Sunday, March 12, 2017

NAI Sunny South Conference

Dick and I belong to the National Association of Interpreters. When I tell people this, the first thing they ask is how many languages I speak. I smile and say I speak the language of Nature, and my job is to help people understand and relate to nature. The Sunny South includes interpreters from the southeastern part of the country, and most of them work for parks of some sort, although this year we had several people from zoos as well. Each state in the region takes turns hosting an annual conference where the interpreters can refresh their goals and skills. In fact, we both were presenters at this year's conference, and it was a challenge to prepare a 45 minute presentation using skills I haven't intentionally used for several years. You know, we all get into habits and just do things the same way. I was afraid no one would come to my presentation on raptors, but 13 people attended. Whew!
Kentucky Glade Cress
 In additional to sitting in a room, we had opportunities for several field trips. We went to look at some Bullitt County glades. A "glade" is an area of very poor soil surrounded by limestone in which little will grow. However, a few glades in Bullitt and Jefferson Counties are the only place in the WORLD where you can find Kentucky Glade Cress. It is a very small plant that only grows in this poor soil that is dry and hot much of the year. This glade belongs to the Kentucky State Nature Preserves, so it is protected. Our reason to visit it was to discuss what to do with it. On one hand, it would be nice to let people come and see this rare plant. On the other hand, you don't want people tramping on it, which they would since it is so small and hard to identify. On the other hand, if protected too well, the cedar trees and other plants will take over the area, making it too "nice" for this tough little plant to grow.
Purple Cress
No trails in the preserve, so we bushwhacked down to the creek to see what might be popping up in the early spring, accompanied by a neighbor's dogs. The creek was lovely, singing it's way down the valley. Purple cress was full of buds and ready to bloom, but on Saturday, the temps dropped back to winter ranges.
The Bullitt County limestone has a lot of magnesium in it, but wears down from the acidic rainfall.
Gypsum Flowers
On Thursday, I took the all day trip to Mammoth Cave since I haven't been there for years. The park ranger led us into the man-made back door of the cave system and down 200 steps into Cleaveland Cave. This is a dry cave without the features most people expect. Sandstone caps over the limestone keep rainwater from percolating through. This cave is the dried out river bed of a stream that now runs lower underground. We were about 260 feet below the surface. However, the ceilings were covered by gypsum growing through small cracks, and curling into beautiful flower formations. The ranger did a great job interpreting both the geological aspects of the cave, and the history. Tours started in 1816, led by Stephen Bishop, a slave. The graffiti on the walls is not from modern visitors, but from people touring before it became a National Park in 1941. The sooty coloring of the gypsum is from torch and lantern smoke.

We walked on a nice smooth path created by the Civilian Conservation Corps  in the 1930's, and I could not imaging walking across all the chunks of stone on the floor of the tunnel. Mammoth Cave is at least 400 miles long, and they are still exploring it. When Bishop explored the cave, he would write his name and the date on the walls, to indicate his path back out again.

Nick was another slave who explored and led tourists into Mammoth Cave. Here is a tribute to him from 1857. My cell phone took better pictures in the poor lighting than my good camera did. Glad I had both. Three days later, my calves are still aching from the climb up and down all those stairs!
After lunch, we went on another ranger led hike to Holton Cemetery, which is not open to the public, to learn about the people who lived in the area. When ever you see daffodils blooming, you know there used to be a homestead. The rangers made these people who were forced from their homes come alive for us. I was struck by the isolation of the home sites. Imagine trying to give birth with no one closer than a mile away. There were no nearby towns.
Ky State Champion White Pine Tree
We were introduced to Edley “Red Buck” Esters (1883-1969), who once owned and eventually sold his acreage to the park in the mid 1930s. His living memorial pine tree (planted about 100 years ago) now measures nearly 12 feet in circumference and stands 13 stories high. Red Buck was known for his "hollerin" either to call in the live stock, or sing really loud. The ranger had an old recording of Red Buck made during a Mammoth Cave homecoming many years ago. As the park staff finds these old cemeteries, or names inside the cave, they do historical research that makes these individuals come alive to park visitors. In fact, there are cemetery databases where they can be traced. These conferences are always great fun. Next year's will be on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and we plan to attend.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Florida Raptors

When we come to Florida for birding, we normally think of gulls and various shore and wading birds, which we saw lots of this trip, of course.
But I really enjoyed all the different raptors we found. Someone said that Florida has the third highest population of Bald Eagles in the country, after Alaska and Minnesota.
This is the beginning of mating season for many birds. Kentucky Eagles are starting to nest as well, but not many of the other birds.
Vultures, both Black and Turkey Vultures can be seen everywhere, rising in kettles.
When I see those large groups, I imagine that there may be a landfill nearby.
Apparently Florida Ospreys don't migrate to South America with the more northern birds. We saw lots of them both over the ocean and in the many estuaries and rivers. We even saw a pair building a nest in the parking lot at Walmart's!
 Red-shouldered Hawk are the predominant hawk in Florida, but their breasts are a paler rust than ours at home.
But I was most excited to find raptors we do not have in Kentucky. This Caraca walked across a field then flew up to a cabbage palm where it was working on a nest.
A Merlin flew into a tree with a grackle in his talons and we watched him eat lunch then fly away.
And Kestrels were everywhere, but no Peregrines on this trip.

Snail Kites are another endangered species in Florida, but we had wonderful looks at them. One mail was eating a big snail, while a female perched quietly in a tree. Just look at the long curved beaks used to dig the snails out of their shells. At Raptor Rehab we would be ready to cope that beak.
Northern Harriers soared by regularly, but never landed where I could get a good look at them.
We even saw some owls! This Great Horned Owl had taken over an Osprey nest and was sitting on eggs with her eyes shut in the bright sun. A Barn Owl was nesting in a maintenance building and flew out when someone went to check on the chicks which have already hatched. It's been a wonderful week for a raptor fan like myself!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Florida Scrub Jays

A target bird for anyone birder who comes to Central Florida is the Florida Scrub Jay. It is endemic to Florida, and lives only in areas of short scrubby oaks growing on sandy soil. This habitat occurs mostly as isolated pockets, surrounded by housing developments. The jays rarely wander away from their own little patch of scrub, making them very sedentary. The scrub must be kept from growing too large by periodic fires, preventing oak trees from shading out everything else. In the protected areas kept for the jays man-controlled fires keep the scrub low.
They eat mostly acorns and insects, along with spiders and snails. They will also eat berries, seeds and small reptiles, amphibians, rodents and the young of smaller birds. The scub oak provides the acorns. They will forage on the ground and in trees, usually in flocks. They will bury the acorns, coming back for them later.
Scrub Jays are known as cooperative breeders, meaning their young stay around to help raise chicks in the next year. These "helpers" assist in defending the family's territory and feeding the young. They build nests of twigs, grass and moss in a well-built thick-walled cup.
In the early 1990's, there were only about 4,000 Scrub Jays, and they were put on the endangered species list.
On one trip, the leaders pished and called for quite a while before one jay came to see what was going on. Dick and I went to Cruikshank Sanctuary which was established with Brevard County in 1981. A family of 8-10 jays were delighted to see us, pecking on our heads for handouts, which we did not give them. It was great fun!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Brevard County Birding

Saturday's field trip entitled itself "Brevard County Hotspots," and honestly, I never had a clue of where we were or how we got there. We were on the bus at 0-dark hundred, and stopped at a marsh often used by hunters and fishermen, from the piles of shot gun shells on the ground. I wondered how they ever found their way out after going into the marsh to hunt. The county itself is about 72 miles long from north to south. David LaPuma was one of our leaders again,  so I learned lots of good stuff, while shivering in the cold morning air.
As the sun rose, we watched the various species lift from their roosting spots in the marsh to head to the ocean for breakfast. Learning more of their profiles and flight patterns helped, since it was too dark for details in the beginning.
For example, there is a Little Blue Heron that is dark blue. But in its first year it is white. Look for a bi-color bill and greenish legs to distinguish it from the Snowy Egret (on the left in this photo).  Oh, so many white birds with so many sizes!
Yeah! The Common Yellow-throat - a bird I can identify without help! Dick and I think that no bird should have the word "Common" in its name. David was explaining the convoluted changes made to bird names by the AOU. They have to co-ordinate with the rest of the world, and will sometimes change a bird's name 3 or 4 times before ending up back at the name originally used. The Common Gallinule is a good example.
Marsh Wren
Several kinds of little brown jobs live in the marsh - but it's not easy to find them, since they like to hide in the brush. Our leaders were great at finding them in the scope (which always amazes me), then I would have to find them for my camera. This little Marsh Wren finally came out in the open!
Wilson's Snipe
We saw a dead Snipe the day before - hit by a car - but today we found one walking around on a mud flat, with the sun shining brightly on him. This is a life bird for us! Their long bills are flexible at the end, so they can open the tip without opening up to the top.
We've had excellent views of raptors this week. Many of them were in pairs, often displaying courtship behavior. I was a little surprised to find them about in the very early dawn.
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks
One of our target birds were Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, which we found at a small pond in the middle of a subdivision. They have black bellies (of course), and bright orange bills and legs, with a brown mohawk of feathers down the back of their heads. And yes, they do whistle rather than quacking.
Florida Scrub Jay
After a delicious, but extended lunch at a local restaurant, we sped over to Merritt Island for a few more birds. The target was the endemic and endangered Florida Scrub Jay, which needs precise habitat conditions. We walked back into the scrub for a ways, and the leaders called and pished like crazy before ONE bird finally came up to see what all the ruckus was about.
Dick and I drove back to Merritt Island to get a view of the Great Horned Owl who had taken over an Osprey nest on an old power line. You can see the insulators (I think that's what they are) under the sticks. She sat snoozing in the afternoon sun. I think it may get pretty hot there for her chicks in a few months.
Painted Bunting
We had gone to the Merritt Island visitors center once this week, looking for the Painted Buntings who live there, with no success.  On another trip, we found some in the brush, and it took six different photos of different parts of the bird to see what he looked like all together. But third time charm, apparently, since the male and female buntings came out for a quick snack at the feeders, before being chased away by raucous Red-wings Blackbirds. The quest for the Painted Bunting photo has ended successfully!
The forecast for Sunday was for rain all morning, so we stopped at Walmart for some rain gear on the way home. Out in the parking lot, I kept hearing an Osprey call and found her trying to build a nest on top of the light post, while her mate perched on the next pole. He didn't seem interested in gather sticks as she told him. Ospreys are very flexible in their nesting sites!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Restoration of Apopka Lake

On Friday we took an all day trip to Apopka Lake, the third largest lake in Florida but that isn't its real claim to fame (or infamy). Lake Apopka was once a world-class bass fishery. However, the lake was named Florida’s most polluted large lake following a century of abuse that began in the 1890s with construction of the Apopka-Beauclair Canal that lowered lake levels by a third. In 1981, an EPA investigation began and the site was decommissioned and designated as a Superfund clean-up site.
Green Heron

In addition, the decline of Lake Apopka can be traced to:
  • The loss of 20,000 acres of wetlands along the lake’s north shore to farming operations beginning in the 1940s
  • Agricultural discharges laden with phosphorus until the late 1990s
  • Treated wastewater discharges from shoreline communities prior to the 1980s
  • Discharges from citrus processing plants prior to the 1980s
The increase in nutrients discharged into the lake led to a chronic algal bloom, and Lake Apopka’s waters turned pea green. The cloudy water prevented sunlight from reaching underwater vegetation critical to fish and wildlife habitat.
Common Ground Dove
 An estimated 676 birds died on former farms at Lake Apopka during late 1998 and early 1999. Most were American white pelicans, wood storks and great blue herons. Organochlorine pesticide (OCPs) residues remaining from agricultural practices were the primary cause of bird deaths. Birds accumulated OCPs by consuming contaminated fish. The St. Johns River Water Management District has conducted research to better understand the accumulation of OCPs through the food chain, from contaminated soil to fish, and from fish to fish-eating birds.
Ring-necked Ducks
The continual settling of dead algae created a thick layer of soupy muck, which also destroyed the habitat necessary for fish and wildlife to thrive. The bass population significantly declined as gizzard shad became the predominant fish species in the lake. Once the bass disappeared, all the fish camps closed.
Lesser and Greater Yellow-legs
 The St. Johns River Water Management District’s Governing Board approved a rule in 2002 limiting the amount of phosphorus that can be discharged into Lake Apopka or its tributaries as a result of new construction in the lake’s watershed. The district has collaborated with local, state and federal agencies to:
  • Purchase agricultural land along the lake’s north shore, reducing the discharge of phosphorus from the farms and providing an opportunity to restore the former marshes to wetlands
  • Operate the marsh flow-way, which removes total phosphorus from Lake Apopka water
  • Harvest gizzard shad, removing phosphorus and nitrogen in fish tissue from the lake
  • Replant six native wetland species of vegetation in the water along the lake’s shoreline, which helps restore fish and wildlife habitat
Snowy Egret
 If  people care and act on that, changes can be made and pollution can be corrected. More than 19,000 acres of farm land has been purchased and converted marsh land. 19 metric tons of total phosphorus has been removed from the water. Gizzard shad had become the dominant species in the lake, but from 1993 through December 2010, more than 58 metric tons of phosphorus and 175 metric tons of nitrogen in fish tissue was removed from the lake. Six native wetland species of vegetation in the water along the lake’s shoreline, which helps restore fish and wildlife habitat. in a few hours we saw 65 species of birds around the lake and marshes. It can be done!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Smyrna Dunes

It's a busy time here at the Spacecoast Birding Festival. Between birding trips and going through all my pictures, plus going to bed early enough to meet for the 5:30 trip the next morning, (whew!) I haven't had lots of time for blogging. On Thursday, we joined leaders David LaPuma from the Cape May Observatory and Bill Thompson of Bird Watchers Digest. We have met them before at other events, and they are wonderful leaders, hearing and seeing birds I can't find even in a spotting scope. The beach itself is large and flat, and they allow cars to drive on it, which baffles me.
 We walked over the dunes on a boardwalk, then along the beach for gull lessons. Hundred of birds followed a shrimp boat farther out to sea. David got really excited when he sighted a Jaeger in the group. He describes this bird as a "cross between a gull and a peregrine falcon." It chases the gulls around until they barf up the fish they have eaten, and then he eats it. Yuck! You can recognize them even in the distance because they are larger, darker and faster than any other bird there. David sounded almost like a sports announcer at the race track as he described the attack.

The Bald Eagles were getting it on with courtship flights and copulation on a power pole. Can you imagine having sex at the top of a pole?
There must have been 10 or 12 Ospreys who did not migrate all the way to South America patrolling the shore. I love to watch them dive in for a fish and then shake all the water off when they come back up.
Along with the Laughing, Ring-billed and Herring gulls, we spotted some Lesser Black-backs and several kinds of terns, so we had good opportunities to compare them.
At first, all the Ruddy Turnstones stood on the rocks of the jetty, almost invisible to the eye. After a while though, they came over looking for hand outs. One guy turned over a dried up fish head, while a second little bird with a broken leg came right up to us. Turnstones breed in the tundra of the Arctic Circle, so we only see them in their winter plumage.
A Willet (left)and Greater Yellow-legs (right) faced off in the surf, giving us the opportunity to compare size, bill shape and coloration of these two similar birds.
At the parking lot, a little Carolina Wren told us what's what in no uncertain terms. I don't thinks our Kentucky birds are this orangey in the breast.