Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Wordless Wednesday

Brown Pelican

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Owl Cam

Copyright J. R. Graevell

Check out the webcam of a Barn owl in Texas. It's at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site. She has been brooding eight eggs. We think one has hatched today, possibly two. I haven't seen any yet myself, and I have never seen the male, dang it! Good luck!

Friday, March 21, 2008

I had a frustrating day yesterday...

I spent a good part of the day driving and wasn't able to stop at some really good photo ops. One was a flock of cattle egrets soaring and then gliding toward a nearby pond. Later in the day I saw a little blue heron preening itself on a grassy slope next to another pond. I had a friend with me for most of the time, but we stopped along Sarasota Bay on the Ringling Causeway to relax and look at the water (and, I was hoping, to see a few birds). I noticed that one pair of red-breasted mergansers were diving a ways out; perhaps they were the same pair I saw there last week. Just as we were about to leave for dinner, a snowy egret landed in front of us and began searching for food at the water's edge. I couldn't resist. I snapped a few pictures through my windshield, and then got halfway out of the door to get a couple more. It was an exceptionally beautiful Snowy. I kept thinking "is this a Snowy?" "Somehow it looks different." But, there were the yellow feet; has to be a Snowy.

It looked so vibrant, like a white car just coming out of a carwash. The black bill couldn't have been blacker; the white plumage couldn't have been whiter. All I kept thinking was "fresh". It just looked "fresh". Whatever that means. It seemed to be easing into breeding plumage, so I'm thinking that this was a first-winter bird.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Wordless Wednesday

American crow taking flight from top of tree.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Trivia - Mallards

"... the por (sic) female was being harassed by several drakes!" Mary Osborn/

I've often heard non-birders and beginning birders who see a pair of mallards comment that the two ducks are a "couple". The truth is that in the autumn a male mallard duck (drake) often will start accompanying a female mallard (hen) as a protector, not as a potential mate. The following spring at mating time, he will attempt to fend off the amorous attentions of other male ducks who try to mate with the female - all at the same time. This is a particularly harrowing, exhausting and even dangerous time for the female ducks. The drakes will pursue a hen to the point that she may literally drop from exhaustion. Her protector will try to harass and chase off as many of the contingent of males as possible. In the photo above, the drake in the forefront is probably the hen's protector which may be why he is not attempting to mate. Evidently, he also has decided that protecting her at this point is a lost cause. Imagine if the hen was in the water while the above activity was taking place. She could easily drown! After mating season, the female is on her own, along with her hatchlings, until the cycle begins again at the end of the summer. Notice that the drake standing in the forefront has a lot of white plumage with very little rust colored feathers on his breast. Is this a hybrid perhaps between a mallard and a domestic peking duck?

Picture source -

After breeding, the mallard drakes molt into their non-breeding plumage - called the eclipse plumage - which is similar to the hen's brown feathers. At this time, there are two simple ways that one can distinguish a male from a female mallard. The hen has an orange bill with dark splotches. The drake's bill is a yellow-green. Also, the drake has black tail feathers that curl up in an obvious curlique, while the female's tail feathers do not. During the molting into the eclipse plumage, the ducks cannot fly and are more vulnerable to predation. So, the brown plumage on the drakes affords them better camoflage in the reeds and grasses of the marshes while they wait until they are once more fully feathered and able to fly again. At the end of the summer, the drakes molt back into their familiar breeding plumage of gray, white, rust, and green feathers. This molt is not as extensive as the eclipse molt that occurs in the spring, and the ducks are able to fly during this second molt.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Birds in Zoos

Cookie, a 74-year-old Major Mitchell's cockatoo, bites into an apple at the Chicago Zoological Society's Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Ill (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
I read an AP article today, Time to Put That Gorilla on a Diet , about a new focus on diet and nutrition needs for zoo animals. This prompted me to add a poll to my blog asking for readers' opinions of keeping animals in zoos.

I personally stopped going to zoos about 9 years ago after I became depressed looking at the caged animals. I began to notice how many of the little primates were huddled together in a corner, some of them covering their eyes in what to me seemed to be fear - fear of being seen or fear of what they were seeing? I looked harder at the birds, many of whom flew back and forth, back and forth, within their confined space. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to hide. I thought how cruel to keep these animals penned up. These birds need to soar free. The monkeys and big cats, the bears and so many other animals need to roam free. But I felt especially strongly about the birds.

