Category Archives: Trip reports

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Thrush passages

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December 30, 2016

It was late in December, the sky turned to snow
All round the day was going down slow
Night like a river beginning to flow
I felt the beat of my mind go
Drifting into thrush passages
Years go falling in the fading light
Thrush passages
– Al Stewart

If you’re reading this, Al Stewart, please forgive the liberties I’ve taken with your lovely lyrics.  This song popped into my head sometime in the last month or two while reveling in the passage of the spot-breasted thrushes through the state, and it has become firmly embedded since.  Now, every time I see or think about a thrush, I can’t stop myself from replaying this song in my head, even though it doesn’t really speak to my circumstances very accurately.  Snow in Florida? Not likely. 

During the past five months, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed of one of the finest perks academia has to offer – the sabbatical.   Intended as a semester of research, reflection and rest from the typical mind-numbing responsibilities of teaching, a sabbatical leave is granted to applicants who propose scholarly work that the Professional Development Committee deems worthy.  For my fourth and final sabbatical (we are eligible for one every 7 years), I hoped to spend the entire semester in the field studying bird behavior.  And it was approved, praise be to the committee.  University committees do on occasion accomplish worthwhile stuff.  

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Sunrise in the flatwoods of Tiger Bay State Forest. Being afield at sunrise at a different site each day of the week was an amazing experience.

As a result of the committee’s sage decision, I had the incredible privilege of being afield on over 60 days this semester.  Some of my study sites included Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge in DeLeon Springs, Chuck Lennon Park, also in DeLeon Springs,  Heart Island Conservation Area near Barberville, Lake George Conservation Area near Seville, Tiger Bay State Forest and Wildlife Management Area east of DeLand, and my favorite, Forest Road 33 in Ocala National Forest.  Being in the field at sunrise nearly every day during Florida’s fall migration (which begins for songbirds in mid-July with the arrival of the first yellow and prairie warblers) provided me the opportunity to experience fall migration in a depth I could scarcely have imagined back in mid-August when I began the project.

As one of the greatest experiences of my life has come to an end, I’ve begun to reflect on some of the more notable sightings and insights I’ve gained about the comings and goings of birds during the past five months.   The passage of the spot-breasted thrushes is at the top of that list.

Veeries are the first of the Catharus thrushes to migrate through Florida.

Veeries are the first of the Catharus thrushes to migrate through Florida.

The spot-breasted thrushes include 6 species, most in the genus Catharus, along with the wood thrush, placed by some in its own genus, Hylocichla.   Wood thrushes were the only one of the six species I didn’t see this fall (maybe; distinguishing 2 of the 5 species of Catharus is nearly impossible in the field without hearing vocalizations).  I don’t recall ever seeing a wood thrush in Florida, though they are fairly common (though declining) breeding birds of eastern deciduous forest in much of eastern North America.  They breed sparingly in the peninsula, and are rare as migrants through the state.

Wood thrushes are hard to find in Florida, though they are widespread breeders in eastern deciduous forest of the eastern half of the U.S.

Wood thrushes are hard to find in Florida, though they are widespread breeders in eastern deciduous forest of the eastern half of the U.S.

Thrushes are birds of mystery to me.  Most are primarily forest-dwellers, at least in migration, and are notable for their shy, inconspicuous ways.   Furtive, fond of dense cover, and easily spooked, getting a good look at some of these birds is no mean feat.  Prior to this fall, I had never seen more than two or three species during any single fall migration period.  

Thrushes are primarily forest birds.

Thrushes are primarily forest birds.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of fall thrush migration to me is the protracted time period over which it occurs, combined with the very predictable chronological sequence of appearance of each species through Florida.  All of the early migrating species leave the state to winter in the tropics, while the hermit thrush arrives last and remains in small numbers as a winter resident. 

In a nutshell, the order of appearance of the Catharus thrushes during fall migration is as follows: veeries form the vanguard, arriving as early as late August, followed by Swainson’s and gray-cheeked/Bicknell’s thrushes in mid-fall, peaking in October.  These three species are followed by the caboose of the bunch, the hermit thrushes, which start appearing in force in November and stick around for the winter in small numbers. 

Swainson's thrushes are usually the most abundant of the mid-fall migrants.

Swainson’s thrushes are usually the most abundant of the mid-fall migrants.

This extended movement of  Catharus thrushes through Florida raises a bit of a conundrum.  All of these species are breeding birds of the far north.  All breed in forested or semi-forested habitats of the northern tier of states and in Canada, and all feed largely on insects and other invertebrates during the breeding season, supplementing their diet during fall migration heavily with energy-rich fruit.   So they all have a broadly similar ecology and have roughly the same migratory task – traveling from the high temperate to the tropics (or just to Florida in the case of some hermits).  Yet the timing of their departure and passage through Florida is so different.  I have no idea why that is so, and my time in the field with these birds this fall provided no great insight, but who cares?  It’s enough just to watch them and ponder.

Bill Pranty’s indispensable A Birder’s Guide to Florida contains a wealth of useful data about the timing of migration of all of Florida’s birds.  One of its most useful features is the  information-rich bar graphs depicting seasonal occurrence and abundance of each Florida bird species.   According to Pranty,  veeries (Catharus fuscescens) first appear in Florida in late August and can be found as late as November, but peak in September and October, when they are rated as uncommon (found in small numbers; “sometimes, but not always, found with some effort in appropriate habitat”).  They are rare before September and after October.

Veeries are one of the easier Catharus thrushes to identify. Their sparsely spotted chests and uniformly fuscous upperparts are distinctive.

Veeries are one of the easier Catharus thrushes to identify. Their sparsely spotted chests and uniformly fuscous upperparts are distinctive.

I saw veeries on four days this fall, all in September.    I saw my first veeries, a group of 3 birds foraging on the forest floor in mixed forest, at Heart Island Conservation Area on September 9.  I saw veeries again on September 14 in the mixed cypress swamp/flatwoods of Tiger Bay State Forest (north entrance), on September 16 in mixed hammock/flatwoods of Tiger Bay (Rima Ridge tract), and for the last time on September 20, in the sand pine scrub of Ocala National Forest.   Like most of these thrushes, getting a clear, unobstructed look at or photo of these shy birds is a challenge.  I was fortunate to photograph them on 3 of the 4 days I saw them.

Veeries breed across most of the northern tier of states in the U.S. and in southern Canada, where they can be found in thick, wet deciduous woodlands.  They are especially fond of early successional forest or disturbed areas in mature forest, and can also be found in mixed deciduous-coniferous forest. 

A veery in the cypress wetlands of Tiger Bay State Forest.

A veery in the cypress wetlands of Tiger Bay State Forest.

Veery in the scrub of Ocala National Forest. Like all of the Catharus thrushes, they are quite shy and prefer to be partially obscured by cover.

Veery in the scrub of Ocala National Forest. Like all of the Catharus thrushes, they are quite shy and prefer to be partially obscured by cover.

The next arrival of migrant thrushes occurs mostly in October, when three species (gray-cheeked, Bicknell’s, and Swainson’s) pass through in largest numbers.  Of the three, Swainson’s thrushes (Catharus ustulatus)  are more easily seen.  Pranty’s bar graphs show Swainson’s thrushes present in Florida from September to early December, with a peak in the latter half of September and throughout October, during which period they are rated as uncommon (rare before and after these dates).  

I saw Swainson’s thrushes on only one day this fall.  On October 4, they were abundant in the sand pine scrub along Forest Road 33 in Ocala National Forest.  I saw at least 10 birds, and photographed 4 or 5 individuals. Swainson’s thrush is for me the most common of the early-migrating thrushes. I see them most years at least once during fall migration. 

The buffy cheeks, prominent eye ring, and partial spectacle make Swainson's thrush a pretty easy ID if you can get a good look at the head. Which isn't always easy.

The buffy cheeks, prominent eye ring, and partial spectacle make Swainson’s thrush a pretty easy ID if you can get a good look at the head. Which isn’t always easy.

Swainson’s thrushes also have an extensive breeding range, nesting in the northeast U.S. and in some of the Rocky Mountain states, and throughout much of Canada and Alaska, where they are found in boreal coniferous forest.

There are two Swainson's thrushes in this shot, and as is typical, both are deep in cover.

There are two Swainson’s thrushes in this shot, and as is typical, both are deep in cover.

Swainson's thrush

Swainson’s thrush

The other two species whose timing of passage roughly coincides with that of Swainson’s thrush are a puzzle. Gray-cheeked (Catharus minimus) and Bicknell’s (Catharus bicknelli) thrushes  were considered conspecific (belonging to the same species) until the ‘90’s, when Bicknell’s thrush was recognized as a separate species with a very restricted breeding range.  Given that these two species were considered one until only recently, it shouldn’t be a great surprise that they are VERY difficult to separate in the field based only on visible cues. They are nearly identical.  Consequently, the phenology of Bicknell’s thrush migration through Florida is poorly understood, simply because there are so few confirmed sightings.  Those sightings that have been confirmed suggest Bicknell’s tends to stick closer to the coastline during migration than the gray-cheeked.

Gray-cheeked and Bicknell's thrushes are nearly identical. Some of the bird ID experts at the Florida Rarities FB page were unable to determine which this bird is.

Gray-cheeked and Bicknell’s thrushes are nearly identical. None of the bird ID experts at the Florida Rarities FB page were able to determine which species this bird is.

Pranty’s bar graphs show that gray-cheeked thrushes pass through the state in September and October, and are considered rare throughout this period.  There are only a handful of confirmed Bicknell’s thrush sightings during fall migration in Florida, so the timing of their migration is largely unknown.

My only sightings of these two species in the field were also on October 4 in the mixed scrub along FR33 in Ocala NF.  Prior to this fall, I had seen gray-cheeked thrushes only once or twice in my life, and I had never seen Bicknell’s thrush.   I may have seen both species this fall, but can’t be certain because of the difficulty in separating the two.  

This presumed gray-cheeked thrush died from a window strike at my home on October 2.

This presumed gray-cheeked thrush died from a window strike at my home on October 2.

Coincidentally, my first sighting of a thrush in this species complex was on October 2, when I found a window-killed thrush in my backyard.   As far as I can tell, it is a gray-cheeked thrush.   Gray-cheeked and Bicknell’s thrushes can apparently be identified with confidence based on specific measurements of live or dead birds in hand, but that’s beyond my skill set.  That bird, which is in perfect condition, is still in my freezer.  Maybe someday I’ll get a definitive ID.

This bird showed interest in the songs and vocalizations of gray-cheeked thrush, but remained deep in cover.

This bird showed interest in the songs and vocalizations of gray-cheeked thrush, but remained deep in cover.

Tuesday, October 4, was one of the most memorable days of the fall for me.  Thrush day in the scrub.  In addition to the numerous Swainson’s thrushes I saw that day, I also saw a few birds that were either gray-cheeked or Bicknell’s thrushes.  Especially intriguing was the observation that one of these birds responded strongly to playback of vocalizations of Bicknell’s thrush, but only mildly to those of the gray-cheeked thrush.   I first saw this bird as he skulked through the dense foliage of scrubby oaks, approaching in response to playback of mobbing vocalizations, the main subject of my research.   When I realized what it might be, I played territorial song of both Bicknell’s and gray-cheeked thrushes to this bird.  Gray-cheeked song resulted in continued skulking.  Bicknell’s song caused him to immediately pop out onto an exposed perch maybe 25’ away, where he remained for a minute or so, tail-pumping and wing-flicking.

Playback of Bicknell's song caused him to immediately pop out of deep cover onto an exposed perch.

Playback of Bicknell’s song caused him to immediately pop out of deep cover onto an exposed perch.

So that had to be a Bicknell’s thrush, right? Unfortunately, no.  It’s not unheard of for some thrushes to respond strongly to territorial song of other species. I’ve seen hermit thrushes become very agitated in response to veery song playback.  I posted photos of the unknown thrush, along with a description of his playback response, to the Florida Rarities Facebook group, and nobody in that group of expert birders would attempt an ID.  My conclusion – most likely a gray-cheeked, but perhaps a Bicknell’s. 

Gray-cheeked thrush, probably.

Gray-cheeked thrush, probably.

Especially intriguing to me is that these birds respond to territorial song at all while they are on migration.  None of these species sings regularly during migration, yet they will occasionally respond vigorously to song playback of conspecifics, and sometimes heterospecifics.  Why?  Use of playback to attract birds for observation/photography is a contentious subject, and some purists frown on the practice.  Certainly it can be overused and abused, but I can’t imagine birding without using playback carefully and judiciously as a tool.  The observation that these transient migrants still respond to territorial song is telling us something about the biology and behavior of these birds, even if we don’t know exactly how to interpret that observation.  Such basic natural history observations are the foundation of a complete, nuanced understanding of any species.  I’ve offered a defense of playback as a vital tool for birding in a previous blog

So on October 4, I saw 4 different birds that were probably gray-cheeked thrushes, but may have included a Bicknell’s or two. What a conundrum, right? Can I place Bicknell’s thrush on my life list?   In all honesty, I don’t really give a rat’s ass.  I’m not and never have been a lister or twitcher. I don’t even know what my life list is numerically, though I have a pretty clear memory of  which species I have and haven’t seen.   I’m totally cool with calling those birds either gray-cheeked or Bicknell’s thrushes.  Or both.

Gray-cheeked thrush, probably.

Gray-cheeked thrush, probably.

Gray-cheeked thrushes are the more likely of the two species to be seen in migration along most of the east coast.  They have a continent-wide breeding range, extending across northern Canada and Alaska.  Gray-cheeked thrushes are the most northerly of the spot-breasted thrushes in their breeding distribution; they breed in spruce-fir forest, and in alder and willow thickets on the tundra.  Bicknell’s thrush has a far more restricted breeding range in southeast Canada and the northeast U.S., where they are mostly restricted to inaccessible regenerating montane forests of spruce and fir. This is a very poorly studied and understood species.

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Hermit thrush in the golden light of dawn from the scrub of Ocala National Forest.

The easiest Catharus thrush to see in Florida is the hermit thrush, Catharus guttatus.  This is the most abundant member of the genus in the state, and is also resident in Florida for far longer than the others.  Pranty shows them as being uncommon in October, and fairly common from November through March.  Unlike all the other members of its genus and the closely related wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina), hermit thrushes overwinter in significant numbers in Florida.  Hermits are also one of the easiest of the spot-breasted thrushes to identify; there’s not much temporal overlap between hermits and the transient thrushes, and the distinctive rufous wings and tail of hermits make ID relatively straightforward.  If you can get a good look at one. 

My first hermit thrush of the fall, from November 1 in Heart Island Conservation Area.

My first hermit thrush of the fall, from November 1 in Heart Island Conservation Area.

I saw my first hermit thrush of the season on November 1 in the dense riparian hammock along Deep Creek in Heart Island Conservation Area.   I actually heard it first.  Hermit thrushes are extremely responsive to playback of their alarm calls (churt and way calls), and will also respond to territorial song, though they don’t sing often while in Florida.  They do defend fixed winter territories, though, which is an unusual behavior for wintering passerines.

I photographed this territorial hermit thrush in Ocala National Forest several times in the winter of 2015-16.

I photographed this territorial hermit thrush in Ocala National Forest several times in the winter of 2015-16.

I photographed this territorial hermit thrush in November 2016, in the exact same location as the bird above. I'm pretty confident it's the same bird that returned to overwinter on the same territory. That's some wicked winter philopatry.

I photographed this territorial hermit thrush in November 2016, in the exact same location as the bird above. I’m pretty confident it’s the same bird that returned to overwinter on the same territory. That’s some wicked winter philopatry.

The high abundance of hermits relative to their congeners may be related to their broad breeding range, throughout Canada, the Rockies, and the northern U.S., and their catholic choice of habitat for nesting.  They can be found breeding in both coniferous and deciduous forest, mixed forest, taiga in the extreme north, and in riparian woodlands in canyons of the Southwest.  

Hermit thrushes have the largest breeding range of any of the Catharus thrushes, and nest in a greater variety of habitats.

Hermit thrushes have the largest breeding range of any of the Catharus thrushes, and nest in a greater variety of habitats. This one was found in a bayhead at Lake George Conservation Area.

And they are abundant.  Once I saw my first, I saw hermit thrushes on the majority of my field days for the remainder of the study period.  Particularly during the first couple of weeks in November it wasn’t uncommon to see a half-dozen or more hermits in a day.   They became somewhat less common in December, as the pulse of migration passed and many of the migrants continued on to winter in the tropics.   The abundance of hermit thrushes in winter can be stunning at times.  During Christmas vacation of 2013, we found dozens of hermit thrushes in the coastal forests of South Carolina.

Hermit thrush performing self-inspection.

Hermit thrush performing self-inspection.

Hermit thrush doing his happy dance.

Hermit thrush doing his happy dance.

The spot-breasted thrush that I didn’t see this fall is one I am quite familiar with as a breeding bird in Virginia, where wood thrushes are fairly common (but declining) breeders of moist deciduous forest.  This is the one spot-breasted thrush I have heard singing on their breeding grounds.   The polyphonic, lush, complex, flute-like songs of wood thrushes ringing through mature oak-hickory-beech forest at dawn or dusk are emblematic of this cathedral-like habitat for me.  The thrushes are the pipe organs, only far more delicious. The experience of hearing a wood thrush singing in majestic mature deciduous forest is so thrilling that I found myself imagining over and over this semester again how magical it must be to hear all of these northern thrushes singing in their pristine breeding habitats.

Wood thrushes have proven to be the most difficult thrush to photograph, for me, though they are not hard to find during the breeding season.

Wood thrushes have proven to be the most difficult thrush to photograph, for me, though they are not hard to find during the breeding season.

I don’t recall ever seeing a wood thrush in Florida, where they are actually breeders in the Panhandle.  As fall migrants through the peninsula, however, they are rarely encountered.   Perusal of e-bird sightings in the peninsula for the period August-November 2016 turned up less than a dozen sightings.   Yet another mystery of thrush biology – why are nearly all of the northern-breeding thrushes so much more abundant in fall migration through Florida than wood thrushes?  Why do wood thrushes mostly avoid migrating through the peninsula?

A Florida wood thrush would be a first for me.

A Florida wood thrush would be a first for me.

The other two commonly seen Florida thrushes, quite different in nearly all aspects of their biology from the Catharus and Hylocichla thrushes, are equally curious in their movement patterns.  American robins are winter residents in the state, and are the last of the migrant thrushes to appear.   Though they winter in huge numbers in the state, they also show quixotic behavior while here – they show a distinctly biphasic nature of habitat choice and behavior while wintering, a phenomenon I’ve written about in a previous post (Bipolar Robins). 

American robins winter in huge numbers in Florida, but not until the transient thrushes have mostly completed their passage.

American robins winter in huge numbers in Florida, but not until the transient thrushes have mostly completed their passage.

The other common Florida thrush is the eastern bluebird, which is dramatically different in behavior from the woodland thrushes.  Not only are bluebirds denizens of open, non-forested habitats and edges, they are also permanent residents.  No migratory movement at all.  Like robins, young birds show spots on the breast typical of so many thrushes. 

Eastern bluebirds are non-migratory thrushes that breed throughout Florida.

Eastern bluebirds are non-migratory thrushes that breed throughout Florida.

Like most thrushes, the young of eastern bluebirds show the spotted breast that is part of the adult plumage of many thrushes.

Like most thrushes, the young of eastern bluebirds show the spotted breast that is part of the adult plumage of many thrushes.

The woodland thrushes are special birds for me; seeing even one of these shy, cryptically-patterned birds elevates any birding trip to a good day.  For the rarer species, like gray-cheeked thrushes, seeing them once during the migratory season is a significant event.  To see secretive, uncommon birds you have to have a bit of skill, a bit of luck, and spend lots of time in the field.   It’s noteworthy to me that though I spent over 60 days in the field this fall, I saw three (maybe?) of these species on only one of those days.   Though all of these species are regular  fall migrants through the peninsula, the vagaries of weather and frontal patterns, prevailing high-altitude winds, and other meteorological variables that impact migratory flights over and into the state all combine to make finding these birds, and in particular the rarer species, a daunting challenge.  I was quite lucky this fall.

I love observing and photographing birds with such intensity that I would do what I do if there were no other rewards than the sightings, the photos, and the memories.  Equally rewarding for me, though, is the window these observations provide into the workings of the natural world.  Natural history is an infinitely complex subject; any one of us can only hope to scratch the surface over the course of a lifetime of study.   A lifelong attention to the minutiae of natural history provides a deep understanding of the meaning of one of the great buzzwords of our time, biodiversity.  Biodiversity is more than a list of species, though it is sometimes simplified to simple numeration of species numbers.

Migrant thrushes and fall foliage - a hard-to-beat combination. This is a hermit thrush in red maple (Acer rubrum).

Migrant thrushes and fall foliage – a hard-to-beat combination. This is a hermit thrush in red maple (Acer rubrum).

The Catharus thrushes illustrate some of the finer points of biodiversity perfectly.  Although the members of this clade are superficially relatively uniform, closer study reveals that each species is significantly different in lifestyle and behavior from the others, even though they are so similar in appearance that distinguishing some of the species from each other is nearly impossible.   And this raises questions.  Why do these birds, which behave similarly and feed on the same sorts of food during migration, show such distinct differences in the timing of migration and their passage through Florida?  Why are veeries the first to appear, and hermit thrushes the last?  What is it about the biology of hermit thrushes that allows them to winter in temperate habitats, while all of the others must return to the tropics each winter? 

I’ll never answer these questions, or probably even speculate intelligently about them, but they sure are a lot of fun to think about.

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Of crows, cats and the preservation of sanity

November 11, 2016

All images are linked to larger, high-resolution versions (except for the featured image above).  Click to see the larger version.

Wednesday, November 9 didn’t start well.  It’s fair to say that it began as one of the worst mornings I’ve experienced in recent memory.  I made the 40-minute drive to Seville as the world was just coming awake again, profoundly shocked that the unthinkable had come true.  A deep emptiness and sense of hopelessness filled my chest.  I felt something like I have in the past when a cherished pet died or a valued relationship ended.  Hollow.  Struggle as I might, I could find no silver lining in this dark, oppressive cloud that had appeared so unexpectedly.  I had been thoroughly swept up into the echo chamber of the mainstream media, and I was totally unprepared for this bleak reality.

So this is a story of escape from the wearying world of humans and their foul doings, and the redemptive, restorative power of nature.  The miraculous power of the natural world to rescue one’s mental health and provide a respite from the pervasive reality of the darker spirits of the world of people was no revelation; the natural world has been my therapist and anesthetic from reality for as long as I can remember.

The glorious sunrise in the flatwoods cheered me up for a few minutes, but the release from psychic pain was ephemeral.

The glorious sunrise in the flatwoods cheered me up for a few minutes, but the release from psychic pain was ephemeral.

Needless to say, relief from the pervasive sense of unreality didn’t come quickly or easily. Even the gorgeous kaleidoscopic sunrise as seen from the open mesic flatwoods of Brooks Road in Lake George Conservation Area buoyed my spirits only briefly.  Nature was to have its work cut out for it on this day.

