Sunday, February 13, 2011

Good Birds, Near and Far

Usually, when I don't post for a while, it's because I'm either too busy or haven't seen any birds worth writing about. But lately, I've found myself in a novel predicament: I've been too busy to blog but have seen TONS of good stuff -- way more than than can be done justice in a single post.

But some sightings are too fun not to share. So here is an abbreviated highlight reel of my last few weeks of birding.

1. Do You Want To Get Bitten by an Endangered Bird?

So said the conservationist leading our Alachua Audubon field trip through the Tall Timbers Research Station and the nearby Wade Tract, near Tallahassee, last Sunday morning. It was just after sunrise, and he had just caught and banded a very grumpy female Red-cockaded Woodpecker, which people couldn't resist trying to pet:

We had arrived at Tall Timbers on Saturday afternoon, just in time for a miserable downpour. This didn't stop us from our planned afternoon bird walk through the reserve, where we saw and heard two kinds of nuthatches: Brown-headed and White-breasted. The former are rare in Gainesville and the latter have long been extirpated, so this was worth getting wet. After a cozy night in Tall Timbers' very rustic bunkhouse (as a veteran of last year's trip told me, "it costs five dollars a night and is worth every penny") we got up way before sunrise, waited for the world's slowest drip coffee maker to do its job, then took off to the Wade Tract, just over the Georgia border, for a morning of sparrow and woodpecker banding.

Besides the RCW, our wrangling and banding efforts yielded a surprisingly colorful Bachman's Sparrow:

Worth getting up at 5 a.m. and slogging through the woods in 30 degree weather? Absolutely.

2. Snow Day in Florida

Yesterday's Alachua Audubon field trip was also to an out-of-town destination: Matanzas Inlet, near St. Augustine. One of the things Glenn and I have missed since moving to Gainesville is regular access to shorebirds -- back in California, we hit the beach just about every weekend to look for and photograph sandpipers, ducks, and waders. So we were looking forward to the opportunity to walk around on a real beach once again.

We also learned in the days leading up to the trip that a couple of rarities had been lingering there: a Snow Bunting and an Iceland Gull, which would be lifers for both of us.

We were SO there.

So we woke up at 5 a.m. yet again, joined up with the rest of the group at a local meeting spot, and carpooled to St,. Augustine -- where it was, once again, way colder than anyone had expected.

After half an hour checking out gulls and terns (including several Greater Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls) we saw something promising: another group of birders about 100 yards from us staring intently at something nearby .

"They must have the Snow Bunting!" someone said, and we moved towards them as quietly and discreetly as a dozen really hyped-up people possibly could. Glenn was photographing gulls a distance away from us and I wondered if I should fetch him to find the Snow Bunting.

"Guys, watch where you're going; from where they're looking, the bird must be really close to you!" our trip leader yelled.

"Omigod, there it is!" screamed someone just in front of me.


"THERE!!" She pointed at a cream-colored pouf that shot into the air, fluttered across the beach -- and landed right in front of Glenn!

A few minutes later, we all the bird in our sights. We explained to a curious bystander that the bird we were looking at normally lives in the far north, and rarely appears in Florida. "You guys drove 90 miles to see a bird?" he asked.

Hell, yes.

3. The Orange Revolution

I love my backyard birds, but I always thought my visitors were kind of boring. Lots of usual-suspect birds: Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees. I always envied my friends who regularly got cool and locally rare birds at their feeders, such as Painted Buntings and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.

But over the past two years, I've noticed that things tend to pick up in my back yard in the winter. Then, we get flocks of American Goldfinches, Pine Warblers, and a persistent Palm Warbler and a Yellow-throated Warbler.

Two weeks ago, we had a new visitor: a large, dusky orange bird lighted on our peanut feeder, and I realized it was a juvenile Baltimore Oriole! They winter here, but are extremely local and not often seen outside a few privileged neighborhoods -- and ours, until now, wasn't one of them.I told Glenn, who immediately set out an orange half impaled on an old chopstick. We waited a few days, but the bird didn't return. Then, early last week, I heard unfamiliar chattering outside and saw flashes of orange by our feeders: not one, but THREE Baltimore Orioles -- a juvenile and two adults!

The next day, I saw yet more orioles: an adult male and three female/juvenile birds. And they have been sucking down oranges and chomping on peanuts in our yard ever since. I love how they really get into fruit that's the exact same color they are.

The best part is I don't have to leave the house to see them.


Hilke Breder said...

Enjoyed reading your post, Felicia. You got some nice sightings! We in the Northeast have seen plenty of Snow Buntings this winter (check out my recent post devoted to them) but until now it's been one of the birds I really wanted to see. I was surprised the White-breasted Nuthatches have been extirpated as you say in your region. Why is that? They are one of the most common visitors to my feeder. Great pic of the Baltimore Oriole!

Felicia said...

Hi Hilke! I remember your Snow Bunting shots; they gave me the itch to see one. I had no idea I'd actually get to do so this soon! The conservationist at Tall Timbers says that some scientists think the White-breasted Nuthatches in north Florida like to use old Red-cockaded Woodpecker nest holes for their nests, and when the woodpeckers died out in the area, the nuthatches moved away. They must be fun birds to have at your feeder!

Jen said...

Oh WOW that is a fantastic shot of the oriole! Congrats on the Snow Bunting too! I've only ever seen one before and it was pretty awesome.

rebecca said...

Cool! Red-cockaded Woodpecker is a bird I really, really want to make sure I see while I'm living in this part of the country. I'm planning on going to a nature preserve here in Georgia that's known for them this weekend, so wish me luck.

Felicia said...

Jen--Thanks! We're lucky our orioles are so bold!

Rebecca--Good luck!! Look for trees with white paint or prominent white markings around their trunks--the white apparently attracts the birds and simultaneously lets humans know the birds are nesting there or expected to nest there.