A couple of years ago I volunteered at the Pelican Man Sanctuary which did rescue and rehab work on birds and a few other non-avian animals. As I wandered through the walkways seeing all the birds that could not be released back to the wild, I felt good that they had a place to live and be well tended. But I seriously wondered some times about the quality of their lives.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Running off to a Rare Bird sighting

Photo taken by Todd Kitzler
12/24/2000 in Rossford, Ohio

I will never forget the time I spent 3 hours driving around an 8-mile loop four times in an attempt to see an immature Snowy Owl after reading about the rare sighting on a list-serv posting on the Net. It was on a late March afternoon, and I was at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Port Republic, NJ. Although the sky was lightly overcast when I started out earlier in the day, the temperature was now in the 20's, wind gusts were 30 mph, and there was a thin curtain of snow flying. I was determined, however, and I drove slowly along the loop peering out at the desolute wetlands and backwater ponds. After my third go-round, I ran into someone at the visitors hut who gave me the location of the owl. I finally arrived at the spot, and, for the 3rd time that day, I fought the wind pushing my car door shut against me, forced my way out of the car, and dragged out my tripod and scope. I flung myself down on the ground, sat, and aimed the scope at a flat sedge island in the wetlands.

Wow! I could see a large smudge 200 or 300 yards away, but even with my tripod at its lowest position, I couldn't focus with the wind blowing so hard! I got on my stomach as low to the ground as possible, placed the scope on the ground and held it as steady as I could out of the wind. Finally I discerned the shape and the mottled white and brown markings of the Snowy. Eureka! I saw enough to add it to my list, but oh, how I wish I could have seen it more clearly! After 5 minutes lying on the cold, wet ground with the wind howling around me, I struggled to my knees, crawled over to my car and pulled myself up. I virtually heaved my tripod and scope onto the back seat (oops) and then squeezed myself through the front door and fell into the driver's seat, exhausted, cold, and windblown...but jubilant. My feelings of satisfaction on my drive home were tempered by the fact that I had no one with whom to share my experience since the death of my husband two years earlier.

Part of the wonderfulness of birding is the camaraderie shared by complete strangers all pursuing the same goal and helping each other to achieve that goal. Sometimes the strangers become friends, and sometimes even buddies. So, I am upfront and vocal about being a birder, nerd that I may be, and I pity those who scoff about hiking out in the woods, in the muck, in the raw, biting cold or in hot, sticky weather, just to see some bird ?! Yes, just to see some bird - hopefully, to see a lot of birds - but it's also about celebrating life.

Photo ©Ted Clark

Massachusetts Audubon Snowy Owl Telemetry Project

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

An interesting question

Owlman has raised an interesting question to me: "Birds in Florida seem to be so used to people; is it just because there are a lot of people around and great habitat for the birds?."

I don't know why it is that so many of the larger waterfowl and/or shore birds are so tolerant of the human beings on their turf. Perhaps it is that they simply have become accustomed to us and have developed methods of carrying on their daily chores in spite of our presence. When I lived in southern NJ, I was often at the beach on Long Beach Island, Tuckerton, or Mystic Islands, or out on the waters of Great Bay. Anyone who fed the gulls, egrets or herons quickly learned that they were now in it for the long haul. Many gulls and Great Blues did not migrate for the winter; however, the white egrets did. Yet every Spring the same egrets would show up at our back doors looking for the handouts they had come to expect. And, as is common everywhere, gulls, herons, and egrets, become fast friends with fishermen along jetties, docks, and shoreline.

Now, here in Florida, they have made it into an art form. While walking along the sidewalk or bike path of my complex, I often turn a corner and "bump into" a Snowy or Great Egret walking along, checking in at each doorway that has proven to be lucrative in the past. A couple of Wood Storks stand on a nearby rooftop each morning for 3 weeks in the Autumn and 4 weeks in the Spring, waiting for the woman who feeds them when she's on vacation here twice each year. I have sat reading on my patio trying to ignore the egret standing about a foot away staring at me, willing me to toss over a chicken liver or scrap of leftover fish - no bread, though, thank you very much. The Laughing Gulls are usually hovering nearby, one of them cackling loudly every now and then. They, of course, will eat anything. Out and about town, I have seen Cattle Egrets standing on street corners literally waiting to cross to the other side. Great Egrets hang out like teenagers outside of Dollar Stores, waiting for a handout. For a birder, this is unbelieveably delightful, comical and absurd. Little blue herons will come and drink water from the pool not 3 feet from me.

I try to discourage newcomers and tourists from feeding these wildlife, but it is pretty much a lost cause. I myself have succumbed a couple of times, and once scared myself in the process. I had collected a Lightening Whelk seashell with a live animal inside - that animal being a giant sea slug. I boiled the whole thing in water, removed the dead and obscenely protruding critter from the shell, and cut it into pieces. It actually smelled pretty good, although not good enough that I was tempted to taste it. My friendly neighborhood egret had been lingering about for some time, so I went out back and began tossing the pieces of meat to him. Well, one of the pieces was kind of large, and it took a while for him to work it around and get it down his mouth. I was regretting my actions by then, but I could do nothing about it. He got the piece down his throat, and then it seemed to just stop in his neck! I thought, "Oh no, I've killed it! It's going to choke! Oh, my God!" But the egret just stood there, and I saw the lump from the chunk of meat slowly move down his long neck. After a minute or so, the lump finally disappeared, and I heaved a sigh of relief. I'll write more on this in another post.

Monday, March 10, 2008

An awsome day!

I don't usually use the word awesome, but that is the only adquate way to describe my day today. I went down to Venice to see a property that my friend has for sale. I was tooling along Tamiami Trail going about 55 mph when I spotted a pair of Sandhill Cranes in a slight gully along the shoulder of the road!! OMG! I couldn't believe my eyes!

Tempted to come to a screeching halt, I instead veered crazily across 2 lanes of traffic to make a u-turn and go back to get some pix.

Turns out that a little side road there leads into a residential neighborhood that is also a bird sanctuary (there are a lot of them down here). But this pair was right out in front of a small business building, completely unfazed by all the traffic whizzing by. I noticed that no one else seemed to take any notice of these two huge birds sedately foraging in the grass and roadside detritus.

This is a life bird for me...and totally unexpected. How lucky am I? I'm so tired right now that I am not going to post the rest of the 28 or so photos I took till tomorrow...except for this one - it's so cute! :)

Continuing on my way, I decided to check for backyard birds at the Sarasota Garden Club. No luck there with them, but I did happen to spy a Great White Egret roosting in a tree beside a pond.

After twisting and turning and scrunching around the tangle of brush neath the tree and avoiding a dunking in the pond, I was able to get more pix, like these:

As I was walking around looking for vantage points, what did I behold but a small dark figure lurking in the shadows.

This Green Heron was patiently fishing, and very tolerant of my snapping a bright light in his eyes over and over and over, and crunching dry leaves under my feet. All my activity didn't seem to scare the fish, though, as I saw him with tasty morsels several times.

Continuing my roundabout trek home, I headed down the Ringling Causeway, spanning Sarasota Bay, and stopped to check whether I would still find the rafts of Red-breasted Mergansers I had seen a couple of weeks ago (sans camera, drat it!). No such luck. Two were far out on the water, but I tried anyway, and the shots came out not so bad.

That's it for me tonight. Night all.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


As a birder, I am familiar with the opportunities of wonder, inspiration and even awe that are being missed by people who scoff at the idea of birding. The serenity I get from watching Tundra Swans glide across backwater pools is irreplaceable. Seeing a line of ducks and their ducklings waddling across a lawn or a back country road is comical and heartwarming. I can't describe the comfort I feel as I lay abed and hear the honking of Canada Geese flying overhead on a cool autumn night, seeing but not seeing their "V" formation. Somehow this repeat of nature's rhythm gives me reassurance. Nor can I convey the thrill I experience when I finally isolate the gorgeous, subtle green and blue colors of an immature Purple Gallinule hidden among the reeds and marsh grasses of a swampy pond crowded with water lily pads and catkins.