Posts Tagged With: brown pelican

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

Ramp Up Your Birding !

Have you ever noticed the thing you seek is sometimes close at hand? Can’t find your car keys? Don’t move. Look around where you’re standing. Open the nearest drawer. Chances are good you’ll find them within a moment or two. But the normal human urge is to think the farther we travel the greater will be our reward. So we go outside first and look in the car to see if we left the keys in the ignition. In fishing, we spend all day plying the deep waters far from shore only to return to see the guy who spent an hour fishing from the dock stuffing another fish into an overloaded cooler. How many times have we hiked through a park all morning in search of migrant warblers only to return to the parking lot and find them feeding under the car?

Gini handed me an egg salad sandwich and we shared a container of fresh tangerine slices. The mirror surface of the lake reflected the impossibly blue sky and a Tricolored Heron flapped lazily along the shoreline. Early morning is an active time for wild creatures. While we enjoyed breakfast, ripples in the water gave away locations of feeding fish, turtles poked their heads above the surface to enjoy the sun’s rays, a Limpkin tip-toed through the cattails in search of snails and a Bald Eagle soared above the lake and was harassed by two loudly scolding Fish Crows. A loud, rhythmic “thwack!”, “thwack!” directed our attention to an oak tree beside us where a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers tore large chunks of bark from the trunk and probed deep within the tree for insect morsels. A more dainty, quick “rat-a-tat-tat-tat” told us a Downy Woodpecker was also in the area. An after-breakfast walk resulted in almost 40 species of birds in the small park.

Our breakfast venue was Lake Rosalie Park in eastern Polk County. A boat ramp, a few picnic tables and small number of primitive camping spots did not offer an extensive area to explore. But what a pleasure to be almost alone (there was one friendly couple camping) and be able to observe so many birds in such a relatively small place!

We feel very fortunate to live in Florida, a state which is not only surrounded on three sides by water but where the interior is dotted with myriad ponds, lakes, streams and rivers. All that water encourages a really diverse flourishing of flora and fauna. Although it’s wonderful to have large parks, reserves and impoundments containing huge numbers of birds nearby, we have learned to enjoy the small places, too. Early in our bird-watching endeavors, we made the astounding scientific discovery that most birds have wings and cannot read the map where it clearly states:  “Birding Hotspot“.

A quick look at a city, county or state website will direct one to a listing of public boat ramps. These don’t always have a park associated with them, but all are definitely worth a glance once in awhile. Not only can you usually get a look at a body of water and its associated shoreline, the surrounding area is often prime habitat for a great variety of birds, native as well as migratory. And if you happen to have  someone with deep brown eyes and soft hands next to you, it’s quite possible that birding will suddenly cease to be all that critical.

Coleman Landing At Shady Oaks Recreation Area has recently expanded to include several improved camping sites for recreational vehicles and a new large shower facility. It’s still basically just a boat ramp which provides access to huge Lake Kissimmee and is nestled among a very nice grove of shady oak trees. The following photographs are from a recent breakfast excursion.

This Red-shouldered Hawk is quite pale and is a good example of the species found in south Florida.

Coleman Landing

Red-shouldered Hawk

 

A White-eyed Vireo took time out from his tireless singing to gawk at the guy walking around poking his face in all the shrubbery.

Coleman Landing

White-eyed Vireo

 

A rare (for me) photograph of a Merlin perched (albeit for only a moment). My usual view of this seasonal migrant is of a blurry brown rear end. They are about the size of an American Kestrel but are faster, don’t hover like a kestrel and whereas the kestrel prefers insects the Merlin specializes in small birds.

Coleman Landing

Merlin

 

Speaking of the American Kestrel, this one was just up the path from the Merlin. Hearing the click of the camera, he gave me the “evil eye” and screamed something about he was trying to hunt here so I left him alone.

Coleman Landing

American Kestrel

Coleman Landing

American Kestrel

 

Another early morning breakfast was enjoyed at the aforementioned boat ramp at Lake Rosalie Park where a few feathered friends kept us entertained.

 

It was a bit early in the season for Pileated Woodpeckers to be choosing a nesting site, but this species mates for life so it’s not unusual to see a pair together throughout the year. The male is distinguished by  red malar stripes while the female’s are dark. These large woodpeckers (average length 16.5 inches/42 cm) will often bore quite deeply into a tree to find insects.

Lake Rosalie Park

Pileated Woodpecker – Male

Lake Rosalie Park

Pileated Woodpecker – Female

Lake Rosalie Park

Pileated Woodpecker – Male

 

Limpkins blend in very well with the colors and patterns of vegetation found near water.

Lake Rosalie Park

Limpkin

 

A Northern Parula is not common here during the winter months but this one appears to be enjoying the mild weather just fine.

Lake Rosalie Park

Northern Parula

 

A very small portion of a huge flock of Tree Swallows swarmed a section of trees and vacuumed up bugs from the leaves without ever landing.

Saddle Creek Park

Tree Swallow

 

It seemed a bit out of place to spot a Brown Pelican high in a moss-draped oak tree. Of course, they frequently choose such a location for nest placement, although I didn’t spot a nest here.

Saddle Creek Park

Brown Pelican

 

On the way home, we stopped at another public boat ramp near our house at Lake Parker in Lakeland. Snail Kites have been expanding their range but they are still an endangered species.  It’s good to see one any time. They have been spotted at Lake Parker with some regularity since last year. The expansion of their range is tied to their main food source, the Apple Snail. Here a female or immature kite hovers over a weedy area near the lake’s shore and comes up with supper.

West Lake Parker Drive

Snail Kite

West Lake Parker Drive

Snail Kite

 

We sold our boat but still like hanging around boat ramps! The next time you see a public boat ramp sign, take a look. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you find. And if you have your priorities straight, go with someone you love. Take breakfast. Take binoculars. Ignore the last two items.

 

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

Categories: Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

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