Monday, November 22, 2010


Have you heard of Wordle yet? I saw the reference on another blog I like, and went to learn about it. Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. The images you create with Wordle are yours to use however you like. You can print them out, or save them to the Wordle gallery to share with your friends. I put in my blog URL and it came up with this. Click on the image to get a larger and more readable version.

Isn't the Internet cool?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Endangered Bird Sighted

For our final day in Florida, Dick and I headed north to the 6500 acre Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area. We chose this spot because the Florida Birding Trail says they have Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers. These birds are on the endangered list, since they only live in mature pine forests, and their habitat is disappearing throughout the southern states, so we figured this was an important opportunity.
Fish and Wildlife marks the trees in which you might find these black and white birds, but don't guarantee anything. When we saw the white marks on the trees we got out of the car and started across the field. Of course, we don't plan day-to-day activities before starting on a trip, so we weren't really prepared for this landscape, wearing shorts and sneakers as usual. I've got some scratches and bug bites, but we didn't find any snakes. The first tree we examined had a Woodpecker condo, with a plastic pipe for an entrance. This little bird stayed safely inside, just peering out at these odd creatures walking around near its tree. We didn't get too close, not wanting to disturb it.
The next one was out foraging in a pine tree, and paid no attention to us at all. He jumped around from branch to branch, not drilling holes, but pulling chunks of bark off entirely, tossing them to the ground. Look closely at this photo, and click on it for a larger version. You can see that he has been banded already. We never did see any red, so I'm not sure if this is a female, or a male that isn't showing his small red cockade.
Very distinctive patterns of black and white, don't you think? Another bird in trouble is the Wood Stork. Apparently their breeding is directly related to the water levels here in Florida. If the water is either too deep or too shallow, they won't breed at all that year. We didn't see any on the ground, but saw 6 or so soaring overhead, and their wingspan is enormous.
These spiders are enormous too, although I don't know what kind they are. They had large webs strung between the trees at Babcock. Can they see or hear? I don't know, but every one we found quickly ran up the web when we approached, although we tried to be quiet. They must have been almost 3 inches long!
Wildlife Management Areas, by definition, are managing wildlife for the benefit of hunters. The quail season started this week, but no hunting was going on today. Apparently the hunters come for long periods, and bring their RV 's, hunting dogs, camping kennels, and these big marsh buggies, which leave huge ruts where every they go, even when the sign says "No vehicles beyond this point."
Sometimes the hiking trail looked like a field plowed for planting, very difficult to walk on. Later, we decided those weren't trails, but fire breaks, since they stretched across every field we saw. Fire is important to the health of the pine flats. Other times the hiking trail would have been easier to use if we had a kayak! From now on we have a new rule. If "Wildlife Management Area" is in the name of the birding spot, always wear long pants and water-proof hiking boots! What an adventure we had trying to work our way on the grassy edge of the trail, without sinking in over the tops of our sneakers!
Ah, but it was an adventure after all, and we headed back to pack our bags with big smiles.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Second Helpings

Today we went for the second helping of birds and habitats in southwest Florida. Six Mile Slough is a city park and a smaller version of Corkscrew Swamp. We went on the hike led by volunteers and had a great time. It's fun to see how other volunteers handle their jobs. I must admit though, that I'm getting tired of driving an hour every day from Leghigh Acres to ANYWHERE we want to go! Places in Florida look pretty close on the map, but it takes much longer than anticipated to reach them.
We lost my prescription sunglasses at Ding Darling on Sunday. I left a message about them, and someone actually turned them in, so we returned today for the glasses, and to visit the education center which had been closed on Sunday. It's very well put together, and we worked hard to restrain ourselves in the gift shop. I think we may have been inspired for some Christmas gifts from this trip. Then we couldn't resist another trip around the wildlife drive as the afternoon waned.
The same birds were still around, but putting on a new show. Yes, fluff those feathers! Count the species on this mudbar...five? Fiddler crabs chased each other around, brandishing one large claw. Don't mess with me! The Bald Cypress is a wonderful wood, useful for may things, but often contradictory. A conifer that is also deciduous, the cones make oil slicks in the water when they fall in. Squirrels love them. Male Anhingas have black and white wings, while the females are blond. They actually spear fish with their straight beaks, then they have to shake them off to eat them. We went to another site at Ding Darling, a fresh water marsh, rather than mangrove or cypress swamps. Finally found the Coots and Moor Hens we knew must be down here somewhere.
The sun sets so early in winter, even in Florida. We have watced the sunset and driven home in the dark every night. Even the Egrets seem to be reflecting on something as they watch the sun go down. Dick and I always wonder why we don't hear the hiss as it drops into the ocean.....

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Beach Birding

Ouch! Ooouch! EEECH! Now I understand why this area is so well known for its shelling. I've never seen so many shells in one place before! The beach is pretty narrow, but I did of lot of yelping and jumping to get from the chair to the sand. Instead of walking for hours, we decided to just sit still and let the birds come to us, and they did. I sat in the shade of the umbrella to actually read the Stokes book on shorebirds, and I think it will make a difference in my struggle with "shorebird anxiety."
Lillian Stokes asks the key quesion, what is a shorebird? She covers four different families (which I won't try to spell in Latin here), noting that "These birds are grouped together because of structural similarities in the characteristics of their skull, backbones, and syrinx. Of course, none of these characteristics are apparent to the casual observer." (Yeah, right.) She then lists these characteristics, concluding that "You'll know one when you see one." Sometimes these birds are seen at the sea shore, and something they aren't. Yet they do not include birds such as gulls and terns that are always found at the shore. Willets are pretty easy to recognize, especially when they take flight. I didn't realize what speedy birds they are either, but the wing pattern is unforgettable.
The little Sanderlings are always some of my favorites, as they run down to the sea and back. They remind me of an album I liked in college called "The Sea." I can't recall who made it, just the lyrics about going down to the sea and back.
The Ruddy Turnstones turned over lots of shells since there weren't any stones on the beach today. If I ever come back to Florida during the breeding season, I'll have to learn many of these birds again, since I've only seen them in the winter.
A juvenile Royal Tern followed the others around, begging for food. The adults just ignored him.
I love to watch Pelicans flying in formation. Have you ever noticed that they flap up and down in unison? Well, for the most part they do. That guy at the end of the line is a little off beat.
At least you have a chance to spot and follow the Pelicans as they fly along the length of the beach. Gulls, such as these Laughing Gulls come in and drop quickly to the ground.
When they gather on the beach, it's time for a good preening, checking each feather, and stretching wings and legs. Then tuck your beak under your wing for a quick nap.
Well, you can try to nap until the beach bully comes up, squawking at all the other gulls.
As we waited for the tram back to the parking lot at Lovers Key State Park, an Osprey called from a snag before she started to eat her freshly caught fish. See the necklace of brown feathers? That makes this a female. An Eagle tried to steal her fish, and I watched them fly off, but they separated before I could get off the tram and take a photo.
At the end of the afternoon, we left to meet Dick's former boss for dinner, but we agreed that this was a pleasant and relaxing day.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Corkscrew Swamp

A 2.25-mile raised boardwalk takes visitors through several distinct habitats found within the 11,000-acre Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, including the largest remaining virgin bald cypress forest in North America. They are called "bald" because they lose their needles even though they are conifers. We heard the constant gentle drop of the needles as we walked the boardwalk. The small brown crunchy things on the boardwalk were not, in fact, part of the dropping needles, but "frass", or catepillar poop, one of the volunteers told us.
The Audubon Society was formed by Boston society matrons to save the egrets which were being exterminated to provide feathers for the ladies' hats fashionable at the time. We visited the camp where wardens kept watch for the poachers after killing the birds was banned. Two of the wardens were killed during this time.
We are looking for just a few new birds to add to our life list this week, including the Swallow-tailed Kite and Painted Bunting. We asked at the entrance desk where we might be likely to find the Bunting, and he pointed to a feeder just outside the window. "I saw one there just a little while ago." Well, isn't that the story of birding! The second suggestion was another feeder down the boardwalk. We headed down the path and spent about 10 very quiet minutes at the second feeder. Patience paid, and one Painted Bunting flew into the cage around the feeder staying long enough for a few photos. The feeder was hooked to a series of pulleys, with metal tubes at the ends. We assumed this was to protect the feeders from squirrels, but a sign said it was to keep bears away!
We proceeded down the 2.5 mile boardwalk, peering up in the branches and down into the brush for birds. This is an Audubon sanctuary, fer cryin' out loud! Where are all the birds?? We walked for over 1.5 miles before seeing any more birds after the Painted Bunting. It's a nice place, lots of different habitats, but we really thought ther would be more birds. Finally, we started hearing some cheeps, and small birds hopped around in the trees, backlit by the sun, and difficult to see. Ah, now I see one - very small, gray, and a white eye ring - a Blue-headed Vireo? Now that I'm checking the field guide, I'm not so sure. Some kind of warbler? AHA! I found it - a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Just a very quiet one.
A large Pileated Woodpecker flew through the trees calling loudly. A smaller woodpecker was tapping in another tree, and we finally tracked it down - a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker.
Red Shouldered Hawks are much more populous in Florida than they are in Kentucky, and two of them called loudly to each other as they circled the sanctuary. Don't know how early they begin courtship down here.
Shhh! another visitor motioned. Look over the rail. A Little Blue Heron slowly stepped down a submerged log, looking for small invertebrates in the water. Even the school children seemed to appreciate this little bird, and watched quietly so as not to disturb it.
Large leaved Alligator Flags line the pools of water along the boardwalk. Signs advised us that the Green Anole is the native, and more rare, species, while the browns ones are exotics and more common. We heard the leaves rattling and thought a small bird might be hopping in the branches, but found this terrific Green Anole instead. He wasn't disturbed by our photography, and eventually hopped over to the next bunch of leaves.
There are probably more ferns in the swamp than there are trees. They grow on the sides of trees, on top of the cypress knees, and on the trunks of fallen trees which act as nursery trees, just like we saw in the rain forests of Washington state.
This isn't the season for new fronds to come out, but one fern didn't seem to care and sprouted new fiddleheads all over its length.
Another smooth fronded fern displayed a texture that reminded me of alligator hide, but I don't think that was its name at all. Can you guess what this is? I love taking closeups!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fakahatchee Strand

Today we joined Al and Roz Katz for a trip to Fakahatchee Strand, sometimes known as the "Amazon of North America." Al likened it to Jurassic Park, full of swamp and ferns. It is also famous for Ghost Orchids, but we were on the watch for alligators, panthers and bears today. Since they are about to do some road maintenance on the single unpaved road, we had the place to ourselves as we drove into the cypress swamps in Al's yellow Mustang convertible with the top down. I was amazed at the water's clarity as it moved slowly towards the Everglades.
The ferns are everywhere and every size. Small spores cling to the bottom of some fronds, blowing into the breeze if you brush against them.
Roz finally found the small slender shoestring fern growing on the side of a tree. It looks like small green spaghetti hanging on the bark, and I would never have known it was a fern at all just by looking at it. Nope, this isn't it, but some other kind of fern that caught my eye. Plenty of birds perch along the edge of the shallow water, including Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Great Blue Herons, Ibis, Little Blue Herons and others. The larger birds would fly before us down the road, surely an easier task then dodging between branches in the heavy growth.
Numerous Red Shouldered Hawks called from sky and tree top. These Florida birds appear a bit paler in color than ours in Kentucky.
The last time Al came to Fakahatchee, he saw a panther (similar to a puma) walking down the road, and this time he hoped to find a black bear. We did not find either, but as we left, we stopped by the ranger's office, and park workers said they had, indeed, seen a black bear earlier this morning! We did, however, find plenty of ALLIGATORS!
The first gator lounged in the water...
...and another sunned itself on the sunny gravel road. If our eyes weren't sharp enough, we still heard the sudden SPLASH of a gator plopping into the water at our approach.
Gator eyes watched us constantly. "What is that yellow thing? Can I swallow it?" they seemed to think.
At one point, we walked down a trail for a bit balanced on boards above the water. Nowhere near the end of the path, Al suddenly hollered and said, "This is as far as we can go today!" when he saw a large gator resting across the path in front of us. We all agreed and headed back to the car, hoping that another would not be waiting behind us. Look at the size of those claws!
A nearby rustle caught my attention. A toad? A crawdad? No, this creature has too many legs, and I think I see antennae too. Oh, that's a lubber! Roz says they change colors all year, and this will be about the last of them. Looks like they have been painted and released by some pop artist!
The long-winged Zebra butterflies were much easier to identify.
We commented that there didn't seem to be a large amount of invasive plants. This is a native wild coffee that the Native Americans used to make a drink.
Most of the Royal Palms you see in Florida are actually not native to Florida at all. Fakahatchee has a stand of native ones though. Near the entrance was a prairie, and cypress stumps remaining from logging intersperced the living trees. Remnants of a large cypress forest, they still act as nursery trees, with ferns and small trees growing along the trunks.
When we stopped at Everglades City for a lunch of stone crabs, we watched this blue crab swimming by. It's legs really are blue, but it only used two of them for swimming.

Naturalists are always friendly people, and love to share their enthusiasm and knowledge even with strangers such as ourselves. Roz and Al are both active with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, and travelled to Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve in October for their son's recent wedding. Thanks for spending the day with us. If you return to Kentucky, maybe we can do the same for you!