you astute readers know the answer that I finally learned. There are no Mallards in south Florida. These are Mottled Ducks, where the male and females are a very similar mottled brown, only differentiated by the lighter yellow bill of the male. You won’t find this duck up north.

Snail Kite, Rostrhamus sociabilis

It’s a risky and strange experiment of nature for a bird to subsist solely on apple snails, but that pathway has evolved for the Snail Kite, an uncommon endemic of inland Florida. That may be why we’re having a harder time finding this bird each winter. This year we did get a good look at one flying over at Harnes Marsh, near Fort Myers. It’s always a good birding day to make that sighting.

Groove-billed Ani, Crotophaga sulcirostris

We’ve done a lot of rarity chasing in Florida this year; Glaucous Gull, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Groove-billed Ani, White-faced Ibis. Just yesterday I got a polite note from the eBird referee informing me that my White faced Ibis was actually a hybrid of that bird and our common Glossy Ibis. It cost me a life bird, but teaches me again that there are very smart birders out there paying attention to the details. The rest of these are birds that have become confused or blown off their normal flight patterns. But one of the rarities of the season, the Mangrove Cuckoo, is a Florida endemic that has eluded me for all these seventeen years. I finally saw one and photographed it on Sanibel Island this winter–a gratifying day. Only other birders know that particular satisfaction; its a nemesis bird no longer.

Mangrove cuckoo, Coccyzus minor

As I say good-bye to Florida and my birding colleagues here, I’ll leave them this: never, never, never give up on you quest to see your nemesis bird; for Andy that’s the Least Bittern. Your family and I understand your obsession, even when you go looking for the bird several times a day and don’t understand why everyone else is seeing it except for you. Someday you’ll likely succeed, but even if you don’t, just relish the hunt as you stand among the reeds and alligators of our beautiful and strange south Florida.

The day after I drafted this post and the day before I left Florida for the year, Andy, with an assist from Mel, found his nemesis Least Bittern. His tenacious search and Mel’s encouragement are marks of birders extraordinaire. I’m already looking forward to another winter of birding with these guys in south Florida or wherever strange birds are to be found.

The Cumberland Gap and Its Birds

Daniel Boone escorting settlers through the Cumberland Gap, 1851-52, by George Caleb Bingham

Humans have migrated through the gap in the Cumberland Mountains, both to the east and to the west, for eons, and before that the trail was pounded hard and widened by the bison searching for pasture and salt licks. It is named for the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II of England and has always attracted my attention as a possible destination. This was heightened by the messianic picture above showing Daniel Boone leading his entourage into the promise land to the west. In a recent road trip from Kansas City to Baltimore I purposely chose a route through the historic gap; it also gave me a chance to do a little birding in the historic park.

Tufted Titmouse, Baeolophus bicolor

The geology of the gap’s formation is fascinating but beyond the scope of this so-called birding blog, but let me make this one point. I spent two nights at the gap in the town of Middlesboro, Kentucky, not realizing at the time that I was smack in the middle of a 300 million year-old meteorite impact crater that contributed to the formation of this mountain pass.

Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe

It is difficult for us moderns to understand the formidable barrier that the Appalachian Mountains presented for the early colonists along the east coast. For a hundred years only a few intrepid explorers, traders, and missionaries ventured over the range. Eventually several gaps and trails, previously blazed by the large game and Native Americans were rediscovered by the colonists.

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

The Cumberland Gap was the premier passage, right at the boundaries of Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky. By the mid 18th century settlers had broken through and poured into the fertile region and cheap or free land in Kentucky and in the Ohio River Valley. By 1810 two to three hundred thousand new settlers had made this journey over the Wilderness Road, through the gap, and to the west. Quoting Moses Austin from 1796, “Ask these Pilgrims what the expect when they git to Kentucke. The answer is land. Have you any? No, but I expect I can git it. Have you anything to pay for land? No. Did you ever see the country? No, but everybody says it is good land”.

Cumberland Gap and surroundings

Today, when one drives through the gap you actually go through a tunnel which, in typical 20th century fashion was blasted through the Cumberland Mountains. But near the gap there is a wonderful historic park with myriad trails offering many birding opportunities. My road trip traced in reverse the westward migration of humans, but cut across at right angles the springtime avian migration to the north. It was mid April and my hopes were high for encountering some of those flocks.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

Pinnacle Overlook is at the mountain top, guarding the northern edge of the gap and commands a marvelous view to the south. In the early morning I decided to test the endurance of my old but faithful car by tackling the switch-backs up the mountain. At the top I was rewarded with the view as the solitary morning visitor. The bird life there, however, was sparse with only the incessant call of the titmouse and a couple of nesting phoebes disturbing the peace.

