Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Everything but the Sparrow

Home Improvement: An Osprey and an epic nest in progress.

When I was little, I wasted a lot of time looking forward to the next developmental milestone in my life. I couldn't wait to be able to ride my bike without training wheels. Then be able to stay home without a sitter. Then be allowed to drink coffee and wear makeup and make out. (The latter milestone regrettably arrived only after the "I'm of legal age and you can't stop me" milestone.)

I've not tried to rush my development as a birder so much, but I still celebrate the developmental milestones when they come. When I first started, I was quite proud of myself for figuring out that Snowy Egrets and Great Egrets were indeed different birds, and the former wasn't just a younger version of the latter. Then I mastered all the year-round residents in my area and learned to identify them by sound. And I looked forward to the next steps: Being able to casually toss off words like "primaries", "tertials", and "malar stripe" in the field without referring to the diagram in the Sibley guide. Being able to set up and train a spotting scope on anything, no matter how far away and fast-moving, in seconds. And maybe a few years from now, mastering the "hard" birds I'd been allowing myself to ignore: sparrows, immature gulls, warblers in primary plumage, and Empidonax flycatchers.

Last week, Glenn and I went on Alachua Audubon's trip to Persimmon Point, a part of Paynes Prairie State Reserve not normally open to the public, and there our able trip leaders scared up eight sparrow species, one of which was a lifer for both Glenn and me (a Field Sparrow) and another that was a lifer for him and still a great novelty for me (a Grasshopper Sparrow). And I realized that they indeed looked quite different from the usual Savannah and Vesper Sparrows hanging in the public parts of the prairie, and if I saw them on their own, they'd jump out at me. And I also realized that I wanted to seem them and their relatives again. And so did Glenn.

We couldn't go back to Persimmon Point, but La Chua was right nearby, so we set off for an early-morning sparrow hunt there. When we arrived, the parking lot was nearly empty, but the trees were noisy with birdsong, a portent of a promising day. What was not so promising was my realization that I had left my binoculars at home. So I left Glenn with his photo gear to get a head start on our sparrow hunt, while I drove back home to get them.

While I was gone, Glenn kept himself busy shooting a pair of Osprey building a nest not far from the trailhead. One of them brought in—and subsequently dropped—a stick over six feet long.

Brown Thrashers, Gray Catbirds, Eastern Towhees, and Northern Cardinals were all noisily foraging in the leaf litter not far off the trail. We caught a glimpse of a Hermit Thrush, and saw and heard several White-eyed Vireos hopping in branches just overhead.

We made a point of exploring the trail slowly, in case any interesting sparrows (or other small birds) were around. There weren't—we got a quick glimpse of a single White-crowned Sparrow, and saw a number of Savannah and Swamp Sparrows—but that was about it. The exotica were not about to make a show. It took us a couple of hours of exploration to make it to the observation tower at the end of the trail, and all along the way, people kept telling us that they had seem Whooping Cranes close up. And when we got there, we saw them too:

This guy was standing only ten feet or so from the deck, unworried about the crowds of cooing visitors almost close enough to touch him. Even more amazing was that there was not just one Whooper there, but six—at one point, I saw two groups of three in my binoculars at the same time. And even better than that was that they were vocalizing, something I'd never experienced before. Their cry is strange—long and clear and sort of sad, like a weird cross between a loon and a Canada Goose.

But the best thing about seeing so many Whoopers so close up was watching them interact: one of the three-bird sets clearly consisted of a couple and an interloper, whom the other two kept trying to chase off. I'd never seen Whooping Cranes fight before. Here are two of them, just after they (temporarily) got rid of their unwelcome companion:

So these grand, majestic, seriously endangered birds can be as petty and petulant as everyone else. For some strange reason, I found this somewhat reassuring.

I may not have gotten my desired sparrow fix, but I got a life lesson of sorts—even though I don't quite understand it yet.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Great Backyard Bird Count

Our backyard Yellow-throated Warbler

Some of my best birding as of late has taken place at the kitchen table. We've put up a peanut feeder near our (not-so) squirrel-proof seed feeder in our back yard, and have started putting out a few mealworms every day in hope of attracting interesting insectivores.

So far, our gambit has been paying off—our new, improved collection of yard birds has made its appearance just in time for this year's Great Backyard Bird Count.

We've always had Carolina Wrens flying in to check out what the Chickadees and Titmice are up to, but now they linger longer to sample meal worms and peanuts.

Surprisingly, we've had several kinds of bug-eaters hanging out regularly at the peanut feeder. One of my friends mentioned that she had a Yellow-throated Warbler in her yard that liked to eat peanuts, and we thought this individual was just weird. Now we've got our very own weirdo! He/she comes by at least once an hour, and is our prettiest backyard visitor yet:

Interestingly, the north part of Florida is just about the only part of the country where Yellow-throated Warblers occur year-round. We're hoping he chooses to stick around in the spring and summer.

Besides nut-nomming warblers, we also have Chipping Sparrows experimenting with carnivorism. I'm not sure if this guy actually finished the worm or decided to stick to millet:

This fat Pine Warbler also hangs out regularly at the peanut feeder. He doesn't mind sharing the feeder with Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees, but always chases off the Yellow-throated Warbler if he tries to fly in at the same time. This makes for some interesting aerial battles. Here's our Pine Warbler in a mellow mood this weekend:

I submitted one list for the Great Backyard Bird Count, for a two-hour period at our feeder on Saturday afternoon. Here's what dropped in:

—2 Carolina Wrens
—1 Yellow-throated Warbler
—1 House Finch
—16 Chipping Sparrows
—4 Mourning Doves
—1 Northern Cardinal
—1 Pine Warbler
—1 American Crow (heard overhead)

Conspicuous by their absence were the Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice, usually regular visitors in our yard. In the last few weeks, we've also had a Red-bellied Woodpecker and a Downy Woodpecker flying in to check things out, but they didn't show up this weekend. We've also had one-time appearances by a Common Grackle, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (during the summer), half a dozen curious American Crows, and a young Cooper's Hawk.

And of course, no backyard birding bonanza would be complete without this guy lurking about in the background!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Friday Fiction

Well, I didn't win this month's First Friday competition! (The winning story, was, indeed, deserving of the honor.) As one of my chefs during my ill-advised tour through cooking school would say, "Too bad, so sad!" And also, "There's no crying in cooking." And by extension, nor in writing.

My consolation is that the interwebz is a place where any loser with delusions of talent can post any ole thing while hunkered down in Mom's basement in his/her underwear. (For the record, right now I'm hunkered down in place I pay for myself, with a Yellow-throated Warbler at my peanut feeder and jeans and a comfy sweatshirt over my underwear.)

And here's my story. Because I have to do something with it! Amusez-vous bien.

Big Day

Ed loved birds before he loved me, and he taught me to love them too. I started my life list the day we met. He proposed to me the morning I saw my first Lazuli Bunting. And we've celebrated every anniversary with a Big Day, often dragging our reluctant children along.

Now our life lists are in the thousands, and the children are complaining about our Big Days again.

"You're not supposed to drive at night, remember?"

"We're only out a little before sunrise, dear. "

"But how will we find you if something happens?"

Even some of our birder friends have started up with these lectures. Ed thinks they're just jealous.

But we'd never give up our special day, not with so much left to see. This morning, Ed took me to Santiago Oaks, just as we'd planned: our first Big Day started here, long before it became a park. "Our big day will always be a Big Day," Ed said, squeezing my hand. "Happy anniversary."

We started on the rim of a gorgeous ravine. Phainopeplas swooped overhead, and a few feet down the ravine, brilliant flashes of blue shot through the brush: my favorites!

“Ed, look! Lazuli Buntings!”

Ed aimed his camera down the ravine. “Will you look at that. Bill’s going to be awful jealous when he sees my shots of these little guys.” He stepped off the trail.


“It’s not that far; I just need to get a bit closer for this shot.”

“But look how steep it is!”

“Claire, I know what I’m—DAMN!”

I heard gravel and dry twigs giving way under his feet, and instinctively, I reached out and grabbed his wrist. But Ed’s a lot bigger than me, and we both tumbled into the brush.

Somehow, we both managed to make it back up to the trail, with Ed cursing the whole time. “My camera! Damned lens is cracked! And no one will fix this model anymore!”

“Sweetheart, it’s okay.”

He looked at me and smiled. “Of course it is, dear. At least we found those Lazulis. I don’t even need to go down there; look how bold they are.”

The Lazuli Buntings were now in the bushes right off the trail, just uphill from us. They didn’t seem to notice as we approached them. We moved closer. The Lazulis flitted about, oblivious to our presence.

We sat on a flat rock just across the trail from them and watched, mesmerized. I didn’t even need my binoculars to get a close look at them—every wingbeat, every tiny twitch and flutter was crystal-clear. We no longer cared if our Big Day count stayed in the single digits.

“Wow,” Ed said softly, “It doesn’t get any better than this, does it?”

From where he was facing, Ed couldn’t see the startled hikers pointing down the ravine, the ranger yelling into his walkie-talkie, or the paramedics struggling to carry two stretchers down the hillside. But I think he knew.

“No, sweetheart,” I said. “It doesn’t.”

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Spacing Out

Goodies and loot in the exhibition hall at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival

The coastal areas around Cape Canaveral are know for exceptional birding spots; birding festivals are known for attracting exceptional talents in the craft and science of birding, so it stands to reason that a birding festival just north and inland of Cape Canaveral would be an event to remember. And it was. Sort of.

This year's Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival was a sprawling five-day bird orgy, featuring both Kenn Kaufman and David Sibley as keynote speakers, and every seasoned Florida bird-nerd with a quadruple-digit life list as a field trip guide. Glenn and I got there on Friday afternoon, the third day of the festivities (and the first day I could get away from work), and jumped into the fray.

It didn't take long for us to find birds: in the back of the exhibit hall was a collection of rehabilitated raptors, courtesy of the Raptor Project. The raptors somehow managed to look both fierce and cuddly at the same time:

The star of the show was an Bald Eagle named Uncle Sam, who lost part of a wing tip in a collision with a car. He was prominently perched in front of a large American flag:

The ringleader of the raptor exhibit put on several shows, which ended with soaring music, a spotlight on Uncle Sam, and an affirmation of how wonderful life is in the U. S. of A. It was heartfelt and sincere, though I couldn't help remembering that my first-ever sighting of a Bald Eagle took place in Canada. And the graphic effect of the eagle against the flag made me think of this.

An ironic thing about bird festivals is that I always end up seeing fewer birds than I would in a typical weekend stomping around at home, and this time was no exception—this was largely because all the field trips we would have liked were filled by the time we got around to registering. But we did get to attend a number of informative workshops on warbler and raptor ID, and the effects of weather on bird migration. They were all clearly presented and useful—but just made me want to go out and See Stuff.

The one field trip we managed to get into was focused on ducks at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. We saw hundreds of them—but all were ones familiar to us from California (including a Eurasian Wigeon), and almost all seemed to be miles away; discernable only with spotting scopes. Yawn.

So Glenn and I amused ourselves with birds that were, to our mind, a bit more interesting—such as this immature Roseate Spoonbill, who flew in to feed only feet away:

Just outside the reserve, we also saw some exceptionally bold gulls shamelessly harrassing Brown Pelicans for food:

Just before we returned home on Sunday afternoon, we attended Kenn Kaufman's keynote address, "Pride in the Name of Birding" I suspect he'll want to give it again, so I won't give up too much of it, except to note that it involved a number of shaggy dog tales, some of which involved actual (or imagined) dogs:

On our way out back to our car, and our drive back home, we ran into a couple of Gainesville birding pals—who announced excitedly that just outside the auditorium, a Cattle Egret had just eaten a female/immature Painted Bunting (the latter was already dead; probably from a window collision). And we'd missed it by minutes.

Oh well. What do you expect to find at a birding festival—birds or something?