Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

Take a walk and keep your eyes open.  You never know what you might find.  The other day I decided to take the long way way home from the mailbox, and as I passed a little pond a few blocks from my home I spotted this Tricolored Heron tiptoeing through the tall grass at the water’s edge.  His iridescent blue-green crown and nape, bright white throat and breast feathers and smoky gray wings distinctly set him apart from other South Florida herons and egrets. This was my first Tricolored Heron — a great reward for taking the scenic route.

Birding the Florida Keys – John Pennekamp Coral Reef Sate Park

Recently a business trip landed me in the Florida Keys. There are many great bird watching spots in The Keys, but I only had time for one. I decided to check out John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. I had been there several times in the past; as a swimmer, a snorkeler and as a canoeist, but never a birder.  This time I spent a couple of hours walking along the various trails and took some time to watch shore birds from a bench on one the beaches.  It was amazing to discover how much more there was to this familiar spot.  I realized that each time I visited the park in the past I was on a mission.  I would normally rush straight to the canoe rental stand or the beach, but this time I had no special agenda other than to wait for what nature wanted to give.  I think I need to do that more in all areas of life.  How much am I missing because I am in to much of a hurry?

As I emerged from my car I looked up to see this Red-bellied Woodpecker.  He stayed put long enough for me to snap a decent picture with my point and shoot camera.
There were boardwalks that winded through the mangroves.  I had to share this one with a large reptile.
This Laughing Gull didn’t seemed to be amused at the moment.
I ran into this White Ibis a couple of times.  He seemed to be very used to humans and let me get very close.
Here he is again.
Snails are much better than birds at posing for pictures.
Look closely and you will see a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
These Oceanblue Morning-glory flowers dotted the huge vines that draped the wooded areas of the park.
A Herring Gull and a Double-crested Cormorant resting on some rocks.
Cannon Beach

Nature vs. Video Game

Last Sunday I called my six-year-old daughter to come outside to see the American Coots chasing each other in the pond behind our backyard.  She had just started a video game, so I was surprised when she readily agreed and stepped outside.  We watched their game of tag for a little while and then decided to take a walk around the small pond.  It was a beautiful mid-November South Florida afternoon — perfect walking weather.  We began by tossing some bird seed at some of the Muscovy Ducks who roam our community.  Then we continued along keeping our eyes peeled for what the Great Outdoors had to offer.  I scanned the trees for sparrows and finches, while she was fascinated by the little rust-colored butterflies fluttering in the grass.  Eventually she announced that I was the bird explorer and she was the the butterfly explorer.  That was just fine with me.

Feeding Muscovy Ducks

Along the way we ran into a Greater Yellowlegs that I had first spotted a few weeks earlier.  At the time I had first seen this very interesting wading bird, I hadn’t been sure if it was a Greater or Lesser Yellowlegs, but this time he let me get pretty close and I was able to watch him for quite a while.  His long bill was approximately twice as long as the thickness of his head and had a slight upward curve. A Lesser would have had a shorter, straighter bill.

Greater Yellowlegs

We continued our walk and approached a group of approximately twenty birds that had been swimming in the middle of the pond.  As we drew near they suddenly took to the air in unison and flew away from us, resettling seconds later at the far end of the pond.  I had been watching them from my window the last few days and they had been diving below the surface so I had just assumed they were more American Coots.  We have had coots in the pond ever since we moved in this past summer.  But when these guys left the water and sped across the pond it became very obvious that they were not coots.  They were ducks.  They were a lot smaller than the Muscovy Ducks, but duck nonetheless.

Ring-necked Ducks

We slowly made our way toward these newcomers, not wanting to startle them, but needing to get closer if we were going to have a chance at identification.  It seemed that every time we got within a certain distance they would relocate further away, but eventually we found a spot under an wooden overhang that allowed us to watch from a comfortable distance.  The ducks had black heads and backs. Their bellies were gray.  They had small yellow eyes and black bills marked with bright white stripes.  Some of them were a little brownish in color with less striking features.  Later when I was able to identify these shy swimmers as Ring-necked Duck, I found out the brownish ones were the females.

American Coot and Muscovy Duck

We eventually closed the loop around the pond and were back to our yard.  I expected my daughter to run back in to finish the video game she had paused an hour before, but when I began to walk toward the door, she said that she wasn’t ready yet.  So we hung out under the shade tree in our backyard and talked and picked some of the little flowers growing in the grass until she was finally ready to go back inside.  Nature won this round.

Until Next Time,

The Bird Explorer with the Butterfly Exploring Daughter

The Catbird and the Cat Who Thought He Was a Bird

Last weekend the family and I headed up to Central Florida on a scheduled weekend sneak away trip to see some good friends.  Our trip coincided nicely with a little cold front that pushed through Florida, resulting in brisk cool weather that was eagerly welcomed by me and tolerated by the rest.  The afternoon drive up was beautiful.  The densely populated Tri-county South Florida megalopolis gradually gave way to a sprawling Florida landscape of sawgrass and pine trees.  We passed countless egrets and herons feeding by the canals that run alongside the roadway.  Vultures circled high above, and at one point a large osprey, with a freshly-caught fish glided over the highway right in front of us.  I wondered aloud at how I missed all of these things in the past, before I began birding.

Wekiwa Springs State Park

Saturday was the obligatory trip to a local amusement park and on Sunday our friends took us to Wekiwa Springs State Park.  The park is located at the headwaters of the Wekiva River and features a natural spring with refreshing 72 degree water that would have probably felt warm the day that we were there.  We decided not to test it out, as we were there just to sight-see.  The surrounding countryside was pristine, and, according to an informative placard posted near the spring, looked just as it did when Timucuan Indians hunted and fished in the area hundreds of years ago.

Natural Spring

Both families posed for photographs at the waters edge and while we were trading cameras and snapping pictures I was distracted by a raspy “cha-a-ak, cha-a-ak” in the bushes nearby. I tiptoed over to see a small bluish-gray bird with a dark crown perched on a branch just a few yards from me.  He was rather bold and his dark eyes watched me closely as I slowly raised my camera.  He let me get one shot then disappeared deeper into the thicket.  I thought he was a Florida Scrub-jay, but later I was able to positively identify him as a Gray Catbird.

Gray Catbird

Wet to Dry Boardwalk

We decided to venture out away from the springs and down some of the trails.  We took the Wet to Dry boardwalk that led from the water into the woods, which took us gradually upward from the river swamp to the dry sandy ridge above.  The trees were tall and majestic.  We saw hollowed out logs and fungi and a great variety of Florida plant life.  The kids kept wanting to run too far ahead, so I warned them about the lurking Black Bear, who waits for children to get separated from their parents.  Later I found out that there actually is a bear in the park.  We reached the end of the boardwalk and then followed one of the sandy hiking trails back toward the spring and the front of the park.

Wild Turkey

When we emerged from the woods out into the clearing beside the spring we saw a group of Wild Turkeys foraging in the grass followed by a calico cat. At first I thought the cat was stalking the turkeys, which seemed quite comical, as each of the turkeys were four times its size.  But after watching them for a few minutes I realized that the cat was foraging too, as if he were a turkey himself.  That was actually more comical.  I managed to convince the two kids, who instinctively need to chase the turkeys when they see them, to hold off while I took some pictures.  When I was done the kids took off and the turkeys flew and the cat scampered away.

