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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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?

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