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..


Tuesday, May 4, 2010


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.


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!