Two Calling Birds…

Spring definitely sprung this past week. We hiked Sweetwater Wetlands in Gainesville early one morning and birds sang and called constantly. This grackle sat nearly above my head on a tree next to the boardwalk. He sang and sang even as I photographed him.
Some were clearly territorial squabbles. The Red-winged blackbirds, wings very bright in the sun, flew around each other, landing and chasing on this rail. As I watched, this male fluffed his feathers and expanded his chest, and let out his assertive call. The other males stopped bothering him, I guess he made his point.

We’ve had a cooler late winter/early spring this year. We found the weather nice and pleasant, but it certainly wasn’t the low 80s with a lot of sun that our winter residents and tourists expect.

Note: I had computer problems which led to me getting a new PC running Windows 10 as I was unable to find another using Windows 7. Unfortunately the graphics software I always used requires the cloud for most things in any version of it that runs on Windows 10. Since I need to be able to use the software offline, I am in the process of determining which software I can use. If any of you can suggest something that does not require a broadband internet connection, which we do not have when traveling and camping, I would appreciate it.

Alligators at La Chua Trail

Our last two trip to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park we found the La Chua Trail at the north end of the park closed beyond the boardwalk due to flooding. We heard it opened so headed there this trip.
We walked the boardwalk and saw that area dried up quite a bit since our last visit. We continued to the end of the boardwalk and saw groups of people photographing ahead on the trail. The reason became immediately apparent. The cold night, which dipped into the 40s (F), gave way to a sunny and quickly warming morning. Near a small body of water, the alligators all swam up and beached themselves to enjoy the sun and warm their cold blooded systems.

The signs leading to the trail and just before that area warned of wildlife, and suggested keeping at least 20 feet from alligators, further from the bison and wild horses. The alligators rested in a large group across the small pond, but as we walked closer we realized that some of them also rested on the near side of the pond, right next to the trail. We passed as far away from them as we could, as did the other hikers.
We continued on when suddenly we heard splashing behind us. We looked and several of the large alligators plopped back in the water, sufficiently warmed and quite active. The other hikers continued, Karl and I decided to turn around at that point before they became even more active. Our prior experience on this trail prompted that decision.

Many years ago we spent nearly half an hour at a standstill on that trail. A large alligator plopped itself across the middle of the trail, in an area where passing safely on either side was impossible due to water. Several of us stood on one side waiting to get back, while many others stood on the other side, hoping to go forward. Finally the alligator decided to move and walked forward, sliding into the water.

We live in Florida and spend most of our time in natural areas. We see alligators all the time but always stay conscious of the fact that they are wild and can be dangerous. In general, they will move away from you if they can, so always give them an out and don’t stand between them and the water. An alligator becomes dangerous when humans feed it and they associate humans with food. They also become much more assertive during mating season, which starts in April.

Vine Leaves in Early Sun

In autumn when the areas north of us boast trees with leaves of red, orange, and yellow so beautiful that people take trips to some areas just to see them, here in Florida we remain…well, green.

Many years ago after hearing people from elsewhere tell us Florida lacked two of the seasons, we developed a nature and photography program and hike to show visitors to our state that we too had autumn, and autumn changes, just more subtle. We pointed out the glowing purple of the newly ripened beautyberry, the gloss red of the wild coffee berries (scientific name Psychotria nervosa, with a name like that don’t drink it), some of the vines that do change color like the northern trees, including the infamous poison ivy and other changes. Nature let us know autumn arrived in a different way.

We hiked at Key Vista Park recently, and walking by a clear patch of ground along the trail I noticed that some of the vines still had some leaves remaining. Only one leaf, or maybe a few clustered along a small portion of the vine, still beautiful colors, and for a very brief few minutes with perfect morning sunlight coming through the tree canopy lighting them.

Birding from Shore

We stopped several times on our recent morning drive along the Gulf of Mexico. The sunny but cool weather, which followed cloudy and cold weather, brought out a lot of birds but not much else. We saw groups of gulls crowded along a shore. Laughing gulls predominated, though one or two terns mixed in with the crowd.
At one stop I noticed some birds on rocks further out. The bills of the birds caught the sun, so I focused on them. I knew that they were either Royal terns or Caspian terns. I checked the guidebook, and based on the black head that extends all the way to the forehead, and the bill color, I identified them as Caspian terns. The bill color did throw me a bit. They sat facing the early morning sun, and the way that light can play with colors fooled me before.

