This was a week for Golden-winged Buntings and some other creatures that did not always fit their given names.
Every winter since 2007,when we first saw a Grasshopper Sparrow in the wetlands near our Florida home, we have looked for another. This past week, while walking along a weedy patch next to a lake in our subdivision, I saw a small bird fly up and almost immediately drop down again out of sight. With patience, we coaxed the bird up into view by squeaking, and to our surprise it flew over to a bush and posed for photos.
This migrant Grasshopper Sparrow is more brightly plumaged than those native to Florida:
This photo illustrates its distinctive central crown stripe and provides only a glimpse of one of the small bright yellow patches at the bend of its wing that gave the Grasshopper Sparrow its original name of “Golden-winged Bunting:”
More somber in its beauty,this bird was named, not for the Greek goddess, but for its weak call. Famous because it was the first wild bird banded in America, by Audubon himself, the Eastern Phoebe is a common winter visitor:
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are certainly bluish gray, but they expend more effort catching spiders and caterpillars, than flying after gnats:
A visit to Chapel Trail Nature Preserve in the neighboring city of Pembroke Pines provided us with great views of an aptly-named Red-shouldered Hawk:
Exotic Purple Swamphen populations have rebounded in spite of a campaign to exterminate them, but we worry that the gunners may have knocked down the population of similarly-colored Purple Gallinules:
Here is a Purple Gallinule for comparison (I grew up calling them Florida Gallinules):
At Tree Tops Park in Davie, Florida, a Green Heron roosts on the boardwalk railing, but it shows not a trace of green:
My telephoto lens had a limited field of view, and I could not catch the egret’s entire reflection:
However, a white bird flew close by– another egret? Its green legs and bluish beak tipped with black revealed it to be an immature Little Blue Heron:
Dragonflies are starting to increase in numbers. Here is a Halloween Pennant:
White Peacocks lack feathers, and were numerous this morning:
As tactile feeders, Wood Storks must play a survival game of chance. They require water that is deep enough to harbor prey species, but not so deep that the bird cannot trap them when they blunder into its open bill. The water must be at least a couple of inches deep, but not deep enough to submerge the stork’s eyes, a maximum of about 16 inches. As water in the Everglades recedes following the summer wet season, it concentrates aquatic life. Deeper water allows fish to disperse, making them less accessible to the storks.
Here in our South Florida back yard, a Wood Stork stirs up the water with its bubble-gum colored foot, hoping that fishes will innocently gather to hide in what they think is the protective shadow of its wing:
This past week Mary Lou and I witnessed those jaws in action. While walking the boardwalk at nearby Tree Tops Park in Davie, Florida, we approached a Great Egret that had taken up a roost on the railing. To our surprise, it was joined by a Wood Stork.
As we watched , the two birds flew down into the marsh and began foraging together (click on each of these photos for more views):
It is not unusual to see tactile feeders such as storks and ibises hunt together with herons, which are visual feeders. It is likely that both species benefit from this association. The heron frightens fish into the waiting jaws of the stork, and the stork helps stir prey from cover, making them easy targets for the heron.
In this case, there was very little water beneath the vegetation, perhaps an inch or so. The stork was actively prodding into the marsh grass while the egret was stalking alongside its bald-headed neighbor.
Suddenly, the stork came up with a frog in its beak:
The stork subdued the frog by shaking it and repeatedly crushing it with its jaws; when the frog stopped moving, the big bird swallowed it unceremoniously:
This weekend at Green Cay Wetlands in West Palm Beach County, a marvelous place to spend a long morning, another white wader encountered a hapless reptile:
The Green Anole’s jaws were a feeble match for those of the Great Egret:
“Of all living things, birds have most ensconced themselves in our minds as being representative of all that is good about nature.” (George Fenwick, founder of the American Bird Conservancy, in Birding: July 2010)
Birders have an undeserved reputation as eccentrics. At least, I think it is undeserved, for I share their passion, and (of course) I am very mainline and normal! There are sports nuts, compulsive stamp and beer bottle collectors, golf and bridge addicts, and yet it seems that “old ladies in tennis shoes” who happen to sport a pair of binoculars and who get up early to look into treetops, oblivious to curious stares, suffer public deprecation. Certainly, that was Mary Lou’s view. The last thing she would think of doing was to go out and actually look for birds.
