Wednesday, December 16, 2009

(Practically) Backyard Birds

As I stepped outside for my morning run today, I saw and heard a huge flock of Sandhill Cranes flying overhead, no doubt headed for the nearby UF Beef Teaching Unit (a grassy pasture in which beef cattle are no doubt being taught to do any number of nefarious things). And I considered how lucky I was to be able to count Sandhill Cranes among my backyard birds.

The Beef Teaching Unit is only about 100 yards from my place, and as I jogged toward it, I saw two large white birds mingling with the Sandhills. Definitely too tall to be White Ibises, which also frequent the pasture. And WAY too big to be Cattle Egrets. Too tall and heavy-bodied to be Great Egrets, which don't hang out there anyhow. Which meant they had to be...


Awesome! I sprinted home, grabbed my bins and camera, and headed back out, hoping they would stay for me. And they did, just long enough for me to get a few blurry shots. As they flew off with their Sandhill Crane companions, I could see their black wing tips and the other sure field mark of a Whooping Crane, several colored bands on their legs.

Now I can rightfully claim not only Sandhill Cranes, but Whooping Cranes, as (practically) backyard birds. How lucky is that?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Round Up The Usual Suspects

Not a rarity around here, but Bittern nothing.

The weekend started with a series of missed appointments: someone from Alachua Audubon was supposed to drop by my place on Friday to pick up stuff for their upcoming silent auction, and there was supposed to be a field trip to La Chua on Saturday morning. But late on Friday, my Audubon contact called to say she was delayed at work; could we meet up at the La Chua trip instead?

This sounded perfect—but on Saturday morning, I woke up to the pounding of rain on the roof. Like an idiot, I got up anyhow, mindful to put on a pair of semi-water-resistant boots instead of my regular hiking shoes, and headed for La Chua. It was still raining when I got there. And it was still raining 20 minutes later, when the trip leader (the only other person who showed up) made the obvious decision to call the thing off.

But my Audubon contact called me an hour later, and I got the stuff to her later that morning. And on Sunday morning, I made my way back to La Chua, alone.

I had really been looking forward to the field trip because the leader was a crackerjack birder, the kind of guy who can instantly ID a sparrow or warbler from a single distant call note—so I knew I'd see a lot more with his guidance than I would alone. And I suspect I was right: My goal for Sunday was to scare up some good wintering sparrows. But I heard and saw nothing but Savannahs and a few Eastern Towhees. The prairie was weirdly quiet, devoid of both bird song and people.

But as a consolation prize for a morning of mediocre birding, the common year-round residents were unusually bold and cooperative. Great Blue Herons seemed to cross my path on the trail every few minutes, some standing only feet away. One of them calmly strolled past me, ambled into a nearby swampy area, and helped himself to some breakfast:

Further down the trail, I was startled to see a Red-shouldered Hawk perched quietly on a snag just off the trail. The bird didn't seem at all perturbed when I stopped to look at him:

Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers swooped by regularly, and I saw a couple of American Kestrels, a bird I don't recall seeing before at that spot. From the observation deck at the end of the trail I could see the wintering Sandhill Cranes in the distance. The water was filled with American Coots, Common Moorhens, and most likely, several species of wintering ducks. But from where I was, the distant water birds were impossible to ID; without a scope, this was as close as I could get:

Some of the most interesting drama was on the platform itself. For the past few weeks, I've been overhearing visitors scratching their heads over the possible back story behind this:

Cooperative birds and an interesting mystery; there are worse ways to spend a quiet Sunday morning.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Portrait of a Squirrel-Proof Feeder

This feeder is spring-loaded so that if anything heavier than a songbird or two (e.g. a squirrel) lands on one of the four metal perches, the green cage on the outside drops down, cutting off access to the food inside the feeder.

Most squirrels land on it once or twice, get the message, and move on. Or rather, move down: they realize they can get more food for less effort by foraging under the feeder for seeds dropped by birds.

But this guy was determined not to give up: I've seen him approach the feeder from the top and cling to the cage upside down. I've seen him take unsuccessful flying leaps at it from the shepherd's hook it hangs from, or from the nearby birdbath, which he kept knocking over. (And which I have subsequently moved further away.) Over the course of a few weeks, he has learned to avoid putting his full weight on the perches.

The picture above shows his solution: it's a labor-intensive one; note that he's straining to keep his weight centered on the back of his long squirrelly torso so that the cage won't drop. He can't hold that position for long; he usually hangs on for about five seconds before scurrying away. And he probably burns more calories trying to get stuff out that feeder than he takes in.

I know I can make the whole problem go away by hanging the feeder from the middle of a long high branch, where there won't be any squirrel-jumpable access points. But I've grown way too fond of having my visiting birds at eye level, just outside my back door. And I have to give this guy props for persistence and problem-solving savvy—something I've been striving to cultivate in my students throughout my teaching career. After all, if Gators can get extra credit for extraordinary effort, why not squirrels?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Picture This

As always, I had some excellent adventures over the weekend. But I have not a picture to show for it. If you will, try to imagine why.

Picture this: It's 6:20 a.m. on Sunday morning, and I have just pulled into the parking lot of Gainesville's Target: this is the meeting place for Alachua Audubon's trip to Cedar Key. When I had gotten up an hour earlier, I checked online to find there was a 60% chance of rain and thunderstorms that would last throughout the day. Any sensible person would have gone back to bed. But I'm not a sensible person.

6:35 a.m: I return from the restroom at a nearby gas station to find that I am one of the drivers for the trip (the reason for the rendezvous at Target was for us to consolidate into carpools and arrange rides). I load my passengers, who I already know—a fellow UF faculty member and another local birder—into my embarrassingly dirty car and we take off, just as the rain starts.

7:00 a.m.: Our first stop is supposed to be at the Scrub Jay reserve just outside Cedar Key. But the rest of the caravan is nowhere in sight—I had gotten stuck behind a traffic light on the way out and the others are now WAY in front of me. Probably looking at Florida Scrub Jays. But my car is old and weak, and the road between Gainesville and Cedar Key is a bit of a speed trap, so I drove conservatively. My UF colleague, in the catbird seat, assures me that the guy in front of us drives like a maniac, so losing him was kind of predictable.

