Monday, March 30, 2009

Best. Spring Break. Ever. (Part 4)

A Roseate Spoonbill near Merritt Island

Popular wisdom says the world is getting more homogenized by the moment: regional differences in speech, food, and architecture are fading away, and one place in the developed world is pretty much like any other.

But birds tell another story. Merritt Island is only a two-hour drive from Gainesville, yet the landscape and birds are noticeably different. In the real world, little distances mean a lot.

Gainesville, I discovered soon after moving here, has more in common bird-wise with the temperate zones of the American Southeast than with the tropical environment of southern Florida. We don't get flamingos or Snail Kites (or only do so rarely), but backyard woodland birds common here—such as Tufted Titmice—are apparently rare south of Orlando. So our short trip ever-so-slightly to the south gave us taste of what blingy, tropical South Florida is supposed to look like.

On our third day on the Space Coast, we got up (again) at the crack of dawn to spend the morning birding with Glenn's friend Harry. Our trip yielded a large number of Roseate Spoonbills—a prototypical big pretty Florida bird that rarely occurs in Gainesville. (Oddly enough, this WASN"T a lifer for us—a wayward Spoonbill somehow made its way to Orange County (CA) last year.)

Egrets were nesting everywhere, and we saw lots of babies, such as these tiny Great Egrets (the ultimate oxymoron):

Before Harry left us the end of our morning foray, he suggested that we check out the Orlando Wetlands Park if we were up for more birding in the afternoon. As usual, his judgement was impeccable: when we arrived there, we encountered another carful of birders on their way out. They told us happily that they had just gotten 63 species.


The Orlando Wetlands (like the Viera Wetlands and my hometown birding touchstone, the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary back in southern Califoirnia), is a series of ponds intended to filter water before its re-entry and use in civic water systems. Unlike Viera, the Orlando Wetlands wasn't filled with photographers (though it holds just as many photo-worthy treasures). And unlike San Joaquin, it WAS filled with signs warning visitors to stay away from the resident alligators.

But like both of these places, the Orlando Wetlands was filled with nice surprises. A bird I had been trying to get since moving to Florida—and that had up to now eluded me—was the Purple Gallinule. (The closest I've come so far has been running into really old people who still refer to Comnon Moorhens as "Gallinules", which drives me nuts.) Several people have insisted that these could be found (in certain seasons) in Gainesville, but I have yet to see one there. But today we got lucky again, and I got my fourth lifer of our trip!

We also got good views of Bald Eagles hunting, as well as a Wood Stork (a lifer for Glenn), and both American and Least Bitterns. We also had the only-in-Florida experience of encountering an alligator (about 5 feet long) basking on the edge of the path in front of us. (The path was a raised berm separating two of the bird-filled filtration ponds.) The gator seemed to be asleep, but we debated whether or not to work our way discreetly past it, or turn around. In the end we decided to forge ahead, with Glenn wielding his tripod as a potential deterrent.

And the gator slept peacefully through our passage. We wouldn't make very good eating anyways.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Best. Spring Break. Ever. (Part 3)

Everything looks better at the Viera Wetlands.

Spring break in Florida doesn't necessarily mean endless frozen Daquiris and sleeping till noon.

Or so I discovered two Fridays ago, when my alarm clock clanged to life at 4:45 a.m. in our hotel room in Titusville. I somehow made it out of bed, got my contact lenses in and struggled to figure out how to work the incredibly cheesy little coffee maker in our room. But this was all going to be worthwhile, because we headed to the Viera Wetlands, where we were going to meet up at 6:30 with one of Glenn's friend and fellow photographer Harry for a day of birding and shooting.

The Viera Wetlands, about a 40 minute drive south of Merritt Island, was another one of Glenn's grail sites. Like the San Joaquin Marsh back in southern California, Viera is a system of filtration ponds owned by the local water district that just happens to attract a large number of wading birds. Both sites are beloved by nature photographers, both for the rich variety of birds present and by the relative ease with which they can be viewed: visitors at both sites travel along elevated dikes separating the ponds, which allow unobstructed views of bird activity only feet away. At sunrise—when we arrived—it was clear why this place was so popular: even ordinary birds looked spectacular.

