Greater Yellowlegs?

This morning there was something new poking around the shallow rim of the pond behind my backyard. I believe it was a Greater Yellowlegs. I grabbed my point and shoot camera and snapped off a few quick pictures.

Is this a Greater Yellowlegs?

A little bit closer…

Probing for water bugs.

I did a little research and based on its behavior — probing and poking in the pond shallows for insects — and its great yellow legs, I am calling it a Greater Yellowlegs. What do you think?


American Coots Congregating

American Coot

When we moved in to our town house a couple of months ago I noticed a lone American Coot swimming in the pond behind our building. I watched her (or him) as she swam back and forth across the pond. Every now and then she would quickly dart under the water and come back up with a tasty snail or seed. After a few days of observing this coot I realized that she had burrowed a little home base for herself into one of the grassy banks of the pond. I thought about her being alone and where the other coots might be. I wondered if American Coots were loners or if she had become separated from her group somehow.

Last week, much to my surprise, I noticed a second coot swimming in the pond next her. A few days later I spotted a couple juveniles. Yesterday morning I surveyed the pond and I counted six coots. I am happy to see these new arrivals and I am guessing the coot is too. Unless, of course, coots are really loners after all.

Reinforcements Arrive

Trespassing and Birding at Black Point Marina

I made a quick trip to Black Point Marina in Southern Miami-Dade County this weekend. I have been to this marina many times in the past to go boating with friends or to eat at the little restaurant there, but I have never been there to bird. I was armed with a DSLR camera and an assortment of lenses that a good friend had kindly let me borrow. He advised that I try going to the back side of Black Point where the shrimp boats dock, so that is where I headed first.
To get there I had to ignore the sign that read “No Trespassing – Only Commercial Fisherman Beyond This Point.” I certainly did not look like a fisherman in my Toyota Camry, but I decided to press forward anyway and use the I know what I am doing strategy, with an I’m sorry I didn’t notice the sign excuse as a back up. I drove down the narrow road to the docks and made it there, with only one dirty look to potentially block my way.
I pulled up to the cul-de-sac at the end of the road to find a Snowy Egret watching me from a nearby rock. The Snowy Egret is very similar to the Great Egret, which I see everywhere in South Florida.  The Snowy Egret, however, has a dark-gray or black bill, while the Great Egret has a bright yellow bill.  I parked the car and began to fumble with the sophisticated camera equipment. By the time I got the lens on and was ready to pop off a few photos, I discovered the bird had flown, probably laughing to himself thinking, that guy’s got to do better if he’s going to get a shot of me. I stayed for a little while hoping he would return. Then a couple of the fishermen seemed to be getting annoyed with my presence there so I decided to pack up and try my luck on the other side of the marina, where I have often noticed people fishing along the channel the pleasure boaters use to go out to the bay.
As I drove I noticed that there were many White Ibises overhead. They were traveling in flocks of ten to twenty, and some of them in “V” patterns, At first I thought they were geese or ducks, but their distinctive curved beaks gave them away. I found a clump of bushes that had about fifty of them resting in the branches, so I decided to pull over and enjoy them for a few minutes.
White Ibises resting in some bushes.

I arrived at the other side of the marina and parked next to a wooden walkway that cut through some mangroves. I grabbed my borrowed camera, chose the medium sized lens and followed the little walkway through the mangroves and was deposited on to the north side of the channel. I walked along the bank, passing clumps of people fishing and the occasional bicyclist or dog-walker. After progressing a little ways I happened upon a couple of ladies and a gentleman with binoculars hanging from their necks. They were squinting and pointing into the mangroves. As I approached the man was calling out names of butterfly types, telling the ladies what they were seeing. When he noticed that I had stopped to listen he was quick to begin explaining the butterflies to me.
I asked them if they were butterfly watching and they explained that they were appreciating all types of nature but they were mainly birding. I was thrilled to find other birders out on the trail. I excitedly told them that I was birding too, and found out that they were finishing up a day-long bird trek that had started in Florida City. They were from the Tropical Audubon Society and I was happy to find out that they have nature walks and birding field trips almost every weekend, and they are free.
I decided to tag along with them for a few minutes and they didn’t seem to mind. Bob, the gentleman who was leading the expedition was extremely knowledgeable about the local birds and he quickly filled me in on all the birds they had seen so far that day. As we were walking he also pointed out different spots at out present location and the different species that I might see there. Spotted Sandpipers might be on the rocks in the morning or Red-bellied Woodpeckers could sometime be seen in the tall trees across the channel.
We heard a bird begin to chirp from somewhere deep in the mangroves to our left and everyone but me quickly identified it as a Grey Catbird. We listened to it for a moment and then another one began to call from some trees behind us. Bob began to mimic the sound, trying to draw them out, but we never did see either one.
I thoroughly enjoyed the short time I was able to spend with Bob and the gang, and plan to join up with them again in the very near future. As I left the marina I noticed some Turkey Vultures circling high overhead. They are a very common sight in South Florida, but since I had such a nice camera with me I decided to take some pictures.
Turkey Vulture hovering overhead.

Like last week, this short birding outing showed me how much I still need to learn, but I also got a taste of how willing experienced birders are to show newbies like me the ropes. I was happy to learn that I have picked the perfect time of year to take up birding. According to my new friends Fall is when many migrating birds arrive in South Florida.
Until Next Time,
The Trespassing Birder

Here are some links to more information about:

Tropical Audubon Society
Black Point Marina

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

This little Mourning Dove enjoys pecking at the seeds and berries that fall from the tree in my backyard.  I enjoy watching him in the morning as he rummages around for his breakfast.  Sometimes I will sit outside and read and he will perch upon the fence and watch me until I go back inside.  Then he will hop down and continue perusing the grass for snacks.

Castellow Hammock Park

Castellow Hammock Park
Castellow Hammock Park is located in Southwest Miami-Dade County, Florida just five minutes away from the densely populated Town of Cutler Bay. It is one of Miami-Dade County’s six ECO-Adventures Nature Centers and it was my second stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail.  I grew up in the Cutler Bay area and have lived in South Florida for more than thirty years, and I did not know about Castellow Hammock until the day before my visit.  I found it on the Great Florida Birding Trail website when searching for a birding hot spot near my home.
Park Entrance

The park entrance features a few bird feeders placed on high stilts that seemed to be empty on that particular October afternoon.  Clusters of flowering shrubs and trees dotted the grounds that attract a variety of butterflies and humming birds.  The facility includes a nature center that was staffed by a ranger-type girl, who was just closing up as I arrived.  Even though she was leaving, she said it was alright for me to explore the park as long as I parked outside the gate, which she would be locking up shortly.  The park’s main feature is the nature trail, which begins behind the nature center building.  I was surprised to see that it was really nothing more than a narrow path carved into a thicket of banyan trees, live oak and thick under growth.

Fallen Tree

The vegetation surrounding the trail was thick enough to create a canopy that filtered out a lot of the sunlight, and once I was several steps inside I felt as if I had entered into another world.  The rocks were all covered with moss and I could almost taste the dampness of this new ecosystem that was nothing like the one I had just stepped out of.  The sound of the wind brushing through the leaves of the tree tops was soothing and reminded me of an Amerindian rain stick.  I could hear many different birds singing and calling and at first I couldn’t see any of them. I was sure they all could see me.  In fact, I suspected, I was possibly the subject of their conversations.

Tiny Gorge

The trail wound approximately half a mile back into the thicket and I was grateful for the numbered posts that were left every fifty feet.  Without them I may not have been able to exit the trail as easily as I had entered it.  There were several fallen trees that were slowly decomposing, now sustaining their habitat now in a different way than they had in the past.  About half way in to the trail I found a very small gorge cut into the rock.  The basin was about ten feet below where I stood and was filled with water.  I was impressed by the  roots of the surrounding trees traveling down the steep edges to drink from the water below.  I stopped for a few minutes, hoping see a bird or some other  form of wildlife there, but it was unoccupied at that moment.  I was beginning to think that I would see nothing but trees and plant life.

Looking but not seeing…

While on the trail my inexperience as a birder was apparent.  The first time I raised my camera  to snap a picture I realized that I had forgotten to check the battery.  It was completely dead.  I would have to rely on my cell phone  for pictures.  It probably didn’t matter much, because I really need much better equipment to photgoraph the little birds I was looking for.  Small birds are fast and skittish; they won’t let you get close.   I realized then why most birders rely on some type of optical aid such as a spotting scope or binoculars just to see the see birds, let alone photograph them.  Another thing that became painfully apparent was my lack of knowledge of birds.  I was hearing many different bird calls and songs, but had no clue as to what they were.  When I would catch the occasional glimpse of a bird, most of the time I had no clue as to what kind it was.  I had been thrilled to see the hummingbirds at the park entrance, but dismayed to find out later that there are too many different species of hummingbird for me to come close to identifying what I had seen.   Birding is going to take a lot of practice and I probably need to pick up a pocket field guide to help identify birds on the spot.

One thing I did learn from this little outing is to slow down.  When I first entered the trail, I wanted to covered a lot of ground so I moved quickly and probably made a lot of noise.  I could hear many different birds but didn’t see a thing.   But once I got about as deep into the thicket as I could go I decided to stop and listen.  I was still and patience.  A few minutes I was able to distinguish, the direction the different chirps were coming from.  If I concentrated I could estimate how close or far away they were.  I heard the tree branches off to my right move and when I shifted my gaze I was thrilled to see a bright red Northern Cardinal perched on a branch not more than ten feet away.  Then he was gone before I could even think to try to snap his picture with my cell phone.  A few minutes later I spotted a bright orange female and I enjoyed listening to the two of them singing their songs of courtship.

Then another sign of my inexperience showed up in the form of mosquitoes.  I hadn’t even thought about putting on repellent.  I knew from past experience hiking and camping that now that they had found me they wouldn’t be leaving me alone, so I began making my way out of the trail.  Once I reached that nature center, I decided to sit for awhile on one of the benches outside.  I enjoyed hearing many different songbirds.  I caught a glimpse of the occasional flutter of wings, but was really able to identify anything else, except for the White-winged doves that were fly from treetop to treetop.
I have been told that in a month or so there will be many more migrating birds in South Florida, so I may return to Castellow Hammock again in the next few weeks or maybe I will try another stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail.  One thing is for sure; I will be out there enjoying nature and learning more about birding.

Until Next Time,

The Inexperienced Birder

Here are some links to more information about:

Muscovy Duck

Muscovy Duck

I snapped this photo of one of the multitude of Muscovy Ducks that roam my community.  It is not the most exciting animal to photograph, but I was able to get a decent picture for once.  So I decided to share it. These ducks are in abundance in South Florida.  Wherever there is water you will find them.  I can remember as a child my father and grandfather taking me and my brothers to a little pond to feed the ducks.  We took a few heels from loaves of bread that my grandmother had been saving, probably for that very occasion.  I can still feel the anxiety that came from these bold animals surrounding me as I held up the first piece of bread that my grandfather tore off for me.  I remember the the thrill that I felt as I threw out the bread and watched the ducks react, darting after them and then eagerly returning their attention to me, waiting for the next toss.

Throughout childhood the sight of ducks would always excite me.  I loved watching and feeding them.  But as I moved into adulthood, the excitement quickly faded.  When I was twenty I moved out on my own and my first apartment was on a canal, where we had an overabundance of ducks and an elderly neighbor who treated them like her own children, feeding them constantly.  The result was mobs of ducks waiting for me as I came home each day, and when they couldn’t be there they kindly left little “remembrances” that I often stepped in.  My opinion of the Muscovy Duck quickly changed.  Throughout the years I began to see these ducks as pests and nuisances.  They take forever to cross the street.  They do not share the healthy fear of humans that most birds do, because they are used to grandfathers and fathers and children feeding them.  They are also, in my opinion, the ugliest of the duck family.

Now I have a six-year-old daughter of my own and we recently moved to a new home that features backyard access to a small pond.  I love watching her excitement as the Muscovy Ducks come up to our back door.  I even find myself looking for them some days.  The other day they were congregating in our back yard so I took her outside to hang out with them as I snapped a few pictures.  She wanted chased them and tried to pet them, and for the first time in a long time I was glad they were there. Then my daughter asked if we could feed them and I responded, “Absolutely Not.”

Shark Valley, Everglades National Park

Last weekend I loaded up the family and set off for Shark Valley, at the north end of Everglades National Park.  It was an overcast day and we drove through a couple of rain showers to get there, but once we had parked and bought our tram tour tickets the sun peeked out and the remainder of the day was beautiful.

Shark Valley is a great place to observe exotic birds and other wildlife in their natural habitat, because it is really nothing more than two paths running out to an observation tower eight miles deep into the swamp.  Once you’re out there it is wilderness as far as the eye can see.  I’ve been out there several times in the past with my bicycle, but this time we opted for the tram tour, because an eight mile bike trek would probably be too much for my five-year-old to handle.   The tour was narrated by Ranger Mel.  He did an excellent job pointing out animals and educating us about the Everglades’ history, natural features and the challenges it faces.  As a novice birder, I was especially grateful for Mel, because he identified the bird species we saw.

Female Anhinga

Female Anhinga

Anhingas perched on the trees hanging over the deep water areas drying their wings in the sun.  It is easy to distinguish the females from the males, because they have a sandy-white head and crown.  The male Anhingas are almost completely black.

Red-shouldered Hawk

A Red-shouldered Hawk watched us from the high branches of a distant tree, making me wish I had a better camera.

Great Egret

Great Egrets perched atop the little Cypress trees that dot the “River of Grass.”

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron

A Great Blue Heron stalking new hatched alligators, begrudgingly yielded the road as we approached.

In addition to the birds I was able to photograph we also saw Black Vultures hovering overhead ready to perform Nature’s clean up duties.  American Crows as big as ducks observed us closely on our ride in and on our ride out.  Northern Mockingbird flew in hopping and skipping patterns from bush to bush and a lonely Western Osprey hovered high above everything.

My wife and daughter, who were initially somewhat skeptical at the idea of spending an afternoon in the wilderness, ended having a wonderful time.  My daughter said her favorite bird of the day was “the fat one.”  Later, I discovered that she wasn’t referring to me, but the Red-shouldered Hawk, which coincidentally was my favorite bird of the day as well.

Until Next Time,

The Fat One