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Purple Finches and Rusty Blackbirds

Hurricane Sandy brushed by a couple of days after our departure, but otherwise we picked a terrible time to leave south Florida! The low temperatures at our Florida home are finally dipping to around 60 degrees (F), about 20 degrees warmer than the daily highs in Chicagoland. On our first morning upon returning to our Illinois condo, Mary Lou and I got out early to the east side of nearby Nelson Lake/Dick Young Kane County Forest Preserve. We immediately encountered a flock of 20+ Purple Finches that ranged in the woodlands at the lake's eastern edge. Only one or two were in adult male plumage. It was this fall's first reported sighting of the northern species at Nelson Lake.

A longspur named Waldo

Today I will start off with a bit of a puzzle. Can you find the Lapland Longspur? I was following a Horned Lark with my camera and got a few poor shots when it seemed to disappear. I took a couple more photos, not realizing that it had flown off. Back home, looking at this image on the computer, I was ready to discard it as an "empty" frame, but suddenly a different bird caught my eye. Can you find it? Don't cheat-- look at each photo in turn!

Setting priorities, and remembering birds in a vacant lot

In New Mexico, living at 7,000 feet elevation, we had our mountains and four seasons.The tremendously varied habitats provided great birding. Of course, the nearest shopping centers and health care providers were located twenty or more miles away, accessible only through a single mountain pass that could be choked by a blizzard or a traffic accident. After eleven years we reconsidered our priorities, and took the dramatic step of moving to south Florida, to be near our younger daughter's family. In lieu of mountains we wanted to look out over water. Eyes that are fixed on a distant vanishing point are eyes at rest.

The last of this fall’s warbler crop

Just before departing Florida for our second home in Illinois, we managed one final walk in our local wetlands patch. Warblers were still coming through, but not in great numbers. On some days Northern Parulas were common, but we saw only a few. They all were brightly colored males. Their foraging habits are methodical, as they usually explore one limb at a time, starting at the base of a branch and working out to the very tip. They sometimes emerge into plain view before flying to the next branch, providing photo opportunities. Prairie Warblers are seen here all year, but their numbers are swollen during migration and winter by temporary visitors. They also tend to spend much time in a small area of a tree, but are not as predictable in their movements.

Egrets under pink skies

We are still in the grip of summer-like weather, with heat, humidity and rain almost every day. We normally would be entering the mild dry season when we can leave the windows open all day and night. Near freezing low temperatures in northern Illinois will be a shock for us when we return there in a few days. Atmospheric conditions have created photographic challenges but also opportunities. Although rain shortened several of our treks into the wetlands near our home, we have also enjoyed some fabulous pink sunrises.

A visit to Corkscrew Swamp

With a couple of other birders from South Florida Audubon, I visited Corkscrew Swamp east of Naples. This Audubon sanctuary is a marvelous place. If you can read the sign below, it shows the habitat features traversed by more than two miles of boardwalk trails. Since fall migration is in progress, we rather expected to be treated to many warblers. For some reason this did not happen. There were several warblers, but all were high in the trees, deep in the shadows, or back-lighted by the sky. It was an enjoyable trip, despite the heat and humidity.

Bobcats and birds

It was about 15 minutes after sunrise and cloudy when Mary Lou and I approached the bend in the road at the junction of the unpaved portions of Miramar Parkway and SW 196th Avenue. I had pre-set the ISO at 800 (aperture open all the way to f/5.6) but did not expect to take any photos until after we completed the fast-paced "aerobic" mile into the wetlands adjacent to our subdivision. Only about a quarter mile into our walk, we suddenly saw a Bobcat standing almost in the middle of the road, about 100 yards away. This was the first time one had posed out in the open roadway like that. We slowly moved up to about 50 yards before the cat fled. Unfortunately, I had kept the camera in an air conditioned room, and the lens fogged up pretty badly in the stifling heat and humidity. I wiped them a few times, but the quality of all the photos suffered.

Book Review: What the Robin Knows

Don't you ever wish you could understand the language of birds? I've talked to the birds, and they've talked back to me and then to each other (Much ado about a squeak). Once, their excited scolding helped me trace the movements of a Bobcat as it circled around behind my back in the wetlands, and their silence has alerted me to the presence of predators overhead. My iPod has an app which can translate speech into any of several selected languages. Since I have Cuban in-laws with extended families, I have using it to communicate with some of the non-English speaking relatives. Sometimes what comes out bears little resemblance to the intent of our words. We end up laughing into the speakers. Laughter, facial expression and other non-verbal clues often reveal more than our words. This book won't provide a literal translation of the robin's calls and songs. It goes beyond the individual sounds, and provides them with a behavioral context. Much attention is devoted to the "body language" of birds when they are subjected to various types of disturbance. Their responses are described in three dimensions (and in a fourth dimension, time), supplemented by instructive diagrams. Young calls them the twelve "alarm shapes."

Avoiding “warbler neck”

Our local birding patch cannot really be called a "hotspot," or a place to find a rarity, and it does not have unusually large concentrations of resident and migratory birds. Because we visit it frequently, nearly every morning, we have sighted a total of 109 species, 18 of them warblers. In truth, at the peak of migration the greatest number of warbler species tallied at one time has been 7 or 8, and there are have been many mornings when we failed to see a single one. Warblers are much more abundant at several locations that are fairly nearby, but we are "homebodies" who prefer to get in our exercise and also fit an hour or so of birding into our morning schedule. An advantage we enjoy is that there are few tall trees in our wetland, which is officially called the West Broward Water Conservation Area. While this limits the habitat suitable for warblers and other migrant and resident birds, it does bring them down to eye level. Birders who visit prime warbler sighting areas and spend hours looking up into the tops of tall trees often are afflicted with "warbler neck."

Return to rainy Florida

We returned to our south Florida home one week ago, and it has rained every day. The weather allowed us only two short forays into the wetlands adjacent to our home. This morning's sunrise was typical. Light rain was dappling the surface of our lake and a thunderstorm was moving in from the southeast (right) as I took this photo from our patio.

Birding Bliss (Woods)

Earlier this month, the weather radar showed that migration had continued into the morning. Our condo is located a few miles east of the Interstate 88 highway logo on the maps, below. With visions in our heads of warblers dropping out of the sky, Mary Lou and I set out to visit Bliss Woods Forest Preserve, a 10 minute drive from our second home in NE Illinois.

Vireo: “I am green”

Since taking up photography I have become a more sloppy birder. A pair of binoculars is the best tool to identify a small bird weaving in and out of sight among the branches. If you plan to take a photo of a bird it helps to know what kind it is. Sometimes I have gotten killer binocular views of birds, only to have them disappear the moment I reached for my camera. As a result of such experiences, I often give in to the temptation to raise my camera first. Although my 420 mm telephoto lens system (an EF300mm f/4L IS USM coupled with a 1.4x extender) offers approximately the same magnification as 8 power binoculars, its viewfinder offers a far less adequate image. In the first place, the field of view is restricted by the camera's telescopic lens, making it more difficult to find and track the movement of an active target. The view is not nearly as bright as that provided by binoculars. Further, the camera's image is only in two dimensions, so it is impossible to "see around" the leaves and twigs that may obstruct important identifying features of a small bird. The camera's auto-focus feature presents an additional challenge, as it will sometimes pick out a little twig that you failed to see in front of the bird, rendering the intended target as nothing but a blur.

Starting a new life list

It seems that when I go out into the field on a single-minded quest for a target bird, more often than not I am disappointed. For the past couple of weeks, I have wanted to see a warbler. Any old warbler would do. Until I took up photography a few years ago, "see" meant exactly that. More correctly it meant "see and identify." I must admit that by "see," I now mean "photograph."

Unsandpiperly piper

"Sandpiper" meant those little robotic things that chased the foam from the breakers up onto the dry sand, and quickly reversed course to follow the foam back into the sea. At first I thought that sandpipers had eternally wet feet. Eventually I learned that this does not hold true all the time, and that some species are quite comfortable away from water for much of their lives.

American Golden-Plover

The American Golden-Plover breeds in the Arctic tundra and migrates to southern South America. In fall, they must fly to their wintering grounds in Patagonia, a round trip of about 25,000 miles, including 2,400 miles non-stop over open ocean, one of the longest known migratory routes. They must build large stores of fat at stopover areas during migration. Their body weight may increase by 30-50% in preparation for the long flight They are uncommon but regular visitors to NE Illinois

Berries, birds and butterflies

The heart of our "Fake Hammock" has been torn out. Note that the cluster of small trees in the background no longer is shaped into a gentle mound. Instead, there is a deep gash in its very center. Only a year ago, I could sit in this spot in deep shade, an open area under the dense canopy. Then, kids and even their fathers ravaged this quiet spot, pulling down mature trees with chains and driving their four-wheelers into its center. Now all five of the largest trees in the center of the "hammock" have been destroyed by the partying off-road vehicle drivers. The felled trees were all native Tremas, an important winter food source for wildlife in south Florida. Formerly a sparsely vegetated open area underneath the canopy, my secluded sitting spot is now in full sunlight and invaded by grasses and vines. They hide the fire pit that was fed by the trunks of the felled trees.

Evening Grosbeak

This Evening Grosbeak at my front yard feeder in New Mexico was one of my first digiscoped photos. It was taken from inside our living room window through a Kowa spotting scope with a little Canon PowerShot A40-- only 2 megapixels! Today I'd be pleased to get such a shot with my ginormous DSLR, but not expecting one in Florida!.

Backyard birds and fun in Florida

We left hot and dry Illinois for hot, humid and rainy Florida a few weeks ago. Most days the weather and other obligations have kept us from getting out into the wetlands. Happily, there were a few clear days that permitted us to take our visiting granddaughters to our clubhouse pool or to explore the wonders of our lawn and garden. The girls had fun chasing after anoles and geckos in our back yard pineapple patch.

Appetites of Anhingas

Anhingas are spear fishers. This calls for skilled swordsmanship because both mandibles are usually driven clear through the prey. The fish must first be weakened or killed, then flipped into the air and caught in order to be swallowed head first. Photographed from a distance in the wetlands adjacent to our south Florida home, this Anhinga has captured a good-sized sunfish. Can she swallow it?

Sparrows of Nelson Lake

One might imagine that the vast prairies of the middle western United States have always been there, but in the geological time scale they are relatively new, the product of global warming. The last glacial period reached its peak only about 18,000 years ago. Ice covered most of Canada and extended down into what are now the north Atlantic states and south to around the Ohio River in the Midwest. Studies of the age and species of pollen collected at nearby Nelson Lake provide an interesting picture of the history of the prairie. As the ice receded over the next 2,000 years the area around my Illinois home resembled present-day Arctic tundra, covered by low-lying sedges and scattered evergreen trees. Studies of the age and species of pollen collected at nearby Nelson Lake provide an interesting picture of the history of the prairie. As the ice receded over the next 2,000 years the area around my Illinois home resembled present-day Arctic tundra, covered by low-lying sedges and scattered evergreen trees. Humans crossed over to North America from Asia via the land bridge before the oceans rose to separate the continents.

Wood Stork: This Sunday’s Best for the Bird D’pot

This is my photo submission to the weekly Bird D'pot (Bird Digital Photography) meme hosted by I'D-Rather-B-Birdin.' On our second morning back home in South Florida, this Wood Stork appeared at the edge of our back lawn. We are only seeing adults, as there has been massive nesting failure over most of southeastern Florida, most notably at Corkscrew Swamp. It was so close that I had trouble fitting the whole bird in the viewfinder.

Birds and frogs at Prairie Green Wetlands

A few days before we returned to Florida, Bob Andrini, President of the Kane County Audubon, led four of us on a "ramble" through Prairie Green Wetlands, a publicly-owned preserve in Geneva, Illinois (see Map). We got out very early because the temperature was expected to rise to 100 (F) by midday. Illinois was in the throes of a record hot and dry spell. For nearly the whole month of July, it was often ten degrees hotter than back home in south Florida. The corn crop was in danger of complete failure. Tenant farmers still plant 300 of the 580 acre preserve in corn and soybean. Soybean is the crop in the foreground as we entered from the east. While soybean is somewhat drought tolerant, many of the corn stalks have not even created silk, the essential step before pollination and setting of kernels. The growth of the corn stalks is stunted and the leaves are curled because of the lack of water.

Dickcissel: This Sunday’s Best for the Bird D’pot

It is relatively easy to identify birds in their normal habitat. It's a bit like going to a cafeteria where there may be little variety in the food selections. You just don't expect to see an exotic dish. Dickcissels are birds of the grasslands, where I can pick them out at first glance. When this one showed up in a woodland, the game changed. Suddenly it was just a strange sparrow-sized yellowish bird. I struggled to see the shape of its bill as it moved furtively among the leaves of a tall oak tree.

Meadowlark: This Sunday’s Best for the Bird D’pot

Here is my first photo submission to the weekly Bird D'pot (Bird Digital Photography) meme hosted by I'D-Rather-B-Birdin.' It is an Eastern Meadowlark that I photographed last Spring at Nelson Lake Marsh/Dick Young Forest Preserve in Kane County, Illinois. It was just selected by Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology to illustrate the "Bird of the Week." (And I didn't have to enter any contest!)

Birds nesting for the last time

I find it so relaxing to look out on an open space. Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs, our sky was defined by the roof lines of neighbors' houses (see my theological musings in this post: The Earth is Flat). Living in Dallas, our home was hemmed in on all sides by privacy fences. No surprise that when we retired to New Mexico, I selected a lot with an expansive view of the forest and distant mountains and designed a home with windows placed to take maximum advantage of the scenery. Moving to Florida, we limited our choices to homes on the water. When deciding on a second home in Illinois, we were less selective because we regarded it as a substitute for a hotel room when we visited our family there, a "crash pad." This is the view from our front door as a storm front moved in from the west in late June. The single family homes in the background are newly constructed.

Bald Eagle drama

Here is a series of images from yesterday morning's walk at Nelson Lake/Dick Young Forest Preserve in Kane County, Illinois. The water level in Nelson Lake was very low and there were extensive mud flats. While I was observing the hundreds of Killdeers and a few peeps that were congregated along the edge of the water, I photographed them from the east observation deck. The total unobstructed view was about 110-120 degrees. This panoramic image, stitched from three separate overlapping photos, includes 108 birds that can fairly safely be counted as Killdeers. There are 9 other birds that look like sandpipers, and 5 blackbirds and starlings.

Black-throated Buntings in Illinois

The past couple of weeks have been so hot here in Chicagoland that we have had to curtail much of our outdoor activity. On most days the temperatures back in Florida were actually much cooler. This past week we had one record-breaking day after the other, with three days in a row over 100 degrees (F). Sunrise occurs so early (around 5:20 AM) that the temperature reaches the 90 degree range before 8:30 AM. We got out to nearby Nelson Lake several times, usually not walking more than a mile or two over an hour and a half, about all the heat we could bear. While walking the north prairie of Nelson Lake we sometimes hear dozens of Dickcissels singing in the tall grasses, but get good looks at but a small fraction of the total population. Dickcissel males seem to arrive before the females, in mid May, a few weeks later than other migrants.

Review: How to Be a Better Birder

It's easy to judge a book by its title. This one is "How to Be a Better Birder." Not how to "Become," but how to "Be." Me, I'm always "becoming," but I must admit that I have not yet arrived. I'd be too embarrassed to tell you my worst stories, but here are a couple that are not near as bad as those. Before leading a Saturday morning bird walk at Rio Grande Nature Center in Albuquerque, I scouted out the area adjacent to the starting point. In a Cottonwood conveniently situated near the entrance trail I found a Greater Roadrunner moving about high in the branches, probably searching for a meal of hummingbird eggs or Mourning Dove nestlings. About 15 minutes later, as I led my charges along the path, I casually looked up at a brown blob moving between the green leaves and began to expound on the interesting behavior of the roadrunner. Well, one of the young participants pointed out that I was looking at a squirrel!

Spring warblers that might have been

This spring, warbler migration was painfully dull both in our part of Florida and near our second home in northeastern Illinois. We departed for Illinois at the beginning of May, just when numbers of warblers had started building up in previous years. The Prairie Warbler was quite common in Florida this spring, but we have never yet seen one in Illinois.

Nighthawk distraction display

What started my fascination with birds? When I delve deeply into the recesses of my memory, I find no sudden epiphany. I recall looking out the back window of our second story apartment onto the flat roof of the dry cleaner’s store, where a nighthawk was sitting on its eggs. My father had discovered it and pointed it out to me. It was interesting to see that the eggs were laid directly on the roof pebbles, without any semblance of a nest. A few days later, the eggs suddenly disappeared. In their place, unbelievably well-camouflaged, were two chicks. Knowing the date we moved away, I was no older than four years. It sticks in my memory, but did it light a flame?

Back in Florida

Today's photos are evidence that we have returned to Florida. We were greeted with rain almost every morning. This and the need to catch up on doctor and dentist visits curtailed our time in the field. However, we did not have to look very far to enjoy the bird life. A Great Blue Heron provided us with quite a show as it swallowed a very large exotic catfish. Hypostomus plecostomus, also known as Algae Eater or "Pleco," is a popular aquarium fish from South America that has been introduced into Florida waters. They are not poisonous, though they do have sharp spines that could cause injury if they are handled carelessly. This is the second time I have photographed a Great Blue Heron eating one. Mary Lou spied this heron in the act of spearing its prey on our back yard lawn next to the lake. We do not know how long it had been since it was caught, but these photos span a period of eight minutes.

