Balancing Act

Watching birds has the potential to generate human interest along many different planes. On a very basic level, the sheer beauty of a bird can cause us to sigh in appreciation, or is it jealousy? Some of us have a more scientific curiosity about how flight is possible or how can a duck float or why does a hummingbird seem to change colors. Birding can be a good fit for other outdoor pursuits such as camping, hiking, fishing, boating or photography. At the extreme edge of watching birds is competition. Back in the days of no computers or cell phones and precious little printed instruction, I would make a pencil mark beside birds I had observed in a pocket version of Roger Tory Peterson’s “Field Guide To The Birds”. I was happy. Then I agreed to participate in my first Audubon annual Christmas Bird Count. The fellow who was our team leader was unlike any “bird-watcher” I had ever encountered. Let’s just say he could have been a very effective sports coach – or military drill sergeant.

The ensuing years have seen the evolution of a relaxing pastime into a competitive obsession for some. With the advent of computer-maintained lists, rare bird alerts, hotlines, locally maintained listservs, guide businesses (with rare bird “guarantees”) – this ain’t Hank Thoreau’s hobby no more!

Of course, chasing birds to add to a “life list”, especially uncommon species, can be expensive (and not just monetarily). Some have spent life savings on optical equipment, travel expenses and specialty gear to add a rarity to their list. Others have done all that and missed a child’s graduation, a daughter’s wedding, sacrificed a marriage. That’s extreme!

Naturally, I have achieved a balance between enjoying bird-watching and keeping track of the species I’ve observed over the years. It’s tempting sometimes to drive six hours in the hope a seldom seen bird will wait for me to arrive, but common sense prevails. Nothing is worth going THAT crazy about chasing!

(UPDATE: I stand corrected. I just wandered by the living room and glimpsed Gini on the love seat. I would eagerly circumnavigate the world and beyond just to smooch the firmament upon which she stands.)

Zero-four-thirty. That’s early. And it’s really dark, too. The email said let’s go see if the Smooth-billed Ani is still at Viera Wetlands. It’s only a two-hour drive. I have never seen a Smooth-billed Ani. Besides, that’s a nice area to go birding even without seeing a Smooth-billed Ani. Gini says, go, have fun. She’ll sleep in. Common sense personified.

Anis are fairly common in the Caribbean and there used to be a small breeding population in South Florida. Burgeoning human development and the accompanying habitat destruction has drastically reduced the species’ numbers, if not extirpated it completely from the state. The ani is in the same family as cuckoos and consumes mostly insects but won’t turn down ripe fruit.

Close examination of the target field yielded no rare bird. No worries, Viera Wetlands is a wonderful place to leisurely drive and walk and find lots of birds! A couple of hours yielded 60 species which included a Limpkin with a young chick, a large flock of American White Pelicans, tons of water birds and as a bonus a Great Horned Owl. As we pulled out of the wetlands, a dozen birders lined the field where the ani had been spotted in previous days. Alas, they reported no sighting this morning. We birded a spot a few miles away and returned about an hour later. The group of birders had grown to at least 30 and they were all standing and pointing to a clump of Brazilian Pepper. There it was! My first Smooth-billed Ani! If only I could wedge myself between the guy with the $10,000 spotting scope and the guy with $20,000 worth of camera stuff. No use. These guys were pros and knew they were in the best spot. I slunk down the road, found a spot to sit in the grass and hoped my puny lens would focus today. Then bird karma intervened. The Smooth-billed Ani fluttered onto a slender limb nearby and spent the next ten minutes preening and watching the watchers. Adrenalin can make your shutter finger shake.

After a lunch of fresh seafood, we wandered around a few nearby parks and found some good birds to round out a special day of birding. A missed turn took us down a road which yielded another rare bird, a Short-tailed Hawk! It’s estimated there are less than 250 breeding pairs of this magnificent raptor remaining in Florida. Talk about icing on the bird-watcher’s cake!

Without further ado, the Smooth-billed Ani (and a few of his closest friends):

 

The Smooth-billed Ani was a very cooperative subject for the dozens of paparazzi on hand. It would occasionally disappear into the dense ground cover to forage but always returned to the only clump of vegetation in the field. Pretty convenient for birders. Judging by the appearance of the tail, I suspect this individual is molting and may be the reason it hasn’t flown away yet.