7:45—We pull into the Scrub Jay reserve just as the others are returning to their cars. They didn't see any Scrub Jays. Thank goodness. Otherwise, I would have felt awful. Even more awful than I already felt about fulfilling everyone's worst stereotypes about slow Asian drivers.

8:00—We're at the side of the road off the first bridge leading into Cedar Key, looking at a bold, brightly colored, and perversely cooperative Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (or whatever this bird is officially called now...). All of us who had brought cameras are hitting ourselves upside the head. Why? It was raining cats and dogs, so we had all left our gear in our cars. Meanwhile, that sparrow—whose buffy head and breast shone orange in the tiny bit of sunlight peeking through the rain clouds—just sat there, as if daring us to bring our cameras out into the rain. Bastard.

8:20—The 10 or so field trip participants are huddled under a picnic shelter by the beach, resigned to our Big Day being more like a rainy Big Sit—or more accurately, a Big Soak. "Okay, did anyone bring a deck of cards?" our trip leader said only half jokingly. Still, we manage to rack up about 20 species.

8:45—We caravan to Cedar Key's tiny airport, where a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher had been lingering a few weeks before. It's still raining buckets. As soon as we arrive, our trip leader debarks from his car and tells each of the other drivers that we're going to Shell Mound—with luck, the rain will have stopped by time we get there.

9:00—It's still raining torrents at Shell Mound. Our trip leader reluctantly scotches the whole trip. Everyone gets back in their cars and heads eastward back to Gainesville.

9:15—My UF colleague in the front seat is clearly unhappy, and growing unhappier by the moment as Cedar Key receded into our rear-view mirror. I ask him if he wants to go back to Cedar Key and wait until the rain let up. He wanted to go back to Shell Mound instead, which we did. We passed several other field trip participants heading home as we reversed course. They must have thought we were crazy.

9:30—Miraculously, there was a break in the storm and we were in business. At Shell Mound, we lingered on the boardwalk overlooking a sandbar and reed-filled area, and found a number of birds everyone else had missed: White Pelicans, Clapper Rails, Marsh Wrens, Marbled Godwits, and a Wilson's Plover. There were also yet more Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows and several Bald Eagles out in the distance. But the clouds lingered ominously overhead, and we left our cameras in the car.

11:00—The clouds darkened again, and we got into the car just as the rain started to fall again. On the way back, my passengers insisted that I stop for gas, even though I had 3/4 of a tank left; they paid for the fill.

12:00—Back at Target, the skies are clearing and the sun is starting to shine though the clouds. My friend in the front seat declares that he is going to Hague Dairy, since the skies to the north of us look clear. The poor birder in the back seat, who has said scarcely a word over the course of the whole trip, is no doubt relieved to be free of us.

1:30—A particularly intelligent squirrel has figured out how to feed off my "squirrel-proof" bird feeder. It's now stopped raining, and I have my camera out to catch him (or her) in the act. But the squirrel has had its fill and doesn't return.

But it was still pretty cool when it was there. And when that sparrow was there at Cedar Key. And those Clapper Rails. You just have to trust me on this.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Autumn Flocking and Mating

A garland of cranes folded by friends:

A walk to the altar with alligators and Bald Eagles as witnesses:

Successfully mated pairs must be good providers. This pair foraged all of Gainesville and scared up not one, but FIVE flavors of cake! The flock was impressed.

An avian centerpiece...

...and the avian guest list:

Did I mention that both the bride and groom are birders with mad skills, about a quarter of the guests brought binoculars to the ceremony, and about another quarter wished they had remembered to?

I hope my friends will have as many days as joyful and filled with the companionship of family and friends as yesterday. Long may you flock together!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Scenes From the Prairie

Wild horses on Bolen Bluff trail, Paynes Prairie State Reserve

Fall migration is over. The warblers I enjoyed only a few weeks ago are now (I hope) safely ensconced in their winter digs in the tropics. And our winter visitors have only begun to settle in: A flock of Chipping Sparrows has already planted itself underneath my feeder, and the Eastern Phoebes ( not nearly as clean and natty-looking as my western Black Phoebes) have been singing loudly just about everywhere. This guy was on the prairie at Bolen Bluff:

Paynes Prairie is always a good place to visit when you want to go out, but know there won't be that many birds. There is always some interesting non-avian distraction. For the past month or two at Bolen Bluff, I've passed by this beautiful wasps' nest: I love how symmetrical it is. It looks like something that could be sold at Crate and Barrel as a yuppie decorative item. But I understand that the wasps who built it can deliver a nasty sting:

There's something perverse about the fact that temperatures in the mid-70s feel a bit chilly here. And when we turned back the clocks last week, it did feel unexpectedly autumnal. A strange reflex of this change of seasons was the eruption of yellow blooms at La Chua last weekend:

There have been rumors of Grasshopper and White-crowned Sparrows—and even an errant Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher—at La Chua over the past few weeks, but I haven't found any of these, yet. Right now, I'm just enjoying the autumnal weather (such as it is out here), and waiting for the chirps and calls of winter visitors.

Monday, November 2, 2009

She's Just Not That Into You

Hey Shiny Cowbird,

Thanks so much for meeting me at Hague Dairy last Saturday. It was great to finally meet you. It's always a pleasure to meet a new bird for the first time. All my friends told me not to expect a tropical bird like you all the way up here, so I was genuinely touched that you decided to drop by.

No, I didn't have any trouble finding you. Well, actually I would have, if the trip leader on the Alachua Audubon field trip hadn't pointed you out. I didn't really know what you looked like, and it would have been kind of hard picking you out with all your Brown-headed relatives flocking around.

And thanks for being so cooperative. At least you thought to wait for us on a post with only a handful of other birds on it, rather than parking yourself on that barn roof in the middle of several hundred Brown-headed Cowbirds. And you actually stayed fairly still up there, too, so we all got to spend a lot of time looking at you through our scopes.

No, no, I'm not just saying all of this to sound polite, I mean it. What do you mean, I don't sound very excited? Were you excited to see me? Okay, that's different.

