Summer 2017 Outtakes

I haven’t done an “outtakes” post in a while. Here are some photos from a few of my adventures this summer that I didn’t put in a blog post.

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Red-shouldered Hawk, Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

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Pumphouse at Lake Apopka

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Willet, Fort De Soto Park

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Cape Florida Light

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Swallow-tailed Kites, Everglades National Park

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Fledgling Northern Cardinal, Everglades National Park

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Great Blue Heron, Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands

Sometimes It Works Out

One of the frustrations when birding while working a full-time job is the timing of rare or unusual birds. I don’t normally flake-out on important appointments or max out credit cards to chase down birds around the state or country, but I will make a long day trip on occasion, providing it doesn’t unduly risk my employment. Getting the Bahama Woodstar and to some degree, stumbling upon the Kirtland’s Warbler on workdays this spring worked out because of their relative nearness to the office. But when rare birds are found a little more afield, it can get frustrating to not be able to “chase” them until the next day off.

Luckily it worked out today that when a rare bird (the presumed 2nd county record) was seen a little farther away from work, my afternoon had stalled out (both my boss and project lead were out). Jim Eager sent out a text that a Bahama Mockingbird was seen at Playalinda Beach, and Camille and I were in the unusual position to be able to chase it down on a workday afternoon!

The first bird we saw (apart from the ubiquitous Boat-tailed Grackles) was a mockingbird, but it seemed oddly plumaged. While not showing all the field marks of a Northern Mockingbird, it retained enough of that “look” to make us uncertain of the Bahama Mockingbird identification.

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This bird was seriously heat-stressed. I noted how much browner the wings of this bird looked compared to other immature Northern Mockingbirds I’ve seen. Read on to find out what this might mean.

We weren’t sure about what a juvenile Bahama Mockingbird should look like, but we tentatively considered our find a “success”. But then, another birder played a recording, to get familiar with what we might hear should the bird sing, another mockingbird flew into a nearby shrub, and this one was clearly not a Northern Mockingbird and even sang back to us, confirming the ID as a Bahama Mockingbird!

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While this bird did in fact sing for us, that’s not what you’re seeing here. This bird is panting hard to stay cool. The heat-index was miserably high.

As the bird moved about, we could see some feather separation on the breast. This is often an indication of a brood pouch when a parent bird is on the nest with eggs or young.

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In addition to the possible brood pouch, the side streaking and (barely visible) malar stripe (moustache) that mark this bird as a Bahama Mockingbird can be seen.

Meanwhile, the first bird we had seen was intermittently flying in and out of an area in the scrub that was visible to us. As we (and some other birders) advanced in toward the brush, the second bird flew down in front of us and then fluttered out its wings and slowly tilted down onto its side, as if it had fainted or was injured. It actually first tilted one way and then the other, in quite a melodramatic performance.

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An adult Bahama Mockingbird doing its best to act injured to lure predators away.

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After several seconds of this display, seeing as we continued to look in on the other bird, this one hopped up and promptly began eating bugs in the sand.

Birds will do this to lure predators away from a nest, eggs, or young. If you take into consideration the brood pouch, the injury display, and the slightly-odd looking fledgling/immature bird, it seems probable that this Bahama Mockingbird has mated with a Northern Mockingbird and produced at least one hybrid offspring. This is not unheard of, as a general rule, but it may be the first recorded instance of this happening in Brevard County. Ultimately, that may be up to the Fish and Wildlife biologist and the Florida Ornithological Society Records Committee.

 

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Another view of the immature mockingbird. The broad white wing-patch all but rules out a pure Bahama Mockingbird, but the other circumstantial evidence and plumage aberrations make for a compelling case for hybridization. 

Whatever the final determination is, it was nice to be able to have an opportunity to “get” this life bird and document possible breeding activity of this species.

[Edited to add: not all people who saw the immature bird or its photographs feel it is a hybrid, but just a normal Northern Mockingbird. I leave it up to the readers to investigate and decide, if they want.]

 

Whooping it Up at Lake Eola

June 26, 2017

This past weekend, I paired up with my erstwhile protégé Camille to pick up some easy “gets” for our birding lists: swans. These birds are mostly introduced or from feral stock but various organizations, like the ABA and local organizations (and eBird) have been allowing some of these birds to be “officially” counted as they become established breeders or long term residents well outside their native ranges. Introduced animals are always a potential problem, but that’s hardly the birds’ faults.

Like the swans of Lake Morton in Lakeland, the swans in Orlando’s Lake Eola [map] are a source of pride and attraction to the downtown area. The lake and its park are central both geographically and culturally for many of Orlando’s events.

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Lake Eola’s large fountain is especially pretty at night, but remains impressive even on an overcast morning.

By and large the lake is dominated by Mute Swans. These birds are breeding here, just as they are in Lakeland. Most Mute cygnets (the term for young swans) are brownish-gray, but some have a genetic expression that makes them more white right out of the egg.

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Mute cygnets of 2 different color morphs.

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With parents on guard nearby, these youngsters were able to stretch and relax.

Mute Swans are native to Europe but have been introduced extensively around the world. Despite their beauty and grace, they can be ruthless and domineering when threatened or challenged. Luckily for us, they were mostly content to lets us walk by while their children relaxed and preened.

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Mute Swans adults are distinguished by the large knob at the base of the bill.

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Grace and power.

Several pairs of Black Swans were there as well. Black Swans are native to Australia, but introduced widely in the USA and Europe (my lifer Black Swan is from London during my honeymoon).  Their bright red bills really stand out against the birds dark plumage.

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I can only imagine how novel and strange a black swan would have been to Europeans arriving in Australia.

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Close-up of a Black Swan’s head.

South America has the Black-necked Swan, of which one was visible on our visit. The contrasting body and neck as well as the red facial knobs (carunculations) are diagnostic for this species of swan.

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Black-necked Swans are comparatively small, for swans, but are South America’s largest waterfowl.

I’ve seen Trumpeter Swans in flight in New England as a child and young adult, but never up close or floating on the water. It was a treat to see one mingling with the other swans.

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Trumpeter Swans have an all black face a bill, contrasted with the Whooper Swans’ mostly yellow bill.

Whooper Swans are also present at Lake Eola, with several presumably mated pairs. They are native to Europe and Asia, and are closely related to Trumpeter Swans. The main visible difference between the two is their bill color. Whooper Swans are the Eurocentric “prototypical” swan as evidenced by their scientific name, Cygnus cygnus (the Latin word for swan).

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One of several pairs of Whooper Swans on the lake.

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Swans can use their long necks to reach for food deeper than what ducks and geese can reach.

There was a surprisingly wide range of bird species from the expected, like Mottled/Mallard crosses and Muscovy Ducks, to local natives like herons and egrets.

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This proud mama Muscovy Duck paraded right down the sidewalk, quacking loudly, head high and chest out as her babies followed. Everyone (people, dogs, birds, and squirrels) made a path for her.

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Fledgling Green Heron.

Here’s the full eBird list for those interested:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37788160

Lake Eola is a beautiful setting right in downtown Orlando, and though it can get crowded at times (especially if special events are taking place) I recommend a visit if you’re in the area.

 

Clandestine Birding!

June 19, 2017

I had the opportunity to bird some parts of south Florida on two different days this past week. Mrs. Lonely birder booked some travel to Cuba and since she didn’t want her family to worry (especially given the upcoming travel announcement from the executive office), asked me not to let anyone know she was out of the country until her return. I had some fun playing Cloak-and-dagger, hiding my eBird lists and not letting anyone else know where I was, either (I’m easily amused).

My first stop was the Yamato Scrub Natural Area on Tuesday morning to see the Least Grebe that had been reported this month. It took a lot of patience (thanks for that advice, Dave Goodwin), I had success! This species has only been recorded in Florida a few times.

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It took a while, but eventually this Least Grebe (and they are small) swam out of the reeds.

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The bird was out and visible for about 5 minutes before vanishing into the reeds again.

Here’s my full eBird list for the visit:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37564770
Another rare bird had been seen not too far away and I took the opportunity to locate it as well. Reports of a Tropical Mockingbird started coming into the Brdbrain e-mail list, and later confirmations started coming in via eBird a couple of weeks ago. This is a pretty big deal, as there have been no official state records of this bird until now.

The bird was associating with (and reportedly engaging in nest-building activities!) a Northern Mockingbird at some beach parking in Lake Worth. Sure enough, that’s what I found.

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This bird was grabbing either berries or insects from the trees and harassing Fish Crows.

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Tropical Mockingbirds lack wingbars and have white tail markings restricted to the lower part of the tail.

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Like all birds, this one is functionally illiterate, so knows it is always where it belongs.

The bird diversity was a lot lower here, and even the beach seemed devoid of much in the way of wildlife (there’s a large pier with a restaurant on it). The most numerous species were European Starlings and Rock Pigeons, but here’s the eBird list:

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37565792

When it came time to drive to Ft. Lauderdale to pick up my wife on Saturday, I stopped at Wakodahatchee Wetlands to find a rare but regular visitor there: a Neotropic Cormorant. I was ultimately unsuccessful in locating that bird, but it was fun to see all the chicks and fledglings on the various small island rookeries. There were many Wood Stork chicks, as well as various egrets and herons tending young of all ages.

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Many of the Wood Stork youngsters were about ready to fledge.

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I think these are Great Egret chicks, given their size and bill color.

There were cormorants around, including several on nests. One nest had at least one small chick, which would poke its head out every once in awhile as a parent protected it from both the sun and the rain (there was a large thunderstorm nearby that held off for the duration of my visit).

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Yes, that orange blob just below and left of center is a Double-crested Cormorant chick.

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I still get almost mesmerized by the turquoise eyes of cormorants.

I walked the boardwalk twice, hoping the Neotropic Cormorant would come in to roost or feed, but it was not to be. I did have a couple of nice encounters, though. First, an adult Purple Gallinule walked out from under the boardwalk where I was standing, letting me watch it forage for a couple of minutes.

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Purple Gallinules are less common than their “Common” cousins, and may be getting displaced by the Grey-headed (or Purple) Swamphen – a recently established feral/escapee species.

Then some quick movements caught my eye a bit further down the boardwalk, and I saw a small, black shape darting among the water plants. A single Purple Gallinule chick was running around. I don’t know if the adult I had just seen was a parent or not, but this is the first time I’ve seen a Purple Gallinule chick at this young of an age.

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Gallinule chicks are born precocious, meaning they are alert and mobile within hours of hatching.

As I was photographing the gallinule chick, I heard a Red-wing Blackbird call from nearby. I turned around to see this guy right behind me on the boardwalk railing. He was missing a leg. Sometimes birds (especially shorebirds) will tuck a leg up and keep it concealed, even when hopping about, but this bird was actually missing his leg (when he flew off I saw the remaining stub). But he seemed otherwise quite healthy and was unperturbed by my presence.

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This male Red-winged Blackbird was singing and displaying right next to me. He was missing a leg, evident as he flew away a short time later.

I circled around the rest of the boardwalk, and looked one more time for the Neotropic Cormorant, but to no success. The sky darkened some more and rather than risk getting caught in the open during a Florida thunderstorm, I headed for the exit.

Here’s the complete list for Wakodahatchee Wetlands:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37643939

Overall, it was a nice couple of days worth of birding in south Florida. It’s always fun documenting rare or new species for an area, as well as seeing familiar faces in different places. Once my wife was home safe and sound I unhid my eBird lists (a dubious endeavor, as it turns out), mission complete!

Am I Blue?

Last weekend I made the trek over to the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive [map]. I haven’t birded much outside Brevard County this spring. This was my first visit to the lake since last Fall. With temperatures rising into Summer, birdwatching outings like this are generally easier on the body, even in the car with the AC turned off.

The area between the entrance gate to the North Shore Restoration Area and the Wildlife Drive proper is referred to as the “Gate Area” and even has its own eBird hotspot. I usually forget this and all my eBird reports get lumped into the Wildlife Drive hotspot. I am probably not unique in this. In any case, in the Gate Area it is typical to find both Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks. Sure enough within 30 seconds of driving in, there they were.

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A male Indigo Bunting in partial sun, backlit. Notice how his blue plumage is dark and unsaturated.

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This is the same bird as above, but in full sun.

Seeing these birds early in the morning with passing low clouds made for interesting changes, as illustrated in the two photographs above. While most colors on a bird, like red, yellow or green (and even black or white) result from light reflecting off pigments in the feathers, birds that are blue look that way for a different reason. Instead of a “simple” reflection off pigments, blue colors come about because of a particular way that light reflects through a feather’s 3D structure. Red and green light interfere and cancel themselves out inside the feather, while blue light gets amplified before coming back out. The result is that brilliant blue you see. But that also means that when there’s less light, due to backlighting or clouds, the light coming into and out of the feathers lowers the color blue levels. This is even obvious in more “common” birds, like Blue Jays. On really overcast days I joke and call them “Grayish Jays”. OK, not the pinnacle of humor, but hey. Here’s a link to a Smithsonian Magazine article that explains it if you want to know more.

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This Blue Grosbeak isn’t quite in full breeding or adult plumage – he had quite a bit of brownish gray streaked throughout. That heavy bill (gros is French for big) and brown wingbars are diagnostic field marks for this bird.

The Wildlife Drive can also be counted on for swallows, especially Barn Swallows and Purple Martins. Often less common swallows, like Northern Rough-winged, Bank, or Cliff Swallows can be found. The martin babies are fledged but still depending on parents for much of their food.

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I have to chuckle at this photo. It looks like this Purple Martin couple had an argument and aren’t speaking. In fact, they had just been cozied up to each other but their fledgling brood swooped past, looking for a meal. They are about to divide and conquer. This won’t last long. Martin parents are pretty strict in getting their babies to fend for themselves.

Florida has continued in a mostly dry pattern but we’ve had some showers and storms lately. The wetland areas around the Lake weren’t dry; almost anywhere there was sufficient water there were Common Gallinules, many with chicks of various ages.

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This female gallinule had chicks nearby (I could hear them squeaking), but they stayed wisely hidden in the adjacent weeds.

Black-necked Stilts were present as well. Although I didn’t see any chicks, I did see a few of the birds engaging in faux injury displays and diversionary flights. This indicates to me that there were probably some chicks around but mostly out of sight.
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These birds, as well as the numerous Boat-tailed Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds were reason enough to smile and enjoy the morning. I even had a quick look at an Eastern Towhee.

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This towhee was singing his heart out. This specific location usually has a towhee in spring, but I can’t be sure it’s the same bird.

The weather was unseasonably hot and as the morning wore on the number of active birds diminished. I did see a pair of Orchard Orioles and caught brief glimpses of Least Bitterns and Fulvous Whistling-Ducks as I made my way along the eighteen-or-so kilometer (eleven-or-so mile) drive.

While it’s not unusual to see a Swallow-tailed Kite or two in the skies by the lake, Mississippi Kites are a bit less common. It was nice then to see one quickly glide across the skies as more buntings and grosbeaks sang along the road toward the exit.

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Seeing kites in flight is similar to watching ballet. There is beauty, grace, agility, strength, and speed. In a flash, this Mississippi Kite was gone from view.

As I neared the end, I saw some vehicles had quickly pulled off the side of the road to the west of the sod fields. One couple was walking rapidly to the side of the road with a scope – a sure sign of seeing something remarkable. Initially I thought about stopping and heading over to ask what they were tracking. Here’s the thing about birding in Florida: sometimes out-of-state birders will nearly run each other down to get a good view of a Limpkin or a pale-form Red-shouldered Hawk – birds that are rare and exciting for them but not quite so for the locals. For this reason, I did not immediately pull over myself to see what was causing the commotion. I carefully drove around the next corner which looked across to the area they – and by now others – were checking out. On some large brush piles I saw an afore-mentioned pale-form (or “Florida Form”) Red-shouldered Hawk hunting lizards on the ground. Satisfied that I had seen what the commotion was, I completed the drive before heading for home. I was especially happy with my blue feathered friends I saw that morning.

Here’s the complete eBird list for my day:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37209748

To my dismay, I found a way to be blue myself the next morning. It turns out that on those very same brush piles a Fork-tailed Flycatcher was seen. This is another rare bird for Florida; one that had been seen the previous week in Clewiston (near Lake Okeechobee) but I was unable to make that long drive at the time. To add insult to injury, it turns out I had likely driven by a White-faced Ibis earlier in the drive. White-faced Ibises are also rare in peninsular Florida, though a more common visitor than a Fork-tailed Flycatcher. I had seen a White-faced Ibis at Lake Apopka several years ago, but passing by two Florida rarities in one afternoon was a little disappointing.

Reports of both birds are still coming in, including this past weekend but I just didn’t have the motivation to make the two-hour drive out there again (plus the weather was much more uncooperative). We’ve had several days of much needed rain but this makes birding, even from one’s car, difficult.

The lessons I learned is this: trust your gut and if there’s any smidgen of doubt, pull over! Even it if had “only” been the Red-shouldered Hawk instead of the flycatcher, it would have been a nice view, a special moment with other birders, and a chance to welcome visitors to a favorite hot-spot. What else could matter as much as that?