Viera Wetlands

vIERA wETLANDS

 

The first rays of sun and a lingering ground fog combined to give this female Common Yellowthroat a sort of ethereal look.

Viera Wetlands

 

It’s hard not to gawk at the shocking pink of a Roseate Spoonbill. Of course, be prepared to be gawked right back!

Viera Wetlands

 

Lots of Ring-necked Ducks were enjoying the wetlands and have apparently become accustomed to the busy human presence.

Viera Wetlands

 

A Limpkin keeps a watchful eye on its chick as the youngster learns to find and extract yummy Apple Snails from their not so protective shells.

Viera Wetlands

 

Great Blue Herons flock (pun intended) to this place for breeding as the numerous palm trees make perfect nesting sites.

Viera Wetlands

 

A male Hooded Merganser is really showy with that white hood and bright golden eye. He and his mate spent more time with their heads under water than above.

Viera Wetlands

Viera Wetlands

 

It’s becoming more difficult to find a Mottled Duck which does not have some characteristics of a Mallard. The inter-breeding may eventually wipe out the wild Mottled Duck altogether.

Viera Wetlands

 

I’m used to seeing large numbers of Lesser Scaup in the winter on our larger lakes but in the quiet waters of these small ponds this single bird was content to hang with the above Mottled Duck.

Viera Wetlands

 

I seem to have a knack for photographing peek-a-boo birds. Oh, well. A peeking Marsh Wren is better than none at all.

Viera Wetlands

 

Savannah Sparrows are typically our most numerous winter sparrow. They usually have no problem posing for the patient photographer.

Viera Wetlands

 

Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I am the beholder here, I think this plain female Brown-headed Cowbird is beautiful. So there.

Viera Wetlands

 

Early in the morning, we spotted this Great Horned Owl trying to snooze in a palm tree. Later on, as we were ogling the ani, the owl slipped onto the top of a light pole behind the conga line of birders snapping pics of the visitor from the tropics. I wondered if the owl was also ogling the ani?

Viera Wetlands

Viera Wetlands

Viera Wetlands

 

After lunch, we visited a park on the shore of the Indian River (just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean on Florida’s east coast) and found a manatee who refused to pose for me. I consoled myself with shots of a Great Egret looking for a handout and a very young Brown Pelican. I managed one flight shot of an adult Brown Pelican while still sulking about that manatee.

Viera Wetlands

Indian River

Indian River

 

A missed turn. A red light. A glance upward. Short-tailed Hawk! Find a place to park! Snap 20 quick images! This raptor occurs in dark and light versions. In this light individual, it looks like it’s wearing a helmet.

Brevard County

 

 

Once again I was able to maintain a perfect balance of relaxing bird-watching and common sense. Okay, okay. I went bonkers for a little while and chased a rare bird across the state, sat down on an ant mound, got so many burrs on my pants you couldn’t see the pants, got so nervous about taking a photograph my hands shook – and would do it all again tomorrow. Hopefully, you will soon have the same experience!

 

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back soon for a visit!

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Open To The Public

Not too long ago, a friend asked about a visit to a local area where I reported observing American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts and over 3,000 American White Pelicans. I confirmed those species and proudly talked about other unique birds I had seen during the same outing. He was quite excited as there were three species he had been striving to find in Florida and had been unsuccessful. I felt like a cad. Now I had to break it to him that this was a trip on land not open to the public. At the time, I felt  privileged to be asked to assist in a survey of bird life within this newly developed wetland. Little did I realize how bad I would later feel telling people they couldn’t visit the area.

Karma.

About a month after the above trip, I noted a report of several Burrowing Owls not too far away. My inquiry was met with, “Sorry, they were all on private land.”

Gini and I have been very fortunate to have traveled a modest amount during our time together. The nice thing about having a partner who is happy and positive all the time (yes, she wakes up smiling), is you just know something good is close by almost all the time. When we moved to a new area, we learned to explore close to home first and gradually expand our adventures. What a happy surprise to discover there are usually wonderful things within a stone’s throw of your front door.

