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.
The first rays of sun and a lingering ground fog combined to give this female Common Yellowthroat a sort of ethereal look.
It’s hard not to gawk at the shocking pink of a Roseate Spoonbill. Of course, be prepared to be gawked right back!
Lots of Ring-necked Ducks were enjoying the wetlands and have apparently become accustomed to the busy human presence.
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.
Great Blue Herons flock (pun intended) to this place for breeding as the numerous palm trees make perfect nesting sites.
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.
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.
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.
I seem to have a knack for photographing peek-a-boo birds. Oh, well. A peeking Marsh Wren is better than none at all.
Savannah Sparrows are typically our most numerous winter sparrow. They usually have no problem posing for the patient photographer.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!