Saturday, April 24, 2010

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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That Ani is a little more than unique! Love, Aunt Doramae