No small amount of credit for preserving whatever modicum of sanity or normality I still have has to go to the American crow and the relationship I’ve developed with these remarkable birds over the last half-decade.  My pre-dawn ramblings around central Florida remind me regularly what resourceful, amazing birds these are.  I would estimate that on about half of my field trips that begin with a crepuscular departure, the first birds I see as the world just barely becomes visible are American crows.  Most often they are performing roadkill patrol, harvesting the bounty of the previous night’s carnage.  It seems to be a regular part of the crow’s behavioral repertoire.

Roadside crows scavenging the previous night's roadkill are often the first birds I see active in the pre-sunrise hours while most birds are still snoozing. Industrious birds.

Roadside crows scavenging the previous night’s roadkill are often the first birds I see active in the pre-sunrise hours while most birds are still snoozing. Industrious birds.

At home, my daily visits with the clan of American crows that has been gracing my yard with their daily presence over the last five or six years have given me immense and indescribable pleasure.  As John Marzluff and other crow researchers have shown convincingly, American crows recognize individual humans and remember the “good guys” and “bad guys” for a long, long time.  My local crows have decided I’m a good guy.  As I write this on my back porch, one of my friends just flew into the yard, landed about 25’ away from me, eyed me for a second, and the boldly strode forward another 15’ feet to load up on the pellets of dog food I had scattered earlier in the morning.   Being 10′ away from a trusting wild crow, who can be among the wariest of birds, is a transformative experience.   I bid him good morning (actually I told him “hello crow”, which is how I address all of them on first appearance), and chatted with him inanely as he scarfed dog food, then flew off to cache most of it.  Yes, I talk to my crows regularly, and I’m quite convinced they understand some of what I’m saying.   Crows that have gathered around the yard, hanging on the periphery, will immediately fly closer when I say the word “food”, which I do each time I toss dog food pellets into the feeder area as they watch me.

I love these birds like family.

I love these birds like family.

But what do they really think of me? Who cares? They come see me, and that's enough.

But what do they really think of me? Who cares? They come see me, and that’s enough.

One of the banner days of each summer is the day the crow family brings their newly fledged offspring to the yard to begin teaching them the complex business of how to be a crow – in this case, who they can trust, and who they can’t.  Building a bond with each year’s new generation of crows is an experience I’ve come to cherish.  I could drivel on for pages about my experiences with my home crows and what they have taught me, but that’s not really the point here.

Okay, young dude, let me show you what's what. A yearling crow is tutoring his fledgling sibling. Crows exhibit cooperative breeding.

Okay, young dude, let me show you what’s what. A yearling crow is tutoring his fledgling sibling. Crows exhibit cooperative breeding.

Fledgling crow taking stock of this strange hominid

Fledgling crow taking stock of this strange hominid

What is more pertinent is the delusional fantasy I entertain sometimes that American crows are part of a vast and complexly connected information network that is capable of disseminating knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout crow world.   That is to say, I sometimes entertain the demented notion that American crows everywhere know who I am, know that I’m one of the good guys, and treat me accordingly.   But I digress.   Back to Tuesday morning and my fragile state of mental health.

I was traveling to Lake George Conservation Area to continue my sabbatical research project investigating mobbing behavior.  Up until this catastrophic Wednesday morning, the fall semester had been hands-down the most rewarding and enjoyable term I’ve spent in my nearly 30 years of teaching at Stetson.   This is the fourth sabbatical semester I have been awarded, and the first devoted entirely to field research.  Being in the field at a variety of different sites nearly every morning at sunrise has been a revelatory experience to me.  The intense exhilaration of anticipating each day’s jackpot of natural history observations has been a phenomenal motivator to get my lazy ass out of bed at 0 dark 30, something abhorrent to my basic slothful nature.  But in truth, on this Wednesday morning I had strongly considered staying in bed all day and just hiding from this hateful world.  I didn’t, and for that I’m thankful.

Watching the sun come up in a different habitat every morning this semester has been a wondrous experience.

Watching the sun come up in a different habitat every morning this semester has been a wondrous experience.

Truck Trail 1 in Lake George Conservation Area makes up but a small leg of the 11-mile driving route that wends through the panoply of habitats comprising this priceless chunk of property.  Which should be sold to private landowners, in the political view of some, I suppose.   The idea of divestiture of all public lands and sale to the highest bidder shocks and repels me to my core.

At its intersection with Aces Road, one wet corner holds a thriving population of pine lilies, Lilium catesbaei, that puts on a spectacular display of big gorgeous blooms every September.  I turned right at this intersection to follow Truck Trail 1 the half-mile or so to its terminus, a gated fence that marks the boundary between the conservation area and adjacent private land.   It was on this section of TT1 a few months earlier where I watched a male bobwhite just sitting calmly in the road, brooding his batch of a dozen or so recently hatched chicks under his wings.  Which I didn’t realize until he eventually stood up and all the little quailets scurried for the nearest cover.  Indescribably precious.

The pine lily patch at Aces Road and Truck Trail 1

The pine lily patch at Aces Road and Truck Trail 1

Pine lily with green lynx

Pine lily with green lynx spiders, male below and female in the corolla

Papa quail brooding the kids

Papa quail brooding the kids

Towards the end of Truck Trail 1, the mostly mesic flatwoods of the conservation area open up into a strand of depression wetland dominated by bald cypress, and chockablock with lovely fall flora on this gray, foreboding morning.   In particular, a glowing cluster of Bidens mitis seemed like a nice foreground element for a habitat shot of this wetland, so I pulled to the side of the berm to play around with the scene a bit.  Coincidentally, though I pass this spot each week during my transit of the conservation area, in the morning it is strongly backlit, and on sunny days, the light is simply too harsh and overpowering for habitat shots in that direction.  The thick overcast turned the sky into a giant softbox on this morning, without a hint of backlighting or any directional light at all.  That’s the sole reason I had stopped at that particular location this morning.  Pure serendipity.

This is the landscape I was photographing. If I hadn't been stopped here quietly for several minutes, it's very unlikely the bobcat would have wandered out into the road as she did

This is the landscape I was photographing. If I hadn’t been stopped here quietly for several minutes, it’s very unlikely the bobcat would have wandered out into the road as she did

After sitting there for several minutes, trying different exposures and compositions, a movement on the road ahead of me caught my eye, and I looked up to see the south end of a female bobcat heading north.  She had emerged from the woods, apparently completely unaware of my presence in a blue Honda, perhaps 75 meters away.   So I moved slowly, grabbed binos, and watched this beautiful felid through my windshield as she blithely sauntered up the road, looking left and right, but never behind her.   It was an excruciatingly difficult decision to simply watch her while I could, and not try to surreptitiously start the engine and creep forward to an orientation where I could photograph her out the driver’s side window.  I knew she would be gone in a flash at any unexpected sound or movement.  So I watched for one or two minutes as she slowly made her way 30 meters or so up the road, around a bend, and out of sight.   I waited about 30 seconds and started the car and repositioned myself, set up my camera on the beanbag, and got ready for the photo op that I was very skeptical would happen.  (And almost didn’t, as my camera began to freeze up in a way that it has been doing sporadically and unpredictably for the last several weeks.  But that’s another story.)

John Serrao doing one of the many things he does so well

John Serrao doing one of the many things he does so well

At this point, I have to once again thank my friend John Serrao for telling me stories a couple of years ago about attracting predators using recorded or imitated rodent distress calls.   John had told a remarkable story of having a weasel walk across his foot while he was making squeaky noises with pursed lips (as I recall; mea culpa if I’ve mangled the details, John).  Soon after that conversation, I went online and downloaded a half-dozen .mp3 files of various rodent/rabbit distress calls.  Perhaps a year later, those recorded calls paid off bigly when I was able to call in and photograph a pair of gray foxes in Ocala National Forest.  See Caniphilia for an account of that experience.  The rodent distress calls attracted a mildly interested coyote at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive earlier this year.

Intrigued gray fox in Ocala National Forest.

Intrigued gray fox in Ocala National Forest.

This coyote came up this road several hundred meters to check out the dying rodents

This coyote came up this road several hundred meters to check out the dying rodents

So, thanks, John. The calls worked again, but with an unexpected twist.  Within a minute or so of playback of rodent squeals through my car stereo, my friends joined the cast.  From maybe 150 meters away, I saw and heard a pair of American crows coming towards me.  But not directly, as if they were responding to the playback – this pair was moving towards me obliquely, flying between perches in small increments of 10-15 meters.   As they continued moving in my direction, I estimated that their trajectory would bring them to the edge of the road maybe 40-50 meters in front of me.  Prior to their appearance, I had focused my attention on the bend in the road 100 meters away where I had last seen the bobcat round the corner.  I expected her, if she responded, to come back around the corner where I last saw her.  As the orange buffoon might say, “WRONG!!”.

My first view of the bobcat, heralded by a pair of sentinel crows above

My first view of the bobcat, heralded by a pair of sentinel crows above

She popped out of the thick grass and low vegetation right where the crow’s path intersected the road.  They were tracking her.   And keeping me informed of her progress, in my warped view of reality.

For the next minute or so, my sense of time and all extraneous sensory experience ceased.  Every scintilla of my limited mental capacity was focused on photographing this beautiful girl.   She stepped out onto the margin of the berm road and eyed me for a few seconds.  At one point, she opened her mouth, and perhaps vocalized towards me.   As my shutter was oscillating continuously in high-speed burst mode, I heard nothing, and didn’t even see the open-mouth display until I processed the photos.  She turned back towards the cover on the road margin, and I thought for a moment that this exhilarating encounter was over.  WRONG!!

Where the hell is that dying rodent? Did that blue Honda just run it over?

Where the hell is that dying rodent? Did that blue Honda just run it over?

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I didn't even notice her doing this gape while I was photographing her. If she vocalized, it was drowned out by the continuous chatter of the shutter in high-speed burst mode

I didn’t even notice her doing this gape while I was photographing her. If she vocalized, it was drowned out by the continuous chatter of the shutter in high-speed burst mode

She turned back around, walked to the middle of the road, stopped in a curious semi-squatting pose (she didn’t urinate), and gave me a long, piercing look, all the while rotating and twitching her tail like a neonate pigmy rattlesnake engaged in caudal luring.   I was in awe.  After about 15 seconds of this display, she casually continued her walk across the berm and into the woods.  And that was the last I saw of her.

Twitching the tail

Twitching the tail

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lynx-rufus_11092016-17_l-george-ca

But not the end of the experience.   For the next five minutes or so, I watched and listened as the crows continued to track her, from 30-40’ up in the pines, calling in clusters of two-three staccato caw notes.   I was able to keep track of her movement for several hundred meters as she moved away from me through the flatwoods.  With my buddies keeping me informed every step of the way.

Departure

Departure

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And like that, it was over.  No more than 2-3 minutes of direct observation of this amazing animal, but it left an indelible memory that will nurture me for perpetuity.   And temporarily dispelled the depression and despair that dominated my mood on that bleak morning.

So to John, the crows, and especially the magnificent bobcat, I say thank you for taking my mind off this horror show we call reality, if only for a few minutes.  Thank you for whatever shreds of sanity I’m able to cling to during these madhouse times.

Sistrurus miliar_080712_5_L Woodruff NWR

Learning snakes

August 20, 2016

As naturalists, what we observe and learn is directly connected to how we look.  I spent more than a decade involved in field and laboratory studies of dusky pigmy rattlesnakes (Sistrurus miliarius barbouri), during which time I had the great fortune to observe thousands of these charming little pit vipers in both natural and captive environments.   Still, during all that time studying pigmies, I never witnessed a behavior I was able to watch yesterday morning while road-cruising the forest roads of Ocala National Forest.

Early morning in the scrub with the birds, later with the snakes. Life is good.

An early morning in the scrub of Ocala National Forest, first spending time with the birds, and later with the snakes. Life is good.

Most of my field observations of pigmies in years past took place during systematic group censuses of our primary study population.   A group of dedicated snake searchers moved slowly through the hammock habitat, looking for the sometimes abundant pigmies, most of which were individually marked as part of a long-term mark-recapture study.  The premium was on finding as many snakes as possible during the census, and measuring characteristics of the found snakes, such as location, substrate, length, weight, and so on.  The upside of this approach is you get to see a lot of snakes.   The downside is that you don’t get to watch individual snakes very long before you’re on to the next one.

This adult dusky pigmy rattlesnake is in a typical foraging coil.

This adult dusky pigmy rattlesnake is in a typical foraging coil.

Not that watching individual snakes is a very productive use of time, in general.   Pigmy rattlesnakes normally don’t do much most of the time.  They are classic ambush predators, and will sometimes remain in a foraging coil without moving for days at a time.   The majority of snakes found are coiled and waiting for some unsuspecting frog or lizard to foolishly venture within striking range.    The frequency of pigmy rattlesnake movement varies seasonally; in winter and summer months, only 5-10% of snakes found are moving (May et al., 1996).   The remaining 90-95% are in foraging coils.  The proportion of moving snakes rises to as high as 15% in spring and fall, but at any time of year, most of the snakes that are out and about (as opposed to sheltering under cover) are immobile.    So watching a foraging pigmy rattlesnake is, for the most part, a lot like watching paint dry.   Observing the snakes that were moving when first seen isn’t much more productive; they are nearly always aware of the human observer’s presence, and when they resume movement, their goal is mostly to get to cover and out of sight.

Pigmy rattlesnakes move relatively infrequently most of the time.

Pigmy rattlesnakes move relatively infrequently most of the time.

Yesterday morning began not long after sunrise, as I started the first day of data collection for my sabbatical research.  The focus of this study is bird behavior, and in particular the effectiveness of different auditory cues in eliciting mobbing responses of passerine birds.   Snakes were not the furthest thing from my mind (they rarely are), but I wasn’t thinking as much about snakes as I was about birds.  A couple of hours of playback trials occupied me for the early part of the morning, and produced a few cool birds – lots of northern parulas, several prairie and yellow-throated warblers, a couple of FOS ovenbirds, and at least a half-dozen summer tanagers.  In addition to the neotropical migrants, year-round residents were in evidence everywhere – lots of Florida scrub jays, including many scruffy gray-headed youngsters, tons of towhees, and frequently heard, infrequently seen white-eyed vireos.  By 9:45 or so it was hot enough that bird activity was on the wane, so I gave up the structured protocol of research and switched to random road-cruising fun.

Yellow-throated vireo and yellow-throated warbler, traveling together in the scrub. Mixed-species flocks consisting of up to a dozen species are the basic functional unit of mobbing behavior.

Yellow-throated vireo and yellow-throated warbler, traveling together in the scrub. Mixed-species flocks consisting of up to a dozen species are the basic functional unit of mobbing behavior.

A couple of distant, rapidly moving black racers were the only snakes I found crossing Forest Road 33; at about 10:30 I headed east on FR 46 towards its intersection with SR19, and then home.  It was warm enough I didn’t expect to see much bird or other wildlife activity, but I was ready to be pleasantly surprised.  I saw a bear on this road around mid-day last fall, so anything is possible.

A scrub lizard, Sceloporus woodi, led me to the baby pigmy, much like the African honeyguide leads people to beehives.

A scrub lizard, Sceloporus woodi, led me to the baby pigmy, much like the African honeyguide leads people to beehives.

I slowed a bit at the Pat’s Island Trailhead parking lot, and when I did so, I saw a lizard dart from the soft sand at the road’s edge towards cover.  He stopped briefly in the open, and I maneuvered my big lens into position to scan the ground for the saurian.  I found him, briefly, before he retreated fully into cover and out of sight.  It was a male scrub lizard (Sceloporus woodi), a Florida endemic that, though locally abundant, always gets me a little hyped when I get the chance to photograph one.   Which this guy refused to give me.   But while scanning the ground for the cryptic scelop, I saw something else I would have completely missed with a naked eye view – a neonate pigmy rattlesnake stretched out on the sand and debris.  The small size and bright yellow tail identified it as a YOY – a young-of-the-year snake that was almost certainly less than a month old, perhaps no more than a few days old.  It still had only the original button that rattlesnakes are born with, meaning it had shed its skin only once (the post-natal shed, which comes 2-4 days after birth and leaves the snake with a single rattle segment).  His second shed would add the first interlocking rattle segment below the button, and and would allow this snake to actually rattle, sort of, if it chose to.  Which they rarely do.   Pigmy rattlesnakes are kind of an embarrassment to the whole notion of rattling.

My first view of the baby pig.

My first view of the baby pig.

The "rattle" of my baby rattler. No moving parts - he couldn't rattle if he wanted to. Which he didn't.

The “rattle” of my baby rattler. No moving parts – he couldn’t rattle if he wanted to. Which he didn’t.

As is typical of pigmies that are detected by a big stinking primate while they are moving, this one had frozen into complete immobility.   Such snakes are acutely aware of the sweaty mammal, and usually will remain static and somewhat cryptic for a minute or three; at some point, they apparently decide (?) that the threat is diminished and gone, and they slowly crawl to cover.   But this one didn’t do that.

Instead, it began poking its head around the palm frond debris nearby, tongue-flicking occasionally.  After a couple of minutes of exploratory behavior, he slowly formed his body into a foraging coil.  This process took several minutes, and was completed as the little snake rocked his body back and forth a few times to settle down into the sand.  It was of interest to me that when the coil was complete, the yellow-tipped tail wasn’t particularly prominent.   Young pigmy rattlesnakes sometimes use their brightly colored tail tip to mimic a small caterpillar or insect larva, wiggling it when frogs or lizards are nearby to entice them into taking a bite.  If all works according to plan, the pigmy then takes his bite.  The behavior is called caudal luring; the baby pigmy I was watching wasn’t doing it.

Exploratory behavior.

Exploratory behavior.

Beginning the coil.

Beginning the coil.

Tighten up.

Tighten up.

A rocking little snake.

A rocking little snake.

The final result. Notice that the yellow tail is barely visible from the direction the snake is facing.

The final result. Notice that the yellow tail is barely visible from the direction the snake is facing.

A neonate pigmy rattlesnake from Lake Woodruff NWR in a foraging coil, showing a bit of the yellow tail.

A neonate pigmy rattlesnake from Lake Woodruff NWR in a foraging coil, showing a bit of the yellow tail.

So at this point I figured the excitement (!) was over.  The baby pig was settled into its foraging coil, and might not move for hours or days.  Still I hung around and watched.  I was hoping the scrub lizard might make a reappearance, but didn’t really expect any other action from the pigmy.  Still, I was pretty happy with what I’d seen so far.  In all the years of watching pigmy rattlesnakes in the field, I had never observed one actually form a foraging coil while I watched.   The tongue-flicking prior to coiling suggest that chemical cues may be an important part of site selection.  Eric Roth showed over a decade ago while working on the pigmy research project that pigmies are more likely to coil and hunt in areas that have been sprayed with frog scent than in nearby similar areas lacking frog odors (Roth et al., 1999).

Pigmy rattlesnakes in some habitats eat a lot of frogs, including both semi-aquatic frogs (leopard frogs, especially) and tree frogs. This a pinewoods tree frog, Hyla femoralis.

Pigmy rattlesnakes in some habitats eat a lot of frogs, including both semi-aquatic frogs (leopard frogs, especially) and tree frogs. This a pinewoods tree frog, Hyla femoralis.

I was quite surprised when the little viper began moving his head back and forth a bit, and tongue-flicking.  He had been in his coil for less than 5 minutes.  When he initially coiled, the spot was in shade, but a moving sun fleck was beginning to encroach on his foraging site.   That particular foraging spot would be completely untenable if exposed to full mid-morning sun; the little pigmy would be overheated within minutes.

Moving to a new foraging site. Check out the stick. Good call.

Moving to a new foraging site. Check out the stick. Good call.

So the little dude did a very reasonable thing – he switched spots.  But not very far.  He slowly crawled to a still shaded spot less than a foot away, and repeated the behavior.  He began nosing at and tongue-flicking around a small twig, and soon settled into a foraging coil situated partially under the stick.  The process of forming a coil was much quicker this time.  Time stamps from the series of photographs I took reveal that it took him several minutes to form the first coil, but only a little over a minute for the latter.He was still in his second coil when I drove away, but I doubt he stayed there long either. The entire area was soon to be exposed to direct full sun, which would surely require that he relocate again.

Scoping out the new neighborhood.

Scoping out the new neighborhood.

Beginning to coil.

Beginning to coil.

The second bout of coiling happened much faster than the first.

The second bout of coiling happened much faster than the first.

Coil nearly complete, but the tail is still exposed.

Coil nearly complete, but the tail is still exposed.

Coil complete, tail hidden. This is how I left him.

Coil complete, tail hidden. This is how I left him.

Was this baby snake learning how to choose a foraging site?   Snakes as a group have never been considered by most biologists to be particularly “intelligent”, whatever that term means.   The general view of comparative intelligence among the vertebrates has long been that while birds and mammals are highly intelligent and capable of complex cognitive feats (“learning animals”), the ectothermic vertebrates (fish, amphibians, reptiles) are primarily “reflex animals”, relying mostly on hard-wired, fixed behaviors to respond to environmental challenges.  My personal view is that we probably underestimate the cognitive capabilities of most animals.   There’s shit going on there we have very limited means of studying and understanding.

Are older pigmy rattlesnakes smarter than younger ones? What is animal intelligence?

Are older pigmy rattlesnakes smarter than younger ones? What is animal intelligence?

From a purely practical standpoint, it seems reasonable that young pigmy rattlesnakes should learn how to choose better foraging sites as they get older.  A successful foraging site, particularly one that results in capture and consumption of a prey item, should provide positive reinforcement regarding the characteristics of that foraging site, and the site-selection behavior of that individual should be modified.   Actually demonstrating learning by individual animals is a tough nut, though, especially in the field.  For learning to have occurred, the snake would have to modify some aspect of its site selection behavior as a result of earlier experiences.

Snakes in the genus Thamnophis (garter and ribbon snakes) have been shown in laboratory studies to learn how to better track prey. This is a peninsula ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus sackeni) trying to hang on to an uncooperative leopard frog. Scanned from a transparency.

Snakes in the genus Thamnophis (garter and ribbon snakes) have been shown in laboratory studies to learn how to better track prey. This is a peninsula ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus sackeni) trying to hang on to an uncooperative leopard frog. Scanned from a transparency.

Demonstrating learning in non-human animals requires controlled conditions and laboratory studies.   A quick and dirty Google Scholar search for primary literature on learning in snakes turns up only a handful of citations, some of which show limited modification of behavior based on experience, and others that don’t.  Garter snake babies become better at following worm trails with experience, but Richard Shine and his colleagues have shown that Australian black snakes (Pseudechis porphyriacus) don’t learn to avoid toxic cane toads (a novel, non-native prey for these snakes) after encountering them.  However, populations exposed to the toads rapidly evolved behavioral avoidance of cane toads, compared to populations with no previous exposure to the toads (Phillips and Shine, 2006).  The naïve snakes readily consumed the toads, much to their detriment. This result suggests that toad avoidance in these snakes is an evolved, genetically based behavior.

It would be an extremely premature and foolhardy conclusion to state with any confidence that I had observed a snake learning. None the less, I’m pretty sure that’s what I did.

