Sunday, September 28, 2008

Fall Colors

Common but cool: A Northern Cardinal at Palm Point.

I got a lot of great fall warblers this weekend, but as my last post shows, my attempts to photograph them have been pretty pathetic. Most of the time, I decided not to even try: they are so delightful to watch, and here for such a short time, I didn't want to take my binoculars off them for a second.

But some of the other local birds were a bit more cooperative, and did allow some nice (or at least, semi-respectable) shots. None them are rare birds here, but they're still novelties for me, and a treat to see.

Back in California, Glenn and I would go down to the San Diego River mouth, just by Sea World, to find and try to photograph the Little Blue Herons, which are rare to nonexistent anywhere else in the state. We always found them, but they were always a way off. Today at Powers Park, I found one standing by the boat ramp, utterly unconcerned by my presence:

A heron we never saw in California was the Tricolored Heron: here, they are apparently common, but until this weekend, I've never gotten a really close look at one. This guy is a bit obscured by foliage, but it's the best shot I have so far. This was taken at Palm Point:

On Saturday, I birded Powers Park and Palm Point with another local birder (yup, I hit the same places on both Saturday and Sunday), and got a number of new butterflies: This one is (I think) a Sleepy Orange:

Neither Florida nor California are known for the standard leaves-turning-red-in-the-fall thing (there are not that many deciduous trees in SoCal, and I was told that there is a bit of color change here, but it doesn't happen until December). But the birds make fall a really colorful season here, for those who care to look for it. And the guys I managed to photograph here aren't even half of it.

Presenting the Worst Photo of a Blackburnian Warbler in the History of the World!

Forrest Gump famously said that life was like a box of chocolates: you never know what you're going to get.

This, of course, is a terrible analogy: boxes of chocolates always come with ingredient lists, some sort of description on the box, and/or those cute little fold-out picture guides telling you which shape corresponds to which filling. Unless you're borderline illiterate (like poor Forest), you'll know exactly what you're going to get.

He should have made his analogy about birding. Now THAT'S maddeningly, yet enticingly, unpredictable. Today's Alachua Audubon field trip to Palm Point was a case in point.

We assembled at nearby Powers Park, mostly because there was adequate parking (the plan was to carpool to Palm Point). I'd never had much luck finding stuff at Powers, and my impression was that local birders didn't think of it as much of a hotspot either: most people I've run into consider it a pretty place to stop by on the way home from Palm Point if they need a restroom or just didn't feel like going home yet.

But when I got there this morning, about 20 minutes before the group was supposed to meet, the normally quiet trees leading down to a boat ramp and boardwalk were noisy with birds: dozens of Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice chased each other through the cypresses and clung to tufts of Spanish moss. Within minutes, I spotted a Yellow-throated Warbler and an American Redstart. When the rest of the group arrived, we almost immediately spotted a Tennessee Warbler and a large flock of Chimney Swifts (both lifers for me!) A Yellow-billed Cuckoo sat sedately in a treetop, eating caterpillars.

And it kept getting better. The warblers kept rolling (okay, flying) in: Yellow, Hooded, Common Yellowthroat, Ovenbird, Northern Parula, Northern Waterthrush, Prairie... and best of all, a very bold and pretty Blackburnian Warbler, a relative rarity in this area, and another lifer for me! He/she darted low in a tree by the boardwalk, even hopping briefly onto the boardwalk's handrail (only about 6 feet from us) before flying off. I fumbled with my camera while trying to keep the bird in my sights, but couldn't manage to get a shot.

We were all happy and excited as we moved on to Palm Point: if things were this good at a usually unremarkable spot, things must be rocking really hard at Palm Point, a known migrant trap...

...NOT. Palm Point was strangely quiet. The small number of field trip participants who'd forgotten that we were supposed to meet first at Powers were visibly bummed. And they got even more bummed after we told them what we had just seen.

We hung out at Palm Point for another half hour or so, and managed to find some weird spiders and a Pine Warbler. Then some of us headed back to Powers—and almost immediately saw the Blackburnian again! This time, it was near the ground, hopping between some low bushes and the ground with a group of American Redstarts. I tried to focus my camera and started shooting madly as it flitted about. Only two of the shots actually had the Blackburnian in the frame, and they both sucked. Now I know why photographers hate shooting warblers so much.

