Saturday, April 25, 2009

While You Were Out (Another Spring Break Flashback Post)

A beautiful sight that I missed because I was working.

My break from teaching only lasted one week, but Glenn was out here for two. To make sure his second week in Florida was a fun as his first, I gave him the car keys and loaded my GPS with the addresses of Gainesville's best birding hot spots. And a friend of mine offered to keep him out of trouble for part of the time by taking him to work with her.

I should mention that this friend has one of the coolest jobs imaginable: she monitors Florida's Swallow-tailed Kite population for a small non-profit. And at this time of year, her "office" is any mature pine forest with said birds nesting in it.

Swallow-tailed Kites were high on the list of birds Glenn wanted to see, and my friend assured him that if he went with her, sightings were "guaranteed." And she was true to her word: on the two days they spent driving from nest site to nest site, Glenn got some great close looks at the birds—and some really nice shots.

Here is one of the Kites carrying nesting material back home:

And here is an amorous couple uh, making babies. Nothing wrong with anything that results in more Swallow-tailed Kites flying overhead!

Another flight shot:

I didn't get my own first sighting of a Swallow-tailed Kite until the weekend. If anyone else near me were having that much fun while I was stuck in my office (in a building my grad students unaffectionately call "The Death Star") I would have been massively jealous. But I could only share his joy, and enjoy a touch of pride: I really wanted him to see all the good stuff there is out here, and to experience all the fun things I have. And I did.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Out of My League

This Prairie Warbler is perched directly in front of some dude's crotch. Insert tasteless joke of your choice.

I've lived in a bunch of different places around the world, and I've noticed that one of the subtle ways places and cultures vary is in how much one is expected to know about something in order to be considered competent. And this correlates with the even more subtle difference in how much personal experimentation people allow themselves.

Back in California, the land of personal re-invention, it was considered not only acceptable, but commendable, to try to learn a discipline in which you have absolutely no talent. I've taken writing classes with people who were baffled by basic punctuation and vocabulary, and cooking classes with people who could barely tell a knife and spoon apart. And despite having huge phobias of complex machinery and being underwater, I somehow managed to get my scuba certification. (The other students in my scuba class were a former competitive swimmer and an ex-Navy SEAL. It was humbling. Well, actually, humiliating.)

But it hasn't been like this in other places I've lived. I signed up for a just-for-fun food writing course when I lived in Canada, and was surprised to discover that almost all my classmates were professional food writers in some capacity or another. Ditto for a kayaking class I took there as a lark—just about everyone there owned a kayak and had been paddling around in it for a couple of years before deciding they were ready to commit to a basic course. And I'd never sat in a kayak in my life.

People in Canada don't do stuff unless they have evidence that they have some aptitude for it. And as it turns out, neither do Floridians.

A local birding couple invited me to spend Friday evening and Saturday with them at the Chinsegut Birding and Wildlife Festival, held at Chinsegut Nature Center, near Brooksville. Our plan was to drive there Friday afternoon, stop for dinner along the way, and arrive in time for the evening bat/bird/bug walk before checking into a cabin at a nearby conference center.

Despite arriving late, we followed the glint of distant flashlights into the woods and caught up with the bug walk. Then I realized that some of the little glimmers I thought were distant street lights or flashlights were actually nearby fireflies. I've always wanted to see fireflies, and now I can finally say I have. They were magical to watch. Then we heard faint screeching in the distance, which my friends identified as the call of a Chuck-Will's-Widow. A life bird for me, so also very cool.

The other surprise was the demographics of the group: about three-fourths of the crowd consisted of a squealing Girl Scout troupe (most of whom found the fireflies terrifying); the other quarter consisted of professional biologists and naturalists engaged in heated debates over land-use policy and the exact genus and species of that tiny mayfly stuck on someone's headlamp.

And then there was me.

Where were the other People Like Me? By this, I mean where were the semi-serious amateur naturalists out to learn a bit more about natural world in a non-competitive way? People like, say, 90% of the participants at the evening Owl Prowls and bat walks I participated in or helped lead back in California?

Then I remembered Canada and I realized what was going on: People here don't go to these things unless they really know what they're doing. Or unless they're children brought in to complete some required module of their third-grade science curriculum. Birders here probably learn to bird in infancy, and are Sibley-level masters by the time they're my age.

I was out of my league.

I didn't have anything to say to the Girl Scouts (and people don't like strangers coming up to their kids in the dark and talking to them in any case), so I tried to make small talk with all the bug people (as the entomologists proudly called themselves). They were all very friendly and passionate about their bugs—but I realized I was WAY out of my league.

The next day was more of the same. We were back at the festival site by 6:30 the next morning for the first event on the schedule, bird banding. My friends (also both biologists) helped set up mist nets along the trails to catch the birds, then spent the first part of the morning monitoring the nets, gently untangling the birds that flew into them, then bringing them in to be banded. I made myself semi-useful by writing down band numbers and bird info as the banding took place.

It was a productive morning: we got a female Northern Cardinal almost as soon as we arrived, followed by Prairie Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Grey Catbird, an Eastern Towhee, and a couple of Tufted Titmice (one of whom ended up in the net only half an hour after we banded him).

The Cardinal was by far the most aggressive bird we banded. The guy doing the banding said that seed-eaters were more aggressive biters in general than insect-eaters, and our female Cardinal lived up to this reputation. As soon as he picked her up, she took a stab at him:

He calmed her down by putting a thick stick in her mouth, which distracted her until the band was on. Then he opened his hand to release her. But instead of taking off immediately, as did the other birds, she spun around and bit him one last time. Hard.

("You know how you associate certain words with birds sometimes?" a birder pal said this morning when I told her about this. "I never thought I'd think of Northern Cardinals and 'vindictive'.")

After getting sick of my asking for the four-letter codes for each bird we banded (not to mention the special codes for "identified for sex by plumage" and "identified by age by beak color" ), the head bander said I could do something else if I wanted. OK, I got the message. Then I headed off for the bird walk that was to start shortly.

And this turned out to be a brief jaunt around the parking lot, as we looked for Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, so we'd all be able to see how to tell them apart. I'm really glad they were doing this, as one of the first things a new birder should learn as that little grey birds are actually fun to watch and can be easy to distinguish— but I was bored. And frustrated.

Not good enough to play with the big kids. And too big to play with the little kids—at least while keeping my dignity intact.

Spring migration has finally hit north Florida, and I was hoping to get my fill of warblers. But instead, I got sucked into multiple bug walks (one on butterflies, one on bugs in general). What the hell—critters are fun, and the only thing to do was go with the flow.

The Bug Walk yielded some surprisingly pretty beetles. This was one of several dung beetles that the trip leader had caught in traps baited with—guess what. Kids squealed with excitement as he plucked the bugs from the traps and placed them in their outstretched hands.

(And shortly after releasing said beetles, the kids would dig their hands into big bags of chips and cookies they carried with them, which led some of us grownups to shake our heads in despair.)

The Butterfly Walk didn't yield that many butterflies, but the trip leader showed off various indigenous plants that local butterflies and their caterpillars like to feed on. One of these was the Passionflower. Back in California, I grew to love these, and was saddened to learn that they were harmful invasives. But out here, they are natives, and my enjoyment is totally guilt free:

In the afternoon, there was a presentation on bats, which included several rehabilitated bats. One was this Yellow Bat, which the Bat Lady (the woman who gave the presentation) wore as a living pendant while it took a nap:

I know next to nothing about bugs, butterflies, and bats, so it was easier to set aside my pride and regain what Buddhists call the "beginning mind": learning without preconceptions. And once I did that (and got my serious caffeine hit at lunch, since I didn't get any coffee at breakfast), I was happy. And I learned a lot about bugs and bats.

And on the way home, my friends stopped off at a private Audubon-owned property nearby, and I got to see Indigo Buntings in alternate plumage for the first time. So I got my best bird only after the "bird festival" ended.

My plan for next weekend: All warblers. All the time.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Whoopie Pies and Butterflies (or, Blogging Chronologically Is for Wimps)

A Zebra Finch at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Sunday, March 15 was the last morning of our Space Coast birding orgy. We had birded nonstop from Thursday at 1 pm on (with lengthy breaks only for dinner and sleep.) I never though I could spend enough time birding, but weirdly enough, it felt like time to do something else.

So instead of getting up at 4:30 to catch birds as the sun rose, we slept until the decadent hour of 7:30, ate the (mediocre) Continental breakfast included in our hotel tariff (which we'd had to miss on the first days of our trip because of our pre-dawn commitments elsewhere such as this and this ), and went to a nearby air show featuring various vintage military aircraft. Appropriately enough, the show was partially sponsored by the Warbird Museum in Titusville. So it was (sort of) bird related: it involved flying objects whose origins and taxonomy are sometimes still up for debate.

Around noon, we began our two-and-a-half hour drive back to Gainesville. Just before the two hour mark, we began seeing odd hand-written signs by the side of the road: WHOOPIE PIES: 3 MILES.

"What's a whoopie pie?" Glenn asked.

"I'm not sure."

"I think it has marshmallow cream in it."

I thought about this. I'd heard the term "whoopie pie" before, and I remembered that it didn't refer to an actual pie, but some sort of cookie/pastry thing. Definitely a sandwich cookie of some sort. Maybe that's where the marshmallow cream came in.

We continued on. Three miles passed.

"Hey, no whoopie pies!" Glenn said.


We continued. Then up ahead was a complex of shops for vacationing fishermen and boaters: a tackle shop, a restaurant, and a general store. And a big marquee sign: WHOOPIE PIES.

Glenn pulled a hard right into the parking lot.

"Wait, you actually want one of those things?" I said.

"Well, I thought this would be a good place to rest."

"But we don't even know what they are!"

In the little general store, we found that whoopie pies were, just as we suspected, big soft sandwich cookies. They were like large cupcake tops glued together with icing. Glenn got one with chocolate cookies and vanilla icing; I got one with chocolate cookies and cherry icing. Meh. Okay, but nothing special. But it was almost 2:30 and we hadn't had lunch, so this would have to do.

We munched on them as we continued our drive north. We both decided they'd be more interesting with marshmallow filling. And then we marveled at the fact that we actually went out of our way to eat them. For lunch, no less.

And only a week later, I found this article in the New York Times: Whoopie pies are officially the new frozen yogurt/ cupcake/ whatever trendy dessert you can think of!

I've noticed this before: whenever Glenn and I get into something, about three months later the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times puts out an article about how trendy it is. First it was kayaking. Then birdwatching. Now whoopie pies.

We eat whoopie pies on Sunday, and the New York Times declares it a trend by Wednesday. Are we awesome or what?

We got back to Gainesville about an hour later, and I realized my spring break was over: Monday would bring 4 hours of lecture (which I'd already prepared). But there was still time for one more outing.

The Butterfly House at the Florida Museum of Natural History is known locally as one of those places where one goes only with out-of-town guests. But it's still pretty cool: an enclosed, climate-controlled area filled with tropical birds and butterflies, all within arm's length. Photographers love it, so I knew I had to take Glenn there.

Here are a few of his shots. The butterflies in the enclosure come from all over the world (so not all are native to Florida). The big green one is a Green Morpho:

I'm not sure what this one is; but I loved its colors: it reminded me of mint-chocolate-chip ice cream. Mmm.

And thus ended my spring break. Tomorrow I'd be back to the grind—but at least Glenn would still be in town, and would have his adventures to tell me about when I got home.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Ocala National Forest: A Sucky Photo Super-Post!

An early morning treat, badly captured, near Ocala National Forest.

