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!