Yours truly at Pinnacle Overlook, Homo sapiens

I was soon joined by a second birder, a gentleman and octogenarian who actually claimed to be related to Daniel Boone. We enjoyed the view together while sharing birding adventures. While we were jabbering a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew by the peak at our eye level, perhaps migrating to the north on the rising thermals. Vultures circled below. My friend became excited when I told him about a trip I was planning to Wyoming and Montana, and inexplicably, he started removing his outerwear and displayed the back of his tee shirt which was a map of Glacier National Park. He implored me to enter the park at his right shoulder, the easterly gate, and proceed to his left shoulder for the best route. Just another example of a helpful birder, as one frequently meets on the trail.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

At the top of the mountain there is a ridge trail that is noted as a warbler trap during spring migration. I just found woodpeckers and jays. I believe I was early for the warblers this far north. While I was far from home searching for birds at the gap, my friend and fellow birder, Andy, was sending me pictures of all the warblers he was seeing back in south Florida, just a few miles from my home. Timing is everything in this sport.

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus

But along the ridge trail I saw something that Andy did not see. That was a Civil War cannon embankment called Fort McCook by the Unions and Fort Rains by the Confederates. It changed hands several times during the war. The gap was of strategic value during that conflict, to the extent that the armies hauled their heavy guns all the way up the mountain. Supplying the fort was difficult for both sides, and as the war progressed the real value of the mountain top fort came into question. Now the site is peaceful and just a series of grassy mounds and historic markers explaining the 160 year-old wartime scene.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

The park has a great visitor’s center at the base of the mountain and several flatter birding trails. Here, it was the welcomed spring melody of the Song Sparrow that greeted me. Overall my bird sightings were meagre but my knowledge of our human migration was enhanced. The short stay at the Cumberland Gap Historic Park was a rewarding experience. The warbler sightings will have to wait for another day.

The Crimes and Violence of Birds

Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens

It’s a fairy tale or fake news to believe all is sweet and peaceful in the world of birds. We are enchanted by their melodious tweets and beautiful plumage, and are often found among them in seemingly peaceful natural settings, but don’t be fooled. Their world is one without constables or arbiters of justice. There are no rules, other than “might makes right”, “survival of the fittest”, and “it’s okay if you can get away with it”.

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

Their crimes range from petty theft to rape and murder. We birders are onlookers into this world which is similar to our old Wild West, and are grateful for our, albeit fragile, institutions of justice. As we bird we are witnesses to many of these crimes and often wonder what it would be like living in their world. Occasionally I’m even tempted to intervene on behalf of a victimized bird, but usually hold back and let nature take its course and toll.

American Wigeon, Anas americana

Many of their crimes are mere misdemeanors. This would include the holes the Red-bellied Woodpecker is making in my sister-in-law’s cedar siding. The crows, jays, and gulls are perfecters of the art of petty theft. The former two are attracted to shiny objects, while the latter steals food, literally from the mouths of their careless victims. This usually results in a chase, sometimes resulting in a maimed fish dropped back into the ocean with no party getting any satisfaction.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

A somewhat more onerous and significant crime is the practice of brood parasitism as I’ve discussed in prior posts. This disgusts our human sense of fairness and personal responsibility, but evolution has apparently blessed it as a successful tactic among many bird species. The initial crime is the stealthy planting of the itinerant egg in the nest of the unsuspecting parent-to-be, but the atrocity is magnified when the robust hatchling pushes the other weaker step-sibling out of the nest.

