Monday, May 23, 2011

Birding at the End of the World

On Saturday, the world was going to end and the righteous among us were to ascend bodily to Heaven. Since we figured we wouldn't be going, we decided to try birding at Cedar Key instead.

It's a good thing we did, too: the birding was great. Not amazing fallout day great, but quite good for a day at the tail end of an unusually slow spring migration.

We weren't expecting much. But we did know of a spot where a good sighting was almost guaranteed: the Cedar Key Scrub Preserve, where we found three Florida Scrub-Jays in the exact same place where we saw them (or their cohorts) on our last few visits.

It would be more precise to say the Scrub-Jays found us. "Isn't that a Scrub-Jay?" our friend Elizabeth asked, pointing at a backlit bird on top of a tree about 50 feet away. Before we could answer, the bird swooped down--and landed on a bush right by the trail! His friends soon followed. Yup, it was a Scrub-Jay!

We spent about half an hour enjoying their company (and not seeing much else) before taking off to Shell Mound, part of the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. I brought my spotting scope in hope of getting some good shorebirds, but we only saw the usual suspects: Willets, Semipalmated Plovers, and Ruddy Turnstones.

Once we got to Cedar Key proper, we noticed a Kingbird working the trees and utility poles right by the lot where we parked. I figured it was just an Eastern Kingbird -- I haven't seen one in a while and even "easy" flycatchers throw me -- but I never remembered them having such large bills:

Elizabeth pulled out her ever-present Sibley guide and I was happy to realize I was wrong: it was a Gray Kingbird, a bird that almost never appears in Gainesville, but does show up occasionally at Cedar Key. Even better, we soon found, there were TWO of them.

We saw both of them dash repeatedly in and out of a tree in the parking lot, which led to another discovery: they weren't only hanging out there, they were NESTING there! It was a life bird for Glenn, and a very cooperative one at that.

While in the parking lot, we ran into a birder who said he had seen a family of Great Horned Owls roosting in the cemetery a few weeks earlier. After a break for (a very tasty) lunch, we headed there and started looking into the trees.

No owls. But Elizabeth spotted a late Blackpoll Warbler, and we watched flocks of fledgling Northern Cardinals chasing their parents around the headstones, begging for food. We stood there and considered the striking juxtaposition between those energetic new little lives and the silence of the long-gone ones memorialized just underfoot.

Our best sighting came near the end of our day. While on the boardwalk overlooking the water by the cemetery, we saw a large vulture fly by. Only it wasn't a vulture: it was flying fast over the water, rising higher into the air until it disappeared over the cemetery. Its flight and wing shape and color were wrong for a vulture, it had the head and beak of a hawk, but it wasn't one of our usual suspects--what was it?

Glenn managed to get off a quick documentary shot:

Elizabeth pulled out her Sibley guide again, and then we had an answer: the closest thing our bird resembled in the book was a dark-morph Short-tailed Hawk -- an uncommon bird for this area. Back home, we e-mailed the picture to some expert local birders who confirmed our guess and told us that a pair of them had been nesting nearby at Shell Mound. Our third great hyper-local bird of the day.

It was too good a day for the world to end.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Eat Like a Bird!

(Cross-posted at my cooking blog. Because I'm too lazy to put up two separate posts.)

This Northern Parula flew 1,000 miles or more across the Gulf of Mexico – without stopping, eating, or sleeping – before landing in Florida during spring migration. This grueling flight took him somewhere between 18 and 25 hours.

Before setting off on this flight, he spent some serious time fueling up. In the days leading up to his trip, he piled on the calories, ballooning from a lithe 1 ounce or less to a staggeringly obese 2 ounces – virtually doubling in weight. Wired graphically described this phenomenon of avian gluttony as “the equivalent of having a hamburger for lunch on Monday, and 100 hamburgers for lunch on Friday.”

When Mammy told Scarlett O’Hara to eat like a bird, this probably wasn’t what she had in mind.

Those of us who enjoy watching birds also pick up strange eating habits during migration. These usually involve consuming large quantities of coffee before sunrise, feeding from ziplock bags filled with trail mix, and toting energy bars bent and flattened from hours in our back packets. Like our avian quarry, birders focus on high-protein, high-energy natural food sources when on the road. Birder snacks of choice usually involve nuts, seeds, whole grains, and/or fruit, often scented with hints of bug spray, sunscreen, and car exhaust. On the other hand, migrating songbirds – even some that typically eat seed – favor the high-calorie goodness of insects and their larvae, food sources most birders tend to avoid.

Still, our eating habits can be frighteningly similar. When shopping for bird seed for my backyard feeders recently, I saw a shiny little bowl filled with freshly shelled Brazil nuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds and unusually fat raisins. I was about to help myself to few bites when I realized it was sample of one of the store’s specialty birdseed mixes.

And it looked better by magnitudes than most of the cheap-ass trail mix I’ve lugged around on birding trips. The woodpeckers around here eat better than I do.

My husband and I joke that someday, we’ll have to buy a bag of that super-fancy fruit-nut mix, pour some into a pretty bowl, and feed it to our birder buddies. My prediction is that they’ll think it looks familiar, but assume it’s that pricey brand of organic snack mix they never quite felt like splurging on.

And since it’s near the end of another spring migration season and my Audubon chapter is holding its annual end-of-the-birding-year potluck soon, the occasion for our little experiment is now upon us! MWAAHAHA!

Seriously, I’m not going to do it. But I will do something very much like it. As a tribute to those hard-working birds and my friends who love them, I devised a munchable treat with the same base ingredients as that fancy bird mix – peanuts, raisins, sunflower seeds, and bigger, blingier nuts of some kind. And millet, because almost all birdseed mixes contain copious amounts of it. But being a good citizen, I resisted the urge to take these from a 25-pound bag with NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION printed on it.

Because just plain old nuts and raisins mixed together seem kind of abstemious, particularly for a festive occasion, I spiced them them up and converted them into a sweet-salty-tangy-spicy cocktail nibble. I’ve always been addicted to Indian snack mixes – exhuberently spicy blends of fried grains, nuts, dried fruit, and spices – and I’ve modeled the seasoning in my mix after these. The recipe on which I base my spice mix comes from Madhur Jaffrey's World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking.