Sunday, December 13, 2015

Skimming Along

Black Skimmer Colony
After so many rainy days, we were delighted to cut short a non-productive birding day and just soak up some sun on the beach. The local colony of Black Skimmers came up from the public beach to visit with us for a change.
The Black Skimmer is the only American representative of the skimmer family. The other two, rather similar, species are the African Skimmer and the Indian Skimmer. All use the same unusual feeding method. Although the Black Skimmer is active throughout the day, it is largely crepuscular (active in the dawn and dusk) and even nocturnal. Its use of touch to catch fish lets it be successful in low light or darkness. I guess this is why I've never seen them feeding along the beach.
The Black Skimmer has one of the most unusual foraging styles of any North American bird. A feeding skimmer flies low over the water with its bill open and its lower mandible slicing the surface. When the mandible touches a fish, the upper bill (maxilla) snaps down instantly to catch it. They feed on small fish up to about 5 inches in length, including herring, killifish, mullet, and pipefish, and  also may consume small crustaceans. Black Skimmers may travel 5 miles from their breeding colony in search of food.
As the shadows started to grow, we moved up by the pool, to join the crowds gathered around two iguanas grazing in the grass.  They sure look like something from a Japanese science fiction movie, don't they?
Since these are mostly green, I think they are not the same species as the ones with orange spikes, legs and talons we saw other places. They are all non-native run-aways from the exotic trade business. People buy them when they are cute little babies, then when they get several feet long, their owners just turn them loose. We took a cruise on the Intercoastal Waterway one evening, found at least a dozen of them hiding under the causeway bridge when it went up.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015


Flamingo filter feeding
 I tend to be wary when I see places called "Animal-name Park" or "Animal-name Gardens." In my experience they tend to be tourist traps that do not take good care of the animal they are named for. But I was pleasantly surprised with Flamingo Gardens in Fort Lauderdale. The GPS took the scenic route, I think, and the rain and traffic did not make for a pleasant journey. Yes, the gift shop was huge, and you entered the facility through the gift shop, but once inside we discovered that they are a botanical garden and wildlife refuge for non-releasable birds and other animals.
Due to the rain, we practically had the place to ourselves, with a private tram tour of the gardens and he animal encounter program. We ate lunch right next to the Flamingo pool, which hosted lots of wild Ibis as well, and got to make some good observations of their behavior as they fed and preened. Disney's Fantasia is one of my favorite movies, especially the episode with a Flamingo playing with a yo-yo while his flock mates all moved in unison. I took a video of them doing exactly that - dancing to choreography - but not one of them played with a yo-yo.
Flamingo webbed feet
For example, did you know that Flamingos have webbed feet, just like ducks? I thought this peculiar, since they don't actually swim, but wade around on their long legs.
White Ibis
The Ibis were very interested in our lunch, and came over to look for handouts or scraps lost on the floor when they finished bathing and preening.
Flamingo Gardens Everglades Wildlife Sanctuary gives residence to permanently injured and non-releasable birds and animals, and is home to the largest collection of Florida native wildlife- including alligators, bear, bobcats, eagles, otters, panthers, peacocks and flamingos! All the enclosures were large and clean. We walked through a large free-flight aviary with this sign on the door. #14 struck me as especially important!
Since I spend many hours cleaning bird poop at Raptor Rehab, I appreciated all the work it took for this. They had good representatives of the raptors, as well as Pelicans, Gulls, and other water birds. All the birds were busy preening, a sign of their good health.
Yellow-crowned Heron

Unfortunately, since these birds were in captivity, we can't honestly include them on our list for this trip, but it was still exciting to see them.
Oz the Opossum
The Wildlife Encounter was very casual, since we were the only audience. Oz the Opossum is a four-year old marsupial, which is very unusual - they rarely live that long. Look at those long teeth! He has 40 of them! A young opossum is ready to breed when only 6 months old. He doesn't see well during the day, but has a really good sniffer. When his fruit treats were gone, he knew to sniff his way back to his basket for a nap. All the other mammals and the reptiles looked healthy and relatively content. Their river otter pair have raised more young otters for release than any others in the country.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Wakoda Whatchee?

The last time we visited South Florida in 2008, we discovered some marvelous birding spots created by the Palm Beach County Water Utilities.  The name, Wakodahatchee, has an interesting history. It is derived from the Seminole Indian language and translates as "created waters." The Water Utilities folks treat the water, then pump 2 million gallons of water a day through the wetlands, where plants do a final scrub to make clean water.
Little Blue Heron
A three-quarter mile boardwalk gives birders easy access and terrific birding. More than 140 species of birds have been sighted at the wetlands, and far more birders from just about every state I bet. We were dismayed to see people walking on the boardwalk while talking on their phones. They don't know what they are missing! The birds thrive in the various wetland zones designed for a mixture of habitat types:
  • Open pond water areas to attract waterfowl and diving birds
  • Emergent marsh areas for rails, moorhens, and sparrows
  • Shallow shelves for herons and egrets
  • Islands with shrubs and snags to serve as roosting, nesting, and basking sites
  • Forested wetland areas for long-term habitat development
Anhinga with nesting material
Even though it's early for nesting, some birds were working on nests. Last time, there were actually chicks in the nest.
The Cormorants and Anhingas look somewhat alike to new birders, but they carefully kept themselves on different islands.
Swamp Hen
The Moorhens are all over, laughing and walking on the lily pads, but we have to search hard for the elusive Purple Gallinule, which we found here before. I thought we sighted it, but it sure had a funny looking, thick beak, and didn't seem to have the typical candy corn coloring on the beak and face. Another birder said they were having problems with an invasive Swamp Hen that had taken up residence, and that's what we saw. Porphyrio is the swamphen genus of birds in the rail family, which includes the bird we searched for, and about 6 others from around the world. Sigh, one more non-native is loose in Florida.
Iguana in orange
But we have been really surprised at all the iguanas! I posted about a green one the other day, but these huge iguanas were perched in the trees and bushes at the wetlands, advertising for a mate with bright orange spikes and feet! The three species of iguana found in Florida (Common Green Iguana, Mexican Spinytail Iguana, and Black Spinytail Iguana) have been around for decades. However, over the past few years, their populations have exploded.
Palm Warbler
It's sometimes hard to decide what to do about family in your vacation area. Should you go see them or not? We decided to drive on up to Palm Beach and visit. However, you have to be careful about getting too enthused about your own hobby. I'm never sure if they are really interested or just being polite when I talk about birds. However, when the visit was over, we moved on to Loxahatchee National Wildlife Reserve. It too has large impoundments of water, but we were pleased to find some of the smaller birds in the trees around the marshes.
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher
The little Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher gave his high pitched call, and flashed his tail that looks like a mockingbird. The Palm Warbler was in winter plumage, and we had to look in several resources to be sure of the ID. And a Black and White Warbler flashed in and out of the bushes before us. I'm never sure which warblers might still be in the country for the winter.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Don't Let the Weather Get You Down

Black Vultures
So far, we've gone to several Broward County Parks. They are trying to preserve some of the old habitat in small chunks surrounded by development. We found a brochure saying there would be a bird walk the first Saturday of the month, and left the condo around 7:15, in the rain, to be there by 8:00 am, the designated starting time. However, ours was the only car in the parking lot. Apparently it was cancelled.
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Ponchos on, we walked around the preserve on our own, enjoying the eNaturalist feature on the boardwalk. Interpretive signs had a QR code on them, which led to a series of videos on YouTube for us to watch on the phone while still in the park. The short videos explained the habitats and the plants and animals living there. Very enjoyable.
Resurrection Ferns
Resurrection ferns are green and healthy up and down all the trees due to the recent rains. Normally we see them brown and shriveled during a period of drought. Since it was raining, we didn't carry our binoculars, but the 60x zoom on my camera served as a substitute, and we think we found a Loggerhead Shrike. Lighting was awful for photos.
Banana Spider

Zebra Heliconian
Another brochure talked about a trail around the edges of Tall Cypress, but we couldn't find it. We did see a beautiful banana spider and Florida's state butterfly, the zebra heliconian.
We decided to take the sidewalk to a lake shown on the map, one of the better decisions for the day. An Osprey sat on his branch in the gloomy sky (it looks blue, but is really purple), watching for fish...
Wood Stork

...while an unexpected Wood Stork patrolled the edges of the lake for his breakfast.
Black Vultures
Then the Black Vultures started to circle down to the ground where they quarreled over a piece of dead something, don't know what. The GPS could not lead us to Denney's for brunch - or it took us there, but we couldn't find the building. Sigh. Maybe I'll start asking my phone for restaurant directions. We went by the Pompano Municipal Airport to check out the Burrowing Owls seen there last time we came, but they were gone. The local Audubon Society guy said he couldn't tell me where to find any more since they are endangered.
Our ponchos protected us from intermittent light showers all morning, but as the afternoon progressed, so did the weather. Wind and rain beat upon the condo windows, and then I saw some strange shapes in the air. Some fools were windsurfing just off the beach! I, on the other hand, was content to watch old episodes of Hercule Poirot on Netflix most of the afternoon!

Friday, December 04, 2015

Back in South Florida

Here we are, back where it all started, the first time share we bought into and haven't visited for many years. That's the good news. The bad news is that South Florida is receiving several months of rain in a few days. We watch the weather map and the hourly predictions closely, and sometimes they aren't correct either. I need to start carrying a kayak paddle when we go to the parking lot, the water is that deep. Dick says not to be discouraged even if it says 100% chance of rain for the day, and we have seen some cloudy but dry periods. Fall in Kentucky was just too busy for much blogging, so I'm glad to be here even if it does rain.

We sat by the pool this afternoon, eyeing the purple skies, when people started looking in the grass. Did you find a lizard? I innocently asked. Not just a lizard, but one of the big green iguanas that have invaded Florida from the exotic animal trade. They are invasive and have become a real problem, but look at the fantastic camouflage! Once it moved away from the tree trunk, it disappeared in the grass.
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Well, no rain yet, so let's walk along the beach.  Every time we come to the shore, I have to re-learn the differences between the birds we find- color, size, feet color and other markings make the difference for an ID. Even though, I'm not always sure I've made the right call. Nothing new there.

It's always good to see a group of birds on the beach. If I'm careful and can sneak up for some closer shots.
Royal Terns
The Royal Terns always go bald in the winter. The younger birds still beg for food, so we heard lots of chirping.
I have yet to see Skimmers feeding, although I am still hopeful. Maybe I'll get lucky this trip.
Sanderling and Black-bellied Plover
Many birds stand on one foot while resting. It surprised me when they started hopping around on one foot. Oh, the poor little things! But then they second foot touched the sand and they walked as usual.
Ring-billed Gull and Sanderling
Size comparisons are always fun... What? You say I've said all this before? Probably so, but it was years ago no doubt, and I didn't expect anyone to remember. I'm just glad to get out when it isn't raining!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Fall Migration

Here it is, September. Time for the fall migration and Beckham Bird Club's Breakfast with the Birds. So we pulled in at Beckley Creek Park at 8 am for a cloudy, windy, chilly morning.  It's the first time I've used the word "chilly" in some time, but my single sweatshirt really didn't feel like enough before the coffee arrived. It was nice to have some new folks join us. I must admit that fall migration isn't my all time favorite time to go birding. Some of our friends are excited to see warblers coming through again, but I've always had trouble seeing little warblers in the leaves, let alone recognizing their fall plumage.
Down through the wetlands, to find a small group of "mutt ducks" on the pond, put there, so someone heard, to help control the duck weed. Yeah, right. Marching on to Floyd's Fork, where the action starts to pick up. A Green Heron flew beneath the bridge, landing on the rocks beside the river. Funny how hard he was to find for the folks who didn't see him fly there in the first place. A quick jab into the water and he comes up with a small fish to snack on.
  A little farther down the river a Great Blue Heron preens his feathers standing in the shallow water.
About this time, the expert sharp-eyed and sharp-eared birders in the group started finding lots of littler warblers. Turn on the screech owl recording and let's see how many we can draw in! Well, I didn't find many of them, but this lovely Yellow-billed Cuckoo sat on his branch long enough for me to see and get a photo of it - my first! A Redstart looks like a mini-Oriole but wouldn't sit still like the Cuckoo.

The standard little birds flocked in - Downy Woodpeckers, Chickadees, Nuthatch and Titmice. They are the tough little guys who stay all year long.
Beckley Creek Park reliably has Red-headed Woodpeckers along Floyd's Fork. Today we even saw a little juvenile with a black head chasing his parents around for a handout.
You know how it is - I see a bird and try to get a photo of it whether I know what it is or not. At this time in the morning, they were calling out Tennessee Warbler and Nashville Warbler, along with Chestnut-sided Warbler and several kinds of Vireo. I'm not sure what this guy is.
But when I couldn't find the target bird, there were always thousands of yellow wildflowers. It's funny that they are all the exact shade of yellow, no matter what the species!

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Fun with Geology

In Vermont, two of our favorite things to do are searching for covered bridges and waterfalls. On our last day of vacation, we got to do both at one time. It took a little longer than anticipated, since we noticed the gas light was on and had to go back into Stowe and find a gas station to make sure we didn't run dry out in the middle of nowhere.
Our final waterfall was Sterling Falls, part of the Sterling Falls Gorge Natural Area, a conservation area acquired from the family of IBM's Tom Watson and maintained by six different conservation organizations in Vermont. There are several hiking trails, but the most popular, I would guess, leads to the gorge and has the added attraction of interpretive signs. Since Dick and I are involved with such interpretation we really appreciated them. If I could find a way to contact the right group, I would let them know. All week, I've wished we had a geologist along. Somehow, I'd always thought Vermont was full of granite, and not much else. Internet research shows this is absolutely wrong, but I still would appreciate more guidance.
For example, did you know that a gorge consists of a series of moderate-sized falls, cascades, and pools. A gorge is a section of a stream channel with continuous rock walls which are at least 10 feet high on both sides. A small gorge has walls under 40 feet high and a large gorge has walls over 40 feet high. The walls at Sterling Falls Gorge range from as low as 11 feet at the northern end to over 50 feet at the southern end. Several falls and cascades occur at Sterling Falls Gorge Natural Area. The difference between the two is distinguished by how the water falls from the bedrock exposure. A falls is a vertical or near vertical drop which is at least 3 feet high. The water shoots outward and falls without touching the rock. A cascade is a bedrock exposure which is not vertical but at either a high or a low angle and the water remains in contact with the bedrock. A small falls or cascade is under 20 feet and a large one is over 20 feet.
The rocks of Sterling Falls Gorge are schists of the Camels Hump Group which are a type of metamorphic rock. Metamorphic rocks form from other rocks (igneous, sedimentary, or other metamorphic rocks) by physical and chemical changes in their composition. Temperature and pressure are the main controls in metamorphism. One of the most obvious features about the schist is the near vertical planar surfaces in the rock. This is called schistosity. Schistosity is the result of movement and crystallization of minerals which occurs during metamorphism. Minerals, such as mica, recrystallize and orient themselves according to slippage along the bedding planes of the rock. Is that a cool word or what!
Some of the fallen rocks are in fact large slabs of fallen wall but others were transported when the stream had much more energy. Perhaps in the spring, during the snowmelt season, the stream's discharge was at a much greater volume. The measure of a stream's ability to transport a certain maximum grain size of sediment is referred to as a stream's competence. Looking at the wide variety of sizes of material in Sterling Brook, it is obvious that its competence varies greatly with the season.
How do you think schistosity affects the credibility of the rock? Is it more credible with vertical or horizontal schistosity? The schisosity is a plane of weakness in the rock. It allows water to penetrate and more easily erode the rock than if it were a more homogenous "harder" rock. I love learning new vocabulary! You think of rocks being hard, but "credible?"

While watching Vermont PBS in the evening this week, we heard they were offering a special activity for their members at Smugglers' Notch Resort this Saturday, including a visit from the Vermont Institute of Natural Science - VINS - which rehabs raptors along with many other things. Well, I couldn't pass that by, could I? The presenter did a marvelous job, and it's always reassuring to hear someone else echo the things we always say about raptors. She even told the story about Kestrels being able to track mice because they can see mouse pee glowing in ultraviolet light, which they are able to see!