Monthly Archives: August 2013

Agkistrodon pisc_08312013-11_Volusia Bar Road

How a snake made my day

August 31, 2013

The urge to take nature photographs is in some ways a curse.   I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the APA’s  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders includes wildlife photography as a distinguishable variant of OCD.    My frequent field/photo buddy John and I were talking about this just a couple of days ago.  John’s camera body had become frozen in Err mode; no matter what he did to it, it continued to flash the generic error message and would do nothing else.   He was a bit distraught about the prospect of going into the field to look for critters without a camera.  I share his angst.   I have trouble separating any aspect of natural history study from the compulsion to take pics of the object of my interest.   I’m sure I would be a better birder if I occasionally ditched the camera and just looked at birds.  In fact I do that when I teach Ornithology and lead field trips, but only because the mental dexterity required to look for birds, communicate effectively with the students, and try to take photos simultaneously usually exceeds my limited mental resources.   I lead those field trips with a small amount of trepidation that some amazing photo op will present itself during the trip and I won’t capture it.   Another downside of the photography bug manifests as a sense of incompleteness on those occasions when I do go into the field to natural historize and take photos, and no photo opportunities are to be had.   Any time spent in the field is still incomparably rewarding, but for me it’s diminished somewhat if I don’t get at least a photo or two that I find satisfactory.

That was the state of affairs this morning, as I hit the road to try to find some fall migrants.  Preferably warblers.  Armed with my brand new DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer, the plan was to hit some reliable spots and maybe explore some new ones.   What a resource that volume is – my old copy, which I probably paid something around $15 for more than 20 years ago, was terminal.  The covers were ripped and detached.  Several of the individual maps for areas I visit often were also torn loose and stuck between the still-attached pages.  Still, maybe the best $15 I’ve ever spent.  I’ve used and abused the hell out of my old Gazetteer.  So I finally sprung for the $25 to buy a new one.  I’m not the most digitally connected guy on the planet (don’t own a smartphone), but I do make frequent use of Google Earth to plan trips into new areas.  The wealth of information available from aerial imagery is truly stunning.  Still, I like using good old-fashioned paper maps.  There’s something very comforting to me about having a detailed map on the passenger seat when I’m visiting a site for the first time.  Unanticipated benefit of the upgrade – many of the roads, and other aspects of the landscape such as boundaries of state and federal public lands, had changed since my old one was published.  Who knew?

Worm-eating warbler

Worm-eating warbler

I hit a couple of my favorite patches close to home soon after sunrise; the entrance road to Lake Woodruff NWR, Chuck Lennon Park in DeLeon Springs, DeLeon Springs State Park, but not much was happening.  There were a few decent birds (let’s be honest; there’s really no such thing as an indecent bird) around, but absolutely nothing happening photo wise.  I saw my FOS worm-eating warbler at Woodruff, but never came close to getting a photo of that handsome little parulid.   One of the not uncommon migrants that is on my photo want list.  I have some mediocre, ID-level shots of these understatedly elegant little warblers, but am still waiting for that primo photo op in spectacular light. Not this morning, though.  So even that sighting, of a warbler I don’t see very often, was somehow lessened in impact because I had no tangible evidence of having seen it.  And I think for me that’s a big part of what photography represents – a  hunter/collector approach to the natural world.  When I see something that excites me in the field, I want a trophy to commemorate the occasion.

Chuck Lennon produced a handful of passerines, but all were common species, and most were residents.  A red-eyed vireo or two, several northern parulas, blue-gray gnatcatchers, cardinals, Carolina wrens, and so on.  A bunch of killdeer were on one of the baseball diamonds, but way too far away for photography, and therefore of limited appeal.  Nothing of note at DeLeon Springs, though I spent only a few moments there.  Too many people.

Next on the agenda was the Bluffton area of Lake George State Forest, a site I’ve visited only a few times in the last year or two.  A few birds moving, but all the same stuff I’d seen earlier.  It was around 9:30 or so by this point, and I was getting bummed.  I hadn’t taken a photo yet, and the magic light of morning was done.   On sunny mornings, for me the best light for wildlife photography starts about 30-45 minutes after sunrise (I’m not a fan of the overly warm “golden light” that sometimes occurs right after sunrise; white birds that appear yellow or even orange don’t appeal to me much), and lasts until no later than an hour and a half after sunrise.   I’ll still take pics after that period, but the richness and accuracy of color and detail continue to degrade as the morning wears on.   Never mind the fact that I was having a perfectly lovely morning in beautiful habitats, seeing some cool birds and neat flora, and just in general soaking up the outdoor experience; I was still dissatisfied at some fundamental level because I had no photos to show for my morning.

The only bird I photographed today, a prairie warbler

The only bird I photographed today, a prairie warbler

DeLorme on the seat beside me, I left Bluffton and headed for new territories.  Riley Pridgeon Road travels north from SR40 through some parts of Lake George State Forest I’d never been to.   Which is always cool, but the several miles of forest roads I drove were similar to other parts of the forest I’ve been to – a lot of fairly young pine plantation, which is structurally pretty simple and uniform, and consequently low in bird diversity.  Patchiness and ecotones increase diversity.  I picked up my first prairie warblers of the morning, and even got photo ops of one, but they were marginal at best.  In the dappled light of a winged sumac shrub, I knew they would be cluttered and unevenly lit.  Happy to get them, but also still dissatisfied with the morning as a whole.

Volusia Bar Road

Volusia Bar Road

By 10:30 I was thinking about calling it quits and heading home.  I had taken Volusia Bar Road to its dead end near the shore of Lake George, and passed through some fantastic looking habitat, so I was kind of jazzed about the prospect of coming back when there were actually BIRDS present, but they weren’t happening just then.  In particular, I found about a quarter-mile stretch of the road bordering a slough, surrounded by a dense 15-20 foot high stand of  red maple, with direct morning light.  It reminded me very much of a similar piece of habitat at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area where I consistently saw good concentrations of warblers and other migrants when birds were moving.   Definitely a spot to return to later in the season as the magnitude of migration increases.  No evidence of that this morning thought.

Cottonmouth

Cottonmouth

So returning eastwards on Volusia Bar Road, I was ecstatic to see a big snake crossing the road ahead.  My first looks were strongly backlit – all I could tell at first was that it was a heavy-bodied snake.  I’ve been hoping to find an eastern diamondback crossing the road for the last several years, and for a second or two it seemed like this might be it.   But the habitat was pure cottonmouth, and as I got a bit closer it became clear that’s what it was.  No matter.  Big, beautiful, healthy-looking snake, completely exposed, in no hurry to get across the road – photo ops.  Here’s what I’d been looking for all morning.

Agkistrodon pisc_08312013-05_Volusia Bar Road

Agkistrodon pisc_08312013-02_Volusia Bar Road

Cottonmouths can be common as dirt in the flatwoods and their associated roadside ditches, depressions, and swales that hold standing water at times, so it wasn’t like it was some amazing rarity I’d turned up.   After pigmy rattlesnakes, cottonmouths are the most common venomous snake in central Florida.  Back in the late ‘90’s, before the catastrophic summer of wildfires in ’98, Terry Farrell and I used to make frequent trips to Tiger Bay State Forest in the spring to find cottonmouths.  Road-cruising up Gopher Ridge Road, we would at times find as many as 30-40 cottonmouths in an afternoon.  From the road.   Most were in roadside ditches and pools that were shrinking late in the dry season, concentrating the small fish and tadpoles into a dense stew of snake food.   Cottonmouths would gorge themselves on the hapless fish, which in the final stages of pool shrinkage, had absolutely nowhere to escape to.  The snakes would at times prise nearly dead fish or tadpoles out of the damp mud.  Unfortunately, the wildfire summer of ’98 drastically changed the ecological dynamics and hydrology of that section of Tiger Bay, so such fantastic aggregations are no more.

Agkistrodon pisc_08312013-38_Volusia Bar Road

 

Agkistrodon pisc_08312013-15_Volusia Bar Road

So I had tons of photos of cottonmouths, doing things vastly more interesting than crossing a road.  But on this particular day, for me that animal might just as well have been a first Volusia County record of a canebrake rattlesnake or something similarly spectacular.   And she was totally cooperative.  She let me drive to within about 10’ of her for my initial bout of record shots, and then stayed right where she was while I jockeyed the car back and forth to catch her from several angles.  She was acutely aware of my presence, tracking me visually and tongue-flicking occasionally.  But she wasn’t threatened at all – not once did she do the signature cottonmouth gape, vibrate her tail, rear to strike, or show any other sign of an aggressive or defensive response.  Cottonmouths (and pigmy rattlesnakes) have gotten a bad rap for their supposed aggressiveness; they will certainly go bad ass when forced into a defensive situation, but they would far rather stay chill and crawl away without any fanfare.  Whit Gibbons and his colleagues at the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology lab have documented the mostly amiable responses of cottonmouths to human provocation.    Pigmy rattlesnakes are similarly demonized as being overly aggressive, but that just ain’t so either.

After our photo shoot, she crawled slowly off the road using the concertina style.

After our photo shoot, she crawled slowly off the road using the concertina style.

So to any of my friends among the serpent kingdom who might be contemplating crossing that road I’m traveling at some point in the future, I say this:  Go ahead. Make my day.

YEWA_EMCA_082813

Habitat is everything

August 27, 2013

Yellow warbler female.  Chuck Lennon Park, DeLeon Springs.

Yellow warbler female. Chuck Lennon Park, DeLeon Springs.

I tend to think of most birds as being more specialized in their choice of habitat during the breeding season than at other times of year.   One of my favorite groups of neotropical migrants is the warblers.  Many warbler species breed mostly in one habitat, but occur in a wide range of habitat types during migration.  Cape Mays, blackpolls, yellow-rumps – all are breeding birds primarily of spruce-fir forest, yet when passing through Florida on their way to or from the tropics, they can be found at times in pine forests, hammocks, disturbed areas, gardens, and so on.  In the case of the ubiquitous yellow-rump, I’ve seen them on numerous occasions foraging in aquatic habitats along with palm warblers, gleaning insects off of floating mats of water lettuce.

Yellow warbler, Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area

Yellow warbler, Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area

Yellow warblers are, for me, an entirely different story.  This morning while doing a quick scouting trip for my upcoming Ornithology field trips, I saw my first yellow warbler of the season. This species has one of the largest breeding ranges of any North American warbler, extending from the Carolinas up into the maritime provinces of Canada, all across the prairie provinces and through most of Alaska, and down into the mountains of Mexico and Baja California. In Florida, they breed only in south Florida and the Keys, nesting in mangroves.  Throughout the rest of the state, they are transient migrants only.  In recent years, I’ve seen yellow warblers very infrequently in Florida, and nearly always as lone individuals.  It’s always been a puzzle to me why I don’t see them more often.

Yellow warbler, Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area.

Yellow warbler, Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area.

That hasn’t always been the case, though.  For nearly seven years, between January 2000 and October 2006, I conducted weekly bird surveys for the St Johns Water Management District at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area, and when yellow warblers were passing through, I saw them in huge numbers.  During August and September, they were often the most abundant migrant I saw, sometimes in numbers of more than 100 in a day.  All but one of the photographs here are scans from old slides taken when I was doing the Emeralda surveys.

It wasn't uncommon to see as many as 10 yellow warblers in one tree, though getting them all in one photograph is challenging.

It wasn’t uncommon to see as many as 10 yellow warblers in one tree, though getting them all in one photograph is challenging.

The graph below shows their pattern of seasonal occurrence and abundance at Emeralda; each point represents one day’s census, and the fitted line is an average of all 7 years’ data.  A couple of things stand out.  One is simply abundance.   Yellow warblers are among the earliest of the migrating warblers; they first show up in late July, along with the first prairie warblers, but they usually far outnumbered the prairies.   The second striking feature of this figure is the complete absence of migrating yellow warblers in spring.  Never saw one.  This coincides with the conclusions of Stevenson and Anderson in The Birdlife of Florida; they categorize yellow warblers as an uncommon to rare spring migrant, and the number of structure-killed specimens is overwhelmingly biased towards the late summer and fall.   It seems that this species takes different migratory pathways in spring and fall.

Seasonal pattern of yellow warbler abundance at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area

Seasonal pattern of yellow warbler abundance at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area

Still, that doesn’t explain why yellow warblers can be so overwhelmingly abundant at one site, and so hard for me to find at others.  I think it’s due to their unusual degree of habitat specificity when they are migrating.  The areas where I reliably found them at Emeralda were fairly uniform, though Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area contains a diversity of habitats.   I almost always found yellow warblers there at ecotones between open hammock or willow thickets and nearby wetlands.  My survey route at EMCA included several miles of levee roads passing through this type of habitat.  I don’t recall ever seeing yellows actually in the many patches of hammock scattered along my route, only at the edges.   Edges and proximity to open wetlands (wet prairie, marsh, impoundments) seem to be the keys to attracting yellows when they are passing through Florida.

Yale-Griffin Canal levee, Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area.  The fringing willows and extensive surrounding wetlands provide ideal habitat for migrating yellow warblers.

Yale-Griffin Canal levee, Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area. The fringing willows and extensive surrounding wetlands provide ideal habitat for migrating yellow warblers.

I don’t bird much in those kinds of habitats these days, now that I’m no longer one of the privileged few that has unfettered access to drive through Emeralda when the yellows are passing through in large numbers.   My people don’t do wetlands much.  Unless there’s a levee or boardwalk passing through them, any kind of wetland is pretty much off-limits  to those of us who travel on four wheels.    That’s not how we roll.

Yellow warblers in willow.  Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area.

Yellow warblers in willow. Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area.

When I’m birding in late summer and find clumps of willows or a woodland edge up against a wetland, I’m always looking for yellows, but have never found them anywhere else in such abundance as Emeralda.  It’s probably a matter of scale.   Emeralda is a relatively big chunk of contiguous habitat (over 7000 acres), the largest proportion of which comprises wetlands and impoundments.  These wetlands are surrounded and bisected by miles of levees, many of which produce exactly the sorts of habitat conditions the yellows seem to crave.   One part of my census route, the levee paralleling the Yale-Griffin canal, was nearly two miles long, bounded on the north and south along most of it length by shallow impoundments, and featuring a corridor of dense willows along nearly it’s entire length.  There were nearly always yellow warblers there in August and early September.

Yellow warbler, Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area

Yellow warbler, Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area

Conservation biologists stress the importance of preserving big chunks of habitat, and decry the fragmentation of habitat into little postage-stamp sized pieces surrounded by completely dissimilar, often developed, habitats. Even though floristically and structurally small tracts may be virtually identical to larger pieces of habitat, they don’t maintain the same levels of diversity as large, undisturbed areas do.   Habitat selection by migrating yellow warblers illustrates that point beautifully.