The observant may have noticed that I've managed to stretch three days of vacation into three weeks of blog posts. There are a few of reasons for this: first, Glenn and I collectively got thousands of photos out of our trip, and at least some of them had to go to good use; second, it really was the BEST birding trip I ever had (so far).

And third and most crucially, the birding in Gainesville since then has been pretty dull: most of our winter birds are gone (except for the gluttonous Chipping Sparrows who now camp out my courtyard and require me to buy a 5-pound bag of feed EVERY WEEK), and spring migration here is only showing hints of starting. While the trees and bushes back in California are swarming with Hermit and Nashville and Black-throated Grey Warblers (and Hooded and Bullock's Orioles and Warbling Vireos), here we've got...well,not much. Yet.

And yet, yesterday there arose an opportunity to see a rare local treat: this week's Alachua Audubon field trip was to Ocala National Forest , where our goal birds were Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Florida Scrub Jays, and Bachman's Sparrows. All but the Florida Scrub-Jay—which I had only seen once before, at Merritt Island—would be lifers for me; and the seriously endangered Red-cockaded would be a valued treat for anyone who cares about birds.

The trip was everything I had hoped for: several of my favorite local birders showed up, we got just about everything we wanted to see, and the weather was great. The only problem was that all my photos sucked.

For instance, there's this photo of a Bachman's Sparrow, which we saw shortly after we parked and started our hike. We could hear the sparrows almost as soon as they arrived, and this guy popped up only minutes later.He wasn't that far away, but I still missed a good shot:

I figured my sparrow shots would be barely worthy of being called documentary shots. But no matter: what I really wanted was to see the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and get a semi-identifiable photo.

We soon came upon a stand of trees where a colony of the woodpeckers had been known to nest. The birds nest in tree holes, and there were some trees with nest boxes already inserted, just for them:

All the trees with Red-cockaded nests—either manmade or bird-made—were conspicuously marked with rings of white paint:

This should have been our clue as to where to look—but the nest trees, even the ones that looked recently used, were quiet. But we heard the chattering of woodpeckers in the distance, and soon saw flashes of black and white against the pines—there they were!

I raised my camera to get a shot, but then lowered it: the birds were too far; the shot wouldn't be any good.

Then the birds took off, still chattering, and we followed. Along the way, I saw this Swallowtail, with a messed-up left back wing. I'm not sure what kind he is:

The chattering continued, and we followed it into the woods. We got good looks at about three birds—but every time I lifted my camera, they'd fly off or do that annoying woodpecker thing of hopping around to the opposite side of the tree. A few us us broke away from the group and plowed deeper into the woods. In the distance, the birds called and swooped from tree to tree, allowing great looks—and took off before we could get them in our viewfinders.

The others in our group were ready to move on, so we gave up our hunt. Now I was kicking myself for not at least trying to get a shot at that first RCW—he was far away, but at least he was standing still. We left the pine-filled sandhill area of the forest for an area of scrub nearby. Here, we hoped to find some Florida Scrub-Jays.

The path through the scrub was covered with fine sand, almost like very dry compacted beach sand. The sand was covered with several new-looking sets of animal prints: little canine ones that must have come from a coyote or fox (the trail was out of the way, and unlikely to appeal to dog-walkers—and no human prints but ours were in evidence), and several sets of bird prints, including these:

We were fascinated by the odd trailing marks behind the prints: was the bird (which must have been crow-sized) dragging its feet? Its tail?

The Scrub-Jays, as we hoped, came through: a pair of them soon popped up, screeching loudly at a nearby Eastern Towhee. Scrub-Jays are notoriously bold, and both birds came close enough to allow potentially decent shots:

Unfortunately, it was high noon by time we got there, and the sunlight and glare off the white sand made everything look oddly backlit. So despite having the most cooperative of avian subjects, this photo still sucked. But at least the bird is clear and identifiable.

And all the best images of the day are stuck in my brain. Luckily, I have a really good memory.