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.