Monthly Archives: September 2013

COYE male_09202013_06_Tiger Bay N

The second wave

Setember 20, 2013

Fall migration, for many of the bird-obsessed like myself, is the best time of year to be in the field.  Spring may bring males in peak breeding plumage and song, but the sheer numbers of birds make fall migration more spectacular for  me.  Especially given the eccentricities of Florida’s seasonal variation in bird diversity (low breeding diversity, high wintering passerine abundance and diversity, highly variable numbers of migrants making landfall in the state during spring migration), fall migration is to many Floridians what spring migration is to those further north – the end of a period of relative bird paucity.   Our summer bird fauna is the analog to their winter bird fauna.  Of all of the neotropical migrants that pass through Florida in the fall, warblers are for me the glamour group.  Don’t get me wrong – I get jazzed about any new arrival, but nothing gets me as excited as seeing and photographing warblers.

It’s pretty simple, really.    Bright colors, high diversity, and the challenge of identifying immature and female birds all combine to make this family my favorite.   Adding to their allure is the fact that warbler migration is such an extended phenomenon, lasting from mid-summer until nearly true winter.   The seasonal trends in abundance of the different warbler species passing through or wintering in Florida are as diverse as the birds themselves.

Common yellowthroat male.  This is most likely a first-winter bird based on the somewhat poorly defined mask.

Common yellowthroat male. This is most likely a first-winter bird based on the somewhat poorly defined mask.

We are now in the midst of what I consider to be the second wave of warbler migration – the influx of migratory populations of common yellowthroats into the state.  I saw my first migrant common yellowthroats a little over a week ago, and this morning at Tiger Bay State Forest, they were the most abundant of the warbler species.  Their numbers will continue to rise for the next week or two.

Common yellowthroat female.

Common yellowthroat female.

Although 43 species of warbler can be found at one time or another in the state (this includes the most likely extinct Bachman’s warbler), warbler migration in the peninsula is dominated by a relatively small number of species.    In my experience, fall warbler migration can be categorized as a series of 4 waves of birds passing through the state at different times.     The figures below are based on data I collected at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area in Lake County between 2000 and 2006, and should be interpreted with some caution – they are certainly not representative of the entire state, or even the entire peninsula.   Any general conclusion is only as good as the sample it is based on, and my bird censuses at Emeralda constitute a biased sample.  I think it’s a fairly decent proxy for warbler migration through the interior of the peninsula, since the 7000 or so acres comprising Emeralda contain a decent variety of many of the terrestrial and wetland habitats in central Florida.  But not all major habitat types are represented – scrub, sandhills, and flatwoods are all absent from Emeralda, for example.   Although ovenbirds were regular fall migrants at Emeralda, I never saw them there in the numbers there that I sometimes find in other upland habitats like scrub.  It also seems clear to me that there is a fundamental difference between warbler migration at some coastal locations and those inland.  In the seven years I did weekly bird censuses at Emeralda, I rarely encountered some warbler species that can at times be fairly common at coastal locations; this group includes species such as hooded and worm-eating warblers.

Seasonal abundance of the five most common warbler species at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area in Lake County.  I found around 25 species of warblers there over the years, but these 5 were far and away the most abundant.

Seasonal abundance of the five most common warbler species at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area in Lake County. I found around 25 species of warblers there over the years, but these 5 were far and away the most abundant.

The first wave of warbler migration at Emeralda  begins in late July, and peaks in September, and is due to two species with roughly similar timing of passage – prairie warblers and yellow warblers.   I’ve mentioned the spectacular numbers of yellow warblers during fall migration at Emeralda in a previous post, emphasizing that the high daily counts (over 100/day on good days) are probably somewhat unique to the specific combination of habitat characteristics there.  Prairie warblers are much more generalized in habitat choice, and can be abundant early in the fall migration period in just about any habitat, including scrub.

Prairie warbler, from Ocala National Forest.

Prairie warbler, from Ocala National Forest.

 

Yellow warbler, from Occoquan Bay NWR in Woodbridge, VA

Yellow warbler, from Occoquan Bay NWR in Woodbridge, VA

The second wave is just beginning – the arrival of the common yellowthroats.   This species is particularly interesting to me because it is one of the few warblers that breeds in Florida.  Though fairly catholic in choice of breeding habitat (ranging from freshwater marsh to pine flatwoods), the population of breeding birds is dwarfed by the influx of migrant birds from northern populations, as seen in the graph below.

Seasonal abundance of common yellowthroats at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area

Seasonal abundance of common yellowthroats at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area

The third wave occurs in another couple of weeks – the arrival of the palm warblers, many of which will spend the winter in the peninsula.   I’ve been hearing reports of small numbers of palms showing up in the last week or two, though I haven’t seen any yet.

Palm warbler, the third wave of warbler migration.

Palm warbler, the third wave of warbler migration.

Finally, the fourth and final wave is the appearance of the yellow-rumped warblers, which will begin appearing in late October and continue to increase in numbers for the next several weeks.   Butterbutts will become so abundant that they totally dominate the wintering warbler community, much to the displeasure of some birders.    Picking through a flock of dozens or hundreds of yellow-rumps in attempt to find something “good” hidden amongst can be a challenge.   The appearance and ascendance of the yellow-rumps also marks the end of major warbler influx into the state.

Yellow-rumped warbler, the fourth and final of the warbler waves.

Yellow-rumped warbler, the fourth and final of the warbler waves.

It’s hard to harbor negative feelings about the super-abundant yellow-rumps, though.   While birders in most of eastern North America are pleased to find a handful of yellow-rumps on a winter birding trip, winter birders in Florida can count on finding as many of them as we could want, along with smaller numbers of 6 or 7 other warbler species on a good day.  And that ain’t too shabby.

Seasonal changes in warbler diversity at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area

Seasonal changes in warbler diversity at Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area

Sandhills Eupato_09142013-05_Ocala NF FR FR11

Reconnoitering the rim

September 14, 2013

Taking photographs is one of my main reasons for going into the field.  The most important reason is, of course, to see fascinating flora and fauna, and perhaps learn a bit about how they make their way through the world.  But capturing images of at least some of the plants and animals runs a close second.  Those images are almost entirely for my own purposes; only a very small fraction are ever seen by anyone other than me.  So maybe it’s not a big deal that the most stunning image I’ve experienced in some time is one that I will never be able to share.   Driving north on SR19 through Ocala National Forest on Saturday morning, about 15 minutes before sunrise and a mile or so north of Silver Glen Springs, I saw an animal crossing the road a couple hundred yards ahead of me.  No other traffic in sight.  The telltale trot told me immediately it was a coyote.   I don’t see coyotes often, and truth be told, I don’t get that excited about mammals in general.  Stinky nocturnals, for the most part.  But I adore dogs of every size, shape and temperament.  Seeing a wild dog is for me a pinnacle experience.

It was during that transitional period between dawn and the full light of sunrise, when colors are beginning to become apparent, but still somewhat muted.  I was on the coyote in no time, and she maintained her steady lope across the road and onto the shoulder, about a fifteen foot wide swath of mowed grass, ending where the dense ground cover and low vegetation of oaky scrub began.  As I passed her, now slowed down to maybe 30-40 mph, she stopped at the edge of the shoulder, turned broadside to me, and watched me as I drove past.  I locked eyes with her.  Then she turned and was gone.  I don’t know exactly what happened to my neurochemistry at that moment, but I’m pretty sure it involved a massive flood of several happy neurotransmitters.  Dopamine, adrenaline, oxytocin – who knows?   As I drove away from that brief but intense moment, I felt changed, and elated in a way I don’t often experience.  Privileged.   That image, that moment of looking into the eyes of “God’s dog”, will be forever burned in my brain.  I couldn’t  help but wonder later what was going on in the coyote’s agile mind.   For me, it was a feeling of intense awe and admiration.   For her, I can only guess.   Curiosity, for sure, probably a bit of fear, and if coyotes have anything like a collective unconscious or shared genetic memory, perhaps a big dose of disgust and mistrust over the way humans have for centuries abused and tortured these beautiful little canids.   Hard to imagine a better start to the morning, even if I have no photograph to document the moment.

Ocklawaha Lake from the Kirkpatrick Dam

Ocklawaha Lake from the Kirkpatrick Dam

Ocklawaha Lake, aka Rodman Reservoir, was my first destination, and from there I planned to explore some new roads along the northeast rim of the forest.  Several weeks ago I discovered serendipitously that one of my favorite roads through the forest, FR11, continues over the Kirkpatrick dam that forms Ocklawaha Lake.  The dam was built as part of the abandoned effort to build the Cross-Florida Barge Canal across the peninsula in the ‘60s, and it remains controversial, pitting environmentalists who would like to see the dam removed to restore the Ocklawaha River to a free-flowing state against sportsmen who wish to protect the outdoor recreation opportunities it provides.  I just wanted to see migrant birds.  I was hoping that some of the floodplain forest in the area would be teeming with brightly-colored warblers and other neotropicals.   A couple dozen or so herons and egrets (great blues, little blues, snowies, great egrets and a single green) and dozens of vultures, who seemed to regularly roost on the dam and along the road that crosses it, were the only birds I could turn up there.

Snowy egret and great blue heron. Ocklawaha Lake

Snowy egret and great blue heron. Ocklawaha Lake

Dubbed "Sand Land" by some creative soul on Panoramio, this scrub barren on FR 11 just south of Ocklawaha Lake is the result of off-road vehicle abuse of the scrub habitat.  Even though vehicular use of this tract is no longer permitted, it remains in this degraded state.

Dubbed “Sand Land” by some creative soul on Panoramio, this scrub barren on FR 11 just south of Ocklawaha Lake is the result of off-road vehicle abuse of the scrub habitat. Even though vehicular use of this tract is no longer permitted, it remains in this degraded state.

Forest Road 74 crosses Forest Road 11 just south of Ocklawaha Lake.  I drove west on FR74 into unexplored territory.   A mobbing response by a small flock of passerines included several towhees in various states of moult and dishevelment, a couple of prairie warblers, and some residents like Carolina wrens and cardinals.  A bit further down the road, a second mobbing flock was more diverse, and contained several northern parulas, a yellow-throated warbler or two, scrub and blue jays, and a distant Empidonax flycatcher I didn’t come close to photographing.  I was pretty pleased with myself just to be able to ID it as an Empidonax; identifying it to species, without vocalization, is outside of my skill set.

Male eastern towhee, still looking sub-prime from his post-nuptial molt.

Male eastern towhee, still looking sub-prime from his post-nuptial molt.

Female northern parula

Female northern parula

Leaving that flock, I spotted a medium-sized snake stretched out in the bare sand of the scrub alongside the road.  Black racer.  Surprisingly, he let me drive to within 10’ or so without bolting.  As I moved slowly to get the camera into position, I was holding my breath that I wouldn’t spook the racer before I got off at least a few shots in this delicate, diffuse morning light.  Black racers are pretty easy to find, but not easy to photograph for me.  These are intensely visual snakes, and I suspect in my entire experience with the species, I’ve only seen them a few times before they have seen me.   A much more common experience is to spot one while glassing the habitat for whatever, only to realize the snake already has a visual lock on me.   From distances up to 30-40’ away.   These snakes don’t miss much.  On the occasions when I’m fortunate enough to watch one hunting my backyard and gardens, I’m always struck by their awareness of their environment, periscoping frequently to elevate their head above the ground cover and assess their surroundings.  Typically, any quick movement on my part precipitates a rapid retreat to cover by the snake.   Which is exactly what this racer did the first time I tried to inch a bit closer for a better shot.

Black racer basking

Black racer basking

Black racer

Black racer

Black racer periscoping.  From my yard, hence the noxious St. Augustine grass

Black racer periscoping. From my yard, hence the noxious St. Augustine grass

FR 74 leaves the forest a couple of miles west of FR 11 and passes through private land; I took FR09 south to get back into the sparsely traveled roads of the national forest.  Another fine mobbing flock in an ecotone between oaky scrub and sand pine scrub was the best of the morning – perhaps 15-20 birds, including scrub jays, towhees, prairie warblers and northern parulas, a white-eyed vireo, tufted titmice, cardinals, a woodpecker or two, Carolina wrens.  The usual suspects.   And ovenbirds.  Once again this weekend, they were chewking from dense cover in nearly every mobbing flock I encountered.

Florida scrub jays

Florida scrub jays

Prairie warbler

Prairie warbler

Immature female eastern towhee molting into her first adult (basic) plumage

Immature female eastern towhee molting into her first adult (basic) plumage

Ovenbird

Ovenbird

FR 09 in this area is notable for another reason – topography.  Not much by most standards, but enough to allow extended views of the surrounding habitat mosaic.  The presence of actual hills and draws in the forest is always a welcome surprise.

Topography (of sorts) on Forest Road 09

Topography (of sorts) on Forest Road 09

From FR 09, I took FR70 back to the east.   Soon after passing into one of the large tracts of clearcut sand pine scrub, I saw a large, dark raptor flying low across the landscape and swoop up into the top of a lone sand pine that had been left standing.  Profile and flight pattern didn’t look like the raptors I see most often, but as soon as it perched I could see the ear tufts.   A great horned owl, hunting (?) in broad daylight, on a sunny morning, around 10:00 a.m.   That’s something I don’t see often.  Until earlier this year, I’ve always thought of great horned owls as a “bird of the day” species.  Typically I see them only a few times a year.   Since June, I’ve seen great horned owls at least 10 times in a half-dozen or more different locations.  The serendipity of birding.   

Great horned owl, hunting at mid-morning.

Great horned owl, hunting at mid-morning.

Great horned owl youngster, from earlier this year at Lake George Conservation Area

Great horned owl youngster, from earlier this year at Lake George Conservation Area

Some time around 1100, I made it back to familiar ground; FR 70 intersects FR11 just north of the Riverside Island tract where I have had such good luck finding red-cockaded woodpeckers this year.  None today – it was far too late in the morning and too warm for much bird activity, though I did find a pair of American kestrels hunting in the same open sandhills tract where I have seen them before.  Almost certainly a breeding pair; I haven’t seen any migrant kestrels yet this year at the spots where I usually find them.

Forest Road 70 where it passes through an isolated live oak hammock amidst the sandhills

Forest Road 70 where it passes through an isolated live oak hammock amidst the sandhills

While driving south on FR11 through majestic mature sandhills, I was watching some mixed roadside clumps of goldenrod and evening primrose for pollinator activity and noticed the reticulate wings of some rather large insect in the foliage of one of the primroses.   It was one of the larger species of antlions (Myrmeleon sp?) that had been snagged by a nearly invisible green lynx spider (Peucetia viridens) only moments before.  It was still oozing hemolymph from the spider’s puncture wounds, and it seemed to still have a glimmer of life in its many eyes.   Green lynx spiders – what fierce predators those lovely arachnids are.  There don’t seem to be any size limits or taxonomic boundaries on the prey these oxyopid spiders will tackle.  Tough luck for the antlions and myriad other prey taxa.

Green lynx spider (Peucetia viridens) with antlion prey

Green lynx spider (Peucetia viridens) with antlion prey

From a coyote to a lynx – a good morning for the predators, and me.  If I continue exploring new forest roads at my current pace, I should have thoroughly traversed the forest by the time I’m ready to retire.   Ocala National Forest – the gift that keeps on giving.

Sceloporus woodi_09082013-57_Ocala NF FR05

Chewk!

September 8, 2013

That was the signature sound of the scrub while I was exploring a new area of Ocala National Forest this morning.  Indicative of the vastness of Ocala, I spent over four hours driving/birding on one forest road.  Forest Road 05 between the Big Scrub on the south and its intersection with Hopkins Prairie Road (FR50) on the north spans only about 15 miles as the crow flies, but it kept me occupied for the whole of the morning.

Communal roosting cluster of zebra longwings, Heliconius charithonia

Communal roosting cluster of zebra longwings, Heliconius charithonia

My first stop of the morning was Sunnyhill Restoration Area, just north of CR42 and east of Starke’s Ferry.  Not much happening there, though I did see a small cluster of roosting zebra longwing butterflies (Heliconius charithonia); I had heard of this communal roosting behavior of zebras before, but had never seen it.  The three dew-covered compatriots were still a bit too chilled out to begin their daily activity.

I left Sunnyhill and headed north of CR42, back into Ocala National Forest.  I’ve spent almost no time in the southeastern corner of the forest, so this was all new and exciting territory for me.  I started east on FR14, but after about 10 minutes of driving straight into the sun, my keen sense of light told me this was no good.   So I took a shot and headed north on FR05.  Hell of a shot.

Forest Road 14

Forest Road 14

When birding/photographing from the car, N-S roads are my preference in the morning, as the driver’s side scenery is drenched in beautiful early morning light.  Ideally, the road passes through a variety of interesting habitats, and is lightly travelled.  FR05 was exemplary on both counts.  In the course of the four hours spent there, I didn’t see another vehicle on the 12 or so miles south of State Road 40.   Which meant that I could feel free to ignore normal road conventions and drive on the left side, which is closer to the habitat and critters in the direct morning light.

A several hundred acre tract of clearcut sand pines

A several hundred acre tract of clearcut sand pines

Diversity of habitats?   As everyone’s favorite twit might say, you betcha!  The mainstay of Ocala National Forest is scrub and sandhills; FR05 is biased towards the former.  Scrub in all its variants is interspersed like a mosaic along it’s length.   Great orthogonal  tracts of recently clearcut sand pine scrub, regenerating oak-dominated scrub in a variety of states of maturity, and uniform even-aged stands of sand pine scrub were all there, as well as nearly every intermediate between those habitats you can imagine.  Some bits of sandhill as well, but none of the majestic mature tracts like those found in some other parts of the forest.  Nestled in among these habitats are a rich diversity of open, wetland habitats – some ephemeral, some permanent.   FR05 passes by several small to mid-sized lakes, and many shallower depressions that harbor grass-dominated prairie habitats.   These little mini-grasslands surrounded by fringing tracts of hammock, scrub or sandhills sometimes take my breath away.

FR05 where it passes between mature sand pine scrub and clearcut scrub

FR05 where it passes between mature sand pine scrub and clearcut scrub

The low structural diversity of mature sand pine scrub doesn't support as great a diversity or density of birds as more recently disturbed sites.

The low structural diversity of mature sand pine scrub doesn’t support as great a diversity or density of birds as more recently disturbed sites.

It may not look all that appealing, but this scrubby oak stage of scrub regeneration can be absolutely teeming with passerine birds at some times of year.

It may not look all that appealing, but this scrubby oak stage of scrub regeneration can be absolutely teeming with passerine birds at some times of year.

But back to the birds.  As has been my experience in the Hopkins and Juniper Prairie sections of Ocala, the greatest diversity of both resident and migrant passerines was in the oak-dominated, regeneration phase of scrub.  The sand-pine dominated tracts were mostly devoid of activity, though towhees and white-eyed vireos were still singing there.  In the oaky scrub, though, I found several excellent flocks that held migrant warblers.  Not a great diversity, but excellent numbers.   Prairie warblers turned up repeatedly, sometimes 4 or 5 birds at a time, but that wasn’t the species that gave me the warm fuzzies this morning.

Grassy prairie, one of the wetland depressions along FR05

Grassy prairie, one of the wetland depressions along FR05

Yellow-throated warbler

Yellow-throated warbler

Yellow-throated warbler

Yellow-throated warbler

Prairie warbler in scrubby oak

Prairie warbler in scrubby oak

Which brings me back to the subject – chewk!  Learn that call, and you’ll get a true index of the abundance of ovenbirds during their peak of passage through the state.  Ovenbirds were everywhere this morning, though I only saw about 5 or 6 individuals.  I heard at least 20 more.  Once one bird begins uttering this distinctive alarm call, any others in the area are likely to vocalize as well.  I saw/heard no ovenbird singles this morning.  There were always at least 2-3 birds chewking, sometimes more.  But damn, those little dudes do not like to come out in the open.  They have achieved maximum skulkitude.   So while I got dozens of photos of prairie warblers, I got only a handful, at too great a distance, of the ovenbirds.

Ovenbird, author of the chewk call.

Ovenbird, author of the chewk call.

The prairies and ovenbirds were the dominant birds of the morning, but I also turned up yellow-throated and pine warblers, northern parulas, a summer tanager, and 3 or 4 yellow-throated vireos, a couple of which were still singing.  That’s always a tough bird for me to find, either in the breeding season or migration.  They kept their distance, though – no killer photo ops.   It was a respectable contingent of migrants along with an abundance of the permanent residents (lots of Florida scrub jays) – FR05 goes on my To Visit Again list.

Eastern towhee, female.  A resident breeder of the scrub.

Eastern towhee, female. A resident breeder of the scrub.

Florida scrub jay family groups are fairly common along FR05.

Florida scrub jay family groups are fairly common along FR05.

Zay Prairie, a lovely temporary wetland on FR05.  I can't think of many places where you see sand pine and sabal palms in contiguous habitats.

Zay Prairie, a lovely temporary wetland on FR05. I can’t think of many places where you see sand pine and sabal palms in contiguous habitats.

Zay Prairie

Zay Prairie

The morning ended on an especially high note, once again due to a herp.  As I drove south on the northern section of FR05, just south of its terminus at FR50, I saw a lizard in the entry road to the parking area for the Lake Eaton sinkholes trail.  I was thrilled to find as I approached it that it was the Florida scrub lizard, Sceloporus woodi.  This endemic species is restricted to scrub, and found only in Florida, in contrast to its more ubiquitous cousin, the eastern fence lizard, Sceloporus undulatus.   Fence lizards still get me excited, but it had been years since I had seen a scrub lizard, and the first chance I had to get digital photos of one.  And though this guy was basking in full sun in the middle of the road, he allowed me to approach within a few feet and fire off a couple hundred frames before he eventually headed for cover.

Sceloporus woodi, the Florida scrub lizard

Sceloporus woodi, the Florida scrub lizard

No better way to end the morning than with a cooperative squamate.

Sceloporus woodi

Sceloporus woodi

 

Sistrurus miliar_09062013_00_Tiger Bay RR

“I hope it was a bad one”

September 6, 2013

It’s not a good time to be a pigmy rattlesnake at Tiger Bay State Forest right now.  Actually, it’s never really a good time to be a pigmy rattlesnake in Florida.  Folks do love to kill snakes.  But pigmies in particular seem to have more than their fair share of haters.

I was driving north on Indian Lake Road this morning, looking for migrant birds or pretty much anything else that was out and about in the Rima Ridge section of Tiger Bay State Forest.  It was an interesting morning; not a ton of birds around, but migrants are picking up a bit.   A half-dozen or more prairie warblers, a couple of ovenbirds, a yellow-throated and red-eyed vireo – none killer birds, but it’s always nice to see some migratory movement.  It’s coming.

Prairie warbler

Prairie warbler

On one long straight stretch between Scoggin Lake and Danny Hole Road, I noticed a dark squiggle against the shellrock surface about 50 yards ahead of me.  Stuck out like a sore thumb.   As I approached it, I was delighted to see it was an adult pigmy rattlesnake crossing the road.  As is typical of pigmies on the move, they tend to stop locomoting and freeze when they detect a potential predator heading their way.  This guy had stopped on the left side of the road.   As I photographed him and changed position a couple of times, he never moved.  Also typical.  After a minute or two, I noticed a car heading southbound on Indian Lake Road, still several hundred yards north of me.  I repositioned my car to the far right and waited by the snake.  As the driver approached, I motioned to her with an open palm, as in slow down, and pointed repeatedly to the snake on the road.

Sistrurus miliar_09062013_05_Tiger Bay RR

She ran right over it.   She pulled up beside me, rolled down her window, and gave me a lovely smile.   She had no idea what I was motioning about.

“Ma’am, you just ran over a snake”

Her radiant smile didn’t dim a smidgen.  “I hope it was a bad one”,  she said cheerfully.

“There are no bad ones”, I started to say, but kind of trailed off in dismay and disgust.   To her credit, she apologized, but I think it was more because she sensed I was a bit upset than because she actually felt remorse about the snake.   She wasn’t cruel or evil, just clueless.

As she drove off, I watched the snake crawl laboriously off the road.  Not dead, obviously, but hurting.   Hard to imagine that a tire rolling right across that snake’s head and thorax didn’t do some serious injury to internal organs.  But at least it had a chance.

Pigmy rattlesnakes can show amazing recuperative powers.  When we were doing pigmy rattlesnake research back in the ‘90’s at Lake Woodruff NWR, we found a pigmy that had nearly been cut in two during mowing of the levees.  We left it where it was, sure it would die, but were amazed to find that snake several months later completely healed.  We saw that snake numerous times in the next couple of years, and admiringly spoke of it as the “lawnmower pig”.

I find it kind of depressing that so many people consider snakes unworthy of any kindness or empathy.  I can’t think of any other  group of organisms  that is uniformly held in such low regard by the masses.  I can’t imagine these exchanges ever taking place:

“Ma’am, you just ran over a bird”
“I hope it was a bad one”

“Ma’am, you just ran over a bunny rabbit”
“I hope it was a bad one”

“Ma’am, you just ran over that little girl’s kitten”
“I hope it was a bad one”

This recently killed pigmy rattlesnake was on a road where I almost never see vehicles.  Ant food.

This recently killed pigmy rattlesnake was on a road where I almost never see vehicles. Ant food.

Well, you get the idea.  Hard times weren’t limited to that one pigmy this morning.  A bit further north, on Danny Hole Road, an infrequently traveled two-track, I found another pigmy, this one dead in one of the wheel ruts, already partially consumed by fire ants.   As I was returning south on Indian Lake Road, I spotted yet another pigmy in the road, and when I got closer, I saw that it had just been run over in the last few minutes.  A Forestry truck had passed me going north just a few seconds before.    This one was still alive, but nearly unable to move.  It feebly gaped a bit at me, did a tongue flick or two, and tried to crawl away, but the loop of intestine protruding from the side of his body was was stuck to the shell rock, and the poor little dude was pretty much immobilized.  And destined to die.

The third pigmy of the morning, still alive, but not for long.

The third pigmy of the morning, still alive, but not for long.

 

Nearly dead, but he still had enough attitude to gape at me.  Notice the loop of gut sticking out his body just in front of the vent.

Nearly dead, but he still had enough attitude to gape at me. Notice the loop of gut sticking out his body just in front of the vent.

So it was a three pigmy morning, but not in a good way.  All three snakes were adults, and I strongly suspect all three were males.  This is the beginning of the mating season for pigmy rattlesnakes, and the males are out cruising for chicks.  All mating by pigmies takes place in the fall; the female stores the sperm over winter, and then releases it the following spring to fertilize her just ovulated eggs, which will develop into adorable little pigmy rattlesnakes to which she will give live birth in August.  Nearly a year after the initial mating took place.  Another amazing aspect of pigmy rattlesnake life history and natural history.

When I consider the attitude of so many of the snake haters and killers out there, I tend to agree with Bud (Harry Dean Stanton)from Alex Cox’s 80’s classic, Repo Man. 

Closer.

A well-behaved bird

September 2, 2013

Bird photography is challenging to me on several levels.  There’s the obvious – you have to find birds and get pretty close to them.  You have to pay attention to lighting –  a crippling view of a bird in the deep shade or other marginal light is still likely to produce a mediocre photograph.   There are the mechanical elements of taking the shot – placing the focus precisely where you want it, increasing or decreasing the exposure from what the camera has chosen if the light conditions warrant it, choosing a fast enough shutter speed to freeze whatever action there is (if you actually want the action frozen and not an artistic blur), and so on.   To me, the most interesting challenge is the riddle of bird behavior.  What is the subject likely to do next, how does that affect the quality of the photograph, and can you modify his behavior to increase the odds of getting a decent shot?

Ovenbird

Ovenbird

Back in the Paleozoic era of bird neurobiology, I remember hearing a catch-all explanation for bird behavior: “Birds are stupid because they can fly”.   The idea, which makes some sense in a simplistic way, was that because of their ability to rapidly escape so many threats and undesirable situations by flight, birds had not been selected to evolve the same levels and types of intelligence as the exalted mammals. Well, as George Will would so emphatically enunciate, birds are certainly not stupid, though they sometimes engage in behaviors that may seem so to a human observer unaware of his own Umwelt.   A male bird endlessly attacking a reflection of himself in a window or mirror is one of the most common examples.   Self-aware primates are an arrogant bunch, and loyal to our taxon; the traditional view on bird intelligence was that they were inferior to mammals in nearly every aspect.  Sorry to break it to you hairballs of the vertebrate world, but by a number of measures birds are significantly more intelligent than mammals.   More species of birds form and use tools, for example, than do mammals.  Way more. Small birds routinely outperform small mammals in a variety of laboratory tests requiring some form of intelligence.

Barn swallows

Barn swallows

One of the reasons bird behavior intrigues me so much is because I so frequently try to manipulate bird behavior to increase my photographic prospects.  Most birders do – we put out feeders, which modify movement patterns and feeding dynamics of local birds, we put up artificial nest boxes, we produce silly noises, called “pishing”, to attract small birds, yadda yadda yadda.   I use playback of alarm calls and owl vocalizations all the time to bring birds into closer view.  Playback is simply a high-tech application of pishing, eliciting a predator-seeking behavior (mobbing) in many species of birds.   The number of photo opportunities I have, especially with smaller and more furtive birds, is increased exponentially by using playback and pishing.  Another way of phrasing that is that not many of the bird photos I take are of birds I just happened to find doing their thing in nature.  But it happens.

Bank swallow

Bank swallow

I did a pretty routine circuit of several local patches this morning, and was having a nice but not terribly exciting morning when I hit Blackwelder Road, preparing to close the loop and go home.  It was half-past good light, and I had some shots on the SD card that might be okay.   I had seen my first ovenbird of the fall and got some distant photos, and had taken my first-ever shots of a bank swallow preening on some power lines with a large group of barn swallows.  I saw a gorgeous red-shouldered hawk, a bit too far for really decent shots, who was particularly coppery on the breast, sitting on a rustic branch decorated with lichens and air plants.   Got pics.  Nothing spectacular, but better than nothing.

 

 

Red-shouldered hawk

Red-shouldered hawk

Blackwelder Road runs only a couple of miles between Lake Winona Road and SR11.  It is a twisty Florida country road, with 6 or 7 right-angle turns as it travels through an interesting mix of habitats – lots of abandoned orange groves along with a few active ones, a couple of lakes, pastures, and patches of hammock and scrub.  I was rounding one of those 90bends when I thought I saw a bird sitting on a downed log in the field on the left.  Medium size and earth tones were about all I really got as I first passed it.   Probably a mourning dove.  Not a typical place for a single mourning dove to perch, though.  When I backed up for a better look, it turned out to be a female northern bobwhite.

From the first series of shots.  I thought at the time this was as close as I would get.

From the first series of shots. I thought at the time this was as close as I would get.

I find bobwhites to be pretty spooky and wary in general.  I figured she would flush as soon as I tried to approach her, so I was surprised that she stayed put as I backed past her, then pulled back up slowly looking for an angle.  She was in a brushpile in an abandoned pasture; the pasture was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and dense vegetation up to the top of the fence.   The first challenge was to find a gap in the vegetation through which I could shoot her, if she stayed.  Which she probably wouldn’t.

Closer.

Closer.

Long story short (sic), she sat on that log for about 20 minutes as I continually repositioned myself, gradually moving closer to her until I found the best light angle and an opening.  I probably stopped and started the car 6 times, and slowly changed position, while she sat on the log.  And I mean she literally sat – she was totally chill.  She knew I was there, but was not alarmed enough to even get up on her feet.  Sweet.  Totally unexpected, but sweet.  Fortunately, Blackwelder Road doesn’t get much traffic. I would have seemed like a moron to a disinterested observer, if there had been one, repeatedly changing my position, driving on the left side of the road, immediately after a 90o bend that has poor visibility going into the turn.   But so what?  It’s for a bird photograph.  That trumps logic and reason.

NOBO_09022013-35_Blackwelder Rd

NOBO_09022013-53_Blackwelder Rd

In the 20 or so delightful minutes I spent with the little hen, I heard a variety of quail chittering and peeping from the surrounding vegetation.  I suspect she was tending her brood, picking a higher vantage point from which to keep an eye on the kids and look out for threats.    Apparently I wasn’t considered a threat.  Eventually, she leisurely stood up, looked around a bit, then hopped down to the ground to join the pack.

Just before she joined the kids.

Just before she joined the kids.

Yet one more reason to love birds – they’re such good parents.