Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Moment of Zen: Preening on the Beach


Doesn't it feel great when you get everything in the right place after a good preen? This mixed flock of gulls, terns, and shorebirds got into the preening mood as I was watching it one February morning on Sanibel Island, Florida. One moment they were napping, then one bird started preening and its neighbors decided that was a really good idea, so they started preening, too. I captured about 10 seconds of the action on video.

In this flock are the following species: laughing gull, ring-billed gull, royal tern, Forster's tern, Sandwich tern, and red knot. I love that the birds kept on preening even as the two humans walked by just feet away.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Mystery Shorebird: Knot or Not?

While spending a morning last week on the beach on Sanibel Island, Florida, I was seeing the usual shorebird suspects: willets, sanderlings, and a few ruddy turnstones. Then a flock of chunky birds dropped in, settling among a resting mixed flock of terns and gulls. My first pre-bins guess was dunlin, but when I got them in my binocs I noticed that they were bigger than dunlin, plumper looking, and lacked the dunlin's longer decurved bills. They settled down and immediately tucked their bills under their wings to rest. Could they be tired migrants?

These birds were in drab winter plumage, with uniformly gray-brown backs. They had a medium-length bill. A fair amount of scalloping was on the breast and flanks and the legs were dull yellow and relatively short. There was the hint of an eyebrow and a darkish cap.

This was adding up to be a pretty neat species. Finally the snoozing birds raised their heads and and I felt solid in identifying them as red knots. This is one of our most imperiled shorebird species. Red knots winter along the southern coasts of the U.S. We almost never see this species in Ohio.

I've seen red knots many times before—usually along the Delaware Bay where they stop in spring migration to feast on the bountiful eggs of horseshoe crabs. Nature in its infinite wisdom and perfect timing, aligned the nesting of horseshoe crabs, which come to shore to deposit their eggs by the millions in spring, with the passage of migrant shorebirds—especially the red knot. The knots fatten up on the tiny green eggs and put on fat necessary to fuel their remaining journey to the northernmost sliver of the North American continent to nest.

The fishing industry in the East has been over-harvesting horseshoe crabs to use as bait. The resulting reduction in nesting horseshoe crabs has drastically reduced the primary migration food source for the red knot. And this has affected the red knot population, which has dropped more than 50 percent since the 1980s.

It was a privilege to see this small flock of red knots, as yet unbanded, spending the winter here on this beautiful beach. I wished them well in their season of travel to come.

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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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Monday, February 09, 2009

White Ibis Sunset

On my final trip around the Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island NWR near Titusville, Florida, I was standing along the road with a few friends at sunset when a passing bald eagle scared every bird nearby into the air. Nearest us was a flock of white ibis. These birds burst into the air from an impoundment to our east, flapping frantically past us, headed west into the sunset. I tracked them with my camera and took about 25 photos of the flock as it wheeled left and right.

Then the birds were gone, disappearing over the trees on the western horizon.

Here are the highlight images of those few moments when the ibises were in the air.

The white ibis flock as it took off—the low light turned the fast-moving birds into blurry figures.

Turning to head northwest, the white birds took on the pink of the sunset.

Just enough light to discern some detail.

Well above the bright western horizon, but a hint of the sun's color comes through the ibises' primaries.

Turning back from north to west.

To my eye these scimitar shapes look more like skimmers or bulbats than ibises.

Dropping lower on the horizon now, against a tangerine sky.

The requisite palm tree helps us know this is Florida..

The flock changes its collective mind and wheels northward again.

Every child has drawn the M-shaped birds in pictures created with lots of sky space. Now I know why.

My camera loved the palms as much as my eyes did. Birds are still passing.

The final frame. Lead birds are setting their wings to land.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Photographing Tree Swallows in Flight

Have you ever tried to do something that you knew was next to impossible and yet you could not stop yourself from trying anyway?

On my recent sojourn to east-central Florida's Space Coast region, I noticed large flocks of tree swallows foraging on the wing in several different birding spots. I was both bird watching and taking bird photographs, two activities which, in order to be done well, should be mutually exclusive. You can't enjoy birding if you keep dropping the binocs to grab your camera. And if you're trying to take the best possible photographs, you'll only get frustrated by all the shots you miss when you drop the camera for the binocs. This is one of the immutable laws of the universe.

As I was driving around Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island NWR on fine day, I found that the sun had climbed to its highpoint and the bird activity was beginning to slow. The daylight was getting a bit harsh for photographing water birds, so I moseyed along to a point where a tree swallow flock was slicing the air into a million pieces. The birds seemed to be taking advantage of some large hatch of tiny insects.

I stood and watched for a few minutes, mesmerized by the swooping of swallow wings (wasn't that a Joni Mitchell album?) and noticed that some of the birds were following a somewhat repetitive flight pattern. Oh it was camera time, baby! This would be my chance to totally nail a great shot of a flying tree swallow!

To dream the impossible dream.....

Over the next half hour I took approximately 650 shots. Most of these contained only grass or sky, digital frames completely innocent of the slightest hint of swallow. Some contained a tiny sip of swallow—a tail tip or wing edge.

A very few captured entire birds and were close enough to being in focus that you could even tell what kind of bird it was. These I will share with you here and now.

Photographing birds in flight is a thrilling challenge. Large birds are easier, obviously (see yesterday's post). Small, supremely gifted and speedy fliers like tree swallows are almost impossible to photograph well, unless you are patient, lucky, and in the right place at the right time with the right camera settings and light conditions. And you are not holding your binoculars. And your camera's lens cap is not still on.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Osprey Fly-by

Merritt Island NWR near Titusville, Florida is a world-famous birding hotspot. But it's perhaps even more popular among bird and nature photographers for the opportunity to burn up film—or electrons—on glamorous creatures such as wood storks, bald eagles, roseate spoonbills, American alligators, plus large numbers of herons, egrets, shorebirds, and waterfowl.

Early and late in the day, Black Point Wildlife Drive is busy with vehicles full of folks seeking that perfect nature image. The cars, trucks, and vans drive along very slowly, with all manner of optical and photographic gear poking out of the open windows.

I was standing next to my rental car on Merritt's Black Point Drive one fine morning in late January, when a male osprey came up off a nearby impoundment. He was not carrying a fish. He was carrying nesting material. It was a part of a palm frond, soaked and heavy from the water. The osprey labored low across the water, then along the shore next to me, passing so close that I could hear the air in his wings. At his nearest point, he was too close for me to get a photo with my 300mm lens.

We eyed each other and I gave him the thumbs up for his obvious industriousness. It made me wonder if ospreys pairs understand the concept of the "honey-do list"?

Here's the series of images that I did manage to get.

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Sunday, February 01, 2009

A Good Year Bird: Least Bittern

I got to see and photograph a least bittern—my first sighting of this species in several years—at the Viera Wetlands on Florida's east coast last week. Many of the birders attending the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in Titusville, Florida, got to see this bird. A lucky few saw its larger cousin, the American bittern, at the same locale on the same day.

Even though I have yet to write down a single species, I think I am keeping a North American year list this year. Maybe if I keep saying and thinking that, I'll actually do it. Regardless of my slothful ways, I was chuffed to add the least bittern to my 2009 list.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Red Sky At Morning...

What was that old saying about the weather for sailors? Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning?

I and a couple of dozen hearty souls are heading out to sea today on a pelagic trip. This is the final activity for the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in Titusville, Florida.

It's too early for the sun to be up this morning, so I'm using a sunrise form a few days ago. The weather looks promising, so I'm not too worried about having rough seas. I'm just hoping that, if the morning sky is red, the saying won't be:

Red sky at morning, the birding is boring.

I'm excitied. This is my first pelagic trip in a long time. We don't get to do too many pelagic trips in southeaster Ohio. The only thing that could make my anticipation higher would be if it were Talk Like A Pirate Day.

Special thanks to Connie Toops for the photo advice on this sunrise photo, and to Jeff Gordon for the rain suit. Hope I don't need it.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Talking 'bout Anhingas

Anhinga, male.

