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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Everglades Birding

Wood Stork
          Last year in spring we made a day trip to the eastern part of the Everglades National Park  through the Earnest F. Coe Visitor Center. Since it was only a half day visit we made a limited number of stops, the most memorable of which was the Paurotis Pond rookery. When we arrived last year we were greeted by large numbers of nesting Snowy, Green, Tri-colored and Great Egrets, Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills and Anhingas. It was definitely a case of needing an extra set of eyes to take in the sights of all these birds coming and going, squabbling among themselves and feeding their young. Although we arrived a month earlier this year in early April we were surprised by the reduced number of nesting birds. There were still good numbers of nesting Storks but only a few Roseate Spoonbills and Anhingas and not much else.           
              We made up for the disappointing showing when we visited the Flamingo area(the last stop on the park road). We stopped at the visitor center there and a distant sand bar in the bay revealed a White Pelican, a feeding Reddish Egret and a small group of Royal Terns. Fortunately as we were driving out of the parking lot I spotted a flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds. Getting out of the car and scanning the flock I discovered a dark blue-black Cowbird slightly larger than the other birds and more aggressive toward its Brown-headed cousins. The Shiny Cowbird was a lifer for me and got my juices flowing. 
A Florida Specialty

We spoke with a couple of birders who had gone on an early morning bird walk with the park ranger and had good looks at a Painted Bunting and Clay-colored Sparrow at the Eco Pond just a half mile down the road from our present location. We were running out of daylight so we came back the next morning to investigate Eco Pond and found it to be a small gem.  Immediately we spotted approximately 30 Black-necked Stilts and a single light-colored wading bird actively feeding with its head submerged. It disappeared behind some mangroves but as we continued walking along the path we rediscovered the mystery bird  in the weeds.  It turned out to be a lone Avocet hanging out with the flock of Stilts. 

Basic plumaged American Avocet

Walking another 20 feet we passed an adult pale Red-Shouldered Hawk sitting on a branch at eye level  just 10 feet away. It did not budge as we walked by and Susan reminded me of the recent attacks on humans by a single nesting Red-Shouldered Hawk in downtown Fort Meyers. Several people were attacked with resulting minor lacerations of their scalps and the event made the evening news. The locals placed traffic cones around the tree where the hawk lived to caution passer-bys of the threat of a hawk attack and most of the neighbors took to wearing hats when outdoors.  Another 50 feet and safely past the raptor Susan pointed out another bird hidden behind the leaves just a few feet off the path. With some difficulty I could make out its head and told Susan it was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. As the bird came into a small clearing I saw the striking yellow chest and belly and could make out an extensive black mask. It was a Mangrove Cuckoo. Although not a lifer it afforded me a much better look than the one I saw years ago in the Dominican Republic. This turned out to be a great morning in spite of not finding a Clay-colored Sparrow or Painted Bunting.     
A super find - Mangrove Cuckoo
                Early the next week we made a trip to the northern part of the Everglades Park at the Shark Valley Visitor Center. As we pulled into the road leading into the park we saw a sign announcing that the parking lot was full. It was mid morning and we had driven an hour and a half to get there so I was in a bit of a huff by the time I reached the entrance gate. Expecting to be turned away leading to a futile argument with a government employee which would go nowhere,  I was pleasantly surprised by the ranger’s  humorous attitude.  He assured me that like most things with the government  “don’t believe everything you read”. There was enough parking for us but he was working the gate without backup so he put up the sign anticipating a closure of the lot later in the day!  That’s your government at work.      
                 There is a single road in the park and the majority of the visitors took a guided tour via a motor tram. It is a 15 mile road but some folks rented bikes or walked. We took the tram ride but with the bikers and hikers and the narrowness of the road, things were pretty congested. The road was built by an oil company decades ago for oil exploration. They found oil but because of its high sulfur content and the primitive state of refining oil in those days, they gave up on the site. Lucky for us the government bought the land and road and it’s now part of the Everglades National Park.                   
                   My target bird was the Snail Kite.  Wherever we traveled and asked about locating this rare raptor, we were usually diverted to another spot far from our present location. A few days earlier the ranger in the Big Cypress Preserve pulled out a park map and pointed to an area along an old abandoned road as a likely spot to find the bird.  She cautioned me however that the last time she had explored the area she came upon four snakes three of which were “poisonous” and alerted me to the fact that although it’s the dry season we would be”up to our ankles in muck”.   As an alternative she said the “area south of Fort Lauderdale” was a good bet. Ultimately there seemed to be some agreement among the folks I questioned that the Shark Valley area was one of the best places for seeing Snail Kites.  Our tram guide agreed but after our 2 hour tour viewing lots of alligators, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Tricolored Herons,  Anhingas and Double-crested Cormorants there were still no Kite sightings.       

You can see it in her eyes - "Mmm alligator burgers"
                    Once back at park headquarters we walked along the tram path for a few blocks hoping to get a look at the Purple Gallinules that live there. I spotted one in some dense vegetation on the far side of a stream that paralleled the road but the bird never fully revealed itself. There were lots of young fuzzy Anhingas and Green Herons who looked like they just left their nests.  As we walked back to the parking lot a very large white bird landed in the stream about 100 feet away. I thought it might be a Great White Heron and closed in on it. Turned out to be a Great White Egret instead, but behind it was a very cooperative Purple Gallinule in full view.        
A stunning bird
                      Feeling invigorated by the photo opportunity with the very colorful bird, I decided to try one more time for the Snail Kite. The driver of the tram suggested checking out a restaurant several miles outside the park and on the way back to Naples.  He said we might want to “get a Coke” and sit out on their back deck to scan the marsh.  A short drive north and I spotted the restaurant and pulled into their parking lot.  Surveying the place I understood why the guide suggested bottled soda and not the food. Neither Susan nor I had any desire to enter the establishment but fortunately only a block away was an opening in the trees and a boat launch. I pulled up to the boat launch and got out of the car. While standing there debating whether to grab the Cutter’s repellant as the fly population seemed pretty intense, three Snail Kites flew by the opening just 30 feet away. At this point Susan was “birded out”  and playing “Candy Crush” on her cell phone when I yelled at her to drop everything and grab the camera. Luckily the birds cooperated and only flew a block or two away into the middle of the field and one even landed in a tree. We watched as it proceeded to eat an Apple Snail( their sole source of food) and discard the large shell.  Sibley says the birds hang out in these loose family groups. What a great end to our Everglades adventure:  the birds were much more cooperative than I expected and all close enough for decent photos.  With the loss of snail habitat these animals are losing ground, so it was a rare and satisfying experience for both of us.    
Endangered Snail Kite

Apple snail in talons

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

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Raven Webcam

As the southerly movement of ravens continues, birders may be interested to know that a breeding pair is now being documented by webcam from Wellesley College.  The birds were first spotted around campus last fall by Lauren Johnson, Sheryl's daughter.   After seeing them carrying sticks to the Science Center this spring, she alerted Prof Nick Rodenhouse who arranged for a webcam.  Because of their location, the camera is even able to show their nighttime habits.  The female is currently incubating two eggs.  Check in from time to time as the season progresses.  An announcement from Wellesley College is available at   and the webcam site is

Authored by:
Sheryl Johnson

Friday, April 4, 2014

Banded Red Knot reported in Florida

        Here is an interesting blog about a birder in Florida who spotted a Red Knot on the beach and tracked down the band number.