Harry lived close by, and had been scoping the place out for us in the preceding days. There was a lot of nesting activity, he reported, but unfortunately, he hadn't seen any Limpkins, one of the birds we told him we wanted to find there. But only minutes after arriving, we saw what we thought to be a Glossy Ibis obscured in the reeds at the edge of one of the ponds. Then it moved into the open...

Yay! This guy must have arrived after Harry's last inspection—or somehow managed to slip under his radar. Over the course of the day, we'd see several more Limpkins. They're not flashy birds, but unusual and fun to watch—and our third lifer of the trip.

As Harry promised, there was tons of nesting activity. The ponds were filled with the tall trunks of dead trees, and each of these seemed to contain a heron's or egret's nest. We got good looks at a nesting male Anhinga watching after his two chicks:

The chicks were clearly hungry, and were constantly pecking at their father and craning their necks for food. But Dad was either unwilling or unable to feed them. We waited a while for Mom to return—hopefully, with a belly full of food for sharing—but after half an hour it was still just Dad and the kids. So we moved on.

The other creatures that appeared in large numbers were photographers, all bearing cameras with very large lenses. Harry seemed to know all of them, and Glenn recognized several of them from the online forums he participates in:

It's not the size, it's what you do with it.

We explored the ponds from 6:30 until noon, returned to Harry's place and ordered a pizza for lunch, then returned for some afternoon shooting.

By 5:30, the sun was sinking and a new crop of sunset photographers and birders was arriving. But we were exhausted and suffering from sensory overload: our Limpkins had gone into hiding, but we discovered that Least Bitterns were lurking in just about every thick clump of reeds. We also spotted two Caracaras (a lifer for Glenn), an armadillo, and a large raptor we couldn't identify.

We had squeezed just about every possible bird, every possible neat thing out of those ponds in our one long day there. Not since crossing the finish line of my one-and-only marathon (so far) have I felt so good being completely wiped out.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Best. Spring Break. Ever. (Part 2)

How to get ahead in Florida Scrub Jay conservation.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is known as a mecca for birders and bird photographers. Glenn had wanted to go there in the biggest way, and had signed up for an instructional photo tour there last year. Unfortunately, he had to back out for work-related reasons. But we knew that we'd make it there someday—and that day was now upon us.

Had we been really hard-core birders, we would have left Gainesville before sunrise to arrive at Merritt Island at first light, for the best birding and shooting opportunities. But (1) we were on VACATION, which means the right to sleep in; and (2) we had a whole three days planned in the area. So when we pulled into the parking lot of the refuge's somewhat touristy Visitor's Center, it was almost 1 p.m. Truly disgraceful by serious birding standards.

The first thing we did upon arriving was ask about recent bird sightings. "Oh, there's an Osprey nest you can see from that scope out on the boardwalk, " said a friendly volunteer at the information desk. "And the Painted Buntings are still around. See, there's one now!"

She pointed her chin at a feeder just outside the window behind her desk. A little blur of red and blue and green flitted about, then shot off.

No way!


I thought my odds of getting a Painted Bunting here were pretty good (they are known to winter here regularly), but I figured I'd have to work at it. And here we were, getting one of the best lifers ever only five minutes after arriving. During the birding doldrums of the lunch hour. In the freaking gift shop of the visitor center.

This was just too easy.

We got our cameras from the car, and camped out at a close-but-respectable distance from the feeder, waiting for the bird to return. The volunteer said it had been flying in and out fairly regularly over the past few days, and we hoped we'd get lucky again.

And we did--within 10 minutes, a female flew in. She's not nearly as flashy as her male counterpart, but that shade of green is still pretty flashy compared to the subdued greys and browns of typical backyard birds.

Her companion returned a few minutes later, to the delight of the small crowd of birders who had gathered to wait with us.

We explored the wooded area surrounding the visitor's center, where I got my first sighting of a non-road-klll armadillo. They look much cuter moving around in one piece than rotting by the roadside in two or three!

I used to think that armadillos got hit by cars so often because they rolled up into balls in the middle of the road at the sight of these large "predators". But a local birder/biologist told me that in reality, their instinct in such a situation is to jump about a foot into the air. While this may be effective in discouraging normal animal predators, it unfortunately puts the poor armadillos—SLAM!—right at bumper/front grill height of any oncoming car. Yikes.

The trails were thick were birders, and word was spreading that Florida Scrub Jays had been numerous and easy to find along the appropriately named Scrub Trail, a few miles away. This was another bird we really wanted to see, so off we went. And this was one of those lucky occasions in which popular wisdom and gossip actually contain useful information, as the photo above can attest.

(The guy in the photo wasn't trying to attract the birds—he wasn't feeding them and wasn't even pishing. But for whatever reason, they just decided on their own that he'd make a good perch.)

Florida Scrub Jays look almost exactly like the uber-common Western Scrub Jays, which are known for monopolizing West Coast bird feeders. Unlike their western counterparts, however, Florida Scrub-Jays are seriously endangered. There's not much scrub land left in Florida, and the birds have not adapted well to human encroachment. This is ironic, since as the photo above shows, they're not terribly afraid of people. Maybe they should be.

Most of Merritt Island was closed off because of the upcoming Space Shuttle launch (Cape Canaveral and the launch site are only a short distance south of the reserve). Some of the space geeks we met told us that there might also be a few other rocket launches before the shuttle took off, so there was a chance we' d get to see one of these. We hoped we would: there's no shortage of interesting things in the skies above the Space Coast.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Best. Spring Break. Ever. (Part 1)

Look at this guy. Really. Just look at him. Then look in the mirror and ask yourself how you could possibly deserve to share a planet with a creature this gorgeous.

And once you've scraped your jaw back off the floor, take a deep breath and try to convince a non-birder that Painted Buntings are not exotics imported from the jungles of Borneo, but fellow Americans: they winter in Florida and summer in Texas and Oklahoma, according to The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America .

My week-long spring break was filled with such wonders. After my brief trip to California, Glenn followed me back to Gainesville for two weeks of Florida birding and bird photography. Upon arriving at my place, he immediately scored four lifers: Northern Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees, and Tufted Titmice were flocking my feeder, along with the usual flock of Chipping Sparrows.

I couldn't wait to show him everything I'd seen. Normally, I love birding alone, but it's sad to see something great and have nobody to share it with, and I've had too many sad moments birding in Gainesville. So I planned a dream day of photographer-friendly birding for our first full day together in Florida: a morning at Lake Wauberg, in the southern part of Paynes Prairie State Park , followed by a break for the excellent pizza at nearby Blue Highway in Micanopy, then an afternoon looking at gators and waders at La Chua Trail.

As we entered the park and headed towards Lake Wauberg, we saw a large herd of deer and a flock of Wild Turkeys (another lifer for Glenn) just off the side of the road. Things were looking good. In the trees by the lake, I heard an insistent drone of an unfamiliar song, and discovered that the Northern Parulas were back in force. To Glenn's frustration, they stayed high in the treetops, resisting most of our attempts to photograph them. This was the best I could do:

We spent a couple of hours at the boardwalk by the lake, watching Bald Eagles, Anhingas, and Grey Catbirds—all typical birds around here, but uncommon or non-existent back in California.

The birding at La Chua was unremarkable, but still fun: we got there around 2:30, and most of the herons and egrets seemed to have gone missing, but the afternoon sun brought out a jaw-dropping inventory of reptiles: dozens of turtles of all shapes and sizes, alligators ranging in size from 8 inches to 8 feet, and ponds covered with slithering black water snakes. Here's a soft-shelled turtle with a very odd nose:

We were the last ones to leave the park before it closed (the ranger locked the gate behind us as we pulled out of the parking lot). But just before leaving, I stopped by the horse barn near the trailhead to look for the now-resident Harris' Sparrow, which I thought would be a great treat for Glenn—and he found it before I did! Yet another lifer for him.

After leaving La Chua, we dropped by the Paynes Prairie overlook off Highway 441 to see if anything interesting was coming in as the sun set. The area sounded birdy, and there seemed to be flying critters everywhere. Unfortunately, a preponderance of these were mosquitos, so we beat a quick retreat for home.

It had been a day of doing things I'd done a million times before since moving out here, but it was the most fun I've ever had here. Having someone to share the fun with makes all the difference.

And in the next few days, the birding was only going to get better.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Weekend of Feasts

This lucky Red-shouldered Hawk, like me, spent much of its weekend near Batiquitos Lagoon just north of San Diego, eating.

My father's 80th (!) birthday is in a few weeks, and since UF's spring break is this week, the rest of my California-based family decided to hold a big weekend celebration for him now, the only time I'd be free to travel. Dad grew up in a family of restaurateurs and loves a good meal, and appropriately enough, we spent the greater part of the weekend eating.

The first feast of the weekend was lunch on Friday: my parents picked me up at LAX and we drove straight to Little Saigon to check out a place I'd been thinking of trying for months. (We were headed towards San Diego, so this was not out of our way.) We had amazing, crackling-crisp egg rolls and a crazy-good sizzling fish with dill and turmeric, all served with huge piles of fresh herbs, rice crackers, noodles, and various sauces. We had no idea how these components were supposed to be combined, nor did we know what the proper etiquette was for doing this—but no matter, it was tasty.

We arrived at our weekend pied-à-terre, the Four Seasons Aviara (one of my sisters works for them and we got a huge discount). Even better than the overwhelming poshness of the place was its location: within walking distance of Batiquitos Lagoon, one of my favorite birding spots in San Diego County.

But first there was dinner at a cute little French bistro with the extended clan, who had all gotten into town about the same time.

Glenn and I got up early on Saturday morning, and snuck out for a sunrise bird walk at Batiquitos. My first trip there, for a Sea and Sage Audubon field trip two years ago, gave me my first-ever sightings of a Hermit Warbler, Western Tanager, and Spotted Towhee, so I have fond memories of the place.

Saturday was a gorgeous morning, crisply cool and clear, but the bird assortment was still more winter than spring—lots of American Wigeons, White-crowned Sparrows, and Townsend's Warblers. The heron/egret rookery at the south end of the lagoon trail was still quiet--no nesting activity yet. The only new spring arrival we got was a single Warbling Vireo.

Then we returned to our villa at the Four Seasons and ate a huge bacon-and-egg breakfast with the family while playing Wii tennis and Wii bowling. My parents are actually pretty good at Wii bowling. Go figure.

This was followed by errands (and lunch) at the outlet malls in Carlsbad, followed by a couple of hours of (real) tennis, followed by the "official" birthday dinner and a slide show (with cake and champagne) assembled by one of my sisters.

Sunday morning featured brunch at the hotel before we all checked out and went our separate ways.

And now I'm back in Gainesville, after a red-eye out of LAX and a connecting flight on a tiny puddle-jumper. And Glenn is finally here with me! He'll be here for two weeks; since I'm not teaching this week, we plan to get some serious birding in.

Let the fun begin!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

(Nearly) 100 Birds

Winter is on its way out.

I'm still not used to the rhythm of the seasons out here. Back in California, winter (what there was of it) ceded its way gradually to spring: days and nights got gradually warmer, the hills would shift from pale green to the bright yellow and purple and pink of wildflowers. And of course, the White-crowned Sparrows would gradually drift off to their breeding grounds, and Western Tanagers, Bullock's and Hooded Orioles, and Hermit Warblers would take their place in the hearts and minds of local birders.

And here? For the past few weeks, it seemed as if spring and winter had been duking it out in some cosmic battle for control. When I leave the house in the morning, temperatures are in the 30s or low 40s. When I get back in the afternoon, they're in the 80s. Today, I met with an out-of-town consultant in my office, and he said that when he arrived in Gainesville yesterday, he wondered why everyone was wandering around in short sleeves while lugging around heavy winter coats. After spending a night here, he figured out why.

I'm not sure what the migration rhythm of the local birds is supposed to be like out here, either. Someone told me that spring tends to start early in Florida, but I haven't seen any interesting migrant birds yet. Still, I've been hearing a lot more singing--probably year-round residents whose songs I haven't figured out yet—and there are definitely signs of nesting activity. On a nearly bird-less walk on Sunday, I found this nest hole: from the freshness of the leaves, it must have been settled fairly recently:

In the meantime, there have been reports that the local wintering birds are starting to take off. Most of the Sandhill Cranes have left Paynes Prairie, but some still remain in the field across the street from my place. Local birders have also reported that the number of wintering Chipping Sparrows at their feeders is starting to decline. I suspect that this is because they are now all at MY feeder!

For the past few weeks, I've had a noticeable uptick in birds in my little courtyard. Usually, I need to refill the feeder about once every 10 days or so. Last month, this interval dropped to once every week. And on Monday I left the house with the feeder three-fourths full, and came home to find it almost completely empty!

At first, I was angry; I figured one of my neighbors or some maintenance person took umbrage at the idea of the thing and emptied it out of spite. But only minutes after I refilled it, about a dozen chippers lunged at it, followed by a pair of Northern Cardinals, dive-bombing Carolina Wrens, and scolding Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice.

For the last few days, I've been coming home to an empty feeder, which would be swarmed as soon as I refilled it and stepped out of the courtyard. Yesterday afternoon, a pair of Carolina Chickadees were perched in a tree just above me, scolding me loudly as I refilled the feeder: "Hurry up, we're hungry here!" they seemed to be saying.

In many Chinese homes (including my parents' place) hangs a large painting or embroidery featuring dozens of stylized birds--there are supposed to be 100 of them. Having 100 birds at your house, according to tradition, is supposed to be a sign of good luck.

I already feel lucky to have the little guys around. But I do hope that they'll bring me more; they're eating me out of house and home!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Good Shots From Far Away

This weekend's birding was both boring and frustrating: Boring, because I hardly saw any birds; and frustrating, because I could hear any number of unfamiliar calls and songs in the distance that I was sure came from interesting early migrants. But I could never get the visuals on any of these birds, and nobody else was around to help me with ID.

My husband Glenn, however, has had better luck as of late. He hasn't had much time to bird, but has managed to get some nice shots during his limited time out. So for a change of pace, I'm sharing some of these.

This Red-throated Loon was hanging out in the big pond on the west side of Huntington Central Park, in Huntington Beach. The fact that it was (1) in a fresh-water pond for several days (Red-throated Loons prefer salt water or brackish water) and (2) sitting on the edge of the pond for hours on end, unconcerned about photographers and birders only about 15 feet away, suggested that it might have been sick. We posted the photo on the Orange County Birding listserv, and the fine folk at the Wetlands and Wildife Care Center agreed with our assessment: the bird's behavior just wasn't right.

But when they sent their team to the park to catch the bird for rehabilitation, it took one look at them and flew off. Sick? Or just lazy? I hope it's the latter.

At Bolsa Chica, one of our favorite Huntington Beach haunts, Glenn got a nice sunset shot of some American Avocets. We like how this looks as though they're racing to cross a finish line:

Waders such as American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts are pretty routine sightings in southern California, but much less so in north-central Florida. (This runs counter to the popular notion that all of Florida is Big Wading Bird Central.) About a week and a half ago, I commented to Glenn that I had never seen a Black-necked Stilt out here. But a few days later, I saw my first one in Florida, in Alachua Sink, off the La Chua Trail. This surprised me, and when I e-mailed the local birding guru to ask about it, I was even more surprised to learn that I had broken the county record for the earliest spring sighting of a Black-necked Stilt! (So they do occur here, but not year-round.)

My lame documentary shot of the Alachua Sink bird is here. Below is Glenn's far-superior shot of one of its California cousins:

One reason why my weekend birding was such a wash was today's weather--I awoke at 6:30 to heavy rain and lightning, and even after the rain passed, the winds stayed heavy and cold and kept most of the birds away. In a way, this was a relief, as it forced me to stay inside and get ahead on my lecture planning. In a week will be spring break at UF, and while my gentle charges are off doing Jello shots in Fort Lauderdale, I'll be busy spending time with my family and (yay!) doing some serious birding. And Glenn will finally be coming out to Florida to see everything here for himself.

I can't wait to show him everything I've seen here.