Birding has been like that. It’s really exciting to visit a well-known “hotspot” and it’s not hard to figure out why these places are so popular. Plenty of birds! Also, plenty of birders! So we have tried to remember our early experiences and we seek out local parks to see what they have to offer. What we have found is that there are many birding “warmspots” that are all too easy to drive by as one speeds to the well-advertised “hotspots”! These local parks have something else that is missing from the more popular venues. A slower pace. I’m not worried about rushing to the “third tree on the left under the boat dock crouched under a lily pad” bird and getting in a line of sort-of birders who are more akin to contact sport athletes. Instead, I can leisurely walk around on a nicely constructed pathway, say “Good Morning” to a Mom pushing a stroller, admire the fortitude of runners perspiring profusely, take in the aroma of a grilled picnic lunch and still compile a respectable list of birds and perhaps even take a photograph or two.

Two days last month were spent visiting three such public parks. Relaxing, exciting and fun. What more could a very casual bird-watcher want?

 

Athletic fields have very tall poles atop which are mounted lights atop which are often found raptors searching for a meal. This American Kestrel has a great view from up there!

Fort Meade Outdoor Recreation Area

 

A large oak tree branch displayed the remains of what I think was a White Ibis. The lunch buffet was very fresh and a look around revealed a Bald Eagle skulking within the framework of tall utility line support structure. I’m not saying he was guilty, but he WAS near the scene of the dine……..

Fort Meade Outdoor Recreation Area

 

Anhingas are common in our area and they use any available perch that’s open to the sun and wind to dry their feathers. Unlike other waterfowl, they secrete no oils to help them remain water-proof and could drown if unable to keep their feathers dry.

Patterson Park

 

A Double-crested Cormorant and Peninsula Cooter appear to be exchanging opinions as they share a convenient log.

Patterson Park

 

An important pollinator in our ecosystem, the Sweat Bee is so named for its attraction to the salt in human perspiration. Only the females sting and it hurts less than a Honeybee. There are over 49 species of Sweat Bee, including the one below, a Green Sweat Bee.

Patterson Park

 

For some reason, city planners feel the need to “enhance” local park lakes with exotic waterfowl, often with unfortunate results for native species. Some common city critters encountered are swans of all types. I guess, to a bureaucrat, bigger is better. This is a Black Swan, a native of Australia. The male Black Swan’s red eyes turn white during breeding season.

Lake Morton

 

Mute Swans originated in Europe and Asia and are the most common captive swans in North America.

Lake Morton

 

The Black-necked Swan is from South America and cannot survive very cold weather. They are more likely than other swan species to carry young on their backs.

Lake Morton

 

Widely held to be the ancestor of all domestic geese in North America, the Graylag Goose (Anser anser) is a large bulky bird and it is common to encounter a variety of plumages from all white to mostly gray. Hybrids are frequent. In many areas of the United States it is simply referred to as a “Barnyard Goose”.

Lake Morton

 

Ruddy Ducks visit our area only during migration but can sometimes be seen in fair numbers on larger bodies of water. Occasionally, we’ll see the male still in his breeding plumage of chestnut, white face and blue bill. (Below is a female.)

Lake Morton

 

Larger than the small Ruddy Duck, Ring-necked Ducks also appear in the fall and many remain through the winter. In good light, the male’s head and neck appear iridescent.

Lake Morton

 

For sheer gaudiness, nothing compares to our native Wood Duck! Looks like an artist’s palette gone wild. Okay, gaudy but beautiful.

Lake Morton

 

At the other extreme of the color spectrum is the plain brown Limpkin. Plenty of apple snails in most public lakes attract these ancient-looking waders into the city.

Lake Morton

 

Good looking in its own right, the Common Gallinule is still confused as to why the “experts” changed his name (again) from Moorhen. Me, too.

Lake Morton

 

If you get a chance to look for rare birds on private land, go for it! Visit a popular birding “hotspot” whenever you can. For a relaxing day walking among familiar birds in a comfortable setting, check out the city park. You might be surprised at what you can find.

 

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

 

(Hah! You thought you were rid of me, didn’t you? Not yet.)

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

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