Sunday, October 26, 2008

Dispatch from the Gator Nation

Oh no, not one of these things again!

No school is more deeply, obsessively into its mascot than the University of Florida. There's a late-night bus service called Later Gator. The webpage that tracks buses to and from campus is called Gator Locator. The university's day care center is called Baby Gator. The secure, online system faculty members use to submit grades every semester is called—wait for it—Grade-A-Gator. I'm not making this up.

And yet, it was still surprising to find that there are, indeed, real alligators slithering their way around the town's periphery in large numbers. After a morning of birding my favorite weekend spots (Palm Point and Powers Park), I dropped by
La Chua Trail, on the north end of Paynes Prairie, to look for any winter sparrows that may have started wandering in. I got a few Song Sparrows, several Palm Warblers, and an enticing little sparrow-like bird I couldn't ID. There was also a female Northern Harrier, and a nice assortment of waders. But the most noticeably numerous creatures there were the gators.

There were really big guys, like the one above, as well as oddly proportioned babies:

In Alachua Sink, about a dozen of them were basking on a mudflat. Here are a few of them:

All along the trail, there are big, ominous signs warning people to keep a safe distance from the gators, and to be sure to be off the trail by dusk, when the gators start to feed. IF IT MOVES IT"S FOOD! one of them practically screamed. Oddly, the local birds (all of whom seemed to be moving) didn't seem terribly concerned: the gators on the mudflat were surrounded by a large flock of Least Sandpipers foraging calmly away; and everywhere else on the trail, Little Blue Herons, Common Moorhens, and White Ibises were resting or hunting only feet away from basking gators. The Cattle Egrets below are clearly not worried about getting eaten:

There was also a large variety of butterflies on the trail, which made me realize I should get a guidebook and learn more about them. This was one I hadn't seen before:

As I walked back to the trailhead, a couple with several young children passed and asked where the alligators were. I told them to it wasn't very far, and they wouldn't have to look very hard. And I was out of there long before sunset.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Snapshots from Home

I'm still on the e-mail list for Orange County Birding (that's Orange County, California, not Florida), and apparently, fall migration out there has been just as lively as it's been here. Yesterday, Glenn went to Peters Canyon Regional Park in search of the Bald Eagle that's been on everyone's To See list as of late—he missed it by about 10 minutes (as he learned from a photographer who had just been shooting it), but he did get one of his long-time grail birds: a Cactus Wren. More precisely, TWO Cactus Wrens, both of whom were happy to pose cooperatively for him.

This is a bird I've never seen myself, and a new bird for Glenn. Thus, it's an even better treat than a Bald Eagle.

This, and all the other cool sightings back there (Black-billed Cuckoo?! Holy freaking crap!) were starting to make me homesick. I miss the marsh at San Joaquin. And poking through the (mosquito- and water-moccasin-free) brush at Huntington Central Park, looking for wayward migrants. And comparing sightings with the other birders who frequent these areas.

But...if I were there, I wouldn't be getting all the good stuff here. Like the pelagics that hang out at Newnans Lake after big storms. And the companionship of a friendly and fantastically knowledgeable birding community. And treats such the 12 (that's right, TWELVE!) warblers I got this morning at Palm Point and Powers Park—and those were just the ones we could ID definitively. I wouldn't have missed this for the world.

When I was a kid, I imagined that by the year 2000, we'd all travel either by jet packs (for short commutes), or by teleportation, à la Star Trek (for longer distances). Pretty much every other kid I knew believed this as well, and our teachers and parents did nothing to disabuse us of this idea. Maybe they too thought we'd be able to pull it off.

And if we had, I'd be able to bird the Gainesville hot spot of my choice from sunrise until, say 11; hop into a wormhole shooting me directly to Bolsa Chica or Huntington Central, where I'd bird with Glenn from 8 (Pacific Time) to noon, have a nice lunch, then pop back to Gainesville in time for a shower and a few light errands before dinner. Or maybe even some sunset birding! How cool would that be?

But NOOO..instead, we' ve squandered our considerable energy and creativity on [insert name of your least favorite military expedition/public works project/time-wasting pop culture obsession here].

So my dream day of bicoastal migrant chasing probably won't happen in my lifetime. Drat.

Life can be fun, but sometimes, it's just not fair.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Just Another Weekend of Interesting Birds

I'm not proud of this photo. But it's one of the only semi-respectable bird shots I got this weekend, despite seeing a pleasant assortment of birds, and getting three lifers. (Oh yes, and the photo is of a Barred Owl, trying in vain to get some peace and quiet at O'Leno State Park this morning, as our Alachua Audubon field trip group powered through in search of fall migrants.)

I've been in the throes of warbler lust since moving out here. My one consolation for being away from my home and family has been birds, especially all those amazing East Coast warblers. Every other birder here may be burnt out on the steady parade of Black-and-white and Yellow-throated Warblers and American Redstarts, but I still think they're pretty cool. And the rarer migrants are even cooler. And I was determined to get every single one of them.

Still, I have to remind myself, as I did back in California, not to allow myself to take common birds for granted. This morning at O'Leno, we were looking into some bushes and someone spotted some movement. I ID'ed its source, and said it was "just a Cardinal".

"You wouldn't be saying that if you'd never seen a Cardinal," one of the other birders scolded.

And she was right. Two months ago, a Northern Cardinal would have been an exotic treat (in both senses of the word--the one I actually did see a few times in SoCal was, indeed, an escapee.)

So I spent my weekend with my bins around my neck, relishing every bird out there. I went and bought a bird bath, which I hope will attract more visitors to The Exercise Yard. And I got three new birds—exciting to me, but business as usual for everyone else out there: a Veery, an Eastern Wood-Pewee, and a Chestnut-sided Warbler. (The latter was the only bird that got our group leader excited this morning, since it's the only one of these that's not a totally predictable migrant--but I was happy with all of them.)

Fall migration may be winding down, but I want to squeeze every bird out of it that I can.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Fill It, and They Will Come


My apartment is surrounded by large, birdy trees and has its own tiny courtyard, so one of the first things I did after settling in was invest in a bird feeder. After some serious browsing at Wild Birds Unlimited, I settled on a cheap but sturdy squirrel-proof model, filled it with a black sunflower seed mix that looks tastier than a lot of trail mix I've eaten, and waited.

And waited.

After two weeks, I figured something must be wrong. I'd seen birds there twice--a single House Finch, and a Tufted Titmouse—but nobody seemed to be coming there regularly. The owner of Wild Birds Unlimited told me that small birds tend to avoid enclosed courtyards, since such places are often just big snack bowls for accipiters. But—he said—it wasn't a lost cause: create a welcoming and protective enough environment, and the birds would come. Other birders suggested that I put in some plants for the birds to perch on and hide in, or put in a bird bath.

I haven't had time to follow up on these suggestions, but his week, I started noticing the level of seed dropping visibly every day--but I never saw anyone at the feeder. Whatever was taking the seed was doing so only while I was at work.

And this afternoon, I came home from work, still dripping from one of Gainesville's habitually random thunderstorms (I've come to the conclusion that "50% chance of rain today" in Gainesville-speak translates into normal English as "It's raining buckets right now!"). As I approached my unit, I saw something shoot into the air from out of my courtyard—a Carolina Chickadee!

I crept into the courtyard as quietly as I could. The unoccupied feeder was still swinging from its hook. And another Chickadee swooped in just as I put my key in the door.

For the next hour or so, I watched in delight as a constant parade of Chickadees and Tufted Titmice—and even a female Northern Cardinal—swarmed the feeder.

If this photo makes you think my courtyard looks like the exercise yard of a maximum-security prison, you'd be right—I do plan on getting some tasteful native vegetation (and yes, maybe a bird bath) in there soon. But for now, I'm happy that my new place is now officially suitable for visitors.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Bird Hard

Not birding makes one crabby: A Ghost Crab near Fort Matanzas National Monument

Sometimes, I worry that I spend too much time thinking about birds. When I walk across campus to my classes in the morning, I keep my ears open for odd chips and chirps, and sometimes risk being late because I can't help stopping and staring into the trees looking for their source. This, no doubt, makes me look like a total idiot to both my students and colleagues.

This weekend reassured me that I'm not the only person on the planet with birds on the brain 24/7. But it also made me realize that I am, indeed, a complete idiot. There are birders out there who are freakishly good. And there are lots of them.

The cause of my angst was a weekend in St. Augustine, for the fall meeting of the Florida Ornithological Society. This is not the sort of thing I would think of attending by myself, but a couple of my Gainesville birding buddies (one of whom is one the board), invited me to join them for the weekend. They're both fun people and awesome birders, so I was happy to hitch a ride with them, crash in a cheap but comfy motel with them, and spend the weekend talking birds.

We arrived on Friday night, hitched up with another group of birders attending the FOS meeting, and ended up at a surprisingly nice place for an early dinner: a seafood restaurant overlooking the water. We got an outdoor table right at the water's edge, and had surprisingly good food while watching Roseate Spoonbills and Ospreys (among other things) flying over the water. One of the guys had his binoculars with him during dinner, so we were able to ID almost everything we saw as we chowed down on crab cakes, fried alligator, and various interesting salads. We headed back to town (and to the initial "flocking", or social hour, of the FOS conference) just as the sun was setting. Good stuff.

Saturday morning was dedicated to birding field trips. Half of the couple I'd come with was in charge of leading one of the trips, to the inefficiently named Guana Tolomato Matanzas Estuarine Research Reserve. Even the acronym to this place (GTMERR) is a mouthful. But there, we got a Peregrine Falcon, a Black-and-white Warbler, and two bright male Black-throated Blue Warblers, who were bathing in a pond just off the trail from us--a real treat to watch. We also got a white-morph Great Blue Heron, who had been hanging out there for about a week. Still, my favorite sighting of the day was the Roseate Spoonbill flying over the Holiday Inn where the FOS was being held, just as we were standing in the parking lot trying to work out carpool arrangements.

A white morph Great Blue Heron: Note its pink legs

After lots of small talk with other conference attendees on the trip, I realized that over half of them were professional biologists/ornithologists, and the others were hard-core amateurs who'd been birding for decades. And I was an enthusiastic amateur, but still a total idiot.

What made me realize this was the Saturday afternoon program, which involved a "skin quiz": there were actually two quizzes, one for advanced birders, and one for beginning/intermediate birders. Both involved numbered stuffed birds skins to be identified.

I took one look at the table with the advanced skins on it, and realized I was WAY out of my league. At the gentler beginning/intermediate table, I immediately recognized a female Hooded Merganser and felt rather smart. There was something that looked like a Downey Woodpecker, but its bill seemed a bit big. Aha! Hairy Woodpecker! These actually occur regularly in Florida! So this also made me feel kind of smart.

I also correctly figured out a female Yellow-rumped Warbler and a Purple Swamphen, a bird I had never seen (but someone had mentioned them at dinner the night before for some random reason, so it seemed like a reasonable guess).

The take-home lesson here? Whenever you find yourself having a sunset dinner at a romantic waterside restaurant, be sure to work the words "Purple Swamphen" into the conversation. You never know what it might get you.

Saturday afternoon and evening consisted of various interesting bird-related talks. On Sunday, my friendly hosts and I went out for more birding: early morning was slow, but by lunchtime, we had spotted Blackpolll, Prarie, and Palm Warblers, and had spotted both Greater and Lesser Black-backed Gulls—both new birds for me.

By Sunday afternoon, my brain was fried. We returned to Gainesville by mid-afternoon. And then I set off by myself to look for birds once more, this time at Loblolly Nature Reserve, where a number of interesting warblers have been spotted as of late.

Of course, none of them chose to make an appearance for me (but the local mosquitos had their usual feast). I did, however, get a Grey Catbird—another lifer—and a pleasant afternoon in a shady, pretty, place.

Just the kind of peace and quiet I need to get through the long, birdless work week ahead.