Passiflora sandh_08242013-00_Ocala NF Paisley

The immensity of it

August 24, 2013

It’s taken me a lot of years living in north and central Florida to fully appreciate the vastness and diversity of Ocala National Forest.  I first became aware of what a huge tract of undeveloped, relatively pristine habitat it is when I first moved to Florida, to attend grad school in Gainesville.  I’d guess that during the 9 years I lived in Gainesville, I visited the forest maybe a dozen times or thereabouts.  Not much.   I’ve lived in DeLand for a couple of decades, but it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve begun a somewhat concerted effort to comb the forest roads and get to know it a little more intimately.  It’s these recent efforts, kind of nibbling around the edges, that have made me truly grok how much of it there is to see. And I’ve barely scratched the surface.  I’m beginning to get a better feel for the eastern parts of the forest; the Juniper Springs Wilderness, Hopkin’s Prairie, Riverside Island, the Paisley Road and nearby sections of Alexander Springs Wilderness, and so on.  But the northern and western parts of the forest are still pretty much a big black box.

Regenerating scrub with some ancients behind.  Forest Road 06

Regenerating scrub with some ancients behind. Forest Road 06

It’s surprising that I’ve spent so little time exploring Ocala National Forest until fairly recently.  In the first couple of years I lived in DeLand, when Terry Farrell and I were going through our young hooligan phase of faculty development, we spent many, many afternoons road-cruising the Paisley Road region, looking for snakes, birds, lizards, insects, cool plants (but only the cool ones; just looking for plants isn’t particularly challenging), and the nearest Kangaroo Mart from which to pick up our next six-pack.  But only for the passenger, because drinking and driving is so wrong.   We made the dubious decision at some point to replace road-cruising and having fun with doing field research on pigmy rattlesnakes, which occupied a significant chunk of our free time for the next decade.   So Paisley Road and all the other enticing destinations in Ocala went on the back burner.

Paisley Road

Paisley Road

Even some parts of the forest relatively close to DeLand remained unvisited until recently.  Case in point — Forest Road 06.  This minor forest road is only 5 or 6 miles long, but is divided into a north section and a south section by a stream of variable depth and unknown substrate flowing across the road.  Terry and I cruised the northern section of 06, accessed by taking the Paisley Road about 4 miles north of its intersection with SR42 in Paisley, many times;  I bird there solo once or twice a month during fall and winter.  But I’ve never had the nerve to try to ford the stream.  Up until last year, I’d never investigated the south section of FR06, even though I pass its intersection with State Road 42 all the time when driving to the Paisley area.  When I finally drove this fairly short stretch of well-maintained sand road, I found a delightful variety of habitats there, including some extensive tracts of regenerating scrub still bearing hundreds of snags of the mature sand pines that grew there before it burned sometime in the last few years.  Full of red-headed woodpeckers, flickers, and other woodpeckers as you would expect, but almost apocalyptic in its feel on a gloomy, fog-bound morning.

Sunrise in the scrub graveyard. Forest Road 06

Sunrise in the scrub graveyard. Forest Road 06

Forest Road 06 and the Paisley area was my destination this morning.  I was hoping to dig up a few migrants, but not really expecting it.  Mostly, it was an exercise to try and hone my bird-spotting skills a bit before my fall term Ornithology class begins in earnest and I have to lead a dozen sharp-eyed kids on bird quests.  If memory serves me correctly (rarely does), when I first began teaching Ornithology it seems like I was always the first to spot distant birds.  In recent years, students have been beating me to the punch on a regular basis.  Maybe it’s not about me at all; perhaps students are more field-competent these days.  Probably not.  Whatever, I want to be on top of how ever much game I have left once the field trips begin.

Scrub with chalky bluestem, Andropogon virginicus var glaucus

Scrub with chalky bluestem, Andropogon virginicus var glaucus

Foggy morning.  If I tried really hard I could almost convince myself there was a bit of chill.   Slow-rolling up FR06 a little after sunrise¸ listening to Trampled by Turtles, totally grooving on the melancholy music and somber surroundings.  Experiencing that spiritual recharging I think so many of us feel when we are in nature.  Not much happening with birds, but that’s cool.  It’s the immensity of it, the entire experience.

Eastern towhee, male

Eastern towhee, male

I spent some time photographing Carolina wrens and eastern towhees, both species tattered from their ongoing molt. But as a wise photographer (that would be you, Bone) once told me, we take what we’re given.   Scattered along the roadside I saw several clumps of chalky bluestem, Andropogon virginicus.   Beautiful plant – I just noticed it a couple of months ago.   I thought on the first time I saw it that it must be quite uncommon, or I would surely have noticed it before.  My attempts at ID were unproductive; it was identified for me by my Consulting Botanist.  Now that I know what it is, I see it everywhere.  It’s that plant thing again – too many of them, and far too much similarity within some groups.

Eastern towhee female and male

Eastern towhee female and male

Carolina wren

Carolina wren

Carolina wren

Carolina wren

A bit further up I spotted a fox squirrel doing its syncopated lope up the roadside, and I slowed down a bit to try and stalk.  He immediately headed up the nearest pine, and for the next 15-20 minutes we played a game of patience.  He picked a comfortable perch and watched me.   My initial intent was to wait until he got tired of waiting in his isolated tree, and photograph him as he descended the trunk, perhaps posing on a picturesque branch or stub on his way down.  My capacity for self-delusion never fails to surprise me.  I can’t sit in one place for longer than five minutes tops if nothing is going on; every time I started the car and eased up the road a bit closer, he climbed higher to a new comfortable perch.  I gave up in less than half an hour. He totally kicked my ass.   I actually felt bad for the little dude – he had really skeevy looking skin lesions at several spots.   Raw, open wounds.  I’m guessing they’re emergence sites of bot fly larvae that have become inflamed after the parasites dropped.  Whatever, they’re pretty gross, and can’t be very comfortable for the little man.

Fox squirrel.  A good-looking animal from this angle.

Fox squirrel. A good-looking animal from this angle.

Notice the open lesion on his side.

Notice the open lesion on his side.

Seemed comfortable despite his skin issues.

Seemed comfortable despite his skin issues.

Look at me getting all verklempt about one parasite-ridden fox squirrel, when I shoot gray squirrels in my yard by the boatload.  Go figure.

Chalky bluestem

Chalky bluestem

Chalky bluestem

Chalky bluestem

Winged sumac, Rhus copallina

Winged sumac, Rhus copallina

A syrphid fly in the genus Palpada, feeding on winged sumac flowers

A syrphid fly in the genus Palpada, feeding on winged sumac flowers

Battus polydamas_091910_011_620 COC

Plant it and they will come

August 18, 2013

A Polydamas or gold-rim swallowtail that has just emerged from its chrysalis.

A Polydamas or gold-rim swallowtail that has just emerged from its chrysalis.

This is a Polydamas swallowtail, Battus polydamas, one of the tailless swallowtails.  Up until a few years ago I had only seen them on a couple of occasions, and then only briefly.  Now I see them every summer for months on end; sometimes there are a half-dozen or more flying around my yard.  The reason for this quantum leap in the frequency with which I see them is easy to explain – I planted their larval foodplant in my garden.

This freshly emerged adult had a purple powder on his head and thorax.  No idea what that is.

This freshly emerged adult had a purple powder on his head and thorax. No idea what that is.

By itself, that’s not surprising at all.  One of the prime directives of butterfly gardening is to plant a variety of plants that are hosts to the caterpillars of the butterflies you’d like to attract.  It works.  What is suprising to me, though, is that these Polydamas swallowtails,  which by my reckoning are pretty uncommon, so rapidly find new patches of larval host plant and exploit them.

Pelican flower, Aristolochia grandiflora, blooming with Senna bicapsularis, Christmas Senna.

Pelican flower, Aristolochia grandiflora, blooming with Senna bicapsularis, Christmas Senna

I bought the house I currently live in a little over 5 years ago, and like most new houses in typical subdivisions, the landscaping was pretty bland, generic and mostly non-native.  So I began planting for wildlife, concentrating on plants that provide nectar for insects or hummingbirds, fruits for birds, and caterpillar food for a selected set of lepidopterans.  One of those plants was Aristolochia grandiflora, or pelican flower, an aggressive vine native to the Caribbean and Central America.  Polydamas swallowtails, as well as their close relative the pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor), are highly specialized feeders as larvae, feeding only on pipevines in the genus Aristolochia.  I’ve never seen any of the 7 native species of Aristolochia that occur in Florida.   Of the two native Battus species, I see pipevine swallowtails far more often than Polydamas, but still don’t consider them common.

Polydamas swallowtail eggs. They seem to normally lay them in small clusters.

Polydamas swallowtail eggs. They seem to normally lay them in small clusters.

Within a few months after the pelican flower vine I planted started growing vigorously in its second year, the Polydamas swallowtails found it, colonized my yard, and have been a continuous presence every summer since.  Sometimes there are so many caterpillars they almost entirely defoliate my single vine, which covers most of a 4 x 6’ trellis.   One of the  advantages of rarity in a plant is that it makes it unlikely that specialized herbivores will find and consume it.  Escape in space and time is what ecologists sometimes call that strategy.   Polydamas swallowtails seem to have countered that rarity strategy pretty effectively with their incredible ability to find and exploit these widely scattered plants.

The question that remains unanswered for me is, how do they do it?

Mating pair

Mating pair

Female laying eggs on pipevine

Female laying eggs on pipevine

Young Battus caterpillars that have just shed their first-instar exoskeleton.

Young Battus caterpillars that have just shed their first-instar exoskeleton.

Early instar Polydamas caterpillars.  They are gregarious when small, but become more solitary in later instars.

Early instar Polydamas caterpillars. They are gregarious when small, but become more solitary in later instars.

Middle-instar caterpillars

Middle-instar caterpillars

Late-instar Battus caterpillar

Late-instar Battus caterpillar

Late-instar larva of Battus polydamas everting the osmeterium

Late-instar larva of Battus polydamas everting the osmeterium

Chrysalis

Chrysalis 

Eclosing adult.

Eclosing adult.

Whatever the answer, I’m glad they do. The caterpillars are big honkers when approaching pupation, sometimes boldly tiger-striped. As is typical of swallowtail caterpillars, they have a pair of fleshy horn-like protuberances (the osmeterium) that they can evert from their head when alarmed. They exude a not-unpleasant, to me, odor that may repel some potential predators. It’s also been suggested it looks like the forked tongue of a snake, which may afford the caterpillars some protection through a form of mimicry. So the caterpillars are cool to have around. Then there are the adult butterflies. What an entertaining lep to watch these guys are; they are like rockets, zipping from foodplant to nectar source at what seems to me to be among the fastest flight speeds seen in swallowtails. They never stop – even when nectaring, they are constantly hovering, just barely supporting their weight with extended legs. When not feeding, the males are like jet pilots engaged in dogfights with their high-speed chases, stoops, and climbs. They also frequently chase other butterflies, and sometimes even small birds that dare to cross their airspace. Bad ass.

Polydamas swallowtail nectaring at Salvia coccinea

Polydamas swallowtail nectaring at Salvia coccinea

The closely related pipevine swallowtail, Battus philenor.  I've had them in my gardens a few time, but not as frequently as the Polydamas.

The closely related pipevine swallowtail, Battus philenor. I’ve had them in my gardens a few time, but not as frequently as the Polydamas.

 

SNKI_08142013-29_Joe Overstreet R

LIFER!!!

August 14, 2013

I’d rather have someone “ram hot spikes up my tail”, as Mojo Nixon so eloquently put it, than drive on I-4 through Orlando.  How people do that every day will forever be a mystery to me.  Because they have to, I guess.  Nonetheless, I subjected myself to that ordeal yesterday to see some different habitats and some birds I don’t see often.  Or at all, in the case of the snail kite.  My buddy John Serrao and I made the trek to Osceola County to look for some of the birds of the Florida prairies and the extensive wetlands of central Florida.  He ventured on the way down that since our previous few trips had all featured some pretty spectacular sightings of one type of raptor or another, today’s trip should follow suit.  Prophetic.

Prairie cattle_08142013-04_Joe Overstreet

Early morning cattle pasture on the praries of Joe Overstreet Road.

I’m not a twitcher or chaser, or much of a life lister.  The last life bird I saw was the Flagler County Cassin’s kingbird first spotted by birding guru Michael Brothers earlier this year.  But I didn’t go chasing that bird; it was in an area I bird occasionally anyway.  Before that, I’m not even sure what my last lifer was.  Maybe a purple swamphen I found at Emeralda Marsh back in 2004.   I get my birding rocks off by trying to intimately learn a handful of sites relatively close to home.  I rarely drive to locations further than 50 miles from my home; 10-20 miles is more typical.  I’m a patch birder, in the current jargon.

Still, I’m more than a little embarrassed to admit that after more than 3 decades of living and natural historizing in Florida, I had never seen a snail kite.

Dry prairie_08142013-02_Joe Overstreet

Dry prairie. Joe Overstreet Road

I’ve been hearing and reading about the sometimes fabulous birding and photography opportunities on Joe Overstreet Rd., on the east side of Lake Kissimmee, for decades, and have had a longstanding intention to check it out.  A pair of posts by Facebook friends and birders in the past week with excellent photos of a snail kite taken at the boat ramp at the end of Joe Overstreet finally prompted me to take the plunge and make the drive.  We survived I-4, but had absolutely no fun doing so.

Osceola County, and in particular Canoe Creek Road and Joe Overstreet, was a delight.  Almost like visiting a new life zone for me.  It’s been decades since I have spent any significant time in these dry prairie habitats.  Most striking to me was the sense of space and openness afforded by these savannah-like grasslands and wetlands.  The mosaic of distinct habitats and ecotones delimiting them is so different from the sites where I do most of my birding, less than a hundred miles north.  Open mesic flatwoods, perfectly formed and symmetrical cypress domes, depression wetlands, shallow eutrophic lakes and ponds and the live oak hammocks fringing them – they all come together to form a gorgeous landscape.  Truly a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

Cypress dome surrounded by prairie.  Joe Overstreet Road

Cypress dome surrounded by prairie. Joe Overstreet Road

Our first drive down Joe Overstreet, during the prime hour or so of morning light, produced no photo ops at all other than habitats and landscapes.  The primary target, the boat ramp snail kite, was nowhere to be found.  We passed a pair of crested caracaras high in a roadside pine along Canoe Creek Road en route to Joe Overstreet, but the viewing conditions were so backlit and marginal we didn’t even stop to check them out.  We’ll get them on Joe Overstreet for sure, we assured ourselves.  Our first pass produced no birds of extraordinary interest, though.  Lots of cool stuff – many eastern meadowlarks and loggerhead shrikes, some common aquatic stuff at Lake Kissimmee, and a ton of Eurasian collared doves along with the mourning and ground doves, but no caracaras or kites.   Several indifferent white-tailed deer were along the roadsides, but they are mammals after all, and not really a cause for much excitement.

Eurasian collared dove

Eurasian collared dove

White-tailed deer

White-tailed deer

Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, just a few miles down Canoe Creek Road, was very much like Joe Overstreet with respect to bird finding.  Very cool habitats and ecotones, but no distinctive birds.  We ran into one small mixed-species flock in one of the hammocks that included both male and female American redstarts (my FOS male redstart), a prairie warbler or two, a northern parula, several blue-gray gnatcatchers, some titmice, and the ever-present Carolina wrens.  No lifers there though.

Palmetto prairie.  Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area.

Palmetto prairie. Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area.

Prairie warbler in the hammock.  Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area

Prairie warbler in the hammock. Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area

Open mesic flatwoods.  Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area

Open mesic flatwoods. Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area

Lake Jackson, with lotus (Nelumbo lutea) in flower.

Lake Jackson, with lotus (Nelumbo lutea) in flower.

Further east on Canoe Creek Road, we checked another boat ramp on Lake Marian reputed to sometimes host snail kites.  Nothing there.  We were treated to great looks and decent photo ops of an adult bald eagle in a pine tree, in the company of a large flock of molting boat-tailed grackles.  Still, a lovely but thoroughly vanilla morning to that point.

Bald eagle.  Canoe Creek Road

Bald eagle. Canoe Creek Road

WHIB_08142013-06_Canoe Creek Rd

White ibis. Canoe Creek Road

The second trip down Joe Overstreet as we passed it on our way north did the trick.  As soon as we approached the boat ramp, both of us spotted a brownish raptor on one of the dock pilings.  Many of those pilings bore empty apple snail shells or opercula, so clearly this is a favored feeding spot of the snail kite.  And there it was.  We nearly micturated all over ourselves.   For the next 15 minutes or so, we were treated to wonderful, close views of this incredibly specialized raptor.   We decarred and cautiously approached the kite, now sitting at the top of small sabal palm growing right by the boat ramp.  The bird, either a female or immature (I’m leaning towards immature) paid us absolutely no mind other than to curiously peer down at us.  We had extended looks at that bird, albeit horribly backlit, from about 20 feet away.  We had absolutely crippling views.  I feel particularly well qualified to label them as such.  Eventually the kite flew down to one of the pilings to give us eye-level views in full front lighting.  When it finally flew off, the characteristic white rump was like a beacon bidding us farewell.    SNKI_08142013-33_Joe Overstreet RSeveral purple gallinules, a limpkin, two caracaras bathing in a cattle watering trough, flocks of hundreds of cattle egrets wheeling and swirling amidst some skeletal live oaks, a wood stork, and a very entertaining hatch-year loggerhead shrike trying to solve the puzzle of how to eat a large darner dragonfly were icing on the cake as we left Joe Overstreet.

Juvenile snail kite.  Joe Overstreet Road

Juvenile snail kite. Joe Overstreet Road

SNKI_08142013-04_Joe Overstreet R

Juvenile snail kite. Joe Overstreet Road

SNKI_08142013-25_Joe Overstreet R

Juvenile snail kite. Joe Overstreet Road

Cattle egrets

Cattle egrets

Wood stork

Wood stork

Young loggerhead shrike with prey

Young loggerhead shrike with prey

To quote Jeff Spiccoli, “Awesome.  Totally awesome”.

Zebra swallowtail, Eurytides marcellusw

Small flowers, big diversity

August 8, 2013

Feay's prairie clover, Dalea feayi

Feay’s prairie clover, Dalea feayi

I like plant ecologists and botanists.  Some of my best friends over the years have leaned towards the botanical.  They have my sympathy, and my respect.  There are just too many plants to keep track of.  I’ve spent 30+ years in the terrestrial habitats typical of central and north Florida, and I still see plant species all the time about which I am totally clueless.  That contrasts sharply with  birds.  I’m not a twitcher or big lister; I don’t even know what my life list totals.  Not even in the ballpark, really.  I haven’t taken the time to tally them up in over a decade.   Still, I’m fairly confident that any bird I might ever encounter in Florida will be familiar to me somewhat, at least at a superficial level.  Not saying that I would be able to identify any bird correctly,  but at least I’d have a pretty good idea of what it was.  Even if I were to someday encounter something as bizarre as the Bosque Del Apache NWR Rufous-necked wood rail seen a few weeks back in New Mexico, I would at least recognize it as a rail.

Feay's prairie clover, Dalea feayi

Feay’s prairie clover, Dalea feayi

With plants though, I see stuff that mystifies me on a regular basis.  This happened a couple of weeks ago when I was birding in Juniper Prairie Wilderness and noticed an abundant roadside plant with profuse pink pom-pom clusters of flowers,  scattered all along the roadsides.   Absolutely could not miss seeing it.  But I had no clue what it was.  No recollection of ever seeing it before, which doesn’t necessarily mean that I hadn’t seen it before.   But it’s always something of a shock when this happens in a habitat or area I visit fairly frequently.  How could I have not noticed this incredibly apparent plant before?

Then comes the ID dance of uncertainty.  I learned plant taxonomy from Radford, Bell and Ahles’ classic  book,  Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas, so I know how to use a dichotomous key.   But I’ll do nearly anything to avoid it.  These days, the more appropriate manual for me is Wunderlin’s Guide to the Vascular Plants of Central Florida, but I’m even more averse to using that book.  At least Radford, Bell and Ahles supplemented their ubiquitous and sometimes interminable keys and descriptions with clear, accurate line drawings of many of the plant species;  the Wunderlin flora is all keys and text descriptions.   Even if I follow a key to what I think might be a correct ID, there’s no picture there to confirm it.  I’m left flummoxed and uncertain.

Feay's prairie clover, Dalea feayi

Feay’s prairie clover, Dalea feayi

I’m an image-oriented dude.  Dichotomous keys are to be used only as an absolute last resort when I can’t match the plant to a clear, preferably color, photograph of the species I’m seeking to identify.   The sad fact is that there is not one image-based field guide to the flora of Florida that comes anywhere close to complete coverage.   Identifying a new plant is a multi-step process.   Check the field guides I have available, and if I’m really lucky, it will be there.  If not, the ISB (Institute for Systematic Botany) website, but that’s only useful if I have a guess or two about family or genus to begin refining the search.  If all else fails, I fall back on my consulting botanist.    I like botanists and plant ecologists.

Carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica.   Probably.

Carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica. Probably.

Dalea feayi is the roadside plant in question.  It took me a couple of weeks and a couple of visits to Juniper Prairie to finally figure it out.  Shameful, but true.  I am at best a marginal  field botanist.  Dalea feayi is a small but conspicuous plant in the family Fabaceae, the legumes.   My first impression, though, was that it was a composite (in the family Asteraceae), partly because of the tightly packed heads of small pink flowers, and partly because it is a mid-late summer bloomer.  The diversity of composites blooming in Florida increases in the fall, and many of the fall-flowering species are pink, lavender, or purple.   Think Garberia, Liatris, Carphephorus, Vernonia, and so on.  But in fact, Dalea feayi, or Feay’s prairie clover, is a legume, which I eventually figured out by following the tortuous path described above.

A scoliid wasp (Family Scoliidae) in the genus Campsomeris.   Perhaps either C.  plumipes or quadrimaculata.

A scoliid wasp (Family Scoliidae) in the genus Campsomeris. Perhaps either C. plumipes or quadrimaculata.

And what a cool legume it is.  Like many composites, which generally produce a concentration of relatively small flowers packed into a compact inflorescence, Dalea attracts a wide range of insect visitors.   Some pollinators, some probably not.   Not every insect that visits a particular flower species is an effective pollinator for that plant.   Pollinator/visitor diversity and abundance are strongly related to two characteristics of the flower – the length of the flower tube or dish (corolla), and the energetic rewards available to the insect visitors.  Flowers with long, tubular corollas exclude insects with short mouthparts, like many bees, and restrict access to those with long, tubular mouthparts, like butterflies.  The small, open individual  flowers on a Dalea inflorescence are accessible to most nectar-feeding insects.   And though the amount of nectar available per flower can be minuscule (a few 1000ths of a microliter,  in some composites, for example), the concentration of many minute, low-reward flowers in a small space means that foragers can exploit tens, hundreds, or in some cases thousands of individual flowers with very little movement.   Lots of small volumes of nectar, coupled with low energy costs while feeding, combine to make foraging at these flowers an energy-yielding process, even for relatively large insects with greater energy demands.  For many nectar-feeders, a burst of easily metabolized, energy-rich nutrients (sugar, mainly) is the main goal of the behavior.

A duskywing skipper in the genus Erynnis.

A duskywing skipper in the genus Erynnis.

A big-headed fly (Family Conopidae) in the genus Physocephalus or Physoconops.  Probably.

A big-headed fly (Family Conopidae) in the genus Physocephalus or Physoconops. Probably.

A scoliid wasp (Family Scoliidae) in the genus Campsomeris.   Perhaps either C.  plumipes or quadrimaculata.

A scoliid wasp (Family Scoliidae) in the genus Campsomeris. Perhaps either C. plumipes or quadrimaculata.

The visitors pictured here represent just a small proportion of the complete range of diversity I saw during just an hour or so of photographing a big patch of Dalea.  Not photographed were many (> a dozen?) species of small bees that comprised the majority of visitors to these flowers.  More accessible and enticing to me, though, was the big stuff.   Butterflies and big bees and wasps.  Of particular interest this morning were the zebra swallowtails, which were perhaps the mellowest zebras I’ve ever had the good fortune to photograph.  These swallowtails, in my experience, are relatively infrequent flower foragers, compared to other swallowtails especially.  And they are little butterfly rockets – they zip from one flower to another when feeding, never stop fluttering their wings, and  typically don’t spend very long in one place.  But the zebras at Dalea on this day were amazingly approachable, and persistent when foraging  at a single plant cluster.  To which I say, cool.

Zebra swallowtail, Eurytides marcellusw

Zebra swallowtail, Eurytides marcellus

A scoliid wasp (Family Scoliidae) in the genus Campsomeris.   Perhaps either C.  plumipes or quadrimaculata.

A scoliid wasp (Family Scoliidae) in the genus Campsomeris. Perhaps either C. plumipes or quadrimaculata.

The other visitors that got me equally excited were the big black and yellow  Campsomeris wasps, in the family Scoliidae.  These handsome, and intimidating, wasps have a fascinating life-history strategy – they provision their young with beetle larvae, especially scarabs.  That’s not so unusual – lots of wasp groups paralyze prey of some type (spiders, caterpillars) and provision their nests with the living larder.  The Campsomeris wasps  are especially attractive to me simply because they are so big and colorful.  I’m pretty easily amused by big, bright colorful things.

RCWO_07012013-24_Ocala NF Riversi

In Search of Woodpeckers

August 8, 2013

Before January of this year, I had only seen red-cockaded woodpeckers on a handful of occasions. Okeefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Appalachicola National Forest, Withlacoochee State Forest – all relatively brief, distant sightings, all over a decade ago.  The species had developed for me a kind of mystique – a notion that these birds were elusive, aloof and difficult to observe.  I had read of field trips organized by birding festivals in central Florida to show birders this species, and they usually involved being in the field before sunrise, stationing the group near a nest cluster where the clan was roosting in old nest cavities, to catch the birds emerging from their overnight shelter before they began their extensive wanderings for the day.  I’m not one who enjoys birding with groups – to me it is best enjoyed by myself or with one or two friends.  I had mostly given up the idea of seeing or photographing red-cockadeds as a realistic goal.

Young barred owl hunting alongside SR19 in Ocala National Forest.

Young barred owl hunting alongside SR19 in Ocala National Forest.

In January I visited the Riverside Island tract of Ocala National Forest for the first time, prompted by Bill Pranty’s description of the red-cockaded nesting population there in his essential book, A Birder’s Guide to Florida .  All of my misimpressions about these fascinating little woodpeckers were exploded that morning.  I’ve been back to that site three times since, and on each occasion have had crippling views of not just the birds, but have also been fortunate enough to watch at some length the antics of these high-spirited birds as they wend their way through the forest like a traveling circus.  They are like no other woodpecker I’ve seen.

Disturbed sandhills habitat, dominated by turkey oak (Quercus laevis).

Disturbed sandhills habitat, dominated by turkey oak (Quercus laevis).

Yesterday, my friend and naturalist extraordinaire John Serrao and I returned to Riverside Island, and once again were treated to the spectacle of red-cockaded woodpeckers.  As you travel north on Forest Road 11, you pass through several variants of sandhills, one of the favored habitats of RCWOs.  Some areas, recently planted with new longleaf pine after harvest in the fairly recent past, are like pine plantations anywhere – uniform, ordered and relatively uninteresting.  Others have few or no longleaf pines, and are dominated by scattered turkey oaks, some quite impressive.  The typical nesting habitat of red-cockaded woodpeckers though, is the more mature tracts of sandhills, featuring large longleaf pines with an open understory and ground cover comprising wiregrass and other herbaceous flora.  The red-cockaded nest cavity trees, which tend to occur in clusters, are marked by the forest service with bands of white paint at their base.   There are numerous such nest tree clusters visible from FR11 in the Riverside Island tract.  It is in those areas where I’ve seen the woodpeckers in the past.

Sandhills habitat with longleaf pines.

Sandhills habitat with longleaf pines.

Thursday was one of those mornings that challenged my assertion that summer birding in Florida tends to be relatively boring; the summer doldrums strike birders everywhere, but are particularly noticeable in Florida with its relatively low breeding bird diversity.   On our drive north on SR19, we passed a young barred owl hunting the roadside from a large Forest Service sign cautioning hunters to be careful with firearms and fire.  This patient bird didn’t mind a couple of crazed photographers on the opposite side of the road capturing photons at a frantic pace, nor the big logging trucks that regularly roared by like locomotives.    He even dropped to the ground once while we were watching in an unsuccessful stoop, but returned to a new perch at the forest’s edge to resume his hunt.  He was still there when we drove off.  Traveling up FR11, once we had left the scrub habitat and passed into the turkey oak savannah, we saw in relatively short order a very tolerant red-tailed hawk juvie hunting from a skeletal turkey oak snag, a less congenial American kestrel warping away from us, and WOODPECKERS.  We began seeing red-headed woodpeckers regularly, and at one point stopped to photograph one that had flown into a picturesque pine snag right by the road.   Another red-head was nearby, calling back and forth with our target bird.

Red-headed woodpecker

Red-headed woodpecker

Quarrelsome red-headed woodpeckers

Quarrelsome red-headed woodpeckers

It was while we were working the red-heads that we first heard the traveling circus.  Red-cockaded woodpeckers, at least on all of the occasions I’ve seen them at Riverside, are incredibly vocal birds when they are foraging as a clan.  We heard the sputters and twitters of the clan in the distance, well before we saw them.    They headed in our direction, and in short order we were amidst a flock of at least 6 birds that maintained their nearly constant vocalizations and frenetic activity for the 15 minutes or so they stayed in the area.   The sociality of these birds is completely unlike any other woodpecker I’ve seen.  I commonly see other species traveling in pairs,  including flickers, pileateds, red-bellieds and downys.   Around my feeders at home, I sometimes get family groups of red-bellieds visiting early in the summer, with at times 2 or 3 fledglings following and harassing the parents.  In the red-bellieds, however, the patience of the parents for their fitness units is limited.  After a relatively brief time, the interaction between parents and offspring turns from nurturing to antagonism, with the adults attempting, with considerable resistance from the kids, to drive their offspring away.

Red-cockaded woodpecker

Red-cockaded woodpecker

Red-cockaded woodpecker

Red-cockaded woodpecker

Not so with the red-cockadeds.  They define family values.  The clan travels as an organized unit, moving in a coordinated fashion with nearly constant vocal signaling among clan members.  Especially curious to me is their wing-flash behavior.   Fairly frequently, individuals who have just landed will hold their wings extended directly above their back for just a split-second.  Clearly this is a signal or form of communication between flock members, but I have no idea what exactly is being communicated.  Nonetheless, it is a distinctive and delightful display.

Part of the clan.

Part of the clan.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers

Red-cockaded woodpeckers

The wing flash.

The wing flash.

While we were watching the red-cockaded clan, they were joined in the immediate area by a pileated woodpecker and a pair of downy woodpeckers.   If we could have added a flicker and a hairy woodpecker or two, we would have run the table on Florida’s breeding woodpeckers from one spot.  Something to hope for, but it seems unlikely.  While flickers are local and not always easily found, they are widespread, and common around the Riverside area.  Hairy woodpeckers, however, have become my remaining Florida picid nemesis.  I can’t find those birds to save my soul.

NOCA fem molt_08162013-00_Rodman Reservoir

Ratty birds

August 7, 2013

Two things strike me about this time every year when I go out to look at or photograph birds.  The first is that this is the worst time of year to watch birds in Florida.  Diversity is at the low point in its annual cycle, though that is changing every day as new migrants move into the state.  The second is that many passerines look pretty miserable at this time of year.

Carolina wren

Carolina wren

The reason for the first phenomenon, the low diversity of breeding birds in Florida, is a bit of a mystery.   The reason for the second is a little clearer.  Many birds are in the midst of their post-nuptial molt, in which they replace the plumage they wore for their reproductive activities for a new set of feathers that will last them until next year’s breeding season.  While absolutely necessary, molt isn’t a pretty thing.

Molt is quite a complicated phenomenon.  Among different species there is tremendous diversity in the patterns and timing of molt, and the resulting plumages.  In some groups of birds, like gulls, it can take several years for an individual to acquire the definitive adult plumage.  Each of the immature plumages can differ subtly from the others, making identification a challenge.  Even in smaller birds with more accelerated life cycles, which may molt into their first alternate (breeding) plumage at a little less than one year of age, there are major differences in the timing of molt between species, and even between individuals of the same species.  Below, for example, is a Carolina wren I photographed today that was traveling with the molting individual above.

Carolina wren

Carolina wren

The wren above is likely a young bird, hatched earlier in the summer.  The gape, a bit of soft tissue  looking something like lips, is visible at the base of the bill.  The color of the breast is a little paler than the adult pictured above as well.  While this juvenile wren is showing a smidgen of dishevelment, to my eye it is a vast improvement over the slovenly looking adult.  So individuals of the same species can be on different molt schedules.

Here are some pine warblers I photographed today that look like they are just coming off of a three-day bender.  These are young-of-the-year birds that are just acquiring their first basic (adult non-breeding) plumage.

Pine warbler

Pine warbler

Immature pine warbler molting from its dull juvenal plumage into its first adult plumage.

Immature pine warbler molting from its dull juvenal plumage into its first adult plumage.

Pine warbler

Pine warbler

Not all passerine species are looking so disreputable, though.  Here’s a red-eyed vireo photographed this morning, followed by a prairie warbler from a few days ago.

Red-eyed vireo

Red-eyed vireo

Prairie warbler

Prairie warbler

Admit it – those are some damned dapper little birds.  Why the difference?  Both of these species are neotropical migrants.  They leave the temperate latitudes in the fall to travel to the tropics (though a few prairie warblers will spend the winter in Florida).  Most migrants complete their post-nuptial molt before they begin their long-distance migration.  The extraordinary migratory flights of these birds demand a fresh plumage and all the aerodynamic advantages afforded by those new feathers.

Carolina wren

Carolina wren

Carolina wrens and pine warblers, on the other hand, are permanent residents.  They breed and overwinter in the state.  In many resident species, individuals maintain the same home ranges throughout the year.  This allows them the luxury of a more extended period of molt.  Molting is an expensive process – it requires a lot of energy and protein to produce a new set of feathers.   Molting and migrating simultaneously just isn’t practical for birds that must journey thousands of miles.

 

Cellithemis epon_07272013-01_L George CA

Missing Migrants

August 3, 2013

Sunrise at Lake George Conservation Area near Seville, FL

Sunrise at Lake George Conservation Area near Seville, FL.

After the impressive numbers of migrant warblers at Juniper Prairie a few days ago, I optimistically went looking for more this morning at Lake George Conservation Area, just west of Seville.  As is often the case when dealing with migrant passerines in Florida, though, it’s hard to predict from one day to the next what will turn up.

I left home a little after 6 to be at a small wet prairie on Combie Road in time for sunrise, at 6:46.  I barely made it, flying up Aces Rd in the post-dawn twilight to get there in time.  Sunrises can be unpredictable, too.  Not enough clouds on the horizon or particulates/vapor in the air to make ithis one really colorful or dramatic.  Once the sun rose above the treeline, it was bright yellow and overpowering.

A small wet prairie among the flatwoods.  The yellow flowers in the foreground are Polygala rugellii.

A small wet prairie among the flatwoods. The yellow flowers in the foreground are Polygala rugellii.

Bachman's sparrow carrying  prey back to the nest.

Bachman’s sparrow carrying prey back to the nest.

Still it was worth getting up to be there.  While I was jockeying around trying to find the best vantage point from which to shoot the sunrise, a blue grosbeak was singing from the mixed habitat to the west.  A few minutes later, I heard a Bachman’s sparrow singing at the wet prairie on Combie Rd.  I spotted and watched the sparrow sitting in a small pine for several minutes, singing a very soft subsong; he was carrying both a wolf spider and a cricket in his bill, and was still carrying them when he flew off.

Young eastern towhee still sporting juvenal plumage.

Young eastern towhee still sporting juvenal plumage.

Birds were immensely less impressive on this day compared to Ocala National Forest a couple of days earlier.  Nearly all were resident breeding species.  A few prairie warblers were the only migrants I saw. Mostly it was a morning to enjoy the habitat, the flora, and the non-avian fauna. Pluchea foetida, for example, was an attractive composite that I’d never noticed before.

Pluchea foetida

Pluchea foetida

The most interesting part of Lake George Conservation Area this morning,though, was Silver Pond Road, one of many roads in the area I hadn’t explored before.  I followed it for a couple of miles until it started to get dodgy.  About a mile in it became the boundary between the conservation area to the west, and pasture and mixed habitat on private property to the east.  Mostly I saw the same resident species I had been seeing all morning, but I did find some red-headed woodpeckers.  It’s always a welcome pleasure to find new sites for red-headed woodpeckers, which seem to be on the increase in Volusia County.

Zebra swallowtail nectaring at Diodia teres (I think).

Zebra swallowtail nectaring at Diodia teres.

The other interesting sighting on Silver Pond Rd was one or two zebra swallowtails, very fresh, nectaring persistently on Diodia growing in the road margins. These seem like very small flowers for a relatively large lep like a swallowtail, but he (they?) kept going back to them. I was driving like an idiot, zipping up the road a piece trying to anticipate the next nectaring spot, then scrambling to get the camera on target before they flew on.  I was only semi-successful.

I saw one hiker on that road, the only human I saw in the entire morning.  And that’s not a bad thing.

 

Scrub_08082013-01_Ocala NF Juniper

Juniper Prairie Warblers

July 31, 2013

Prairie warbler.

Prairie warbler.

There is hardly a month of the year when some birds aren’t migrating or engaged in some kind of nomadic or post-breeding movement in Florida.   Almost as soon as the last of the transient spring migrants have left the state (bobolinks and some of the shorebirds come to mind) sometime in mid-May, the first of the southerly moving birds begin to appear.   Still, summer birding in Florida tends to be relatively low in diversity, and mostly restricted to early or late in the day when the birds are most active and the temperature and humidity are at least somewhat tolerable.   Particularly for passerine birds, my favorites, Florida is dramatically and perplexingly low in breeding species.  So it’s always a great joy to me when “fall” passerine migration begins in earnest in late July and early August.  For some species, like yellow warblers, the peak of migration comes well before true fall, as delimited by the autumnal equinox, begins.    But I don’t see yellow warblers that much unless I happen to be in the right kind of habitat.   American redstarts, waterthrushes, and black-and-white warblers are also likely to appear as part of the vanguard of fall migration.  But it is the prairie warblers that really say to me that migration has begun.  They can be abundant at times, and very broad in their choice of habitat.  I saw my first prairie warbler of the season in my backyard on July 30, and that prompted me to hit the field on the 31st to look for these lovely little birds and their compatriots.

Juniper Prairie Wilderness in the Ocala National Forest has become one of my favorite places to look for passerines in the last couple of years.  This huge tract (roughly 14,000 acres) is bounded on the south by SR40, on the east by SR19, on the north by FR (Forest Road) 46, and on the west by FR33; within that huge expanse there are no fire roads or other access for motorized vehicles.   Hiking trails crisscross the wilderness and its mosaic of habitats, which include huge expanses of scrub in a variety of seral stages, “islands” of sandhill habitat dominated by longleaf pine, and a confusing array of aquatic, semi-aquatic, and seasonal wetlands that form in the depressions and basins characteristic of areas influenced by Karst topography.  This is the landscape written about by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in The Yearling; the area around Pat’s Island (one of the habitat islands of longleaf pine-dominated sandhills) was home to a small community of folks who farmed, hunted, and otherwise scratched a living from these often harsh habitats up until the 1930’s.

Extensive tract of oak scrub  in Juniper Prairie Wilderness.  New growth of Rusty Lyonia (Lyonia ferruginea) is very obvious right now.

Extensive tract of oak scrub in Juniper Prairie Wilderness. New growth of Rusty Lyonia (Lyonia ferruginea) is very obvious right now.

My birding in the wilderness is done almost entirely from the roads, though, since hiking trails through mostly soft sand are not particularly welcoming to my people.  In particular, FR46, which follows the northern boundary of the wilderness, is my favorite road for birding Juniper Prairie Wilderness.  In the approximately 5-mile stretch between SR19 and its intersection with FR33, it passes through a variety of types of scrub and some areas of open sandhills.  The older tracts of scrub, dominated by even-aged stands of sand pine, are typically lower in both bird and plant diversity than the more extensive areas of recently burned, harvested, or disturbed scrub, characterized by a rich variety of scrubby oaks and other sclerophyllous shrubby vegetation.

Juvenile Florida scrub jay surrounded by new growth of Rusty Lyonia (Lyonia ferruginea).

Juvenile Florida scrub jay surrounded by new growth of Rusty Lyonia (Lyonia ferruginea).

When you first enter the extensive tracts of Juniper Prairie scrub, a couple of miles west of FR46’s  intersection with SR19, the vastness of this low-stature prickly-looking habitat is stunning.  On first sight, it never struck me as a habitat that would harbor large numbers of birds.  This is the stage of scrub succession that is ideal for Florida scrub jay breeding, and to be sure the jays are here in big numbers.  It’s not uncommon to see and hear both scrub jays and blue jays very close to each other, though the blue jays tend to stick closer to the older tracts of scrub consisting mostly of sand pine.  Surprisingly, though, the density and diversity of mixed species flocks of smaller passerines in the oak scrub barrens can be astounding.  This is where I saw my only black-throated gray warbler several years ago, moving with a flock of more typical fall migrants.

Wednesday morning’s trip did not disappoint, though I found nothing as sensational as a black-throated gray warbler.  I came looking mainly for prairie warblers, and found them in numbers.   Nearly everywhere I stopped in the low oaky scrub habitat and looked, listened, or called for birds, I found them.  It wasn’t unusual to see 3-5 prairies traveling together as a group, often in the company of chickadees and titmice, the core members of many mixed-species flocks.  I didn’t keep count of precise numbers, but my guesstimate would be that I saw several dozen prairies.  Most were the more dully colored females or immatures; I don’t think I saw a single male showing full alternate (breeding) plumage, with the brilliant yellow underparts with prominent dark streaking and bold black semicircle under the eye.  Still, splendid little birds all.  And curious.

Inquisitive prairie warbler in scrub oak (with revolute leaf margins, CB!).

Inquisitive prairie warbler in scrub oak (with revolute leaf margins, CB!).

I regularly use playback of screech owl calls and mobbing vocalizations of a variety of passerines, along with the low-tech practice called “pishing”,  to entice birds into viewing range.   Several of the prairie warblers attracted using these techniques perched within 10-15’ of my car window, intensely curious and motivated to find the virtual predator that was provoking such a commotion.  In addition to the prairie warblers, a couple of other early season migrants/post-breeding wanderers were lured in – I saw a couple of yellow-throated warblers and one female-plumaged American redstart.   The resident breeding species were out in force as well – tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, eastern towhees, white-eyed vireos, northern parulas, northern cardinals, Carolina wrens, blue-gray gnatcatchers, great crested flycatchers, and both blue and Florida scrub jays all made an appearance at one or many locations.   I saw, and heard, several family groups of scrub jays along this stretch of FR46 as well, with most containing several gray-headed juveniles.   Typical of the big-brained corvids, they seemed to be constantly on the move, exploring and soaking up important information about the habitat in which they will mature and eventually breed.

PRWA_07312013-40_Ocala NF Juniper

 

PRWA_07312013-31_Ocala NF JuniperOpen areas of the oak scrub, particularly those with some standing snags remaining from old mature sand pines, were filled with woodpeckers as well.  Red-headed woodpeckers are abundant in this area, as are northern flickers, downys and red-bellieds.  I even kicked up a couple of raptors, including a red-tailed hawk and an American kestrel.  I’m guessing the kestrel was of the paulus subspecies, the resident race that breeds in Florida.

A recently burned tract of scrub just beginning to regenerate.  This is where I saw the American kestrel, presumably a breeding bird.

A recently burned tract of scrub just beginning to regenerate. This is where I saw the American kestrel, presumably a breeding bird.

Prairie warbler in scrub oak.

Prairie warbler in scrub oak.

American redstart.

American redstart.

Yellow-throated warbler.

Yellow-throated warbler.

Vast expanses of oak scrub and flocks of lovely passerines –  what a great combination.  And between now and the peak of fall migration, which by my reckoning occurs in the latter half of October, it will just get better.