And so do you.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Every Bird Counts

A White Ibis at the idyllic Home Depot Pond.

Every September, two momentous events hit Gainesville on the same day: the infamous Florida-Tennessee hate match , and the county-wide Fall Migration Count. Of course, I completely ignored the former and got completely sucked into the latter.

I'd never done a bird count before; back in OC, I had the impression that the only people who did these were the Really Good Birders, and that my participation would be more of a hindrance than a help. But out here, the birding community is small and tight, and it's almost impossible to bird alone: if you hit any hotspot wearing binoculars, you will meet people, and these people will no doubt know every other local birder you've ever run into.

And if you met any of these people two weeks ago, you'd get drafted onto one of the count teams. And it was made clear that my utter ignorance about local bird life was no excuse not to participate.

Our team of 8 birders started out at 6:30 am. At Kanapaha Prairie, a private tract of farmland and and homes, we watched flocks of Sandhill Cranes and Wood Storks fly overhead as the sun rose, and caught a few Eastern Meadowlarks hopping around on fence posts.

At Chapman Pond, a pretty little holding basin owned by the local utility company, we saw Tricolored Herons, Snowy Egrets, Common Moorhens, and both White and Glossy Ibises. The Glossies were new birds for me, but they look so much like White-faced Ibises, they really seemed familiar. (This shot's for you, Corey!)

During the drive to our next spot, Kanapaha Botanical Garden, we looked for birds from the car. This netted me another lifer, a White-winged Dove. The botanical garden was gorgeous—filled with lots of twisty little stone-paved trails leading to romantic little gazebos and cozy benches tucked beside ponds and waterfalls. An utterly perfect place for a first kiss—or any kiss, for that matter.

Alas, it wasn't that great for birds. The goal of the count was to track fall migrants, but we didn't get very many. After a couple of hours of getting nothing more interesting than a single Ovenbird and handful of American Redstarts, we took a much-needed lunch break.

Our afternoon went much like our morning—great conversation and scenery, but not a lot of birds. But it was fun for me to see some new birding spots I'd only heard about. One was yet another little pond, stuck between a freeway overpass and a shopping center. At the evocatively named Home Depot Pond, we saw a huge flock of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, as well as the most motley assortment of Mallard/Muscovy hybrids ever.

One of our last stops was at Laurel Hill Cemetery, in the nearby town of Archer. I learned that one year, someone doing the count claimed that a ghost had followed her home from the cemetery and assaulted her. Maybe THAT'S why they were trying so hard to recruit new people this year!

Again, we didn't get any warblers other than a couple of Northern Parulas. (On the upside, we didn't encounter any evil spirits either.) But I did get my third lifer of the day, a Red-headed Woodpecker—since it was raining while we were there, I didn't take out my camera, so alas, no photos!

Ironically, while yesterday was a nearly warbler-free day, today the warblers were flitting about in force. At Palm Point, I got Ovenbirds, a female Hooded Warbler (another lifer for me), a Yellow and Yellow-throated Warbler, several American Redstarts, a Northern Parula, and a couple of Black-and-White Warblers:

I have no idea which way his head is facing, either.

I ran into another birder there (who, of course, did the count yesterday with another team, whose team members I also knew); he managed to see a Blue-winged Warbler, which I unfortunately missed. Maybe next time!

The other fun birds I got today were a group of very active Pileated Woodpeckers, drumming away loudly in the treetops:

Someone once said that character is what you do when no one is looking. And perhaps the character of a place is the number of birds out when nobody is counting.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

One Month Later

Exactly one month ago today, I got up at 4:30 a.m., gulped down a cup of coffee and a day-old piece of Vietnamese cassava cake, and headed to LAX and two miserable flights that would lead me from my home and family in Southern California to my new job in Florida.

And today found me headed west out of Gainesville with a group of friendly and talented local birders to Cedar Key, a charming fishing village and renown local birding spot. We were on our way to a boat tour of the surrounding waters to look for shorebirds.

I was hoping that Hurricane Ike would bring in some interesting pelagics, just as tropical storm Fay did a few weeks back. Instead, Ike just raised the water levels so high that shore-dwelling peeps resorted to perching in the few bushes that remained above water level.