Brown-headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater

Many avian disputes are over territory and nesting rights, somewhat similar to those issues which crowd our human court dockets. The Red-winged Blackbird claims his territory with a beautiful song, but don’t let that fool you. He’ll attack any other bird, even a larger foe, that dares interlope into his nesting sphere of influence.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

My friends Andy and Sam were accidental witnesses to a spectacular avian air battle between an adult Bald Eagle and Osprey. Andy was even dexterous enough to grab a camera and snap off a shot or two to document the event. Unfortunately, in cases such as that one shoots the pictures first, and checks camera settings later. It seemed like the smaller Osprey got the better of that fight. It was probably a territorial spat with the eagle getting too close to the Osprey’s nest. As you know, Bald Eagles are opportunistic scavengers, often feasting on the killings of others.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

Hawks and owls, on the other hand, are merciless killers, always on the prowl to feed themselves and their offspring. Often their victims are other birds, but small mammals are also unsafe around a hungry bird-of-prey. In my yard Accipiters have become good at patrolling the bird feeders, flying in fast and low to take an innocent, unsuspecting passerine. We can take some comfort in that such killings are a necessity of life for the raptor.

Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus

In my last post I reported the rape of a Muscovy Duck. I will hazard a completely uninformed guess and venture that most sex among birds is consensual. I may be completely wrong about this, but do point out that many birds do mate for life. That lasting bond would be hard to imagine if it began with a rape, but admittedly I’m anthropomorphizing. Those ducks, however, did seem to cross a line, with no avian justice in sight.

Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens

I was recently chasing a rarity Iceland Gull on Fort Myers beach, unsuccessfully, when I snuck up on a Reddish Egret and was rewarded with my closest shots ever of the great bird. Suddenly a second egret swooped in and I witnessed a prolonged battle; or was it courtship and copulation? I find it hard to differentiate these with the birds.

So with all the violence, what is the mortality rate among birds? In this year of the pandemic our human death rates are plastered on the headlines daily. A few things are clear in the avian world. Larger birds live longer than smaller birds, but why is this so? Perhaps it’s because the larger birds are near the top of the food chain and less often preyed upon. Banding data has reported some longevity record life spans: Red-tailed Hawks and Brown Pelicans, 28 years; American Robin, 14 years; Eastern Bluebird, 10 years; and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 9 years. Most birds, however have much shorter lives.

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

It’s estimated that 80-90% of birds do not live to maturity. This is a striking number, but when one remembers the numerous eggs laid and multiple broods per year created by a mating pair, it makes perfect sense. If they all survived we would be inundated with birds, just like an Alfred Hitchcock film. It’s also said that the mortality rate of birds is six times higher during spring and fall migrations. Travel is risky, as we all know.

Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna

It’s difficult to determine how many birds die at the hands or feet of other birds, or from avian diseases. Data regarding bird deaths caused by us humans is more readily available. Collisions with buildings and glass claim an astounding 600 million birds a year; collisions with vehicles, 200 million, and electric wires, 25 million. Six million birds succumb to electrocution each year and one such case was chronicled in my post of 17 November 2019. Our pesticides claim another 72 million per year, and who knows how many die from their loss of habitat. But all these numbers pale next to the 2.4 billion birds killed yearly by domestic and feral cats. That shocking number is hard to believe.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

How can I conclude such a morbid post of avian crime and death? Perhaps by showing you two Great Blue Herons in love, or by simply stating that these are observations of life on our planet as it is, and not as we wish it to be. It’s merely a description of both the beautiful and fair, right along with the ugly and unjust.

Who Saw That Bird First?

Cinnamon Teal, Anas cyanoptera

If a birding year has a theme, this one has been chasing rarities in Florida. On the surface it sounds like adventure birding, combing through alligator-infested swamps and among trees dripping with Spanish moss, all to make a discovery for “science”. Not really. With but one notable exception, these are rare birds which have been discovered here, outside their normal ranges, by others; meticulous birders tuned to the minutiae of this pursuit much more than I will ever be.

Palm Warbler, Dendroica palmarum

Just this week eBird reported a Cinnamon Teal just east of Fort Myers. I had previously ticked this bird in southern Arizona in its expected range, but Andy had never laid eyes on it. After getting temporarily lost in the rural steppe of Old Florida, we came upon the reported site, easily identified by two other cars on the shoulder and birders sporting the telltale scopes aiming at a roadside pond. We were kept at bay by a wire fence and several large cows. The shallow pond or watering hole was 75 yards away and a dozen dozing ducks were backlit and poorly seen. If it wasn’t for the kind birder who invited us to peer through his scope we would have never seen the teal.

American Coot, Fulica americana

This begs the question, who saw that bird first, anyhow? Someone must have pulled over along the remote road, and carefully studied the plumage of all those distant ducks. Despite the poor viewing conditions, they recognized the plumage of the vagrant bird, and properly called it a Cinnamon Teal. Now that’s a real birder. The rest of us who flock to the site of his or her discovery are just interlopers. That first intrepid birder also had to convince the skeptics at eBird of the sighting, whereas all the rest of us had to do was report a “continuing bird”.

Mangrove Cuckoo, Coccyzus minor

There are many examples of my interloping tendencies. Take that recent Mangrove Cuckoo at Ding Darling, the Groove-billed Ani and Ash-throated Flycatcher at Festival Park, and the Hammond’s Flycatcher at Corkscrew and the Vermilion Flycatcher last season in the Great Cypress Swamp. Some careful birder had the thrill of the initial discovery and was willing to pass it along to the rest of us via eBird.

Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis

Back up north, a few years ago, I chased a Glaucous Gull reported way down in southern Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; talk about rural and off the beaten track. I amazed myself by finally seeing this white gull among many others, just as I was preparing to pack up and head home, disappointed. There it was, flying in like an apparition, allowing the perfect shot. Who saw it first among the teeming flock of similar gulls swarming around the waterman, fighting for his discarded bait?

Glaucous Gull, Larus hyperboreus

I crossed over into Delaware and to the shore of its large bay chasing a reported Sabine’s Gull. It also seemed like a hopeless task, scoping all the birds from the deck of the Dupont Nature Center. There were thousands of shorebirds, gulls, and terns on the breakwater and opposite shore of the inlet over a hundred yards away. They periodically rose and landed in a confusing and frenzied flock. Who saw that slightly different bird with a black hood and yellow-tipped bill among the many commoners? Fortunately another birder pointed the rarity out to me and I gratefully added another tick to my life list. Just a guiltless interloper.

Lesser Scaup, Aythya affinis

Andy and I did make one initial sighting of a rarity ourselves; or perhaps a semi-rarity. We were at Eagle Lake, near Naples, toward the end of our birding trek and talking more about politics than birds, when I noticed a perching black bird right off the trail. It was too large for a grackle and too small for a crow, and had a bulky bill. About the same time we both blurted out, “Ani”. We knew the bird from a prior trip to Panama, but had never seen it in Florida. It was a Smooth-billed Ani.

Common Gallinule, Gallinula chloropus

We posted our observation on eBird and had our fifteen minutes of fame in the birder’s world, as the initial discoverers. But our notoriety was short-lived. Another birder, posted the same bird a few days later and reported the Ani as “the continuing bird, first seen by…” He gave credit to someone else; we were robbed; our sighting was thereafter assigned to another! C’est la vie. We know who was really first, just that one time.

Smooth-billed Ani, Crotophagi ani

Don’t think for a moment that our chasing of rarities down here is universally successful. Careful observers have been reporting a small flock of Redheads, the duck I mean, down in Sugden Park, near Naples. I’ve seen the bird in Maryland, but never down here in the heat of South Florida, and Andy had never seen it anywhere. We got excited when we saw a single duck with a light back and dark head swimming off shore, but closer observation revealed a Lesser Scaup. Andy tried to convince me that the head had a reddish tinge, but that was just the wishful thinking of a frustrated birder.

Pied-billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps

I’ve made two more “empty” trips to the park to see this duck and Andy is now up to six excursions, still with no luck, even on a day when other birders had reported the target Redhead. His greater efforts reflect that urge to add a life bird, something that all birders will understand.

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

Those trips are really not “empty”. Birders also know that there is never a bad birding day, but rather a chance to see some antics of common birds, try a new photographic technique, or catch a bird in an unlikely pose. Those coot and gallinule shots are from the Sugden trip. The Limpkin seemed like an uncommon bird here just a few years ago, but not now. In fact one keeps us awake nightly with its ghastly call, right outside our condo window.

Muscovy Ducks, Cairina moschata

I ended the Sugden Pond trip witnessing the almost brutal copulation of two Muscovy Ducks. Ducks are known for their aggressive breeding habits, and now I can attest to that. The larger male chased and finally caught the female and almost drowned her in the long process. She finally did escape and survive, but barely. It was all just another sighting on an “empty” trip chasing rarities in south Florida.

Chasing the Mangrove Cuckoo

Mangrove Cuckoo, Coccyzus minor

On the face of it “chasing” birds seems like an impossible task. These birds are rare, they’re fast, they fly, and they hide. We never really catch one in the classic sense. A chase may end up with a fleeting glance or even just a few notes of a song, but more likely it ends with nothing. In the case of a dog chasing a car, one wonders what the dog is going to do when he catches it. For us birders, on the rare day when we “catch” our quarry, it will be time for high fives all around and a celebratory drink back at the lodge as we recount the adventure and tick off another life bird.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Polioptila caerulea

It never ceases to amaze me that we actually find a reported rarity on a few occasions, sometimes even in the same tree or perched on the same fence when it was reported on an eBird alert days earlier. That’s why I was only lukewarm while accepting an invitation from Andy and Sam to chase the Mangrove Cuckoo seen off and on for a week at the famous Ding Darling NWR on Sanibel Island, Florida. With eBird and their alert system, rarities are becoming less rare.

American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

The Mangrove Cuckoo had no business still being present on Sanibel. True, there are plenty of mangroves there, but the cuckoo much prefers the warmer tropics this time of year. Although our Florida winter has been mild, the last few days leading up to our chase were decidedly cooler and any self-respecting Mangrove Cuckoo should have long since headed south. Despite my seventeen years in Florida I have never seen this elusive bird, even in the heat of summer. It was also a potential lifer for my two companions on the chase.

Mangrove Cuckoo

You might picture a chase as a wind-blown jaunt in an open jeep, dust flying, screeching tires, careening around trees and through mud puddles, with four-legged creatures diving out of the way. Nothing could be further from the truth. My friends picked me up in their luxury car, soft music playing, AC cranked up, GPS tracking tuned in, with plenty of snacks and water close at hand. It was birding in fine style.

Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens
Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

Prior successful chases for me in the Sunshine State started when the Florida Scrub Jay landed on my head at the Lyonia Preserve, near Deltona in 2010 and I was able to rotate my camera upward and catch a shot of the bold life bird. In that case the bird chased me. Andy and I chased the increasingly rare Red Cockaded Woodpecker last spring at the Babcock Web preserve near Punta Gorda. That episode did involve an actual chase on foot across the wetlands, pursuing the bird for a better photo. I caught the Burrowing Owl the first time on Cape Coral, and then again, closer to home on Marco Island.

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens
Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia

We also successfully chased the Vermilion Flycatcher in the Great Cypress Preserve where we found it perched on the same fence that the helpful eBirder described in his alert. The less colorful Hammond’s Flycatcher also surprised us last year by showing up right on schedule on the boardwalk at Corkscrew Sanctuary as dozens of birders gaped and took their photos.

Vermilion Flycatcher, Pyrocephalus rubinus
Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Picoides borealis

On the road to Sanibel I tried to dampen down our expectations. We could depend on good shots of some wading birds, and maybe get a close-up of a Reddish Egret doing its captivating dance or a snoozing Night Heron, even if we didn’t find the cuckoo. We parked in the general vicinity of prior sightings and saw and heard nothing. The Mangrove Cuckoo has a low-pitched and raspy call and is often heard, rather than seen. There were a few other birders nosing around but no one had seen or heard anything of the cuckoo. We were about to pack it in when a bird, about the right size, flashed into a mangrove very close to us right alongside Wildlife Drive.

Mangrove Cuckoo, first look
Mangrove Cuckoo

The mangrove trees are dense, large-leafed affairs with plenty of hiding spaces for a bird, and this bird found them all. Finally he stuck his head out to check us out, and we all saw the characteristic black facial mask and curved bill with the yellow mandible. Successful chase! But we are also photographers and were not satisfied with that first meager look. An hour and 400 shots later the deceptive bird finally gave us what we all hoped for; a full frontal shot, gorgeous tail and all, perched in perfect sunlight with no obscuring branches or leafs. The bird itself was now singing, apparently tired of hiding from his pursuers.

Mangrove Cuckoo

By this time a birding crowd had gathered and some were downright giddy with happiness at the sighting. For many of them it was also a lifer, and just like us, had been sought for years. The non-birders hiking and biking through the reserve watched our reaction, shook their heads, and wondered who were the real cuckoos that day. But you birders all understand. There is a welcomed satisfaction as we tick off life birds. But there are obviously fewer of these un-ticked birds out there for each of us, and their sightings are becoming difficult, requiring more and more effort, longer birding trips, and a bit of luck. The years also keep ticking by and I still have 9,078 birds to chase worldwide, but that’s one less than I had last week.