Sunday, January 24, 2010

Random Photos and Haiku for a Quiet Weekend

I was really stoked
Whooping Cranes just down the street!
Oh my freaking god!

Over winter break
A Chestnut-backed Chickadee
North of Monterey.

Near New Smyrna Beach
A tiny Piping Plover
Feeding by the waves.

Florida Scrub-Jay
Looks like his western cousins
But vulnerable and rare.

I must buy more seed
Chipping Sparrows ate it all!
Greedy buggers, them.

The Cardinals are back
Singing and feeding outside
Spring is coming soon.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Big Chill

I love winter in Florida!

North Florida is kind of invisible to most people. When people think of Florida, they think of palm trees and flamingos. Friends and family are flummoxed when I tell them that Gainesville is closer to Atlanta than to Miami. And that it gets frickin' cold here.

Like the last few weeks, for example. Temps plummeted into the teens at night and barely hit the forties during the day. There were rumors that we might get snow (we didn't). But we did get cold. Very cold.

On a Saturday walk at La Chua, Glenn and I found out the hard way that it was even colder out than it looked. Alachua Sink and the surrounding streams, normally rippling with the movement of fish, water snakes, and alligators, were oddly still. Big, clear, sheets of ice covered the streams, and Common Moorhens and American Coots skidded awkwardly over them. Other birds, like this Grackle, went about their business near the edges of the ice:

A lot of birds were feeding closer to the trail than normal. Wood Storks, usually visible only at a long distance from the observation tower at the end of the trail, were foraging in large numbers only feet away from us:

Even odder were the dozens of Turkey Vultures congregating on the islands in the water just off the trail; I'd only rarely seen them there before. It didn't take long for us to figure out why they were there: the icy water was filled with stiff, frozen fish, done in by the cold:

And a great feast was had by all!

Except, of course, for the fish. And the alligators, who were apparently too cold to even put in an appearance that day.

There was no doubt a lot more to see on that cold Saturday, but after a few hours out, my fingers were almost completely numb. By the time we got back to the car, I could barely feel or hold onto the car keys in my pocket. Even after an hour indoors scarfing down an excellent (and hot!) deep-dish pizza, our toes were STILL cold. We wondered if we had frostbite, something neither of us had experienced before. And I wondered how I'd explain to people that I had lost my toes from frostbite suffered while hiking through a swamp in Florida.

Just another gorgeous winter day in our little slice of paradise, somewhat north of the tropics.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Game of Life

Violent video games and birding are not things one generally thinks of at the same time—until now!

This little game has it all: Action! Gore! Cheesy circa-1985-arcade-game music! And an unavoidable reminder of the vulnerability of migrating birds.

Don't expect World of Warcraft-level graphics or animation here—but as you maneuver your flock of geese (I think that's what they're supposed to be) through the gauntlet that is the natural and manmade world, you'll be thankful you're not a migrating bird.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Home Again (Or I Saw My Millionth Eastern Phoebe and Nobody Believed Me)

Seeing Red: A Vermilion Flycatcher at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

My winter break back home in California was everything I hoped it would be: I got treated to a birthday dinner at my new favorite Los Angeles restaurant, my sisters and their spouses (and one very pampered nephew) converged on my parents' place for several days of eating, drinking, and gossip, and I got to catch up with some old friends and an old favorite birding spot.

Glenn and I met up with John and Joan at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary a few days after Christmas. Overhead, I heard the squeaky winter chorus of Cedar Waxwings in the nearly leafless sycamores, and the quacking of ducks—hundreds of them—off the ponds. Then there were more songs from my birding past; the shrieky squeal of Cassin's Kingbirds, the buzz and tail-snapping thwip! of Anna's Hummingbirds, the chattering of Bushtits. San Joaquin looked, sounded, and smelled like home.

Just as my sisters and I immediately check out the fridge upon entering my parents' place, the four of us immediately set out to find all the good stuff that had been spotted recently at the marsh. The first bird we sought out and found was a bright male Vermilion Flycatcher that had been there for several days: it flitted about in the same area for about 20 minutes, allowing us good looks and lots of photo ops.

After we were done ogling the Vermilion, I kicked back and enjoyed the usual suspects, which were not so usual for me anymore: Say's Phoebes, Black Phoebes, yet more Cassin's Kingbirds, and that thing over there...mehh, Eastern Phoebe. Bo-ring.


I'm not in Florida. Eastern Phoebe. Irvine, California. Does. Not. Compute.

"Joan, I think that's an Eastern Phoebe!"

Joan, an experienced East Coast birder, agreed. "You should get a picture of it—someone reported one a while back but no one's been able to find it again."

But I only had my little point-and-shoot camera with me, and by time I got it out, the bird had taken off, never to be seen again. When Glenn caught up with us, we waited in vain for the mysterious bird to return. Why couldn't it be a noisy, in-your-face pain-in-the-butt bird like the Eastern Phoebes in Gainesville?

Whatever. There was still a lot more to see. We got a dizzying inventory of ducks, including some that I had not seen regularly there, such as Wood Ducks, Redheads, Canvasbacks, and Ring-necked Ducks. As we were about to break for lunch, we ran into a couple who said they had just seen a female Common Goldeneye off the footbridge behind Pond C. We were there in a flash—and the Goldeneye was waiting for us:

This made it a Dozen Duck Day. On our way back out to the parking lot (our lunch plans got kicked back an hour by that Common Goldeneye), we spotted someone taking photos of something in the far end of the lower parking lot. We crept closer to see what it was: a Burrowing Owl!

After lunch across the street at Fatburger, we returned to the marsh. By now, it was almost three; there would be about two more hours of daylight. We found a Sora and a Virginia Rail, watched a Peregrine Falcon fly in and land on a tall post, and a while later, watched a White-tailed Kite dive-bombing the Peregrine in an unsuccessful attempt to dislodge him from his perch.

At sunset, we watched a flock of White-faced Ibises circle the front ponds before settling in for the evening. We hugged our friends goodbye until our next trip west, and headed back up to Los Angeles. Once home, I reported my Eastern Phoebe sighting to Orange County Birding, and was met with polite silence. No documentation, no bird!

No matter. It was the other birds that made the day memorable. As for that Eastern Phoebe—I can step outside my place in Gainesville and get one within 10 minutes. So there.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Last and the First

Since my teaching schedule gives me a week off between Christmas and New Year's Day, Glenn and I have developed a tradition of a New Year's road trip: when we were back in California, this generally involved a getaway to a cute (and potentially birdy) spot such as Santa Barbara or Monterey, and a stay in a comfy B&B.

This year, we spent New Year's Eve in the company of the world's largest palmetto bug ("palmetto bug" being a polite Florida regionalism for what other American English speakers call a BIG-ASS COCKROACH); said bug was promenading calmly across the wall behind the beds in our somewhat down-at-the-heels motel. Glenn caught it in a plastic ice bucket and flushed it down the toilet.

Then, as we watched that sparkly ball drop over Times Square, we toasted each other with big bottle of the excellent Arrogant Bastard Ale and marveled that for the first time, we were actually watching the ball drop live, rather than on three-hour tape delay viewed from the West Coast.

And we were exactly where we wanted to be. Our digs were about as romantic as the DMV, but we were just moments away from some of the best birding in Florida: Merritt Island National Wildlife Sanctuary. We had visited the reserve for the first time last spring, loved it, and were curious to see what birds we could find in the winter.

On New Year's Eve, we stopped by the Visitor's Center at the reserve, and, as on our last visit, immediately spotted Painted Buntings on the feeder behind the volunteer greeter's desk. Two males and a greenie were hopping in and out, looking as tame as House Sparrows. But our cameras were in the car, Glenn wanted to look for eastern shorebirds, and we just figured they would be there when we came back later.

They weren't. (A resolution for the New Year; Take advantage of every opportunity as it comes; it may not come again.) But our shorebird hunting at Canaveral National Seashore, located inside the reserve, gave us a gorgeous morning at the beach and my final lifer of 2009: a Northern Gannet:

The Gannets were seemingly everywhere: every few seconds, a flock of a dozen of them would appear in the north, flying south just beyond the surf line. Occasionally, one would dive for a fish. This was a bird I'd never seen before, and wasn't expecting to see, and now there were hundreds of them. A wonderful way to end a year of good birds.

On New Year's day, we woke up reasonably early and set out to the Viera Wetlands, a well-known birding and bird-photography hotspot about 30 miles south of Titusville. Weather reports the previous evening had warned of heavy rain for New Year's day, but it was still (sort of) dry at the wetlands when we got there. And we immediately found ourselves in the company of several hard-core birders eager to get a jump start on their 2010 year lists: my first bird of 2010 was a Loggerhead Shrike, and my second an American Kestrel. Not too shabby.

The other birders soon pointed out the main reason we were there: a male Masked Duck, who had been lingering there for the past few days. It was hiding in a cluster of pickerel weed when we arrived, but was soon chased out into open water by a territorial Common Moorhen. We all agreed we owed one to that Moorhen:

As we admired the Masked Duck, the rain started to come down—but not before we managed to get and photograph another local specialty, a Limpkin:

The rain continued to come down, now in big cold sheets. But it was still a good New Year's day. We ended the old year and started the new with some darned good birds. I hope this bodes well for everything else in the new year.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Just Another Whooping Crane

These things keep turning up in my neighborhood. This one has been around for three days now. What's a girl to do?

Nothing but kick back and enjoy. I reported this guy to Operation Migration, and they told me that this is bird #829 from the fall 2008 migration class. So he/she first came to Florida from Wisconsin, with a flock lead by an ultralight aircraft, last year.

The bird's ID number is a bit misleading. At the moment, there are nowhere near 829 whoopers left on the planet. According to Operation Migration's website, there are only 383 birds in the wild (including those in the ultralight-lead flock) and 152 in captivity. So a grand total of 535 in all.

I've taught undergraduate general-ed classes about this size.

Amazing that a bird this big and strong-looking can be so vulnerable—and yet, seem so happy foraging away only feet from a busy highway.

And even sadder to me is watching all the thousands of drivers just whizzing by this big white apparation without realizing what an amazing sight they have just in front of them. They obviously don't give a whoop.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Preview of Coming Attractions

Happy New Year!

I haven't posted in while, but not for a lack of interesting birds. Just the opposite: I've been all over and managed to find fun stuff just about everywhere. But...since most of my traveling involved either multiple connecting flights during the holiday rush or road trips with overnight stops in numerous random places, I chose to leave my camera behind.

Glenn, however, got some great shots that I plan to post and brag about once we finally get home.

In brief, we traveled from north-central Florida (home)to southern California, then to northern California, then back to Southern California, then back to Florida, this time the Space Coast area. And here are some of the highlights of our trip (in no particular order):

-Vermilion Flycatcher
-Masked Duck
-Common Goldeneye
-Burrowing Owl
-Painted Bunting
-Northern Gannet

And not all of these showed up where one would expect, either.

Details to follow. And all the best for a peaceful, prosperous, and bird-filled 2010!