The funny thing about going on a shorebird trip with a bunch of inland birders is watching how excited they get by birds that I took for granted back in California, such as Marbled Godwits and Willets. In the meantime, I was getting quite excited by birds they all found quite ordinary, such as Tricolored Herons and American Oystercatchers (a lifer for me). But everyone WAS understandably surprised to see over 100 American Oystercatchers hanging out on a sandbar with a flock of Willets and various plovers:

Here's a closer shot of some of the Oystercatchers:

My favorite part of the boat tour was a stop by an island where a large flock of Magnificent Frigatebirds was roosting. These are great birds to watch. There is something vaguely sinister about the way they look (and the fact that they are kleptoparasitic feeders only adds to their aura of evil)--but that's part of the fun of watching them.

And here are some more of them.

After the boat trip, the group I had carpooled out with decided to try birding other parts of the Key, such as the cemetery—supposedly a good spot for migrating warblers. We didn't get any warblers, but we did get both Grey and Eastern Kingbirds, a Great Crested Flycatcher, and two Great Horned Owls, sitting practically back to back to each other. This photo shows only one of them, but the other wasn't far behind him:

On the way home, we were treated to the sight of several strikingly brilliant rainbows--so striking that several drivers besides us pulled off the side of the road to either gawk or take pictures. This shot only captures a fraction of the whole scene: from where we were, we could see the entire arc of one rainbow, with a second echoed faintly nearby:

I knew this could only be an omen of good fortune, But I returned home to an aggressively squirting leak under my bathroom sink, which had caused the entire bathroom to flood. The maintenance guy was out within half an hour. I'll be without hot water in the bathroom for the night, but at least the damage was contained. Maybe that's all the good luck I need.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Admit It. You Like To Watch.

Of all the charges leveled against birders (we're old / dorky / tree-hugging fruitcakes / boring / embarrassingly bad dressers) this has got to be the strangest: We're not only tedious conversationalists with bad hats, but we're also promoting....PORNOGRAPHY! This link to a mind-bogglingly weird video was distributed to everyone on the Alachua County rare bird alert e-mail list (I'm not sure if this is its official name, but it is an e-mail list that goes to local birders interested in notable recent sightings.)

Speaking of bird porn, CNN reports that the carrier card for this year's duck stamp (basically a federal permit for hunting migratory waterfowl) contains an embarrassing error: instead of the phone number for information on how to purchase duck stamps, the card gives a number for a phone sex service.

Duck stamps are not only mandatory for hunters, but also a worthy investment for non-hunting bird lovers, since all funds from the stamps go towards the purchase of habitat for waterfowl, as persuasively argued here (go to page 3 of this PDF file), So if you haven't purchased your duck stamp yet (yes I know I should get mine), now you have extra incentive to do so!

Who says birding isn't sexy?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Bad Shots of Good Birds

The best thing about photographing mushrooms? They can't fly.

I've been having endless amounts of fun looking for new Florida birds. The birders here are great, and have been really generous about teaching me the calls and field marks of all local specialties.

I've been having less fun, however, trying to get decent shots of these birds. Since it's the midst of fall migration, all the really interesting birds are tiny, active little things, and the foliage here is denser and darker than the coastal sage scrub and mountain oaks and sycamores back in California. And it's hard to focus on a shot of these little guys while simultaneously keeping one's eyes open for spiders/snakes/mosquitos/passing cars/cyclists/gators/Gator fans and other local hazards.

Still, even lame shots of new birds are a nice souvenir of a day in the field. One of my favorite new birds is the Prothonotory Warbler, and here's a bad shot of one. (He was SO close, but hopped away before I could get any other shots.)

One of my goals coming out here was to get some good shots of Northern Cardinals, which are abundant, pretty, and relatively slow moving. Mission (not quite) accomplished:

One bird that was surprisingly cooperative and allowed a not-sucky shot was this White-eyed Vireo, who I saw at Loblolly Woods Nature Park this morning:

And to give everyone's eyes a break, here's a shot of the appropriately named beautyberry, a local native popular with birds. This very cooperative plant was also at Loblolly: