Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Out of the nest early

This evening, I walked to a neighbor's house to thank her again for caring for my cat, Seabiscuit, while I was in Florida. I had a small gift for her. On the way over I noticed a little dark lump on the edge of the curb - my first baby Robin of the season. I ran back home for my camera.

It's a little young and is going to need some help to make it. I felt encouraged that when I left my neighbor's house, the little fledgling was no where in sight.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Florida: the critters

Double-click on each photo for a full-screen image

Portuguese Man O' War (Physalia physalis)

American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)

Florida Cooter (Pseudemys floridana)

Florida Softshell Turtle (Apalone ferox)

Young Cottonmouth snake (Agkistrodon piscivorus)

Some kind of cricket or grasshopper

Brown Anole (Anolis sagrel)

Hermit Crab (superfamily Paguroidea)

Six-lined Racerunner (Cnemidophorus sexlineatus) of the Whiptail family

Floating, squirming mass of ants whose burrow(s) was flooded

Florida Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) - threatened species

Picnic anyone?

Heh, heh, heh


Florida: birding down to the wire

This is a no photo blog entry. We had our bags all packed and were all ready for our departure from Orlando airport. Unfortunately, Felix's flight left at 9:30 am and we dropped him off at the airport around 8:00 am. The rest of us had a flight at noon or later. We still had three hours to bird!

In February, 2008, me and three others from the Washtenaw Audubon Society received a generous offer to visit Don Chalfant and his wife, Loree, at their condo in New Sryma Beach on the oceanside. Don is one of the country's leading listers and this was an invitation that none of us wanted to pass up. Of course, we all had Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis) and Bachman's Sparrow (Aimophila aestivalis) on our wish list of birds we most wanted to see. Don pulled through for us with both birds and many others. We had brief looks at a perched Bachman's and we had excellent looks and a long, satisfying visit with three Red-cockaded Woodpeckers feeding together.

On this trip we tried briefly for both birds at the Hal Scott Preserve but when we had no luck within a reasonable amount of time we had to move on. From here our trip took us away from the shared habitat of these two birds. We returned to it briefly at the Three Lakes Prairie, but the habitat was limited in the areas we visited. Our final bird on Wednesday evening was a silent Bachman's Sparrow that perched in a low shadowed bush. So, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker still evaded us.

On Thursday morning we voted; Snail Kite or Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Having missed the Snail Kite twice at Lake Toho... I had little enthusiasm for trying a third time. Vee's vote was for the kite and Jim's and Hope's was for the woodpecker. The woodpecker won the toss.

We arrived at the powerline area of the Hal Scott Preserve - the exact location where we had seen the bird with Don in February, 2008. This was also a different part of the preserve than we had tried for the birds on the Friday before.

Approximately 1/2 mile walk in we heard the gentle pecking of a woodpecker. Then Bill heard the bird call. We located one bird and then another. They were hard to follow to get goods looks while they were moving from tree to tree. And, they were busy. Then one came flying over the trail right in front of us, it's woodpecker undulating flight and plain white cheek clearly visible. It flew to a tree with a broad, white blaze - the sign of an active nest site in this carefully managed Red-cockaded habitat. Both birds were active and most easily seen when they flew over the trail. It's most likely that they were feeding hatchlings.

Very nearby we heard the Bachman's Sparrow sing. Bill played the bird's song on his ipod and the bird flew to a low, open long leaf pine limb no more than ten to twelve feet from where we were standing. It stood in perfect light and continued to sing. I thought of my camera packed away in my carry-on suitcase back in the trunk of the van and my heart sank. But then I remembered why I like birding so much. I stood there then, sometimes with bins up and sometimes not, and just watched the bird sing and sing.

Coming next and my final blog entry for the Florida trip - Florida: the critters (all photos, few words!)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Florida: Sea of grass

After the Smooth-billed Ani flew into the cattails we walked around the boardwalk a little more. We again saw all of our usual herons including a trio of Yellow-crowned Night-herons (Nyctanassa violacea). Apparently, the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is the more common night heron in the Everglades park, however we saw no adult birds. Conversely, we saw adult Black-crowned Night-Herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) but no juveniles Black-crowned. Maybe the adult Yellow-crowned were on the nest.

We saw Anhingas (Anhinga anhinga) essentially everywhere we went and I took photos of all those within reach. In the end, this Anhinga with wings typically spread and tail flared was probably the best. We watched the bird swimming and then it hopped up in the grass to groom and dry off.

At the Royal Palms visitor center I took a spin around the gift shop and picked out a polo shirt and looked over the books - many about the history of the Everglades. Of these the 1947 The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas caught my eye. I recalled reading about Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who died in 1998 at the age of 108, as the greatest champion the Everglades ever had. In the brief time we spent in the Everglades National Park it was easy to see what a huge, beautiful and unique place it is. I purchased the book.

Not far from the Royal Palms visitor center we stopped for a phone call I needed to take. While I was talking on the phone the others of our group found a perched Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus). This is a bird that I have wanted to see for a very long time. I finished my call unaware of the bird they had found and was called to join the rest of the group. Bill called out, "Swallow-tailed Kite in the scope." I broke into a run. There it was, in the spotting scope, a beautiful bird perched high and preening in a slash pine tree. Thrilling!

Tuesday, the 20th, was our sixth day of birding and was a big driving day. Our next stop was Marco Island for some shorebird finds. Bill has friends here and we met up with them at Tiger Tail Beach. We removed our shoes and waded across a shallow channel to get closer to the birds on the opposite shore and also to explore the ocean front beach. The water was as warm as bath water. The beach was bright white and made of broken shells - tough on a tender foot.

Life bird for me, we saw Wilson's Plovers (Charadrius wilsonia) in a variety of plumages. The above is still in basic plumage and the bird below has transitioned to its alternate plumage. Wilson's Plovers are breeding birds in Florida and an area of the beach was roped off for them and other breeding birds.

We saw Least Terns (Sternulla antillarum) in a variety of locations - completely charming and noisy birds. Two birds flying and fishing together make enough chattering to sound like several birds. The bird above waited patiently on the beach while her partner caught and then flew to her and offered her the fish. Least Terns are also breeding birds here, but I don't think they nest on the beach. Rather, I think they prefer flat-topped roofs. At least this is their preferred nesting location in Maryland.

Our walk back across the channel in a rising tide left us with wet chothing and so the day ended with checking into a Naples hotel and a quick shower before dinner at a restaurant across the street.

Our first stop on Wednesday morning, the 21st, was at the National Audubon sanctuary Corkscrew Swamp. If you visit here, remember to take your Audubon membership card - the entry fee is reduced for members. I don't think of North America as having jungles, but Corkscrew felt like a jungle. Overall, it was quiet for birds. There were no neotropical migrants, except for a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) on nest. We saw a female Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) at a feeder, but missed her flamboyant counterpart. We also missed out on seeing Shiny Cowbirds (Molothrus bonariensis) here. However, the trip was worth it for the view from the observation tower of several Swallow-tailed Kites flying. We had seen the perched bird and a couple of others flying from the car window the day before, but this is the first time I had a chance to really see them in flight - described by every field guide as incredibly graceful. Dreadful as it is, this is my best photograph to remember the experience.

Several years ago I read the book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. I know absolutely nothing about orchids but I thought the book was a page turner. At some point the topic came up of hoping to see some orchids. As it turned out Hope and Jim Bradley were also orchid enthusiasts. Susan Orlean's book is a Florida roundabout adventure centered on her search for the Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii). Her book ends and, while she sees many orchids, she never does see the ethereal Ghost Orchid. Prior to the day of our visit to Corkscrew we had heard that a Ghost Orchid was in bloom there and we eagerly anticipated seeing the bloom. By this time I had talked about and recommended the book. When we arrived at Corkscrew we learned that the Ghost Orchid had not been in bloom for a couple of weeks. We did get to see where it had bloomed - high up in a very tall tree. Quite anticlimatic!

I posted my blog link on the birding list serves in Michigan and it was seen by Anina Bachrach of Dearborn, Michigan and a "snowbird" in Florida during the winter months. Anina visited Corkscrew prior to our visit. She saw the Ghost Orchid bloom and was able to take the photo above which was, in her own words, "three football fields away." I think Anina's photo is quite good, especially since I saw for myself how high up the flower was. I have added the photo above with Anina's permission and also still recommend The Orchid Thief for good reading.

The route this day took us by the Archbold Biological Station where the research that split the Florida Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) from the Western Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) was completed. We stopped here for lunch at one of their picnic tables where we saw only Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata). Following lunch we found the above bird on the main road. If you enlarge this image you will see a red band on the bird's left leg. I just love the color of this bird.

We happened to drive by new-appearing rainwater retention ponds built around a dike system and decided to stop for a quick look. Relatively speaking, we had not seen many Little Blue Herons (Egretta caerulea). This bird was feeding around rain-flooded fields that surrounded the ponds.

Our next stop took us to the Three Lakes Prairie in the Kissimmee Lake area. We stopped first at Lake Jackson to look unsuccessfully for Snail Kites. Enroute to Lake Marian, our next kite search location, we saw this adult Bald Eagle (Haliacetus leucocephalus) on a very large nest. Her partner was perched in a nearby tree. We took a short hike though woods leading to an observation tower on Lake Marian. The woods had grown up around the observation tower so it was not the view we had hoped for. We heard a Barred Owl hooting.

Arriving back at the van, we were about to load up when Felix whispered for us the location of a perched Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway). The above photo makes the bird seem as if it was in the wide open. But it was actually well camouflaged from the position of our car. It blended in with the trees in which it was perched. We had been seeing these birds in quick, unsatisfactory flybys from the car windows. I don't recall ever having seen a perched caracara before - at least not one this satisfying. Bill set up the scope and we got very close views and the bird cooperated to allow us to take numerous photos. Finally, the bird left this perch to fly a short distance behind to scuffle with an Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) who was perched nearby and eating something.

The Osprey escaped with its meal.

Another pass by Lake Toho... in Chisholm County Park to look, again unsuccessfully, for Snail Kite and dinner at a restaurant on the lake called Crabby Bill's ended a very long day. When we arrived at the hotel for our final night in Florida, I honestly cannot recall a time when I felt more tired. I'm sure I have felt more tired, I just can't remember when that would have been.

Coming next: Florida: birding down to the wire.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Florida: butterflies and dragonflies

Taking a break from birds for a moment.

Our trip was all birding and in order to stay on schedule it was fast-paced. My kind of birding. So, I had relatively little to no time to stop for butterflies that I saw. Fortunately, I could identify some on the wing and others I got a good enough look to identify from the field guide. This said, I also did not see all that many butterflies, or at least not as many as I thought I would, and this surprised me.

Dragonflies were everywhere, but again, because I was rushed, I could not photograph them. With my camera I can't just rush up to either a butterfly or dragonfly and expect them to sit still for a photo. This was my main problem - no time to be gentle about my approach.

Still I got the following three photographs.

This spectacular Ruddy Daggerwing (Marpesia petreus) at Loxahatchee NWR was the only one I saw all week.

This worn Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) was along the gulf side of Long Key State Park. My only other experience with this butterfly was in San Antonio, Texas where I could only photograph the more spectacular underside. A link to that photo is here. Scroll to the middle of that blog entry.

This spectacular dragonfly seems to be a good candidate for a Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina), but I have learned from my friend and dragonfly expert, Julie Craves, that one cannot always identify dragonflies from a photo.

In addition to the two above, my [short] list of butterflies is as follows:

Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus)
Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)
Palamedes Swallowtail (Papilio palomedes)
Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)
Mangrove Skipper (Phocides pigmalion)
Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
Mangrove Buckeye (Junonia evarete)
Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)
Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithonia)
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)
Unidentified yellow
Unidentified blue
Unidentified white
Unidentified duskywing

Florida: a special bird in the Everglades

After our Dry Tortugas day trip we immediately left Key West to return to Homestead for that night's lodging. The plan for Tuesday morning, April 20th, was to search again for the Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani). Unlike Sunday's heavy rain, Tuesday morning arrived bright and sunny.

I was fortunate to go on a birding trip to Cuba in January of 2006. One of the very first birds we saw was a Smooth-billed Ani. Seeing such a unique and odd appearing bird for the first time was a thrill. Then we saw another and others and others and ... well, you get it ... we saw Smooth-billed Anis everywhere.

Apparently, the Smooth-billed Ani was once also a fairly common bird in southern Florida, especially south of Lake Okeechobee. I have linked a write-up from Everglades Flora and Fauna here. This is no longer true. The Smooth-billed Ani has become quite scarce and nobody knows why. The Everglades write-up describes Little Orphan Ani - a solitary bird seen in a particular location. This is in contrast to the Peterson guide which describes the Smooth-billed Ani as a bird that often moves in groups. The Sibley guide is even more definitive and describes the bird as always in groups of 3 to 10 birds. The Everglades write-up identifies the ani's food preferences and there certainly seems to be no scarcity of the things mentioned.

We found the Smooth-billed Ani within minutes of arriving at the location where the bird had been reported - down the trail from the Royal Palms Visitor Center. In fact, one of our group, Jim Bradley, unknowingly walked right up to it, looked to his right and was standing eight feet from the bird. He froze and cautiously called out, "Uh, guys ... " As the photographs above and below suggest, we all got long and satisfying looks at a very cooperative solitary bird.

Finally, the bird did leave, disappearing into the cattails. Later we were discussing the status of the Smooth-billed Ani and wondered about its decline when it has abundant habitat and apparently plentiful food resources. If the Smooth-billed Ani became extirpated from Florida, would it be re-introduced? Bill thought that reintroduction would be unlikely since no one knows why they are declining.

We then wondered if it was possible we had seen Florida's last Smooth-billed Ani. Doing a very little research for this blog entry, that answer seems to be no. I found the website, South Florida Specialties, which names other locations where the bird has been found.   However, this website also uses references from the mid-and-late 1990's and I could not find a date for when the website was last updated.

For a little more about Florida's Smooth-billed Ani, I found a PDF document from an old breeding bird atlas write-up and have linked it
here. The article suggests that severe freezes may be contributing to the ani's decline. If this is true, then the past winter must have been very difficult for the bird. Everywhere we went on our trip, locals spoke about "what a bad winter we have had."

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission listed the Smooth-billed Ani as an imperiled species in 2007.

I was very happy to see this bird again. Most will say that it's an ugly bird, but I don't think so. Completely unique, but not ugly.

Coming next - Florida: butterflies and dragonflies

Friday, April 23, 2010

Florida: the Dry Tortugas

Arguably our Dry Tortugas day trip was everyones' favorite. Wikipedia offers a thorough write-up on the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson which I have linked here. There is something for visitors of many interests; history buffs, lighthouse counters, campers, snorklers and, of course, birders.

We took a 2-1/2 boat ride on the Atlantic Jefferson leaving Key West at 8:00 am and arrived at 10:30 am. On the way out the water became quite rough and choppy. While the boat was very stable overall, depending on the roughness of the water, especially upon reaching the open channel, there is definitely the possibility to become seasick.

We sat in the open bow and scanned the water for seabirds. We saw a couple of pods of dolphins surface briefly. Our first bird was a brown bird with long, pointed wings and a pointed body at both the head and the tail with white underside - Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster). Further out, our first terns flew by - Roseate Terns (Sterna dougallii).

The wind picked up and the water became rougher. I looked to my left and saw three songbirds battling by just off the portside. Seeing them made my stomach sink. They were so near, yet still so far. In open water we began to scan for Audubon's Shearwater (Puffinus lherminieri). We saw one - no, wait, it was a Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) flying low by the starboard side, its bouncing flight just above the water.

The water became rougher and the crew closed off the bow of the boat. In the cabin I was distracted by a couple of children who were seasick. Since I was queasy myself I quickly did my best to return my attention to the horizon. A large white and black bird flew by. I could see Bill and the other birders still outside with their bins up - Masked Booby (Sula dactylatra). I decided that it was better outside and rejoined the hardcore birders on the portside bench.

Finally, we neared the island. Sooty Terns (Onychoprion fuscatus), Brown and Masked boobies, Maginificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens), Brown Noddies (Anous stolidus) were now easily seen. As the boat approached the dock, we could see old wharf pylons each with a bird or two. Most were sleeping. Black-bellied Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola) seemed to occupy most of the pylons, but a few Whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) and gulls also rested here.

Fort Jefferson is an interesting place. I'm not a war history buff, but apparently as the fort was being built with turrets for canons, technology changed for that kind of weaponry and the fort was obsolete before it could even be completed. From then on, at least one of the things it was used for was as a prison. In the photo above, just to the left of the Fort Jefferson sign, you can see a gangplank over the moat leading through an entry. Walking though this leads you to a large open space as in the photo below.

Would it be a cliche to write bird life exploded before our eyes? Yes, it would, but that's what happened. Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis) clustered together at one end, swallows swooped over the grass, Merlins (Falco columbarius) perched high on leafless limbs of scattered trees, a Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) occupied a high perch on the fort's antenna, warblers flew low from one bush to another, several nighthawks were flying. Magnificent Frigatebirds soared overhead. Green Herons (Butorides virescens) flew across the open space. We were in a place that gives new meaning to the words migrant trap.

American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)

For four hours we birded the whole inside and outside of the fort to find every bird. Even then we missed some. The island is small and easy to bird, but we all would have enjoyed another hour or two. The birds in the photos below represent just a smattering of what we saw and what I was able to photograph.

Prairie Warbler (Dendroica discolor)

Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia citrina)

Black-throated Blue Warbler (Dendroica caerulescens)

Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla)

Cape May Warbler (Dendroica tigrina)

Dreadful photo but it reminds me that we also saw Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) from the boat flying over open water.

Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra)

Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

Ruddy Turnstones begging

Brown Noddy

Brown Noddies occupying pylons

Female Magnificent Frigatebird

A perched Common Nighthawk is a rare sight for me.

I guess I was surprised most by seeing birds that I don't think of as being all that migratory; a Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon) and a Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos). We really hoped the mockingbird would be a Bahama Mockingbird (Mimus gundlachii). No such luck for us, but when you think of it, a Bahama Mockingbird might be more likely in a place such as this.

Other species which I enjoyed seeing were a single Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) and a single Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius). We also saw thrushes, tanagers, and buntings.

When our four hours on the island was finished, we reluctantly boarded to Atlantic Jefferson to return to Key West. With birders on board, the boat's captain made a brief side trip to the Hospital Key to see breeding Masked Boobies close-up. The visit was short but we had great looks at this beautiful bird.

I saw five life birds and would recommend this day trip to any birder. We had the bonus of being there during neotropical migration. I'm sure that once migration is complete, the fort would be essentially birdless. But, the sea birds would be there and as their breeding season advanced the baby birds would add to their numbers. If I have counted correctly, in all we saw 44 species of birds. That doesn't sound like many but the island is small and, of those 44, we often saw many of one species. Just for example, there were possibly a couple hundred Palm Warblers, at one point there were six Indigo Buntings perched in one tree and finally there were three Merlins present. So where ever one went there were always birds to find.

This visit heightened my awareness and belief that songbird migration really is one of the wonders of the world.

Island Closed - seabirds nesting.

Coming next - Florida: a special bird in the Everglades.