It's just—oh wow, I have no idea how to put this—I didn't feel a spark when I saw you like I get with other lifers. You know that spark. Like when you see a Painted Bunting or a Hooded Warbler or—

Wait, there's nothing wrong with the way you look. You look exactly like everyone said you'd look. Kind of like a Red-winged Blackbird without the red. Or yellow.

No, I'm NOT describing you as an even more boring version of a mundane bird. Did I say that? Look, I can't just make that spark happen. And we met in a crappy area. Seriously. You were perched above a manure pit. Doesn't really make a great first impression.

Yes, I know that birding isn't about just the pretty birds, it's about understanding and respecting all of you, and appreciating what all of you tell us about the natural world. And I know you're a great bird and you've got a lot to tell me. But right now, the chemistry is just not there. I just can't get myself worked up over you.

Sorry, Shiny. You deserve better. It's not you, it's me.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Two Goodbyes

Dominick would have gotten a better shot: A House Wren at La Chua Trail.

This month, two friends passed suddenly, before I could even say goodbye.

The first was an old friend that had been a part of my life and my family's life since my childhood: Gourmet magazine. The corporate bean-counters at Condé Nast decided axe the revered 70-year-old franchise while continuing to support its vapid kid sister, Bon Appétit.

I love cooking as much as I love birding, and as a former professional cook, I can say with objective certainty that the difference between Gourmet and Bon Appétit was the difference between Roger Tory Peterson and the doofus I met a while back who mistook a Great Egret ten feet away for a pelican.

All the obituaries for Gourmet sneered that it was fusty and elitist, not designed for "the way people live today" in "these recessionary times". I call bullshit. True, it wasn't meant for people who are content with microwaved Lean Cuisine for dinner. But neither was it unusable: most of the recipes were easily do-able by any competent home cook, and the magazine had a regular section dedicated to recipes meant for weeknight cooking. And these generally contained lots of (cheap) pasta and veggies. And it featured, along with its wonderfully out-of-left-field travel and food culture articles (Slovenian food! The cooking of Yemenite exiles in Israel!), the ever-entertaining Roadfood column, which lovingly described regional specialties at some of the most blue-collar, American vernacular eateries imaginable.

Bon Appétit, by contrast, features celebrity hamburger recipes.

I looked forward to a new issue of Gourmet every month, to travelling vicariously to decidedly weird places and trying the accompanying recipes—the smells and tastes made me imagine I was there. My subscription was cheap, the writing was great, and the recipes were fun to make and to think about. When I was too busy to follow them to the letter, which was often, I'd just riff off them and still get some pretty good stuff.

And I just got my last-ever issue in the mail yesterday. It even had a bird on the cover—just for me!

And as usual, when I tore off the shrink wrap and opened it, all those annoying perforated "Send a gift subscription to a friend!" cards fell out.

I feel like filling them out and sending them all back to Condé Nast as a protest.

The demise of Gourmet was a sad surprise. But even sadder, and more surprising, was the passing of Dominick Martino, known affectionately as "the unofficial official photographer of Paynes Prairie". He lost his battle with bone cancer—which I didn't even know he was fighting—last week.

The first time I met Dominick was on my first-ever visit to La Chua. I went with another local birder, who had volunteered to show me around. Dominick was, as usual, tooling about in the little golf cart provided to him by the park, and immediately struck up a bird-related conversation. As we left, my host remarked, "Some people around here are kind of afraid of him."

"Really? Why?" I asked. I couldn't imagine anyone being afraid of such a friendly and jolly character.

"Well, if you get to talking with him, you might get sucked into 45 minutes of conversation. Sometimes, he just can't stop!"

It was true that he could talk forever about the flora and fauna of Paynes Prairie. And about taking photos. Both of which he clearly loved.

There was rarely if ever I time that I went to La Chua and didn't see him there; he was as much a part of the landscape as the alligators and wintering Sandhill Cranes, and his New York accent was as interwoven into La Chua's soundtrack as the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds. I thought of him as the Tommy Lasorda of Paynes Prairie: a knowledgeable and shamelessly biased booster.

The last time I saw him was in early August, during an especially pleasant day of birding: I was at La Chua with a friend and we were enjoying summering Purple Gallinules, Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites, and even a few distant Whooping Cranes. Dominick was at the observation platform at the end of the trail with his camera, and we spent close to an hour up there, chatting and watching storm clouds go by. As usual, he was having a whale of a time watching the movements of the birds and animals. And despite the typically repulsive Florida summer heat, it felt like a perfect day to be alive, with perfect company to share it with.

If he was already sick at the time, he certainly didn't look it or act like it.

I can't say I knew Dominick all that well, except for his love and knowledge of Paynes Prairie. But my visits to La Chua, his usual haunt, will be sadder without him. Like my lamented subscription to Gourmet, I figured he, and the pleasure of his company, would always be there.

Goodbye, old friends. Life will be a lot less fun without you.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Fallout Boy: A Rose Breasted Grosbeak at Bolen Bluff. (No, really)

I heard an NPR interview last year with a statistician who said he always started introductory classes with the following trick: he'd divide the class into two groups, leave the room, and have one group record the results of 100 actual coin tosses, and the other make up series of 100 imagined coin tosses that would look as random as possible. Both groups would then write the results of their real/imagined tosses on the board, and when he'd return, he'd try to determine which series was the real one and which the the imagined one.

He said it was always easy to tell the actual coin toss sequences from the imagined ones: the real sequences always looked implausible (a series of 20 consecutive tail tosses, for instance), while the fake sequences looked suspiciously even.

The moral? Reality is inherently implausible.

On Friday, a number of implausible but agreeable things happened: the temperature plummeted from the high 80s to the low 60s; a grand double rainbow surfaced as a took my morning run, and UF (and, as I later learned, ALL of Gainesville's public schools) shut down for UF's homecoming celebrations. (WHY grade-schoolers should get the day off because a bunch of old galoots in RVs want to relive their youth is a bit of a head-scratcher.)