I can never remember which day in the Blog Week is supposed to be wordless. And which one is all about the sky. Is there one about the Wordless Sky, too? I'm confused.

This male anhinga was so durn purty that I just had to share him—wordlessly or not. I encountered him as he was drying his wings on a chilly morning at Viera Wetlands.

Anhingas are interesting birds. Whenever I get to see one, I am reminded of the very first one I saw on a Florida trip with my family in the early 1970s. Driving through the Everglades, we noticed all these dark birds with snake-like necks swimming in the water and perching near it with outstretched wings. What WERE these things?

We laughed when we found the bird in our Peterson guide. It was the anhinga. Back home in Pella, Iowa, we knew a family (of Dutch origin as most in Pella were) with the last name Hinga. They had a daugher named Ann.

No lie. Ann Hinga.

Last night at dinner, Robert Kirk from Princeton University Press, posed the question: How many birds are like the anhinga, which has the same name for its common name as it does for its genus and species (its two-part Latin name). In other words, the anhinga is noted in field guides thusly:

Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga)

Are there any other birds with this unusually repetitive name structure? Have I left you wordless in pondering this question? I certainly hope not.

Happy weekend to all.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Coot Overload

When one travels to Florida, one might reasonably expect to encounter large numbers of old coots. As someone who has already gotten mailed membership offers from the AARP (at 46, I can already smell the Ben Gay aroma of 50) I wonder about the millions of people who retire to warm, sunny Florida.

I can see why—there are amazing natural spectacles to behold among the birds and beasts, and there are great discounts at Denny's. There is a Denny's on every third corner.

The largest group of coots I have encountered on this trip was on the Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island NWR. It was a cold, windy afternoon and the coots were gathered together in large, swimming clusters. They seemed to be bathing, but why would they want to do this together? Were they clustered for protection from predators? It could be—there were several bald eagles around, looking for grub in all the right places. Was it to help reduce the chilling effect of the wind? Did it have a social function? Many birds begin their courtship before migration itself begins.

Or was it just because this was fun? It felt good to be mixing it up, splashing, wheeling, and grunting with 400 of your fellow coots?

I'd be interested in your hypotheses, theories, and answers.

Or maybe it was because there was a super discount on an all-you-care-to-eat buffet, just for old coots.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Poem of the Great Blue

Oh my little fish swim near
in the cool shade of the mangrove clump
there's nothing here for you to fear
swim closer, little sugar lump

These long pale legs and plumes you see
are just another mangrove tree

swim through these roots and swish your tail
your slippery form I shall impale

and turn you back from whence you came
thus Nature plays its endless game.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Florida Louisiana Heron

When I was a kid, this bird was called the Louisiana heron. And dinosaurs walked the Earth.
Now it's the tricolored heron. And the dinosaurs, except for me (and a few of my friends), are gone.
I am in Florida for a spell, digging the bird scene, working the room, pressing the flesh, watching out for mouse ears, driving 35 mph in the fast lane 'cause that's how they roll here in the Sunshine State.

I hope you are warm and toasty wherever YOU are.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mystery Bird Quiz #6

While waiting for the imaginary holiday being of your belief set to come down the chimney/appear on the mountaintop/emerge from the old lamp I thought you might like a birding brain teaser.

I photographed this bird at Florida's Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in February a few years ago. Can you tell me what it is?

And no, its not Phyllis Diller's wig resting on two chopsticks.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Nice Friggin' Bird!

I took this photograph of a magnificent frigatebird in Panama in October, but it reminded me of a conversation I had with a fisherman years earlier, while looking at another frigatebird.

This was on the Sanibel Island causeway in Florida. It was frozen icy winter in Ohio, where I'd just come from. I was less than an hour off the airplane, driving my size-of-a-rollerskate rental car out to Ding Darling NWR, when I decided to stop along the sandy road shoulder to glass a few Florida birds.

Brown peilican: nice! Dozens of winter-plumaged willets: sweet! Hey! Sanderlings! Right on!

A few steps closer to the water was the ubiquitous broken picket line of retirees fishing. I smiled and nodded at a rotund man smoking a stogie while he removed some plant material from his fishing lure. He moved with the slowness of someone who has all the time in the world. I was envious.

Just then the shadow of a bird passed over our heads. I looked up into the blinding sunlight just long enough to catch a glimpse of a magnificent frigatebird scything low over the palm trees and out across the inlet.

"Nice frigatebird!" I said to no one in particular.
"Yeah, that IS a nice friggin' bird!" came the reply from the porcine pescador.
We shared a smile and a thumbs up. I headed back to my ride, laughing quietly.

Birders. There's a new one born every minute.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Wood Stork Ankles

Wood storks. White plumage, long decurved bill, and a really lovely bald head covered in wart-like skin.

While driving back to Titusville, Florida on Sunday after enjoying a few hours at Merritt Island NWR (and voting six times in the Florida primary, which will only count for 3 votes) I ran into a small posse of wood storks lounging along the causeway.

I thought to myself, "White birds with black heads in bright sunshine against dark green grass. Huzzah! What a perfect opportunity to take a boatload of under- and over-exposed images!"

So I did that very thing. Somehow I did manage (accidentally) to take a couple of keepers. The rest will need an iPhoto makeover before they'll be eligible to be voted on to Hollywood.

A young wood stork, its neck still covered with feathers. Adults have featherless necks.

Then I saw a wood stork that was shorter than the others. It looked like Tom Cruise standing in a flock of Kelly McGillises, but without the height-giving phone book to stand on.

A closer look revealed that the stork was resting. On its ankles.

Did you know that the part of a bird's leg that we think of as the knee (though it bends backwards compared to human knees) is actually the bird's ankle? So this wood stork is resting on its heels.

The lower part of a bird's leg is the tarsometatarsus, a bone formed by the fusing (by our friend evolution) of the metatarsal and tarsal bones. What we see as a bird's foot is really its toes. Its foot and tarsus is the lower leg (or tarsometatarsus). Its upper leg corresponds to our shin. Its knee is up next to the body. Confused? Well think of it like this: birds are walking around on their tip-toes all the time. [special thanks to Science Chimp for that last analogy].

The noticeably short wood stork that I thought was Tom Cruise except that it wasn't jumping up and down on Oprah's couch.

The morning had been cold and in the warming mid-day sun several of the wood storks in the flock plopped down on their ankles. Were they just resting or was this a better way of soaking up the sun's warmth? Do you have a theory on that? If so, please share it with the rest of the class.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Space Coast Moment

Reddish egret on Black Point Wildlife Drive in Merritt Island NWR.

I am just back in the past few hours from Titusville, Florida, where I was attending the Space Coast Birding & Nature Festival. Florida in winter. . . man i could almost see buying some Bermuda shorts, a floppy hat, a Members Only windbreaker, and some golf clubs and hanging it up down there in the Sunshine State. Or maybe not just yet.

The Space Coast of Florida (the area around Cape Canaveral, epicenter of the NASA space program) could use as its marketing phrase: "It's Birdy as Heck Here!" There are huge flocks of American robins already preparing to move north. The sky is peppered with swooping tree swallows. Lines of ibises, cormorants, pelicans, spoonbills, and skeins of ducks look like stitching across the sky. Every bit of water hosts a wood stork, white ibis, coot, or gallinule. Bald eagles and osprey are so common as to elicit a yawn from the local birders. Yellow-rumped warblers tchup from every shrub and tree, joined by the occasional palm warbler.

Among the birds I encountered in Florida are several species I get to see just once or twice a year. Perhaps the most interesting such water bird is the reddish egret. It has an unusual hunting strategy—it walks along slowly in shallow water until it spies a school of fish. Then it chases the fish, trying to catch them by stabbing its bill into the shallow water. As it runs it looks something like a drunken sailor, legs and wings reaching out in all directions.

The reddish egret's color scheme is subtle but evocative—classic colors blended so well. I love the pink bill with a black tip. I got these few pictures of reddish egrets while in FL.

More about FL soonish. Right now, like an astronaut might experience coming back to Earth, I am in the midst of re-entry into my normal routine.

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