As a kid, I often thought how I would like to marry a girl who loved birds. As the hormones raged and the demands of college and medical school intervened, my birding activities dropped off sharply. I had turned into a covert, “underground birder.” My criteria for an eligible wife also changed. Of course, my Mom knew. She almost gave away my secret when Mary Lou and I left on our honeymoon. “Wait until you see what Ken has in his suitcase,” she said. Of course, Mary Lou had no clue and felt quite anxious that it might be chains and a whip! She was most relieved to find binoculars and a bird book!
Ironically, Mary Lou would yet become an avid birder, but only after raising four children. Our youngest child Glen, born in 1967, had severe encephalopathy, a reaction to a measles vaccination at 18 months of age. He lost the ability to walk and talk, and became totally dependent. Mary Lou stayed home and cared for Glen his entire life, until he died at 24 years of age. I retired soon after his death, and we moved into the mountains of New Mexico. Mary Lou’s widowed mother had become increasingly dependent, and she lived with us for several years. Glen died on her 89th birthday (she was born the same day as Bob Hope), and her condition deteriorated. After we moved to New Mexico she finally had to be admitted to a nursing home in Albuquerque, where she died at age of 94 on the day before Valentines Day, exactly 15 years ago.
During the almost 30 years devoted to the care of our son and her mother, Mary Lou had been pretty much home-bound. Only one of us would be able to attend family events such as graduations, weddings and funerals. Released from the burden of caregiver, Mary Lou was finally able to travel.
She always did appreciate the wonders of nature. We both loved hiking and exploring the Great Outdoors when possible, but she seemed to take a more expansive and spiritual view of God’s creation while I was staring at the Brown Creeper making its way up a tree trunk, trying to see what it was finding to eat.
Once retirement and release from the burdens of care-giving presented us with more leisure and the opportunity to travel, we decided to try out the Elderhostel program (now known as Roads Scholars). We did not know what to expect, but our first Elderhostel, in the fall of 1996 on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, was entirely enjoyable. We followed with outdoors oriented Elderhostels on Catalina Island, Yellowstone, the Navajo Reservation, and St. Mary’s, Georgia. The latter included canoeing in Okeefenokee Swamp, which provided marvelous close up wildlife viewing.
In the spring of 1999, the notice of a Birding Elderhostel in Southeastern Arizona caught my attention. I gingerly asked Mary Lou whether she might want to go on it. Her reaction was predictable. All our previous Elderhostels had not only introduced us to interesting places, but also many fine fellow student-travelers whose company we really enjoyed. Why should we go out before dawn looking for birds with a bunch of “weirdo” bird watchers?
She relented, but only on condition that she could study my field guide and see if there were any birds she might enjoy viewing. As if she could just pick and choose! I happily tutored her and provided lists of the most likely sightings. She settled on only one bird that she just really wanted to see: the Elegant Trogon. I certainly agreed with her on that, as I had never seen one myself.
Photo of Elegant Trogon (c) George West, Birchside Studios (I was not into photography back then, and this beautiful photo is reproduced with Dr. West’s permission):
On our way to our first Birding Elderhostel, we drove out to Arizona from our home in New Mexico, staying one night in Silver City. Mary Lou seemed single-minded in her quest for the beautiful but uncommon Elegant Trogon. The next morning we stopped by Portal, Arizona and visited Cave Creek Canyon, where the Elegant Trogon had been sighted a few days before. We encountered birders who had seen it earlier that day, but we did not succeed in locating one.
The Elderhostel began on a Sunday afternoon and finished up with breakfast on Saturday, May 8, 1999. We saw many interesting and new birds, but we kept missing the Trogon. One day, on the grounds of Fort Huachuca, our leaders split the group so some could go on a more strenuous hike into Scheelite Canyon. We joined the mountain climbers while the couch potatoes stayed back and walked Garden Canyon. We got to see our first Red-faced Warblers and Spotted Owls, but a couple of the “lazy folks” saw the Elegant Trogon down below!
We spent the next day, Friday, May 7, 1999, away from the trogon haunts and held little hope of ever seeing one. We did meet a visiting German birder, who mentioned he had seen the Elegant Trogon at sunup that very morning in Garden Canyon! Since we had a schedule to keep, and planned to drive home right after breakfast the next morning, my hopes of seeing a new “lifer” were dashed. I assumed Mary Lou did not care that much about missing her “trophy” bird after all.
At dinnertime, to my surprise, she said “Let’s get up early and try to get out and see the trogon before breakfast.” I quickly assented, feeling like Br’er Rabbit in the Uncle Remus tale: “I don’t care what you do with me, Br’er Fox,” says he, “Just so you don’t fling me in that briar patch. Roast me, Br’er Fox,” says he, “But don’t fling me in that briar patch.”
A couple of other diners, who had also missed seeing the trogon, heard Mary Lou’s surprising statement, and said they wanted to join us. Mary Lou sternly told them that they had to be ready to leave for Garden Canyon at 4:30 AM, or we would go without them. Sure enough, we all gathered and I drove to the Fort. Just as advertised, we not only saw the beautiful male Elegant Trogon, but a female as well, and watched as she repeatedly entered and exited a prospective nesting hole.
When we got home, Mary Lou started logging her bird sightings, and has not looked back since. On her “Elegant Trogon Day” I had already accumulated sightings of 474 species over 51 years of birding in the lower 48 states. Within less than 5 months, Mary Lou recorded her 100th species, a Fox Sparrow, during a birding Elderhostel in Oregon. In the meantime, I had seen only 3 “new” birds! The next year, after birding only for 12 months, she bagged a Long-tailed Jaeger in Denali National Park, Alaska (thanks to all the new birds we saw in Alaska, my list had grown to 527 by then).
On October 13, 2000 she hit 300 species with a Ferriginous Hawk in New Mexico, and with a Green Parrot in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas in April, 2002 she reached the 400 species milestone. We moved to South Florida in 2004, which provided a treasure trove of new birds, and in 2007, a Grasshopper Sparrow brought her North America ABA total to the coveted 500 mark—Mary Lou now has 507 species to my 576.
Having a new birdwatcher in the family has been a real bonus for me. No more sneaking out and apologizing for coming home late when the birding was particularly good. Best of all, as Mary Lou ticked off each new life bird, I shared with her the same sense of discovery. Some of her first birds seem bigger than life. (Disclaimer– my photography hobby started much later, so these are recent images.)
Even my old brain remembers her first meadowlark, almost as vividly as if it were hanging on the wall:
Scrupulously, Mary Lou refused to “count” her first Scarlet Tanager because she could not see the color of its tail:
And of course, Mary Lou’s favorite Florida bird is…
During a birding Elderhostel in New Jersey, Mary Lou spotted a male Hooded Warbler, her first, or so she thought. I reminded her that one had appeared in our backyard pond in New Mexico several years earlier, and that it was she who sighted it and excitedly brought it to my attention. “Oh,” she said, “I do remember seeing a pretty bird, but I don’t remember what it looked like.” As birders we develop “prey images” that, with experience, become quite specific, akin to the manner in which we recognize a friend or relative. Asked to draw or even describe that familiar face in detail, we fall short, yet we are certain in our identification. The art of observing and identifying is built upon repetition of the basic skills of looking and finding.
To my dearest Mary Lou, best friend, lover and fellow birder (courtesy of our local pair of Bald Eagles who so nicely assumed this pose for us):
P.S. Sorry I was too cheap to run over to Wal-Mart for a card
On our walks, Mary Lou and I often try to find “target” birds. All winter, a male Painted Bunting is a “must see” for her. This time of year I am especially looking for Savannah and Grasshopper Sparrows. Neither of us got our wish when, around sunrise one morning this past week we set out to our local wetlands.
We actually did not have very high expectations. The air was still, which helps us see small movements of foliage that can betray the presence of a small bird. However, a light fog impaired visibility, and the birds were either absent or unusually quiet. One thing you learn about the wild world is that beauty surrounds you under any conditions– but you sometimes have to look very hard.
Pearly beads of dew festooned this spider web:
We walked on to the edge of the Harbour Lakes impoundment, about a quarter of a mile north of our usual birding patch. The sky turned bright blue and the fog was beginning to clear. Mary Lou spotted movement along the shore, then exclaimed that a snake had entered the water. It took me a while to even see the creature, and by then it was swimming away from us.
Characteristically, this Cottonmouth Moccasin swims with its bulky head held high above the surface of the water:
Two male Boat-tailed Grackles crossed swords in a territorial confrontation:
On an adjacent rock, two sleeping Greater Yellowlegs woke up as I approached:
A Tricolored Heron was doing an erratic “dance” as it darted after a school of small fish:
This Little Blue Heron was struggling to subdue a large and very active siren:
Sirens are considered to be the most primitive living salamanders, and their ecology and natural history is poorly known. Completely aquatic, they lack rear limbs, and keep external gills throughout life.
From an Internet search I learned:
These giant salamanders are often confused with eels. In fact, you may hear people call these salamanders “mud-eels” or “ditch-eels.” However, eels are a type of fish with obvious fins running along their back and underside. Salamanders are amphibians. Amphibians have limbs and no fins. Also, giant salamanders are easily distinguished from aquatic snakes because their skin is smooth, slimy, and lacks scales.
Finding nothing more of note, we headed back to the wooded area to see if birding might have improved, now that sunlight was waking up the insects. To our surprise, there were flocks of warbler, mostly Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers. Prairie Warblers, notably scarce since the cold snap in December and early January, were back in good numbers.
The Palm Warbler has long legs, an adaptation to its habit of spending much time on the ground:
This Prairie Warbler ’s bill shows the results of foraging on some berries that were covered with fine white powdery mildew:
I must have taken over 20 photos of the Prairie Warblers– Pleased that they had returned, I could not get enough of them:
Another Prairie Warbler struck an unusual pose as it eyed me quizzically:
We saw two Orange-crowned Warblers. This one was also a contortionist:
This Orange-crowned Warbler looked like it might be a Tennessee Warbler at first, as I could not see any yellow under its tail. When I reviewed the photos I was able to confirm that it had yellow under-tail coverts, as well as an eye-ring that is broken horizontally by a faint dark stripe.
An Orange-crowned caught a juicy spider– I hope it was not the one that spun that beautiful pearl-studded web!
This photo of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher turned out to be rather contrasty against the bright sky, but I loved the way the out-of focus grass in the background caught the sun:
A Ruby-throated Hummingbird thrust out its tongue just as I clicked the shutter:
There are some sure signs that spring will soon be here. A Yellow-rumped Warbler perches on a Red Maple bursting with little red “helicopters”:
Perhaps stimulated by the lengthening days, a male Northern Flicker appeared to be courting a female and was drumming on someone’s roof drain, until it flew up to the broken-off top of a Royal Palm:
The exotic Egyptian Goose is a member of the shelduck family (thus more closely related to Muscovy Ducks rather than true geese) that is is native to Africa. Regarded by Florida Fish & Wildlife as “escapees,” they have been documented breeding in various parts of the state. They tend to nest in secluded areas, and are very aggressive in nest defense and in competing for food. They were first seen in Broward County in the 1960s.