On Saturday morning, I woke up to pleasantly chilly weather and clear skies—perfect for a long walk!—as well as a Badbirdz Reloaded radar report promising Tons of Migrants. But I felt none of the usual frenzy for acquisition that goes with my Saturday mornings during migration. My miserable luck over the past few weeks had beaten me into a Zen-like state of equanimity: I had broken free from the deluded belief that I could find warblers at Bolen Bluff the same way I find weird microbrews at Trader Joe's. Like the Buddha, I would desire nothing, and simply wait for the universe to do its thing. Whatever it was.

Unlike the Buddha, I still had my bins and a desire to look at birds—any birds. So I hitched up with the Alachua Audubon field trip to Bolen Bluff on Saturday morning. Since it was the last weekend of migration and the weather was so pleasant, over a dozen people showed up. And almost as soon as we hit the trail, we heard and saw a male Hooded Warbler. Not bad.

And only moments after that, we had a few American Redstarts. Nice, but unremarkable. Then a Black-and-white Warbler. Then a Magnolia Warbler. Following scolding flocks of Caroline Chickadees, we found yet more Redstarts. It was beginning to look like that radar report was spot on.

Our next treats: high in the trees was a pair of male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. And in a berry-filled camphor tree known by birders for its popularity with thrushes were—thrushes! The zone of my brain reserved for East Coast thrush ID is still a fuzzy mess, but reputable people in our group IDed several Grey-cheeked Thrushes and Wood Thrushes.

And despite the dozen of us stomping happily and loudly down the trail, the birds kept coming: we found a tree just off the trail containing about 5 warbler species, including a pair of Black-throated Green Warblers (the first and only I'd seen all season), as well as Bay-breasted and Chestnut-sided Warblers. Ovenbirds hopped around on the ground nearby, and in a nearby tree was a female Scarlet Tanager.

By now, everyone was oohing and aahing in weak-kneed joy. Our trip leader, a hard-core, seen-it-all-before local birder, was overwhelmed. This morning had made up for absolutely all the mornings of bug bites and warbler-less ennui of the preceding months.

The one area in which I didn't not get lucky yesterday was in getting pictures: the hungry warblers were high in the trees and moving fast.

Out on the prairie, we added two more to our warbler count: a Common Yellowthroat and several Palm Warblers. We looked around for Yellow and Prairie Warblers, which failed to materialize, and were beginning to wonder what our final warbler count would be. We were up to 14. Could we hit 15?

It should be mentioned that the number 15 has local relevance beyond being an a good round number: as any self-respecting college football fan knows, 15 is also Tim Tebow's number, and Saturday was UF's homecoming weekend home game, which means GO GATORS!! WOOHOO!!

(Okay, there's a municipal code requiring all Gainesville-based blogs to say that at least once a year. Now where was I?)

Oh yes, birds! There were lots of them! On our way back out of the prairie, we got good looks at a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and yet more Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. We spotted another warbler that may or may not have been a Prairie—but none of use were sure enough to call it make it our #15.

Still, there were plenty more warblers on the way back out to the trailhead: more American Redstarts and Yellow-throateds and dozens of Magnolia Warblers ( we teased our leader every time he spotted something and said it was "just" a Magnolia! ) Then we saw something else: a bit like a Magnolia, but not really. Not a Prairie either. It hopped around about 20 feet in front of us for a couple of minutes while we passed a bird guide around and examined it: a Cape May!

We had hit 15! And this was a great bird to get, too: Cape Mays show up in Gainesville pretty regularly during spring migration, but rarely during the fall.


And that afternoon, the Gators won (barely) their hard-fought battle against Arkansas, with concussion-suffering #15 leading the way. Coincidence? I think not.

Gator fans, you can thank Alachua Audubon later.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Georgia on My Mind

Look, it's a warbler! A female Common Yellowthroat at Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area

I was fed up with birding.

Specifically, I was fed up with hunting in vain for fall warblers. My weekly strolls through Paynes Prairie, normally a highlight of my weekends, had morphed into angst-ridden death marches: watching unidentifiable backlit splotches zipping through tangles of leaves four stories in the air only reminded me of my lack of skills/luck/decent bins.

The birds were making me feel like crap. (Yup, it was all their fault! Blasted invisible Golden-winged Warblers!) It was time to step away from those sadistically elusive migrants and do something different.

And luckily, this week I was already committed to the best possible thing for a burnt-out birder: a birding festival! Because birding festivals are a great way to avoid birding.

I've only been to a few festivals, but if these were typical, birding festivals seem to involve the following:

1. Name tags with pictures of birds on them!
2. T-shirts featuring the same bird that's on your name tag!
3. Banquets with no-host bars where $7/bottle wine sells for $5 a glass!
4. Field trips where someone invariably plants him/herself directly in front of you whenever anything interesting shows up!
5. An exhibition hall filled with reps from local birding/conservation groups, reps of major optics companies, and some random guy selling photos/paintings of birds!

The Colonial Coast Birding Festival on Jekyll Island, Georgia, was no exception. The only reason I went was because a couple of my friends here in Gainesville, both serious birders and professional biologists, were among the speakers/presenters, and they had invited me to join them. (They often invite me to join them on their birding road trips; why they'd want such a clueless birder in their midst was a mystery: I figured they just wanted a low-maintenance person to split the cost of their hotel room.) So I navigated the festival's labyrinth of a website, registered for the festival, signed up for several field trips and seminars, and hitched a ride up to Jekyll Island (and shared a comfy hotel room) with my friends.

Jekyll Island is only a 3-hour drive north from Gainesville, so I wasn't expecting the variety of birds to vary too much from what I'd get back home. But I got a few surprises. Roseate Spoonbills are plentiful there, and we saw several on our drive in. (They're a fairly recent arrival on the local scene, I'm told):

The Spoonbills are coastal birds, which might explain why they aren't attracted to the inland delights of Gainesville. But there were yet more treats: on a Saturday morning trip to Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area , our group found a male and female Painted Bunting foraging together: it was a lifer for the birder who first spotted the male; she thought at first that it was a brightly colored flower! But as usual, the little beauty and his girlfriend flew off before I could get any pictures. We also had dozens of Bobolinks—a fairly new bird for me.

Another treat of the Altamaha trip was the group I ended up carpooling with: the friendly and knowledgeable trip leader, the Painted Bunting Finder, and a guy from Athens whose non-birding-related goal was to sample barbeque in each of Georgia's 100+ counties. He loved his food, and for lunch we ended up at a dumpy-looking little roadhouse (not a barbeque) at his suggestion: everyone dug into huge baskets of perfectly fried shrimp and oysters and tankards of sweet tea (too sweet for me and the Painted Bunting Lady, who was from Ohio and unfamiliar with the weirdness that is sweet tea.) I had a fish sandwich because I was broke, but it was still pretty tasty.

After lunch, my new friends dropped me off back at the festival headquarters, at the soon-to-be-demolished-and-rebuilt Jekyll Island Convention Center. This left me an hour to kill before the seminar on shorebird ID that I had signed up for. So I wandered through the exhibit hall, looking for anything that might have changed since the previous day. I found one new thing: where the seven-layer-dip and chicken fingers had been at the previous evening's social hour, there was this:

My friends came back from their afternoon of birding just after my shorebird seminar ended. They wanted to show me around the island, and they wanted to check out the campground, which had a number of feeders and water fixtures that were known for attracting good birds. There, we saw several American Redstarts and Northern Parulas, and at the feeders and birdbath were about four female Painted Buntings!

This was very cool, and suddenly I didn't hate birds, or looking for birds, anymore. I could have stayed there for hours. But we had to leave for the banquet and keynote address (a talk on bird song by Don Kroodsma) . The talk was great, and featured several eminently quotable lines. My favorite: "Science is organized curiosity." I wish I could brand this on my students' foreheads at the start of each semester!

On Sunday, our last day at the festival, I tagged along with my friends on the trip they led, then we had lunch at one of their favorite barbeque places. On the drive back to Gainesville, we listened to the CD that accompanied Kroodsma's bird song book. The variety of songs and calls was fascinating, but for some reason it made us all quite sleepy.

Back in my friends' driveway in Gainesville, I unloaded my gear and asked how much I owed them for the hotel.

"Nothing! It's paid for since we're trip leaders," they said.

Wow. Maybe I don't suck after all. Or maybe I have some redeeming non-birding-related qualities. Either way, it's good to feel normal again.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Depths of Incompetence

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a male Summer Tanager...

Five fun facts I learned this weekend:

1. Cats are not only predators of nesting Northern Mockingbird chicks, but also take their eggs.
2. Squirrels are likewise known to feed on Mockingbird eggs.
3. Monk Parakeets build ginormous colonial nests on electric poles in south Florida, which causes birds, people, nests, and random other stuff down there to occasionally get zapped into oblivion. Many people find this problematic.
4. Ghost Crabs are major predators of Snowy Plover chicks in Florida.
5. Warbler lust can lead to physical and spiritual ruin.

I gleaned all this important information from the fall meeting of the Florida Ornithological Society , which took place this weekend here in Gainesville. If this year's meeting and last year's fall meeting in St. Augustine are any indication, FOS meetings are great fun, in a seriously weird way: they're a cross between a small birding festival and a low-budget academic conference, with a laid-back vibe unexpectedly generated by some of the most intense birdheads imaginable. Almost all the attendees were professional biologists or wildlife managers (a guy at my table at Saturday's banquet proudly showed off a scar from a California Condor bite); the few other amateur birders there other than myself all had life lists approaching four digits.

Nope, I had no idea what I was doing there, either.

Everyone else was there to either share their latest research or network with like-minded professionals. My goals were more modest: (1) to have fun and (2) to improve my birding skills by learning at the feet of the masters. Both goals were easily attainable: there was lots to do (social hours! field trips! PowerPoint presentations with lots of bar graphs! Beer in the parking lot of the hotel where FOS was held! (Don't ask...)) And the other birders there were AMAZING.

But their awesomeness didn't help me see any birds. And uncooperative migrants nearly ruined the weekend for me.

I scored a lifer on a Saturday field trip (a Magnolia Warbler) and got several good birds overall (a Blackburnian Warbler and a couple of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks), but the whole weekend, I felt hollow. I hadn't found any of these birds myself, I would never have been able to ID them by myself, as all were tiny backlit silhouettes darting through the tops of dense 4-story high trees. I could barely see most of the birds we found, let alone get any photos of them.

The thrill of the hunt is all about the satisfaction of skills rewarded, and here I was getting spoon-fed like a baby. The kind of colicky baby that gets more food on the floor than in its mouth at mealtime.

On Sunday, a kind couple from Tallahassee patiently tried to point out the Ovenbird and Hooded Warbler in the brush about 30 feet in front of us. "See that branch over there? There's another branch behind it leaning to the left and there's some Spanish moss near that? The bird's just behind it—do you see it?"

"Yes, thanks," I lied after about 10 minutes of their careful tutelage.

I was sleep-deprived, covered with bug bites, and plagued with serious warbler neck and self-loathing. The number of birds I'd actually seen and IDed myself that day was in the single digits. My big weekend of migrant hunting, which I had been looking forward to for weeks, was shot. And now all I wanted to do was crawl into a big hole into the ground.

Luckily, there was a big hole conveniently nearby: Devil's Millhopper , locally known as the Biggest Sinkhole Ever (or at least, the biggest sinkhole in the greater Gainesville area). People kept telling me that it was really awe-inspiring and worth checking out. Why? Because it was a Really Big Hole! And there are stairs leading to the bottom of it! Ooh!

The inside of Devil's Millhopper was pretty—lined with ferns and what would have been nice little waterfalls in the rainy season—but it was not the vertigo-inducing thrill-fest I had envisioned. And it wasn't all that deep either—it took me all of 10 minutes to walk to the bottom and back up again. Maybe this is exciting here in Florida, where there are no mountains or canyons to speak of, but for someone who grew up surrounded by canyons and hills, this was seriously lame. And there were no birds in there, either.

But when I emerged from the Really Big Hole, on the rim were several birders from the field trip, who had been told they had check the place out before heading home to Jacksonville or Tallahassee or wherever. We chatted, and I learned that everyone on that trip had been frustrated by the uncooperative birds—about half the group had given up and left early. So it wasn't just me.

And the trips weren't a total loss: I learned a few more cool factoids about birds and plants, and I still saw more birds with the FOS posse than I would have seen on my own.

Which begs the question: is it possible to see a negative number of birds?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lots of Stuff at Bolen Bluff

A Yellow-throated Warbler at Bolen Bluff

This month's good news on the home front is that Glenn landed an interesting-sounding freelance gig that will look great on his CV (and replenish his photo-gear budget). The bad news (for me) is that said gig is back in California and starts tomorrow—where he'll be until Thanksgiving. So much for his very first East Coast fall migration!

But before his departure, we made a point of trying to squeeze in as much birding time as possible. Last week, I took him to Morningside Nature Center to see, and photograph, a couple of birds new to him: Red-headed Woodpeckers and the locally famous Brown-headed Nuthatches, whose only regular spot in Alachua County is at Morningside.

The Red-headed Woodpeckers were noisy and abundant, giving us a morning full of good looks and pix. We found three Brown-headed Nuthatches only feet from the parking lot, squabbling with each other in a tree by some picnic tables. But they flew off before we could get any decent photos.

Glenn won't count any bird as a lifer until he gets a good sharp photo of it, so the Nuthatches remained an unattained goal. So we went back on Friday (the one day I don't teach--I made up for my day playing hooky by working most of today)--and found the park filled with people bearing leaf blowers (WHY? It's a freaking NATURE CENTER) and the birdy area where we had seen the Nuthatches the preceding week ominously surrounded by orange netting and peopled by guys in hard hats. Uh-oh. It looked like someone had decided to "improve" the park with some kind of development. At any rate, the roar of power tools and leaf blowers drove off any birds that might have been around.

So much for a quiet morning looking for Nuthatches!

We beat a quick retreat to the Bolen Bluff trail, where we figured (1) there wouldn't be any construction or a whole of lot people and (2) we'd find some warblers or other cool stuff. We were right on both counts.

On the woodsy northern part of the trail were big flocks of chattering Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice. We scanned the flocks for warblers and found an American Redstart and several Yellow-throateds.

We ran into other hikers who told us there was "lots of stuff" out on the prairie. It wasn't clear what kind of stuff they were talking about, but we went out anyhow. Just as the woods gave way to the prairie, we saw a bold little Northern Waterthrush, hopping about on the trail, bobbing its tail. The brush and trees along the edge of the prairie trail were filled with Palm, Prairie, and Yellow Warblers:

We also spotted a Northern Parula (whose presence in the open brush rather than in the woods threw us for a loop). And all through the woods on the way back to the trailhead, we could hear calling Ovenbirds. This gave us an eight-warbler morning—a good number, even if comprised of unsurprising birds.

Later, we learned from friends with connections to the park service that the work being done back at Morningside was not, as we feared, a nefarious attempt to cover the center of the park with concrete, but preparation for their annual native plant sale. And we were assured that if someone did try to pave over Morningside, there would hell to pay; there would be no way local birders and park lovers would put up with it.

It's always a happy surprise to find that not all civic authorities are short-sighted and evil. But it's sad that this should have to be surprising.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pop Quiz

At UF, there is an official policy in place for dealing with students with swine flu: Since Gators are generally hardy creatures, the university is instructing people with "typical" symptoms just to stay home and ride the thing out, rather than trudge to the student health center and risk passing the bug on to others on campus.

This, of course, makes total sense. But it is making life a living hell for faculty. Why? Because we can no longer require documentation for extended absences—and as was always the case, are not allowed to penalize students who've been legitimately ill. We're just supposed to trust that people who disappear for weeks on end are actually sick, and not flaking off. Even UF's student newspaper recognizes that this policy is ripe for abuse.

Already, one of my TAs came to my office nearly in tears, saying that she's been swamped by a deluge of three-week's-overdue assignments from random people who never told her they were sick. But now they're all claiming (possibly retroactive) swine flu. And apart from monitoring the Facebook pages of each of my 150 students to see if any good parties coincided with their absences, there's Nothing. I. Can Do. Grrr.

I can't do anything about lazy shmucks ditching my classes. But I can keep you honest. (And yes, I taking my totally non-birding-related frustration out on you.) So I'm giving you all a pop quiz: Take out a pencil and your copy of Sibley and answer the following question:

This is a photo Glenn took at Cedar Key on Sunday. There are at least three Plover species represented in this shot.

What are they?

Get to work, people!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Oh Wow! A Real Live Bird!

It was sunrise, and the Red-shouldered Hawk was in his usual tree by the boat deck at Powers Park. And he wasn't going anywhere.

Back in California, Glenn had struggled to get close-up shots of Red-shouldered Hawks. The ones we saw were always tiny rufous specks off in the distance, and skittish ones at that—if you lifted a lens in their direction 100 yards away, they'd see you and be off before you could even focus.

But not this guy. We'd seen him in that same tree, in that same spot, several weeks in a row, looking down at us disdainfully. When he wasn't in that tree, he was on the ground, only feet away. Or maybe in a nearby tree. This would have made for a perfect photo opportunity. Except for one thing.

Glenn didn't have his big lens with him, and we weren't there to take pictures. It was the Fall Migration Count, and we were there to count birds.

And thanks to our bad-ass buteo, there wasn't a songbird to be found anywhere in Powers Park. We could hear Tufted Titmice and Cardinals in the distance, and a few woodpeckers darted in and out, but no migrants were to be found. I heard a far-away Northern Parula, and a more intrepid member of our six-man/woman/child team bushwacked his way into the brush on the edge of the park and found a Kentucky Warbler, but that was it.

This had to be the lamest migration count ever. And it would only get worse.

After about three hours of hopeful but futile searching at Powers, we moved on to Gum Root Swamp, which was indeed swampy—so much so that we found ourselves stomping around in about 4 inches of brackish water for most of our time there. There, we found a couple of Yellow-billed Cuckoos, an Eastern Wood-pewee, a single American Redstart, and a Black-and-white Warbler—and, apart from a few other year-round residents, not much else. It's really sad when singles of such relatively common birds are the highlight of your count.

Then it was back to Powers Park for our lunch break. Our depressed team leaders drank beer with lunch and hoped things would improve in the afternoon. They didn't.

I've always thought that a frustrating fact about birding in Florida is that many of the bugs are as big as birds, and bird-like movements all too often turn out to be butterflies or grasshoppers. This bad photo shows how perversely large the invertebrates are out here in proportion to other critters—this spider actually has a baby gecko stuck in his web!

All at once now: Eew! Gross!

At least this was something interesting to look at. As was this Green Anole: they are native to the area, but are being pushed out by invasive Brown Anoles:

Our afternoon birding somehow managed to be even less productive than our morning attempts. But on Sunday was another day, and I spent it birding once again. A quick morning power walk through Bolen Bluff yielded a bold Ovenbird right by the trailhead, several Baltimore Orioles, a Summer Tanager, and a tree with about half a dozen Northern Parulas.

I was sure there was more to be found in there, but my time was limited: Glenn and I had reservations for Alachua Audubon's boat trip at Cedar Key. Here we enjoyed the ocean breeze and sightings of dozens of American Oystercatchers and other shorebirds:

This compensated (sort of) for Saturday's disappointment. And there will always be next weekend. And it had better not suck.

Monday, September 14, 2009

After the Deluge

Just when I think I've got things figured out here, the rules change. Shortly after moving here, I noticed that summer/autumn mornings tend to be hot and dry, and afternoons hot and rainy. One of my biologist friends told me this is because all the evaporation of the many local lakes and rivers during the morning condenses into rain clouds by afternoon—when all that moisture returns to earth in the form of rain. I've trained myself to get up at the crack of dawn for my daily run, in order to avoid the rain and heat of the afternoon.

But this weekend, things got weird. There was no rain at all on Thursday and Friday, but on Saturday, just when I really, really, wanted to go out and look for fall migrants, it rained on and off all morning. I took Glenn to Loblolly Nature Center, normally a good place during migration, and got nothing but mosquito bites and dozens of White-eyed Vireos.

Then it started to rain, and since Glenn didn't want all his photo gear to get wet, we headed back to the car.

This would have been a reasonable time to pack up and go home. But instead, we went to the Lake Wauberg entrance to Paynes Prairie State Park (I optimistically assumed the rain at Loblolly was just a local squall), where we paid $6 to get in and saw next to nothing. And got rained on again.

Saturday was shot. The drive home took us past the Bolen Bluff parking lot, empty except for a couple of familiar-looking cars. No doubt other birders braving the rain—and no doubt they were seeing boatloads of migrating wonders in there.

On Sunday morning, I woke up early to the sound of rain pounding on the roof. Great. By nine or so, it seemed to have passed, so we headed down to Bolen Bluff. It's an odd place--whenever we go, some areas are nearly silent, while others filled with the squawks and chirps of feeding flocks on the move. And the quiet and active spots are different every time.

Feeding flock #1 was in a shady, swampy, palmetto-filled area usually devoid of interesting birds. But on Sunday morning, it was noisy with calling Ovenbirds and singing Yellow Warblers, along with various more prosaic hangers-on. But all were too fast, and too deep in the brush, for any photos. Our consolation for missing good shots of the warblers was a sighting of a bright male Summer Tanager, perched fairly low on a branch hanging across the trail in front of us:

Feeding flock #2 was a crazy combination of everything: White-eyed Vireos, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and Downy Woodpeckers were all feeding together, albeit peevishly—I know one shouldn't anthopomorphize animals, but their sharp warning calls whenever anyone else got close definitely suggested they didn't welcome each other's company. In this flock of residents were a large number of Northern Parulas, a couple of Yellow-throated Warblers, and a couple of Black-and-white warblers.

As we were heading back to the trailhead, we ran into one of the local birding hotshots, who told us he had seen a Blackburnian Warbler there the day before (aha! So his was one of the vaguely familiar cars in the lot!), and had a female/immature Chestnut-sided Warbler that morning. Both of which, (naturally) we missed. Later, I found out from the grapevine that this guy had seen 12 warblers on the morning we saw him! And he was, characteristically, too polite to brag about this in our presence. Because we suck as birders and there was really no need for him to rub it in.

Well, at least we got this guy.

Monday, September 7, 2009

There's Always 'Fun' in Fungus

This is not a bird, but it's still kind of cool. Whatever it it.

It's the last official weekend of summer, and everyone I knew is getting some.

On their blogs and tweets and by e-mail, they brag about how great it is, and how surely everyone must be getting some--it's a three-day weekend, they say, and there are a lot of people out there looking for the exact same thing as you. So if you're not getting any, it's your fault for not trying.

On a weekend like this, if you don't get outside and find some good migrating warblers, you are a sorry-ass loser.

I'm pleased to report I'm not a TOTAL sorry-ass loser. But despite three mornings spent craning my neck at weird angles while peering at microscopic, backlit flying objects in the tops of 4-story-trees, my weekend count was disappointingly low. I did get one lifer—a Blue-winged Warbler at San Felasco Hammock—but apart from that, only the usual suspects in tinier than expected numbers: tons of Northern Parulas, a single Prothonotory Warbler, a couple of Yellow-throated Warblers and Ovenbirds, a nice big flock of Yellow Warblers, and a single immature American Redstart. And all of these successfully eluded our attempts to get decent photos of them.

So my consolation eye candy for this week is something else that's kept me occupied on the trails: the strange and colorful mushrooms that have been popping up after the heavy rains of the last few weeks.

The variety of mushrooms out here is far bigger and more dramatic than back in California: in the coastal scrub of southern California, most life forms—birds, insects, and mushrooms (when it's wet enough to support them)—are beige or brown, like the surrounding sand and rocks. Here, plants and animals are much brighter, like this Day-Glo orange shroom:

Just as alien to me as bright orange mushrooms were these green mushrooms, which look almost like misplaced leaves growing from strange angles out of the tree trunk:

Here are some lacy white ones. I don't know the names of any of these varieties, nor do I know if they are poisonous or not:

These cute little red things, however, just look poisonous to me. Or at the very least, seriously hallucinogenic.

For some reason, I couldn't get my camera to allow a closer shot of these (nor the other, equally cool-looking red mushroom with white dots that I spotted last week). And as I mentioned, I don't know the proper names for any of these varieties. Any ID help will be gratefully accepted!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Eat It Up

Bon Appetit!

