Power To The — Birds!

Header Image: Royal Terns, Laughing Gulls, Ring-billed Gull

Admit it. You like to watch birds. Some of you may even feed them and give them water. I personally know about people who provide homes for birds. If you like to watch birds, and I know you do, it is very likely you use a pair of binoculars in order to see them more clearly. Do you perhaps also own a piece of equipment known as a spotting scope? From using these specialty types of “optics”, it is a natural and short leap to picking up a camera, you know, so you can record that pretty bird to show a friend. Then you see that fellow on the lake shore with a VERY BIG camera and lens. You then find yourself one evening all alone. Just you and your computer and — the internet. It wouldn’t hurt to just look at some of those VERY BIG cameras and lenses. Would it?

At this time, we shall not discuss the dark side of bird-watching. I mean, who would want to become involved in keeping a list of all the birds one sees in a day. Or a year. Seriously? Why, some have been known to treat this relaxing past time as a SPORT! No. We won’t go there today.

Birds. When we were children it was fun to see a bird bathing in the sprinkler or a puddle. Grandma would show us the wren’s nest on the porch with those pretty eggs and we would be amazed when baby birds appeared. Then, we forgot about birds. School, chores, sports, cars, boys, girls – life happened and we were too busy. University, jobs, love, a family of our own.

We tried to teach our own children about the important things in life. Birds migrated back into our routine. Now. This is the time many of us became “bird watchers”. Teaching others what we love is the true path to learning about ourselves.

Part of our learning about bird watching and, therefore, important for teaching others, is where to go and look for birds. Instinctively, we go to “nature”. Forest, field, shore. That’s where the birds are! At some point we have an epiphany and realize birds are all around us! At home, at work, on the drive to and from a job as well as at all those “natural” places. They may be different birds, but they are there to be seen.

So it was, on a Thursday about mid-morning, that I parked beside our city’s largest power plant. It is an imposing structure with metal walls, exterior framework crisscrossing like some chaotic puzzle, tall light poles, wiring leading outward in every direction, the constant whine of huge turbines – you know, habitat.

Water around the plant remains a bit warmer than the rest of the lake and that attracts fish and other aquatic life. Things that eat fish are therefore attracted to the plant, too. Some of those things are birds.

A few of them are shown below. (Whew! You probably thought you’d never get here, didn’t you?)

It was a chilly and breezy day. This Green Heron found a nice spot out of the wind.

A canal adjacent to the plant’s exterior wall is an excellent place for a wading bird to grab brunch.

Snowy Egret

Tricolored Heron

Little Blue Heron

Weedy patches around the building harbor plenty of insects for a flock of hungry Cattle Egret to hunt.

All of that framework provides places for many birds to hide and nest. Among them is the Eurasian Collared Dove.

A Palm Warbler won’t let a fence impede his bug stalking.

Duckweed and algae provide cover for a multitude of life forms. The curiously curved bill of the Glossy Ibis is a perfect tool for probing beyond the green carpet.

What would an urban location be without pigeons? (Cleaner?) Call ’em Pigeons, Feral Pigeons, Rock Dove, Rock Pigs or the current taxonomically favored “Rock Pigeon”, these birds really are attractive. These almost appear to be musical notes on a scale.

Birds are special creatures. They provide us joy with their diverse appearance. Their songs let us know they are near even if they aren’t visible. We are amazed at their ability to fly. Engage in bird watching at whatever level suits you. Most of all, share your passion!

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

An Uncommonly Good Evening

Header Image: Sunset

“To the orange grove, right?”

I am so predictable. At the time I signed the contract over 50 years ago, I suspected Gini could read my mind. That fact has been confirmed again and again over the past five decades. When asked if she would like to ride with me around 3:30 p.m., she instantly knew where I intended to go. Our destination is about 40 minutes away and sunset is at 5:20 p.m.

Hah! But this time, she only knew half of WHY I wanted to go! Perhaps she is not as psychic as I think. (Looking over my shoulder as I type and ducking my head reflexively.)

An astute local birder reported spotting some infrequently observed sparrows in an area of orange groves, open fields, old homesteads and lakes. This area has for years been a wintering spot for two rather uncommon Florida visitors, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and Western Kingbird. These two species reliably appear about 30 minutes prior to sunset, gather on utility lines and suddenly plunge into the citrus trees for the night.

The area consistently produces a few surprises as well as a very diverse group of birds, especially during migration. We located a couple of the “rare-ish” little brown jobs and then drove around the lake shore where dozens of Double-crested Cormorants were settling in for the night and other water birds were getting one last snack. Near one of the old homesteads we found a female Baltimore Oriole and were treated to a flyby of a Bald Eagle.