This is one of a pair of Egyptian Geese that I have seen twice before, flying together over the wetlands next to our home, but this is my first photo documentation:
A stop at our local Bald Eagle nest found both chicks to be healthy and growing fast. The oldest was 26 days old when I captured this short clip of the nest-mates:
My first venture into bird photography occurred in the 1990s when I lived in New Mexico. My simple digiscopic photo equipment consisted of a spotting scope, a 2.0 megapixel point-and-shoot Canon A40 camera, and a Durkee’s spice bottle with the bottom cut to the size of the camera lens housing:
I kept the scope on a tripod in front of the Great Room windows, and documented the birds that visited the front yard pond and feeders. It was too cumbersone to carry around, so all my bird photography was done indoors.
Our New Mexico home had big windows that faced to the west:
The birds were usually only about 30 feet away, but I had to shoot through double-glazed windows. The images often were surrounded by a dark vignette, and had to be cropped, so they ended up being pretty grainy. But to my non-critical eye, they were magnificent. Some examples…
A Blue Grosbeak, on a juniper only feet from our window:
Upon moving to Florida I found the spotting scope to be too powerful for photographing the larger herons, ibises and storks, the most common avian visitors to our backyard lake. I was satisfied to go back to conventional birdwatching with binoculars and spotting scope, and never gave much thought to photography. That is, until 2007, when my son-in-law upgraded his digital SLR equipment from a first-generation 6.3 megapixel Canon EOS Digital Rebel to a 30D that packed 8.2 megapixels.
The Rebel that he gave me was my first digital SLR camera. Immediately, I sunk $180.00 into a Sigma 70-300mm standard zoom lens. It did not have image stabilization, so my long shots were particularly challenging. I tried to steady the camera on the back of a chair when, in December, 2007, a pair of Bald Eagles courted and copulated on the rooftop of a house across the lake, about 520 feet away (according to the ruler in Google Earth). Of the dozen or so photos I took of the couple, only three were recognizable.
Click on the photo to select sequential images:
I realized that the money spent for the Sigma telephoto lens was essentially wasted, unless I wanted to carry a tripod into the field, so my next purchase for my “free” camera cost nearly 10 times as much: a 300mm image stabilized Canon f/4 telephoto with a 1.4x extender. This gave me an effective focal length of 420 mm, about equivalent to 8x power binoculars (Bill Schmoker’s formula says that each 100 mm of focal length adds about 2x power to the eye). Buying a flash unit a few months ago loosened my inhibitions about springing for a camera upgrade, so last month I took a big leap and bought a Canon 60D.
Using the 60D with the 420 image stabilized lens, hand-held, I took this test shot of some gulls on the same rooftop as the eagles (Notice the detail on the tiles, not to mention the brightness of the image and the sharp eyes of the gulls):
Comparing those two shots, I feel good about my latest purchase! We did find the eagles’ nest, which was the very first active nest in Broward County since before DDT was abolished in the early 1970s. They went on to fledge one offspring, and the next year produced two, then, last season, successfully raised three eaglets.
Just this past week, two babies poked their heads above the rim of the nest, and I captured one with my new camera gear:
Eagles begin incubating as soon as the first egg is laid, so the older enjoys a size and strength disparity. The younger chick is the smaller one, peeking at me through the nest structure:
The parent birds stand careful watch over the eaglets. This is the female, distinguished from the male by her larger size:
Here is the male, also roosting nearby. He also happens to have some dark spots on both outer tail feathers, allowing us to know which bird is which:
A group of local citizens has been keeping watch on the nest, which is located next to a busy highway only about 1 1/2 miles from our home. I host an Eagle Nest Watch Forum, where the eagle watchers can exchange photos and information, and share the fun with everyone. It has been very popular with the public, attracting over 68,000 views since I started it a little over two years ago. Visit the Forum at http://www.rosyfinch.com/BaldEagleNest.html I even put up my first ever YouTube video clip of one of the chicks, but please turn off the sound, as I had trouble seeing the LCD viewfinder on the 60D, and onlookers were loudly telling me every time the eagle came into sight!
I will tell the full story about the eagles another time, but for me, and for many of my friends and neighbors, our experience with the eagles set us on a much broader path into wildlife photography.
Yesterday, as a sort of throw-back to my New Mexico days, I captured this Blue Jay through our back patio window: