Sunday, November 29, 2009

Portrait of a Squirrel-Proof Feeder

This feeder is spring-loaded so that if anything heavier than a songbird or two (e.g. a squirrel) lands on one of the four metal perches, the green cage on the outside drops down, cutting off access to the food inside the feeder.

Most squirrels land on it once or twice, get the message, and move on. Or rather, move down: they realize they can get more food for less effort by foraging under the feeder for seeds dropped by birds.

But this guy was determined not to give up: I've seen him approach the feeder from the top and cling to the cage upside down. I've seen him take unsuccessful flying leaps at it from the shepherd's hook it hangs from, or from the nearby birdbath, which he kept knocking over. (And which I have subsequently moved further away.) Over the course of a few weeks, he has learned to avoid putting his full weight on the perches.

The picture above shows his solution: it's a labor-intensive one; note that he's straining to keep his weight centered on the back of his long squirrelly torso so that the cage won't drop. He can't hold that position for long; he usually hangs on for about five seconds before scurrying away. And he probably burns more calories trying to get stuff out that feeder than he takes in.

I know I can make the whole problem go away by hanging the feeder from the middle of a long high branch, where there won't be any squirrel-jumpable access points. But I've grown way too fond of having my visiting birds at eye level, just outside my back door. And I have to give this guy props for persistence and problem-solving savvy—something I've been striving to cultivate in my students throughout my teaching career. After all, if Gators can get extra credit for extraordinary effort, why not squirrels?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Picture This

As always, I had some excellent adventures over the weekend. But I have not a picture to show for it. If you will, try to imagine why.

Picture this: It's 6:20 a.m. on Sunday morning, and I have just pulled into the parking lot of Gainesville's Target: this is the meeting place for Alachua Audubon's trip to Cedar Key. When I had gotten up an hour earlier, I checked online to find there was a 60% chance of rain and thunderstorms that would last throughout the day. Any sensible person would have gone back to bed. But I'm not a sensible person.

6:35 a.m: I return from the restroom at a nearby gas station to find that I am one of the drivers for the trip (the reason for the rendezvous at Target was for us to consolidate into carpools and arrange rides). I load my passengers, who I already know—a fellow UF faculty member and another local birder—into my embarrassingly dirty car and we take off, just as the rain starts.

7:00 a.m.: Our first stop is supposed to be at the Scrub Jay reserve just outside Cedar Key. But the rest of the caravan is nowhere in sight—I had gotten stuck behind a traffic light on the way out and the others are now WAY in front of me. Probably looking at Florida Scrub Jays. But my car is old and weak, and the road between Gainesville and Cedar Key is a bit of a speed trap, so I drove conservatively. My UF colleague, in the catbird seat, assures me that the guy in front of us drives like a maniac, so losing him was kind of predictable.

7:45—We pull into the Scrub Jay reserve just as the others are returning to their cars. They didn't see any Scrub Jays. Thank goodness. Otherwise, I would have felt awful. Even more awful than I already felt about fulfilling everyone's worst stereotypes about slow Asian drivers.

8:00—We're at the side of the road off the first bridge leading into Cedar Key, looking at a bold, brightly colored, and perversely cooperative Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (or whatever this bird is officially called now...). All of us who had brought cameras are hitting ourselves upside the head. Why? It was raining cats and dogs, so we had all left our gear in our cars. Meanwhile, that sparrow—whose buffy head and breast shone orange in the tiny bit of sunlight peeking through the rain clouds—just sat there, as if daring us to bring our cameras out into the rain. Bastard.

8:20—The 10 or so field trip participants are huddled under a picnic shelter by the beach, resigned to our Big Day being more like a rainy Big Sit—or more accurately, a Big Soak. "Okay, did anyone bring a deck of cards?" our trip leader said only half jokingly. Still, we manage to rack up about 20 species.

8:45—We caravan to Cedar Key's tiny airport, where a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher had been lingering a few weeks before. It's still raining buckets. As soon as we arrive, our trip leader debarks from his car and tells each of the other drivers that we're going to Shell Mound—with luck, the rain will have stopped by time we get there.

9:00—It's still raining torrents at Shell Mound. Our trip leader reluctantly scotches the whole trip. Everyone gets back in their cars and heads eastward back to Gainesville.

9:15—My UF colleague in the front seat is clearly unhappy, and growing unhappier by the moment as Cedar Key receded into our rear-view mirror. I ask him if he wants to go back to Cedar Key and wait until the rain let up. He wanted to go back to Shell Mound instead, which we did. We passed several other field trip participants heading home as we reversed course. They must have thought we were crazy.

9:30—Miraculously, there was a break in the storm and we were in business. At Shell Mound, we lingered on the boardwalk overlooking a sandbar and reed-filled area, and found a number of birds everyone else had missed: White Pelicans, Clapper Rails, Marsh Wrens, Marbled Godwits, and a Wilson's Plover. There were also yet more Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows and several Bald Eagles out in the distance. But the clouds lingered ominously overhead, and we left our cameras in the car.

11:00—The clouds darkened again, and we got into the car just as the rain started to fall again. On the way back, my passengers insisted that I stop for gas, even though I had 3/4 of a tank left; they paid for the fill.

12:00—Back at Target, the skies are clearing and the sun is starting to shine though the clouds. My friend in the front seat declares that he is going to Hague Dairy, since the skies to the north of us look clear. The poor birder in the back seat, who has said scarcely a word over the course of the whole trip, is no doubt relieved to be free of us.

1:30—A particularly intelligent squirrel has figured out how to feed off my "squirrel-proof" bird feeder. It's now stopped raining, and I have my camera out to catch him (or her) in the act. But the squirrel has had its fill and doesn't return.

But it was still pretty cool when it was there. And when that sparrow was there at Cedar Key. And those Clapper Rails. You just have to trust me on this.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Autumn Flocking and Mating

A garland of cranes folded by friends:

A walk to the altar with alligators and Bald Eagles as witnesses:

Successfully mated pairs must be good providers. This pair foraged all of Gainesville and scared up not one, but FIVE flavors of cake! The flock was impressed.

An avian centerpiece...

...and the avian guest list:

Did I mention that both the bride and groom are birders with mad skills, about a quarter of the guests brought binoculars to the ceremony, and about another quarter wished they had remembered to?

I hope my friends will have as many days as joyful and filled with the companionship of family and friends as yesterday. Long may you flock together!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Scenes From the Prairie

Wild horses on Bolen Bluff trail, Paynes Prairie State Reserve

Fall migration is over. The warblers I enjoyed only a few weeks ago are now (I hope) safely ensconced in their winter digs in the tropics. And our winter visitors have only begun to settle in: A flock of Chipping Sparrows has already planted itself underneath my feeder, and the Eastern Phoebes ( not nearly as clean and natty-looking as my western Black Phoebes) have been singing loudly just about everywhere. This guy was on the prairie at Bolen Bluff:

Paynes Prairie is always a good place to visit when you want to go out, but know there won't be that many birds. There is always some interesting non-avian distraction. For the past month or two at Bolen Bluff, I've passed by this beautiful wasps' nest: I love how symmetrical it is. It looks like something that could be sold at Crate and Barrel as a yuppie decorative item. But I understand that the wasps who built it can deliver a nasty sting:

There's something perverse about the fact that temperatures in the mid-70s feel a bit chilly here. And when we turned back the clocks last week, it did feel unexpectedly autumnal. A strange reflex of this change of seasons was the eruption of yellow blooms at La Chua last weekend:

There have been rumors of Grasshopper and White-crowned Sparrows—and even an errant Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher—at La Chua over the past few weeks, but I haven't found any of these, yet. Right now, I'm just enjoying the autumnal weather (such as it is out here), and waiting for the chirps and calls of winter visitors.

Monday, November 2, 2009

She's Just Not That Into You

Hey Shiny Cowbird,

Thanks so much for meeting me at Hague Dairy last Saturday. It was great to finally meet you. It's always a pleasure to meet a new bird for the first time. All my friends told me not to expect a tropical bird like you all the way up here, so I was genuinely touched that you decided to drop by.

No, I didn't have any trouble finding you. Well, actually I would have, if the trip leader on the Alachua Audubon field trip hadn't pointed you out. I didn't really know what you looked like, and it would have been kind of hard picking you out with all your Brown-headed relatives flocking around.

And thanks for being so cooperative. At least you thought to wait for us on a post with only a handful of other birds on it, rather than parking yourself on that barn roof in the middle of several hundred Brown-headed Cowbirds. And you actually stayed fairly still up there, too, so we all got to spend a lot of time looking at you through our scopes.

No, no, I'm not just saying all of this to sound polite, I mean it. What do you mean, I don't sound very excited? Were you excited to see me? Okay, that's different.

It's just—oh wow, I have no idea how to put this—I didn't feel a spark when I saw you like I get with other lifers. You know that spark. Like when you see a Painted Bunting or a Hooded Warbler or—

Wait, there's nothing wrong with the way you look. You look exactly like everyone said you'd look. Kind of like a Red-winged Blackbird without the red. Or yellow.

No, I'm NOT describing you as an even more boring version of a mundane bird. Did I say that? Look, I can't just make that spark happen. And we met in a crappy area. Seriously. You were perched above a manure pit. Doesn't really make a great first impression.

Yes, I know that birding isn't about just the pretty birds, it's about understanding and respecting all of you, and appreciating what all of you tell us about the natural world. And I know you're a great bird and you've got a lot to tell me. But right now, the chemistry is just not there. I just can't get myself worked up over you.

Sorry, Shiny. You deserve better. It's not you, it's me.