Small birds lead grueling lives: from the moment they pop out into the world as fertilized eggs, they are in risk of turning into someone else's lunch. When they're not worrying about getting eaten themselves, they are either migrating, mating (or engaged in stressful mating-related activities such as fighting for territory or fighting off potential competitors)—or eating.

A knowledgeable source told me that warblers typically eat their weight in insects every day. I haven't gotten around to independently confirming this, but if it's anywhere near true, the only people who should ever be told to "eat like a bird" are sumo wrestlers. And maybe this guy.

During migration, appetites increase as birds fuel up for consecutive all-nighters of flight to the Southern Hemisphere. Last spring, a flock of Chipping Sparrows ate their little way through a 4-cup-capacity feeder-full of seed at my place every day for about three weeks before taking off for points north. Their company was getting quite expensive.

Now the birds are heading back south and some have deigned to stop in Gainesville. Not too many of these, however, have deigned to allow themselves to be seen by me this weekend. One of the more cooperative ones was this Black-and-white Warbler, grabbing one of many juicy snacks by the Bolen Bluff Trail in Paynes Prairie State Park:

This Red-eyed Vireo wasn't eating at the moment, but most likely, he or she was thinking about it. How do I know this? Hey, this is the internet—it has to be true!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Mellow Yellow

Hood birds are good birds!

This week brought the best and worst of fall: The migrant warblers are finally starting to move through Gainesville, filling the trees and brush with tantalizing little flashes of yellow. But just as all the good birds arrive, so does a new academic year. Today all hell broke loose another year of inquiry and discovery began at UF, which means my weekdays will be filled with wall-to-wall classes and meetings, and my weekends with grading and administration. And of course, during the summer when my schedule is totally flexible, there's NOTHING OUT THERE but House Finches.

Nature is cruel.

My last weekend of summer vacation was a perfect way to segue into fall: On Friday night, I was hanging out wondering where to bird on Saturday, when a friend called and asked if we'd like to join her at San Felasco in the morning. This was a perfect choice: we had been the previous week and seen some tantalizing hints of the fall wonders to come (first of season Yellow-throated Warblers and American Redstarts), and another week of migration and another pair of eyes could only make the birding better.

And it was: after a slow start ("Why did we come here??") we saw flashes of non-leaf-like movement in the trees. A fat brownish bird that we thought was an early Hermit Thrush hopped in front of us for a moment, then darted into the brush. In a nearby tree several small birds flitted promisingly: we raised out bins and found five different warblers: a Northern Parula, a Prothonotory, a Black-and-white, an American Redstart, and a male Hooded—the latter a lifer for Glenn, and the first really bright male for me! Awesome, dramatic-looking birds.

We also saw another interesting yellow bird: this time, not a warbler, but some bigger bird, with faint washes of reddish orange on it. A female something-or-another. Later that evening, another friend IDed it as a female Summer Tanager:

It's great having Glenn out here: now I don't have to come home to an empty house every evening, and I get to relive the thrill of seeing all the East Coast birds for the first time all over again. (And I get infinitely better photos to use here!) One of the most common year-round residents here is also one of the prettiest: the White-eyed Vireo, a fairly new bird for Glenn:

Can't wait to see what else fall migration brings in—if only I get enough time to get out and enjoy it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Moving Experience

Fresh Start: A juvenile Northern Cardinal checks out our new place.

I hate boxes.

I hate stepping around them. I hate taping them together. I hate filling them with stuff, then lugging them down multiple flights of stairs and wondering how I'll fit them into my car.

I hate finding them in odd corners, opening them and finding my life's belongings wrapped up in 10-year-old pages from defunct alternative newspapers, which reminds me how pathetic and old I'm getting. I hate wondering where they are, and once finding them, trying to figure out where to put them next.

And this is all I've done all summer. Moving SUCKS. Glenn has finally moved out to Gainesville to join me, but this meant (1) moving out of our place in California, where 10 years of random crap had prodigiously, yet stealthily, accumulated, (2) simultaneously moving out of my tiny pied-a-terre in Gainesville, which was too small for all this stuff, and (3) moving INTO a bigger place in Gainesville. Orthogonally related to all this was (4) sorting through and discarding tons of stuff from my high school and college years still at my parents' place, in preparation for their possible (but not imminent) move. My heart nearly broke as I shredded dozens of absolutely hilarious letters from my sophomore roommate and my freshman-boyfriend-who-turned-out-to-be-gay. The idea of paying for and dealing with yet another moving box was just too awful.

All this misery came to a head last weekend, when both Glenn and the movers arrived at our new place. Between packing and unpacking stuff, watching poor Glenn do battle with both jet lag and an uncooperative wireless router, and trying to figure out WHY our Florida renters' insurance policy costs four times more than our old policy in California ("This is Florida", was the best answer my insurance agent could come up with), I haven't had much time for birding or blogging. Yup, it sucks to be me.

But the payoff for all this stress is significant: Among the charms of our new place are much-improved backyard birding opportunities. The feeder at my old place attracted a fair number of birds, but was in a thoroughly dismal location:

Here's the same feeder now: near real live trees!

We already have a number of Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees coming by regularly:

A family of Northern Cardinals (an adult male and female and two juveniles) comes by several times a day as well—at my old place, it took about three months for the birds to warm up to my feeder.

There are also a lot of Carolina Wrens, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and Blue Jays in the area that we hope will drop by: we've put up a suet feeder and a hummingbird feeder to make the place more interesting for them.

Meanwhile, fall migration is slowly but surely starting up. We went by Palm Point Park yesterday in search of migrant warblers, and found a Black-and-white Warbler and several Prothonotary Warblers. The Prothonotary was a lifer for Glenn:

At San Felasco Hammock State Park this morning, we saw Yellow-throated Warblers, Northern Parulas, Worm-eating Warblers, American Redstarts, and a Black-and-white Warbler. The park was quite birdy (and buggy); I'm sure there were a lot of good birds in there that we missed.

And back home, there's almost always something flitting about in the back yard. There's nothing like the company of birds to make a random building filled with half-empty boxes feel like home.