I learned bird identification many years ago using THE field book of nearly everyone at the time, Peterson’s Guide to Eastern Birds. That guide, along with most of the others until recently, focuses on specific field marks such colors, markings, bill length and other similar features to identify the bird. Several years ago I became aware of the GISS method (General Impression of Size and Shape) which focuses on typical behavior, shape, and methods of movement. I had a shorebird guide that used it, so tried that method with shore birds and found it helpful. As most of my birding companions used Peterson’s and the field marks, I didn’t go much further. Karl has been using that method more lately and finding he likes it. Recently I found another book that uses it and decided to learn it more thoroughly to see if I could teach myself to notice these other characteristics first to help my identification.
I used that method when I saw some birds swimming further out, and by the overall shape including the bill and the way they swam I narrowed in on a merganser, and identified the Red-breasted merganser.

As I checked one more time before we left, I saw this fin in the distance. I know that one by heart, a dolphin. I watched for a few minutes, but it dove and didn’t resurface within my viewing range.

A Nesting Sandhill Crane

Karl and I took a drive this past week along a scenic area north of here. The drive led to the Gulf and then followed the coast to varying degrees. We remembered that a few years before we took this route with our birding friends and in the middle of a small pond alongside the road saw a Sandhill Crane on a nest. Since they return to the same area to nest year after year we hoped to find them in the area, and did.

Both parents incubate the eggs, and males and females do not have notable visual characteristics which set them apart, so we don’t know if this is Mother or Father. The nest sits in a stand of grasses in the middle of the water, a perfect site for them. The pond is right next to a side road, and both the pond and the nest visible to passing cars. The mate did not show up while we were there, and the nesting bird looked around but never moved. We stayed only a few minutes, and I took the closer shot using the full 400mm zoom. We would have loved to stay and observe further, but we were concerned about disturbing the bird. Incubation for these cranes is 28 – 30 days so we plan to drive by again in a month and maybe see one or two colts.

Our first encounter with Sandhill cranes occurred while house-hunting for our first house in Florida when Karl’s job transferred him here 25 years ago. A pair of them wandered around the neighborhood and we saw them while looking at a house. The realtor working with us told us all about them and we learned more during the time we lived there.

Watching a Pine Warbler

On a recent hike I decided to try to concentrate on one bird, if I could, and observe it for a period of time. The warblers move fast and take off into the cover of bushes or trees at the least sign of unusual movement or shadows, a good defense mechanism for the small birds.
I saw a Pine Warbler in a tree, checking for insect life hiding in the Spanish moss. I took a photograph, and it flew almost immediately. I stood still, then moved a little and stopped again until I spotted the bird up on a branch.

I watched as it looked up at the trunk of the tree, tilting its head back and forth, and then took off after something, dropped back, and flew off. It happened fast, and though I managed a few shots it wasn’t until I got them home and on the computer that I could really study them.

A painter we know who also birds and takes photographs once called his camera and long lens (Canon 100mm – 400mm, the one I use the most for wildlife) his best birding tool along with the binoculars. I agree, I carry binoculars for birding but keep the camera close. When we worked on a long term citizen science based birding project for a research team, the photograph, fuzzy and poorly composed thought it might be, often provided confirmation of some birds, and proof when we saw the occasional rare bird.

In this case it gives me a close-up view of an actual bird in the wild. I often notice details not mentioned in guides. The field guides choose the best example they can find of a species for their books. As with humans, the average bird often varies from that perfection.

Fog and Low Tide

We looked outside and realized that the promised sunny morning started with fog and instead of blue sky we saw an unrelenting gray. We went for our walk at a local park anyway to enjoy the walk, and maybe get creative with the photography. We learned not to wait for good or even near good weather, even here in Florida where many people think the sun shines all the time (not). We wore regular walking shoes, and shortly after starting our hike realized the waterproof hiking boots would have been a better choice. The foggy air saturated everything, and the wet grass soon saturated our shoes.

The flock of robins that arrived last month ago flew over. Karl noticed the depleted supply of berries on the trees and shrubs in the area so we don’t expect them to stay much longer. We walked to the deck that overlooks the place where the creek and the Gulf of Mexico meet guessing that any wading birds took advantage of the low tide for a little fishing.

