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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Florida Trip

by Gary Becker

     Last fall when some friends offered us the use of their condo in Naples, Florida  in the early spring  of 2014 we quickly signed up. We were thankful to leave the dreary weather behind in mid March when we started our adventure.  Driving down over the next two days with an overnight in North Carolina we were pretty beat up by the time of our arrival in Southwest Florida. However, the next morning our spirits were lifted by the warm sunny weather and a fly-by Swallow- tailed Kite as we stepped out of the condo.

     While taking a walk around the complex we caught a glimpse of a strange looking bird just disappearing over the roof tops. The only features I could pick out were a striking irregular black and white pattern in the wings and body. I had no idea what we were dealing with but the next morning a single Muscovy duck balancing on the top of a neighbor’s roof revealed the identity of the mystery bird. The ducks were well integrated into the neighborhood and on occasion would join us humans in the community pool. 

      A few weeks later Susan and I took a walk at a neighborhood park and noticed an adult Muscovy duck with 3 ducklings swimming on the opposite side of a small creek. There was tall brush along the creek and Susan walked to the edge of the grass to take a picture of the family group. I continued walking and was a distance ahead of her when she asked if ducks would attack humans and I yelled back that when on the nest or with their young they can be aggressive. The family of ducks was in the water and on the other side of the creek so I did not think there would be a problem. As soon as I reassured her a second adult popped out of the brush only a few feet away from Susan and me. It advanced on us slowly but with a very serious look. I was uncertain what the duck would do but I do remember a female mallard chasing a friend and me after we stumbled on its nest. That duck kept biting the nape of my friend’s neck and although not drawing blood she persisted in pursuing us for a good distance. Fortunately, this Muscovy duck followed us about 50 feet and no further.  

             Five miles from our development was a great birding area: Eagle Lakes Park. This township park had multiple sports fields, a large playground and three large ponds and marshes with interlocking paved paths. After our first visit I jokingly told Susan there was no need to go to the Everglades National Park.  We’ve got it all here in our backyard on a small manageable scale. In the first quarter mile, I discovered a flock of 30 to 40 Black-bellied Whistling-ducks, 20 Black-necked Stilts, 3 Loggerhead Shrikes, 2 Limpkins, 2 Reddish Egrets, 20 plus Blue-winged Teal, 6 Mottled ducks, and a Roseate Spoonbill. 
We also saw numerous Great and Snowy Egrets,  3 Great  Blue Herons and 5 Little Blue Herons (2 white phase), a dozen Common Gallinules,  20 plus Coots, several Pied-billed Grebes, dozens of Glossy and White Ibises, 3 Greater Yellowlegs, many Least Sandpipers and Killdeers, 1 Swallow-tailed Kite, 3 Anhingas, 10 Brown Pelicans, dozens of Double-crested Cormorants, 2 Red-shouldered Hawks of the pale Florida subspecies, lots of Palm Warblers, and a nesting pair of Osprey with young living on the top of a large stadium light on one of the playing fields.    


           On my second visit to Eagles Lake I met a retired ornithologist who was studying nesting Shrikes within the park. Apparently he found  5 pairs of birds and told me they have adapted well to park-like settings and even incorporate industrial scraps into their nests. The birds had gathered up the plastic straps from some cyclone fences close by and made up a part of their nest with them. 

            Interestingly the ornithologist had also done a Red-bellied Woodpecker study on the east coast of Florida in the same community where my wife’s son lives. He told me that there were active Shrike populations thriving there. I told him I had birded the area multiple times and had been pleasantly surprised by the shrikes and the abundance of other great birds. I asked him if he had seen evidence of the Shrikes impaling their prey on sharp objects like thorns or barbed wire. He denied seeing this but claims he has seen them wedge prey into the angles of tree branches.
         A few days later while birding I was joined by a veterinarian from Minnesota. Strangely he had almost no knowledge of birds except for those he shot during duck and pheasant hunting up in the northern wilds. I pointed out a Shrike to him and told him he might have run into its Northern cousins up in Minnesota. He didn’t think he had seen them before but when I told him of their method of storing prey on sharp objects, a light went on. He had seen impaled animals while hiking the woods but up to this point was at a loss to explain their violent deaths.  He said he would probably buy a pair of binoculars and check out some of the non-game birds in his neighborhood in Minnesota. 
          Susan accompanied me on several more visits and with her great eyes picked out a White Pelican and a lone Roseate Spoonbill within minutes. Another great park only three miles from our condo was the Sugden Regional Park.  Although smaller than Eagle Lakes it had a single pond and a nice walking path.  I discovered  many of the same birds but I added a female Painted Bunting, a beautiful male Indigo bunting and a Brown Thrasher.  
          Besides the phenomenal birds at Eagles Lake Park I was treated to a new species of squirrel: the Fox Squirrel. Larger than the Gray Squirrel, they are identified by their large bushy tails and black faces with white ears and nose. Of the 4 subspecies, the species in the park were the Big Cypress Fox Squirrels(Sciurus niger) which are found only in the Everglades area and are a protected species.  

        Another interesting animal was the Black racer. I am not certain whether I had seen them before but they were common here. In fact one was waiting for us at the bottom of our steps on the second morning. They are very quick but I was able to get a few good pictures of the reptile.
            We eventually got to visit both the northern and eastern portions of the Everglades National Park and ended up with some great finds including a number of lifers which I will describe in another blog.                     
Notice the Black Gape - a good field mark for Mottled Duck
Florida subspecies of Red-shouldered Hawk

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