 

 

References

May, P.G., Farrell, T.M., Heulett, S.T., Pilgrim, M.A., Bishop, L.A., Spence, D.J., Rabatsky, A.M., Campbell, M.G., Aycrigg, A.D. and Richardson, W.E., (1996). Seasonal abundance and activity of a rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius barbouri) in central Florida. Copeia, pp.389-401.
Roth, E., May, P., & Farrell, T. (1999). Pigmy Rattlesnakes Use Frog-Derived Chemical Cues to Select Foraging Sites. Copeia, 1999(3), 772-774.
Phillips, B. L., & Shine, R. (2006). An invasive species induces rapid adaptive change in a native predator: cane toads and black snakes in Australia.Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences,273(1593), 1545-1550.

 

 

Nemesis no more

LEBI_06142015-22_L Apopka RA_1

June 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's some neck serious neck extension.

That’s some neck serious neck extension.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Show me what you can do with that neck.

Show me what you can do with that neck.

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

The first excellent photo op of the morning.

The first excellent photo op of the morning.

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

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

Full neck extension.

Full neck extension.

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

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

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

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

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

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

LEBI_06142015-09_L Apopka RA

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

 

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

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

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

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

Can the crested caracara be far behind?

Image Gallery: Return to Lake Apopka Restoration Area

 

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

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

May 18, 2015

All images are linked to larger versions.

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

Recently fledged great blue heron.

Recently fledged great blue heron.

Bullfrog feeding a mosquito.

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

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

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

Sorry, bro, you cannot pass.

Sorry, bro, you cannot pass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

A more typical view of a least bittern.

A more typical view of a least bittern.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's one chilled out baby gator.

That’s one chilled out baby gator.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I saw a half-dozen or so limpkins.

I saw a half-dozen or so limpkins.

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

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

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

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

Anhinga performing gular flutter, a heat-dissipating behavior.

Anhinga performing gular flutter, a heat-dissipating behavior.

 

A splendid morning in the wetlands

Black-necked stilt snags a mosquitofish

Black-necked stilt snags a mosquitofish

Click on any image to see a larger version.

May 10, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Canals and water control structures permeate Lake Apopka Restoration Area.

Canals and water control structures permeate Lake Apopka Restoration Area.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do I look, Mom?

How do I look, Mom?

Feeding the babies.

Feeding the babies.

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

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

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

Like this.

Like this.

Got one.

Got one.

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

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

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

Solitary sandpiper

Solitary sandpiper

Solitary and least sandpiper

Solitary and least sandpiper

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

Bullfrog (Lithobates or Rana catesbeianus)

Bullfrog (Lithobates or Rana catesbeianus)

Pig frog (Lithobates or Rana grylio)

Pig frog (Lithobates or Rana grylio)

The bullfrogs were freaking thick!

The bullfrogs were freaking thick!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images: Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area

Saturday, February 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue-gray gnatcatcher

Blue-gray gnatcatcher

Orange-crowned warbler

Orange-crowned warbler

Female common yellowthroat

Female common yellowthroat

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

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

Swamp sparrows were thick throughout.

Swamp sparrows were thick throughout.

Swamp sparrow

Swamp sparrow

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

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

Image Gallery: Okefenokee Swamp

 January 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweetgum

Sweetgum

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

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

Longleaf pine forest

From the Swamp Wildlife Drive in the Suwannee Canal Area.

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

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

Chesser Prairie, from the boardwalk.

Chesser Prairie, from the boardwalk.

Eastern phoebe from Chesser Island.

Eastern phoebe from Chesser Island.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urocyon cinereoa_09212014-47_Ocala NF FR69

Caniphilia

 October 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Wilkins et al., 2014.

From Wilkins et al., 2014.

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

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

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

Luna, indisputably the greatest dog who ever lived

Luna, indisputably the greatest dog who ever lived

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canis latrans_092511_6_Lake County

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

Stalking coyote.

Stalking coyote.

This one might be doable, he's thinking.

This one might be doable, he’s thinking.

Coyote pups at Heart Island Conservation Area.

Coyote pups at Heart Island Conservation Area.

In Tiger Bay State Forest

In Tiger Bay State Forest

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

Paisey Road, Ocala National Forest

Paisley Road, Ocala National Forest

My first view of the gray foxes. Hard crop.

My first view of the gray foxes. Hard crop.

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

Urocyon cinereoa_09212014-37_Ocala NF FR69

Urocyon cinereoa_09212014-38_Ocala NF FR69

Urocyon cinereoa_09212014-23_Ocala NF FR69

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

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

In the light pillar.

In the light pillar.

And still she came.

And still she came.

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

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

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

Urocyon cinereoa_09212014-53_Ocala NF FR69

Still checking the road margins for the shier male.

Back and forth she came.

Back and forth she came.

Urocyon cinereoa_09212014-59_Ocala NF FR69

The final veer. The eye contact was amazing.

The final veer. The eye contact was amazing.

Last usable shot in the sequence.

Last usable shot in the sequence.

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

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

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

References:

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

 

 

CEWA feed ritual_05262014-23_Silver Lake CP

Old birds, new behaviors

 

May 31, 2014

I do most of my birding and natural historizing locally, only occasionally traveling more than 30 miles to a birding destination.   Once a year, though, I drive to northern Virginia sometime in May to hang out with my father for a week or so and experience the explosion of breeding bird activity in that part of the country.   One of the rewards of making this pilgrimage is the opportunity to experience new behaviors of species that winter, but don’t breed, in Florida.   There are a lot of those.  Although I mostly grew up in northern Virginia, and discovered my obsession with birds there, I’m still surprised on most visits by finding species or seeing behaviors that I somehow missed while I was living there.  Cedar waxwing breeding behavior is a case in point.

Silver Lake, in Haymarket, VA

Silver Lake, in Haymarket, VA

In the last couple of years, I’ve started visiting a new site while in Virginia – a county park that was only recently opened to the public.  Silver Lake Regional Park, in Haymarket, Virginia, opened in 2009, and has become one of my favorite birding spots when I’m in the area.  At 230 acres, it’s a postage stamp of a park.  Silver Lake is a 23-acre impoundment fed by Little Bull Run, and the surrounding piedmont is a mosaic of mostly disturbed and successional habitats.   Breeding bird communities of so-called old field habitats in the mid-Atlantic region contain a number of charming birds, and the diversity and density are high enough that during May there is nearly always something happening worthy of watching.  At Silver Lake, there is a large parking area that is designated for horse trailer parking, which abuts a lovely tract of perhaps 20-30 acres of prime old field habitat in the shrub-sapling stage of succession.   I rarely see anyone else at this end of the park; most park visitors cluster around lovely Silver Lake to fish.  So I have this beautiful shrubby old field all to myself.

Cemetery Cedar C_05192012_08_Aden VA

When agricultural land is abandoned and allowed to revert to a natural state, it undergoes a predictable sequence of changes in plant composition, vegetative structure, and characteristic breeding bird communities, called secondary succession.  The first few years of succession are characterized by low stature vegetation consisting entirely of herbaceous grasses and forbs; because of the simple, monolayer structure, the breeding bird community is low in diversity, often consisting of only a few species (grasshopper sparrows and eastern meadowlarks, for example) at relatively low densities.  Within 5-10 years, woody plants begin to invade and become a prominent component of the vegetative structure; these invaders include species such as red cedar, wild cherry, and persimmon, among others.  The increase in vegetative complexity, and concomitant increase in the amount and variety of food resources for birds, results in a big jump in breeding bird diversity, as species like indigo buntings, blue grosbeaks, song and field sparrows, brown thrashers, common yellowthroats, and yellow-breasted chats establish breeding populations.  The density of breeding pairs also increases nearly three-fold between the grass/forb stage of succession and the shrub-sapling stage.  All of the various stages of succession from abandoned field to mature deciduous forest have their own characteristic bird communities; diversity and density of breeding birds is greatest in late successional habitats, which in northern Virginia means various incarnations of eastern deciduous forest.

