Monday, August 31, 2009

Eat It Up

Bon Appetit!

Small birds lead grueling lives: from the moment they pop out into the world as fertilized eggs, they are in risk of turning into someone else's lunch. When they're not worrying about getting eaten themselves, they are either migrating, mating (or engaged in stressful mating-related activities such as fighting for territory or fighting off potential competitors)—or eating.

A knowledgeable source told me that warblers typically eat their weight in insects every day. I haven't gotten around to independently confirming this, but if it's anywhere near true, the only people who should ever be told to "eat like a bird" are sumo wrestlers. And maybe this guy.

During migration, appetites increase as birds fuel up for consecutive all-nighters of flight to the Southern Hemisphere. Last spring, a flock of Chipping Sparrows ate their little way through a 4-cup-capacity feeder-full of seed at my place every day for about three weeks before taking off for points north. Their company was getting quite expensive.

Now the birds are heading back south and some have deigned to stop in Gainesville. Not too many of these, however, have deigned to allow themselves to be seen by me this weekend. One of the more cooperative ones was this Black-and-white Warbler, grabbing one of many juicy snacks by the Bolen Bluff Trail in Paynes Prairie State Park:

This Red-eyed Vireo wasn't eating at the moment, but most likely, he or she was thinking about it. How do I know this? Hey, this is the internet—it has to be true!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Mellow Yellow

Hood birds are good birds!

This week brought the best and worst of fall: The migrant warblers are finally starting to move through Gainesville, filling the trees and brush with tantalizing little flashes of yellow. But just as all the good birds arrive, so does a new academic year. Today all hell broke loose another year of inquiry and discovery began at UF, which means my weekdays will be filled with wall-to-wall classes and meetings, and my weekends with grading and administration. And of course, during the summer when my schedule is totally flexible, there's NOTHING OUT THERE but House Finches.

Nature is cruel.

My last weekend of summer vacation was a perfect way to segue into fall: On Friday night, I was hanging out wondering where to bird on Saturday, when a friend called and asked if we'd like to join her at San Felasco in the morning. This was a perfect choice: we had been the previous week and seen some tantalizing hints of the fall wonders to come (first of season Yellow-throated Warblers and American Redstarts), and another week of migration and another pair of eyes could only make the birding better.

And it was: after a slow start ("Why did we come here??") we saw flashes of non-leaf-like movement in the trees. A fat brownish bird that we thought was an early Hermit Thrush hopped in front of us for a moment, then darted into the brush. In a nearby tree several small birds flitted promisingly: we raised out bins and found five different warblers: a Northern Parula, a Prothonotory, a Black-and-white, an American Redstart, and a male Hooded—the latter a lifer for Glenn, and the first really bright male for me! Awesome, dramatic-looking birds.

We also saw another interesting yellow bird: this time, not a warbler, but some bigger bird, with faint washes of reddish orange on it. A female something-or-another. Later that evening, another friend IDed it as a female Summer Tanager:

It's great having Glenn out here: now I don't have to come home to an empty house every evening, and I get to relive the thrill of seeing all the East Coast birds for the first time all over again. (And I get infinitely better photos to use here!) One of the most common year-round residents here is also one of the prettiest: the White-eyed Vireo, a fairly new bird for Glenn:

Can't wait to see what else fall migration brings in—if only I get enough time to get out and enjoy it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Moving Experience

Fresh Start: A juvenile Northern Cardinal checks out our new place.

I hate boxes.

I hate stepping around them. I hate taping them together. I hate filling them with stuff, then lugging them down multiple flights of stairs and wondering how I'll fit them into my car.

I hate finding them in odd corners, opening them and finding my life's belongings wrapped up in 10-year-old pages from defunct alternative newspapers, which reminds me how pathetic and old I'm getting. I hate wondering where they are, and once finding them, trying to figure out where to put them next.

And this is all I've done all summer. Moving SUCKS. Glenn has finally moved out to Gainesville to join me, but this meant (1) moving out of our place in California, where 10 years of random crap had prodigiously, yet stealthily, accumulated, (2) simultaneously moving out of my tiny pied-a-terre in Gainesville, which was too small for all this stuff, and (3) moving INTO a bigger place in Gainesville. Orthogonally related to all this was (4) sorting through and discarding tons of stuff from my high school and college years still at my parents' place, in preparation for their possible (but not imminent) move. My heart nearly broke as I shredded dozens of absolutely hilarious letters from my sophomore roommate and my freshman-boyfriend-who-turned-out-to-be-gay. The idea of paying for and dealing with yet another moving box was just too awful.

All this misery came to a head last weekend, when both Glenn and the movers arrived at our new place. Between packing and unpacking stuff, watching poor Glenn do battle with both jet lag and an uncooperative wireless router, and trying to figure out WHY our Florida renters' insurance policy costs four times more than our old policy in California ("This is Florida", was the best answer my insurance agent could come up with), I haven't had much time for birding or blogging. Yup, it sucks to be me.

But the payoff for all this stress is significant: Among the charms of our new place are much-improved backyard birding opportunities. The feeder at my old place attracted a fair number of birds, but was in a thoroughly dismal location:

Here's the same feeder now: near real live trees!

We already have a number of Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees coming by regularly:

A family of Northern Cardinals (an adult male and female and two juveniles) comes by several times a day as well—at my old place, it took about three months for the birds to warm up to my feeder.

There are also a lot of Carolina Wrens, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and Blue Jays in the area that we hope will drop by: we've put up a suet feeder and a hummingbird feeder to make the place more interesting for them.

Meanwhile, fall migration is slowly but surely starting up. We went by Palm Point Park yesterday in search of migrant warblers, and found a Black-and-white Warbler and several Prothonotary Warblers. The Prothonotary was a lifer for Glenn:

At San Felasco Hammock State Park this morning, we saw Yellow-throated Warblers, Northern Parulas, Worm-eating Warblers, American Redstarts, and a Black-and-white Warbler. The park was quite birdy (and buggy); I'm sure there were a lot of good birds in there that we missed.

And back home, there's almost always something flitting about in the back yard. There's nothing like the company of birds to make a random building filled with half-empty boxes feel like home.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Didn't You See It? It's Right In There!

Look, it's that thing! It's in those trees!

Summer birding frustrates me to no end: First, it's freaking hot out. Second, there not many birds around. And third, the few that are around are fiendishly difficult to see in the thick summer foliage. During a brief but pointless outing to Lake Wauberg yesterday, I heard only the usual suspects—Northern Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, Red-bellied Woodpeckers—and actually saw only half a dozen birds. Not species. Birds.

And since I paid $4 to get there (the lake and a very pretty boardwalk are accessed through the Paynes Prairie State Park main entrance), this adventure cost me—as Glenn pointed out— 66 cents a bird.

I persist in doing this to myself every weekend to get my bird-locating skills in tune for fall, when all the good migrants show up. That, and a weekend without birding would be just too sad.

Finding small birds in trees is, for me, the hardest thing about birding. There's nothing worse than being with a group of ecstatic people all looking at some marvelous rarity when all I can see are leaves. I've dipped on way too many birds this way. Like that beautiful bright male Cerulean Warbler at Loblolly Nature Center last fall—I was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with three people who were all looking at it. Or that Bay-breasted Warbler at Palm Point a week later. Or...or...or...

Of course, all my birding companions tried to be helpful. They sincerely wanted to share the moment with me, and all tried their best to help me locate the prize. Unfortunately, more times than not, birders' "help" in such situations goes something like this:

"Did you see it yet? It's right up there!"
"In those trees—you know, through that green stuff."

Uh, thanks.

Describing the location of birds in random tangles of moss and vines is hard, as I know from the rare occasions when I'm actually the one doing the locating and explaining. But sometimes, even directions that are (probably) completely coherent throw me. Such as directions that refer to really specific tree types: I'm terrible with tree names.

Back in California, half the songbirds that would show up on the Orange County Rare Bird Alerts listserv would be reported as being seen in a Myoporum tree. And birders I'd run into would constantly describe some cool thing they saw a couple hundred yards away as being in a Myoporum. And I had no idea what a Myoporum was, except that there must be a lot of them in Orange County. Whenever someone mentioned one, I promised myself I'd look it up when I got home, but I never got around to it.

The 600+ birds of North America and their plumages and vocalizations are enough of a challenge—right now, I have neither the time nor brain cells to add trees to the mix.

In Florida, botanical directions are even less useful to me; most of the plants and trees around here were completely unfamiliar to me when I moved here, as were their names. And there's simply a greater diversity and density of intertwined green stuff around here than in the coastal sage scrub near my old place in Orange County, and thus more unfamiliar names to trip me up.

And to make matters worse, many of the serious birders around here are not only experts on local birds, but all-around polymaths of the natural world. They not only know all the birds, but can and will tell you—in gory detail—about the life cycle of every life form in north-central Florida. On just about every Alachua Audubon field trip, one of these people would nonchalantly reach out, pluck a leaf off some green life form, rub it between the fingers, give it an appreciative sniff, and say something like this:

"You know what this is? It's a [unfamiliar plant name]. These things like to grow in [name of typical north-central Florida habitat]. The [name of historically significant Florida ethnic group] used to use their [name of plant part, plural] for [name of useful object or purpose]."

If only I could keep all these fragrant, useful, and historically significant plants in my head while simultaneously trying to learn East Coast bird songs and avoiding snakes and spiders. Then, maybe, I'd actually be able to see all those *$%& cool migrants everyone else is gasping at.

But there are a few masters at the subtle art of oral bird location. A few tricks I've learned: clock directions are good ("it's at 2:00 in the tall tree in the middle"). Describing locations in terms of a fixed location such as the horizon or a tree top everyone can see and agree on also works. As do easily calculable measurements ("it's at 2:00 in the tall tree in the middle, about a third of the way between the sky and the trunk").

And then there was the most effective way of all, favored by one of the local birding gurus: if you're the finder, keep the bird in your sights. Line your head up with that of the clueless soul who hasn't seen the bird yet. Then gently grasp that person's head (ask first) and point it where your head is looking: at the bird.

It worked on me. No redundant vocalization needed.