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The nomads return

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February 28, 2016

The idea of a nomadic lifestyle has great appeal to me, which is especially surprising considering what a homebody I am.  On the infrequent occasions I take trips requiring more than a day, they are fully planned and orchestrated with all the precision an anal-retentive like me can muster.   Still, the idea of packing a minimum of gear into a beat-up car and taking off on a whim across the country has long been a fantasy, albeit one I’m sure I’ll never attempt to fulfill.

Yellow-rumped warblers are able to winter further north than most warblers, in part due to their ability to feed on the fruits of waxmyrtle and digest the waxy coating as well as the pulp.

Yellow-rumped warblers are able to winter further north than most warblers, in part due to their ability to feed on the fruits of waxmyrtle and digest the waxy coating as well as the pulp.

Among North American birds, perhaps the ultimate nomadic species is the cedar waxwing.  So many aspects of the lifestyle and habits of these thoroughly charming birds are unique, and most are directly or indirectly related to the fact that it is one of the relatively few bird species on the continent that can truly be called a frugivore.  Sure, lots of wannabes will take fruit opportunistically at times, sometimes relying heavily on it for their caloric needs for short to moderate lengths of time.  The ability of tree swallows and yellow-rumped warblers to winter in great numbers farther north than other members of their clans, which mostly depend on insects for the greatest portion of their provender, has been attributed in part to their ability to subsist largely on the fruits of winter-fruiting shrubs such as bayberry.  Both species have the unusual ability to digest the waxy coating of bayberry and waxmyrtle fruits, allowing them to survive periods when insects are hard to find.

Cedar waxwings in the pine flatwoods of Heart Island, feeding on the fruits of Ilex glabra, or inkberry.

Cedar waxwings in the pine flatwoods of Heart Island, feeding on the fruits of Ilex glabra, or inkberry.

Cedar waxwings, and the other two species of waxwing (Bohemian and Japanese) which collectively make up the entire family Bombycillidae, are true frugivores, depending almost entirely on fruit for most of the year.  They do switch to a partial reliance on other foods in the spring and summer; in May, they rely heavily on flower buds, of all things, and later in the summer when they begin feeding nestlings they take a greater proportion of insects, necessary to provide the proteins lacking in most fruits.

The quest for fruits has led cedar waxwings to evolve a peripatetic lifestyle for all but those few months of the year when they must drop anchor to nest.   Consequently, for bird photographers, and birders in general, they are a challenge to find at will, and a delight to see and photograph when found.   As winter visitors to Florida, they are guaranteed to show up at some time or another between about October and May, but exactly when and where that will be is subject to a great deal of whimsy.   For a bird photographer to state with any sense of confidence that I’m going to photograph waxwings today is a proclamation as foolish as planning to win a Powerball drawing.  Unless he or she happens to be looking at them at that very moment.   Here today, gone an hour later.

Waxwings in northern Virginia, on their breeding ground, feeding on mulberry, Morus rubra.

Waxwings in northern Virginia, on their breeding ground, feeding on mulberry, Morus rubra.

Ornithologists concerned with classifying patterns of bird movement express hesitation at calling waxwings migrant, though they do show regular patterns of southward and northward movement at a broad scale, at the appropriate times of year.   Those movements, though, do not begin to approach the level of regularity and predictability of most true migrants.   They show relatively low levels of philopatry in the breeding season; in other words, unlike many birds, they don’t tend to return to the same breeding areas year after year, and during the winter their movements seem to be completely irregular and unpredictable.   Both of these characteristics are related to their reliance on fruit, which is itself somewhat unpredictable in time and space, and once found, subject to rapid depletion once big flocks of frugivorous birds discover it.

A cedar waxwing pair passing a piece of fruit back and forth, part of their courtship and pair-bonding ritual.

A cedar waxwing pair passing a piece of fruit back and forth, part of their courtship and pair-bonding ritual.

The ability of big flocks to rapidly consume most or all of the fruit in an area is one of the most appealing aspects of their behavior.  Watching a writhing, swirling mass of lovely pastel-colored birds attack a mass-fruiting holly or cherry tree and pick it clean within a few minutes is an amazing sight.  Part of the appeal of that behavior is the furious and fanatical way they conduct their feeding frenzies; birds are constantly moving into and out of the fruiting tree, plucking a few fruits and quickly departing to perch nearby before the next foray.   The result is often a maelstrom of activity that can be over and done with in the blink of an eye.   Followed by the departure of the flock to parts unknown, seeking their next meal.

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Trees full of large flocks of waxwings are one of the most welcome sights of winter.

Waxwings have been less abundant this season than my notoriously untrustworthy memory suggests they usually are.  Some winters between January and February, they descend on DeLand in huge numbers, with flocks numbering in the thousands.  For the few days or weeks they are around, it’s hard to miss the big roving groups bopping around town devouring every fruit in sight.  One morning they might be devouring the fruits of sabal palms in the parking lot of the Publix where I shop, the next at a yaupon hedgerow near a strip mall.   A few years ago, huge flocks were on the Stetson campus for several days in a row; one morning on my way to my office, a flock of hundreds was feeding and drinking around the Gillespie museum, and I spent a delirious hour or so photographing them.    Students in my Intro Biology II class were subjected to 15 minutes of my rantings about and photographs of the waxwings that morning, exhorting them to be on the lookout for these wonderful wanderers over the next few days.  I have no idea whether that rant led anyone in that class to give even a second thought about waxwings afterwards; probably to them the most salient fact about my waxwing rhapsody was that it wouldn’t be covered on the next test.   Another morning, as I was driving through the new development next to the one I had just moved into, I photographed a small flock of waxwings beefing with a group of robins over a few drops of water beaded atop an electrical junction box.   To photograph waxwings requires eternal vigilance.

Waxwings and robins competing for space and a few droplets of water atop an electrical junction box.

Waxwings and robins competing for space and a few droplets of water atop an electrical junction box.

Congregation of waxwings at a sidewalk puddle on the Stetson campus.

Congregation of waxwings at a sidewalk puddle on the Stetson campus.

Last Sunday afternoon I was drifting in and out of a mid-afternoon stupor when I was awakened by the wick calls of a couple of robins in the backyard.  Robins shifted into their urban phase several weeks ago, and have been fairly common in the neighborhood and around DeLand.  The presence of flocks of robins indicates the possibility of waxwings in the area – the two often travel together, and feed together at mass-fruiting plants.  I had only seen waxwings in my neighborhood a couple of times so far, though, and none had been feeding.  I have several large wild cherry trees with large fruit crops I had been keeping my eye on, and though I had seen robins feeding at them several times, they were never accompanied by waxwings.   Soon after I heard the robin calls, one of them flew down to the birdbath, soon to be joined by another.  And then I heard the high, quavering seeee calls of a couple of waxwings, and I was instantly wide awake.  I happened to have my camera with big bird lens on the couch beside me, and was ecstatic when a pair of waxwings joined the robins at the birdbath.  I fired off a couple of record shots, and then the birds spooked and took off.   Soon they were back, accompanied by a half-dozen or more additional waxwings, and they and the robins spent the next three or four minutes bathing and occasionally sparring for position.  I eased out the back door onto the enclosed patio, and was shooting nearly non-stop the entire time they were there.   Hoping like hell that all the settings were right, because I had no time to stop and chimp my shots to ensure I wasn’t making some major bonehead mistake.

The robin at the birdbath alerted me to the possibility of waxwings.

The robin at the birdbath alerted me to the possibility of waxwings.

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Though they have their occasional spats, peaceful coexistence between the robins and waxwings is possible.

Though they have their occasional spats, peaceful coexistence between the robins and waxwings is possible.

Soon, though, something signaled the waxwings it was time to move on, and they departed en masse, trilling as they winged away.  I haven’t seen them in the neighborhood since, and may not again this winter.  And that’s okay.  They graced me with their presence and gave me reasonable photo opportunities for a few minutes, and for that I’m thankful.  See you next year, my friends.  I hope.

Nemesis no more

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June 15, 2015

Every serious bird photographer who has been at it for a while has a nemesis bird or three. There’s a progression for the obsessed bird photographer – first you knock out all the easy stuff. You know, feeder birds, extremely common and cooperative stuff like yellow-rumped warblers, turkey vultures, ring-billed gulls, and so on. At some point, for many of us, then the compulsion turns into a quest to photograph all the birds of the region you spend most of your time in. An unattainable goal for most, but a tangible target nonetheless. Gradually the library of images grows, until you have acceptable images of most of the typical species. It’s a moving target, though; one problem is that the definition of acceptable is constantly changing as your proficiency increases (hopefully). So while your biggest pleasure is photographing a species that you have no images of, you’re constantly trying to upgrade the quality of the images of those species already photographed. And so it goes. You accept that the very rare or elusive species are distant dreams at best, but every now and again that improbable event occurs and you actually add one or two of those to your collection of bird images. Why do we do it? That’s a whole other question I’m not about to try and tackle; I really don’t understand it myself. It does take on aspects of mental illness after a while, though. How many hundreds of images of northern parulas and great blue herons do you really need? The only answer I’ve ever arrived at is more.