The average number of species breeding in four stages of secondary succession in the eastern U.S. (from May, 1982)

The average number of species breeding in four stages of secondary succession in the eastern U.S. (from May, 1982)

Grasshopper sparrows are characteristic breeders of very early successional habitats

Grasshopper sparrows are characteristic breeders of very early successional habitats

FISP_05262014-27_Catharpin VA

Field sparrows don’t begin breeding in old field habitats until woody plants have begun to invade.

Where you find breeding field sparrows, you usually find prairie warblers as well

Where you find breeding field sparrows, you usually find prairie warblers as well

The density (number of territorial males/40 hectares, or about 100 acres) at four stages of secondary succession.

The density (number of territorial males/40 hectares, or about 100 acres) at four stages of secondary succession.

Density and diversity of breeding birds generally increase in a predictable pattern with successional age of the habitat, with the greatest abundance and diversity occurring in the so called “climax stage”, which remains relatively stable in plant composition unless it is disturbed by either natural events (fire, blowdowns, etc.) or anthropogenic causes (deforestation).   In the mid-Atlantic region, the climax plant community in many parts of the landscape is some form of eastern deciduous forest. (The concept of a climax community that is stable and unchanging over long time periods is eschewed by many ecologists; it’s a pretty simplistic idea.)  So even though it’s not the most diverse habitat type in the successional continuum, the shrubby stage of old-field succession is hard to beat for superb birding.  Not only are many of the birds breeding there interesting and beautiful, the relatively low stature of the vegetation and open architecture of the habitat make observation of bird activity far easier than in the more diverse mature forests.

Oak-hickory-beech forest is the terminal or "climax" stage of succession in parts of northern Virginia.

Oak-hickory-beech forest is the terminal or “climax” stage of succession in parts of northern Virginia.

So on two of the five mornings I was in Virginia, I found myself at Silver Lake Regional Park, ensconced in my car (a blind of sorts) to just sit and soak in the stunning beauty of spring in Virginia.   The primary object of my attention was the yellow-breasted chats that breed in this patch of habitat; I see chats only rarely in Florida, and then typically very briefly.  There are few bird species skulkier than a yellow-breasted chat.   That doesn’t change all that much when they are breeding, but they are such vocal birds that even if you can’t see them much of the time, you can keep track of their movement and activities by the nearly constant outpouring of croaks, grunts, whistles and other varied mechanical sounds these oversized warblers produce.  They do a killer imitation of a distant crow cawing; on several occasions, they momentarily fooled me with this call even though I knew I was listening to a chat.  They’re that convincing.  On my first visit to Silver Lake, I had a remarkable half-hour or so watching and listening to yellow-breasted chats that on occasion abandoned their skulkitude and FULLY EXPOSED THEMSELVES.  Amazing.

Yellow-breasted chat in mild skulk mode.

Yellow-breasted chat in mild skulk mode.

Yellow-breasted chat IN THE OPEN!!

Yellow-breasted chat IN THE OPEN!!

So it shouldn’t be hard to understand how I can easily pass an hour or two sitting by this patch of old field habitat, watching and listening to the comings and goings of the breeding birds. It was while I was doing just that on my second visit, parked next to a small copse of some fruit-bearing sapling, that I saw a pair of cedar waxwings fly into the dense cover at the back of the grove, nearly hidden from sight.  Cedar waxwings are a species that I saw fairly regularly when I lived in Virginia, but always as nomadic flocks of fruit-scouring pirates during the non-breeding season.   At Silver Lake, though, they seem to be common breeders.  I had discovered a nesting pair of waxwings frequenting a dense clump of vine-tangled cedars on my first visit to Silver Lake, but those birds were in such dense cover that they were nearly impossible to observe when they were on or near the nest.

The male waxwing with his gift.

The male waxwing with his gift.

By contrast, this pair of waxwings in the little grove by the parking lot put on a show for me.  One of the birds, presumably the male, flew out of the back of the clump towards me, and snagged a pair of small, green fruits.  He was soon joined by his mate, and they began a ritualized behavior that was entirely new to me.   The male presented the unripe fruits to the female, which I interpreted as courtship feeding.  Cool to see, but not particularly unusual.   Many passerines and non-passerines perform similar ritualized feeding during courtship and pair-bond maintenance.  I see it every summer between the cardinals that breed in my neighborhood.   But the female didn’t eat the fruits – she moved away from the male a few inches and held it, then moved back to the male and passed it back to him.   He held them for a few seconds, then returned them to the female.   She followed suit.  For the next minute or two, they repeated this behavior at least 5 times.  Eventually one of the waxwings flew away; I don’t know if it was the male or the female that left first, or if he or she even ate the fruits.  It was a trip to see.

CEWA feed ritual_05262014-19a_Silver Lake CP

Waxwings show a number of distinctive aspects of their breeding behavior.   Anyone who has marveled at the antics of big flocks of waxwings wintering in Florida as they decimate the fruit crop on a chosen tree knows they are extremely social birds, and this extends to the breeding season.  They aren’t territorial when breeding, and sometimes nest in loose colonies of 10 or more breeding pairs.   Compared to most other passerines, they are among the latest to begin breeding activity.  Eggs aren’t usually laid until late May or early June, which seems to be an adaptation for synchronizing the appearance of the greedy youngsters to the availability of ripening fruit.  Waxwings are one of the few primarily frugivorous birds in North America; while many species feed on fruit opportunistically, none are as specialized to a fruit-eating diet as waxwings are.   They do incorporate more animal prey into their diet during the breeding season, probably for the protein content, but still fruit makes up a substantial portion of the diet of nestling birds.

CEWA feed ritual_05262014-18_Silver Lake CP

CEWA feed ritual_05262014-10_Silver Lake CP

CEWA feed ritual_05262014-19a_Silver Lake CP

CEWA feed ritual_05262014-13_Silver Lake CP

So this pair of birds engaging in repeated acts of fruit passing were likely still in the courtship/pair bonding stage of the nesting cycle.   The entry for cedar waxwings at Cornell’s Birds of North America Online site gives this account of the behavior I observed:

Typical courtship display in which mates alternately approach one another on a perch with hopping movements, sometimes touching bills. Usually initiated by male; successful when female reciprocates (Putnam 1949). This display is termed the Courtship Dance or Courtship-Hopping (Silloway 1904Crouch 1936Lea 1942). Courtship-Hopping begins in migrant flocks, and has been noted as early as Apr in California (Feltes 1936) and in Ohio (Putnam 1949). Courtship-Hopping often includes passing a small item (usually food item such as a fruit, insect, or flower petal, but sometimes inedible items, and occasionally object-passing may be merely simulated, with no object actually passed; Fig. 3) between male and female, interspersed with short hops away from and back toward mate. Display usually initiated by male, who obtains a food item and joins female at a perch (Putnam 1949). Male approaches female by hopping sideways and passes item to female with turn of head (usually both birds face same direction). Female typically hops away from male, then hops back and returns item to male. Male then responds by hopping away, often performing bowing movements between hops, before hopping back and repeating the sequence. The display may be repeated a dozen times or more (Tyler 1950) and is usually terminated when the female eats the food item (Putnam 1949). Bouts of courtship-feeding may be interspersed with fast circular flights around nest area. Crouch (1936) observed an apparent extension of passing behavior in which female would pass last food item back to male after he had delivered food to her, either at or away from nest. Then the mates would allopreen and bill. Copulation is usually preceded by Courtship-Hopping (Putnam 1949).”

CEWA feed ritual_05262014-16_Silver Lake CP

Though I saw no allopreening, circular flights, or copulation, I was ecstatic about observing this fascinating behavior.  One of the great joys of natural history study is knowing that even after observing a species, sometimes extensively, for years or even decades, there is always the potential for learning something new about them.

 References:

May, P.G.  1982.  Secondary succession and breeding bird community structure: Patterns of resource utilization.  Oecologia 55(2): 208-216.
Witmer, M. C., D. J. Mountjoy and L. Elliot. 1997. Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:  http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/309