Saturday, December 18, 2010

Santa's (Partial) List for Birders

December brings many thoughts to a birder's mind: Sparrow ID. The Christmas Bird Count. And...shopping.

I hate shopping. Hate it, hate it, hate it. I hate mall crowds. I hate sacred music whose lyrics have been turned into commercial jingles. I hate the knowledge that most of American society judges people on the brands of clothes they wear rather than on any substantial features of intellect or character.

And yet, I love the holidays. I love the lights, cheesy decorations, and weirdly decorated foodstuffs. And strangely enough, I love getting gifts for those close to me whose tastes I know and understand (or who know me well enough to drop really large hints).

For me, the only fun part of holiday shopping is discovering something that I just know someone close to me will love. Extra fun comes from discovering said item is inexpensive. So as a service to the birding community, I've devised a short list of budget-friendly surprises for the birders on your list -- so you don't have to:

For the Completist Who Needs To Know the Root Causes of Everything:

We all know this guy -- and for some inexplicable reason, it's almost always a guy. He knows not only what specific birds eat (beginner stuff), but also the life cycle of whatever that food source is. He's memorized the annual arrival and departure dates of every migrant in his area for the past century, and is endlessly frustrated that nobody thought to document the fall arrival dates of, say, Magnolia Warblers in Alachua County, Florida, prior to 1885. He keeps track of every AOU attempt to re-classify birds and most likely has every bird book you think he'd like.

But chances are he doesn't yet own The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs (Princeton Field Guides), and he definitely should. So he wants to know everything about birds going back to the beginning of time? Here, the roots of the avian family tree are magnified and illuminated in glorious detail. (Did you know that during the time of the first dinosaurs, the year was 385 days long and days themselves were only 22 hours and 45 minutes?) Meticulous colored illustrations of feathered dinos are accompanied by detailed accounts of their anatomy and life history. Think of a a bigger, blingier version of The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, but with dinosaurs instead. If this doesn't make your nerdy friend (or his dinosaur-loving kid) want to jump into a time machine right this very minute, nothing will.

For the Birder with an Aural Fixation:

In every birding community, there's always one person who can hear a millisecond-long chirp a mile away and immediately ID the bird responsible. I'm not that person. But I've always wanted to be: I've loved and wondered about bird song long before I started birding formally, and since I'm pathologically nearsighted (the first words any new opthamologist says to me are "holy crap, are you myopic!"), learning to bird by ear has given me a leg up in the field. I may be always the last person to actually see an interesting bird on any given day, but I'm often among the first to figure out it's actually there.

Of course, the more one birds, the more one realizes how much more there is to know. Birds are so fascinating to watch (if you're lucky enough to see them) that the complexity of their vocalizations is often overlooked. For a birder who wants to know more about all those wonderful songs and calls, there's no better source than The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong.

I discovered this book after hearing its author, Donald Kroodsma, give a talk at a bird festival last year. Of course, the topic of his talk was bird vocalization, its origins, and its uses in bird life.

His book is every bit as warm and engaging, yet intellectually rigorous, as his speaking style. As a trained linguist, I appreciated how he approached both the acoustic and neurological aspects of bird vocalizations. His writing shifts seamlessly from detailed discussion of bird evolution and how it is reflected in different types of song acquisition in birds to deeply personal impressions of how it feels to sit alone outdoors in the predawn hours, waiting to record awakening birds.

Kroodsma's book is a multimedia experience: it comes with a CD of bird song snippets that one should ideally play while reading through the relevant parts of the book. It also contains lots of graphic information--mostly spectrograms (voice prints) of the bird songs on the CD. Enjoying all this as Kroodsma intended, however, can be inconvenient--when I had access to a CD player (e.g., in my car), I wasn't in a position to read the book, and when I was reading the book (in bed, for the most part), I didn't have a CD player nearby. (Yes, I could have downloaded the CD onto my iPod, but since when should reading a book require effort or thought?)

It occurred to me that this book was the reason why interactive readers such as the iPad were invented--I can picture this as a killer e-book, with hyperlinks to sound files (instead of CD track numbers in parentheses in the text) and animated spectrograms so readers could simultaneously hear a bird song and see its graphic representation. Just a thought, if the right person is reading this...

For the Eastern Birder Who's Okay With Delayed Gratification, or Knows You're a Procrastinating Flake:

A dumb argument that tends to come up among birders is the debate over which bird guide is the best: Kaufman, with its user-friendly organization and carefully doctored photos or Sibley, with its wonderfully detailed drawings? Or is the best the National Geographic guide or the Stokes guide?

One reason this is a dumb argument is that different birders have different preferences and priorities; some may find one guide more comfortable to use than another. Another reason is that a serious birder really can't rely on just one guide: there is just too much variation in how a species can appear for any one guide to reflect accurately. And a field guide that's compact enough to be usable won't have absolutely all the information one might want on a given species. Different authors have different interests, and I find that having several guides means having several sources of complementary -- rather than redundant --information.

So I was happy to learn of another guide that may soon to added to my arsenal: The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds Like the Stokes and Kaufman guides, it's illustrated with photos --but the photos and lively and distinctive. Here's an example of one of my favorite winter birds, the Cedar Waxwing:


All this is well and good, but there's a catch: the book will not be available until January 1. But if you have a patient birding pal who wouldn't mind an IOU in his or her stocking, this could be a memorable choice.

For Relatives from Outside the Americas Who Go Crazy Whenever They See Hummingbirds:

This isn't just a hypothetical scenario. A few years ago, when I still lived in California, my South African nephews came to visit and were bowled over by the whole concept of hummingbirds. (And these were kids who grew up in a place where baboons and hippos occur in the wild!) Watching their fascination with hummers reminded me of how amazing those little birds really are.

It was only about a year after their visit that I discovered this. If only I had it around as a local present for them to enjoy during their stay here! Yes, it's more pricey than anything else on my little gift list, but it's still cheaper than taking the whole bunch of them to Disneyland.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Down the River


A scene from the St. Johns River, near DeLand.

Fresh-Squeezed Florida is one of my favorite non-birding blogs. Its owner—who blogs under the name Gainesville365—is, like me, a transplanted Californian in Gainesville trying to make sense of this place. So far, she's done a much better job of it than I have--in her two years here, she has explored and blogged about every interesting nook and cranny in north Florida.

So I was delighted to receive an e-mail from her inviting me to join her on a boat tour of the St. Johns River near DeLand. She had gone on the tour there a few weeks before, she wrote, and found it truly special. But Blue Heron River Tours, the young company sponsoring the tours, needed help getting its name and mission known to the public -- would I be interested in joining her, The Florida Blogger, and possibly a third local blogger on one of their tours?

Of course I said yes. We arranged to carpool out to DeLand together and stop at one of her favorite places nearby for a late lunch on the way back. I was thrilled at the opportunity to meet her and talk to her in person, and to see a part of Florida I hadn't yet visited.

But I got a sad e-mail from her shortly before the trip: she had fallen ill, and would not be able to join us. But two other local bloggers I followed would be there and the trip was still on.

Blue Heron River Tours is based at Hontoon Landing Resort and Marina, just down the road from Hontoon Island State Park. The river front resort was pretty and quiet, as was the stretch of the St. Johns River that we explored on our tour.

Our tour boat moved slowly, by design -- both so we could have time to look for birds and animals on the shore, and to protect any wintering manatees in the area from possible collisions. We didn't see any manatees, but birds were plentiful and cooperative. My favorite bird sighting was a pair of Purple Gallinules, which don't occur in Gainesville during the winter--but seemed perfectly happy wintering only two hours away. Here's one of them, just coming into its adult plumage:

Anhingas were everywhere, posing dramatically.

Our guide and captain, Gary Randlett, clearly loved the river and was deeply knowledgeable about its natural history and role in human history. He took us off the main river and down a narrow canal, which he explained had been excavated by loggers in the 19th century. Now it looked utterly natural, as if it had been there forever. Something about that canal struck me as deeply romantic, despite the fact that it existed just so people could find trees to cut down. And I wasn't the only one who thought so: the trees lining the canal's banks -- so close we could touch them -- were filled with colorful painted birdhouses, all put up by locals as memorials or tributes to loved ones:

Towards the end of the tour, we saw an Osprey dining delicately on a fish...

...and a deer grazing close to shore.

Only an hour from us, no doubt dozens of tourists were on a boat trip at Disney World, listening to a canned spiel from a "cast member" and oohing and aahing at mechanized animals and birds. Meanwhile, the real Florida, in all its glory, waited nearly undiscovered for its fans.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Buffalo, Buffaloed


What did I ever do to you?

For hundreds of years, wild bison have roamed the expansive area now comprising Paynes Prairie State Park. Believe it or not, bison aren't limited to the American west: at Paynes Prairie, seeing bison wading through a pond full of blooming lotus and flushing a sunbathing Anhinga or two isn't all that odd.

But if a proposed plan by Florida State Parks goes through, the bison will all but disappear, as will the herds of wild horses that also roam the prairie – not to mention a large part of the park's natural integrity.

The plan, allegedly still under discussion, is to remove all but a few bison and horses from the prairie. The animals, according to the Gainesville Sun, will be donated to whichever vendor takes them out, in return for their services.

The few remaining animals will be allowed to stay on the prairie – but in fenced-in enclosures close to one of the observation decks. This way every visitor will be guaranteed a bison sighting every time! None of that complicated stuff about nature taking its own course. And no more will visitors have to deal with tedious issues such as figuring out what the animals are doing as they wander rudely in and out of easy view. That's science, and science is HARD! After all, who goes to a state park to learn stuff about nature?

And gone will be the horrific possibility of seeing an actual WILD ANIMAL on the trail only a few yards from you! Everyone knows that WILD ANIMALS are DANGEROUS! WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN??

But seriously...the plan is baffling in its short-minded stupidity.

For one, the very "need" to take out the bison and horses is questionable. The official story is that that herd of 44 bison is becoming overcrowded and inbred, and increased development in the areas on the perimeter of the prairie increases the risk of an animal escaping the park and potentially injuring someone. And because bison and horses are technically livestock, the Park Service, which owns them, could be held liable for any such injuries. And keeping the few token beasts in an enclosure would make visitors happy, because now it's too hard for people to see them.

Let's consider these. As longtime park volunteer Chuck Littlewood stated in a recent righteous rant (how's that for alliteration?), nobody has been injured by a horse or bison in the thirty years since the animals were re-introduced to the prairie. (I've seen bison the the trail only a few yards away – they're comfortable enough around people to hold their ground, but they certainly won't go after anyone who just leaves them alone.) And because the animals are replacements for naturally occurring, indigenous wildlife, there is a solid legal basis for classifying them as wildlife rather than livestock. The inbreeding and overpopulation problems could be solved by selectively culling the herd – they don't have any natural predators in the park except for unusually large or ambitious alligators, so this may be a necessary evil.

As for the risk of escapes, bison and horses outside the park are no more dangerous than those within its boundaries. And seriously, people who choose to live on the edge of a wildlife preserve have no right to get their panties in a twist if a beastie or two occasionally breaches park borders. When I lived in California, I knew that having a well-stocked earthquake kit and stabilized bookshelves were part of the price of living there. When I moved to Florida, I knew my earthquake kit should be re-purposed as a hurricane kit. Every place has its advantages and risks, and dealing responsibly and non-hysterically with the latter is called being a grown-up.

Speaking of which... some of the best commentary on this half-baked plan came from the Independent Florida Alligator, the University of Florida's (technically unofficial) student newspaper. Having taught at UF for two years, I can characterize the typical UF student as bright, but still a work in progress. But some of those darn kids actually nailed down the inconsistencies of this proposal with laser-sharp accuracy. I'll just quote some of their better comments on the matter. First, there's this righteous snarkfest. Then there are these more modest comments:

"45 bison don't have enough room on 21,000 acres???
No one can see them, yet having 45 of them risks injuring people: which is it?

And the prairie is NOT a petting zoo; reducing the healthy herd to 8 females stuck standing around the visitor center sucks. Why not add a sign at the visitor's center: 'we sold all the male bison to meat factories and there are no bison actually on the prairie. We just keep these here to give the impression wild animals roam free! Enjoy your view'
"

"Little children have walked the trail and seen the bison from up close! The bison are prone to move away from people and have not been a problem, The repair of fences could vastly reduce the "risk to the community."
The thirty years that the bison have been there has not produced enough concern for fences or bison -- nor a problem.
Lastly, Why would you give away a herd worth $$$$$ Follow the money!
"

"..'the Florida Park Service believes this is the best course of action after consulting with UF geneticists and the National Bison Association, a non-profit organization that matches bison sellers to meat buyers.'
Boy sounds like they have the animals' best interests in mind!"


Park volunteers I've talked to echoed the second commenter's concern: the plan is for the Park Service to simply give away the meat from several dozen bison. If they must cull some of the animals, the volunteers argued, why not sell them? Buffalo meat is more expensive than beef on the commercial market, and the monies made from meat sales – if a cull is deemed necessary – could go toward the upkeep of the fences surrounding the park. One volunteer said he calculated that the funds that could be earned from selling a few animals a year at retail value could keep the fences around the park maintained – and the rest of the animals safe.

A public hearing on the matter is scheduled for Tuesday, November 30 at 7:00 p.m. Details are available here (scroll down to the bottom of page 3). If you live around here and care about our state parks staying distinct from petting zoos, you should consider dropping by.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Failure To Launch


A late breakfast at the Viera Wetlands.

Florida both sucks and rocks. On the sucky side are sticky 100-degree summers, man-eating mosquitos, and a political climate that would make most Third World banana republics look like Switzerland. Honest to God, the stuff in Carl Hiasaen's novels is not exaggeration.

On the upside, there's an ecosystem like none other in the US -- third-magnitude springs seemingly behind every bush, a dizzying inventory of dragonflies and butterflies, and of course, tons of birds, including several species not found anywhere else in the US. And a couple weekends ago, Glenn and I spent an excellent weekend looking at them.

It started with what used to be a routine event: the scheduled launch of the Space Shuttle, another wonderful and purely Floridian thing. Once upon a time, I had been a technical writer on the Space Shuttle program (it's not nearly as exciting as it sounds) and always felt a bit of pride whenever one of those things went up. Over time, I stopped looking for announcements of upcoming launches. But now the program was coming to an end, and this would be the second-to-last scheduled flight. Glenn thought it would be fun to photograph a space launch, we were only a two-hour drive from Cape Canaveral -- so off we went.

We knew, too, that the launch was likely to be delayed or cancelled--it almost always has been as of late. But even if this happened, there were still birds to see in the area. Lots of birds.

The launch two Fridays ago (a re-try from failed attempts on Wednesday and Thursday) was scheduled for 3:00. So we left Gainesville before sunrise and planned to spend the morning at the Viera Wetlands, about half an hour south of our planned launch viewing site in Titusville. At Viera, two potential life birds for both of us -- a Snail Kite and a Great Cormorant --had been reported, and even better, both had been making regular appearances over the past week or so.

We got to the Viera Wetlands at 9:00 and I immediately felt an alien sensation: cold. It was REALLY cold. Back in Gainesville, temperatures had been in the mid-eighties until a few days earlier, and it did not occur to me to bring a jacket. For that matter, I had totally forgotten that I even owned such an object, and after about half an hour, I found myself digging through my overnight bag (we were spending the night with Glenn's photographer friend Harry) and putting the second shirt that I had bought over the one I was wearing. Never mind that they weren't in even remotely harmonious colors and one of them had stripes and one of them a print. I was COLD.

This was one of those times I was glad I don't have kids: they would have been humiliated.

But thankfully, the wetlands were nearly free of other people, except for a few retiree birders, who generally have no business lecturing others about their fashion choices. And there were a lot of birds: within fifteen minutes of our arrival, we got great looks at two birds that almost never appear in our area, only a two-hour drive away: a pair of Caracaras and a noisy exhibitionist Limpkin.

And after about two hours of searching, we found the Snail Kite!

This bird was either an adult female or a juvenile. Still, it was distinctive and cool, and a new bird for both of us. Glenn called Harry to let him knew we'd arrived and found the Kite, and he told us the shuttle launch had been (unsurprisingly) scrubbed because of technical issues. But we no longer cared: this gave us more time to look for birds.

After a pleasant lunch chez Harry, he drove with us back to the wetlands to look for the Great Cormorant--who was exactly where Harry had said it would be:


After getting our Great Cormorant, we took another spin through the wetlands to get more looks at the Snail Kite. Then we headed back to Harry's place, where he showed off his cooking skills and his new barbecue by grilling up a raft of enormous steaks.

And it no longer mattered that the Space Shuttle launch had been scotched once again. We got two life birds, a splendid dinner, and a long evening with good friends. What more can one want?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Life Goes Ani

Fall migration has been great. So great, I've been too busy looking at birds to write about it. But I hope to make up for this shortly.

Last weekend was supposed to be the peak of fall migration for north-central Florida, and I was determined to squeeze in as many sightings as possible. But Saturday's Alachua Audubon field trip to Bolen Bluff-- where I had a record fifteen-warbler day this time last year--was pleasant, but uneventful: lots of Black-and-white Warblers and American Redstarts, but not much else.

The most memorable bird of the trip was several miles away. We had worked our way to the bluff and down into the prairie basin when the news arrived.

"GROOVE-BILLED ANI! GROOVE-BILLED ANI AT THE OBSERVATION DECK AT LA CHUA!" yelled one of the hard-core birders, holding up his cell phone. He had just gotten a call from the local birdhead who had just found it. We watched in puzzlement as he sprinted away from the rest of the group.

"Hey, where are you going?" our trip leader asked.

"GROOVE-BILLED ANI!" he yelled back.

As we progressed down through the prairie looking at Indigo Buntings and early Savannah Sparrows, we talked about the Groove-billed Ani. First, we explained what it was for the beginning birders present, who were beginning to think that the rest of us were insane. Then, we marveled at its presence in Paynes Prairie: these birds are rare visitors to our neck of the woods and this would be only the tenth sighting on record.

On the next morning's trip to Palm Point, everyone was still talking about it. We learned that our friend from the day before had shlepped two miles back to the Bolen Bluff trailhead, driven across town, then shlepped another two miles down the La Chua trail--only to find that the Ani had flown the coop. Meanwhile, Palm Point was yielding a terrific assortment of warblers, including a very bold Magnolia,

a strangely bland-looking Cape May,

and a third warble that Glenn managed to photograph, but couldn't ID.

"What is this?" he asked me, pointing at his viewfinder.

I looked at the bird. Some faint stripes on the head. Wing bars, A bit of streaking on the flanks. Definitely a warbler, but what? I called over our trip leader and asked him.

"Wow, that's a Blackburnian!: he exclaimed. "Where did you see it?"

Another confusing fall warbler for our collection--and Glenn had captured a life bird without knowing it!

But everyone was still talking about that Ani. The next morning, I opened my e-mail and found a message saying it had been seen on Sunday morning, while we were looking at warblers at Palm Point. It was still early. I showed Glenn the e-mail.

And then we went to La Chua. One of the great things about being self-employed is that you're free to make stupid decisions. Yes, I should have been making cold calls to potential clients or going to some shmooze breakfast with the Chamber of Commerce, but this was a Groove-billed Ani we were talking about here.

We got to the observation deck around 9:30 and met some local birders on their way out who said they had seen it about ten minutes earlier! So it was still there! Cool.

So we waited.

And waited.

Another birder showed up with a spotting scope. "So you're looking for it too?" I asked. "Looking for what?" he asked.

He hadn't heard about the Ani. But once I told him, he was all in.

An hour later, another birder arrived, an extroverted older guy who immediately introduced himself to the three of us on the platform. "Well, since we're going to be here a while, we might as well get to know each other," he said.

As the day progressed, it got hotter and hotter on the platform, and my lust to see the Ani was rapidly losing out to my lust for a hot pressed Cuban sandwich. The two other gentlemen on the platform with us were great company, but this whole experience was beginning to suck.

By 1:30, we gave up and headed home.

The next morning, I got another e-mail: the first guy who joined us on the platform -- who didn't even know the Ani was there -- had gotten a video of the bird and posted it on YouTube! Apparently, the video was taken around 4:40 that afternoon, which meant that guy had been waiting there a good five or six hours. Holy cow. Well, I guess he was more deserving of a sighting than we were.

And here's what we would have seen if only we waited around another four hours:

Okay. So the Ani had been there for a few days. It tended to show up either early in the morning, or late in the afternoon. So we'd try for an afternoon sighting.

On Tuesday, we got to the platform around 3:30. La Chua is invariably silent and birdless in mid-afternoon, and this was seriously depressing. But as the sun went down, the chorus of Red-winged Blackbirds got louder, White and Glossy Ibises began flying in, and things began to look promising. But no Ani. We waited until 5:00. The park closed at 6:00, and it would take over half an hour to walk back to the trailhead. So we left.

On the way back, we ran into a ranger in his truck, no doubt headed to the observation platform to herd any late lingerers back to the trailhead. I recognized him: he was not only a ranger, but also a serious birder. He stopped his truck and rolled down a window.

"So, did you see it?"

"No."

We saw him again on the way back, parking his truck near the trailhead. We asked him if he had seen anything. He smiled and looked apologetic.

We had missed it by fifteen minutes. Again.

We decided to give the Ani one more shot. But not until Thursday. On Wednesday morning at sunrise, we were meeting with a friend who'd show us where some of the last locally nesting Burrowing Owls were. And unlike the Ani, the Burrowing Owls were right where they were expected to be. Who doesn't love a Burrowing Owl, especially with a face like this?

We resumed our Ani hunt on Thursday morning. When arrived at La Chua, just before eight, it was foggy and cool out, and Palm Warblers and Indigo Buntings were everywhere. But our goal was the Ani, and we didn't stop until we got to the observation platform.

And there, about thirty feet off the trail in the fog, was a mid-size black bird with a long tail--not a crow,nor a grackle. I had brought my scope, and I focused it on the bird: it had a thick beak and shaggy head feathers: our Ani!

We spent the next two hours watching it. Some other local birders joined us on the observation platform, and we all watched in delight as it flew in and landed low in a shrub just off the trail. In books, the Groove-billed Ani looks fierce and predatory, but in real life, it's downright cute -- its vocalizations are gentle and sweet and the bird itself has a weirdly wistful face that reminds me of a Muppet. One of the other birders told me Anis are social birds, and this one looked like it wanted company. We all felt a little sad that it was so far away from others of its own kind. But its generous display for us more than made up for its elusiveness earlier in the week.

And it only took me a week of waiting to get the bird.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Adventures in Recursive Mimicry

Since moving to Florida, I've become enthralled by the wonder that is the White-eyed Vireo. Its bouncy little song -- "Pick up the beer, CHICK!" -- was one of the first new bird songs I learned here, and its gaudy yellow spectacles one of the first field marks.

Last week, I learned something even cooler about this song: not all White-eyed Vireos have the same one. The first and last notes are often imitations of other bird calls. On a birding field trip last weekend, our leader pointed out opening notes of White-eyed Vireo songs that were striking imitations of Summer Tanager call notes, and final notes that sounded like warbler chips. And despite the nearly endless variation in possible sounds to mimic, all these vireos produce that distinct, loud, and bouncy melody. Wow.

I thought about this again this morning when I returned home from a run, and heard something that sounded like the water-droplet call note of a Summer Tanager -- followed by that bouncy little melody. "White-eyed Vireo doing a Summer Tanager mash-up," I thought, feeling quite smart.

I stopped and listened. The bird did it again. And again. Then he switched to a completely different sequence of repeated trills and warbles.

It wasn't a White-eyed Vireo. Or a Summer Tanager. It was a Northern Mockingbird imitating a White-eyed Vireo imitating a Summer Tanager.

How crazy is that??

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I Love the Pain of Warbler Neck!


A Yellow-throated Warbler. The ones with yellow lores, like this one, are native to Florida; the ones with white lores are migrants. So this isn't a migrant. Darn.

THE WARBLERS ARE BACK! And I am itchy and in pain, and it's all their fault.

News of interesting migrants started trickling in a few weeks ago--the master birders of the area, of course, managed to find the season's first waterthrushes and Worm-eating Warblers way before the rest of us. But their good news inspired me to go out and look for migrating goodies.

Among the most sought-after migrating warblers around here is the relatively plain but elusive Kentucky Warbler. I'd seen one only once before, so I decided I had to find one. So two Sundays ago, I went to Bolen Bluff (which has the double advantage of being both a migrant trap and being only a fifteen-minute drive from home) to see what I could find.

When I arrived, I saw lots of critters flying around, both near and far. Unfortunately, about half of them were mosquitos. And mosquitos LOVE me. When I'm around, they won't be deterred by long sleeves or DEET. I'm like a walking French Laundry for mosquitos.

Whatever. Chip notes were echoing temptingly from the trees, and I was there to find warblers. Something dark shot across the trail and landed in a tree only feet away from me: a Veery. Not a warbler, but still a cool migrant.

My walk, accompanied by the ugly buzz of feeding mosquitos, yielded a Northern Waterthrush, two Black-and-white Warblers, two Hooded Warblers, several Northern Parulas, a bold little Ovenbird, an American Redstart--and best of all, my Kentucky!

Bolen Bluff had proven so productive, I decided to go by again with a friend last Sunday. One thing I love about birding Paynes Prairie is that it's never the same place twice. This time, there were flycatchers in abundance (Acadians and some other thing that looked a little like an Eastern Pewee, but wasn't), as well as several Summer Tanagers in strange transitional plumages that made them look quite exotic. My friend and I scored a bright Prothonotory Warbler, and best of all, a bright Blue-winged Warbler who foraged calmly a mere six feet off the ground for several minutes while we watched him, only yards away. This was a lifer for my friend, and a second-sighting-ever for me, and we were both enchanted.

Then he flew closer still, and was only about ten feet from us--at the exact moment some obnoxious insect decided to crawl up my friend's pant leg and bite her repeatedly. This sent her screaming into the woods to find and remove the thing, while that Blue-winged Warbler sat nonplussed only feet away. Sometimes I think the birds and bugs have some kind of deal worked out with each other.

I had left a voicemail with another friend asking her to come with us, but she only got it yesterday. So we decided to go out this morning (both of us were free) and we headed to Palm Point, where a few lucky souls had seen seventeen warbler species in the last few days! When we got there, we found something nearly as good: a couple of the area's master birders, looking for the same things we were. Our official quarry was a male Cerulean Warbler that several people had seen: it would have been a lifer for both me and the friend who came with me, and a year bird for everyone else.

I didn't get the Cerulean (I had to leave before everyone else, so I'm sure they got it, since that's how things normally work), but I was around to see trees full of warblers: Yellows, Prairies, Yellow-throateds, American Redstarts...all the usual fall suspects, but all gorgeous and fun to watch. And all several stories overhead.

Now my neck is sore from being bent backwards for several minutes at a time in pursuit of tiny backlit things in the treetops, and I'm covered with bug bites. But it'll be worth it if I could get a Cerulean. There's still a month of fall migration left, and I'll be waiting.

Monday, August 30, 2010

I Get a Lifer, and It Takes Me a Week To Realize It

The birding situation in Gainesville is oh-so-slightly improving. The temperatures have plummeted to the mid-eighties (woohoo!), and the migrant and wintering warblers have started drifting back in.

A couple of weeks ago--just before things started getting good again--I decided to go on another "practice birding" outing: I'd go and just try to get looks at as many far-away and partly hidden birds as possible, and if any early migrants showed up, all the better. I headed to Bolen Bluff, a well-liked local migrant trap only fifteen minutes from my place. Since it looked like it might rain (it always does at this time of year), I didn't bring my camera.

The parking lot at Bolen Bluff was empty when I got there, which meant I had the place to myself. Just by the entrance, I got my first-of-season Black-and-white Warbler--a good sign. A while later, I spotted a female/juvenile American Redstart--also good.

Off the trail leading out to the prairie, I heard an unfamiliar song: three high, slow notes followed by three fast ones: wee...wee...wee...weet-weet-weet. Or something like that. It was loud and insistent, and whoever was singing must have been close by. Then I saw movement in the trees a few feet above my head--then none. Then something moved again, but it was behind a clump of leaves--but still singing. Ooh, I hate it when birds to that!

I stood there following shadows and movement with my bins for about ten minutes, while my evil little quarry flitted and sang away, slipping in and out of view. Finally, it deigned to perch on a bare branch, and it was an unremarkable little thing indeed: pale and plain underneath, brownish, plain wings and back. Its only defining visual feature from where I was was a distinct white eye line.

Meh, I thought. Red-eyed Vireo. But what's the deal with that song? Maybe it was a juvenile; I've been thrown off by the vocalizations of juvenile sparrows and Northern Cardinals before. Whatever.

I went home, entered my sightings on eBird (I counted my mystery bird among the several Red-eyed Vireos I saw that morning), and forgot about it. Sort of. But that song still bothered me.

A week later, I was flipping through the warbler section in my Kaufman guide when I saw that bird again: Swainson's Warbler! I read the description of its song: "clear,ringing teer, teer, teer, whipperwill."

I hadn't even considered that possibility, but that sounded about right. But I wanted to make sure, so I went to Whatbird and played the Swainson's Warbler song: that was the song I heard at Bolen Bluff! Cool.

After conferring with one of the local birding gurus, I learned that the Swainson's Warbler wasn't just a lifer for me, but a rare sighting in the Gainesville area in general. But my report was solid enough that the gurus let it stand. (They know I'm not clever enough to make up something this laboriously detailed.)

And again I was grateful for that birding-by-ear class I took back in California (we learned not just the songs of Southern California birds, but how to listen to birds in general), and for my decision to spend part of the summer on "practice birding." For once, my practice has paid off!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Birds Are Back, and So Am I

I haven't been posting in the last month or so because until recently, there hasn't been much to report. The combined forces of oppressive Florida heat, summer rainstorms (which are unpredictable, but always seem to hit when I'm outdoors and miles from my car), and plain old summer birding doldrums have left me with precious little to brag about.

This doesn't mean that I stopped birding. No matter how awful the weather is and how few birds are out, I simply can't stop. There have been a few nice summer treats -- Orchard Orioles, Blue Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, and Purple Gallinules -- but not much else.

When the birding is boring, I try to turn it into a skill-building challenge. Sometimes, I know all that's out there are the year-round residents, such as Tufted Titmice and Carolina Wrens--and I make a point of trying to find them in the treetops. IDing them by voice is easy, but actually getting one in view in the thick summer foliage is not. I try to train myself to locate them by the direction of their voices, and focus on discerning bird-like motion in high clusters of leaves.

Sometimes this makes me feel like a complete idiot: I can hear a nearby male Carolina Wren practically screaming into my ear, but I can't get a visual on him anywhere. Lately, big groups of juvenile Northern Cardinals and their parents have been calling each other in just about every bushy habitat in town, but sometimes I can hear at least three individuals but not see a single one. How do they pull this off?

I've been treating these as my practice birds, to keep my reflexes sharp for fall migration. Already, warblers have started trickling back into the area. In the last few weeks, I've gotten my first of season Black-and-whites, Ovenbirds, American Redstarts, and Prothonotaries. The weather is still hot and humid, but the birds tell a bigger story: fall is on the way.

I hope my summer birding practice will pay off.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

This Is the West



I have just returned from a three-week visit back to Southern California, where, like here, it was the midst of the summer birding doldrums.

Two years ago, I would have found my last three weeks of birding thoroughly boring. But since moving away from California, I looked forward to trips back to revisit all the birds I used to take for granted. All those drab, common, little brown or gray things that haunt back yards and parking lots in the Los Angeles area--California Towhees, Bushtits, Wrentits, Black Phoebes--simply do not occur in Florida (ever) and I missed them.

My trip back was mostly filled with family events centered around the arrival of a new nephew (welcome aboard Quinten!), so I didn't get to do as much birding as I would have liked. Still, Glenn and I did manage to get out and revisit a few old haunting grounds.

We met some old birding pals at Bolsa Chica one weekend just to see the sights and catch up with the regular populations of nesting Least and Elegant Terns. But we also got to see the one and only rarity known to be hanging out in Orange County that week: a strangely sedentary Sooty Tern:

Shortly after our visit to Bolsa Chica, we visited the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which houses a large collection of taxidermied birds. One exhibit stated that Sooty Terns hold the record among birds for the longest period of time they can endure in the air without landing. I don't remember the exact duration (weeks? months?) but it was pretty mind-boggling. This made me wonder what the deal was with the mysterious Sooty loafing on that sandbar at Bolsa Chica: Was this normal behavior? Was he sick?

On the way down the coast to visit one of my sisters in San Diego, we stopped by San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, one of other other old favorite spots. Ducks and shorebirds there are plentiful and easy to see, which makes the sanctuary a popular spot for photographers. We saw, among other things, several young American Avocets, still covered with baby fuzz, as well as Black-bellied Plovers and a number of other goodies:


Now I'm back home. There are no Bushtits or Anna's Hummingbirds or Spotted Towhees anywhere near here. But my yard is filled with Northern Cardinals and Tufted Titmice and scolding Carolina Wrens. I rather missed them when I was gone.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Light Summer Post


Another poor helpless creature being needlessly exploited by my selfish need for attention.

I haven't been posting much as of late for a couple of reasons: first, my pathologically bad luck at finding cool birds as of late has left me precious little to write about, and second, I've started another blog on my other obsession, FOOD!

Because birding—even pathetic, unsuccessful birding—makes me hungry.

Anyhow, I was fortunate that several of my posts got "promoted" onto the edited side of salon.com, the online magazine hosting my other blog site. So I got LOTS of hits and comments and good stuff right off, which is a good thing.

Sort of.

Well, yesterday, the kindly editors at Salon agreed to cross-post a fluffy little piece I wrote about, of all things, spaghetti. And within hours there was a (relative) crap-storm of comments accusing me of sexism, xenophobia, imperialism, and just plain old irresponsible ignorance.

Holy crap. This was about SPAGHETTI. It wasn't as though I was writing about abortion or the differences between Long and Short-billed Dowitchers or the continued existence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers or anything else worth really fighting about. I regularly write more snarky and potentially inflammatory stuff here and the only comments I usually get are "Nice photos!"

This is because birders are sane. And polite. And accustomed to staying quiet around deranged creatures.

All this has left me a bit shell-shocked. Now I'm kind of scared to post anything, anywhere, without being virtually yelled at. So I've decided to simultaneously write and flame myself. So you don't have to.

******
Saturday at Morningside Nature Center

June is the quietest—and thus the worst—time of year for north-central Florida birders: the spring migrants are long gone (How dare you refer to them as 'migrants', as if they don't belong! Who gave you the right to judge which birds do or don't belong in your community!) and the year-round residents are mostly hunkered down quietly in their nests.

This, of course, is no excuse not to look for birds. On Saturday, Glenn and I went to Morningside Nature Center to see what we could find. Among other things, we wanted to look for the locally rare Brown-headed Nuthatches that favor the wooded areas there (Just because SOME Brown-headed Nuthatches in Gainesville like to nest in pine flatwoods that doesn't mean ALL of them do! All I see here is peddling in tired stereotypes.) we'd seen a nesting pair there a few months ago and hoped they (and their now-fledged chicks) would still be around.

We didn't see any Nuthatches, but we did see several Red-headed Woodpeckers, one flying continually in and out of its nest hole in a snag not far from the parking lot. We heard, but didn't see, a number of Summer Tanagers, all singing quite loudly. I was pleased to learn recently that they nest here, and will be around all summer. (Did it ever occur to you that Summer Tanagers don't exist for your pleasure? They're hard at work raising families and all you can do is look at them?)

Normally, I like to start my forays at Morningside by the reconstructed 19th century farmstead, whose trees and plantings attract numerous songbirds. But today, the area seemed crowded with visitors being lectured to about traditional Cracker architecture ("Cracker" is a blatantly racist term! I've e-mailed the moderators and told them to remove this post!) by docents in period dress. So instead, we explored the area just around the picnic tables.

Our best bird of the day was a fairly new one for both me and Glenn--and we saw several of them! Just as we arrived and got out of our car, I heard unfamiliar buzzy honks!! high overhead. Flying high above us, at mind-boggling speed, were a pair of Common Nighthawks! (Uh. It wasn't night and those sure as hell aren't hawks. Don't you proofread your crap before posting it??)

They lingered in the area, swooping and diving overhead the whole time we were there. I'd only ever seen them very briefly, around sunset, when they were pointed out to me by more knowledgeable birders.

We also saw an Eastern Bluebird, a Great-crested Flycatcher, several Pine Warblers, and lots of Eastern Towhees, singing and hopping around low in the bushes. Then it started to rain, and we headed home to await another day of birding.

(Well, you still suck.)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Bug Me


A Zebra Swallowtail near High Springs.

There are any number of things to hate about summer in Florida. First, there's the unholy trio of heat, humidity, and hurricanes. Then, there's the relative absence of interesting birds (which is just as well, since hiking around in our summer weather can be downright agonizing.) And finally, summer is when all the really big, sticky, bite-y, and noxious bugs come out to play.

On the upside, some of those bugs are kind of cool looking. And on Saturday, Glenn and I went to look for some of them.

The last Alachua Audubon field trip of the season was not a birding trip, but a butterfly walk, jointly sponsored by some local butterfly club, whose official name I unfortunately forgot. We met in High Springs and planned to carpool to nearby O'Leno State Park, where a Striped Hairstreak had been seen—the first in the county.

This sounded really promising, even though I had no clue what a Striped Hairstreak was. Our patient trip leader unloaded a veritable library of butterfly guides from the back of her car and passed around a few opened to color illustrations of our quarry. It was a little orangey-brown thing that looked almost exactly like the two other hairstreaks on the same page.

Birders, of course, face similar issues: distinguishing scarily similar relatives such as Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers, for instance. But at least birds are more than an inch long.

We set off for O'Leno—and I realized that I had forgotten my binoculars. At least, I thought, we'd be looking for butterflies nearby at eye level, and not at migrating warblers in the treetops.

But once we got to O'Leno, we found the trees filled with birds. Birds! Those same creatures that have been assiduously avoiding me for the past month were now flying and perching and singing out in the open—but too far away to see in detail without binoculars. There were Hooded Warblers (which I just learned are local nesters), Summer Tanagers (ditto), Northern Parulas, and all the familiar and cute year-round residents, just above my head. They must have known that I had left my bins behind.

Birds have a perverse sense of humor.

It didn't take us long to find the Striped Hairstreak, even though it was in foliage well off the trail. Everyone was looking at it in awe. Someone kindly lent me a pair of butterfly binoculars, and maybe I saw it—the little bins weren't meant to focus that far away. Drat.

After we toured O'Leno, we went to our trip leader's home, where she had planted the mother of all butterfly gardens (she said she had tallied 61 species in her yard over the past few years). . She—and all the other Butterfly People—not only recognized all the different local butterflies, but their eggs and caterpillars and the plants that serve as their hosts. And I thought birders were the extreme geeks: I can't think of any birder who'd recognize the eggs and newborn chicks of every bird on his or her life list. I certainly can't.

At any rate, we saw more butterflies in her little garden than in O'Leno. There were also lots of dragonflies, such as this Blue Dasher:

And here is some kind of skipper that the Butterfly People found noteworthy. Again, I'm spacing out on the exact species, since I didn't think to take notes during the trip. Any ID help would be appreciated!

Summer in Florida is bug time, and bug time can be a good time.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Show and Tell

This weekend, I did something I've never done before: I took a non-birder friend birding. This friend is a colleague of mine who's endured God-knows-how-many of my Monday morning weekend birding reports—and she decided that she had to see for herself what all the fuss was about.

So on Sunday morning, I picked her up and took her to La Chua, a perfect place for a birding virgin: a long, flat trail overlooking several waterways, offering guaranteed sightings of Big Pretty Birds. And for the first time in weeks, the birds decided to cooperate with me. (I suspect they decided to make an appearance for my friend's benefit, not mine.)

Near the trailhead, I set up my spotting scope so she could get good looks at the nesting Osprey pair, and while we were there, a Brown Thrasher and a Great-crested Flycatcher lingered close by—close enough for good looks even without optics. Other usual-suspect birds—Northern Mockingbirds, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees—hopped around nearly, singing loudly and allowing more good looks.

I was counting on a short trip; I figured that a non-birder would grow quickly bored of staring into clumps of foliage for signs of movement. But my friend was surprisingly game—and naturally skilled. We lingered on the trail by the Osprey nest for a good half-hour, watching songbirds come and go.

We moved on towards Alachua Sink: just before the sink, the trail opens up to a flat expanse of prairie and grazing land. There, we saw several Wild Turkeys—a fairly common occurrence there. But today we got unusually lucky: one of the male birds was in the middle of a feverish courtship display:

This dude kept up his prancing and preening for a good half hour, while a nearby female pointedly ignored him. We kept tabs on their seduce-and-snub act while looking out for other birds in the area: a group of three Red-bellied Woodpeckers (a family?), a Blue Grosbeak, and passing overhead, a Sandhill Crane and a Mississippi Kite. Another productive half-hour spent standing nearly still.

Near the sink, we got another good summer bird, and an ideal piece of avian eye candy for a new birder: a Purple Gallinule:

Along the main part of the trail, we saw all the usual egrets and herons (though not the Least Bitterns that others had reported seeing a few days earlier), as well as Wood Storks and the whole range of non-avian wildife known to inhabit the area: a huge herd of bison, wild horses and pigs, a four-foot long soft-shell turtle, and of course, dozens of alligators.

I was happy and grateful that the birds and other critters were all out and about for my friend. Maybe now she understands what all the fuss is about.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Glenn's 15 Minutes of Fame!

Just a quick post: Glenn was the featured photographer on Smugmug's Photography Corner this month! His interview (and an assortment of his photos) are here..

Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

eBored

The migration gods frowned on me for the second weekend in a row: In what should have been the last weekend of the big spring migrant push north through Florida, I scored exactly two migrant warblers. So instead of contemplating the wonders of birds, I'll contemplate the wonders of a tool every birder should take advantage of: eBird.

EBird rules: It's an easy way to keep your lists (and will even sort your sightings out by date and location) AND all your sightings will be made available to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology for their investigation of bird life. It allows you to share your lists with other users or even e-mail them to random people who aren't eBird users.

But eBird occasionally sends me into spasms of angst. Whenever I enter my sightings in eBird, I'm aware that I'm not just doing it for myself, but for the Sake of Science! So I'd better be darned sure of my ID when I click on those little boxes by bird names. What if those shiny black things I saw were Boat-tailed Grackles rather than Common Grackles? Would this bad information—compounded exponentially by all my other misidentifications over the years—cause the hard-working folks at Cornell to have a completely skewed view of grackle populations in Florida, leading to misguided policy decisions that could cause the whole lot of them to go extinct? AACK!

Citizen science comes with certain responsibilities. And occasionally, the usually pleasant early-afternoon task of logging my morning sightings onto eBird sends me into an existential panic attack. For instance, take this typically atypical session:

Observation type:

"Travelling count", according to eBird guidelines,refers to counts taken while moving over a specified distance for a certain duration. "Area" count" refers to counts made while covering the same patch of ground repeatedly. Which box do you check when you go somewhere, bird the parking lot for half an hour, wander a mile down a trail, bird a patch down there for an hour, then come back?

What the hell. Travelling count.

Date:

What day was Saturday anyhow? Did I leave my calendar in my office again?

Distance covered:

If you birded a loop trail, does the distance refer to the circumference of the loop, since that is what you physically walked, or the area of the territory bounded by the loop, since that's where all the birds you saw came from? And how do you calculate that anyhow if you don't know how long the trail was? Or if the loop doesn't actually form a circle, but an irregular blob, and your calculus skills are really rusty?

Okay, 3 miles. Because it's a nice round number.

Number of people in your birding party:

I went there alone. So that's one. But then I ran into Rex and Phil and this couple from Orlando. So that's five. Then I ran into Cecelia and Barbara and Craig, but then Rex left and Cecelia and I split from the rest of the group to look for King Rails, and on the way back we ran into Craig again and his roommate from college so that makes it..

Still five?

Kirtland's Warbler is an excellent observation! Please click to confirm.

Yikes, did I actually click Kirtland's Warbler? I meant Common Yellowthroat. My bad.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker is an excellent observation! Please click to confirm.

What, you don't believe me?

But in the end, it's worth the angst. I've got a convenient online database of all my sightings—a virtual scrapbook of my outings. And I'm helping advance science (in the same way I used to "help" in the garden when I was three). And the collective wisdom of the thousands of seasoned birders who also swear by eBird should cancel out the negative effects of my screwups.

I hope!

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Day at Fort De Soto


Fort De Soto is Da Bomb! Or a bomb, depending on when you go.

It is a truth widely acknowledged among Florida birders that the single best thing a person can do during spring migration is head to Fort De Soto County Park , where warblers and tropical vagrants drip from the trees like blooming flowers, their little beaks dripping with the sweet purple juice of the plentiful mulberries that grow all over the park. Fort De Soto during migration is Da Bomb. No, not just Da Bomb. More like Hiroshima and Nagasaki and every bomb past, present, and future combined.

"OH..MY..GOD!" an acquaintance gasped orgasmically when recalling last spring's Alachua Audubon trip there. Her eyelids fluttered and her hand trembled as it passed over her rapidly beating heart. "It... was...AMAZING! ! We had TWENTY-FIVE species of warblers! And there were thrushes EVERYWHERE!"

"One year I saw THREE cuckoo species in the same tree! At the same time!" another friend recalled dreamily."

"I can't believe you didn't go last year! YOU HAVE TO GO!" exhorted another friend.

So we went. And since the trip started at 8 a.m. and Fort De Soto is about 150 miles south of us, we got up at 4 a.m., pumped ourselves up with caffeine, and set off for our super-fantabulous day of warbler-watching.

And at about 7:30, we found ourselves in a stunningly beautiful park buffeted by what felt like 30 mph wind gusts. Not good. And a St. Pete birder helping organize his Audubon chapter's field trip told us that things had been unusually quiet for the past few days.

For this we got at at 4 a.m. and drove nearly three hours??

No matter. Our hardy band of Gainesville birders assembled just before 8 and pressed on. (As did several other Audubon groups, who had all planned to be here at the height of migration.) We started at the still-quiet beach, where we got a nice inventory of shorebirds, including Piping Plovers and American Oystercatchers. The latter were strangely unafraid of people.

Just as I had feared, we ended up seeing more birders than actual birds at all the famous hotspots in the park. The vaunted mulberry trees were waving violently in the wind, with only a few unusually persistent Cedar Waxwings clinging to their branches. Near North Beach, Glenn got his life sightings of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a Veery. An Indigo Bunting made a brief appearance, as did a female Black-throated Green Warbler. A male American Redstart lingered in the area for most of the day:

But the best bird we saw was this one:

We all agreed this guy was clearly a Black-and-white Warbler; he was feeding and moving exactly like every other Black-and-white I've ever seen. Was that strange head pattern a form of melanism? Or was he a crossbreed? Did he any idea he was a crazy-looking freak of a bird?

Our merry band of birders slogged through the wind and nearly birdless silence of the woods until around 5:00, stopping only for a brief lunch break. We chatted about birds, food, plants, and past trips to Fort De Soto that were SO, SO much better. In the company of fun people in a pretty place, the absence of interesting birds didn't really matter all that much. It was still a good time.

We'll definitely be back—after all, it can only get better!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It Could Have Been Worse


Every slasher flick needs one of these!

This weekend, a dream nearly came true, and it was not a good thing.

Last week, I kept having this awful spring migration anxiety dream: I could just tell the trees were dripping with birds, but my parents/family/friends all needed me to be somewhere else. In my dream, I kept telling everyone (including my darling birder husband) that there were tons of warblers and tanagers and buntings outside, but they wanted to stay inside and nap or go shopping or something else equally boring, and for some reason, I was obliged to join them.

But of course, dreams and reality are (usually) two different things. And this weekend was looking pretty darned good: On Saturday, we were headed to Palm Coast to see one of my old Sea and Sage Audubon buddies, who was out here to visit another old friend. She said she wanted to go birding with us, and that the friend she was staying with would hook us up with a local birder. Cool.

The first sign that things were going south was the fact that our Palm Coast birder connection had just gotten out of bed when my friend's host called her, around 10:00 on Saturday morning. Could this person possibly be a real birder? It turned out, predictably, that the answer was no: she was a darling person with a personality I wish I could bottle and sell, but the only birds she had any interest in were raptors. All those "little things" held no interest for her. Sigh.

But in her company, we did manage to see several Bald Eagle and Great Horned Owl nests, as well as several adorable not-quite-fledged owlets, who looked like giant Muppets.

It was a great seasonal treat. But I still wanted my warblers.

Well, there was always Sunday back in Gainesville—when there would be an Alachua Audubon trip to River Rise State Park, where I had my life sightings of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, as well as numerous sightings of Summer Tanagers, Black-throated Blue Warblers, and dozens of other goodies last year. If we left Palm Coast before sunset, we'd be back in Gainesville in time for a nice home-cooked dinner and a reasonably early night in preparation for a morning of warbler-chasing.

But about halfway back to Gainesville, my car started shaking and riding weirdly—a seriously flat tire. Luckily, there was a long right-turn lane just ahead; we pulled into it, turned on the emergency blinkers, and called AAA. And waited.

Then I noticed the odd rectangular blocks of stone sticking out of the brush just off the side of the road. Tombstones. Gnarly. Don't about half of all teen slasher flicks in the world start with a couple getting a flat tire right by a cemetery? And the sun was about to set, too.

So our romantic Saturday night consisted of driving around the dreary town of Palatka on our tiny little spare tire, looking for an open tire shop where we could get our flat tire patched or replaced. No luck. And our options were (1) spending the night in a town whose distinguishing features are a huge bail-bond shop and huger adult superstore or (2) driving the remaining 60 miles back to Gainesville on that tiny little spare at 40 mph with our emergency blinkers on, gaining us the emnity of every driver in north-central Florida. We chose the latter option. It sucked less than the former, but not by much.

And Sunday's trip to River Rise also seemed to be a wash: We dragged our sleep-deprived carcasses all the way out there only to find that nobody but us and one other birder buddy had any interest in stopping and looking for treasured migrants—or for that matter, any birds at all. Summer Tanagers and Yellow-throated Vireos were singing everywhere, but nobody wanted to stop and look for them. Instead, we sprinted grimly down the trail and only stopped to discuss...trees. Okay, trees are cool. But they're here year-round, don't move and are freaking easy to find. Migrant birds are not. Seriously. Can't that discussion about the difference in bark patterns between loblolly and short-leaf pines wait until summer??

But at the very end of the trip, the outing was redeemed: Just as we were about to leave, we found a feeding flock containing a Hooded Warbler, a Worm-eating Warbler, a Black-and-white Warbler, and a handsome male Common Yellowthroat. The absence of chlorophyl in any of these organisms caused most our our group to roll their eyes in boredom (this was an Audubon trip; why were they even there??) , but I didn't care. I'd gotten my warbler fix for the week. It wasn't the best I'd ever had, but still, my first worm-eaters and hoodies of the year.

And best of all, I made it out of a creepy cemetery in a sleazy prison town alive, just before sunset. Thank goodness for small favors.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Snottiest Grackle in the World


Boat-tailed Grackles are boringly common out here, so despite being big and noisy, they're easy to ignore when you're looking for more exotic birds.

But not this guy. He and his cohorts were strutting snootily around the Viera Wetlands last weekend as if they owned the place—which I supposed they do. I loved how he marched about with his shoulders pushed back and his chest pushed forward, with a nearly military bearing, all while puffing up the feathers on his head like some kind of tribal headpiece. He and the other male Boat-taileds seemed to be involved in an ongoing pissing match, with each noisily attempting to chase off the others.

I'm pretty sure this was all springtime hormones at work: While their men postured and posed, the duller female Boat-taileds darted through the reeds bearing nesting materials.

The guys take charge of the grand gestures, while the girls do all the heavy lifting. The lives of Boat-tailed Grackles look distressingly familiar.

The Boat-taileds weren't the only birds showing off at the wetlands. We travelled to Viera because one of Glenn's friends had told him that Limpkins were nesting here. But when we arrived, his friend had bad news: An alligator had paid a visit to the nest the night before.

The alligator had managed to take a nest full of eggs just days from hatching—but fortunately, he didn't get any of the adults. And the adult Limpkins we saw were bold and noisy; the unfortunate events of the preceding day didn't seem to slow them down. This Limpkin seemed to follow us from pond to pond, almost as though he wanted our attention. At times, he or she was almost too close to photograph:

The Limpkins were a treat since they don't occur (anymore) in Gainesville—at least not on a regular basis. We also had fun looking for the more elusive and sneaky birds, such as Marsh Wrens and Least Bitterns. We managed to find several Least Bitterns on their rare forays out into the open: our first sightings of this bird this year:

The wetlands looked and felt different—and the birds acted differently—than on our last visit, on New Year's Day. Then, it was foggy and quiet except for a few other hard-core birders determined to start their year lists with the visiting Masked Duck.

That's a cool thing about the best birding places: they're never really the same place twice.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Fire Birds


A Brown-headed Nuthatch in Ocala National Forest

One of my favorite Alachua Audubon field trips last year was the spring trip to Ocala National Forest, where I got my life sightings of Bachman's Sparrows and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Glenn wasn't here to join me then, but he is now—and yesterday 's trip back to Ocala National Forest was his turn to discover these birds for the first time.

The trip started auspiciously: One of the first birds we spotted as we entered the forest was a Florida Scrub Jay. These rare birds are growing ever rarer, but when they're around, they're surprisingly easy to see. This is because they're obsessively curious and nearly fearless: almost every time I've stopped to check one out, it would fly in closer to check me out. And yesterday's bird did exactly that: he flew and hopped until he was just feet away, at eye level.

We parked our cars and started the main part of our walk in the same place we explored last year—in a sunny, grassy stand of pines where the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers were known to be nesting. An unfamiliar but very pretty song rang out repeatedly from the pines—our guide identified it as our Bachman's Sparrow. The birds only like open grasslands and recently burned areas, which is why I haven't seen them in my usual birding spots in town, but they were clearly here in big numbers:

It didn't take us long to find the stand of nesting trees favored by the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers: trees with nest holes are clearly marked with white paint around their trunks. But the white-painted trees were quiet, except for the songs of Pine Warblers and the call notes of Palm Warblers.

We moved on to an area that had undergone a controlled burn just the week before. Black, ashy twigs crumbled under our feet and pale, limp cactus paddles caught in the fire looked as though they had been steamed to death—which they probably were. I didn't think it looked too promising for birds—but then a faint chorus of squeaks, like the sounds of a dog's plastic chew toy, grew louder in the trees: the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers! Several of them were flying around, chasing each other and squeaking loudly.

And just like last year, they were too fast and too high to be photographed. But they were there, and they were very cool.

Also squeaking loudly were several Brown-headed Nuthatches, who stayed low to the ground and were a lot more cooperative for photos.

We stood in the burnt-out area for the better part of an hour, watching the birds chase each other. The controlled fires keep the underbrush low and promote the kind of open pine woods and grassy undercover that birds such as Bachman's Sparrows and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers like.

Out of the destruction comes life for vulnerable birds: we had discovered a strangely appropriate place to bird on the day before Easter.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

It's on the House: A Repost

Two things I almost never do here are (1) repost material I've already written and (2) write seriously about natural history. I avoid the former because it's lazy and boring, and the latter because there are birders out there far more knowledgeable about the history and science of birding than I am (for instance, this guy and this girl.)

But today, I'll make an exception and repost a piece I wrote on the life of an important, but seriously under-appreciated figure in birding history—the only one I've ever attempted to do. As my friends in Oaxaca and Barcelona would say disfrutele!

******************
Yesterday was the first day of the term at the school where I teach, so I got to campus early to gear up for my two classes of the day. (Nothing makes waking up on Mondays easier than the prospect of lecturing for 4 straight hours! Ha ha.)

But the great thing about getting to campus early is that I get to check out the birds. At 8 a.m., even my busy urban campus is loud with birdsong: Cedar Waxwings, Bushtits, Yellow-rumped Warblers, random parrots I can't ID. My third-floor office overlooks a stand of jacaranda trees that top out at about the second story of my building. I often see flocks of birds flitting about, but they're too tiny and far off to ID. I'm tempted to bring in my spotting scope and set it up by my window, but everyone thinks I'm weird enough as it is.

By mid-afternoon, my lectures for the day were over, and I found myself, uncharacteristically, sitting in my office without any urgent work-related tasks. So I decided to take a break, surf the web, and see what I could learn about some of the more routine birds I see on campus.

And I was surprised by what I found: as I've found out in my birding by ear class, nothing is ever as obvious as one would think. Birds do things one wouldn't expect. And people who work with birds aren't who we think they are, either.

For instance, take the House Sparrow: as all birders know, it's a European import usually seen Stateside foraging for muffin crumbs outside of any Starbucks. (On campus, they're usually seen eating hamburger bun and tortilla chip crumbs outside the food courts.)

What I didn't know, however, was that the little junk-food-junkies weren't named for their predilection for human edifices, but for the 19th-century birder who first studied and formally identified them as a distinct species: Gregory House, a British surgeon and amateur naturalist.

House was an avid traveller and taxonomist with an obsessive eye for detail: during his North American travels, he drew numerous sketches of, and wrote extensive descriptions of, two other seemingly unremarkable birds that everyone else thought too boring to bother with: these birds are now known as the House Wren and House Finch.

Unfortunately, House suffered from chronic pain brought on by a leg injury suffered during the Crimean War. He died of an opium overdose--perhaps accidental, perhaps not--at the age of 54.

And today--House's birthday, April 1--seems like a perfect occasion to honor this unheralded champion of the common bird.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Two of Everything!


Get a room!

My car is coated with pollen, my normally polite students are grumpy and distracted, and field of boring (non-avian) warblers on American Idol is almost down to the single digits. Which means only one thing:

SPRING IS HERE!

It not only feels like spring, but sounds like spring. On my morning runs (just after sunrise, which is allegedly when all the muggers and kidnappers are back in bed) I hear calls and songs and scolds from seemingly twice as many birds as before, all going at double speed and double volume. The intensity and urgency of their calls makes me want to run faster—but it also tempts me to go home, grab my bins, and walk my route, checking the trees for migrants. Some of the vocalizations are unfamiliar, and I want to know who's making them. Most likely, our year-round residents in a hormone-induced frenzy, but still. Alas, this time-intensive option isn't doable on work days. So I run faster.

At our feeder, we're also seeing signs of spring. Our resident male Northern Cardinal has been feeding his mate, a sign that nesting will soon begin. Two Carolina Wrens have been following each other closely as they explore our peanut feeder and occasional meal worm treats—no doubt a pair. They've been eating heartily in anticipation of —well, whatever it is they're up to! Over the weekend, one of them managed to gobble down two meal worms at once:

I've learned, though, that spring migration doesn't hit Gainesville until relatively late in the season. The summering Northern Parulas are back, and word is out that the first Prothonotory Warblers of the season have been spotted—but we're not expecting a real influx of good stuff for a few more weeks. Meanwhile, our winter birds are still here: the Chipping Sparrows still arrive by the dozen at our feeder every morning, and on Sunday, we got a new bird at our feeder: a wintering American Goldfinch:

Now where was this guy back in December, when I put down major ducats for all that thistle seed nobody touched?