A chilly Bird Fest in Chicagoland

We are "reverse snowbirds," permanent Florida residents who follow the birds north to our Illinois condo in the spring. We reverse the process and return to catch up with them in the fall as they stream back across Florida. This spring was particularly unproductive near our home in interior southeast Florida, as strong easterly wind flow across the peninsula caused neotropical migrants northbound from Cuba to follow the west coast or fly directly across the Gulf of Mexico. However, when we arrived in Illinois in early May, we were greeted with cold and rainy weather for the first two weeks of our stay, and again were disappointed at a poor turnout of warblers. By the end of the month, the weather turned sunny, windy and hotter than back home in Florida. The vagaries of Chicagoland weather reminded me that just the opposite happened late last May, nearly at the end our stay in Illinois...

Win some, lose some

Most of my posts attest to the fact that I do not range far and wide in search of rare or uncommon birds. It's not that lack interest in putting a few new notches in my birding belt. If an unusual bird is reprted and it is reasonably nearby, I will make an effort to see it, but I've never been one to jump on a plane or drive overnight to join the "tickers" that congregate in hopes of adding a new species to their life/year/locality lists. Some of our "rare" bird sightings were incidental to trips we had taken for non-birding reasons. I think of the Piratic Flycatcher that showed up in Fort Sumter, New Mexico just as I was setting out to drive from Albuquerque to Amarillo to visit our son and his family.My digiscoped image of this vagrant from Mexico was taken with a little point-and-shoot camera back in 2003, long before I acquired my first DSLR...

No warblers, but lots of color

After a lackluster early spring migration season in south Florida, I looked forward to catching up with the northbound warblers in northeastern Illinois. With each passing year I feel added urgency to make the most of each spring and fall. Now it seems that most of the warblers have also bypassed my summer home. In past years, fair numbers of warblers have shown up in local parks and forest preserves. The warblers have left me high and dry, so instead of a taxonomic species list, I am compiling a color palette. Meet my friend ROY G BIV.

Illinois yard birds

The car serves as a very effective blind. One morning earlier this week, with thunder in the background, I drove around the vacant block in front of our northeastern Illinois condo. We are partially surrounded by three city block-sized parcels of land that, within the next week or so, will start to be built up as townhouses. In what was formerly a cornfield, roads and utilities were installed and 44 of the planned 144 units were finished before the housing slump halted development in 2006. This is the view from our front door, looking west. Not very pleasing to most folks, but I enjoy all the birds that visit and nest there. After the snow melts and the spring rains come, several large puddles ("fluddles") attract ducks, geese, cranes and wading birds. The utility markers serve as perches for a variety of prairie birds.

The least of the terns

We often joke that Florida has two seasons, hot and hotter. We also generally have a dry fall and winter season that gives way to a wet and humid summer. Although our mangoes and avocados put out inconspicuous blossoms, south Florida experiences no explosion of color to mark the onset of the vernal equinox. The mockingbirds sing all year around, though their tempo and volume picks up just as the Palm Warblers depart to breed in far northwestern Canada. Up north, robins herald the arrival of spring, but we rarely see a robin at any time of the year. For birders looking for warblers, spring migration can be a non-event. If the usual east-west wind pattern persists, it drives northbound birds to the west coast of the Florida peninsula, or they may fly directly from Cuba across the Gulf of Mexico to make landfall. One bird that can be counted on to arrive at our back yard lake in the middle of April is the Least Tern (Sternula antillarum). While it is the smallest of the tern family at about 9 inches long with a wingspan of 20 inches, it makes up for its small size with graceful energetic flight, strident calls and interesting behaviors.

Parting shots from Florida

The past few weeks have kept us occupied with the welfare of the downed Bald Eagle chick (now presumed to have perished) and that of the heron nests in trees that are dead or dying from the effects of a herbicide.Add to this my dismay in witnessing the destruction of one of my favorite warbler birding spots, the place I called the "Fake Hammock." Now a "roadway" has been cut all the way through the grove of trees. A large open area has been created by removal of most of the underbrush, and worst of all, the secluded area is being ravaged by "sport" riders of all-terrain vehicles. Instead of a dark cool place under a canopy of native Trema trees, it is now shaped like a doughnut, with full sky overhead, and a fire ring in the middle. Two of the five mature Tremas have been pulled over with chains, presumably attached to the ATVs, and a third is badly de-barked and will surely die. Tremas produce berries continuously all winter and are an important food source for birds and other wildlife...

Excitement at the rookery

We had high winds and driving rain overnight, as several thunderstorms passed through. I was concerned about the safety of the herons nesting in the rookery near our South Florida home, particularly those in trees that had been defoliated by herbicide treatments and were exposed to the elements. To keep track of the nests we have given them numbers, based upon their location relative to the row of ornamental Live Oaks planted on the bank of the canal opposite the nests. We also designate whether or not the nest trees have been treated by herbicides (HT or non-HT). Nest #4HT is occupied by the first pair of Green Herons, and the next 5 are those of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. Nest 9 HT and 10 non-HT respectively have nestlings and eggs; Nest 9.5 non-HT is newly constructed and we have not yet seen any eggs. Nest 19 HT and 20 HT contain eggs. Nest 22.5 non-HT (we call it the culvert nest because it is opposite a culvert) belongs to Green Herons that now have eggs. The male of the pair that occupy the culvert nest was very likely the same one that became entangled in fishing line and was rescued by Steve Siegel. It spent 5 days in rehabilitation and rejoined its mate...

Catching up

Our two Illinois granddaughters are visiting, and birding must take a back seat to grandfathering. We finally have gotten out the past three mornings while they are away visiting the theme parks in Orlando. This morning, pouring rain is allowing me some computer face time. As is our habit, we got out before sunrise. This is the view looking back east, towards the gate where we enter the gravel road that leads into the wetlands. Welfare checks on the heron rookery have found them doing well, with eggs in five Yellow-crowned Night-Heron nests and one Green Heron nest. A sixth Yellow-crowned nest is difficult to see, but it appears to have been abandoned before any eggs were laid. We suspect there is a second Green Heron nest but is is probably deep in dense vegetation.

Prehistoric pre-dawn Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Herons can look and sound like pterosaurs from Juassic Park. Because they are common and approachable, they are favored photographic subjects. Depicted in every imaginable pose, flying, standing, wading, hunched down, stretched out, roosting, nesting... I had to think twice about putting more photos of them on these pages. Indeed, there is fossil evidence that herons have been around at least since the Miocene epoch. A 14 million year old specimen was recovered in the Observation Quarry in Nebraska, and Great Blue Herons found in the Western Hemishpere date back 1.8 million years, to the Pleistocene epoch, about the same time when the first human fossils were discovered...

Good and bad news about local herons and eagles

Good news: By late March our local heron rookery contained a total of seven nesting pairs of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, plus three immature birds and possibly a 15th unattached male. The rookery runs along the edge of this canal, on the opposite side of a power substation that has landscaped grounds. Note the defoliated trees next to the water that were treated with herbicide. Last year the nests were well hidden, but now several are out over the water on dead and dying limbs. Additionally, I found two pairs of Green Herons. One pair has eggs in its nest. I could not find the second Green Heron nest, but suspected it was hidden in dense vegetation along the canal, near the south end of the rookery.

Birding from the boards at Green Cay Wetlands

Any birder visiting South Florida just can't miss stopping at three special places in western Palm Beach County: Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, and Green Cay Nature Center. The latter, in Boynton Beach, was our objective as we traveled up to have lunch with one of my "old" classmates. When I say old, I mean it in the classic sense, as we started kindergarten together and were in the same grades all the way through grammer school and graduated together from the same high school. Our meeting place for lunch was a little over an hour's drive from our home, and Green Cay was a convenient place to stop.

An “Old MacDonald” morning on our birding patch

Walking the same birding patch every morning is not boring. It is a bit like singing "Old MacDonald Had a Farm." There is a certain joy in its familiarity, its cadence, the repetition. With each verse, you know what comes next-- usually. Before sunrise, Mary Lou and I step a few doors from our South Florida home, exit the subdivision gate, and after ducking through a gap in the fence we set foot on on the coarse gravel that will soon become a busy thoroughfare. As usual, there is a pattern to our bird sightings. As expected, a White-winged Dove is singing "Who cooks for you?" to its mate on a back yard fence along the way. It's too dark for photography, but I crank the ISO up to 1600 and pull off a shot anyway.

Courting Herons unaware of danger

The sun had not yet crept above the horizon when we set out on the gravel road that leads into the wetlands next to our South Florida home. Mary Lou set a fast pace as usual, and again I fell behind. In her haste she walked right by an abandoned power pole along the road without seeing something interesting. Probably I saw it because the first rays were just hitting as I approached the pole. It was an immature Bald Eagle. I called her cell phone, but by the time she answered the eagle had flown away. Common Ground-Doves foraged in the path near the heron rookery. They were quite timid, so I could only get a distant view. The rookery is situated along the opposite (east) side of a canal. There have been as many as six adult and two immature Yellow-crowned Night-Herons roosting and displaying there this past week. This morning I found five adults, plus a pair of courting Green Herons. I was disappointed to see that maintenance crews from the South Florida Water Management District had applied herbicide to the vegetation along the bank of the canal...

Changes in our birding patch

Our birding "patch" consists of Everglades wetlands habitat that had originally been "reclaimed" by draining, and converted to pastures. By the end of the 20th Century, residential development pushed westward some 20 miles from the Atlantic coast to the edge of the Everglades preserve. The land was then set aside as a water conservation preserve by developers of our subdivisions to mitigate the environmental disturbance they created. Ditches were blocked and low levees were put up around it. Exotic trees such as Melaleuca, Australian Pine and Brazilian Pepper were removed, but there has been no maintenance of this effort since about 2005, so it is already overrun by these invasive plants. Since it is separated from the Everglades preserve by high levees and US-27, its hydroperiod (the average number of days each year that it is covered by water during the summer through fall wet season) only weakly resembles that of the historic Everglades. There is no sheet flow as in the "River of Grass," and the water level is dependent upon rainfall and local storm water discharge...

Our latest “Yard Bird”

This evening, just before dark, a lovesick female Mottled Duck showed up on our back lawn. She must have been attracted to the bright yellow bill of our latest "yard bird." The difference in bill color is all that differentiates the sexes of Mottled Ducks, so it must be a very important attribute. Since Mottled Ducks, like other puddle ducks, Common Ground Doves and Pied-billed Grebes are almost always seen in pairs, it was unusual to find a single unattached female just hanging around at the edge of the lake, ogling the newest addition to our back yard "menagerie..."

A visit to Corkscrew Swamp

From our south Florida home, it's an enjoyable two hour drive to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, just east of Naples. Located in the western Everglades, and administered by the Audubon Society, Corkscrew's 14,000 acres include a variety of habitats, including 700 acres of virgin Bald Cypress, the largest remaining stand in the world. The old-growth cypresses have been host to the largest breeding colony of Wood Storks in the US. However, the storks have done poorly the past several years since 2006, when there were 600 nesting pairs. In 2007, 2010, and 2011 there were none. The exception was 2009, when there were 1120 nesting pairs. Sadly, the storks failed to nest agin this year. An interpreter pointed out a long line of tall cypress trees on the horizon, which would normally been white with nesting and roosting storks. We saw not a single one.

A very hungry little eaglet

This morning we watched the local Bald Eagle nest for a little over an hour, starting about 9:30 AM. The adult female was roosting on a horizontal limb above the nest. We could see the top of the head of one eaglet on the nest. A sub-adult Red-shouldered Hawk flew in and perched about 10 feet above the eagle. The eagle called briefly but otherwise seemed not to pay attention to the hawk, which flew off after a few minutes. The male eagle suddenly appeared high over the nest, approaching from the south. He appeared to be carrying prey, but he continued in a NW direction...

One eaglet and a Short-tailed Hawk

At about 9:45 AM this morning we checked on the welfare of the eagles at their nest. The oldest chick is about 29 days old. We have only seen one eaglet so far, and today was no exception. When we arrived, the female was on the nest and roosting high, which we think meant that she was expecting a food drop. After watching about 50 minutes, we were ready to quit when the male flew in from the back of the nest with unidentified prey. The male then roosted on the tall pine just west of the nest while the female tore at the prey and fed the young. ..

“Gnothing” but Gnatcatchers

Birding in mid-winter here in South Florida, we face some distractions. Small birds have so many places to hide, as most of our trees are evergreen. Even the deciduous trees such as maples not only hang on to their old leaves, but new leaves start growing in January. Cypress trees gracefully turn from green to yellow to golden and brown, perhaps going "bald" for part of a month before putting out new greenery. Then there is the wind. On a still morning, it is easy to discern the tremble of leaf or twig, signaling the presence of a reclusive vireo or warbler. As the sea breeze builds, it scrambles the input to the rods in our corneas that normally alert us so efficiently to the slightest peripheral movement. Bazillions of fluttering butterflies vie for our attention...

Keeping eyes on an eagle nest

This is the fourth winter that Mary Lou and I have been monitoring a Bald Eagle nest that is located only about 1 1/2 miles from our South Florida home. So far, they are known to have successfully raised eight eaglets since the spring of 2008. In a previous post we provided an overview of this, the first active Bald Eagle nest in Broward County since the 1960's, before DDT was restricted. We organized a team of eagle watchers to monitor and help protect the nest, and I serve on a City of Pembroke Pines Bald Eagle Sanctuary Steering Committee that has helped develop changes in planning documents and recommended an ordinance to better protect this and any other nest from disturbances. We visited the eagle nest Monday morning January 15. The first egg was laid on or about December 11, and this was the day we expected it might be hatching...

Birds and berries

Mary Lou's favorite local bird is the Painted Bunting, but the Elegant Trogon goes down as her "anywhere" favorite. Both share bright green and red feathers, though the Painted Bunting adds a generous dose of brilliant blue. My favorite? It's hard to say, as the Rose-breasted Grosbeak was probably my "epiphany" bird. As a kid I will not forget watching a male displaying to a female on the ground, walking around with his red chest all puffed up and singing brilliantly. However, Painted Buntings are one of my favorites, with a caveat-- I really like seeing them in the wild rather than at feeders. Painted Buntings winter here, and I have gotten plenty of shots of males at Okeeheelee Park, in western Palm County. On the feeder and picking up scraps under the feeder. In South Florida, we have a natural bird feeder. The Trema is a fruiting tree that is very valuable to wildlife. It sets fruit almost continuously during the winter, and its berries are in various stages of ripening. Individual trees seem to become more attractive to birds at different times. The favored tree changes from one week to the next. Trema berries form along the stems, and birds usually eat the red ones, though I have seen many take green berries as well...

Views From the boardwalk at Chapel Trail Nature Center

During the hectic holiday season we made time for brief birding stops at nearby Chapel Trail Nature Preserve in Pembroke Pines, Florida. One sunny morning just before Christmas, the Sandhill Crane greeted us in the parking lot. The crane permitted me to take a close-up as it preened. A Northern Mockingbird stood out against the blue sky. Red-bellied Woodpeckers were courting in a Melaleuca tree...

One bird was singing

After being nearly home-bound for a couple of weeks, I finally got out on our local patch. Mary Lou and I took a slower "power walk" in the predawn darkness while our company were still sleeping. Afterwards I felt good enough to venture out on the gravel road that leads into the wetlands near our home. As I passed the entrance gate of our subdivision, the sun was already peeking out above the horizon. It was too late to look for the Bobcat family. The last couple of times I only caught sight of one cat, much further down the trail than before. The cubs seemed too young to have gone off by themselves, so I plan to resume my watch as soon as I get over this bug. This morning I did walk along the trail on the levee. At a somewhat slower pace, I paid particular attention to the silence that greeted me. Usually there is at least one mockingbird or cardinal brightening the morning with song, but the only avian sounds I heard were the calls of a few Blue Jays and the raucous squawking of Boat-tailed Grackles on the roofs of the homes across the canal. Suddenly the silence was broken by the jubilant "Tea-Kettle-Tea-Kettle-Tea-Kettle!" of a Carolina Wren...

Backyard visitors

This morning's post is, of necessity, a patchwork of unrelated events. The past two weeks have been full of family fun, mostly unrelated to birding. Among other house guests, our two Illinois granddaughters (six and seven years old) arrived a few days before Christmas and departed New Year's Eve. The girls slept in the "computer room," actually our fourth bedroom that rarely serves the architect's purpose. As a result, my computer face time was limited to scanning e-mail titles and opening only those that appeared to require immediate action. The children brought with them a cold virus that thankfully spared me until the morning after after Mary Lou and I sang in the Christmas Eve Choir. As usual it knocked me down and I ended up on antibiotics for sinusitis and bronchitis. My confinement inside the house for a few days gave the girls an added incentive to call me when they saw any big birds that visited our back yard. They did not turn up any rarities, but this does provide a theme of sorts for my past week's photos...

Expect the unexpected

It's best to approach each day in the field with expectation and a sense of wonder. That way, even if birding is slow, you will not be disappointed, and will see the beauty in the commonplace. One morning last week was no exception. Just before sunrise, the sky held the promise of a few showers, but the radar showed none headed our way. An unexpected phone call and the need to address a friend's health concerns made us over an hour late for our walk. It was too late for me to look for the Bobcats, as they usually are only out around sunrise. In a way this was a blessing, as I have become rather obsessed with getting better photos of the adult and her two cubs, and feel compelled to get out while it is still dark, and then wait for about a half hour for them to show. In the meantime, Mary Lou usually goes on without me. More often than not I fail to see them, and I'm missing out on the "power walk" that normally precedes my photo sessions. So, this morning we got in our walk, at least the first half, before I started falling behind and exploring...

Birding Palo Duro Canyon, a “Grand Canyon” in the Texas Panhandle

On the second full day of our stay, we drove south several miles to Palo Duro Canyon. Palo Duro Canyon State Park occupies 29,182 acres of the northern portion of the Palo Duro Canyon, which is 120 miles long and as much as 20 miles wide, with a maximum depth of more than 800 feet. Palo Duro Canyon has been described as the second largest canyon in the United States, after the Grand Canyon, which is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and 6,000 ft. deep. A fork of the Red River carved the canyon through multicolored layers of sandstone, shale and stiltstone. The oldest, deepest layers are bright red. Behind the Palo Duro Trading Post, a wildlife viewing blind provides an excellent view of a water feature and feeders. Moments after we entered the blind, we were delighted by the arrival of a Golden-fronted Woodpecker.

Birders’ Heaven: A visit to wetlands of Green Cay and Wakodahatchee

Birds and birders flock to some unseemly places. As a kid in New Jersey, one of my favorite birdwatching areas was an open dump in the Hackensack Meadows. If the wind was right its odor carried up to a mile. Aside from the innumerable gulls, crows and rats it attracted, its remote location provided ideal habitat for sparrows and raptors. Happy to say, that very dump gained the more respectable name of "landfill," grew to become "Mount Trashmore, " and now my mountainous “dump” is known as Kingsland Outlook, part of Richard W. DeKorte Park, famous as a birding hotspot My first duty assignment after I got drafted in 1966 was El Paso, Texas. Here, the Fort Bliss sewage ponds provided a large expanse of water, an oasis in the desert environment that attracted a great variety of water birds. In those days, the stench from the primary treatment basin was often unbearable, but cattails grew around the clear water in the settlement ponds, and surrounding shrubs and trees harbored resident and migrant land birds. Back in those days, these wetlands seemed a hidden gem, where I rarely met another birder, but now they enjoy the prominence accorded to a major wildlife refuge.

Birding the Sandia Mountain foothills

We followed our recent trip to our son's family home in the Texas Panhandle with a short visit to Albuquerque, where our main objective was to see the rosy-finches at Sandia Crest. There are many great birding spots in and around Albuquerque. Judy Liddell and Barbara Hussey descried them beautifully in their recently released book, Birding Hot Spots of Central New Mexico (See my review here). We only had time to bird a few of them. The City of Albuquerque manages an impressively large number of dedicated Open Spaces. On our first full day, driving from our lodging in Albuquerque to Sandia Crest House, we encountered rain and low clouds as we ascended the east side of mountain. Since we knew that the temperature at the tip was in the twenties (F). we turned around and birded Tres Pistolas (Three Gun) Canyon.

White-eyed towhee and green-eyed Lynx rufus

Some of my early morning photos had not been as sharp as I expected, and I had an "Aha!" moment when I noticed the fog covering my camera lens. Of course, the camera had spent the night in air-conditioned comfort, and warm, moist air had kissed the cold glass. My microfiber lens cloth came in handy, and I did much better this time. The first test of the fog-free lens was this Eastern Towhee, which exhibited the white eyes of the southern subspecies; those migrating here from the north have red eyes.

Seeking our signature species

In a random but unknowing act of kindness, the construction worker tossed his half-eaten sandwich on a snowbank along the road, and returned to his job. A small flock of darkly plumaged birds flew down and shared the treat... But, wait. I'm getting ahead of this story. I could start with "It was a dark and snowy morning when we drove to the top of the world..." Instead, let's begin with our repeated futile attempts to find rosy-finches on the top of Sandia Crest, 10,678 feet above sea level, near our previous home in New Mexico. Several times since moving there in 1993, Mary Lou and I would follow up on reports of rosy-finch sightings on or near the Crest, only to be disappointed.

Much ado about a squeak

For Mary Lou, birding is not a sedentary pursuit. If she were a fisher-person, she would wait maybe 15 seconds for a nibble and, if none, would move on to the next fishing hole. If she were a fisher-bird, Mary Lou would be a Reddish Egret or a Tricolored Heron that seeks out prey by dashing and rushing about. I would be the Green Heron or the Great Blue, still as a statue, patiently waiting for the slightest ripple to materialize into a trophy. I know she has my best interest at heart when she insists that all our bird walks must start out at full speed for at least the first mile. If we are out before sunrise, I don't mind this very much. It's too dark for photography, and I can bird by ear or test my peripheral vision as we speed by those little shadowy things fluttering in the roadside shrubs. Besides, a brisk aerobic walk is good for one's body and spirits.

Birds and a trio of Bobcats

This morning we almost scrubbed our walk in our local wetlands birding patch. Mary Lou woke up not feeling 100% and suggested I go out without her. She knows how much I like getting out, especially during migration. Yesterday, Angel & Mariel, who track migration radar on BADBIRDZ Reloaded [LINK ] noted that birds were moving down into the Florida peninsula and favorable NE winds were expected to persist overnight. Either she started recovering rapidly, or, more likely felt bad for me, as Mary Lou decided that the cool morning air might be good for her. Once having decided to go out, she wasted no time getting dress and had to wait for me. Usually we are out around 7:00 AM, about a half hour before sunrise, but this morning it was 7:25 AM before we left the house. I didn't know it, but we were in for a big surprise this morning...

Beauty is in the eye of the kestrel

Look closely at this photo of the closed and unpaved section of roadway that leads into the water conservation area next to our Florida subdivision. To the eye of the lansdcape designer, this scene is terribly defaced by the topless palm trunk just past the curve. The human mind seems to crave symmetry and order. A dead tree disturbs that order. Over more than a dozen years, these Royal Palms along the roadside berm have withstood several hurricanes, standing tall even after winds stripped off nearly all their leaves. They endured the brutal cold of two winters, when the mercury dropped into the low 30s. About three years ago, the fronds of this tree began turning brown and failed to thrust up a central shoot. For the past two years it has stood, decrowned and lifeless...

Book Review: Birding Hotspots of Central New Mexico.

Book Review: Birding Hotspots of Central New Mexico, by Judy Liddell & Barbara Hussey. Judy is an active leader in Central New Mexico Audubon Society, In addition to leading CNMAS bird walks, she serves as Vice President and Program Chair. She also is Secretary of New Mexico Audubon Council and is a bird monitor for the Rio Grande Nature Center. With fellow birder and experienced birding guide Barbara Hussey, Judy has co-authored Birding Hotspots of New Mexico. In addition to long and dedicated service for the Rio Grande Nature Center, Barbara is a former President and Board member of CNMAS, and one of the founders of New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors. This new site guide draws upon the authors' familiarity with six clusters of the 29 very best birding locations within easy driving distance from downtown Albuquerque.

Our local eagles have landed

With good reason, Alaska usually comes to mind at any mention of Bald Eagles. Yet, it surprises some people to learn that, in the lower 48 states, breeding Bald Eagles are most numerous in Florida and Minnesota. In 1990 there were 535 breeding pairs in Florida, and 437 in Minnesota. The Florida breeding population rebounded rapidly to 1,102 pairs in 2001, then plateaued at 1,133 in 2005. In the meantime, Minnesota's population climbed slowly at first, to 681 pairs in 2001, then shot up to 1,312 pairs in 2005, surpassing the Florida population...

Chapel Trail Nature Center

In an earlier post I described the creation of Chapel Trail Nature Center and its near destruction when vandals set the boardwalk on fire shortly before its planned grand opening. It had been open less than a year when Hurricane Wilma toppled most of the boardwalk. Earlier this month, soon after we returned to Florida from our second home in Illinois, we visited the preserve, located nearby in Pembroke Pines. It was a rather dull morning for birding. There had been plenty of rain, and flood water had diluted out the fish so that the long-legged waders were no longer concentrated there. We started out late and it became progressively more hot and muggy.

Slogging through the Everglades

Now that I have become the proud owner of a pair of snake boots, I took up my neighbor Scott's open invitation to accompany him on a deeper hike into the wetlands adjacent to our homes. This area, located just west of the cities of Miramar and Pembroke Pines, is part of the Broward County Water Preserve, consisting mostly of land that has been set aside by developers to compensate for intrusion upon the historic Everglades by construction of housing subdivisions. Much of this is land that had long ago been drained and converted to agricultural use, mainly grazing of livestock. Now it is partially surrounded by low levees and managed by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) under supervision of the US Army Corps of Engineers. As part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), the land was more recently cleared of invasive exotic plants, notably Melaleuca, Australian Pine and Brazilian Pepper.

Review– Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer, and Build

Goodfellow's Avian Architecture is not only about structural diagrams and blueprints, though it goes into great detail in chapters about nine general types of nest construction, from simple scrapes, holes, platforms, cups, mounds and domes to intricately hanging and woven ones. There are also chapters on aquatic and mud nests, colonial and group nests, as well as intriguing descriptions of courts and bowers, and even edible nests and food stores...

End of a long hot summer

Before we left Illinois early in September, we had been experiencing heat and humidity that rivaled that in our Florida home. As soon as we got back to Florida, Illinois cooled off, but Florida seemed hotter than ever. With the arrival of autumn, heat and morning rain showers have reduced our time in the field. At the same time, we have been more alert to happenings at the home front-- particularly on the lake in back of our home, where an interesting drama played out. I noticed that a Double-crested Cormorant had caught a large exotic Plecostomus sp. The 9-10 inch fish (native to the Amazon and popular in the pet trade) struggled vigorously in the bird's beak, its spiny fins fully extended. I do not know how long the fish had been in the cormorant's grasp, but I watched intently to see if the bird could succeed in swallowing it, or whether it might get stuck in its gullet...

Mutualism and Commensalism

In ecology, commensalism is a class of relationship between two organisms where one organism benefits but the other is unaffected. There are three other types of association: mutualism (where both organisms benefit), competition (where both organisms are harmed), and parasitism (one organism benefits and the other one is harmed). Commensalism derives from the English word commensal, meaning "sharing of food" in human social interaction, which in turn derives from the Latin cum mensa, meaning "sharing a table". Originally, the term was used to describe the use of waste food by second animals, like the carcass eaters (such as vultures and hyenas)that follow hunting animals but wait until the latter have finished their meal.

A Birding Fashionisto?

The path that leads to to our favorite birding patch is only a few paces outside the entrance gate to our subdivision. However, we must reach the gate by walking in front of about two blocks of residences. Clothed in our rugged garb, we accept quizzical stares from passing motorists as they bring their kids to school or head for the office, all dressed up. We are often recognized as birders, and have acquired some legitimacy by answering questions from neighbors, such as “Did you notice that a lot of baby white cranes [translation: Snowy Egrets] have just joined their parents [translation: Great Egrets] along our lake?” Here in Florida we must pay special attention to protection from sun and insects. Sensible wide-brimmed hats, trousers tucked into socks and long sleeves on the hottest of mornings make us stand apart on the fashion scene. (No wonder Mary Lou regarded all birders as rather eccentric folk– until she became one herself! See: “A Valentine for my Favorite Birdwatcher“)

Florida Yard Birds

Returning from Illinois this past Thursday, our aircraft passed eastward over the Fort Lauderdale airport and took a long downwind leg over the ocean. This meant that the wind was blowing in from the Everglades, and we could expect rising temperatures and a plague of mosquitoes until the easterly sea breezes returned.

The unsettled air produced a lovely sunrise, but bad as the mosquitoes, heat and humidity have been, other concerns are keeping us from going afield...

NE Illinois: Parting images

Alas, we are leaving our second home in northeastern Illinois to return to Florida, just at the start of warbler migration. Yesterday Kane County Audubon Society sponsored its monthly “Scope Day” at Nelson Lake/Dick Young Forest Preserve, only about a mile from our condo. Although I obtained not a single decent shot of any of the Common Yellowthroats, American Redstarts, Magnolia Warblers and Black-throated Green Warblers we sighted, the arduous 3 1/2 mile walk around the lake made for a most enjoyable morning. We logged over 60 species. 

The group included a nice mix of experienced and casual local birders, as well as visitors from out of state. They gathered on the east viewing platform to scope out herons and ducks...

llinois Yard Birds

It’s nice when the birds come to visit. During our eleven years of living in New Mexico I encouraged them with feeders, and attracted 120 species. Back then I set up my spotting scope inside the house and photographed the birds by focusing a little 2 megapixel point-and-shoot camera through the scope’s eyepiece. My New Mexico yard list and photos may be seen at this link. Unfortunately, after moving to Florida I kept my “yard list” on my Palm handheld, and lost it when a computer crash coincided with my switch from the Palm to an incompatible iPod Touch. I think it was in the high 50s, but some day I will try to reconstruct it. Anticipating the question, I promised an answer when I posted “Why in [!!#!@*##&%] Did You Move From New Mexico To Florida?”  However, I never got around to explaining our motive for relocating from a mile and a half high in the mountains to a hot and muggy lakeside plot. I still plan to address this, but it is a story in itself, as is, indeed, our decision to occupy a second residence. Now that Mary Lou and I have homes in both Florida and Illinois, I have collected photos of quite a few yard birds that I have photographed, many from inside or from porch and patio.

To shoot a Bobolink

Travel, first to Alaska, and more recently in Europe, has occupied much of my past two months. Before leaving for a visit to Spain and a western Mediterranean cruise earlier this month, I wrote three blog posts and scheduled them for publication on consecutive Saturday mornings. I now have to catch up and tell about the varied results of my recent hunting experiences. The great painter John James Audubon was known to cook and eat many of the birds he collected.

“Although he would shoot the birds for sport, he also shot them in order to paint their features. In his mission for new specimens, Audubon would shoot a minimum of a hundred birds each day... ”

Alaska RV Adventure: 5. Seward

We enjoyed a scenic four hour drive from Homer to Seward, first retracing our route north and westward on Sterling Highway (Alaska #1). The early King Salmon run bypasses Soldotna for some reason, but upstream at Sterling, fishermen were lined shoulder-to-shoulder along the banks of the Kenai River. Joining Alaska #9 southward, we were treated to the rugged beauty of the Chugach Mountains. This is a continuation of the narrative of our Alaska journey...

The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds

Review: The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds
Richard Crossley
Princeton University Press

When I first picked up this book, I was surprised at how hefty it was. Like so many other birders, I saw the pre-publication press releases and the author’s video preview. The computer screen images of birds in multiple poses and at various distances were very appealing. I did not give much thought to the fact that displaying 640 of these plates in a readable format would require lots of large pages. Indeed, the book measures about 8 x 10 inches and its 544 high-quality heavy pages produce a volume that is 1 1/2 inches thick and feels like it weighs about 4 pounds. This is not a field guide, nor is it meant to grace the cocktail table. Rather, it is a unique tool for learning how to better identify the birds. It includes an unprecedented 10,000 individual bird images, all from Crossley’s own collection, except for a handful contributed by other photographers.

Illinois prairie in early summer

Soon after returning from from Alaska to our second home in Illinois, I took a break from editing and reviewing the photos from the trip. Illinois weather had been quite variable, from cool and rainy to hotter than Florida. Our first stop was at Aurora West Forest Preserve, only a couple of miles from our condo. Our target bird was the Clay-colored Sparrow that nested there last year. We had no luck in finding the sparrow, but it was a delightful morning full of color and sound.

An Indigo Bunting sang a variant song from the top of a tree. Mary Lou and I had heard this same bird before we left for Alaska. Instead of the usual series of coupled warbling notes, this bird repeated two wheezy phrases that sounded like “Wree-Wree, Wree-Wree…” etc. It definitely meant to be singing, not sounding call notes.

An early morning Bobcat and birds

Last week, while I was still in Illinois, I received an e-mail from Michael Fullana, a professional photographer who lives near our Florida home. He had seen one of my Bobcat photos on the Internet and was surprised to learn that they could be found so nearby. I gave him detailed instructions and within a day or so he was out before dawn in the wetlands next to our subdivision. He was able to get two photos of a very handsome Bobcat a little after sunrise. Michael’s photo was to die for, so I planned to get out early myself on the first morning that we did not have medical and dental appointments. Today we finally had no other obligations or early rain.

Alaska RV Adventure: 4. Homer

After reading my past three blogs about our Alaska trip, our son-in-law, who accompanied Mary Lou and me in the 32-foot RV with our daughter and their two children, was only half-joking when he commented that I wrote volumes about the birds, but only a few lines about my loving family! The truth is, we spent much more time having fun together than we did looking for birds. But my blog is usually about birding and photography, and when it isn’t, I publish a disclaimer. 

The route from Soldotna to Homer was direct and only about 75 miles. Approaching from the bluffs north of the city, we could see Homer Spit arching out into Kechimak Bay. Our objective was Heritage RV Park, which turned out to be a very nice place for our two-night stay.

Alaska RV Adventure: 3. Soldotna

After an all too brief visit to Denali, we set out on a rather daunting 400 mile drive south to the Kenai Peninsula. I learned from the locals to pronounce it "KEEN-eye," rather than "ken-EYE." Our daughter and son-in-law shared driving duties with me, which contributed to a much more relaxing experience. Early in the day, we encountered some rain, the only daytime showers we had during the ten days we spent in Alaska. Retracing our path to Anchorage, we followed Alaska Route #1 south and then eastward as it followed along the shore of Turnagain Arm. This part of Cook Inlet gained its name because early explorers, in search of the Northwest Passage, found this long eastward extension of the Inlet to lead only to a river. Frustrated, they had to turn around again. The road follows the Alaska Railroad, which opened up the Kenai Peninsula, which opened up the Kenai Peninsula to travelers.

Alaska RV Adventure: 2. A brief visit to Denali National Park

We looked forward to visiting Denali National Park for the third time in our lives. Fifteen years ago, our first cruise to Alaska included a flight to Fairbanks, and travel by rail back to Anchorage with two nights in a lodge just inside the Park. This allowed Mary Lou and I to take a sightseeing bus some distance inside the park, followed by a long afternoon and evening exploring the beaver ponds and woodlands around our lodge. As we boarded the train back to Anchorage, we decided to return one day, but allow more time for exploration. A few years later, in early June, we attended a four night birding program at Camp Denali, a 95 mile, seven hour ride in a comfortable Camp bus to the end of the Denali Park Road. Our tiny cabin lacked electricity, but had a wood stove, a clean outhouse, and drinking water was available from a nearby spigot. Situated high on a bluff, we had a cloudless view of 20,320 foot high Mount McKinley (AKA Denali) every day.

Alaska RV Adventure: 1. Talkeetna

We are now back in Illinois after an enjoyable Alaska trip that included camping at Talkeetna, Denali National Park, Soldotna, Homer and Seward. Arriving in Anchorage late in the evening, we spent our first night in the parking lot of the RV rental agency, and on the next day drove north about 125 miles to Talkeetna. It was not a birding trip per se, but our plans included wildilfe cruises out of Homer and Seward. Mary Lou and I found limited time to look for land birds around the campgrounds. Talkeetna is a fairly isolated and quaint village on the Alaska Railroad that is a popular destination for touring companies. A 3/4 mile wooded trail follows along the rail line from our campsite northward to the bridge over the Talkeetna River.

Review: The Birds of New Jersey: Status and Distribution

This attractive book, by the author of A Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey, is packed with information about the historic and present abundance and distribution of the 465 (including extinct) bird species ever officially recorded in New Jersey. For over 450 species there is an emphasis upon population trends and changes in range over the past ten years. The large number of species is a reflection of the great variety and richness of habitats in this small and densely populated state. The Introduction includes a brief description of the geography and natural regions of New Jersey. There is a review of the history of previous systematic records of birdlife in the state, beginning with an 1897 compilation by the Fish and Game Commission, up to the current work of the New Jersey Bird Records Committee, and current data from eBird and regional rare bird alerts and birding hotlines. In 1998, the State List included 443 species; an additional 15 new species have been documented since then. Splits and re-evaluation of a specimen and previous records resulted in a net increase of seven more.

Hazards of bird photography

Birding and wildlife photography, as spectator sports, are usually not considered very hazardous activities. Oh, I've stepped on yellow jacket tunnels, bumped my head against hornet nests, stood on fire ant hills, suffered itchy poison ivy rash and chigger bites, tripped over old barbed wire fences and battled deer flies and mosquitoes, but... I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's start at the beginning.
 At our South Florida home, we are lucky to live on a lake that is almost a quarter of a mile wide, in back of our home. This gives us a chance to practice identifying the waders that appear on the opposite shore, before reaching for the binoculars to confirm our impressions. Overall size, shape and behavior can be more reliable than color at such a distance. Taking inspiration from Jerry Liguori's Hawks at a Distance, I found some illustrative examples in my photo collection.

A rookery on our home turf

Back in Florida this past week, we visited a small, newly-discovered Yellow-crowned Night-Heron rookery in our local birding patch. Scott, a non-birding neighbor, discovered it, tucked away in a corner where we simply never ventured on our daily walks. We first met Scott walking his dog early one morning. He asked about the birds we were seeing, and was interested in my birding and photography equipment. He was curious about identifying the birds, though he did not own a field guide. Then, a couple of months ago he went out and purchased a huge set of porro prism binoculars. They were about 30 power, and hung down almost to his knees. Their field of view was so small that he could not tell where he was looking! Scott was quite proud of their bargain price, but after trying to use them, he decided to donate them to "Audubon." I suggested that a shooting club might be able to use them for spotting the targets. Recently, he bought a manual focus 300 mm telephoto lens for his point-and-shoot camera, and has captured some nice images. While we were in Illinois, Scott provided us with daily briefings on events and sightings in our birding patch, e-mailing photos of his subjects. They included good shots of egrets and other herons, hawks, Bald Eagles and Black-necked Stilts. He asked about the identity of a bird with big red eyes. I did not have to look at his photo to know that it was probably a night-heron, and sure enough it was-- a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.

Celebrating a chilly International Migratory Bird Day

This is nearly the end our third and final week here in Illinois, and for the past several days I have been pretty much side-lined. The weather took a nasty turn, with cold rain and light frost two mornings this week, and on top of that I have come down with a nasty sinus infection. Waiting for the antibiotics to kick in does give me time to reflect upon the past two weeks. There is also a glimmer of hope that I can get out at least one more day before returning to Florida. This past week, I can credit Mary Lou for finding the best bird of our Illinois visit, her 506th North American life bird. We were walking in the West Aurora Forest Preserve in Kane County, when we heard some loud cackling and squawking noises that persisted for about 10 seconds. They seemed to be from a bird, but were like nothing I had ever heard before. The nearest I could imagine would be a chicken-like species, but did not think that bobwhites or pheasants ever made sounds like that. Then, she spied a fairly large bird low in a tree right next to the trail. As it was partially hidden among the leaves, I almost dismissed it as a thrasher or a grackle. It flew a few yards to another tree and we noted its white undersides, plain brown back, and drooping tail. It lacked rufous in its wings, characteristic of the more common Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

Enjoying a Second Spring

We were greeted by unusually warm weather upon our arrival in northeastern Illinois. We got out early most mornings and found that, indeed, we had caught up with the spring migrants that are now mostly gone from Florida. This is actually an inaccurate statement, as the birds we are seeing up here have almost certainly followed the Mississippi Flyway, an entirely different migration route than the Atlantic Flyway that runs through peninsular Florida up into the northeastern states and provinces. However, individual species, such as the Palm Warbler, may follow unique circular patterns of migration. The dull "Western" race of Palm Warbler is very common all winter in Florida, and we rarely see the bright "Yellow" eastern form such as this one I photographed this past week here in Illinois...

Looking forward to a second spring

In south Florida we enjoyed a mild spring that provided some interesting birding in the wetlands next to our home. Before departing northward with the migrants, we got out nearly every morning. Common Nighthawks were moving through. Two pairs seemed to take possession of separate territories along the gravel road that leads to the wild area. They took turns swooping down over our heads, startling us with loud "booms." The nighthawks provided me an opportunity to practice taking flight shots. Most photos showed only blue sky, as their flight is erratic and difficult to follow. I discovered that the best way to capture them in flight is to shoot with both eyes open-- track with the left eye to keep the bird in the viewfinder with the right...

An urge to migrate

Readers have probably noticed that I take most of my photos in birding "patches" very close to home, mainly in the adjacent water conservation area that we call the West Miramar ESL (for its designation by the South Florida Water Management District as an environmentally sensitive land or area). Rather than chase after rarities, we usually wait for the birds to visit us. Pretty soon we will respond to our own migratory urge and try to catch up with them up north. We enjoy the birds, but we also like being in the places where the birds are-- mostly scarred remnants of former natural beauty, but places where we can briefly ignore the sounds of lawn mowers and leaf blowers and hear splashing on the lake and the songs of cardinals, yellowthroats and towhees. We like getting out early, around sunrise, and walking fast before stopping to watch and listen...

Birding in a make-believe hammock

Black-and-White Warbler 2-20110406The first time I heard a Florida birder talk about finding birds in a certain "hammock," I almost wanted to correct him. Up east, the only hammocks I knew were made of canvas and slung between two posts. I thought he meant to say "hummock," a word that I first heard used by a farmer, who pointed to a hill out in the middle of his hayfield that was too steep to mow and had gone over to shrubs and trees. Of course, I've since learned that "hammock" has a very specific meaning in any discussion of Everglades ecology. From the ground, a hammock indeed looks like a "hummock," a tree-covered hill that rises high above the surrounding Sawgrass prairie. Hammocks are scattered throughout the Everglades, but they are actually quite level, and only a foot or so above the high water mark. It is the trees themselves that rise up in a graceful mound. In the dry soil, hardwoods of many kinds flourish, draped with ferns and air plants: mahogany, oak, maple, hackberry and gumbo limbo, as well as native palms. Cocoplum, commonly used as a hedge or small shrub in residential neighborhoods, grows to tree size. Hammocks serve as refuges for more terrestrial creatures such as bobcats, panthers and raccoons.

A strange heron

Reddish Egret dance 4-20110408We got out to the wetlands near our home just before sunrise this morning. Several mornings, we have seen Bobcats on the trail along the levee, so it is always our first stop. Since the trail is overgrown, we can approach it without being seen in advance. We walk quietly up the levee to the edge of the trail, and Mary Lou looks to the right while I look to the left. As commonly is the case, we saw no Bobcats. Last week we had found a heron there that posed an identification challenge. Living on a lake, we have learned to identify the common herons quite easily, even when they are on the opposite shore. I had never before seen a heron that looked like this one. It was a plain grayish brown all over, with darker wings, but no other prominent plumage features. Its bill and legs were black, and on our first encounter it was sitting quietly in shallow water at a fairly long distance, about 150 feet...

“Pining” for a Bald Eagle Nest Camera

Eagle Pair at Nest 20081211Many people across the country and the planet are monitoring the progress of a pair of Bald Eagles in Decorah, Iowa. A nest camera with excellent video quality is mounted in the nest tree and looks directly into the nest, 80 feet above the ground. As the 35th day of incubation drew near, Mary Lou and I were continually checking the three eggs for signs that an eaglet was pipping the shell. We have a particular interest in Bald Eagles, as we have been involved in protecting a recently discovered nest in our south Florida neighborhood. Coincidentally, the eaglets in our local nest are just taking their first flights as the Decorah eaglets are hatching. We first became aware of the local pair of eagles when I photographed them mating on the rooftop of a house just across the lake from our home. As there had not been a record of an active Bald Eagle nest in Broward County since several years before DDT was abolished in the early 1970s, I reported the sighting on the Tropical Audubon Society's Web page. A biologist who lived about 1 1/2 miles from our home got back to me with word that she had been seeing eagles in her neighborhood. She had a general idea of where they might be breeding, but was unable to find their nest. By chance, Kelly Smith, a local middle school teacher found the nest in March, 2008. The nest was located only about 150 feet from a busy boulevard in the neighboring City of Pembroke Pines, and it contained one nearly full-grown eaglet. The pair of eagles have returned to the same nest each year, successfully raising and fledging two chicks in 2009 and three in 2010. This past October they again set up housekeeping, and have produced two more eaglets. Since the nest is about 50 feet high in an exotic pine tree with smaller trees blocking most of the view, we only can obtain distant looks. Oh, how we would like to have an eagle nest camera on a par with the Decorah cam! Our local nest could kick off the viewing season before Christmas and be followed by shows from more northerly locations...

Dramatic rescue of Decorah eaglet

Decorah eaglet day 1 20110402Yesterday, a drama played out before our eyes. We had the Decorah Eagle Nest Camera on on the laptop in the kitchen while preparing dinner. (In case you have been living on another planet and are not responsible for one of over 11 million visits to the site, this nest, located 70 feet above the ground next to a fish hatchery in Decorah, Iowa is monitored by a video camera 24 hours a day.) The camera looks down into the nest and provides tack-sharp streaming images of a pair of Bald Eagles during the breeding season. As of this writing, two of the three eggs has hatched, the first on April 2nd and the second only yesterday, April 3rd.. Yesterday afternoon I happened to look at the screen just as the male eagle got up from brooding the two eaglets and the remaining egg. He fed the chicks, and then seemed to be cleaning stuff out of the nest, when he either mistakenly picked up the older of the two chicks by its leg, or the little chick grabbed unto the adult's bill. Reflexively, the adult bird shook its head and tossed the chick, which landed at the periphery of the nest.

South Florida Spring migration can be a non-event

Prairie Warbler 2-20110325Spring migration can be very slow in our south Florida neighborhood. We are experiencing the gradual departure of most of the small species that spend the winter here. Out-migrants greatly outnumber in-migrants. Gone are the kingfishers, the kestrels, and most of the Yellow-rumped, Prairie and Palm Warblers that were so common during the colder months. We live about 18 miles inland from the ocean. Local habitat is badly degraded. Our housing development was gouged out of land that was originally Everglades. Much of it had been drained an put to agricultural use by the middle of the 20th Century. The homes in our neighborhood were constructed only about 10 years ago, elevated above the flood level on rock and sand that had been excavated from quarries that became the lakes such as the one in our back yard. To mitigate the environmental damage, the developer had to set aside undeveloped areas that serve as water conservation areas. Each home has one mandatory native tree (ours is a Mahogany), but just about every other plant is an exotic. Groomed Saint Augustine lawns extend to the very margins of each lake, and alien fruiting and flowering trees and shrubs predominate. ..

Review: Hawks at a Distance

Coopers Hawk 20091010Jerry Liguori's Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors is certainly a book for aspiring as well as veteran hawk-watchers. But, is it a book for a recreational birder like me, who rarely encounters a kettle of Broad-wings or Swainson's, and is intimidated by the robo-watchers atop the mountains and lookouts? My short answer is yes, and let me tell you why. The book is unique in that all the birds are photographed in flight. Except for the full page color plates that introduce each of the 20 raptor species most commonly seen in established hawk watching sites, the color photos are tiny, usually six to a page with lots of sky in between the images. An additional nine less common migrants are also described and depicted in distant flight. The hawks are seen, not only from below, but coming at you and going away, from the side and sometimes from above. At the back of the book, individual pages with over 40 black and white photos are devoted to each species, illustrating the bird as semi-silhouettes in every conceivable flight posture and alignment.

Two years without stork nests at Corkscrew Swamp

Swallow-tailed Kite 20100302A little more than an hour's drive from our south Florida home, Corkscrew Swamp is located within the largest remaining virgin bald cypress forest in North America. A boardwalk provides access to six distinct habitats: pine flatwood, wet prairie, pond cypress, marsh, lettuce lakes, and bald cypress forest. Enjoy a virtual tour of the 2 1/4 mile boardwalk at this link. Several Painted Buntings were visiting the feeders at the back porch of the Blair interpretive Center

Big brown bird with a sharp tongue and a limp

Limpkin on tree 20110227As a child, back in New Jersey, I often took vicarious trips to the sub-Tropics. Roger Tory Peterson was my virtual companion. I remember looking through my 1939 Peterson Field Guide at such exotic southern birds as the Wood Ibis (now properly known as Wood Stork), White Ibis and Limpkin. None of these three were included among Peterson's plates. The former appeared in an ink drawing of its head, comparing it to the White Ibis, which also was not otherwise depicted. The Reddish Egret, another Deep South specialty, was considered to be so rare that it did not even deserve an image. A Limpkin was shown calling, and Roger described its cry as "A loud, repeated wail, Kree-ow, Kra-ow, etc., especially at night." What all these birds had in common was that they were long-legged waders, and that I held out little hope of ever seeing any of them. In those post-Depression days our travel was constrained by the limitations of our family car, a 1937 Ford sedan that already was showing signs of age...

Avian crowd pleasers at Green Cay Wetlands

Anhinga with trophy 3-20110220No visitor to South Florida who likes birds, or even has a marginal interest in the natural world should miss walking the boardwalk at Green Cay Wetlands, located in suburban Boynton Beach, just off Florida's Turnpike in western Palm Beach County. Mary Lou and I visited Green Cay the weekend before last, and were thrilled by the abundance of water birds. We arrived around 8:30 AM on a Sunday, and the large parking lot was already 3/4 full. Most of the visitors were older people decked out in exercise clothing. There were also many families with small children. I'll admit that I did not relish the idea of joining such a large crowd, but as it turned out, they contributed greatly to our enjoyment. Except for the few power walkers who rushed through and brusquely pushed folks out of their way, everyone seemed to be having a fabulous time.

Herons: when green is blue and blue is white

Grasshopper Sparrow 2-20110201Every winter since 2007,when we first saw a Grasshopper Sparrow in the wetlands near our Florida home, we have looked for another. This past week, while walking next to a weedy patch next to a lake in our subdivision, I saw a small bird fly up and almost immediately drop down again out of sight. With patience, we coaxed the bird up into view by squeaking, and to our surprise it flew over to a bush and posed for photos.

White Waders 3, Herps 0

Wood Stork joins egret 20110214As tactile feeders, Wood Storks must play a survival game of chance. They require water that is deep enough to harbor prey species, but not so deep that the bird cannot trap them when they blunder into its open bill. The water must be at least a couple of inches deep, but not deep enough to submerge its eyes, a maximum of about 16 inches. As water in the Everglades recedes following the summer wet season, it concentrates aquatic life. Deeper water allows fish to disperse, making them less accessible to the storks. Here in our back yard, a Wood Stork stirs up the water with its bubble-gum colored foot, hoping that fishes will innocently gather in the protective shadow of its wing...

A Valentine for my favorite birdwatcher

ValentinesDayBirders have an undeserved reputation as eccentrics. At least, I think it is undeserved, for I share their passion, and (of course) I am very mainline and normal! There are sports nuts, compulsive stamp and beer bottle collectors, golf and bridge addicts, and yet it seems that “old ladies in tennis shoes” who happen to sport a pair of binoculars and who get up early to look into treetops, oblivious to curious stares, suffer public deprecation. Certainly, that was Mary Lou’s view. The last thing she would think of doing was to go out and actually look for birds. As a kid, I often thought how I would like to marry a girl who loved birds. As the hormones raged and the deds of college and medical school intervened, my birding activities dropped off sharply. I had turned into a covert, “underground birder.” My criteria for an eligible wife also changed...

When birding, expect the unexpected

Little Blue Heron with siren 20110130On our walks, Mary Lou and I often try to find "target" birds. All winter, a male Painted Bunting is a "must see" for her. This time of year I am especially looking for Savannah and Grasshopper Sparrows. Neither of us got our wish when, around sunrise one morning this past week we set out to our local wetlands. We actually did not have very high expectations. The air was still, which helps us see small movements of foliage that can betray the presence of a small bird. However, a light fog impaired visibility, and the birds were either absent or unusually quiet. One thing you learn about the wild world is that beauty surrounds you under any conditions-- but you sometimes have to look very hard.

Bird photography: from digiscope to DSLR

Eagle head 20110123My first venture into bird photography occurred in the 1990s when I lived in New Mexico. My simple digiscopic photo equipment consisted of a spotting scope, a 2.0 megapixel point-and-shoot Canon A40 camera, and a Durkee's spice bottle with the bottom cut to the size of the camera lens housing. I kept the scope on a tripod in front of the Great Room windows, and documented the birds that visited the front yard pond and feeders. It was too cumbersone to carry around, so all my bird photography was done indoors. The birds were usually only about 30 feet away, but I had to shoot through double-glazed windows. The images had to be cropped, so they ended up being pretty grainy, but to my non-critical eye they were magnificent.

Confessions of a scattershooting bird photographer

Northern Cardinal male 20110120I've been testing out my new Canon 60D camera for the past week, shooting at everything that moved, and a few things that didn't. Reading the manual for my new camera made my eyes glaze over, so after looking at the pictures that pointed out the various knobs and buttons, I rushed outside. Experimenting with the new camera's settings, I made quite a few mistakes. Thinking I could "improve" upon the reflections in these shots by deepening the field of focus, I inadvertently set the exposure compensation while thinking it was the aperture. Unbeknown to me, it was off the scale at -5, and the rest of my photos that morning turned out nearly black.I was able to rescue a few test shots by post-processing with Picasa (''Poor Man's Photoshop"). This degraded the images, but I hated to just throw these few away (all those mega pixels going to waste!).

Why can’t a bird just sit nice for a picture?

Male Painted Bunting 20100217While I am thrilled to capture a "guide book" photo of a bird, whether a full side-on devoid of shadows and intervening twigs, or a flight shot that shows the details of all the feather groups, I have to admit that find perverse enjoyment in photographing birds when they're being just... well, birds. Part of the fun of birding in the field is clinching the identification of a species that comes into view for a few nanoseconds as it peers out from deep vegetation, or before it disappears into the blue. Often, I do not know whether to reach for the binoculars for a better view, or the camera, for more leisurely study in front of the computer screen. Some of my favorite photographs recall just such moments. None of them could be considered "quality" shots, or "sale-able images," as one professional photographer friend likes to call them...

Chapel Trail Nature Preserve

Tricolored Heron 20090208During my working days, I attended meetings or connected flights through Florida several times. Never did I think of the Sunshine State as a place to call home. Having lived in New Orleans for several years, I thought of Florida as a place even more flat, hot, humid and buggy. Four seasons always were more appealing and interesting to me. In temperate climes it is easy to escape the cold by piling on more layers of clothing, and a fan is often enough to dispel the heat. That's why I chose the mountains of New Mexico for our retirement home, and Mary Lou agreed (somewhat reluctantly at first, as she had trouble choosing between mountains and oceans)...

Soccer Field Nature Preserve 

Northern Mockingbird 2-20101221“West Pines Soccer Park and Nature Preserve” sounds like a contradiction in terms, akin to “Joe’s Barber Shop and Fine Dining.” Located near our Florida home in neighboring Pembroke Pines, its extensive soccer fields share a border with a fragmented Water Conservation Area. Suburban housing nearly envelops the entire complex, yet it is an unexpected little patch of protected natural habitat.

The presence of cattails indicates that the water has been fertilized by agricultural and residential runoff. The native Sawgrass evolved in the nutrient-poor Everglades ecosystem, and it struggles to compete with invasive plants when the substrate is artificially enriched with phosphorus and nitrogen. The Water Conservation Area weakly imitates the historic Everglades hydrological cycle, swelling with rainwater during the summer and gradually drying out with the approach of winter.

No Geeser Left Inside

Bald Eagle head 20101221It seems essential to my well-being for me to get out at least a couple of days a week. "Out" doesn't mean our regular, and enjoyable, early morning "power walk." No, I'm referring to what comes next when chores and other obligations do not interfere-- a walk on the wild side. Here in South Florida we have several favorite places within walking distance or a few minutes' drive. One particular morning last week, I got out quite early.

A Tree Swallow Vortex

Northern Cardinal female 20101223Too often, a photo fails to approach one's perception of a scene. How many times have I said, "If only I had a camera," to capture an inspiring event. Conversely, how many times does the photograph fall so short of expectations? The simple explanation is that photos can record only two dimensional visual images. The experience itself involves so much more than a collection of shapes and colors. Mary Lou and I set out before sunrise this morning to walk our little patch of recovering Everglades. We have had more luck seeing Bobcats early in the morning, and this morning we were not disappointed. We cautiously approached the secluded entry point of the trail that runs on top of the levee. As is our habit, we quickly looked both ways before coming out into the open. o our right, about 20 feet away, a Bobcat saw us, and before I could aim my camera it began trotting away down the trail:

Big Backyard birds

Turkey Vulture 2-20101114South Florida has just undergone a couple of weeks of embarrassingly cold weather. Two Arctic fronts passed through the peninsula, each setting new record low and "low high" temperatures. Near-freezing temperatures in our neighborhood killed some of our tropical plants despite our efforts to water and cover them. In the Everglades, exotic vegetation froze and dried up, posing a fire hazard in coming months. We live 18 miles inland, right against what is left of the Everglades, so we do not have any manatees near us. We did have an extraordinary fish kill this past January See: Frozen Fish and Scavenging Serpents. Then, most were exotic species such as cichlids, especially tilapia and aquarium species such as Oscars, Plecostomas and mouth breeders that were intentionally or accidentally released. The lack of evidence of a fish kill this time probably means that the cold temperatures were not sustained long enough to cool the water down to the depths. It appeared to me that the fish that died in January were mostly adults. Maybe their fry are more resistant to the cold, or perhaps we are seeing natural selection at work, producing a new breed of exotic fish that will survive under colder conditions.

Birds don’t always get along

Kestrel stretching 20101210Even the most casual observer knows that birds are not always nice to each other.Territorial disputes are common, between birds of the same or different species. In our Florida neighborhood, mockingbirds seem to defend an invisible property line and face off on either side of it. Blue Jays and Northern Mockingbirds chase each other through the trees, the way I used to see jays and robins fight over domination of our back yard cherry tree in New Jersey. One might ask, why don't birds just get along and not waste energy fighting with one another? In nature, behaviors usually carry some survival value which may not always be readily apparent. Of course, defense of nesting and feeding territory is a most basic form of "Homeland Security." Disputes between birds usually do not result in physical violence. Often, an aggressive gesture or a hostile verbal exchange is enough to settle a dispute, at least for the moment.

Flashy birds with eyes of steel

Bald Eagle 20101129I thought long and hard before I finally bought a flash attachment for my camera. Having been born in the depths of the Great Depression, I grew up with an acute appreciation of the cost of things. I remember when a nickel or even a penny could buy some pretty good stuff. Only lately have I appreciated the sacrifice that was involved when, in 1942, my mother gave me my first Roger Tory Peterson Field Guide to the Birds. My Mom encouraged my avid interest in birds, and she bought the book for $2.75. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator, her $2.75 would be worth $$36.90 in today’s economy. It was a first edition, revised in 1939. So, I rationalized, a $400.00 flash unit really would only cost me about $30.00 in 1942 dollars-- not much more than what my Mom paid for my first Peterson bird book! Not bad at all. So I sprung for the Canon Speedlight 580EXII. As soon as the flash unit arrived I went out into our local patch and took some photos of birds. When I got home and viewed my shots on the computer screen, I was dismayed.

Birds and butterflies close to home

Belted Kingfisher in Flight 20101123A bad cold has limited my time afield the past week. Feeling the need to attain Bird Chaser’s "Recommended Daily Allowance” (RDA) of 20 bird species, I ventured out on a 15 minute walk to the canal that borders our subdivision, and also serves as the eastern edge of the Broward Water Conservation Area. The WCA is a buffer area between the developed west edge of Broward County and the Everglades. I call the southeastern corner of the WCA the “West Miramar Environmentally Sensitive Land (ESL)“: As I walked in on the gravel road, House Wrens and Common Yellowthroats scolded from the weeds on either side. Boat-tailed and Common Grackles flew overhead, Blue Jays called to each other in the dooryards, and doves called from rooftops: White-winged, Mourning and Eurasian Collard-Doves. Palm and Yellow-rumped warblers flitted in the Live Oaks and hedges. Ten species already. For an hour and a half, I remained within a small area of disturbed grassland and woodland along the canal, allowing the birds to come to me.

Eagles migrate in opposite directions while fish move up and down

Eagle Flying 20090203Those of us who have been watching our local pair of Bald Eagles and their progeny for the past three breeding seasons are well aware that our Florida eagles are "contrarians" when it comes to migration. While nearly all other migratory birds head south after nesting and rearing their young, our local eagles do just the opposite-- they turn north. Well, this is not exactly the case, as Florida's adult Bald Eagles, especially those from the southernmost end of the peninsula, don't exhibit as much wanderlust during the non-breeding season. Generally, the adults tend to move about locally, or at most, regionally in the lower third of the Sunshine State, while younger (especially first-year) birds often become long-distance travelers...

A new eagle in our back yard

Bald Eagle 5-20101113Since our Florida home is situated on a small lake, I keep my camera handy in case anything interesting shows up. The weather is beautiful and we are able to keep the windows open day and night. The third morning after our arrival back from Illinois, I heard an Osprey calling for quite a long time. I keep trying to catch another photo of an Osprey diving to catch a fish, so I grabbed the camera an walked out on the patio. The Osprey was nowhere in sight, but across the lake was a Bald Eagle, sitting in a neighbor's back yard. It walked along as if limping, carrying a ten-inch fish in one of its talons. Though I did not see the cause of the disturbance, perhaps the eagle harassed the Osprey to make it drop the fish and it landed on the lawn...

A plethora of pipits and a blizzard of buntings

Muscovy Ducklings 20100921As our stay in northeastern Illinois drew to a close, we still hoped to see a few migrating birds that are not likely to appear back in Florida. The arrival of Fox Sparrows and juncos signaled the end of the passage of birds such as warblers and tanagers that pass through Illinois on their way to the neotropics. Now our hopes rose in anticipation of seeing some of the hardy birds from the far north that spend the winter here. On our "wanted" list were Northern Shrike, Winter Wren, Nelson's, LeConte, American Tree and Harris's Sparrows, Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs, crossbills and Purple Finches. Trumpeter Swans and Whooping Cranes were also outside bets. All are birds whose migratory habits usually do not coincide with ours. Except for the Nelson's Sparrow, we have seen all of them before. We saw the shrike, longspurs and Snow Buntings in Manitoba, but not yet in the lower 48 States. Normally, we have returned to Florida by this time of year, so we planned to take advantage of our delayed departure.

My bird photos lack “flash”

Amer Kestrel 20101108As may be evident from past blogs, I especially enjoy photographing the "little guys," such as sparrows and warblers. During summer, there are very few species of smaller birds near our Florida home. Capturing images of small birds usually takes considerably more patience and stealth than is required for the herons and storks in Florida. Since the "little brown jobs" are usually hiding in shrubs and flitting about, their portraits are often marred by intervening vegetation, shadows and poor exposure. Here in northeastern Illinois, one bird obligingly came out into the sun for his portrait...

Land of Lincoln Sparrow

Lincolns Sparrow 3-20101029We have enjoyed beautiful weather this fall, but the past week our birding was curtailed by one of the worst wind storms ever to hit the Midwest. While we were holed up by the wind and cold I spent time observing the bird feeder in our daughter's back yard, in Batavia. Dark-eyed Juncos have arrived in large numbers. As soon as the weather broke, we headed over to Nelson Lake/Dick Young Forest Preserve to see whether the cold front had brought in any unusual birds. We then took our grandchildren to the playground at nearby Jones Meadow Park in North Aurora. While Mary Lou supervised the girls, I stole off a short way down the path. As I was looking at a Hermit Thrush, a Lincoln's Sparrow popped up in a small willow not more than 15 feet away. This species breeds to the north, and passes through Illinois to winter in the southern states.

Little kings and upside-down birds

Ruby-crowned Kinglet 2-20100414The two kinglet species are also migrating through northern Illinois While the Ruby-crowned Kinglets will continue on south, the Golden-crowned species will stay for the winter. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet is usually reluctant to flaunt the red feathers to which he owes his name. One might see a hundred of these active little birds before getting a glimpse of their ruby crown. I have seen it most often in the spring, in encounters between two singing males. At Nelson Lake/Dick Young Kane County Forest Preserve, I witnessed what appeared to be an aggressive exchange between two Ruby-crowns, during which one of the birds repeatedly, but very briefly, erected the red feathers atop its head.

Late bluebirds and early juncos

White-throated Sparrow SOOC heavy crop 20100419We have been enjoying remarkably fair Autumn weather at our second home in northeast Illinois. In between obligations and the joys of sharing time with family and friends, that has been time for at least one birding excursion nearly every day. One interesting venture was with Kane County Audubon Society to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab ), located in Batavia near Chicago, Illinois, is a US Department of Energy national laboratory specializing in high-energy particle physics. Fermilab is very birder-friendly, and there is a great variety of natural habitat on their extensive grounds. The official web site has an interactive map with links to the various birding "hot spots" within the 6800 acre facility...

Two new “Life Birds Photographed”

Golden-crowned Kinglet 2-20101007Since I am relatively new to digital SLR camera photography, and also because I tend to bird close to home, I have captured images of relatively few of the nearly 600 North American birds that I have identified over these many years. This adds an element of competition and fun to my birdwatching hobby, as I am motivated to newly photograph as many birds as possible. Most of the more common species are already in my set of "Life Birds Photographed," so it is getting more difficult to add more than one species in a single day. (My set of over 200 bird photos may have a few duplications and omissions, as I have not recently "audited" it for accuracy). On our first day back in Illinois, Mary Lou and I got out early to Nelson Lake/Dick Young Forest Preserve, not far from our condo in Kane County. The timing of our trip up from South Florida was not opportune, as we overflew many migrants headed in the opposite direction. Yet, we hoped to catch some late migrants and arriving winter resident birds...

Struggling Storks

Wood Stork 20100916Wood Stork populations in South Florida have undergone great fluctuations. Breeding success is dependent upon just the right amount of water at the right times. They will not nest at all if there is no water under their rookeries, as the water offers some protection from mammalian predators, particularly raccoons. Once the chicks hatch, it is best if the water depths are receding, as this concentrates the fish. Since they are tactile rather than visual predators, Wood Storks benefit when the water is only 6-10 inches deep and there is a rich "soup" of prey. If levels are too high, the Wood Storks must fly great distances to find food, and their chicks will starve.

The days are getting shorter

Black-throated Blue Warbler 20101003As a kid, I remember summer days that seemed endlessly full of discovery. School interfered with enjoyment of both spring and fall migration, but the woods and the warblers were were close by and accessible on weekends. Now the days and weeks and years just fly by. Job lamented (7:6) that his days passed by "swifter than a weaver's shuttle," Happily, we learn in the last chapter (42:12) that "the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning. During migration, I hate to miss even a day of birding. This morning I walked out to our local "patch" just as the sun was coming up. Mary Lou preferred to stay home, happy now that she has had good looks at her Ovenbird. My objective was to get photos of one of the male American Redstarts that have been eluding me all week. They move so fast that it has been impossible for me to focus on one, as it moves along horizontal branches, changes direction and then suddenly decides that another tree is better than this one. Walking in, along the unpaved road, I watched the sunlight creep down from the tops of the tallest trees. This kind of light has posed photographic challenges for me. There is harsh glare, and images turn out too "warm," on the orange/red side of the spectrum. My first subject posed such a problem. When I got home I had to process the photos to shift the color more to the "cool" blue side...

Migration picks up as Nicole exits

KeyWest938PM20100930Flashback to last Wednesday, September 29: There was little wind, but much rain as Tropical Storm Nicole passed along the coast of South Florida. Migrating songbirds had been held up by the approaching storm. Angel and Mariel, who keep careful watch on the Florida radar during migration on their Badbirdz2 blog, predicted that after passage of the storm, strong tailwinds would make flight conditions so favorable that most of the migrants would simply skip over South Florida The next morning (Thursday, September 30), as we related in our previous post, Warblers, Butterflies and Floaters, we did see about a dozen migrants, mostly newly-arrived Palm Warblers. Badbirdz appeared to have been right. There was no spectacular fall-out; the great bulk of migrants had made it to Cuba..

Warblers, Butterflies and Floaters

Northern Parula 2-20100930There are a couple of particular problems with birding in the autumn. First, the migrants aren't singing as they do in the spring. Second, the trees are still loaded with full-sized leaves. I could add "confusing fall warblers," but only a few actually fit that category. Anyway, you have to see them first before they can confuse you. This morning was a case in point. Tropical Storm Nicole, or what was left of it had passed by yesterday, preventing us from taking our "power walk," often followed by a little birding if appointments, shopping or other chores do not interfere. After a day of forced leisure, Mary Lou and I headed out to see if the change in weather had brought any new warblers into our local birding patch. It's great to get out early before the wind starts up and the butterflies are still sleeping. Under these conditions, the presence of a bird is easily revealed by the slightest stirring of a twig. Thanks to the fact that we have 20 times more motion-sensitive rods than color-sensitive cones on our retinas, it is quite easy for us to detect such peripheral visual clues, especially if the wind isn't blowing, and the butterflies aren't flying about.

Seeking the Ovenbird

Ovenbird 20100926The weather report was not encouraging. Storm couds over the Atlantic coast produced a beautiful sunrise. Optomistically, we set out for nearby Chapel Trail Nature Preserve in Pembroke Pines. Skies were gray and there were occasional misty drizzles as we walked along the boardwalk. A Red-shouldered Hawk screamed incessantly from the top of a melaleuca in the adjacent pasture. We had no ideas as to what was bothering it. We made a hasty retreat to the car just as a downpour began. The next day, the clouds had lifted and there was less red in the morning sky Mary Lou still wanted to make up for missing the Ovenbird. After our pre-dawn "power walk," we walked out to the birding "patch" next to our subdivision.

Looking for Bobcats, finding birds and butterflies

Prairie Warbler in flight 20100919Hoping to get another and better look at the three Bobcats, I walked south past the spot in the trail where I had last seen them. On a previous occasion, the scolding of birds gave away the location of a Bobcat. This time, there was only silence. As it turned out, my foray along the overgrown path atop the 196th Avenue levee was not a bad idea. Suddenly, several Prairie Warblers put in an appearance. I did not see the sought-after Ovenbird, but one of its cousins appeared unexpectedly as I was photographing two Brown Thrashers that appeared along the path...

Three Bobcat Morning

Bobcat 20100919Last week, I encountered a flock of migrants in a small wooded area in the mitigation wetlands next to our home. I returned from my morning walk with lots of photos. Mary Lou had stayed home and missed the fun. As she reviewed the downloaded images, she seemed less impressed with some of my more colorful finds. Then, one photo made her want to re-connect with an old friend. She had missed seeing an Ovenbird the past couple of years (and come to think of it, neither had I), until that morning. She actually prodded me to get out early the next day to look for that bird.

An Accidental Flycatcher

Cuban Pewee (Contopus caribaeus) 20100914While we were in Illinois, we learned that a very rare wanderer from Cuba had shown up in Everglades National Park. A Cuban Pewee (Contopus caribaeus), native to the Cuba and the northern Bahamas, and actually rather uncommon on parts of its home range, was heard and then identified on September 5 by Larry Manfredi. It was located at Long Pine Key, a camping ground in Everglades National Park. We held out little hope of ever seeing the bird, but it was still there when we returned to Florida. On September 13, Mary Lou and I took the one hour drive down to the Park, arriving at 7:00 AM, just around sunrise. We were soon joined by a few other birders on the same quest...

Flycatcher Brain Freeze

House Sparrow 20090510Old habits die slowly. As a little tyke I learned from my grandmother to call her backyard sparrows "Chippies," and the wrens in the nest box on her grape trellis, "Jennies." She made me fear that "darning needles" might sew my mouth closed. Even after learning that the "Jennies" were actually House Wrens and the "Chippies" were English Sparrows I found it hard to adjust to calling them by their new names. Likewise, the first-learned names for Sparrow Hawks and Marsh Hawks remain deeply imbedded in my subconscious, and, I admit I still have an impulse to call out their archaeic names in my native tongue rather than using the AOU "second language" for kestrels and harriers. Rock Doves have always been just "pigeons" to me (my first bird book called them "Domestic Pigeons) and thankfully, the professionals eventually gave them back their old labels, as they did for Baltimore Orioles, Wilson's Snipes and Green Herons...

Fall Warblers at Lippold Park

American Redstart 2-20100909This morning we got out early to Lippold Park, located on the east bank of the Fox River in Kane County, Illinois. The temperature was a brisk 58 degrees, but it quickly warmed up into the mid-60s. We hoped to see warblers, and we were not disappointed in their numbers, though the species mix was limited. The river was quite placid, as we have not had much rain the past couple of weeks. This is the view looking across to the west bank...

Birthday week

American Goldfinch male 2-20100826Mary Lou and I walked to Jones Meadow Park, hoping to find more vireos and maybe some early migrant warblers, but none were around. The next day we drove across the Fox River to Lippold Park, hoping for better luck. It turned out to be another good morning for deer. In three years of visiting this park, we had never seen a single deer, but this time a group of four walked right towards us, apparently unaware of our presence.

Birding near our second home in Illinois

Fawn Twin 2 20100820Development has been stalled due to the poor housing market, allowing the disturbed land around our North Aurora (Illinois) condo to return to grass. I've been carrying my little point & shoot Kodak Power Shot 1100 IS on our "power walks" along the abandoned streets. During our early morning walks we have encountered a family of Red-tailed Hawks, presumably the same ones that nested in the Mooseheart School property about a quarter of a mile from our second home. They like to roost on the street lights along the vacant roads that make up the infrastructure of a now-abandonded housing development. There appear to be three immature hawks, accompanied by one or two adults. The youngsters are very noisy. We don't think they are asking to be fed, and they seem to be making hunting forays on their own...

Color-banded Sandhill Crane at Jones Meadow Park

Sandhill Cranes 3-20100815Jones Meadow Park in North Aurora, Illinois is a short walk from our second home. Our granddaughters enjoy playing on the swings and slides. For us it is a small oasis, amid suburban housing and cornfields crowded to property lines without hedgerows to separate them. Wild creatures are attracted to this island of favorable habitat. An 0.7 mile asphalt footpath winds along the southern periphery of a combination of wetlands, prairie and woodlands. An expansive area of mowed lawn grass serves as a buffer between homes on the other side of the path. Many of the homeowners maintain bird feeders, attractive to sparrows, chickadees and finches. The paved walk is especially welcome during rainy times, when some of our other birding areas can get quite soggy underfoot. A short grassy side path leads north between the pond and the eastern portion of the wetlands, often affording close views of its inhabitants.

Early August in Northern Illinois

Canada Geese 20100805After enduring several weeks of near-record heat in Florida, we looked forward to our return to Illinois. On our first night, we slept with windows open, and got out early for a power walk at 60 degrees Farenheit. After breakfast we headed for nearby Dick Young/Nelson Lake Forest Preserve. As the sun got higher it quickly heated up, and the ravenously hungry mosquitoes ignored our "Deep Woods Off." Still, it was nice to get reacquainted with the local birds...

Blog Post #300

Soldier Danaus_eresimus 20081219Today, fast approaching the three-quarter century mark, I am penning my 300th post in Rosyfinch Ramblings. Before the days of File Transfer Protocol, and before the word "blog" was invented, I created the web suite devoted to the birds of the Sandia Mountains, near our former home in New Mexico. In those days I wrote daily updates in HTML code by hand, and uploaded strings of ASCII characters via a telephone modem. When I started using blogging software in 2006, I simply intended to record memories from my childhood in New Jersey. In my fifth post, Discovering Birds, I tried to remember how and why I ever got into bird watching...

A time to molt

Great Blue Heron on Patio 20100801Wow, it's been so hot in Florida this week! The heat was especially oppressive yesterday afternoon, and a Great Blue Heron spent over two hours roosting in the shade on our patio. It was only 20 feet away from our back window, too close for my long lens, so I "zoomed out" by stalking around the side of the house, where I could fit the entire bird in my viewfinder. It has been so hot here in South Florida that, instead of going out after breakfast, Mary Lou and I have been taking our "power walk" at about 5:00 AM each morning. Having failed for several days to attain Bird Chaser's "Birder's Recommended Daily Allowance" (RDA) of 20 species, I was suffering from birding "malnutrition." Therefore, the day before yesterday I got out just before sunrise to walk the wetlands adjacent to our home, the place I call my birding "patch."...

Watching behavior and other little things

Boat-tailed Grackle Display 20100709Finding and identifying birds can be an end in itself, but paying special attention to what birds are doing adds an important dimension to birding. As you can tell from the following photos, we are back in our Florida home. On our first day back, in between the usual chores associated with relocation, I glanced out the back patio window. Three male Boat-tailed Grackles were assembled breast-to-breast, their bills pointing to the sky...

Prairie Song and Color

Indigo Bunting SOOC crop 2-20100329As soon as we arrived back in Illinois after our two-week trip to three Western states , we were anxious to catch up with the local birds that, in our absence, had returned north to nest. Since we missed seeing any Henslow's Sparrows or Bobolinks before departing, we headed back to nearby Dick Young/Nelson Lake Forest Preserve in Batavia...

Two New “Lifers” in California

Route 1 Southbound 20100624We topped off our two week 50th Anniversary trip with 5 nights at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country Hotel in Santa Rosa, California. Transportation and lodging were a gift from our daughter and her husband, in exchange for our agreement to mind their two girls while they attended the wedding (and several associated gatherings) of a friend and business associate. Needless to say, we welcomed the task and found it to be a most pleasant "burden." The younger set enjoyed sleeping late on their vacation, while we persisted in our habit of being up and out at the crack of dawn. This provided a nice window of "prime time" for birding. Since we did not have a car, we had to find a nearby place to bird.

Estes Park to Albuquerque

Robins Nest 20100617We last visited the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado several times in the 1970s and '80s, when I attended continuing medical education conferences of the American Academy of Family Physicians. I combined the trips with a few vacation days. We'd pack our children into the station wagon and drive up from Dallas. The children were kept busy with Day Camp programs, and the conference schedule allowed us for family fun, such as hay rides, hiking and sightseeing. Although the facility is now much larger, the cabins are stil fairly secluded. As their parents had before them, our grandchildren also enjoyed a wonderful selection of Day Camp activities.

Colorado Rockies Reunion

Mountains 20100615On the occasion of our 50th Wedding Anniversary, Mary Lou and I have just completed an exciting two weeks of travel out west. Our trip began with a family reunion at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado. All eight of our grandchildren and two of our children and spouses spent most of the first week in adjacent cabins at this beautiful retreat. Our oldest daughter and her husband had driven only as far as Colorado Springs when they received news of the sudden and unexpected death of his younger brother. Only about 2 hours away, they had to turn around and drive back to Arizona. Despite this sad news, we all spent long days filled with day camp for the kids, trail rides, sightseeing, plus lots of visiting together and and eating too much. On the day of our arrival it rained all morning, with episodes of thunder and hail, and the mountaintops received a fresh coating of snow. By afternoon the weather turned deligtful, and we enjoyed mild sunny days and cool nights at 8500 feet elevation.

Summer resident birds return to the Illinois prairie

Yellow Warbler 20100610Once again, before departing from Illinois, we searched for Henslow's Sparrows at Nelson Lake/Dick Young Forest Preserve in Kane County, Illinois. We failed to hear a single "Ch-Leep" song along the path that climbs the hill where at least four pairs nested last spring. As I mentioned, it may be that the controlled burns have fragmented the former territory of this threatened species. They prefer to nest deep in the center of favorable habitat, which generally means a prairie that was burned between 2 to 5 years previously. They wait for the ground litter to build up, but will abandon an area where there are many emerging shrubs and saplings and too great an accumulation of dried grasses on the prairie floor. Then again, maybe they have moved to less accessible areas, away from the foot paths. We were pleased to find that many Grasshopper Sparrows had returned from the south; some ran across the path in front of us...

White Peacocks, Snowy Egrets, and a White Mountain in Florida

Snow on Miami Mountain? 20100524For a moment, I thought I was in Oregon or Washington State! No, this is not photoshopped-- this mountain of "coral" (limestone) rock is being mined from the bottom of a deep flooded quarry at the foot of the 196th Avenue canal, about 1 1/2 miles to the south. Over 15 square miles of wetlands in far NW inhabited Miami-Dade County have been permitted for rock mining. In addition to the threat to the Everglades ecosystem, groundwater pollution of several nearby water wells is a concern of conservationists. Nearby homeowners blame the daily blasting for cracks in foundation slabs. I've never before seen the stone piled this high. This photo is taken from 1 1/2 miles away, and you can't really see the bottom of the "mountain." I wonder if this is the highest topographic point in South Florida. Demand may be down and they are stockpiling it. Much gets exported-- Panama is said to be a big customer. The lake formed by this quarry must be very deep-- at least 100 feet. Surely it penetrates the aquifer. I don't know how they can keep from contaminating the ground water this way.

It’s Beginning to Feel Like Summer

Savannah Sparrow SOOC crop 20100516Here in Illinois, the trees are almost completely leafed out. This, combined with a series of overcast days, has made it difficult for me to ID warblers high in the trees. Resident birds now dominate the scene, the more colorful of which are Baltimore Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers and Indigo Buntings. Mary Lou and I have visited our local "patches" nearly every morning, hoping not to miss the spring migration warbler bonanza. Frankly, too many of the warblers we encountered ended up in the "unidentified" column. This morning I saw an Orange-crowned Warbler in Hawk's Bluff Park, Batavia, Illinois.

Ruff– A Lifer!

Scarlet Tanager 20100504On May 4, a Ruff was discovered at Nelson Lake/Dick Young Forest Preserve in Kane County, IL, one of our favorite birding "patches." The preserve is dominated by a shallow lake that is rimmed by marshes and woodlands.This would be a new bird species for Mary Lou and me. We could not get out unril 8:00 AM the next day, and were only able to spend about an hour there. Others were armed with spotting scopes, but none of us located the vagrant Old World sandpiper. Discouraged, we departed to complete some essential chores. We were not free again until 5:00 PM, and this time we had better luck. As soon as we arrived at the east entrance of Nelson Lake, we saw a couple of birders gathered on a bluff overlooking the wetlands, peering intently through a scope. Quickly, we joined them and were pleased to learn that the Ruff had been under observation for over an hour. Dave offered us eye-popping views of the target bird, which at first glance seemed quite similar to the scores of Lesser Yellowlegs gathered in the shallow water and exposed mud flats.

The Eyes of a Thrasher

Brown Thrasher 20100428As a child of about 10, I often tried to locate active birds' nests. This could be difficult, and it took patience and some careful behavioral observation. If I saw a bird gathering nesting materials or food, I would try to follow it to the nest site. Another clue was that birds with nestlings often carried white fecal sacs away from the nest after feeding the young, discarding them some distance away to keep the nest clean and also deter predators. I took photos of many nests with a liitle Kodak Brownie box camera that looked very much like this one, and hurried to get the film developed. I was almost always too close and they were out of focus. Some nests were relatively easy to find. If I came across a Killdeer that tried to distract me and lead me away by calling and feigning injury, I knew its nest was nearby. I would simply walk in the direct opposite direction from that which the Killdeer wanted me to go. The bird would become more frantic the nearer I approached the nest or its chicks. Since both eggs and young are so well camouflaged, I stepped very carefully so as not to crush them underfoot. Now I know that it is generally not a good idea to approach the nest of any bird, as this causes them great anxiety. You also may attract predators to the site.

Spring in Chicagoland

White Trout Lily 20100412Spring is a sort of non-event in Florida, but it explodes on the scene here in Illinois. During the past two weeks the trees have gone from barren to green. Redbuds and fruit trees bloom profusely. I welcome the earliest wildflowers on the floor of the local woodlands. We try not to miss getting out every day to experience the rapid changes. Mourning Cloak butterfly adults survive through winter by hiding in hollow trees, under bark or in brush piles, hibernating in a state of suspended animation known as cryo-preservation. Many do not make it, especially if the winter is too damp and warm, or if their hiding place fails to protect them from fierce wind and predators. They are usually the first butterflies to appear in spring.

Birding close to home

Eastern Towhee 3-20100402Nearly all our birding is done in "patches," places that are within a five minute walk or drive from our home. In Florida, they include portions of the Broward County Water Conservation Area (which we call the West Miramar ESL, for "Environmentally Sensitive Area"), and two nearby parks managed by the City of Pembroke Pines: Chapel Trail Nature Center and West Pines Soccer Park and Nature Preserve. In Illinois, our favorites are Dick Young/Nelson Lake Kane County Forest Preserve, and Jones Meadow and Hawk's Bluff Parks, managed by the Batavia Park District. Of course, visiting these accessible habitats doesn't waste driving time and money. The best times to be out birding are usually at the height of rush hour traffic delays. While this habit of staying close to home may be eco-friendly, we do not do this just to save the planet.

Back home in Florida

Female Bald Eagle 20100330Thanks to Southwest Airlines, we left the snow and cold of northern Illinois, and the next morning Mary Lou and I took in a tranquil sunrise as we enjoyed coffee on the patio. Although I miss the mountain vistas of our former home in New Mexico, life on a South Florida lake has some advantages. In addition to (usually) mild winters, there are quite a few interesting and beautiful birds that often share our yard. The first active Bald Eagle nest in Broward County since DDT was abolished in the 1970s is located near our home. While in Illinois, hosted a nationwide "Name the Eagle Triplets" poll on behalf of local Middle School science students. As a class project in learning to apply the Scientific method, the seventh graders studied the relationship between the density of traffic on the nearby highway and the behavior of the eagles at the nest site. Nearly 300 votes were cast, from 34 states. On March 29, there were heavy thunderstorms and high winds, so I feared for the safety of the three Bald Eagle chicks in the nest. With other volunteer observers, I watched the nest for about a half hour, but could only see two eaglets. We were concerned that one might have fallen out of the nest during the storms.

Spring (and snow) arrives in Illinois

Song Sparrow 20100314Some important family business caused us to fly up to Illinois in early March, a month earlier than usual. It has been our practice to delay our return to coincide with the onset of spring migration (and our granddaughters' dance recital!). Although temperatures dropped below freezing almost every night, we were surprised that most days were sunny and mild. Although the landscape appeared brown and barren, there were certain signs of the change of seasons. During the weeks prior to the arrival of spring, ducks were suddenly present in most bodies of water near our second home.

“Look Ma, no cavities” (for birds, that is)

House Wren 20090804Hawk's Bluff Park, one of our Illinois birding "patches," is a 30 acre strip of maturing second-growth oak woodlands and prairie that runs along Mill Creek in Batavia. It includes a playground, small basketball court, fitness track, picnic shelter, and a fishing deck. About a mile of trails loop through the woods and traverse three areas of recovering tallgrass prairie. It is nicely managed, but one aspect of its maintenance causes us some concern. The wooded area has recently undergone fairly intensive pruning and culling. Many saplings that compete with the large trees have been removed from the understory. Fire danger is thus reduced, and more light will reach the wildflowers on the forest floor. Dead and unhealthy trees were cut down and chipped on-site and used to improve the unpaved trails. The Emerald Ash Borer was introduced into the United States only eight years ago. This very invasive insect is a threat to native White Ash trees, famous because of the Louisville Slugger, considered the source of the best wood for baseball bats. The only control measure has been to cut down all infected trees. While pruning and thinning may be essential to maintain the health of these public wild lands, the removal of dead and dying snags has had an adverse effect. Sick and dead trees are cafeterias for woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and other birds that glean and dig for insects. Old hollow limbs and woodpecker holes are recycled as homes for other cavity-dwellers. Now, I fear that there will be a shortage of nest holes.

Birding our way back home from Palm County

Purple Gallinule 2-20100301The morning after our short trip up to Palm County and a delightful visit and dinner with old friends and classmates from New Jersey, we headed home by way of Wakodahatchee Wetlands. The day before, we had visited Loxahatchee NWR and Green Cay. We could easily have spent an entire day at each of these three birding hotspots, but we had other commitments and had only about an hour and a half to spare. Oddly, we had not seen a Purple Gallinule at either of the sites visited the day before, so it was first on our list of target birds. We were greeted with views of several as soon as we started out on the boardwalk. The Purple Gallinule showed off the long toes that allow it to "walk on water," as it steps on floating vegetation.

Birding Western Palm County

Pine Warbler 4-20100228The western part of Palm County has some great birding spots. All are accessible within an hour's drive of our home in western Broward County. This past weekend, two of my grammar school classmates, Ron and Jack, and their spouses were visiting Florida, and Mary Lou and I had the opportunity to get together with them for a leisurly dinner at Outback Steak House in West Palm Beach. It's hard to believe that seventy years ago, Ron and I were in kindergarten together, and Jack joined us in first grade. We were together all the way through graduation from St Mary High School in Rutherford, New Jersey. We had a grand time swapping stories. We stayed overnight in a Lake Worth motel, and used their visit as an excuse to bird all day on the way up, and all morning on the way back home. Our first objective was Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. This is where both Mary Lou and I saw our lifer Snail Kite and Limpkin on our first visit, in 2002.

Swallow-tailed Kite over Bald Eagle Nest

Swallow-tailed KiteMary Lou and I observed our local Bald Eagle nest from about 8:00 to 8:45 AM this morning. The female was feeding the eaglets when we arrived. She flew off the nest after about 10 minutes and roosted in the melaleucas for the rest of the time we observed them.The chicks were up and alert for a minute or so, then rested down low in the nest. It’s getting hard to tell the two largest apart– I thought they were arranged (left to right) from oldest to youngest, but now I’m not sure. The middle appears taller, but the left one seems to have less down on its head. If the second is a female, she will be larger than an older male before fledging. I will use this photo on the “Name the Baby Eagles” poll page unless someone comes up with a better one and will give me permission to post it there.Only about 5 minutes later, the male adult (his distinguishing brown feather tail tip was better seen on another photo) flew to the nest. Upon arriving, he either dropped the prey as he began to land, or saw that there was no food in the nest, as he never entered the nest and quickly dropped down and away. He returned only about 5 minutes later with prey.

STA-5: The Mother of all Treatment Ponds

Black SkimmerBirds and birders flock to water treatment plants. My first experience with one was the sewage pond at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. It was a green oasis in the otherwise arid desert, chock full of shorebirds. It smelled to high heaven! This one has a modest name, Stormwater Treatment Area Number 5, STA-5 for short, managed by the South Florida Water Management District, and located south of Lake Okeechobee in no-man’s-land of Hendry County. In the middle of the sugar cane fields, STA-5 consists of four large shallow ponds that occupy an area of eight square miles. Audubon of Southwest Florida calls it one of the best birding spots in all of Florida. 
Similar to domestic sewage settling ponds, STA-5 receives waste water and allows impurities to precipitate out and serve as food for millions and billions of trillions of microorganisms, algae and water plants. But unlike urban sewer plants, the source of the water is runoff from Florida’s generous summer rains, and the waste is agricultural effluent from the many farms upstream. Fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides dissolved in the runoff are captured and stored before purified water is released into the Everglades. Phosphorus is the main culprit. The Everglades are historically poor in nutrients, and phosphorus stimulates the growth of cattails that overrun the sawgrass that normally carpets the River of Grass.

A Bobcat in my Birding Patch

BobcatWhen walking in wild places, it is best to expect the unexpected. More often than not, whether searching for a goshawk in the mountains of New Mexico, the Red-headed Woodpecker in my favorite birding patch in Illinois, or a Cottonmouth in the wetlands next to my Florida home, my quest eludes me. Therefore, I keep an open mind and just wait for each new day’s surprise. By South Florida standards, yesterday morning was another in a string of unusually cold days. The temperature was in the low forties, and a brisk breeze blew in from the north. Insects were inactive in the cold. Tree leaves and grasses were swaying, making it difficult to detect subtle movements that might betray small creatures hiding in the foliage. Not a good day for finding birds and butterflies. 
My first stop, as usual, was a patch of mostly exotic shrubbery at the edge of our subdivision, happily left undisturbed by the landscaping contractors. It was decidedly “un-birdy.” Even the usually reliable mockingbirds and gnatcatchers seemed to have shunned it. Then I saw a flash of bright red in a weedy patch just to my left. Too small for a cardinal. It had to be a male Painted Bunting, the only other bird I could expect to see sporting that color. So far, I had never seen a male bunting here, and that would be a nice find. This turned out to be the first of two surprises.

Eagle Nest-building Incident

Bald Eagle roostingObservers of our local Bald Eagle nest have noted some interesting behaviors. These are personal discoveries. They gain insights into the lives of these magnificent birds, and it matters not that their findings are not new to science. We learned that, unlike many other birds, the eaglets do not abandon the nest after learning to fly. After their first flight, the adults coaxed the fledglings back to the nest with food. The youngsters returned to be fed at the nest daily for two full months. Sometimes one or both would follow the parent as it carried prey back to the nest.They witnessed interspecific competition, as, for example, when an Osprey, probably distressed after an eagle had stolen its fish, chased the larger raptor back to its nest. The eagle did not endanger its chicks by allowing its pursuer to make a close approach. Instead, the eagle flew off until it eluded the Osprey, then returned to feed the fish to the eaglets. They saw how smaller birds will harass the eagles that roost in their territory by “mobbing” them until they depart. For a video and my photos of grackles ganging up on an immature eagle, 

Hatching On Time

Female Bringing Nest Materials 20100124Based upon the eagles' change in behavior, I concluded that the first egg hatched (or began to hatch) around noon on Friday, January 22. These changes, first documented by a veteran observer, were: 1) Incubating adult began resting higher in the nest; 2) Increased movement and changes of position in the incubating adult; 3) Frequent looking down into the nest. Earlier that day, we had found the incubating adult continuously very low in the nest as it usually appeared since incubation began on December 18, 2009. This was the 35th day of incubation, which is also the average length of time it takes a Bald Eagle egg to hatch. The next day, January 23, observers reported more movement, almost restlessness on the part of the incubating/brooding adult, which sat higher (more of its body visible above the nest rim) and kept looking into the nest. Later that day, another experienced observer saw both adults together, looking down into the nest, something we saw last year just after the chick hatched. There is probably a second, and possibly a third egg in the nest, yet to hatch. Since eagles begin incubating as soon as the first egg is laid, and the eggs are deposited about 3 days apart, they hatch out in the order they were laid. This gives the first chick a size and strength advantage over the others. If food its scarce, it will out-compete its nest-mates for nourishment, and they will die of starvation, be evicted or even eaten by the oldest eaglet. 

Frozen Fish and Scavenging Serpents

Wood Stork 2-20100113...The recent Florida cold spell also took a heavy toll on tropical fish. Commercial fish hatcheries that catered to the pet trade suffered huge losses. Introduced species, particularly tilapia and other cichlids floated to the top of canals and lakes. The ditch along the trail in our local birding patch was littered with the corpses of such species. I realized that this was likely the reason why there were so many herons, storks and ibises along the ditch last week, when I walked the "patch"... Turning to another unpleasant subject, I again saw several Cottonmouth Moccasins. One, swimming in the ditch, particularly intrigued me. As I watched, the snake encountered a dead fish. It appeared to "smell" it by resting its chin on it and thrusting out its tongue. Then, to my amazement, the moccasin took the fish into its jaws, shook it, then disappeared briefly under the water. When it surfaced, the snake's mouth was empty. In fact, it opened up its mouth for a moment. Then, the snake moved away, now apparently ignoring the dead fish. Truly, I thought I had witnessed something new to science! Cottonmouths, with their long fangs and poison glands are so well adapted for killing and eating live prey. Why would one display such an interest in the partially decomposed carcass of a fish? as I subsequently learned, the Cottonmouth's scavenging habits are well known to science. Indeed, some populations of this species subsist almost entirely upon fish that are dropped by colonial nesting birds such as herons.

Bobcats and a Moccasin

Cottonmouth MoccasinTwice before on my morning walks I had walked near a certain maple tree and been surprised to see a dark-backed hawk emerge from deep within its leaves. The first time, it flew off so quickly that it was impossible for me to see any details of its plumage or shape, except that it was fairly large and looked almost black. Though it appeared to be a raptor with long rounded wings, it left me a bit puzzled as to its identity, and I did not think about it much after that. Then, last week, I was startled when I flushed a similar raptor out of the same tree. As before, it was a dark bird, quite large, and it was dark above and uniformly light underneath. This time I got a better view, and saw that its head was black, in a pattern almost like the "helmet" of some Peregrine Falcons. However, there was no barring on its breast and its wings were not pointed like a falcon's. About a half hour later I saw my first light morph Short-tailed Hawk making lazy circles above the wetlands.

Only after I got home did I connect the two sightings. It is a bit unusual to find a large raptor hiding in the foliage. Accipiters such as the Sharp-shinned Hawks, and sometimes Cooper's Hawks will hunt that way, hiding in seclusion and darting out to capture a smaller bird. Most Buteos (the group name for many larger hawks such as the Red-tail) seem to prefer perching on an exposed branch that provides a good view of the surrounding area, the better to find rabbits and rodents. However, the Short-tailed Hawk is rarely seen roosting out in the open. It characteristically deep within the brances of a tree, waiting for the ground to warm up and produce thermal currents to loft it effortlessly and allow it to float up very high as it looks for its prey, which consists almost exclusively of other birds.

The roost of the Short-tailed Hawk is notoriously hard to find. Continuing along the trail that borders the west side of the 198th Avenue Canal, I reached the intersection of the path that leads westward, into the heart of the wetlands.During summer it is flooded, but the water receded about a month ago and it was now mostly dry. With my binoculars, I checked out the trail, as it sometimes is occupied by deer and once, a Bobcat. This time, I could make out the figures of one or two Black Vultures on the ground, about a half mile away. Then I thought I saw a four-legged creature just behind the vultures. Keeping to the side of the trail to break up my silhouette, I moved closer very carefully.


Great Egret 20091227Yesterday provided a break from a long and record-breaking cold spell in South Florida, with predictions that it will extend well into next week. Our family and friends up north and in the mountains of New Mexico and Arizona may chuckle when we complain about overnight lows in the high 30s and daytime highs that struggle to get out of the 50s. For the first time, after living here for over five years, we finally had to turn on the central heat. The wind chill is expected to dip to the mid 20s tonight. I took advantage of the warmth to get out into our local birding patch. The water conservation impoundment that I call the "West Miramar Environmentally Sensitive Area or Land (ESA or ESL)" is more accurately described as the southeastern corner of the Broward County Water Preserve Area, established under the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program (CERP), as identified in the federal Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2000.

A Postscript from Father Dan

Father Dan on Bicycle in Korea ca 1955My father's brother died four weeks ago. Yesterday we received a letter from him. "Now that Father Dan is gone," our eldest daughter had lamented. "there's no one left who will write letters to me." They were frequent correspondents. What they wrote to each other I don't know, but Karen felt a special bond with her great-uncle. At his funeral, others of her generation (he had 69 grand-nieces and nephews) echoed her sentiment-- each felt that he or she was his favorite person in the world. I felt that way too, when, as a teenager, we exchanged trans-oceanic air mail letters. At the very least, each of his friends and relatives received an annual Christmas message. In the old days it was typed out laboriously-- at first, mimoegraphed, later photocopied, complete with strike-throughs and typos. Usually his letter included a personal handwritten addendum. Several years ago, Dan entered the computer world, and this increased his output.

Ivory Gull at Cape May

Ivory Gull 3-20091208Late in November the New Jersey Rare Bird Alert reported the sudden appearance of an Ivory Gull in the harbor at Cape May, New Jersey, Only the size of a pigeon and and snow white, this little-known species rarely ventures from the Arctic ice pack, even in winter. I had no idea that I might have a chance to see it. This was only the fifth Ivory Gull ever recorded in New Jersey, the last having been seen in 1986. The Ivory Gull sighting was far from my mind when we received the sad news of the death, in upstate New York, of my late Dad's younger brother, Father Dan Schneider (See: Saying Goodbye . We viewed the weather reports with apprehension, as a strong winter storm was just moving up the northeast coast. My brother, who lives on Great Bay near Atlantic City, New Jersey, talked us into flying into the Atlantic City Airport to stay with him and his wife.

Saying Goodbye

Ivory Gull departs 20091208We lost a dear friend and uncle this week. My late Dad's younger brother, Father Dan Schneider, passed away peacefully at Maryknoll, New York, where he was ordained a Catholic priest over 62 years ago. He would have been 92 later this month. As I child, I remember visiting him at the seminary, feeding the pigs, and, in a hedgerow next to the lawn, finding a Chipping Sparrow nest that was constructed entirely of horsehair. Dan was the first graduate of our High School to become a priest, and I swelled with pride at his first Mass in our little stone church in Rutherford, New Jersey. He spent years as a missionary in Korea, and I wrote letters to him, addressing him as something like "Tan-Ya Sawn Sin-Poo."

Long-legged Waders

Iguana eating Cocoplum 20091120Our mid-November spell of record hot and humid weather was broken with passage of a cold front. This beautiful sunrise presaged a violent thunderstorm that dumped lots of rain, followed by cooler nights and almost cool to cold (by Florida standards) nights that dipped into the low 50s. The next day, three Wood Storks appeared on our back lawn, the first we have seen in several months. Two were quite young, judging by their still-feathered heads and dusky plumage. This morning, I might have mistaken another white heron for an egret, but noted its bill had a dark tip, typical of an immature Little Blue Heron. As the heron took off, I was too late to get a nice flight shot, but did show that its legs were dark greenish, unlike a Cattle Egret, and it did not have the "golden slippers' of a Snowy Egret. A visit to John U Lloyd Park just happened to coincide with the arrival, in Port Everglades, of the world's largest cruise ship. "The Oasis of the Seas," set to make its maiden voyage on November 28th. At the park, our little granddaughters, visiting from the north, were delighted to find this little Green Iguana, imbibing a Cocoplum fruit.

The Rosy-Finches Have Arrrived at Sandia Crest!

Black Rosy-Finch (Leucosticte atrata)On October 27, 2009, only 10 minutes after a feeder was put in place on the Sandia Crest House deck, four rosy-finches appeared. This was the earliest arrival since we began keeping records in 1999. Keep an eye on the weather and road conditions before setting out on the 13 mile climb to the top. Check out the many links in for more information. Within the next week or two, we may expect to see increasing numbers of all three rosy-finch species concentrating at the deck feeder. Keep tuned for schedules of banding sessions, usually conducted on Sunday mornings. Don't miss seeing this stunningly beautiful local PBS documentary about the Sandias that includes a segment on the rosy-finches. The four chapters of this film delve into the cultural, geologic and natural history of the mountain. Chapter One describes the ecology of the Sandias, and features the rosy-finch banding project near the end. There are great views of the birds taken at the Crest House, at the feeders and in the hand, not to mention wonderful photography that makes me really miss my former mountain home!

Florida and New Jersey Backyard birding

Osprey Diving 20091028I've been trying unsuccessfully to get a photo of an Osprey diving for a fish. This afternoon, Mary Lou called me to say that a Tricolored Heron was peeking through the back patio blinds. It was probably hunting anoles. I tried to photograph it, but the lens auto-focused on the blinds and I just got fuzzy images of the bird's feet and neck. It flew off to our lawn, on the shore of the lake. While I was taking its picture I saw an Osprey overhead. I watched it fly to the opposite side of our lake, then hover and dive. With the camera on 3 exposures per second servo mode, I could not keep it in view. The photos were of substandard quality, but I was pleased to capture the action. I missed the splashdown. In the meantime, A cormorant ambled from our property in to the water, and a Great Blue Heron looked on from a neighbor's back yard. With the temperature above 90 degrees and the humidity very high, Both were cooling themselves by gular flutter.

Walking along canals and ditches

Cottonmouth20091025When you live in South Florida you are never very far away from a canal. Canals, and their smaller cousins, ditches, were the beginning of the destruction of the Everglades. Canals and ditches lowered the water table, shortening the hydroperiod and the amount of food for creatures that need more water for survival. Levees are a by-product of canals and ditches, as they provide a convenient source of fill for roads that provided access for agriculture, mining, and development. In New Mexico, roads had "borrow ditches" (usually pronounced "bar ditches") along either side to provide runoff for snow melt or monsoon rains. Most highways and through streets in South Florida have a canal that follows them along on one side or the other. Roads further impede the sheet flow that is so essential to the River of Grass. From the air, it is easy to see how roads that transverse the Everglades act as dams. Water levels are generally higher upstream to the north, and the difference in vegetation on opposite sides of many roads bears this out. The dry side of the road often has dense stands of shrubs and hardwoods, while cattails and sawgrass flourish on the other side. Canals are fed, not only by diversion of sheet flow, but by rainwater runoff. Innumerable artificial lakes serve as reservoirs for stormwater. Most of the lakes in developed areas are former quarries that provided rock fill for residential lots and paved streets. My back yard is bordered by such a lake. There is an upside to living near a canal. Our local canal is only three blocks from our home, at the border between developed land and protected uninhabited former Everglades that is recovering from the effects of drainage, grazing, and invasion by exotic vegetation. Our back yard lake communicates with the canal by way of culverts and storm drains. A short walk brings us to the levee that runs along its western edge...

A visit to my native New Jersey

Tuckerton Sunset 20091013Awaiting the arrival of the second of a pair of "nor'easters," I write from the comfort of my brother's home on a creek on Great Bay, which borders Edwin Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. The wind whistles against the window screens. Yesterday, the storm created a tidal surge that brought the water level within inches of the top of the bulkhead. Some neighboring properties were flooded for a couple of hours. Continued strong easterly winds foreboded a repeat performance today, when the tide peaked in mid-morning, this time breaching the bulkhead and submerging his boat dock for the first time in memory. Rain and gusty winds have curtailed our excursions afield for the past two days, and we do not expect the weather to clear until our return flight to Florida on Monday. A week ago, we arrived in New Jersey from Illinois with our daughter and her two children, to celebrate the weddding of my younger sister's son. We spent a delightful three days, lodged in a fourth floor oceanfront condo. The kids had their fill of wallowing in the surf and playing in the sand. Our schedule permitted two brief forays into Cape May Point State Park during the peak hawk-watching season...

Who “owns” the eagles?

Eagle Pair at Nest 20081211When a pair of Bald Eagles decided to set up housekeeping in a tall Australian Pine just off busy Pines Boulevard in Pembroke Pines, Florida, they initiated an interesting chain of events. They were first "discovered" in March of 2008 by Kelly Smith, a local Middle School science teacher, who saw adults and a nearly full grown eaglet in the nest. For a year or two before that, several local residents (and even a bus driver who regularly ran the Pines Boulevard route) had seen eagles roosting and carrying nest materials and prey in that general location. All known Bald Eagle nests in Florida are registered by the Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission and their locations are pinpointed on the FWC Web site, but the majority of South Florida residents are unaware that, among the lower 48 states, Florida is second only to Minnesota in the number of active eagle nests. A few birders and local residents kept an eye on the nest site, which was in full view only about 200 feet from the roadway. In November of 2008, the pair of eagles started bringing sticks to the nest site. The female settled down to incubate their eggs in mid-December. Ms. Smith's science students engaged in a study of whether changes in traffic density on Pines Boulevard had any adverse effect upon the eagles' behavior. The presence of even one or two eagle watchers attracted curious onlookers, some of whom became ardent observers as the pair exchanged duties sitting on the eggs...

As the leaves fall, bird brains regenerate

Goldenrod 20090923As outdoor lovers, one of the advantages that we enjoy, by splitting our time between South Florida and northern Illinois, is our exposure to a a greater variety of habitats. In Florida, the autumnal equinox goes virtually unnoticed, while here in Illinois we have seen a radical change during the past couple of weeks. The soft greens of the prairie have turned to golden brown, peppered by red leaves of sumac and a final flush of yellow, white and blue wildflowers. In the woods, falling leaves are a source of distraction as they compete with flitting birds. On the first day of fall, we walked the eastern portion of Nelson Lake/Dick Young Forest Preserve (See:, listening for bird songs. A lone Song Sparrow sang briefly and infrequently. A chickadee whistled a thin "see--bee" love song as if it were spring again. Indeed, the shortening of the days may stimulate biologic changes that cause birds to sing snippets of their spring songs. Fernando Nottebohm studied canary song, and in 1981, discovered that amazingly, the brains of the canaries actually grew new nerve cells after the old ones died during the summer.

BirdChaser’s RDA is not enough– you need the BNP

Wood Stork 2-20090831I heartily endorse BirdChaser's advice that a healthy birder is one who attains the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of 20 bird species. However,do not follow BirdChaser's rule blindly, as you may risk missing your overall goal of balanced nutrition. Just as all our daily calories should not come from M&Ms, it is healthier to adhere to the Birder's Nutritional Pyramid (BNP). Just remember that 2 + 4 + 6 + 8 = 20, and proceed backwards up to the top of the pyramid. Start by making a list of all the birds that you are likely to see at least once in any ordinary week during the current season. These will be the raw materials, the NUTRIENT LIST for your personal BNP. Then, select eight "meat and potatoes" birds, to make up the base of the pyramid. No substitutions are permitted! 

Nelson Lake in Midsummer

Cedar Waxwing 20090806Happily, an expansive area of protected prairie is only a couple of miles from our summer home in northern Illinois. Kane County's Nelson Lake/Dick Young Marsh and Forest Preserve deserves to be renamed. Both the wooded areas and the lake with its surrounding wetlands harbor a great diversity of bird species at all seasons, but thanks to recent acquisions, grasslands now predominate. Local resident Christopher Cudworth's recent blog provides a bit of the history and feel of this marvelous place. It's no surprise that Nelson Lake is at the top of our list of accessible birding "patches"

Eagles and Power Lines

Eagles and Power lines

An essential ingredient of Bald Eagles breeding habitat is the presence of suitable roost trees within sight of the nest. Our local pair of eagles is no exception, and they favor three or four tall Australian Pines along Pines Boulevard, as well as the trunks of melaleuca trees in the SW Florida Water Management District land just to the west of the proposed City of Pembroke Pines Bald Eagle sanctuary. These exotic trees were all killed by herbicides a few years ago. The are badly decayed and many fall down with each windstorm. As these roosting sites disappear, we can expect the eagles to seek out other prominent perches, such as power poles. Electrocution and collision with power lines are major causes of urban Bald Eagle mortality. On June 11, Bald Eagle Sanctuary Steering Committee members Barry Heimlich of South Florida Audubon, and veteran eagle watcher Trisha Norton met at the site of the Pembroke Pines nest with Doug Macke, Florida Power & Light Company Broward Area Power Systems Environmental Coordinator, to discuss this hazard. They were pleased to learn that Doug had been observing the eagles since last year, when the nest was first "discovered," and the company had already taken some action.

Florida Osprey Mortality

Osprey 20090330In recent weeks, at least eight Ospreys have died along a relatively small stretch of the Florida Gulf coast in Pinellas County near Clearwater. Food for the young appeared to be adequate this spring. According to Barbara Walker, OspreyWatch Program Coordinator from Palm Harbor, these birds have generally done very well. In her estimation, fledglings have been produced in 90% of approximately 30 Osprey nests she has been observing, all in heavily populated areas. Osprey watchers have counted 140 nests in the northern part of the county, of which 90% were on man-made structures such as power poles, cell towers and nest platforms. Barbara writes: "As far as we know they were all severely emaciated...

Friendly Fire and the Prairie Pygmy: Henslow’s Sparrow

Henslows Sparrow 6-20090618We listened for the elusive Henslow's Sparrows, but if any were singing, they could not be heard above the whistling wind. To human ears, the "song" of a Henslow's hardly deserves to be called that, as it consists only of a single "chir-lip," delivered monotonously at intervals of about 10 seconds. The bird seems to put its whole heart and soul into each brief rendition, thrusting up its bill and often closing its eyes as if enjoying the sound of its own voice. The song resembles the call of a House Sparrow, somewhat shortened, rather loud but often muffled by the tall grasses swaying in the breezes. It has a ventroliqual quality, seeming to come from very nearby, but getting ever louder as one approaches the vicinity of the songster. At one point it was so hard to localize that it sounded as if the bird were sitting right on top of my hat! These tiny birds, only 4 1/2 inches long and weighing less than a half an ounce, once were very numerous on the central plains. As has been the case with other grassland birds, the population of Henslow's Sparrows declined sharply around the middle of the 20th Century. In Illinois, studies suggest that the population of Henslow's Sparrows declined as much as 94% between 1957 and 1979. Partners In Flight designated this species as its highest priority among all grassland birds for conservation in the midwestern United States. The greatest decreases in songbirds have occurred among grassland species, and the Henslow's Sparrow has been the hardest hit of all.

Can Eagles Open Eyes?

Eagle Pair at Nest 20081211What opens one's eyes to the wonders of nature? The great birder and author Roger Tory Peterson described his "epiphany," when, as a child, he picked up an apparently dead flicker and it sprung to life in his hands and flew off. There was something about seeing the beauty of the bird's intricate and colorful plumage so close at hand that ignited a passion that was to change the world, not only for Roger, but for so many who found, in his field guides, a portal that, once opened, would never close. We have seen such a transformation occur among many of the people who visited our neighborhood Bald Eagle nest in Pembroke Pines, Florida. With a little help from the volunteer nest-watchers, "lookers" often turned into "observers" right before our eyes. As observers, they instantly developed an insatiable thirst for knowledge and understanding, that may lead to greater appreciation and concern, and spill over into a new ethic of conservation.

Nelson Lake Bald Eagle Flashback

Bald Eagle 4-20090609I do miss visiting the local Bald Eagle nest in Pembroke Pines, Florida. Those frequent short trips to the eagles' territory usually yielded great views of the majestic raptors. Their first chick fledged 66 days ago, on May 4, and the second left the nest two days later. Although they soon flew freely and effortlessly and by now have surely developed their hunting instincts, they continued to return to the nest for occasional feedings from the parents-- that is, until May 22, after which Hope, the older eaglet, suddenly disappeared. At about the same time, the adult female disappeared, leading us to speculate that they may have migrated together. As of this writing, it appears that Justice, who was last observed being fed at the nest on May 30, was last seen on June 4, along with one remaining adult. 

Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head

Adult At Nest 20090525Our time back in Florida has sped by so quickly. Since we had a house guest,we went sightseeing at several of the popular tourist destinations. It rained regularly every afternoon, so there were morning jaunts to Butterfly World, Fort Lauderdale river front and harbor cruise, and other points along the Atlantic coast and out Alligator Alley. There was little time for birding, though we took the tram ride at Shark Valley in Everglades National Park, and got out very early to visit our local Bald Eagle nest a couple of times. The two chicks produced by the eagle pair have been flying freely for eight weeks. We were surprised to find that the parents continued to bring food to the nest right into this past week. The older chick, named Hope, was last seen on Saturday, May 30, the eighteenth week after she hatched. Her younger brother, Justice is still returning to the nest, and was possibly fed a small meal by a lingering adult only this morning. The feedings have been progressively smaller and infrequent.

Back in Florida!

Hope Flying 20090521We arrived in Florida late on Wednesday, and got out early the next morning to check our local Bald Eagle nest. The chicks (named Hope and Justice in a nationwide poll) are 18 weeks old this weekend. They fledged at 11 weeks of age, and usually spend the night in a roost together near the nest tree. They still return to the nest for occasional feedings. The portions brought in by the parents seem to be smaller and are offered less frequently. Although none of the observers has seen either of the eaglets with prey, we must assume that they are learning to hunt for themselves. When we got to the nest at about 8:30 AM, no eagles were in sight, but within a few minutes both of the youngsters flew in and roosted in trees right along the road. Justice, the younger sibling, followed his older sister to the tree...

My birding companion has a new little sister

Agramonte 20090513Our daughter's family dog is a golden Tibetan Mastiff named Agramonte. He is now 17 months old and is a wonderful companion for their two small children. An ancient breed, Tibetan Mastiffs retain some features of ancestral wild canids. They mature slowly, taking about 4-5 years to attain full size. They also go into oestrus only once a year, and have a rich undercoat that is shed all at once in the spring. This means that they do not release dander into the air for about 11 months of the year, so they are considered to be "hypoallergenic." This was an important consideration, as one of the children suffered severe allergies from their previous pet, a Dobie-Lab mix named Maceo. The sad story of Maceo's last days is detailed here: Losing a Best Friend

Looking for bluebirds in Jones Meadow Park

American Robin 20090510So far this spring, we have failed to see a bluebird. From the reports of local birders, we know they are around, but family obligations have kept us from going very far afield. Still, they were present last year at a nest tree in Jones Meadow Park near our home, and we have tried to squeeze in even a half hour of birding, there or at another Batavia (Illinois) park, Hawk's Bluff Park, most mornings during the past couple of weeks. While searching for the returning bluebirds, we saw another member of the thrush family that has shown up in good numbers this spring. This dull-backed species lacks the reddish tail of the Hermit Thrush, sports buffy cheeks and a prominent eye ring. A Swainson's Thrush posed on the turf, and then took up a perch to peer back at us.

Spring birding: Something new every day

Baltimore Oriole 20090508We set out this morning to Lippold Park in Kane County, Illinois, hoping to see our first Scarlet Tanager of the year. For the past week we searched for them in vain. Today we were not disappointed, for within 15 minutes we heard its husky "robin with a sore throat" song. As it was early and overcast, and the bird kept to the treetops, nearly all my photos were badly backlit and showed little color or detail. We logged 37 bird species, several heard but not seen, and obtained few good photos because of the light conditions and the fact that many were small guys flitting in the treetops. A pair of resident Eastern Towhees were courting and calling loudly. They let us get quite close. Later in the afternoon, I walked our daughter's family Tibetan Mastiff, Agramonte, and birded Hawk's Bluff Park in Batavia. Located along the western bank of Mill Creek, this new small park is host to varied habitats including a tall oak woodland, grasslands, stream and marsh. This afternoon's dog walk yielded 43 bird species. The light had improved, so I did get a few nice photos.

Bay-breasted Warbler at Lippold Park

Bay-breastedWarbler 20090502Yesterday morning we had a break from the rain and headed for one of our favorite spring birding spots. Lippold Park hugs the east bank of the Fox River between Batavia and Aurora. Thanks to recent rains, the river ran fast and was barely contained within its banks. The sky was blue and the wind had not yet picked up. The ground was still quite wet. Many trees were in blossom, and bird songs were almost deafening. Such is spring in the north, in strong contrast to its rainless and prolonged arrival in Florida. It is the spring of my childhood in New Jersey, when warblers of several species often decorated the bare tree branches. As usual, I birded mostly by ear, and Mary Lou made most of the sightings. Between the notes of the robins, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Song Sparrows, and House Wrens, I was momentarily stumped by a familiar melody of quiet chortled whistles followed by a very loud "WICHEY-WICHEY-WICHEY." I last heard this song over five years ago in the mountains of New Mexico, when I would have immediately recognized it as that of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, but now I spent a quarter of an hour tracking down its source. It is amazing how some of the smallest birds, such as wrens and kinglets can make such loud noises.

Finding Spring in Illinois

White Trout Lilly 20090427After participating with a hard-core bunch who have monitored the local Bald Eagle nest since two eggs were laid in mid-December, we must now be content in our new role as virtual eagle-watchers. Here is Mike Fossler's slide show depicting recent events in the lives of the two Pembroke Pines eaglets, Hope and Justice, now 14 weeks old and flying freely for three weeks. They still return to the nest to rest and sometimes are fed by their parents, but they are surely learing how to find food on their own. It had snowed in Chicagoland the day before we arrived. To our delight, temperatures had warmed to the high 70s by noon, and the sun was shining bright. We took our three year old granddaughter to nearby Jones Meadow Park. While Mary Lou supervised her at the swings and slides near the park entrance, I walked the 3/4 mile asphalt path that skirts a lake, woods and wetlands to the north, and the back yards of homes to the south. The brown grasses and sedges have been flattened by the weight of the past winter's generous snowfall. Low spots in the meadows and woods are flooded in spots aptly called "fluddles" by local birders. Various frogs and toads chirp and croak. The trees are mostly bare, though willows at the edge of the path are greening up.

Mob Attacks Eagles!

Grackle Attacks Hope20090417Why do small birds sometimes seem to put themselves at risk by harrassing and even attacking much larger raptors? I have seen fragile little chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches join larger robins and jays to surround and scold a hapless Long-eared Owl or Red-tailed Hawk. Sometimes, mammals such as chipmunks and squirrels join the birds, calling excitedly and flicking their tails nervously. Red-winged Blackbirds are known perch on the backs of larger hawks to pluck a few feathers as they drive them away from their nesting grounds. In my New Mexico back yard, I once watched several Mountain Chickadees and Bushtits join a group of jays and Clark's Nutcrackers to take on a Merlin that was perched out in the open. The small falcon could have easily made a meal of even the larger birds, yet it merely held fast to its perch and appeared to be screaming back at the annoying assembly. Many of us have seen mockinbirds attack alley cats, actually striking them on their backs. (In Dallas, I saw a cat actually catch and kill a mockingbird doing just this). In Alaska, I was mobbed by Arctic Terns when I approached too close to their nesting colony.

Exceeding my Bird RDA with a baby Killdeer

Red-winged Blackbird 20090416We have been spending so much time with our Bald Eagle family that I have suffered from a deficiency of my RDA, BirdChaser’s “Recommended Daily Allowance” of 20 bird species. Yesterday morning, the temperature was a crisp 68 degrees as we started our morning walk into the West Miramar Environmentally Sensiteve Land (ESL), our local birding "patch.". As before, we kept up a brisk pace on the way out. Near our 1 1/2 mile turnaround point on the gravel road, I began falling back to take more pictures. I understood when Mary Lou wanted to keep up the pace, and watched her disappear in the distance. Photographers can really be a bore as they retract into their own little world of composition and exposure. An excited Killdeer flew across my path. Fluttering on the ground and looking for all the world as if it were mortally wounded, it was telling me that I had approached too near its nest. I applied "reverse Kildeer logic" to quickly find the nest. If the Kildeer ran right, I went to my left. If it ran away, I turned around. As I got nearer the nest, the distraction display was more fervent, and its rufous red tail and rump became all the more visible.

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