As the sun descended, the flycatchers materialized. We saw two Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and 16 Western Kingbirds. Riding out of the area, we watched a flock of over 30 American Robins noisily arguing about which trees would be best for bedding down and an American Kestrel scanned a field hoping for dinner to show up.

Nature lovers, birders and especially some of us with a camera have been indoctrinated to believe the only times worth being outdoors is an hour or two around sunrise and sunset. An evening such as this one makes us almost think they are right. Almost.

Adult White-crowned Sparrows have distinctive black-and-white head patterns. This is a first year bird and shows a brown and gray head pattern. Only a few migrants make it to Florida each year.

Contrasting face pattern, finely streaked center crown stripe and pale gray collar help identify the Clay-colored Sparrow. This is another species only occasionally reported in Florida during fall/winter migration.

Not as brightly colored as the male, this female Baltimore Oriole has her very own beauty. There have also been Orchard Orioles in this spot and although similar in appearance, the females are more yellow underneath without the bit of orange showed in the Baltimore.

A late-day sortie by an adult Bald Eagle brought her overhead to check us out. Pretty spectacular raptor at any angle.

In the wetlands adjacent to the lake, many avian diners were taking advantage of the last light of the day. A trio of Sandhill Cranes may be a family unit of the Florida species, Grus canadensis pratensis, which are non-migratory and number around 5,000. Each winter, they are joined by upwards of 30,000 of their migrating cousins, G. c. tabida, which are slightly larger than the residents. (Size comparison is tough. We’ve found it easier to use our own formula: less than five birds may be locals, more than that are likely tourists.)

A group of Glossy Ibises found the selection of mud-dwelling entrees to be just fine.

We pulled to the side of the road where we have observed the flycatchers roosting and, right on schedule, they began arriving in one’s and two’s 30 minutes prior to scheduled sunset. A very pleasant way to spend a winter evening.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Western Kingbird
Western Kingbird At Sunset

As we left the roosting area, the very last light of the day illuminated the back of an American Robin. He was part of more than 30 birds loudly jostling for the best roosting limbs for the night.

Within sight of the robins was an American Kestrel. We suspect she was not worried about a roosting spot but would not argue with a tasty bug or lizard before bedtime.

We like this area for all of the reasons illustrated above. Whether we find seldom-seen birds or familiar feathered friends, we always have an uncommonly good adventure!

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

As The Fog Clears

Header Image: Eastern Phoebe Eyes Bagworm Moth

We seem to relish foggy days. For one, as Gini noted on this day, it just seems so quiet. The stillness of an early morning on the bank of a lake blanketed in gray with sight and sound limited heightens the senses. More importantly, we know clear skies lurk just above the mist and the natural world will soon be going about the business of surviving another day. As will we.

This particular visit to Tenoroc Fish Management Area took place in mid-December. Morning temperatures were mild but made to seem cooler by the fog. Not too long after sunrise, we were basking in the warm Florida sun under bright blue skies.

Small birds were active but fairly silent while the fog clung to the earth. Visibility improved slowly and the morning commuter flocks could navigate from roosts to feeding areas. Scores of White Ibis, Double-crested Cormorant and Anhinga crisscrossed the patchwork of lakes. A pair of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks whistled overhead. A Great Blue Heron materialized from the fog and flapped his way onto a cypress tree branch. A distant screech from a Red-shouldered Hawk seemed to signal the official start of the day.

We progressed slowly from one favorite spot to another. Lingering along a trail or at a boat ramp or fence row provided an incredible diversity of our three main goals: birds, blooms and bugs. Migratory birds were sprinkled throughout our morning which increased the pleasure provided by our normal resident population. At this time of year we don’t encounter as many insects as during warmer months, but we still came across butterflies, moths, dragonflies and small creepies and crawlies all enjoying the relative winter warmth. A few flowers brightened up the landscape.

One day I will concentrate on including fewer images and creating shorter blog posts. This is not that day.

The pretty panorama of Picnic Lake was mostly obscured by the morning fog.

Bright yellow blooms in the water are but a memory. American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) in winter.

The strength of the sun will soon overcome the damp gray blanket hugging the earth.

A positive result of the delayed sunrise is that the Moonflowers (Ipomoea alba) remain open longer. This bloom measured almost eight inches in diameter.

With its bright yellow eyes, a Common Grackle just chased away my opportunity to photograph our first observed migratory American Robin of this season. Sigh.

Skulking in the lower portion of the brush is another winter migrant, the Swamp Sparrow.

I was hoping to change to the macro lens for a detailed image of this spectacular Arrowhead Spider (Verrucosa arenata), but she was much quicker than me. Two clicks with the big lens and she disappeared.

One of our (many) favorite winter visitors is the Northern Harrier. Their distinct owl-like face and low, lilting flight as they hunt over a marsh or field make them quite unique. This one was uncharacteristically perched in a large field. Based on the fairly dark plumage, especially of the head, this is likely an immature bird. I thought it had just captured breakfast, but after 20 minutes it took flight with no evidence of prey.

Our presence may have been detected. This young Red-tailed Hawk wouldn’t stop squawking about us. More like “Tattle-tale” Hawk.

Winter dragon. Like the Harrier above, this male Hyacinth Glider (Miathyria marcella) is normally airborne and we’re always surprised to find one sitting still. Dozens of these were active over the same field where we found the Harrier and Hawk.

Yellow-rumped Warblers are among our most common winter migrant songbirds. The majority of these handsome birds fly on to South America but thousands remain in the area until spring.

Gini thinks too much coffee may be the reason a Ruby-crowned Kinglet seems to never hold still. Fidgety, constantly flexing its little wings, hopping from one twig to another. These are considered “short-distance” migrants since in the fall they move from far-north breeding grounds to the southern part of North America and typically no further. We appreciate them entertaining us all winter!

Speaking of fidgety and entertaining. Meet the House Wren. These little brown jobs are all over the place in winter! They may be small but they are intensely aggressive. They have a surprisingly loud and beautiful song.

More tourists. Savannah Sparrows are easily identified (for a sparrow) by the striped breast, distinct face pattern and usually a bit of yellow over the eye. This is our most abundant migratory sparrow.

It may not be as brightly colored as some butterflies, but we think the Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia) is stunningly beautiful!

With no trace of fog remaining, an Eastern Bluebird has plumage which is nearly a match for the morning’s recently revealed bright sky.

More blue revealed! This time in the eyes of a White Ibis as it probes the shallows for breakfast.

Our imagination thinks the flowers are grateful for the sun’s rays and open a little wider in thanks. This Climbing Aster (Symphyotrichum carolinianum) bloom is one of dozens adorning the bank of a lake.

We began the day on the shore of a lake straining to see what might be in the distance. As the fog cleared, so did our vision and our spirits. Life can be like that. Gloom can restrict our sense of what is important. Eventually, barriers are overcome and all is right with the world.

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

Winter Prelude

A few weeks ago we had a chance to escape to our patch before the dire weather predictions came crashing down around us. Sunny skies and warm temperatures – the way a Florida winter should be!

For something a bit different, our trip began in mid-afternoon and we remained until sunset. We had a wonderful outing and saw more than we expected. We even spotted a few critters other than birds! When we first arrived, threatening clouds moved in but quickly scudded off to the east leaving us with bright blue skies overhead.

We typically see more birds in the mornings but we scared up a few migratory visitors as well as a couple of familiar residents. The calendar said it was December. For us, it could have been March. Our thoughts were with those in cold environments as snow and wind and ice certainly make life more challenging. Once that weather system reached us a few days later, our temperatures flirted with near freezing for three or four days and rain made being outside a bit uncomfortable. Not life-threatening as some have had to contend with.

At our final stop as the sun headed for the horizon we were treated to Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks overhead, wading birds hoping for a final frog feast, a curious mammal and a somewhat pleasant view of the sun through the lakeside cypress trees. A very nice afternoon.

The scene at our first stop was pretty dramatic. As thunder rolled in the distance, we wondered if we should head back to the house. Press on, she said. Good decision. (As usual.)

Adding to the local woodpecker population during migration. a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker probes a tree trunk for snacks.

Warm weather encourages many insects to breed in late fall. One result is that we get to enjoy adults such as this Gulf Fritillary (Dione incarnata).

Florida’s state bird, the Northern Mockingbird, may be very common, but he’s also very handsome. Or, she may be very beautiful.

An Anhinga and Great Blue Heron compare wing display techniques.

A warm sunny afternoon is not only welcoming to explorers, but a Water Moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorus) thinks the road is just fine for soaking up the last rays of the day. I suspect he just had a meal as he didn’t move at all when I came a bit closer to get a photograph. Normally, they disappear very quickly.

Making hay while the sun is still shining. Mrs. Phoebe finds the top of this bale just perfect for spotting any movement in the field below.

Our patch does not contain much in the way of shallow wetlands or marshes, but a pair of Wilson’s Snipe decided a small drainage ditch by the side of the road to be quite suitable for foraging. These are also winter visitors.

