Is that a House Finch?

While photographing birds on a recent hike, I noticed a flash of red. I put my zoom on the bird, not sure if I had time to get my binoculars out. I watched and two birds flew around the trees, one stopping long enough to peer in my direction.

My immediate thought was “house finch”. The problem is that all the birding references show this bird as year around all across the United States, except the Florida peninsula. I remembered hearing that people with bird feeders north of us had House Finch as regular feeders. After many years of birding on citizen science projects I knew that in Florida depending upon the time of year and weather, a lot of birds are seen that are not supposed to be here.

I checked further, and found that birders had already recorded seeing two house finch at this park just two months ago. Several commenters believe that they are extending their range. While this is not a new bird to me, it is a new one to my list of those seen locally. As you can see from the two photographs, they were not exactly eager to make getting a photograph of them easy.

Robin-Our First Winter Bird

We walked at a small local park on the first day of winter. An American robin, actually a flock of robins, immediately became our first of winter species. Karl and I both grew up in the snowy part of New York State. In our childhood, the sighting of a robin meant spring arrived. Here in central Florida, it means winter arrived.

The birds loudly called to each other, flying from tree to tree and eating the berries from the red cedar and the berries of the invasive Brazilian pepper trees. The wind came from the north and gusted occasionally, so they needed a lot of food to maintain their body temperature. In the photograph above, you can see the wind ruffling the robin’s breast feathers.

The entire time we walked the flock moved here and there. A few would settle in a tree, as above, then another came in for a landing causing them all to scatter, which I captured in the second photograph.

The winter solstice turned out eventful this year. First our walk and our first sighting of robins for the year, then seeing the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction in the southwest sky just after sunset, and finally seeing a shooting star with a tail, bright enough to actually startle me during my early morning run.

Festival of Lights

Nearly every December we pack our camper and head to Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, FL for their Festival of Lights. We learned of it on our first camping trip to the Florida parks ten years ago. The park volunteers told us not to miss it, and fortunately we secured a campsite due to a cancellation.

Through the years it grew. In addition to the drive to see all the lights in their holiday and woodland scenes you could park and visit the country store and adjacent craft cabins. The area filled with bustling with shoppers checking out merchandise and many craftspeople demonstrating how they make their creations, everyone encouraged on by free hot chocolate and free popcorn. Last year the center portion between the museums turned into a holiday wonderland for walking, with lighted paths and light exhibits along the way, vendors, a snow machine, a large model rail set up, and last but certainly not least Santa Claus.

This year of course Covid-19 affected the plans. All of the walk through areas, the beautifully decorated museum buildings, the country store, and craft cabin activities were cancelled. But, the drive went on. From the campground we drove around two evenings, taking photos and enjoying the festive lights.

Thank you to the staff of the park, and all the many volunteers who kept this holiday tradition alive.

Red-headed Woodpecker

We hiked further north in Florida recently and got to see a bird we rarely (actually never in 20-some years) see in our area, the Red-headed woodpecker. Most bird maps show its range extending to Tampa Bay, but while we frequently saw Red-bellied, Downy, Pileated, and even Hairy during our many years of citizen science projects and official and unofficial counts, we always traveled north to see this one.

The day turned out absolutely beautiful. Warm, with lower humidity, and as seen in the photographs, a gorgeous blue cloudless sky. We also spotted other woodpeckers, the Eastern Phoebe, one of our winter residents, and some fast flying warblers. We stood and watched this bird for a while as it searched for and successfully found, a meal.

Invasive Trees and Wildlife

Brazilian Pepper Trees are an exotic invasive in Florida. They grow incredibly fast and displace the native trees, in this case, the mangroves. The area behind our fence is a creek border of about two feet and a tidal creek bed and creek, none of which we own. For many years we did our best to control the invasion of these trees from our side, but every year it required extensive work and the grove on the other side grew thicker. This year the owner of the area surrounding the creek took action and the trees were cleared.

As much as we wanted the trees gone, the decision for us was mixed. The trees provided habitat for wildlife and privacy for us. Several neighbors had cleared them out earlier in the season, and this year the Gray Catbirds and flocks of migrating warblers did not come. We realized their habitat had already changed too much, so felt a little better about our part in the necessary change. The area is clear now behind the fence, but about 15 feet behind the it is a grove of native black mangrove trees which will eventually take over the area again.

We discovered that wildlife still flourished there, though a few individuals became temporarily displaced during the work. This frog, who we believe is a Southern Leopard Frog, managed to get into the pool area for a swim. We netted him out, and put him near the fence where he hopped toward the creek.

A couple of mangrove crabs took refuge on a tree in our yard. Shortly after I took this photo they too headed back home.

The Cat’s Eye

I walked into the small enclosed Florida room I use as an office and studio a few days ago. I looked toward the window, and saw just one eye watching me. It startled me briefly, until I realized that in the dark behind the window, that was all I could see of our cat Midnight. She sat very still watching with the one eye. I found my camera, the smaller Canon G16, in my bag and took a couple of shots. Thank goodness she stayed since I hurried the first one and got only a blur.

I posted photographs before of our two cats, Midnight, all black, and her litter sister Sassy, all soft gray. Unfortunately her sister Sassy became ill suddenly two months ago. In spite of rushing her to animal ER we lost her. Apparently she had a genetic issue that led to renal failure, just two months before she turned 7 years old. Midnight immediately went to the vet for testing, and so far the genetic issue does not show in her.

Sassy was alpha cat to Midnight from birth, and they had never been separated. We even had them put in adjoining cages the one time they had to spend the night at the vet. For several weeks Midnight looked everywhere, every day, for her sister. Always easy frightened and terrified, she no longer had her sister to calm her so ran and hid a lot. Slowly Karl and I are getting used to Sassy’s absence, and so is Midnight. She doesn’t hide as much, and joins us in the evenings even venturing to sit in Karl’s lap on occasion. Several people suggested introducing a new kitten, but for now Midnight will be an only cat.

Spider Webs and Photo Sorting

What is it about spider webs just after a rain or with just the right lighting that make us take take a photograph, or make a sketch? I know I am not the only one, I read other blogs and sites and often see these beautiful, lacy creations posted.

I sorted through my photographs for 2020 this past weekend, preparing for my annual purge. I usually fail to be at all ruthless in deleting shots that just didn’t work. Out of focus, really missed the shot, or just plain not at all interesting shots get deleted on the first or second pass after I download everything to my computer. Those that remain include the shots that just aren’t quite there, but I “might want someday”. Someday never comes of course, and once a year usually between Christmas and New Year holidays I harden my resolve and sit down with a cup of tea or coffee. Opening Photoshop, I start with the oldest and work to the most recent. I think time away from the when I took the shot helps me distance and make those decisions.

My review this weekend prompted this post with spider webs. I took a lot. Some had the occupant residing, as the one below, others just looked so beautiful in the morning light or intrigued me in some other way. Oh, and I actually deleted a several others of those “someday” shots, a head start on next month.

STILL Waiting for Fall

Our brief taste of cooler weather went away, and the last week felt like August again. In spite of the heat and humidity, the flowers and berries of the season area all out. The days are definitely shorter, so nature can’t fool them with the heat, they know which season it is.

We enjoyed a few brief hikes and walks recently. This green sweat bee, one of Florida’s important pollinators, went about its work as I took a photo. The metallic green really stands out.

Seeds and berries are everywhere. The provide the fall color for us that other, cooler parts of the country get from the leaves turning colors.

Picnic and Birding

We had a busy week that involved a lot of driving. Florida’s seasonal residents, called snowbirds by nearly everyone, start arriving in October and usually arrivals peak around January. This year we think a lot of them are arriving a little earlier that usual, so traffic is already very heavy most of the day.

Since we suspected our morning trip might extend to early afternoon, I suggested I pack a picnic lunch just in case. We used to picnic quite a bit, but eventually morphed into leaving wherever we were and finding a restaurant. It happened so slowly that we suddenly realized we never took a picnic anymore.

We did end up longer than we thought, and since we were close to Crystal River we stopped at the archeological park. Some Moms and kids were packing up their picnic and leaving as we arrived, otherwise we had the place to ourselves. We enjoyed a leisurely lunch, surrounded by butterflies and birds. The park is along the river, and as we ate this sandpiper walked along the wall.

Bluebirds, warblers, and various other birds flew from tree to tree, and the flowers attracted numerous butterflies. As we walked back toward the car, I tried to get a shot of a small Metal Mark butterfly, without success. A woman and her young son saw me and asked what I was doing. I talked about all the birds and butterflies we had seen, and suddenly the boy looked around and started noticing the butterflies all around. He got excited and started looking for more. I’m glad I missed that shot, it was worth it to talk to them and see him start noticing the butterflies around him.

We decided to start taking a picnic with us again, we forgot how nice and calming that break can be during the day.

Breakfast on the Beach

Last week I celebrated a birthday. It was one of THOSE birthdays, you know, the ones that make you realize that yes, you may feel physically good and not old but the rest of the world now recognizes that you are old.

Karl and I adopted a low key approach to birthdays after our marriage. In the beginning it involved an expensive meal and drinks at a nice restaurant. Then it evolved into making a special meal for each other at home as our corporate careers involved eating out a lot, then back to restaurants when we became self-employed/semi-retired, and starting last year back to the special meal at home again just because we enjoyed it more.

This year I wanted different, I wanted to spend an early morning on the beach having breakfast and enjoying the quiet, the scenery, and just us. We made some breakfast sandwiches the night before. We woke the next morning to cool air and low humidity, a treat as we waver between that and summer like weather during October. We heated up our breakfast and packed it in a thermal carrier, filled a thermos with hot coffee, and drove off to a local beach. At 7:30 a.m. we shared the beach area with one photographer, two birders, one sleepy looking park employee cleaning up, many shorebirds, a boat in the distance with the moon still up and the sun rising.

Breakfast on the beach provided a special start to the day, and to the next year of my life. Karl still cooked that special dinner for me, and I am a year older, but eating a picnic breakfast together while watching the shore, popping up to check out a bird or take a photograph, that was really magical.