Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Siskin Irruption

So, is this a Pine Siskin or an American Goldfinch? (Clicking either picture takes you to a much larger version.)

If you've seen the 2nd picture by now, you probably have your answer. The siskins that have been falling from the skies like gumdrops finally landed in my yard and are keeping the more common Goldfinches company.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Rail Country

For an ornithology class field trip, I traveled to Phinizy Swamp in Augusta, GA. Among the ducks milling around the marshy area surrounding one of the boardwalks, someone spotted an American Bittern.

Can you find it in the reeds? (click photo for a larger version- that will make it much easier!)

wait for it....

Ta da!! (click on image for a larger version)

Here's a closeup:

The bittern crouched in the reeds while we watched for 10 minutes or so. Only once, it snaked its head back and forth while keeping its body completely still, but whatever it was must have been too far from the reach of its daggerlike beak, because it didn't move again after that brief moment.

As if that weren't enough, as we got into the swamp area where duckweed grew everywhere, we spied 2 Soras foraging among the coots and moorhens! They must have been a pair because they were only about 20 feet apart and called to each other as they scuttled back and forth along the edge of the reeds.

We also saw Anhingas, American Pipit, Northern Harrier, Palm Warbler, Swamp Sparrow, and more... but when I see a swamp, I'm always hoping for a rail, so for me, the day was a success from the moment the bittern materialized from the reeds.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Nesting on a Wing and a Prayer

This is an article I wrote about my experiences monitoring shorebirds in Massachusetts for the Georgia Ornithological Society (http://gos.org/). This is EXCLUSIVE (haha) in that I'm putting more photos in to illustrate my points, so to speak. I apologize for the wierd formatting, I couldn't figure out how to fix it.

Nesting on a Wing and a Prayer: Monitoring Shorebirds for Massachusetts Audubon

I remember the moment I saw my first Piping
Plover. I was standing on South Beach in
Chatham, Massachusetts, buffeted by icy
winds and decked out in gloves, three jackets,
pants, and socks under my Tevas, to
boot, broadcasting my southern roots loud
and clear. In other words, I was anxious to
see the bird I had left the warmth of the
South for. My supervisor, who was actually
able to use her limbs due to her much lighter
attire, pointed suddenly to a nearby stretch of
gravelly beach. “That’s a Piping Plover,” she
announced. I squinted expectantly, but all I
could see was gray rocks scattered over the
sand. Then suddenly, one of the rocks
moved, and so began my acquaintance with
the Piping Plover.

A sneaky-looking plover.

Even sneakier... can you believe the mastery of disguise!?

My usual attire

After that sighting, I greatly improved at finding plovers, and learned to appreciate the details that set them
apart from rocks: their pert orange bills tipped with ebony, dapper black neckbands, comical “eyebrows,”
and spindly orange legs. Equally enchanting were their personalities. I was smitten with the way they ran
pigeon-toed over the sand and then suddenly stopped short, like confused wind-up toys. Their daring pursuits
of Herring and even Greater Black-backed Gulls that entered their territory were very impressive
(and surprisingly effective). Some of them wanted to get to know me, as well. Sitting against a dune having
lunch one day, watching a pair of plovers that had led me on an epic but fruitless nest search, I froze
as one of them sauntered over to me, stopping five feet away and turning his head sideways to inspect
me. I looked back at him, wondering how strange I must appear to him. He must not have been as impressed
with me as I was with him, because he soon decided he’d seen enough and went back to eating
his own lunch.
My admiration for the plovers grew throughout the summer. They were fastidious nestmakers, the males
making multiple scrapes so that the female could choose the perfect one in which to lay her clutch of one
to four greenish-gray eggs. It took me a month to find my first nest -- the plovers chose sites where their
small, speckled eggs would best be concealed, like open beach scattered with shell fragments, or tucked
away in grassy dunes. “Plover highways,” or a congregation of tracks leading to the nest, loud peeping,
the impressive broken-wing display, and false-brooding (a plover pretending to incubate in order to lead
me away from the real nest) were all clues that I was near a nest. They were fierce defenders, and I was
amazed at the risks the plovers would take to protect a nest. When it rained or the wind was blowing especially
hard, I thought of all the plovers sitting steadfastly on their nests, determined to protect their eggs
when even the elements were against them. They kept trying, despite the predators always watching for
an easy meal, the changing tides that threatened to wash away eggs, the people constantly walking by,
the abundance of “Piping Plover Tastes Like Chicken” bumper stickers. Their determination, whether it
was due solely to Darwinian programming or not, made me deeply committed to helping them in every
way I could [this is true, however cheesy it sounds].

A typical nest

The famous Broken-Wing Display

Clever... did you think of that yourself?

Even if a pair’s first nest failed, they would most often simply try again. One pair lost two
nests, but on the third try, all three eggs survived to hatch into downy, impossibly tiny chicks, proving that sometimes the third time really is the charm. The chicks,
too, were much more intrepid than their fuzziness belied.
On the first day, they could walk, and had to feed themselves
from the moment they broke free of the egg. They
quickly became experts at using their absurdly long legs —
we would find them half a mile from the nest site in a matter
of days!

Major fuzz factor.

Piping Plovers may be masters of camouflage and charisma,
but they are powerless to stop coastal development,
oust introduced predators from their nesting habitat, keep
off-road vehicles at bay, or slow the over-harvesting of
horseshoe crabs, whose eggs make up an important part of
the plovers’ diet. That’s why, in 1987, Massachusetts Audubon
created the Coastal Waterbird Program (http://
www.massaudubon.org/cwp/) to give the plovers, and other
shorebirds, such as Least Terns and American Oystercatchers,
a hand. The CWP was originally created to protect nesting areas of Piping Plovers and terns,
but ultimately aims to extend this protection to the whole coastal ecosystem. The success of the program
is indisputable: in 1986, before CWP’s inception, only 135 plover pairs were observed in Massachusetts;
preliminary data for 2008 indicates the presence of around 600 pairs [hooray!!].

In contrast to the plovers, the American Oystercatchers stuck out like sore thumbs no matter where they
were. I had seen these clowns of the shorebird world before on Jekyll Island, but had never gotten to
hear their wheedling shrieks or see their fuzzy black chicks stumbling behind their parents on disproportionately
long legs. Massachusetts is the northernmost part of the oystercatchers’ breeding range, and
though there were only a few pairs on South Beach, many of then produced fledglings, which were almost carbon copies of the adults except for their darker bills.

Is it just me, or does something stick out in this picture?

An AMOY nest

A large, fuzzy rock. Just hangin' with all the other rocks.

Least Terns made it a point to be conspicuous — either by raucous screaming, dive-bombing, well-aimed
projectile poop, or a combination of all three. There were two major Least Tern colonies on the beach,
and both required mental stamina and an acclimation to walking through bird poop. It was quite a sight to
watch a hundred or so terns converge on a trespassing gull, and a beachgoer who tried to take a shortcut
through the Least Tern fencing was apt to regret it immediately!

[Unfortunately, I don't have many pictures of the terns! They were hard to photograph because they were so small and, unlike the plovers, they were flying almost all the time.]

Today, the Coastal Waterbird Program protects Piping Plovers,
Least Terns, Common Terns, Roseate Terns, and
American Oystercatchers. Conservation efforts include identifying
and fencing off areas where plovers, oystercatchers,
and Least Terns are nesting to prevent disturbance from
beachgoers, ensuring that off-road vehicles aren’t being
driven in nesting habitat, public education, and much, much
more. This summer, I was inspired by the tireless efforts of
both the birds and the people working to protect them. I’d
like to think that if I see a Piping Plover on the Georgia coast
this year, then maybe, just maybe, it’s a bird that made the
miraculous journey from egg to chick, from chick to fledgling,
and finally, from Massachusetts to Georgia.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

So yes, it's been a long time (over a year) since I've posted anything at all, artistic, natural, or otherwise, to this blog. I just didn't have a whole lot to write about and honestly felt that the things I wrote about were a little too close to mundane. But the mighty Julie Zickefoose (http://www.juliezickefoose.com/blog/index.php) has shown me that the extraordinary can be found in the everyday. Plus I might go insane taking 16 hours this semester so I need as many distractions as possible. I'll start with a picture- after all, isn't it worth a thousand words?

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

An artistic diversion

I've been painting lately in my spare time, which I have a lot of here in South Florida- all of the work is done before normal people are awake. Here are some fruits of my labor.

I found a photo of Harlequin Ducks in the May/June issue of Birding; the position of the ducks in the photo with the water surrounding them looked so artistic already, and of course the form and colors of the ducks themselves, that I just had to paint it.

This Northern Wheatear was irresistibly plump-looking.

These birds don't count as wild, but it's the only bird photography I've done lately. These lorikeets (Rainbow Lorikeets?) at Parrot Jungle Park had quite the appetite for nectar, and they tried to transcend the laws of physics by simultaneously shoving their faces into the tiny cup I was holding. One perched on my head to wait his turn, but he had an ulterior motive- trying to steal my earring.

This Lubber has been hanging around on the porch screen for a couple of days now. I must say, it's a little creepy looking out the window and seeing an insect as big as my hand lurking nearby...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Big Cypress and Florida Panther NWR

Common Yellowthroats were everywhere, true to their name, and always up for pishing. I love the posture of the one above.

Check out the puffy throat on this guy as he sings his mighty song to drive me away.

Finally, a decent photo of a Brown-headed Nuthatch! He's characteristically upside down. Don't they get dizzy that way?

The cuteness factor on this fuzzy nuthatch fledgling is unbelievable.

They're like little gophers, always popping their heads out from behind pine branches, except they can do it right side up or upside down.

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, looking like a mini Great-crested Flycatcher.

I saw this Barred Owl at Big Cypress National Preserve shortly after dawn, sitting silently in a pine. The reason for his departure was the harassment of a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Most of the flowers around here are pink or purple.

This tree frog was hopping around on a saw palmetto.

White-eyed Vireos could be heard anywhere you listened.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Big Cypress National Preserve

We went to camp out at Big Cypress National Preserve, one of the other study areas, for a few days. Many of the same birds are there, but unlike the Everglades, BCNP has Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice, and a lot more Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Swallow-tailed Kites.

There are many Brown-headed Nuthatch families around at this time of year.

Hanging upside down- circus people ain't got nothing on him.

This Swallow-tailed Kite was circling overhead for quite a while, calling and looking down at me. I even saw one in a parking lot today!

Common Yellowthroats were very pishable.

Pine Warblers were also fiesty.

YES! I did get pictures of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. There were three of them flying around squeaking at each other constantly. I even caught a glimpse of the grand 'cockade' on one of them.

Squirrel tree frogs are everywhere at night.

Titmice are actually rare in South Florida, which is very unusual to me.

Juvenile titmouse, hungry as usual.

I love White-eyed Vireos because they get really pissed off at the drop of a hat. Anytime I pished, one would instantly pop up, scolding his brains out. This one is hiding coyly behind a branch.

This one was cursing at me for a really long time. Even when I turned and had walked away, he followed me and scolded again so he could have the last word!