The fog, gray overcast sky, and diffused light with no sign of sun made the entire scene monochromatic. The only points of color came from the white on the Tri-color heron and the crown and head of the Yellow-crowned Night heron. An osprey circled overhead, and then we heard the familiar cry of the Sandhill cranes. I tried to get a shot as they went over, and came out with an acceptable one. My tracking skills with the lens need improvement.
A gray squirrel jumped from branch to branch in one of the trees, several small warblers, mostly Palm warblers flew in and out of the trees near the water, and in the distance we saw several Turkey vultures circling slowly. Once again it ended up more of a birding trip but that is fine with us. Any time quietly walking in the woods is time well spent.

Hike at Key Vista Park

We woke up to a break in the chilly, cloudy weather this week and hurried to take advantage. While still a bit cool the beautiful blue and cloudless (for a change) sky, and the bright sun sent us outdoors to hike at a local park.
We used to visit this local park, Key Vista Park, frequently. Over the years we visited it so much we felt we ‘knew’ it and went on to other discoveries, stopping by only occasionally. Recently the county opened a multi-use trail with this park as one of the stops so we decided to walk that trail. We pulled into a parking spot, got out of the car and looked up to see an American eagle directly over us in the tree. Several osprey flew back and forth, one with nesting material, and we saw a juvenile eagle fly over the adult in the tree. So much for the new trail, we decided to hike into the park itself and save that for another day.
We walked the trails we knew, pointing out to each other the changes. Birds sang, chirped, and flew everywhere. An eagle zoomed overhead, being chased by an osprey. The eagle perhaps ventured too close to a nest. Two fellow hikers near us watched the chase and asked about the birds. Karl explained what they were, and what was likely happening. We told them we have watched eagles chase osprey that just caught fish and harass them attempting to get the osprey to drop the fish.

We walked into one section full of small, fast darting birds mostly hiding in the foliage. Most flew too fast across the trails from one tree to another, so we walked slowly stopping frequently to watch the activity. This Carolina chickadee finally landed in view so we could see it.
As we left, we heard the cat-like cries of one of my favorite birds, the Gray Catbird. It came out briefly, looked around, and flew away. The Gray catbird arrives in our area sometime in autumn and stays through the winter, leaving again in spring. I listed 20 birds for the day, not all we saw but I am just starting to get back in the habit of taking field notes so I consider it a good start.

Long Winter’s Nap

Things started just before Christmas, when for the first time in at least 15 years Karl developed back problems causing constant pain. We knew the drill, and he started taking it easy, standing, or lying down flat on a hard surface resting for a couple of weeks. Walking helped so we took a few short hikes at first when the weather cooperated. Then the weather turned, and with the exception of a couple of warm days near the start of January the days turned mostly chilly, cloudy, and windy.

Midnight the cat spent less time in her outside area of the enclosed deck and more time indoors on a nice, warm fleece, either sleeping or in that in-between relaxation mode that cats do so well. Our version of a long winter’s nap seemed in order for a couple of weeks, so we stayed at home with books, DVDs, online games, offline games and crosswords, and working on long term projects, all accompanied by warm comfort food.

Karl’s back took well to the treatment, and he is comfortably up and around again. The weather still remains chilly, as this puffed up Eastern Phoebe against the gray sky demonstrates, but we are rested and ready to take advantage of any of the warmer days that suddenly appear this time of year.
Midnight, on the other hand, knows that winter is not over, even here in central Florida where it tends to be short and occasional, and can be found in one of her fleece lined favorites spots most days.

Sometimes… Stand Still

We hiked through a local park on a cloudy, overcast day with a north wind (again!). The birds in the area flew back and forth, rarely staying visible. Instead, not surprisingly, they preferred the shelter of the foliage. The bugs they foraged probably did too.

After several attempts to take a few photographs, I finally walked down a small, overgrown path surrounded by foliage where I saw a lot of movement. I stood still for several minutes, just watching, and eventually got these three shots of a warbler observing, looking, and stretching out its neck.

I know birders who stand absolutely still and quiet with binoculars in hand and at the ready, for five or ten minutes at a time when they see movement and hope to sight the bird. I admire their patience and focus. That kind of patience is definitely a skill I need to develop.

Usually in my first blog post of a new year I talk about our photography/interpretive naturalist plans for the year. This year we will remain flexible, and hope with vaccines being administered we can go back to leading hikes and conducting photography classes by mid to end of year. In the meantime we continue to work on our personal projects. One of those projects is to start birding more often, and I plan to keep my naturalist journal again. Since our citizen science projects ended a few years ago we find ourselves doing both less and less, and miss it. It is time to work on our personal lists and field journals, and perhaps start entering our data on some of the websites like eBird where the data can be accessed and used by others.