There were not a lot of dragonflies flitting about, but a few got our attention. This bright male Hyacinth Glider (Miathyria marcella) even perched for us. They typically remain airborne forever it seems.

Yet another of our fall/winter tourists is the Savannah Sparrow. The light was beginning to wane but we could still enjoy the bird’s warm brown plumage and the bit of yellow in front of the eye. This bird was part of a group of six other sparrows which were part of a group of 20+ Palm Warblers. Fun!

A movement in a cypress tree turned out to be a Raccoon illuminated by the setting sun. We told her we meant no harm but I think she felt better once we departed.

As we reluctantly prepared to head home, the sun twinkled through the trees and a lone little cloud appeared above the lake. Was this the beginning of our cold front?

Autumn was ending. Winter was ravishing the lands to our far north. We appreciated a warm and rewarding calm afternoon before the storm.

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

Long Lake

It’s that time of year when we sweep out the old in preparation for the new.

In a dusty corner of the archive closet, covered in cobwebs deposited by Halloween goblins, I found a few images which need to be shared. Hope you don’t mind.

We gave ourselves a treat on All Hallows’ Eve this year and spent the morning poking around another of the gems which makes up the Tenoroc Fish Management Area, the Long Lake tract. The lake is about one mile long and less than 600 feet across at the widest point. It is bound on the north by residential development, on the south by industrial warehouses and on the east and west by busy roadways. Within the tract, there is a nice oasis of pine woods, a small pond in addition to Long Lake, hardwood trees along the lake shore and a small wetland with a lagoon on the tract’s northeast corner.

Typical Florida weather for this time of year found us enjoying high humidity with heavy dew, little wind, mostly sunny skies and by 11:00 a.m. temperatures around 80 F (27 C). Halloween spirits prevailed and we discovered a plethora of spider webs at each stop and even a few of the construction engineers hanging about. Common Gallinules fussed as we interrupted their breakfast. Boat-tailed Grackles threw back their heads and let loose with raucous calls from high atop utility line support towers. Evidence of the ongoing fall migration manifested in myriad warblers in the weeds and trees. We saw our first of this season’s Yellow-rumped Warblers. A Red-shouldered Hawk was uncharacteristically silent as he peered down from his perch.

A morning such as this far surpasses any sugary treat we may have received from our neighbors. And we didn’t even have to wear a costume.

Belatedly – Trick or Treat!

Our sub-tropical environment allows us to enjoy many insects later in the year than some other locales. An immature male Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea) begins life looking like the female and in a couple of weeks will assume the purplish hues of an adult male.

Spider webs sparkle with drops of dew in the early morning light. These webs may have been made by one of the Spotted Orbweavers (Neoscona species). In the second image, you can see one of the builders in the upper left.

Small and stealthy, a male Common Yellowthroat is curious what I’m doing tramping around in his weed patch.

I know we have plenty of bugs at this time of year, but I was still surprised to find a pair of Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii) in the forest understory. These damselflies have four different color variations depending on sex and age.

Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii) – Adult Male
Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii) – Immature Heteromorph Female

Palm Warblers are among the first songbirds to show up as fall migration begins. They almost constantly pump their tales up and down which helps identify them even at a distance.

Our first Yellow-rumped Warblers of this fall were very busy at our initial stop. They were scooping up all the insects they could find in the trees and the willows along the shore of a small pond.

Small size, big thinker. The small Spinybacked Orbweaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis) often spins fairly large webs during the night. This one easily spanned over two feet in diameter.

Pine Warblers can vary widely in appearance. The first photograph shows a fairly pale individual while the second has more yellow.

There are three species of the Leucauge genus of spiders found within North America. This genus is part of the Longjawed Orbweaver Family (Tetragnathidae). The first image is L. argyrobapta and the second is L. argyra. The third species, L. venusta, has been determined to not inhabit Florida. These three species have been referred to as Orchard Orbweavers or Orchard Spiders. Within N. America, L. argyra has been found only in central and south Florida. (There will be a test!)

Orchard Orbweaver (Leucauge argyrobapta)
Orchard Orbweaver (Leucauge argyra)

Scooting down a tree trunk like a nuthatch, a Black-and-White Warbler proves one does not need a lot of different colors to be beautiful.

Ever have that feeling that you are being watched? As I glanced up, a Red-shouldered hawk was intently monitoring my movements.

Our Halloween was filled with so many wonderful treats this year! Excuse me, but I must return to the archive closet. I just KNOW there are more treats to be found!

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