Friday, February 20, 2009

I Missed a Bird (and I Liked It!)

What IS this bird? Hint: It's NOT a northern harrier.

Earlier this week I flew down to Fort Myers, Florida to give a couple of presentations at events associated with Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. In addition to the fine Florida weather, and some early glimpses at birds we would not see in Ohio for two months, I had one particualr species on my hit list: short-tailed hawk.

I have never seen a short-tailed hawk in North America. In fact, it's one of just a couple of raptor species not yet marked on my life list. Some of the others are: gyrfalcon, California condor, the two "sea" eagles that sometimes make it to Alaska, and Eurasian hobby. Some day I will go after a gyrfalcon. And the Cali condor will be mine the next time I visit the Grand Canyon. The others I don't have any particular urge to see. But the short-tailed hawk intrigued me. So I gathered some intel on this species near Fort Myers and made my plans.

My parents had been sent by a birding friend, Phil, to a place called Harns (sometimes spelled Harnes) Marsh northeast of Fort Myers, in Lehigh Acres, Florida. They scored a short-tailed hawk there in a matter of an hour or so. My hopes were up for similar good fortune.

But fate had other ideas.

I arrived at Harns Marsh after a longish drive in heavy afternoon traffic. It's an out-of-the-way place tucked on the edge of a suburban neighborhood. Several houses on the road in to the marsh still bear the damage from recent hurricanes. I found the marsh itself and got out of my rental car. First bird: Turkey vulture. Second bird: Osprey. Third bird: Black vulture. Fourth bird: SNAIL KITE!!!

I love snail kites and this place was full of them. I kept scanning the skies and scoping the trees looking for my target bird, but my eyes kept falling back to the kites. A lot of beautiful, dark-gray adult males were hunting for apple snails in the marsh shallows. Working my way around the marsh edge to get the sun at my back, I was treated to wonderful looks. Such graceful birds!

For the next three hours I watched the birds of Harns Marsh. Sandhill cranes garroo'd, wood storks glided past, a peregrine, then a kestrel flew over. Ducks and blackbirds and limpkins and fish crows all made themselves known. It was a peaceful afternoon. So peaceful, in fact, that I was not disappointed about never seeing anything resembling a short-tailed hawk.

Oh well. I'll be back.

Here are some imags of the kites that I was able to capture.

Snail kite taking off. Note the bright orange-red feet!


An adult male snail kite.

Portrait shot of an adult male snail kite. See the elongated bill with the bodacious hooked tip? This is their escargot utensil.

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