Saturday, February 21, 2009

And Then There Was One

Where it began: Wood Storks at Lake Wauberg, by the southern end of Paynes Prairie.

This is a story of life and loss, and it began and ended this morning at Lake Wauberg.

I've been meaning the check the place out for a while, and this morning I finally did. After paying the $3 admission fee at the main entrance to Paynes Prairie State Park (one of the things that had been keeping me away—yes, I'm that cheap), I drove slowly towards the lake, slowing down to watch herds of deer grazing by the side of the road.

I parked the car and birded the wooded area by the parking lot before heading to the water. I found a loud feeding flock filled with scolding Carolina Wrens and a good mix of warblers: a couple of Black and Whites, a Yellow-throated, and an Ovenbird.

The boardwalk trail by the edge of the lake was beautiful: right off the boardwalk were the two Wood Storks above, calmly preening at the water's edge. Double-crested Cormorants and Pie-billed Grebes dove in and out of the water, and flocks of White Pelicans were everywhere:

At the far end of the boardwalk was a grassy picnic area, where I saw two Bald Eagles flying overhead, and several Wild Turkeys on the ground. Here's one of them:

The Wild Turkey was one of my nemesis birds when I first moved out here. My weekly near-miss encounters with them invariably went something like this:

OTHER BIRDER: Oh look! Wild Turkeys!
ME: Oh wow, where??
OTHER BIRDER: RIght over--oops, now they're gone.

Now I can't complain any more.

On the way back over the boardwalk, I spotted a Marsh Wren and a Swamp Sparrow in the marshy area at the lake's edge. There were also a couple of noisy catbirds, eating berries and harassing each other. Here's one of them.

And then there were the Wood Storks again. One of them was in pretty much the same area where I had left him about 45 minutes before. But the other?

All that remained was a single wing, lying on top of the water, to the left of the surviving bird. I'm guessing he or she became breakfast for some hungry alligator—the Wood Storks seem too big for the local raptors to take out.

And the remaining Wood Stork? Still there, doing what it has to do. He or she has obviously moved on.

Nature's life lessons can be ugly, but they bear repeating. Treasure the fleeting gift that is your life. Don't waste time looking backwards.

And pay attention to those "No Swimming" signs at Lake Wauberg. They're there for a good reason.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Yard Birds

I woke up early on Saturday morning, looking forward to a long morning of birding. But I woke up to rain, and ended up spending much of the morning inside (gaah! ) grading problem sets.

My one weekend-ish diversion was watching birds swarming at my feeder all morning. I'd noticed that for most of the preceding week, there had been more birds at the feeder than usual, and I've found myself having to refill the thing more frequently than ever. A biologist friend told me why: at this time of year, birds are either fattening up in preparation for migration, or in preparation for breeding.

I managed to get a few shots of my visitors while stuck indoors; I only managed to process them now. The shots are a little fuzzy because I took them through a window screen, but the birds allowed surprisingly close looks. I got both male and female Northern Cardinals (I suspect these are a pair); I never tire of seeing these.

My feeder is stocked with a sunflower seed/peanut mix, but it still attracts Carolina Wrens, which I thought were insectivores. There may well be bugs in the feeder, but I've seen the wrens extracting and cracking seeds as well. They are noisy and aggressive, and like to chase off other birds at the feeder:

Here's a Caroline Chickadee doing a pole dance on the support holding up the feeder. I've noticed just about all the birds that frequent my yard doing this:

As I sat facing the window, simultaneously grading and waiting for a good photo op, I kept hoping something more exotic would show up. Then I remembered that most of the birds that frequent my feeder—Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens—would have been lifers for me just six months ago.

Around 9:00 on Saturday morning, the swarm of birds grew even bigger, and I realized this was because the rain had stopped. So I put down my red pen, picked up my bins, and went out to see what I could see.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Neighboring Migrants

What, precisely, are the beef being taught here?

When I came to Gainesville, I moved sight-unseen into my apartment, which I chose primarily for its cheapness, and because the leasing office assured me that it was quiet—no giant undergraduate keg parties on weekends. I must have been lucky the day I chose the place: it's tiny and a bit of a dump, but it's convenient to campus, and within walking distance of both a well-stocked Indian grocery AND a Chinese/Korean grocery, so I never need to go without fresh curry leaves or black bean sauce.

Even better, it's near a minor birding hotspot: a series of cow pastures owned by the University of Florida's Animal Science department, mysteriously named the "Beef Teaching Unit." This leads me to think that they're either trying to teach the cattle something (what??), or even weirder, having them teach UF students. (I guess this could be one way for UF to deal with its budget issues...)

Do I look like I give extra credit?

The fields are always a reliable place to find Cattle Egrets (duh), but their main claim to fame is Sandhill Cranes in the winter. In the mornings since mid-December, I've been seeing the cranes flying overhead or hearing them in the distance whenever I step outside. When I'm driving around running errands, or doing my afternoon run, I see them feeding alongside the cattle:

The Sandhill Cranes at Paynes Prairie have, for the most part, already set off on their northward migration to their breeding territories. It won't be long before these guys do the same. But for now, I'm enjoying the sight and sound of these big, wild, noisy birds. I can only guess what the beef have been teaching them.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Million Sparrows (and Ospreys and Gators)

My neighbor the Chipping Sparrow

At the Catholic high school I attended, we used to sing a song during liturgy services that included the lines "You are worth a million sparrows/ sheltered by the Lord." Even though I wasn't a birder at the time, I wondered about the math behind this equivalency: which bored Vatican bureaucrats came up with this? What's wrong with sparrows, anyhow?

Before I started birding, I thought sparrows were boring (after all, the insignificance of sparrows is officially enshrined in Catholic theology!) When I first started birding, I found sparrows—and the endless identification problems they posed—utterly terrifying.

And this weekend, they were all I wanted to see.

Some visitors last week set my sparrow lust in motion; a large flock of Chipping Sparrows discovered my feeder, and has been keeping me entertained (and dangerously distracted from work) for hours on end. I'd seen these birds only a couple of times back in California, and close-up in my tiny yard, it's easy to see how colorful they are. (They're also quite gluttonous—one day last week, I watched a fat little guy perched at the feeder, calmly eating sunflower seeds for about 5 minutes. I left the room to brush my teeth—and when I came back, about three minutes later, he was still there!)

The other bird I've been trying in vain to find is the White-throated Sparrow. Around here, the White-crowned Sparrows are supposed to be (relatively) uncommon, while the White-throated Sparrows are regular wintering birds. But so far this winter, I've seen numerous White-crowneds and no White-throateds (which would be a life bird for me).

Yesterday, I ran into a birder at La Chua who knew I had been trying to find White-throated Sparrows—he said he'd seen a flock just minutes before, and was nice enough to walk with me back to where they had been. And of course, once we got there, they were gone.

Still, it was a great day out--we saw a pair of Ospreys mating, and about four American Bitterns hunting in the water. But I still wanted my sparrows.

So today, I broke my pledge to go somewhere other than La Chua, and headed back there again. Everyone had been seeing those darned sparrows there but me. My friend from yesterday said he has the best luck finding them early in the morning, so I got there just before 8 and started looking.

Already, it seems that winter is ceding its way to spring. The Sandhill Crane flocks were thinning out as the birds started heading north to their breeding grounds (according to park rangers, they'll be gone by next week), and the little thicket of plum trees where the White-throated Sparrows had been seen was already in bloom.

The nesting Ospreys were still there; here's one of them on its nest:

The little plum tree thicket was quiet except for a couple of Orange-crowned Warblers, so I worked my way towards the prairie. There, of course, were the White-crowned Sparrows, the now-resident Harris' Sparrow, and half a dozen or so migrant birders following in his wake. The Harris' Sparrow is quite bold: today, he was feeding on the ground with the White-crowned Sparrows, and got within 10 feet of me! (But of course he flew the minute I reached for my camera!)

I saw a flock of sparrows moving back towards the trailhead, and decided to follow them. Back among the plum trees, I finally found what I came for: a flock of White-throated Sparrows! They were darting about through the trees quite quickly, but a few got close enough for good looks. None of my photos are suitable for public consumption, unfortunately.

The weather started getting warm; a real change from the sub-freezing temperatures of the past week. The alligators were out, taking full advantage of the sunshine. I like how this guy made a custom-fitted little niche for himself among the lotuses:

So I finally got what I was looking for—my long-sought White-throated Sparrows and a third good look at the Harris' Sparrow. I'm not sure if I'm worth a million sparrows, but a few good sparrows can make you feel like a million.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Conspicuous Absence of Sparrows

What's wrong with this bird?

Look closely at the photo above: this is the infamous Harris' Sparrow that has been wintering in Gainesville, near the head of the La Chua Trail of Paynes Prairie State Park.

Look closer: what's that white line on its back? It's...the paper backing behind the photo (the nice contouring shadow is from me standing in front of it as the sun shone on me from behind). Some wise guy or gal (yet to be identified) pasted a life-size photo of Gainesville's only celebrity not named Tebow in the middle of the little bare tree where the REAL Harris' Sparrow has been most often seen.

Ha, ha, ha.

Well, seeing this (actually, having it pointed out to me by another birder) was pretty much the highlight of my birding weekend. Which was odd, as I managed to score two lifers this weekend. This is a good number for two mornings' worth of birding—but for some reason, it felt as though the birding scene around here was kind of dull.

On Saturday, I went back to La Chua Trail, on the hunt for White-throated Sparrows (dipped on these), as well as the Harris' Sparrow and Whooping Cranes (dipped on these, too). There had also been sightings of a Ross' Goose out there the day before, but I dipped on this as well—as did every other birder I encountered out there.

But the Sandhill Cranes were still out in numerous and noisy force, snarfing away happily at anything and everything:

At this tine of year, La Chua Trail is quite the meet-and-greet place for nature lovers of all persuasions—everyone loves those cranes! Over the past few weeks, I've run into several of my University of Florida colleagues there, as well as le tout Gainesville of the birding community. Never in a million years would I have considered putting "birding" and "professional networking opportunity" in the same sentence, but it's something to do when the birds are scarce...

Today was the much-anticipated Alachua Audubon field trip to Persimmon Point, an area of Paynes Prairie usually closed to the public and supposedly a great spot for winter sparrows. I say "supposedly" because once we made the two-mile hike up there (on a very pretty trail, which we spent regrettably little time birding), we ended up seeing three sparrows. Not three species of sparrows. Three sparrows. Period.

And this was after the trip leaders had us slog in a long horizontal line through fields of 3-foot-high broom sedge, blackberry bushes, briars, and prickly pears in order to flush out the swarms of sparrows allegedly hidden within.

We did manage to scare up a flock of Bobwhites—the first of my two lifers—but they flew off before I could get any photos or get a good look at them.

Our trip leaders were flummoxed, and had no explanation for the strange absence of sparrows up there. So we retreated back towards the lower part of the prairie where—finally—a less-common sparrow, a Grasshopper Sparrow, deigned to appear for us. This was Lifer #2 for me: Yes, I know this photo blows chunks; the little guy was quite sedate and sat in one spot for several minutes, but wasn't quite close enough for a real beauty shot:

So now I know how to pick a Grasshopper Sparrow out of a lineup, and I know the call of a Bobwhite Ia little like a truncated California Quail call So it really wasn't such a boring weekend after all.

And a weekend of boring birding is always better than a weekend of no birding at all.