As beautiful as they are, some birds, like northern parulas, are just too easy to photograph to be a real challenge.

As beautiful as they are, some birds, like northern parulas, are just too easy to photograph to be a real challenge.

More vexing than the rare species though are the nemesis birds. Those are the species that aren’t particularly uncommon or hard to find, and of which you can find thousands of high-quality images on-line, yet they somehow elude your best efforts to add them to your list. The degree of consternation inflicted by these recalcitrant bastards is directly related to how long you have pursued them. In some cases it may be decades.

I have dozens of images  of the larger American bittern that I'm pretty happy with;  least bitterns are a different story.

I have dozens of images of the larger American bittern that I’m pretty happy with; least bitterns are a different story.

For me, one of the nemesis birds that has been at the top of my list for the decades I’ve lived in Florida is the least bittern. These elegant little birds, the smallest of the North American herons, are widespread as breeding birds in the ubiquitous wetlands of Florida. They occur as far north as Virginia, where I cut my birding and bird photography teeth, but I never saw them there. But in Florida, they are not difficult at all to find, or uncommon. Breeding densities as high as 15 pairs per hectare have been recorded. They do tend towards the skulky end of the behavioral continuum, though, which combined with their small size (12-14”, not much larger than a blue jay), can make them a bit of a challenge to photograph. But seeing them – hell, I see them all the time during the breeding season in the appropriate habitat. During the 7 years I did weekly bird censuses at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area in Eustis, which contains lots of good breeding habitat, I saw them regularly between mid-March, when most return from their winter home, and mid-October, when most of them have departed. During mid-summer, I would often see or hear 5 or more of these charming little waders on each census. Their departure each year, in which I once again failed to obtain a decent photo, always brought a bit of anguish, and a bit of hope that next year would be the one. An occasional oddball individual will overwinter in central Florida, but for the most part they are the typical birds of summer. By which I mean Florida summer, which runs from about March to October.So I never really entertained any illusions of photographing one outside of the breeding season.

Seasonal abundance of least bitterns at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area, near Eustis FL.

Seasonal abundance of least bitterns at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area, near Eustis FL.

This is no great blue heron, posing in every roadside ditch for any yokel with a point-and-shoot. (No offense to the yokels with point-and-shoots out there.) You have to go looking for them, and then you have to find one close enough (which is pretty damned close for a bird that small) and exposed enough for a decent photo. Needless to say, that particular set of conditions eluded me for so long. Oh, sure, I got photo ops on occasion. I have several dozen transparencies (also called slides, for those digital natives unfamiliar with the concept of film) with recognizable least bitterns on them. But in all, they are small in the frame, and none of them captured the essence of least bittern.

Seriously, any twit with a pinhole camera can get stunning closeups of great blue herons in Florida.  Which is not to say that I don't still photograph them on occasion.

Seriously, any twit with a pinhole camera can get stunning closeups of great blue herons in Florida. Which is not to say that I don’t still photograph them on occasion. What can I say – I’m a high-tech twit.

These are amazing little birds to watch, if one is fortunate enough to see one foraging for any period of time. On the continuum of foraging strategies of herons and egrets, ranging from the nearly immobile ambush foragers like great blues to the maniacal pursuit foragers like reddish egrets, least bitterns are somewhere in the middle. They can be frozen for extended periods, intensely peering at a couple of square inches of habitat until a prey item comes into range, but they can also be relatively active, changing perches every minute or two until they find the right spot. Acrobatic little fuckers they are as well, hanging upside down from a narrow perch above the water, extending their telescoping necks in an instant to snag the dullard mosquitofish that fails to notice this pendulous beauty.

That's some neck serious neck extension.

That’s some neck serious neck extension.

So yeah, I have a handful of old, mediocre images of least bitterns, a couple of which I thought were pretty decent at the time I took them. The advent of the interwebs totally recalibrated my concept of what constitutes a decent image, though. Once I began seeing the high-quality images so many other photogs were able to obtain of this handsome little heron, my evaluation of my own images plummeted. One of my favorite images, at the time, was of a recently fledged youngster sitting on his haunches in the middle of Airstrip Road, surrounded by shellrock, with a few wispy tufts of down feathers still remaining on his adorable little noggin. But this slide, like all my others, failed to meet one of my prime criteria for a good bird shot – you need a level of resolution allowing discrimination of barbs of individual feathers. My old slides all failed that test.

One of the best of my least bittern shots from the film era.  Lacking in so many ways.

One of the best of my least bittern shots from the film era. Lacking in so many ways.

My favorite film image of a least bittern - a slightly out-of-place, befuddled looking youngun.

My favorite film image of a least bittern – a slightly out-of-place, befuddled looking youngun.

Even after I went digital, which makes bird photography an order of magnitude (at least) easier than the primitive film technology, good least bittern images still eluded me. I made a couple of trips during the breeding season to the celebrated Viera Wetlands in Brevard County, a site from which I had seen dozens of superb least bittern photographs posted on-line. I saw them there, but never got anything approaching the type of image I had in my mind.

I was moderately satisfied with this "in-habitat" shot of a least bittern from Viera Wetlands, but it wasn't really what I was hoping for.

I was moderately satisfied with this “in-habitat” shot of a least bittern from Viera Wetlands, but it wasn’t really what I was hoping for.

The closest I had come to a satisfactory close-up of a least bittern prior to yesterday's outing.

The closest I had come to a satisfactory close-up of a least bittern prior to yesterday’s outing, also from Viera Wetlands.

So I’m pleased as punch, as the happy warrior Hubert H. used to say, to report that my quest for decent least bittern photos has turned the corner. I’m also happy to report that this happened at my new favorite bird photography site, the Lake Apopka Restoration Area wildlife drive. On my first visit a few weeks ago, I thought this magnificent site should be full of least bitterns, but didn’t actually see or hear any until my second or third visit. A couple of weeks ago I actually got some marginally acceptable ops with a least bittern perched in a willow tree. The photos were by far better than anything I had previously, but the light was less than optimal (a totally overcast morning, the bird strongly backlit by a featureless white sky), and it was a bit too distant to reveal the kind of plumage details I consider requisite for a good bird photo.

Least bittern in a willow, from Lake Apopka Restoration Area.

Least bittern in a willow, from Lake Apopka Restoration Area.

Show me what you can do with that neck.

Show me what you can do with that neck.

Yesterday, my chakras aligned. The bird gods smiled. I got lucky. Interpret it as you see fit. It was a sunny morning, bird activity was everywhere along the wildlife drive, and around 8:00 a.m. while the morning light was still sweet and rich, I spotted a least bittern feeding from some dead stems of some emergent woody plant in a shallow impoundment. And it was relatively close to the road. Somewhat incredulously, I slow-rolled towards the little dude, expecting it to bolt into deep cover long before I was in photo range. But he didn’t. I slowly pulled up to where he was feeding, with the light coming from directly behind me (point your shadow at the bird, says the bird photog guru Artie Morris), and he cared not a whit. Heart pounding, adrenaline pumping, I feverishly began photographing. After a minute or two, the least beast decided to move, flying to a new perch 30 or so yards behind me. But still close to the road. I backed up slowly, and once again he stayed for a few moments, allowing a few more shots as he moved from perch to perch before finally disappearing into dense cover.

The first excellent photo op of the morning.

The first excellent photo op of the morning.

I particularly liked all the carnivorous bladderwort plants in flower below this leastie.

I particularly liked all the carnivorous bladderwort plants in flower below this leastie.

Full neck extension.

Full neck extension.

One parting over-the-shoulder look before he disappeared into the veg.

One parting over-the-shoulder look before he disappeared into the veg.

I was totally juiced. It’s fair to say that if I hadn’t taken another photo or seen another bird that morning, I would have considered it a morning very well-spent. As I drove on along the wildlife drive, I was savoring the moment when I could look at those images on the big screen and begin editing them. There’s something incredibly rewarding about capturing even one series of decent images relatively early in the morning; it doesn’t really matter what the rest of the day brings. You know you already have some images you’re going to be pleased with. Of course there’s always that bit of the neurotic in me that begins the second-guessing game – what if I did something wrong, or missed critical focus? Even after chimping the images like a demented fool my fears are never completely allayed. You can only judge image quality so far by viewing them on the LCD screen of the camera. You have to download them and view them large to really make an accurate assessment.

Cooperative least bittern number two.  Even closer than the first.

Cooperative least bittern number two, perched on one leg, with the other tucked up into his belly feathers. Even closer than the first.

So I was a pretty contented dude at that point. But that wasn’t to be my only bittern buzz of the day. Not more than 15 minutes later, I spotted another, sitting completely exposed on a dead branch, in perfect front light. Even closer than the first. And once again, I was amazed as I slowly rolled up on him and he sat perfectly still. I shot this guy for 4-5 minutes as he mostly did nothing other than check me out occasionally. At one point he dropped the foot that he had tucked into his belly feathers, turned around, hunched forward, and expanded his throat and chest as he began calling with the sweet cuckoo-like call that is the easiest way to detect the presence of these tiny ardeids. I was in a state of absolute euphoria as I filled a memory card. Hundreds of images varying only in the slightest degree, the vast majority of which would never be seen by anyone like me. But what did I care? A nemesis bird had been forever removed from the list.

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A vertical shot, still on one leg. When you’ve got a bird posing for you like this, it’s hard not to go batshit crazy.

 

Eyeballing me under the chin, a charming behavior of the least bittern.

Eyeballing me under the chin, a charming behavior of the least bittern.

Turned around, throat puffed out and calling.  One of the last shots in the series.

Turned around, throat puffed out and calling. One of the last shots in the series.

Can the crested caracara be far behind?

Image Gallery: Return to Lake Apopka Restoration Area

 

The yellow flowers blanketing this pool are bladderworts, Utricularia sp., a carnivorous plant.  I've never seen a concentration of bladderwort like this.

The yellow flowers blanketing this pool are bladderworts, Utricularia sp., a carnivorous plant. I’ve never seen a concentration of bladderwort like this.

May 18, 2015

All images are linked to larger versions.

I couldn’t help myself.  I visited the new wildlife drive at Lake Apopka Restoration Area again yesterday, and though the light was miserable for photography for the first couple of hours, the wildlife was there.  Here are some of my favorite shots from the morning.

Recently fledged great blue heron.

Recently fledged great blue heron.

Bullfrog feeding a mosquito.

Bullfrog feeding a mosquito.  Look closely under his right eye.

Common moorhens and their broods were once again one of the most entertaining sights.

Common gallinules and their broods were once again one of the most entertaining sights.

Sorry, bro, you cannot pass.

Sorry, bro, you cannot pass.

This osprey was sitting atop a leaning pole trying to eat his fish.

This osprey was sitting atop a leaning pole trying to eat her fish.

She was repeatedly harangued by this boat-tailed grackle, who bum rushed her several times.

She was repeatedly harangued by this boat-tailed grackle, who bum rushed her several times.

Why?  Eventually the osprey moved on, and the grackle took top spot and cleaned up on the fish scraps.

Why? Eventually the osprey moved on, and the grackle took top spot and cleaned up on the fish scraps.

 

Least bittern in the willows.  You don't appreciate how long their neck is until they stick it out.

Least bittern in the willows. You don’t appreciate how long their neck is until they stick it out.

A more typical view of a least bittern.

A more typical view of a least bittern.

Green herons were abundant, but very shy.  This one allowed me one shot before taking off.

Green herons were abundant, but very shy. This one allowed me one shot before taking off.

A juvenile little blue heron showing high breeding colors in the cere and base of the bill.  Yearling birds in juvenile plumage will sometimes breed in this species.

A juvenile little blue heron showing high breeding colors in the cere and base of the bill. Yearling birds in juvenile plumage will sometimes breed in this species.

Not a bad day for herps.  This Florida green watersnake (Nerodia floridana) was basking in the dead cattails as the sun struggled to make an appearance.

Not a bad day for herps. This Florida green watersnake (Nerodia floridana) was basking in the dead cattails as the sun struggled to make an appearance.

That's one chilled out baby gator.

That’s one chilled out baby gator.

A big female soft-shelled turtle (Apalone ferox) mucking around in the shallows.

A big female soft-shelled turtle (Apalone ferox) mucking around in the shallows.

Pig frog (Lithobates grylio) surrounded by several floating aquatic plants, including Lemna sp., (duckweed),   Salvinia minima (water spangles), and Azolla filiculoides (American waterfern; not a fern).

Pig frog (Lithobates grylio) surrounded by several floating aquatic plants, including Lemna sp., (duckweed), Salvinia minima (water spangles), and Azolla filiculoides (American waterfern; not a fern).

Eastern kingbird.  I don't see this species often in central Florida except as a migrant in passage.  This bird is probably a breeder.

Eastern kingbird. I don’t see this species often in central Florida except as a migrant in passage. This bird is probably a breeder.

I saw a half-dozen or so limpkins.

I saw a half-dozen or so limpkins.

These two great blue herons were arguing over territorial rights, using the  head up-wing droop posture that says get the hell out of my space.

These two great blue herons were arguing over territorial rights, using the head up-wing droop posture that says get the hell out of my space.

By mid-day, it was getting quite toasty.  Barn swallows were basking on the hot shell rock roads, overheating to the point that they were panting to cool down.  Why?  Probably to kill ectoparasites with the heat load.

By mid-day, it was getting quite toasty. Barn swallows were basking on the hot shell rock roads, overheating to the point that they were panting to cool down. Why? Probably to kill ectoparasites with the heat load.

Anhinga performing gular flutter, a heat-dissipating behavior.

Anhinga performing gular flutter, a heat-dissipating behavior.

 

A splendid morning in the wetlands

Black-necked stilt snags a mosquitofish

Black-necked stilt snags a mosquitofish

Click on any image to see a larger version.

May 10, 2015

On Friday I visited the Lake Apopka Restoration Area’s newly opened 11-mile North Shore wildlife drive for the first time. To say that I was impressed with the wildlife viewing opportunities there would be a massive understatement. This area will surely become one of my regular destinations for natural historizing and photography in coming years.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Florida in the 80’s, I remember hearing of the incredible birding opportunities in late summer at the Zellwood muck farms. I never made the drive to check the area out. I should have. My first visit to the north shore area of Lake Apopka came in the fall of 1998, when I was checking out potential field trip sites for the Ornithology class I was teaching that fall at Stetson. From DeLand, it’s less than an hour’s drive, mostly through bucolic mixed agricultural habitat in Seminole County. I distinctly remember driving down one of the shell rock roads, surrounded on both sides by browned, fallow vegetation with little evidence of the legendary concentrations of migratory birds I had come to see. A couple of times I saw small groups of aquatic birds, including some waders and terns, flying past me towards the west. Encouraging. Then I topped a small rise that allowed an overview of one of the flooded fields that acted as the great bird attractors, and I nearly ran off the road at the stunning sight of hundreds of acres of shallow water fields teeming with aquatic birds of every stripe. Tons of waders, including hundreds of great blue herons, white pelicans, other egrets and herons, wood storks, and a panoply of smaller birds including shorebirds, terns, anhingas… I was ecstatic. I made several visits to the area in the next couple of weeks, and then the St. Johns Water Management District closed the whole area to public access. Dead birds started showing up by the hundreds.

Most of the habitat in the Lake Apopka Restoration Area is highly disturbed, consisting of former agricultural fields that are converting back to a variety of  marsh habitats.

Most of the habitat in the Lake Apopka Restoration Area is highly disturbed, consisting of former agricultural fields that are converting back to a variety of marsh habitats.

The vast wetlands fringing Lake Apopka, a 30,000-acre lake that is Florida’s fourth largest, had been heavily farmed since the 40’s, and the “muck farming” operations devastated the water quality in Lake Apopka and its surrounding highly modified wetlands. These farming operations left behind miles of levees, roads, canals and pumping systems to move lake water onto and off of the agricultural fields that had been formed by draining the natural wetlands. After spending nearly $100 million between 1996 and 1999 to buy out about 13,000 acres of former farmland, the St Johns River Water Management District began major restoration efforts in the mid-90’s. Restoration plans for the area featured a 760-acre flow-way designed to circulate highly eutrophic lake water through restored wetlands in order to filter out excess nutrients and pollutants, and also included the flooding of large tracts of farmland in the fall of 1998 in the Zellwood farming district. The Zellwood muck farms were legendary for years among Florida birders for their late summer and fall concentrations of shorebirds. Large numbers of sandpipers, plovers, gulls, terns and other aquatic birds would congregate in the temporarily flooded fields in late summer to feed and prepare for the rest of their migration. During the farming era, however, these fields were drained and planted with winter crops by November, and whatever birds remained in the area moved on.

Canals and water control structures permeate Lake Apopka Restoration Area.

Canals and water control structures permeate Lake Apopka Restoration Area.

In fall of 1998, the management plans for the area called for prolonged flooding of some of these fields, and the response by the avifauna was incredible. Between August 1998 and February 1999, local bird groups and district scientists documented over 111,000 individual birds using an 8000-acre area. Flocks of tens of thousands of teal, diving ducks, and American coots were present at times. Beginning in November, however, dead birds began to appear on the site. White Pelicans were the hardest hit; at one time, the white pelican flock at Zellwood numbered over 4000, believed to be nearly half of Florida’s wintering population of these huge, lumbering birds. By February of 1999, nearly 500 bird deaths had been recorded on site, and another 500 or so dead birds, mostly white pelicans, were found throughout Florida, and were suspected to have originated from the Zellwood area. Also affected were smaller numbers of wood storks, an endangered species, along with great egrets and ring-billed gulls. I remember watching a juvenile wood stork at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge in DeLeon Springs for several days in a row during January 1999, some 40 miles away from Lake Apopka. That bird moved fairly slowly, was quite tame, and stayed in the same restricted area for the entire time I observed it. Nearly a week later, I found the carcass of a wood stork near where I had seen that curiously behaving bird. I still have the skull on a shelf in my office.In retrospect, I suspect that it was also a Zellwood bird.

Ospreys were abundant on this lovely May morning, especially in the parts of the drive closer to Lake Apopka.

Ospreys were abundant on this lovely May morning, especially in the parts of the drive closer to Lake Apopka.

The catastrophic bird mortality took everyone involved with the project by surprise. Although extensive sampling of the acquired lands was done before flooding to determine if there were any contamination hazards, the assays failed to turn up anything that looked like a threat to the health of the birds. In February 1999, the flooded fields were drained to encourage the birds to move elsewhere, and extensive soil and water sampling was performed, along with necropsies of many of the dead birds to attempt to determine the source of mortality. A period of uncertainty and debate about the source of the bird kill ensued, during which a variety of hypotheses, including pesticide contamination and epidemic outbreaks of avian cholera and Newcastle’s disease, were proffered. Eventually, acute toxicity due to exposure to multiple pesticides (toxaphene, Dieldrin, DDT) was identified as the most likely cause, and the restoration/remediation plans for the Apopka North Shore Restoration project were modified accordingly. Apparently, a concentrated “hot spot” of discarded pesticides on a restricted area of the north shore property was responsible for all of the problems. Amazingly, the pesticides involved had been banned and out of use for 10-30 years.

This boat-tailed grackle was engaged in "gaping behavior".  They insert their beak into some substrate and open it to push aside obstructions.  Many icterids use this behavior to find soil invertebrates, but this male was using it to open a little hole in the duckweed through which he could peer down into the water.

This boat-tailed grackle was engaged in “gaping behavior”. They insert their beak into some substrate and open it to push aside obstructions. Many icterids use this behavior to find soil invertebrates, but this male was using it to open a little hole in the duckweed through which he could peer down into the water.

The target?  Snails.  He deftly pulled them out of the shell and enjoyed fine dining even without the garlic butter.

The target? Snails. He deftly pulled them out of the shell and enjoyed fine dining even without the garlic butter.

For the next decade, as mitigation and clean-up efforts proceeded, most of the North Shore area of Lake Apopka was mostly off-limits to the public. One of the mitigation techniques used to deal with the elevated concentrations of organochlorine pesticides and excessive nutrients that had accumulated from decades of farming was a method called soil inversion. Modified agricultural equipment was used to plow down to a meter or more into the heavily contaminated top layer of soil and flip it over, replacing it with deeper layers of clean soil.

The vegetational composition of the wetland habitats is highly variable.  Many areas are dominated by cattails, usually an indicator of high nutrient levels (eutrophication).

The vegetational composition of the wetland habitats is highly variable. Many areas are dominated by cattails, usually an indicator of high nutrient levels (eutrophication).

Restricted access to the public ended in 2014, when the SJRWMD began opening some of these north shore properties, easily accessible due to the extensive networks of diked roads, to the public for hiking and biking. The North Shore Wildlife Drive opened on Friday, May 1. It is open from sunrise to a half-hour before sunset on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays year-round.

Waders of all types were common, including great and snowy egrets, great blue, little blue, tricolored and green herons, and a few black-crowned night herons.  This bird is an immature.

Waders of all types were common, including great and snowy egrets, great blue, little blue, tricolored and green herons, and a few black-crowned night herons. This bird is an immature.

Little blue herons and green herons were probably the two most common waders I saw.

Little blue herons and green herons were probably the two most common waders I saw.

Green herons were omnipresent, but a bit skittish.  Not many photo ops for these shy guys.

Green herons were omnipresent, but a bit skittish. Not many photo ops for these shy guys.

I wasn’t expecting huge numbers of birds or great diversity on this visit; wintering birds have largely left the state, and the passage of transient migrants is rapidly winding down. It’s that time of year for Florida birders when diversity is plunging to its summer nadir. Still, I was hoping there might be a few bobolinks around, and perhaps some other lingering migrants. I wasn’t disappointed. Almost as soon as I entered the drive, I heard, then saw a small flock of bobolinks in the marshes north of the drive. Too distant for photography, but it didn’t matter. Much. I love seeing and hearing bobolinks, anytime, anywhere, at any distance. The first stretch of the drive heads due west, so the sun was directly at my back and the habitat on either side was strongly side-lit. Not the best conditions for bird photography, but still I was impressed by the dozens of herons, egrets, ibis, limpkins, and other aquatic species foraging in the canal paralleling the drive. And the marshes were full of singing icterids on territory – red-winged blackbirds and boat-tailed grackles. So I was a little bummed out by the lack of photo opportunities in the first couple of miles of the drive, but there was so much bird life around that it didn’t feel right to be disappointed. In addition to the waders in the canals, several black-bellied whistling ducks and a couple of mottled ducks did flyovers, along with lots of waders. Barn swallows were coursing low over the marshes throughout the morning.

Common gallinules were abundant, including numerous pairs tending to their broods of newly hatched fuzzballs.

Common gallinules were abundant, including numerous pairs tending to their broods of newly hatched fuzzballs.

This half-grown juvenile common gallinule was all by his lonesome.  Perhaps the only surviving member of his brood.

This half-grown juvenile common gallinule was all by his lonesome. Perhaps the only surviving member of his brood.

Common gallinules are attentive parents.  This one was teaching her youngster how to preen.

Common gallinules are attentive parents. This one was teaching her youngster how to preen.

How do I look, Mom?

How do I look, Mom?

Feeding the babies.

Feeding the babies.

About two miles in, the drive reaches the shore of Lake Apopka and a large, historic pump house remaining from the agricultural period. On a small, drying pond near the pump house, I found a black-necked stilt, solitary sandpiper, and least sandpiper feeding in the shallow water and muddy shoreline, directly front-lit by gorgeous early morning light. As I spent the next 20 minutes or so burning up my memory cards on these photogenic birds, my slight dudgeon lifted. This is what I had come for.

Black-necked stilts are very active foragers, frequently submerging their entire head searching for prey.

Black-necked stilts are very active foragers, frequently submerging their entire head searching for prey.

Like this.

Like this.

Got one.

Got one.

The rest of the morning followed suit. Though the birds were mostly breeding residents, it mattered not. Common gallinules, various egrets and herons, blackbirds, including a couple more small flocks of bobolinks, barn swallows (along with a few tree swallows in one flock), and other birds were everywhere. In one of the canals paralleling the drive, I was shocked by the huge numbers of big frogs half-submerged in duckweed and Salvinia, occasionally making short leaps to capture prey. Both bullfrogs and pig frogs were calling, which was somewhat surprising to me. I had always thought of those two species as ecological equivalents that didn’t normally co-occur. I don’t know where I picked up that bit of dubious knowledge, but clearly it doesn’t apply to the big Lithobates (could it be true that this horrendous genus is about to be decommissioned and the members of this genus placed back into Rana, where they belong? Joy.) frogs of the restoration area.

While shorebirds weren't particularly diverse, and I only saw a few individuals of any species, it was still nice to see killdeer, stilts, spotted and solitary sandpipers, and several of these tiny little least sandpipers.

While shorebirds weren’t particularly diverse, and I only saw a few individuals of any species, it was still nice to see killdeer, stilts, spotted and solitary sandpipers, and several of these tiny little least sandpipers.

Solitary sandpiper

Solitary sandpiper

Solitary and least sandpiper

Solitary and least sandpiper

With all of those frogs, I figured there must be tons of snakes to prey on them, but I saw no water snakes or other aquatic serpents. A couple of black racers crossing the road were the only snakes I saw on this morning, but I’ve got to think the frog-eating aquatic snakes are there somewhere. Another time.

Bullfrog (Lithobates or Rana catesbeianus)

Bullfrog (Lithobates or Rana catesbeianus)

Pig frog (Lithobates or Rana grylio)

Pig frog (Lithobates or Rana grylio)

The bullfrogs were freaking thick!

The bullfrogs were freaking thick!

Besides the frogs, the other herps seen included lots of gators, a couple of black racers, and this cute little striped mud turtle (Kinosternon bauri) who looks like she just finished laying eggs.

Besides the frogs, the other herps seen included lots of gators, a couple of black racers, and this cute little striped mud turtle (Kinosternon bauri) who looks like she just finished laying eggs.

And there certainly will be other times. I can barely wait until August, when the vanguard of fall migrants will begin to appear in numbers. I’m particularly excited about the potential for big numbers of yellow warblers, which I haven’t seen aside from an occasional lone individual or two since I stopped doing bird censuses at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area. In August and September I sometimes found hundreds of yellow warblers a day in the willow thickets along the levee roads. There’s an abundance of similar habitat along the wildlife drive at Lake Apopka.

The best part of the day? In the 4 hours I spent there, I saw only one other car. I wish it would stay that way, but I know it won’t. The area is too amazing to remain a secret for long.

A quick trip to the parking lot of the North Shore trailhead at the end of Duda Rd. produced this lovely indigo bunting.

A quick trip to the parking lot of the North Shore trailhead at the end of Duda Rd. produced this lovely indigo bunting.

For more information about the North Shore Wildlife Drive, go to http://www.sjrwmd.com/recreationguide/lakeapopka/

Images: Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area

Saturday, February 16

From my first trip of the year to the wildlife drive at Emeralda Marsh Conservation area, near Eustis, last Saturday.

The male (red stripe extending back from the base of the bill; females lack this) of a pair of pileated woodpeckers that were courting and canoodling on the phone poles along Emeralda Island Rd.

The male (red stripe extending back from the base of the bill; females lack this) of a pair of pileated woodpeckers that were courting and canoodling on the phone poles along Emeralda Island Rd.

Several purple gallinules were active on the spatterdock beds along the edge of Lake Griffin.

Several purple gallinules were active on the spatterdock beds along the edge of Lake Griffin.

Mixed-species flocks of passerines were abundant and active in the hammocks along the wildlife drive and int the mixed habitat of the marshes and successional wetlands.  Lots of blue-gray gnatcatchers.

Mixed-species flocks of passerines were abundant and active in the hammocks along the wildlife drive and in the mixed habitat of the marshes and successional wetlands. Lots of blue-gray gnatcatchers.

Ruby-crowned kinglets were nearly as abundant as the gnatcathers.  I saw the ruby crown a couple of times, briefly.

Ruby-crowned kinglets were nearly as abundant as the gnatcathers. I saw the ruby crown a couple of times, briefly.

This marsh wren was working a clump of dead cattails right by the road on the T-J section of the wildlife drive.  Though he came within 10' of me, he never came completely out in the open for a profile shot.

This marsh wren was working a clump of dead cattails right by the road on the T-J section of the wildlife drive. Though he came within 10′ of me, he never came completely out in the open for a profile shot.

Swamp sparrows were abundant in the wet fields and marshes.   I saw only one savannah sparrow all day though.  Strange.

Swamp sparrows were abundant in the wet fields and marshes. I saw only one savannah sparrow all day though. Strange.

Palms were the most abundant warblers.  Others included yellow-rumps, common yellowthroats, and an orange-crowned warbler.

Palms were the most abundant warblers. Others included yellow-rumps, common yellowthroats, and an orange-crowned warbler. This is a very dull western palm warbler.

A brighter western palm warbler, starting to show a bit of breeding plumage in his rusty cap.

A brighter western palm warbler, starting to show a bit of breeding plumage in his rusty cap.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher

Blue-gray gnatcatcher

Orange-crowned warbler

Orange-crowned warbler

Female common yellowthroat

Female common yellowthroat

Not many aquatic birds were present, aside from fair numbers of coots and moorhens.  Only a handful of egrets and herons, and a few white and glossy ibis, like this one. I saw one limpkin, heard one sora.

Not many aquatic birds were present, aside from fair numbers of coots and moorhens. Only a handful of egrets and herons, and a few white and glossy ibis, like this one. I saw one limpkin, heard one sora.

Swamp sparrows were thick throughout.

Swamp sparrows were thick throughout.

Swamp sparrow

Swamp sparrow

The serpentine flow-way.  Even when the marshes and wetlands are a bit slow, always a beautiful drive.

The serpentine flow-way. Even when the marshes and wetlands are a bit slow, always a beautiful drive.

Image Gallery: Northern Bobwhite

January 6, 2015

Yesterday while searching for a pair of great horned owls I had seen recently on a dead end road near Heart Island Conservation Area, I saw a covey of a half-dozen or so northern bobwhite scurry across the road and begin picking their way up the roadside towards me.  I parked and waited.  For about 5 minutes I was able to watch and photograph these beautiful little fowl as they worked past me, only mildly wary of my presence.

My first shot was of this male that cautiously worked his way up the road  margin towards me.  He was clearly aware of my presence, but didn't seem overly concerned about the blue Accord sitting in the road.

My first shot was of this male that cautiously worked his way up the road margin towards me. He was clearly aware of my presence, but didn’t seem overly concerned about the blue Accord sitting in the road.

NOBO_01052015-06_Camp Winona Road

The scurried dash of a northern bobwhite as it crosses open ground is charming.

The scurried dash of a northern bobwhite as it crosses open ground is charming.

The slightly raised crest indicates a bit of concern.

The slightly raised crest indicates a bit of concern.

Still, this male sat in the open watching me for a few seconds.

Still, this male sat in the open watching me for a few seconds.

At some point, something mildly spooked this male and he hunkered down, no more than 20' or so away from me.  Didn't try to run away though; just sat there for a minute or two watching me.  I would never have spotted this bird if I hadn't seen it before it froze.

At some point, something mildly spooked this male and he hunkered down, no more than 20′ or so away from me. Didn’t try to run away though; just sat there for a minute or two watching me. I would never have spotted this bird if I hadn’t seen it before it froze.

Whatever the cause for alarm, he got over it fairly quickly and resumed activity.

Whatever the cause for alarm, he got over it fairly quickly and resumed activity.

Most of the covey remained  deeper in the sparse ground cover of the sandhills habitat.

Most of the covey remained deeper in the sparse ground cover of the sandhills habitat.

Incredible patterning on the  plumage of these birds.

Incredible patterning on the plumage of these birds.

Females can be distinguished from males by their yellowish heads.

Females can be distinguished from males by their yellowish heads.

NOBO_01052015-44_Camp Winona Road

 

 

Image Gallery: Okefenokee Swamp

 January 3, 2015

My somewhat serious resolution for the upcoming year is to increase the frequency of Volusia Naturalist posts.  To that end, I’m initiating the year with a new type of post – an image gallery.  For those times when I don’t have much to say, but want to share some photos of my adventures.

The photos in this set were taken over several days just before the new year.  All of the photos are hyperlinked to larger versions.  We spent most of our time in the Fargo area, at Stephen Foster State Park, with one afternoon trip to the east side of the Okefenokee at the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, near Folkston.

A gray morning in the Okefenokee Swamp.  This is in Stephen Foster State Park, on the west side of the Okefenokee

A gray morning in the Okefenokee Swamp. This is in Stephen Foster State Park, on the west side of the Okefenokee.

The habitat surrounding the swamp is overwhelmingly dedicated to 20-year rotation timber farming.   This includes a significant acreage in Okefenokee NWR.  This is a tract of young slash pines that have been thinned and burned.

The habitat surrounding the swamp is overwhelmingly dedicated to 20-year rotation timber farming. This includes a significant acreage in Okefenokee NWR. This is a tract of young slash pines that have been thinned and burned. The profuse pale fuzzballs are seed heads of Pityopsis graminifolia.

This Google Earth image shows part of the entry road through Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (177).  The Suwannee river near its origin in the Okefenokee is above the road.  Notice that nearly all of the habitat that isn't wetland is covered by plots of timber at various stages of the harvest cycle.

This Google Earth image shows part of the entry road through Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (177), leading to Stephen Foster State Park on the western side of the refuge. The Suwannee river near its origin in the Okefenokee is visible above the road. The long straight line in the NE quadrant is the Suwannee River Sill, a several-mile long levee built in the 50’s to control outflow of water from the swamp into the Suwannee. This was an attempt to reduce fire frequency in the swamp during dry years by keeping more water in it. It was a failure. Notice that nearly all of the habitat that isn’t wetland is covered by plots of timber at various stages of the harvest cycle.

Alligators were out  basking on this gray day.  These beasts are in the canal paralleling the Suwannee River Sill.

Alligators were out basking on this gray day. These beasts are in the canal paralleling the Suwannee River Sill.

Great blue heron in the swamp.  Notice the fire-scarred trunks in the background; many of the plant communities in the swamp are fire-maintained.

Great blue heron in the swamp. Notice the fire-scarred trunks in the background; many of the plant communities in the swamp are fire-maintained.

The canal leading from the boat basin in Stephen Foster State Park to the Billy's Lake section of the middle fork of the Suwannee River.

The canal leading from the boat basin in Stephen Foster State Park to the Billy’s Lake section of the middle fork of the Suwannee River.

White-tailed deer were common and tame around the cabins at Stephen Foster State Park.

White-tailed deer were common and tame around the cabins at Stephen Foster State Park.

Red-shouldered hawks were abundant, many hunting the the grassy shoulders of the entry road.

Red-shouldered hawks were abundant, many hunting the the grassy shoulders of the entry road.

Sweetgum

Sweetgum

There were only a few hours of decent sun, on Tuesday afternoon, during the 3 days we were there.  This longleaf pine forest with cane understory is from the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, on the east side of Okefenokee.

There were only a few hours of decent sun, on Tuesday afternoon, during the 3 days we were there. This pine forest with cane understory is from the Suwannee Canal Recreation Area, on the east side of Okefenokee.

Longleaf pine forest

From the Swamp Wildlife Drive in the Suwannee Canal Area.

A magnificent 3/4 mile boardwalk into Chesser Prairie are of the Okefenokee provides stunning views of this landscape still showing the effects of the 2011 Honey Prairie fire, which was allowed to burn.  Charred posts from a previous boardwalk are still present.

A magnificent 3/4 mile boardwalk into the Chesser Prairie area of the Okefenokee provides stunning views of this landscape still showing the effects of the 2011 Honey Prairie fire, which was allowed to burn. Charred posts from a previous boardwalk are still present.

Chesser Prairie, from the boardwalk.

Chesser Prairie, from the boardwalk.

Eastern phoebe from Chesser Island.

Eastern phoebe from Chesser Island.

Way too distant shot of a male northern harrier, from the boardwalk.  I don't see male harriers often, though females and immatures are common in winter in Florida.

Way too distant shot of a male northern harrier, from the boardwalk. I don’t see male harriers often, though females and immatures are common in winter in Florida.

Pig frog?  Active in the last week of December.   Ranids in Pennsylvania can only dream about that shit.

Pig frog? Active in the last week of December. Ranids in Pennsylvania can only dream about that shit.

Interesting assemblage of insects in the unwet portion of a water lily leaf.  There's a little water strider (Gerridae) in the notch, a small fly (Ceratopogonidae?) above it, and a "herd" of what look like some kind of leafhopper or planthopper nymphs.

Interesting assemblage of insects in the unwet portion of a water lily leaf. There’s a little water strider (Gerridae) in the notch, a small fly (Ceratopogonidae?) above it, and a “herd” of what look like some kind of leafhopper or planthopper nymphs. You have to click and see this at maximum resolution to see any detail in these tiny insects.

The diversity of fungal structures in this rotting branch was impressive.  I have no idea how many species of fungi are visible here.

The diversity of fungal structures in this rotting branch was impressive. I have no idea how many species of fungi are visible here.

Swamp doghobble, Eubotrys racemosa.  These are young flowering spikes that will bloom sometime in early spring.

Swamp doghobble, Eubotrys racemosa. These are young flowering spikes that will bloom sometime in early spring.

The last afternoon we were there produced the best light of the trip.  This shot of the Okefenokee from the boardwalk at Stephen Foster State Park was taken in late afternoon, as the window of sunshine was getting ready to close.

The last afternoon we were there produced the best light of the trip. This shot of the Okefenokee from the boardwalk at Stephen Foster State Park was taken in late afternoon, as the window of sunshine was getting ready to close.

Golden afternoon light can make any shot look decent, but with this kind of view, it's like taking candy from a baby. Which I've never done.

Golden afternoon light can make any shot look decent, but with this kind of view, it’s like taking candy from a baby. Which I’ve never done.

Peucetia cocoon_11012014-11_L George CA_1

Cold-blooded mothers

 

Peucetia viridan_11032014-03_620 COC

December 13, 2014

The great artist Haddaway asked “What is love?”; neither the Butabi brothers  nor I have come up with a satisfactory answer to that question, but if love is judged by actions, then it is much more widespread among animals than is commonly thought .  

I hate the term “cold-blooded” as a descriptor of the thermoregulatory syndrome shown by the majority of animals on the planet, but as a literary device it is quite useful.  Cold-blooded as a trope hints at an emotionless, detached demeanor, something that seems a world away from the values associated with motherhood.   Some of my recent and less recent experiences with cold-blooded mothers suggest the opposite.

A female lynx spider from mid-August, still fattening up in preparation for producing her cocoon.

A female lynx spider from mid-August, still fattening up in preparation for producing her cocoon.

Last summer I became entranced with the beauty and behaviors of lynx spiders.  Peucetia viridans is one of the first spiders I learned to identify when I moved to Florida (thanks, Craig), and I’ve been aware since then that they are common, widely distributed spiders.   But until I began looking for them with more conviction recently, I had no idea of their true abundance.   As spider expert Jack Koerner discovered independently, their prowess as predators is prodigious.  Not only will they tackle a diverse array of prey, many far exceeding their own body mass, they are also ridiculously abundant in some habitats.   As I learned more about them, I began to anticipate the appearance of cocoons and the subsequent maternal behaviors of the females.  Jack  assured me that they would begin appearing in late September-early October, and he was spot on.  I saw my first female guarding her cocoon on October 9, in the Riverside Island tract of Ocala National Forest.  After that first sighting, I started seeing them frequently, most often in the head-high inflorescences of dogfennel, Eupatorium capillifolium.  On November 1, I found a cluster of 4 females guarding cocoons in a patch of dogfennel at Lake George Conservation Area, and by some coincidence one of them came home with me.  I placed her with her cocoon and the top of her home plant on an old tripod, put it on my glassed-in patio, and began waiting.

The first cocoon I saw this fall, October 9, in Ocala National Forest

The first cocoon I saw this fall, October 9, in Ocala National Forest

The lynx mother I adopted, on her first day in the patio.  Notice that she is missing her left front leg.

The lynx mother I adopted, on her first day in the patio. Notice that she is missing her left front leg.

At first I wondered if all of the disturbance, combined with the rather profound change in surroundings (a sunlit successional opening in the scrub to a patio in a suburban subdivision) might cause her to abandon her nest.  But I trusted in her instincts, and sure enough, she never moved from her perch astride her cocoon.  

A couple of weeks into my wait, I began worrying that the thermal environment I had moved her to would be too cool to allow her eggs to develop at a normal rate.   The microhabitat where she had built her nest had direct exposure to the sun for at least a few hours a day; that heat boost must speed up embryological processes.  I hoped that the benefits of the sheltered patio might compensate in part for her loss of sun – it probably buffered the temperature extremes she would be exposed to in the open.  Perhaps the several hours each night she enjoyed temperatures above those of her natural environment would accelerate the development of her babies somewhat.   On November 14, while at Lake George Conservation Area, I visited her home patch to check out the progress of the other females from her cluster.  They were all still there; none had hatchlings yet.  It was while trying to photograph one under field conditions that I felt a little better about taking my female home; the wind was blowing at about 20mph, air temperature was in the 50’s, and it felt damned cold to me.  Further, the females atop their dogfennels were being buffeted back and forth violently by the shifting winds, yet somehow managed to hang on despite what must have been a semi-torpid state.   If they were bullriders, they would have all earned eights.  It took me about 10 minutes to take even a handful of photos, despite trying to brace and stabilize the dogfennel plants as best I could.  

It took me forever to get even one decent image of this mother lynx guarding her cocoon at Lake George Conservation Area.  She was being whipped around in every direction by the buffeting winds.

It took me forever to get even one decent image of this mother lynx guarding her cocoon at Lake George Conservation Area. She was being whipped around in every direction by the buffeting winds.

So at home I maintained my vigil, checking every day for the appearance of hatchlings, not even sure exactly what they would look like.  Would they be little emerald-green replicas of their mother?  

The red widow, Latrodectus bishopi, an endemic of scrub and an augur of good tidings.

The red widow, Latrodectus bishopi, an endemic of scrub and an augur of good tidings.

On November 30, John Serrao and I did the Ultimate Ocala Loop © looking for whatever animal, vegetable or mineral coolness we could scrounge up.  John had a focal animal for the day; he wanted to find a red widow, and that seemed like a cool goal to me, so we stopped on a couple of occasions in palmetto-studded early scrub so John could scour the scrub for spiders.   I was astounded when I saw him walking up the road with a palmetto frond, grinning like a hyena.  He’d found his widow.  I should have seen that as the grand spider omen it was.   When we got back to my house, we found that my lynx babies had hatched overnight or early that morning.  Big day for the spiders.

Mom with her litter soon on the day of hatching.

Mom with her litter soon after hatching.

Peucetia babies_11292014-11_620 COC

For the next two weeks, I had the awesome privilege of watching a master mother at work.   On the day I found her newly-hatched babies, I put momma lynx and her tripod-mounted home plant in my backyard garden, in a spot where they would receive at least several hours of direct sun exposure each day.  I didn’t really know how long her maternal devotion would last. 

Peucetia babies_11292014-07_620 COC

The spiderling just below the center of the frame is in the process of shedding its first skin.

The spiderling just below the center of the frame is in the process of shedding its first skin.

Newborn lynx spiderlings

Newborn lynx spiderlings

 For the first several hours after hatching, her entire brood of 40 or so dapper little spiderlings (mostly orange, not green!) remained within a couple of cm of the cocoon, with mom lurking either directly over them or nearby.  Any movement of the dogfennel head or activity near the cocoon would bring her rushing over and posting up in an aggressive stance.    I took a bunch of photos, and didn’t realize until I processed the images that some of the spiderlings were already shedding their exoskeletons for the first time.

Peucetia babies_12022014-06_620 COC

That’s when I thought of the other cold-blooded mother I’ve had some experience with. Pigmy rattlesnakes.  And I began to make comparisons.    Pigmy rattlesnake mothers stay with their litter of 2-12 baby rattlesnakes for several days after they give birth to them (most pit vipers give birth to living young rather than laying eggs), which was quite a revelation to me when we were doing pigmy rattlesnake studies back in the 90’s.   Not only do they stay near them, they actively defend them against some predators (such as other snakes).   Unlike mother lynxes, though, we never saw any sign of aggressive defense by mothers towards big stinking primates.  The response of both mother and baby rattlesnakes to the approach of hulking sweaty bipeds was usually to retreat to cover in a fairly leisurely fashion.   The mothers were simply choosing the battles they could win; mothers kept in captivity with their young did show an aggressive approach towards a predatory snake (black racer) that was tethered and moved towards the female and her young. (No racers were harmed in the process of provoking these pigmy moms!)

Nearly all pitvipers, and many other snakes, give birth to living young.  This is a pigmy rattlesnake birth.

Nearly all pitvipers, and many other snakes, give birth to living young. This is a pigmy rattlesnake birth.

Mother pigmy attending her litter.

Mother pigmy attending her litter.

Pigmy rattlesnake with her litter

Pigmy rattlesnake with her litter

Mother pigmy rattlesnakes maintain their maternal attendance until their babies have shed their natal skin; as soon as they do that, 1-4 days after birth, the kids disperse in all directions, and their association with their mother is over forever.  Oh, I suppose they might bump into each other at some point during their subsequent lives, but we found no evidence suggesting the kids periodically return to visit their mother.  Or even call.  

Once pigmy rattlesnake neonates shed their skin for the first time, they are on their own.

Once pigmy rattlesnake neonates shed their skin for the first time, they are on their own.

So based on my experience with pigmy motherhood, I thought that perhaps lynx mothers were similar; soon after they hatched and shed, the babies would disperse, and mom would do whatever mother lynxes with empty-nest syndrome do.  Which is mostly die.  Lynx spiders, unlike pigmy rattlesnakes, reproduce only once, and then die.  

I was hoping to actually photograph some baby lynxes ballooning away.  Didn't happen.

I was hoping to actually photograph some baby lynxes ballooning away. Didn’t happen.

Peucetia babies_11302014-18_620 COC

Around noon the day after the lynxes hatched, I checked out the dogfennel briefly, and didn’t see mom or any spiderlings near the cocoon.  I concluded, prematurely as it turns out, that the babies had all ballooned away and the mother had departed.   Many young spiderlings, when ready to disperse from their birth site, climb to the top of a plant when there is a breeze blowing, stick their butts up in the wind and begin releasing silk.  When enough silk is out, they release their grip and drift away on their silken balloon.  I was pretty pleased at the prospect that all those spiderlings were now safely ensconced in little lynxy hidey-holes scattered around my garden, and that I might see some of them the following spring and follow their growth and maturation.

Peucetia babies_11302014-00_620 COC

The next day I decided to do a more thorough search for a lingering baby or two and was surprised and delighted to find the female back atop the plant.  As I looked carefully around the dogfennel inflorescence, I found 10-15 babies scattered around the many nooks and crannies of the dogfennel head, now covered with seeds and their pappuses (pappi?).  Looking very much like little spiders.  Coincidence, Harry Tiebout?   It didn’t take long for mom to key in on whatever part of the plant I was focusing on and come rushing over.  The next day she was surrounded by 15-20 of her babies, clustered loosely around her again.

 Mom with her brood 3 days after hatching

Mom with her brood 3 days after hatching

Peucetia babies_12022014-14_620 COC

And now here it is, two weeks after birth, and mom is still hanging on.  She’s missing a leg, has a patch of white fungus growing on one of her legs (immune system shutting down?), and is moving at an arthritic pace even at mid-day temperatures.  Every morning for the last several days I’ve gone out to check on her, expecting to find her dead.  Some mornings it’s not easy to tell at first.  I can gently prod her and move her legs, and in her early-morning torpid state, it’s hard to tell if there’s any voluntary movement at all.  But by mid-morning, after a nice spot of sun, she’s still endeavoring to persevere.  Perhaps I should craft her a tiny stove-pipe hat and declare her civilized.  

Mom on December 9, down to only a few remaining babies still at home.  Still defensive, but slowing.

Mom on December 9, down to only a few remaining babies still at home. Still defensive, but slowing.

Peucetia babies_12092014-20_620 COC

Sticking close to mom.

Sticking close to mom.

Catching the last bit of sun in the afternoon.  Wonder if she feels as arthritic as she looks?

Catching the last bit of sun in the afternoon. Wonder if she feels as arthritic as she looks?

Yesterday, I thoroughly inspected the plant with a visor magnifier, and found only one baby remaining.  On mom. For whatever it’s worth, a more devoted and persistent mother than the more “advanced” pigmy rattlesnake.  The baby lynx stayed on his mother’s emaciated abdomen for several minutes while I photographed them, and then rappelled on a silken dragline to a seed cluster below.  Mom moved achingly slowly to the top of the plant to bask.  Would this be her last sunset?

One more morning.

One more morning.

Peucetia viridan_12122014-21_620 COC

Ravaged by starvation, fungus, and who knows what other maladies, she soldiers on.

Hanging with mom.

Hanging with mom.

Just 15 minutes ago, I could find no baby lynxes other than one tiny mummified little corpse. But mom is still there.

Yesterday afternoon.   No more than a few days left for her at most.  I'll miss her.

Yesterday afternoon. No more than a few days left for her at most. I’ll miss her.

Does a mother pigmy rattlesnake or lynx spider love her babies?

What is love?

Postscript, December 21:

She was tougher than I gave her credit for.  She was dead this morning, over a week after the last of her offspring had dispersed.

Lynx mom RIP_12212014-10_620 COC

 References:

Greene, H. W., May, P. G., Hardy, D. L., Sciturro, J. M., & Farrell, T. M. (2002). Parental behavior by vipers. Biology of the Vipers, 179-205. 

Urocyon cinereoa_09212014-47_Ocala NF FR69

Caniphilia

 October 18, 2014

I don’t think it’s really necessary to coin this term; the love of dogs is a fundamental human condition.  I wouldn’t trust a man who dislikes dogs as far as I could throw him.   Such an inability to form a connection with these magnificent animals with whom we share a long coevolutionary history indicates a very basic flaw in character and humanity.  To any dog-haters who might happen to read this, I have this advice.  Seek treatment for your affliction.  Try to make yourself a better human being.

Dogs are the original GMO, or genetically modified organism.  As William Sanderson’s wonderful character in Blade Runner, B.F. Sebastian said, speaking of his robotic humanoid toys, “They’re my friends.  I made them.”  Dogs are our friends.  We made them.

J.F. Sebastian, with Pris and one of his friends.

J.F. Sebastian, with Pris and one of his friends.

In contrast to modern GMO’s, which are largely  created by copying and pasting specific genes from one organism to another, dogs were built the old-fashioned way, over thousands of generations of artificial selection.   Although the mechanism by which dogs first became domesticated is not entirely clear, the process began at least 15,000 years ago, and perhaps far more.   DNA sequencing evidence strongly suggests that wolves were the progenitors of the domestic dog, and the first steps towards domestication may have occurred when humans adopted wolf pups and socialized them to accept human companionship, or it may have been more of a “self-domestication” process in which some wolves began associating with humans for food, protection, and perhaps other benefits.   Since those earliest proto-dogs, selective breeding by humans (artificial selection) has produced an entirely new animal, recognized as a separate species from the gray wolf (though dogs and wolves readily hybridize, as do other members of the genus Canis, including coyotes).   

A recent paper in the journal Genetics (Wilkins et al. 2014) presents a fascinating story about the interaction between genes, embryological processes, and evolutionary change and how these processes have produced many of the differences seen between dogs and their canid ancestors.   Dogs, like many domesticated mammals, show a suite of traits that seem to commonly arise during domestication.   Aptly dubbed “domestication syndrome”, these traits include reduced fear and anxiety around humans (tameness), as well as physical traits like changes in color patterns, droopy ears and tails, reduced brain and skull size, and smaller teeth.   Why do all of those traits tend to occur together in domesticated animals, when it is primarily the tameness that is being selected for in their interactions with humans?

From Wilkins et al., 2014.

From Wilkins et al., 2014.

According to Wilkins et al., the phenomenon of tameness is one of many traits linked to a remarkable group of cells, found only in vertebrates and their closest relatives (tunicates),  that are active in early embryological development.  These cells, called neural crest cells, originally form and differentiate as part of the developing nervous system during the process called neurulation.  But rather than stay with the central nervous system to form the brain and spinal cord, as most of the cells formed during neurulation do, neural crest cells are wanderers.  They break away from the developing spinal cord and travel throughout the body to take up residence in a wide variety of developing tissues and organs, and differentiate into a dizzying diversity of tissues and organs.   Some move into the skin, where they form the pigment-producing cells called melanocytes.  Others are involved in formation of cartilages in the ears, while other neural crest cells form one of the types of cells that build teeth, the odontoblasts.  Others contribute to bones of the skull, while yet other neural crest cells become neurons and ganglia of the peripheral nervous system.  Most importantly with regard to domestication, neural crest cells are involved in development of the adrenal glands and other components of the sympathetic nervous system, which produces the so-called “flight or fight response” when vertebrates are placed in physically or emotionally challenging situations.  

According to the Wilkins et al. model, domestication first began genetically modifying dog ancestors by selectively favoring those individuals that showed reduced stress response around humans, due to a less intense “fight or flight response”.   These were individual wolves that had experienced reduced neural crest activity during development, and a somewhat underdeveloped adrenal gland/sympathetic nervous system response.  Such variability in genetically encoded traits is a prerequisite for natural or artificial selection to occur, and is widespread.

But because neural crest cells are involved in so many other developmental events, selection for reduced neural crest activity (“mild neurocristopathy”, as they called it) also resulted in evolution of other traits, including floppy ears and droopy tails (reduction in cartilage-producing tissues), color patterns (reduced melanocyte activity), smaller teeth (reduced odontoblast activity), and smaller skulls and brains.   Though only “tameness” was being directly favored by their association with humans, changes in physical traits transpired due to the selection for reduced neural crest cell activity.  This is, to me, a truly elegant hypothesis, which emphasizes the ease with which minor changes in developmental pathways can lead to major evolutionary changes in body form and function of the adult organism.  

Luna, indisputably the greatest dog who ever lived

Luna, indisputably the greatest dog who ever lived

Regardless of how dogs got to be dogs, the result is an animal with which we are inextricably linked in our evolutionary meanderings.  And it is completely natural to love them.   The only dog I’ve ever had that belonged only to me was a little mixed-breed husky mix named Luna, and I loved that dog in ways that I never knew were possible.  When I had her put to sleep in 2006, I was inconsolable for months.   I’m not ashamed to say that for weeks after she died, I would find myself at times sobbing uncontrollably over the loss.  I still get a little misty-eyed sometimes when I look at old pictures of her.  

If I saw mammals like this Sigmodon hispidus more often, I'd probably like them better.  But I don't.

If I saw mammals like this Sigmodon hispidus more often, I’d probably like them better. But I don’t.

Truth be told, I’m actually not all that enamored of most mammals – they are largely nocturnal, not particularly colorful, and often difficult to observe, all traits in direct contrast to some of my truly favorite taxa such as birds, butterflies, odonates, and flowering plants.  But I make an exception for carnivores, and particularly canids.  Nothing excites me as much as seeing a wild dog.  Coyotes are absolutely enchanting animals.  God’s dog, as they have sometimes been called, are beautiful, wicked smart, adaptable, and at times quite mischievous, to put it mildly.

I had been living in Florida for over a decade before I saw my first coyote.  I still have a vivid memory of driving north on Lake Winona Road in 1991 or 1992,  through mixed sandhills, hammocks, and agricultural habitat and seeing a doglike animal crossing the road a couple hundred yards ahead of me.  As it reached the edge of the road, it paused broadside and looked directly at me for a few seconds before disappearing.  No more than a 15-second observation, if that, but I knew instantly it was a coyote.  The lope, the elegant profile, big ears – all screamed coyote.  I was entranced.  It took several years before I saw another, this one only briefly again as it darted across Dark Entry Road in Tiger Bay State Forest.  

In the last several years, though, I’ve been seeing coyotes much more regularly.  Maybe because I’m getting a little better at spotting them, maybe because they are increasing in numbers.  Probably some of both.  I sure hope at least the latter is true.   For one thing, more coyotes means fewer feral and free-ranging cats.   And that’s a good thing.  When human activity first begins modifying the ecological systems in a developing area, top predators are usually the first component to disappear.  It gives me a bit of hope to see them increasing on their own, despite widespread prejudice and wanton slaughter of these beautiful dogs.   Over 75,000 coyotes were killed in 2013 alone by the USDA’s Wildlife Services, along with many other top predators. (Thanks to Mia McPherson and her wonderful blog On The Wing Photography for that disturbing statistic.)  Yet they continue to prosper.

Canis latrans_092511_6_Lake County

I’m still waiting for my first decent photo opportunity with coyotes.  In 2011, I watched one circling a herd of cattle, including a small calf, looking very much like a border collie working a flock, from State Road 42 in Lake County.  For a minute or two, the coyote stayed in view, frequently veering back and forth as it scoped out the big slobbering bovines.   Quite distant, but my first coyote photos.  In 2012, I was driving through Heart Island Conservation Area near mid-day in August, and saw a pair of half-grown coyote pups trotting down Deep Creek Road in front of me, occasionally slowing to give me  a sidelong glance.    More recently, I had direct eye contact for a fleeting but electrifying moment as I drove by one in Ocala National Forest, on SR19 just south of Silver Glen Springs.  He had crossed the road in front of me and paused briefly to look back from the dense thicket perhaps 50 feet away.  This year I’ve seen single coyotes a couple of times at Lake George Conservation Area, and a month or so ago crossing Rima Ridge Road in Tiger Bay State Forest, near the Bennett’s Field primitive campground.  But I still haven’t been close enough to one in decent light to get true coyote photos (as opposed to photos with a coyote somewhere in them).   But I always assumed that the first wild canid I photographed in Florida would be a coyote.

Stalking coyote.

Stalking coyote.

This one might be doable, he's thinking.

This one might be doable, he’s thinking.

Coyote pups at Heart Island Conservation Area.

Coyote pups at Heart Island Conservation Area.

In Tiger Bay State Forest

In Tiger Bay State Forest

How wrong I was.  On September 21, I was cruising north on Paisley Road through Ocala National Forest, perhaps a half-hour after sunrise.  As I rounded a bend near a big seasonal wetland called Mud Lake, I saw two quadrupeds in the road several hundred yards away.  My first thought was coyotes, but they were small and delicate looking. Gray foxes! I’ve probably seen gray foxes in Florida less than 5 times in the 30+ years I’ve lived here.  Knowing with absolute certainty that they would be gone as soon as I slowed down, I pulled sharply to the right and grabbed my camera with the 150-500 Sigma zoom and slowly moved it up and onto the beanbag on my car window. And of course both foxes had darted into the thick patch of Bidens (alba, CB!) at the road’s edge. But after a moment one came back out. She trotted back across the road, turned around, and then spent a half-minute or so dawdling in the road. I took a distant shot, but it would be marginal at best. Still, a gray fox.  Starting the engine and attempting to slowly stalk her in the car seemed a pretty vain course of action.

Paisey Road, Ocala National Forest

Paisey Road, Ocala National Forest

My first view of the gray foxes.  Hard crop.

My first view of the gray foxes. Hard crop.

Then I recalled a conversation I had recently had with my friend John Serrao, when we had been on one of our field jaunts. I think we had seen a bobcat or a coyote briefly, and John told me of several experiences he had with predators while living in in Pennsylvania. He told me had been able to call in a variety of predators by making squeaky noises with his lips, much like the squeaky noises birders sometimes make to attract dicky birds. He once had a weasel walk across his shoe, he told me, as he stood absolutely still and made the squeaking noises. Very soon after that conversation, I searched on-line and found several .mp3 files of rodent distress calls, which I added to my Ipod library, thinking I’d probably never use them.

Urocyon cinereoa_09212014-37_Ocala NF FR69

Urocyon cinereoa_09212014-38_Ocala NF FR69

Urocyon cinereoa_09212014-23_Ocala NF FR69

Maintaining contact with her mate, out of view in the roadside vegetation.

But in fact I did use them. As the fox frolicked in the road far away from me, I played one of the tracks titled “Squealy”, a series of high-pitched shrieks from some rodent or hare, through my car stereo. The effect on the vixen was immediate, and thrilling to me. First she looked directly at me, ears erect, clearly focusing on the sounds. And then she came closer.  And closer.  And closer.  She criss-crossed the road repeatedly, veering from one margin to the other, approaching me in a series of diagonal trots, all the while focused on me, trying to fire off frames without making any obvious movement. On several occasions she stopped and faced towards the thick vegetation beside the road that her running mate had gone into – I suspect he was paralleling her as she neared me, but staying out of sight in the vegetation. Once or twice she stopped, squatted, and apparently peed briefly.  Mostly as she covered the substantial distance between us she was in the shade, but on a couple of occasions she passed through pillars of low-angle sunlight streaming in through small gaps in the roadside vegetation. The combination of the exquisite delicate beauty of the vixen and the rich, warm early-morning light nearly made me delirious with joy. When she made her final veer and crossed the road no more than 50’ in front of me disappearing into the brush, I was as high as a kite on adrenaline and whatnot. 

In the light pillar.

In the light pillar.

And still she came.

And still she came.

Girl's got to pee when a girl's got to pee.

Girl’s got to pee when a girl’s got to pee.

A few moments after she had disappeared and I began to come down a bit from my reverential high, I realized I had photographed the entire sequence with the OS (optical stabilization, a vibration-reduction system to reduce camera movement and improve image sharpness) on my big telephoto lens OFF. Momentary panic followed as I envisioned all of the shots being uselessly blurred due to the slow shutter speeds I was forced to use in the early morning light. A couple of minutes spent “chimping” the hundred or so images I had taken on the camera’s display calmed my fear a bit – perhaps not as sharp as they could have been, but at least a couple were acceptable. 

Urocyon cinereoa_09212014-53_Ocala NF FR69

Still checking the road margins for the shier male.

Back and forth she came.

Back and forth she came.

Urocyon cinereoa_09212014-59_Ocala NF FR69

The final veer.  The eye contact was amazing.

The final veer. The eye contact was amazing.

Last usable shot in the sequence.

Last usable shot in the sequence.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime privilege for me to watch and photograph this charming wild dog, if only for a few minutes. For the life of me I can’t understand the mindset of those who wish to kill these and other top predators on general principle. 

Coyotes are next.  It can’t happen too soon.

Acknowledgements:  Thanks to Gene Spears, or Gene Gene the Dancing Machine as he was known in grad school days, for turning me on to the Wilkins et al. paper.

References:

Wilkins AS, Wrangham, RW and Fitch WT (2014) The “Domestication Syndrome” in Mammals: A Unified Explanation Based on Neural Crest Cell Behavior and Genetics. Genetics 197(3):795-808.