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.