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.