Wild Turkeys Foraging
Calico Cat and Wild Turkeys

Just One of the Turkeys

Birds of Prey

Red-shouldered Hawk
The other day I was observing and enjoying a beautiful falcon. I was fascinated by his powerful talons and menacing beak. I looked at his large eyes that would enable him to pick out his prey from hundreds of yards away. Even though at the time of my observation he was perched on a tree branch I knew that he had broad wings that could catch the wind like a sail allowing him to effortlessly hover high above the ground. I thought about how awesome falcons are. Then somebody told me it was a hawk.
I have only been bird watching a short time, and I am quickly becoming fascinated with raptors, or birds of prey. One thing that I have quickly realized about the raptors is that it isn’t very easy to tell them all apart. There are several different kinds of raptors and many different species within those categories. A short time ago, a much more experienced birder was relating his birding day to me and he mentioned that he had seen, among other things, a Peregrine Falcon, Western Osprey and Red-Shouldered Hawk. I thought to myself, there is no way I would be able to tell all those apart.
So I decided to investigate. I wanted to find out more about the different categories of raptors, what distinguishing features those categories were based on and what to look for to help me tell them apart while on the field.  My goal was not really to be able to identify all of the specific raptor species, but rather to be able to categorize a bird as falcon or eagle or hawk or whatever it might be.  I couldn’t really find what I needed with a simple web search so I began posting messages on birding forums and talking with experienced birders.  I found that birders are very wiling to help and several seasoned bird experts pointed me to HMANA (Hawk Migration Association of North America), which has a great power point presentation for download.  I also received a few suggestions that  I pick up a field guide.  I chose the The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America.  Both sources proved to be extremely helpful and I recommend them to any novice birder like me.
I broke up my task into three steps.  My first step was to set parameters and classify the birds into groups.  I decided to focus on North American diurnal raptors, which are most active during the day.  Sorry, owls. Most diurnal raptors belong to the family Accipitridae along with the new world vultures and the true falcons. Among these we have eagles, vultures, ospreys, harriers, kites, hawks, falcons and kestrels.  Most of these fall into two major sub-families: Buteos, which are include larger hawks and true eagles; and Accipiters, the true hawks.  Falcons and kestrels are from the Falco genus.  Kites, ospreys, harriers and vultures are in separate groups of their own. 
After classifying the different types of raptor the next step was to begin looking for ways to tell them apart.  For that I got some great advice from David Rankin.  David works with the New Jersey Audubon Society and conducts the Montclair Hawk Watch, the second longest running hawk watch in North America.  He summed it up this way.  “Falcons are generally fast birds with long, pointed wings and long tails. Hawks can be split into two groups, Buteos and Accipiters. Buteos are the soaring hawks, and and they have long, broad wings and shorter tails. Accipiters have very long tails and generally shorter, stockier wings than buteos, and are more likely to be seen darting through the forest and engaging in sharp turns and acrobatics than buteos. Eagles look much like large buteos and are generally slow and ponderous in everything they do, from flapping heavily to soaring in long, slow circles. Vultures are large, dark soaring birds that often seem to rock back and forth in flight, a good way to distinguish them from hawks and eagles.  Kites… are tricky. They often look like falcons, with long pointy wings, but have less powerful wing beats and soar more than falcons, and are generally more restricted in range.”
My last step was to form a list of general categories with some key features that would help me label the raptors that I observed.  When identifying any type bird it is important to concentrate on specific features, and with raptors the size of the bird, its shape and its behavior can really help you narrow it down into its proper category. 
Eagles are the largest raptors with wings that can span up to seven feet.  They have large protruding beaks and very broad wings, which they flap slowly and ponderously.  They also soar.  In North America you are mostly likely to see a Golden Eagle or the well known, Bald Eagle.
Vultures soar high overhead, in search of carrion.  They often circle in groups and do not flap a great deal.  Black Vultures have black wings with white fingers and Turkey Vultures have dark bodies with lighter feathers across the backs of their wings.
Ospreys are large raptors that are sometimes mistaken for Bald Eagles due to their large beaks and light-colored heads.  An easy way to tell them apart is the dark mask across their face. Also, as Bob, a birder I recently met on the trail pointed out, mature Bald Eagles are much larger and have white heads and tail feathers.  Ospreys have white bodies and darker tail feathers, and they have a crook in their wings, giving them a “W” shape when they fly.
Harriers are slender with long wings and tail feathers.  They have owl-like facial features and a distinctive white rump patch. The perch on low post and on the ground, rarely up high.  When they do take to the air they can confuse even the most experienced birders, who are used to seeing them only on the ground.  The Northern Harrier is the species likely to be spotted in North America.

Accipiter Hawks are the forest-dwelling hawks.  They have short rounded wings and long narrow tails.  They are built for speed and maneuverability.  In open flight they will glide and flap intermittently.  Some notables from this category are the Northern Goshawk, Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk.
Buteo Hawks are the soaring hawks.  Their large wide wings and short broad tails allow them to catch air currents and soar without much flapping.  They are often seen in large open areas. In North America you are like to see the Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk and Broad-winged Hawk.
American Kestrel – Our Smallest Falcon
Falcons are fast-moving raptors with long tails and long pointed wings.  In flight they have a “sickle” shape and the rarely soar, but rather churn through air with power wing beats.  Among these are the American Kestrel, North America’s smallest falcon, Merlin and Peregrine Falcon.
Kites are the most confusing of raptors because their features vary greatly. They can easily be mistaken for falcons because of their long pointed wings, but they do not flap as powerfully and their wings are usually narrower.  In North American you are like to see the White-tailed Kite, Swallow-tailed Kite, Mississippi Kite and the Snail Kite.
In the few weeks since I have begun this study of raptors I have already noticed a little bit of progress.  I saw an osprey the other day perched on a lamp post over the highway and there was no doubt in my mind as to what it was.  According to David Rankin, this is a great time of year to observe birds of prey as they are currently migrating, so the next few weeks should be a lot of fun.  Please check out David’s birding blog, Zugunruhe
Until Next Time, 
The Birder who can now (hopefully) Distinguish a Hawk from a Falcon
Links that helped me write this: