Thursday, December 31, 2009

Defiant Sandhill Cranes

This morning while birding in Manatee County I drove by one of the seemingly endless golf courses that mar the landscape in the Sarasota-Bradenton area. This one was along Whitfield Boulevard in the Palm Aire development.

As I drove by one of the greens (the place with really short grass where they try to put the ball in the hole - think that's called a green) I saw four golfers standing around with golf balls at their feet. In the middle of the green, between the golfers and the hole stood a pair of Sandhill Cranes defiantly refusing to move from what they considered "their" piece of ground.

Incensed that the birds weren't moving out of their way one of the golfers raised his club and started yelling at the cranes (it would have been so much fun to tackle this jerk and pin him to the ground had he actually struck a crane). Apparently nobody had informed the human that cranes don't speak English. Regardless he kept yelling at the cranes who refused to budge.

Finally after maybe a minute of this nonsense the cranes started bugling at the humans. It was if they were saying "fuck you jerks, we were here first" in their own crane language. They refused to cede any ground and remained defiant. I continued to watch and finally the humans gave up, got on their golf carts, and darted away. The cranes remained on the green as the humans retreated.

Good for them! Too bad there hadn't been an armada of defiant Sandhill Cranes around when the developers were sacrificing one more piece of wild Florida for another needless golf course. I wonder if this defiance is being passed on genetically to each of the colt's this pair produces. Hope so.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Birding Away in Margaritaville - the 2009 List and Plans for 2010

Without doubt, in my biased view, the coolest bird in Florida is the Anhinga. There is simply nothing that beats this bird in the cool department. Nothing. As idiotic as they look, when I sit and watch them just sitting around being Anhinga's I have developed a kinship with them unlike any other species in this state dripping with species. When I moved into my current residence on February 26, 2009, the first bird I saw from my house was an Anhinga. I knew my current home was a great place to live.

As 2009 has progressed I've kept track of the birds I've seen or heard from my lanai and or master bedroom and in 10 months I've recorded 137 species. Sarasota County being a new county to live in became the focus of a lot of extracurricular birding and unless I miraculously find an Eastern Screech-Owl in the next two nights (doubtful) I will end 2009 with a Sarasota County list of 231 species for the county and 225 of those species were recorded in 2009.

And speaking of state lists, at least 501 species of birds have been recorded inside the borders of Florida and as of today my state list is 423 species. No doubt the best bird added to my state list this year was North America's second-ever Greater Sandplover found near Jacksonville in May.

I've seen lots of Greater Sandplovers in Asia - from Eilat Israel east to Hong Kong but this was the first one I've seen in the Western Hemisphere and most appropriately it was here in Florida.

A couple weeks ago I made a mad dash to the Florida Panhandle (a.k.a. the "Redneck Riviera") to look for and find !! a Broad-tailed Hummingbird that was hanging out at a feeder near Fort Walton Beach.

After adding it to my Florida list I stopped by Tallahassee to look at a Buff-bellied Hummingbird that was at a feeder near the city.

After getting the Buff-bellied Hummingbird I darted down to incomparable St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge in Wakulla County where I picked up a Long-tailed Duck (called Oldsquaw before political correctness invaded ornithology). It was new for my Wakulla County list and a new bird for my Florida 2009 list.

Returning from this, my fourth birding jaunt to the Redneck Riviera in 2009, I entered my observations in my Avisys database and discovered that throughout all of 2009 I had seen 297 species in Florida - just three species short of the mythical 300 species a goal that many fanatic listers set for seeing in each of the states over their lifetime not just in a year.

Being that close to 300 for the year - a number I had reached only once before - in California in 1993 when I had 358 species for the state in a year - I decided that I was too close to not go for it.

Knowing that there was a La Sagra's Flycatcher in Everglades National Park and three introduced species in the Kendall area I took off for the menagerie of south Florida on Christmas Eve day. I scored early and easy on the La Sagra's Flycatcher, a species from the Bahamas, mon, and then on my way back to Florida City I picked up a flock of Canary-winged Parakeets. I was only one species short of 300 for the year.

Christmas morning dawned crisp and clear and I headed directly for the tennis courts on Southwest 120th Avenue in Kendall where, on schedule, a pair of Red-whiskered Bulbuls put in a show - species 300 for the year in Florida.

Then for added measure I drove over to Mattheson Hammock Park where I found a singing male Spot-breasted Oriole - a species introduced from Central America and established in a small portion of Dade County.

Since that trip I've added Virginia Rail and Canvasback to my state list for 303 species for the list. And I could still get a Jaeger or maybe a Eastern Screech-Owl to end the year.

But I digress.

In recent years many people have gotten into keeping lists of the birds they have seen in each county of a state like I have done for Sarasota County.

I recently did a summary of my county lists and discovered that among the 67 counties in Florida I have seen at least 101 species each of 9 counties. I have more than 200 in Sarasota County and 194 in Monroe County (the Keys). So, after kicking it around for about a nanosecond and washing it down with a couple pints of Stella Artois, I've decided that my 2010 goal is to work on getting a minimum of 101 species in each of Florida's 67 counties. Right now I have my county lists displayed on a state highway map and know where I have to focus. I have a large goose egg of ZERO species in Charlotte County that shares its northern border with Sarasota County and there are zero species on my Hendry County list in the middle of the Glades and only 25 species on my Broward County list - Fort Lauderdale. I just never recorded stuff when I was over there.

So....starting tomorrow with an exploratory trip to Charlotte and Hendry Counties I'm kicking into gear with the goal of ending 2010 with 101 species in each of Florida's counties. And I'm still going to get my baseball novel completed. Whew. Thankfully I don't have to go to work daily and screw up this planning.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

An Ornithological Christmas Greeting

Note the candy cane in the mouth of this Ring-billed Gull.

Twas The Night Before Christmas

Zillions of people around the world celebrate the birth of Christ each year on Christmas Day. But for me, however, I only celebrate the birth of one person.... Jimmy Buffett, the greatest singer, songwriter and calypso poet of all time. This year he'll turn 63 years old.

Each year on Christmas Day I crawl out of bed, fix a Margarita, face the south, and drink a toast to Jimmy. I also send a wish that he'll be around for a bunch more Christmases and more importantly a lot more summer concert tours.

The other famous former resident of Key West who was also born on Christmas Day was Ernest Hemingway. So, maybe its appropriate to be reading "Islands in the Stream" or "The Old Man and the Sea" when I make my yearly toast.

So, if you think of it tomorrow morning hoist one with me in celebration of the real King of Christmas. I'll be sitting under a palm tree when I do. A palm tree will be a most appropriate place to chill out given what's happening at more northerly latitudes on Christmas Day.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Reminder of Frigid Morning's Past

December 23, 1983, dawned crisp and cold and blustery in Jamestown, North Dakota. It was my first "Christmas" after my divorce and I was feeling anything but festive. Looking out my living room window that morning made me realize that living in the subarctic of North Dakota had to end and some time very soon.

Adding insult to injury I turned on the local radio station and discovered that the air temperature at the Jamestown airport was -42 degrees F. With it came a blistering 40 mile per hour wind out of the northwest. The last time the wind had seen a tree or anything else that could knock out some of its energy was a few thousand miles northwest in Saskatchewan.

Combining the temperature and the wind speed, the local National Weather Service office declared that the wind chill was -106 degrees F. That's right - one hundred six degrees below zero. This was totally unacceptable.

At mid morning I received a phone call from a friend who had her car plugged in so it would be able to start. Unfortunately the heater for her motor froze!! Once my car was started I went to her house and tried to fix her car. I was dressed completely in wool - from a wool cap down to wool socks inside wool linings of my Arctic boots. I could stay out in the weather for five minutes maximum and then had to come in for 10 to 15 minutes to warm up.

The next day, Christmas Eve 1983, I decided that at the first opportunity I was going to move from North Dakota to escape the miserable cold. That opportunity came in April the following year when I started traveling in the Bahamas, mon.

Every year on December 23 I think back to that ridiculously frigid morning in North Dakota. I contrast that morning with, say, this morning where I'm looking out my living room window at herons and egrets foraging on a wetland that is lined with palm trees. I think I made the right decision long ago.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Northern Gannets Are Back

Yesterday afternoon, while dodging huge raindrops that were whizzing by me horizontally in the ferocious winds I found a group of Northern Gannets off Holmes Beach on Anna Maria Island. These plunge diving cousins of the Brown Pelican are fairly common in coastal Florida waters in winter. You can learn more about them at this link. The nesting colony (known as a Gannetry not a Rookery!) closest to Florida that I'm aware of is on Cape Boneventure at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. From there northward they are fairly common in many coastal locations. Florida is about as far south as you can regularly expect to see this spectacular bird in winter. There are records for the Bahamas and Cuba but only rarely.

All of the birds I saw yesterday were in juvenile plumage like the one pictured below. From my experience in Florida in winter this is the most commonly observed plumage. When looking for them be sure to separate this species from the very similar-appearing Brown Booby, another plunge-diver but it nests in the Caribbean and throughout the tropical oceans

This spring I found Northern Gannets off Siesta Key Beach and Turtle Beach as late as May 5 but the bulk of them should have returned north by late March or early April.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Idiots and US Federal Wildlife Law

This afternoon while out on Beer Can Island at the north tip of Longboat Key in Manatee County I didn't really see any exciting weather other than the substantial winds. Because of the winds all manner of bird life was hunkered down facing into the wind trying to conserve energy as these Black Skimmers and other species are demonstrating. This was a stressful time for them because they were unable to forage in the winds and were burning up energy just trying to keep from getting blown away.

As I watched this group of Black Skimmers, Forster's Terns, Sandwich Terns, Laughing Gulls and Sanderlings, I noticed one Piping Plover in the group. The Piping Plover is protected by the Endangered Species Act. The other species mentioned are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. A major difference between the two laws is that ESA has a provision prohibiting "harassment" of a listed species. Paraphrasing the rules, "harassment" can be defined as "altering the normal behavior of a species." The Migratory Bird Treaty Act does not have this provision.

These two laws immediately popped into my head when, just after taking the pictures above some nitwit 12 year old kid from Oklahoma here on a visit with granny and grandpa, decided it would be just cool as hell to race through the flock of birds and make them take flight. When he flushed the flock he also flushed the Piping Plover and when that happened he committed "harassment." Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that is ok, but under the Endangered Species Act its a violation of the "take" provisions of the Act. The 12 year old Okie, with granny and grandpa watching on, willfully broke Federal law.

I learned about their home state when I raced up to the grandparents and identified myself (with my business card carrying Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of the Interior logos) as a retired US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, and informed them as forcefully as possible that their 12 year old grandson had just violated Federal law.

Grandpa said "Well, we're from Oklahoma and don't know about these laws." Tough!! You probably are a Republican and no doubt voted for Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn for Senate. Stupidity isn't a defense. I informed Grandpa that the law was the same in Okieland as it is here in Florida and anywhere else in the country. I then recited the provisions for harassment and take, then took out my Blackberry and told them that they had two options.

"You have two options. You can leave this beach right now and never harass an endangered species again, or I can call our Special Agent in Tampa and have him cite you for take under the Endangered Species Act." I then added "$10,000 in fines and 6 months in the slammer might help you understand why you don't harass birds."

The Okie's thought they had just seen God or something and started walking away from the beach without saying a word. I followed them back to the parking lot and wrote down their license plate number. If I see them again the same thing will happen.

Only next time I need to have the phone number for our Special Agent in Tampa programmed into my Blackberry so I can actually call instead of just make it seem like I am.

Watching for Waterspouts

The much-ballyhooed coastal storm that has been hyped for the last couple of days for this region of Florida has been a flop to say the least.

I took this picture out on Beer Can Island at the north end of Longboat Key about 3:00 p.m. this afternoon. Seas were a tad choppy with some 5 foot surf. The wind was out of the southwest at 30-35 miles per hour and there was a little coastal erosion going on with the high lunar tides. Other than that there has been nothing.

Right now its 7:15 p.m. and we've received about 9 drops of rain. That's it. Maybe areas to the north of here are getting pummeled but that's not the case here. Maybe next storm.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Winter Has Finally Arrived

American Robin's might be the harbinger of spring in more northerly climes but here on the Suncoast of Florida they are a certain bet that it's winter. As I type this there is an American Robin outside my lanai doing their monotonous "cuk, cuk, cuk" call. And if any more evidence is needed that its winter now, there is a Ruby-crowned Kinglet singing nearby. You can't ask for two more certain signs of winter in coastal Florida. I hope this doesn't mean I have to start shivering or something.

I last heard or saw American Robins on March 28, 2009 and my last Ruby-crowned Kinglet was on April 1, 2009. So, if these two "winter" birds are any indication we have about four months of these bitter 60 and 70 and low 80 degree days to endure before the warmth comes back.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Farewell 2009 Hurricane Season

Today marks the end of the disappointing 2009 hurricane season. In a May 21, 2009 news release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we were told that "Forecasters say there is a 70 percent chance of having nine to 14 named storms, of which four to seven could become hurricanes, including one to three major hurricanes (Category 3 4 or 5)."

NOAA was correct on the 70 percent chance of nine to 14 named storms because that's what we had this year - nine named storms. They were also correct with the one to three major storms. Unfortunately for the beaches of the United States that sorely need a little less development on them, none of the major storms (and damned few of any storms) did any appreciable damage to anything. Maybe 2010 will be a better season? There's always "next year" to look forward to for the great undeveloper hurricane to come along and liberate the nation's coast.

As I write this just before midnight on the last day of the season a storm in northern Mexico is predicted to move east into the Gulf of Mexico and eventually create some potential havoc on the central and northern Florida coasts. It will be too little too late when it moves through here, but the National Weather Service is saying there is a potential for strong storms with tornadoes and waterspouts. So, Wednesday and Thursday I'll be out on the beach watching for waterspouts - as Buffett suggests in his song "Tryin to Reason With Hurricane Season". The title of that song just happens to be my personalized license plate as well.

And speaking of that great song, here's Jimmy performing it live. Hopefully this will help you deal with the lack of a hurricane season for the next six months - I already know it will help me.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Letter to the Grim Reaper

Dear Grim Reaper,

So far this year you have taken away my favorite dancer and entertainer Michael Jackson, my favorite actor Patrick Swayze, and my favorite actress Farrah Fawcett.

Just so you know, my favorite politician is Sarah Palin. >:-}

Thank you

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

New Kid in Town

Yesterday while bicycling north on Tuttle Avenue I passed by venerable Ed Smith Stadium the former home of my hapless Sarasota Reds.

At the southeast corner of the stadium property there used to be an old sign announcing that Ed Smith was the spring training home of the Cincinnati Reds. Yesterday it has been replaced by the one above for the Baltimore Orioles.

The Orioles are making a change in their spring training venue moving from crime ridden and just-not-very-nice Fort Lauderdale to beautiful Sarasota. I never felt much kinship for the Cincinnati Reds when they were still here last year. I attended a couple games but my heart just wasn't in it. I've not really had much interest in the Reds since Pete Rose stopped playing a very long time ago.

On the other hand the Baltimore Orioles are an entirely different story. Until the Nationals moved to Washington DC a few years ago, the Orioles were the only baseball team nearby. I remember many times the Fish and Wildlife Service arranging buses to take fans up to Camden Yards for night games and I made more than a few of those treks. Back in those days Cal Ripken was the huge draw of the Orioles and for the most part he still is today - even though he's no longer playing.

Despite it being almost Thanksgiving Day, the Orioles still have zero information posted on their website about the 2010 spring training schedule and about ticket information.

Regardless, it will be great having a team that I already like here in town for spring training. I'm already fantasizing about sitting in Section 14, Row A, Seat 1 directly behind home plate and heckling whomever the Orioles play.

Rumor has it that Cal Ripken and the Cal Ripken Foundation have some things in the works to bring a Class A team of the Orioles to Sarasota for the minor league season. I certainly hope so because I don't know what I would do if I didn't have a minor league team to root for and more importantly if I didn't have 11 other teams that I can again heckle all summer long.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Blind Side

Run - don't walk but run - to the nearest theater playing the new movie "The Blind Side" starring Sandra Bullock. Just exit out of this blog post right now and go....come back later and read the rest of what I wrote about it. OK?

Last night Ty and I went to the 7:40 showing of The Blind Side at the Hollywood 20 theaters in downtown Sarasota. I had seen advertisements for the movie in the last couple of weeks and it looked like it was going to be a good film. Anything with Sandra Bullock in it has to be. However we weren't prepared for what an emotionally wrenching and emotionally uplifting movie this is. Quite frankly if Sandra Bullock isn't at least nominated for an Oscar for her performance then something is horribly wrong with the way Oscar nominations are made.

You can view trailers for the movie here and here. And you can watch a review of the movie by someone from the Los Angeles Times here.

This synopsis of the movie is lifted from
"The Blind Side" depicts the remarkable true story of Michael Oher, a homeless African-American youngster from a broken home, taken in by the Touhys, a well-to-do white family who help him fulfill his potential. At the same time, Oher's presence in the Touhys' lives leads them to some insightful self-discoveries of their own. Living in his new environment, the teen faces a completely different set of challenges to overcome. As a football player and student, Oher works hard and, with the help of his coaches and adopted family, becomes an All-American offensive left tackle. In the latest chapter of his inspiring story, Oher was a First Round draft pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, selected by the Baltimore Ravens. The Touhys were there to share the moment with him.
We watched the movie to a packed house - there wasn't an empty seat in the theater. There also wasn't a dry eye there either. Its just simply the best movie you are going to see for a very long time. If you liked "Remember the Titans" you are going to love this film.

Watching it I remembered the day in 1989 when I went to board a Metro bus in downtown Washington DC. There, standing in line ahead of me waiting to board was a young woman with Downs Syndrome. The myopic bus driver wouldn't allow her to board because, as he verbalized, "of the way she is." This was like waving a red flag in front of a bull and I instantly darted by the lady, jumped on the bus, looked down at the driver and said as forcefully as possible "you let this person on this bus RIGHT NOW or I'll have the American Civil Liberties Union down your throat so fast you'll think you were born with them there." The bus driver let the lady on the bus.

Go watch "The Blind Side" and if at times you don't feel like I did for that lady on a bus in Washington DC, then you didn't get the point of the movie.

Now, go right now. ...right now. You have no excuse. Got it?

UPDATE: I returned to the same theater on Wednesday before Thanksgiving. I was there for the 1:55 p.m. showing. There were no empty seats in the middle of the afternoon and the movie was even better this second time around. Go see it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Horny Great Horned Owls

It's that time of year again!

Friday morning at 3:00 a.m.. and this morning at 4:30 a.m. I was serenaded awake (jolted awake?) by a pair of Great Horned Owls duet calling to each other just outside my lanai. I was sleeping on the floor of my living room directly in front of the lanai when they started calling to each other. I walked out onto the lanai and found them perched in a large pine tree not 100 feet from the edge of my home. Pretty cool!

If you go to this link you can hear an excellent example of a pair of a duetting pair of Great Horned Owls. The site seems to be a bit anthropomorphic and the announcer a tad too dramatic but the voices of the duetting birds are exactly as I heard them this morning.

The Florida Breeding Bird Atlas states that Great Horned Owls begin laying eggs as early as December so the birds outside my window are right on schedule for their courtship singing. I just wish they would do it a tad earlier in the evening, like at sunset, when I'm not trying to sleep.

The fact that Great Horned Owls are singing this early is a result of geography. In Kansas they are known to start nesting as early as January. In a book on the Breeding Birds of the Platte River Valley that Gary Lingle and I wrote long ago, we reported that the earliest date for active Great Horned Owls at the latitude of central Nebraska was February 21. And in my natal Wisconsin Great Horned Owls usually weren't actively sitting on eggs in a nest until the first week of March.

I would imagine that the resident Great Horned Owls here are nesting now so they can take advantage of the colder winter weather. With an incubation period of 28 days and an additional 35 days in the nest until the young fledge, eggs laid in mid-December would hatch in mid-January and the young would be out of the nest by late February. This would provide a nice buffer of about two months before the temperatures get hotter. Try to imagine a female Great Horned Owl sitting on eggs in a nest at the top of a tree in late April during the blazing south Florida sun, and you get an idea of why they nest when its cool outside.

I remember well in 1975 climbing to a Great Horned Owl nest in a forest in Pierce County Wisconsin not far from where I went to college. A fellow student had found the nest with two chicks in it and I wanted to band them. The nest was about 70 feet up in a sturdy white pine tree. The day before my attempt to band these young birds, Dave Evans who has been banding hawks and owls at Hawk Ridge in Duluth Minnesota since the late 1960s warned me to make certain I was wearing a football helmet when I climbed to the nest. I asked him why and Dave said "Just wear the damned thing."

The next day I climbed 70 feet up in this 100 foot tall white pine tree. When I first put my climbing spikes in the bark of the lower part of the tree I saw the female flush from the nest and then sit on a branch not far away. As I climbed higher in the tree I could hear the young start to get vocal and the adult was calling to them. Just as I poked my head up over the side of the nest and was eye level with the young, my then-wife Ruth yelled from below "Watch out!" It was then that I felt a tremendous collision of something on the back of my head. Ruth told me later that she watched the adult owl as it flew from its perch, clenched its talons together, and then hit me on the back of the head with both feet curled up like fists. I immediately understood why Dave Evans said to wear the football helmet, and I never climbed to a another Great Horned Owl nest after that night.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

New Buffett CD To Be Released December 8

Jimmy Buffett's latest CD, one that actually includes new music instead of the string of "Jimmy Buffett Live At _______(fill in the blank)" that have dominated in recent years will be released on December 8. You can pre-order your copy at this link.

The new CD contains 12 new songs including three that were prominent during this year's "Summerzcool" tour. The song list is below:

Nobody From Nowhere
Big Top
Beautiful Swimmers
Turn Up The Heat and Chill The Rose
Rhumba Man
We Learned To Be Cool From You
Surfing In a Hurricane
Life Short Call Now
Buffet Hotel
A Lot To Drink About

So, if you are looking for a stocking stuffer for that favorite Parrothead of yours, I can't think of a more appropriate one than this CD. Like all of his other music, this one is certain to be a smashing success.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Toes in the Water

My friend John Spinks turned me on to this song by the Zac Brown Band titled "Toes in the Water."

I'm not sure if this is tropical rock or country western. The mention of Georgia makes me think the latter. Regardless, this is a damned good coastal Florida drinking song!


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks

Every morning at about one-half hour before sunrise until the sun is up, and in the evening from one-half hour before sunset until just after dark, flocks of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks pass over my home. Most of the groups are 10-15 individuals with a group of 35 the largest I have seen. Probably about 200 of these unique ducks pass over me twice each day.

This species gets its name from two rather obvious characteristics. First is the black abdomen and second is its whistled voice. You can hear its voice at this link.

The range of this tropical duck extends from Argentina north to the southernmost portions of the United States, primarily Arizona, Texas and Florida. You can learn more about their biology at this link. This duck is also well known for its long-distance vagrancy that includes records from North Dakota (which I didn't see). My records include birds in Maryland, Missouri and Virginia that are north of where the species should usually be found. My southernmost record is a group of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks seen in Misiones Province, Argentina on September 5, 2002. These birds were in a huge area known as the Ibera wetlands near the Paraguay border.

The Florida Breeding Bird Atlas shows the distribution of this species in the state as being highly concentrated in west-central counties surrounding and adjacent to Tampa Bay. The map shows no confirmed breeding records for Sarasota County. That is simply an artifact of the dates when these data were collected. Just a couple weeks ago on October 20, 2009, I found a family group made up of 2 adults and 5 nearly fledged young at the Celery Fields wetlands southeast of Sarasota.

Regardless this is one very unique and interesting not to mention beautiful species of waterfowl. I'm quite fortunate to be able to sit on my lanai at sunrise and sunset and watch them fly to and from where ever they go. I'm certain the birds are traveling to the Cooper Creek Park about 1/2 mile southeast of me in the evening. Where they go in the morning is a mystery. Their flight path takes them northwest of my home to somewhere but as much searching as I have done in Sarasota and Manatee Counties I have only seen this bird here, at Cooper Creek and the Celery Fields. I guess this is just one more little mystery to solve in retirement.

Color-Banded Red Knots on Lido Key

Yesterday I found a group of about 100 Red Knot on the beach at the south end of Lido Key. Among the birds were at least 9 that carried colored leg bands. The wind was blowing so intensely that sand got into my binoculars! so I didn't take the time to read the numbers on the tags. I was able to record the color-band combinations and will report them to the Bird Banding Laboratory to learn where the banded birds originated.

This picture, pirated from the Cape Romain Bird Observatory in South Carolina, illustrates the kind of color band(s) I encountered.

The population status of this species seems to be inexorably tied to the horseshoe crab and its yearly spawning activities on Delaware Bay where almost all of the eastern population of Red Knot stages during spring migration each year. As the horseshoe crab goes so goes the Red Knot. You can learn more about the biology of Red Knot at this website.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Birding Myakka River State Park

Thursday I received a text message from the Sarasota Bird Alert telling local birders that a group of maybe 100 Roseate Spoonbills had been seen in a small wetland adjacent to the the Myakka River in the state park. With the Spoonbills was a multitude of Wood Storks, numerous other herons and egrets plus two American Avocets. And while all of these were being watched a juvenal American White Pelican was seen checking out the feeding frenzy. Needing both the Avocet and White Pelican for my Sarasota County list I was out the door before dawn headed to the park just southeast of Sarasota.

This basic information about Myakka River State Park is located on its website:

One of the oldest and largest state parks, Myakka protects one of the state´s most diverse natural areas. The Myakka River, designated as a Florida Wild and Scenic River, flows through 58 square miles of wetlands, prairies, hammocks, and pinelands. Visitors can enjoy wildlife viewing from a boardwalk that stretches out over the Upper Myakka Lake, then take to the treetops with a stroll along the canopy walkway. The park´s river and two lakes provide ample opportunities for boating, freshwater fishing, canoeing, and kayaking; a boat ramp provides access to Upper Myakka Lake. Hikers can explore trails that cross large expanses of rare Florida dry prairie.
The Myakka River had overflowed its banks on numerous occasions in September. However with the onset of the dry season (funny how we never really had a wet season this wet season) a small wetland adjacent to the river at the first bridge crossing had been cut off from the river. As the heat continued and the water diminised in area all sorts of fishes and frogs and larvae and other goodies that birds love to forage on were trapped in this constantly shriveling patch of wetland. To the birds it was an invitation to pig out.

Arriving at 8:05 this morning I was greeted with this scene:

There were at least 200 Wood Storks in the wetland each feeding feverishly. Many times I observed some intra-specific aggression between two or more foraging Ibises. And to think I had always viewed them as sanguine!

Next in abundance to the Wood Storks, perhaps numbering 150 or so were the Roseate Spoonbills.

Along with all of the tall pink and white birds was a cast of the usual herons and egrets expected here. It seemed like Tricolored Heron was second only to Snowy Egret in abundance.

As the sun heated the air burning off the heavy layer of fog that greeted me when I first arrived I was able to view the muddy shoreline of the wetland were there was a nice collection of shorebirds, the most beautiful of which being American Avocet, starkly beautiful in its black and white winter plumage.

Adjacent to the feeding frenzy in the pond was the requisite assemblage of American Alligators that are virtually guaranteed to be seen in the Myakka River. Today there were five monster gators chilled out in the water, perhaps hoping some itinerant bird watcher would come a little too close for a picture.

There was no alligator-on-human predation that I saw today, but I was able to witness some predation a bit later in the morning.

Leaving the feeding frenzy of herons egrets spoonbills and storks I moved further up the road passing through some exquisite forest.

Every time I am in Myakka River State Park I get this melancholy feeling looking at these forests thinking about how 100 years ago the entire countryside here looked like this. Untrammeled. Im place. Undisturbed. Wild. This is my image of what people are talking about when they say something is "Old Florida." This forest reminds me of what Florida is supposed to look like, not what it has become.

I saw or heard a nice assortment of passerines as I passed through the forest, eventually coming onto a flock of Black Vultures who were dining on what once was an Armadillo.

From the forest I drove north to the boardwalk known by everyone as the "Bird Walk." This boardwalk constructed out into the wetland at the edge of Upper Myakka Lake gives visitors an unparalleled opportunity to get a feel for the wetland and all the critters in it while still keeping their feet dry.

At the upper end of the birdwalk there is a wider area where you can set up a spotting scope and scan the wetland. I had hoped for American White Pelican here but had no such luck. There was, however, an abundance of other birds including hundreds of Blue-winged Teal, some Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and no shortage of Mottled Ducks.

There were probably 25 to 30 American Alligators in view most of the time as they paddled around the edge of the lake looking for breakfast. One gator became exceptionally lucky as I watched.

Laying in the water disguising himself as a log, the gator's eyes must have widened as a juvenal Roseate Spoonbill slowly and methodically foraged its way toward what it thought was a log. The gator lay still until the spoonbill was about 1 inch closer than it should have been. Suddenly the gator leaped (well as much as a gator can leap) up catching the spoonbill not only 1) by surprise but 2) in his jaws 3) in the middle of the spoonbill's body. It was in an instant. Suddenly there was a flurry of feathers and the gator is next seen swimming away with breakfast in its jaws. Somewhere out there in the primordial soup of evolution old Charles Darwin is smiling right now thinking "damn, eugenics is such a beautiful thing." Could it still think, the spoonbill would be agreeing with him.

I saw and or heard 55 species in 2 1/2 hours at Myakka River State Park this morning. Not a half bad showing. Perhaps the overall "best" bird of the morning aside from the great show of feeding herons, was the Sedge Wren I found in the sedges (duh) adjacent to the Birdwalk.

The morning's list is reproduced here.

Pied-billed Grebe

Double-crested Cormorant


Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Tricolored Heron
Little Blue Heron
Snowy Egret
Cattle Egret

Wood Stork

White Ibis
Glossy Ibis
Roseate Spoonbill

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Mottled Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler

Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture


Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk

Common Moorhen

Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet


Wilson's Snipe
Long-billed Dowitcher
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Western Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpiper

Laughing Gull

Mourning Dove

Belted Kingfisher


Red-bellied Woodpecker

Eastern Phoebe

Tree Swallow

Carolina Wren
House Wren
Sedge Wren
Marsh Wren

Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird

Fish Crow

Northern Parula
Palm Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Common Yellowthroat

Savannah Sparrow

Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting

Red-winged Blackbird
Boat-tailed Grackle

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What a GREAT Day!

At 11:02 a.m. this morning, President Barack Obama's entourage of marine helicopters (there were six of them) flew over my house on his way over to Arcadia to to dedicate a new solar energy facility. You can read about the visit here:

When I heard the copters coming I darted out on my lanai and saluted him. I even had a few tears streaming down my cheeks as he went by me - unfortunately about 500 feet up. Its funny how when I lived in Washington DC and heard Helicopter 1 flying around all the time I thought nothing of it...just another day in Washington. However today it was a big freaking thing hearing the same helicopter. Maybe now the difference is the guy sitting in there getting a ride.

Contrast that to June 22, 2001 when I was walking back from a meeting down town and I passed the South Lawn of the White House enroute to Main Interior to catch a shuttle bus back to our office.

As I passed the southwest corner of the White House, over by the Old Executive Office Building, I saw the gates open and lights started to flash. Out came an obvious Secret Service black suburban with blue lights flashing. Behind it came another SS suburban and behind it was the decoy limousine. The fourth vehicle in line was Dubya Bush's limousine.

I'm standing 30 feet from him as his limo darted out of the White House exit. As it did I looked in and there was old George Dubya looking back at me. Instinctively my right arm darted out and my right hand formed into a ball except for the middle finger of my hand that soon found itself fully extended - and pointed at Bush's face.

He saw me, I saw him, I didn't hurl and the Secret Service took my picture. Later that day I emailed Bush and asked him to credit me with the image in the picture. I never heard back from Dubya on that one.

That salute of Bush was necessary. Today's salute of a real leader was satisfying.

Even more satisfying was about two hours later when I was at the home of my Barack-hating Republican sister. As I was leaving her house Barack's entourage of helicopters flew over on its way back to Sarasota International Airport. I couldn't help but laugh at the irony of the greatest President since Jimmy Carter flying over the house of a Republican who thinks he's even lower on the totem pole than Rush Limbaugh. Sweet justice I would say.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sarasota Blues Festival

Yesterday afternoon and evening I attended the 19th Annual Sarasota Blues Festival held at venerable old Ed Smith Stadium, home of my hapless Sarasota Reds.

I only made the last several hours of the show but what I heard was extremely good music. The highlight of the night was getting to listen to Little Feat rock on on the stage. You can read the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's take on the Blues Fest here.

I have never been much of a fan of Little Feat despite the group playing with Jimmy Buffett on a bunch of occasions, and Jimmy featuring the show "Feat at Five" every Sunday on Radio Margaritaville. That all changed last evening when we sat under a Florida moon and listened to them live. I am a convert now.

The crowd at the fest had a pretty good wine buzz going on by the time I left. However unlike at a Buffett concert almost all fest goers could sit up straight although there were several who were a lot more horizontal than vertical.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


This morning while pedaling along on a bike path adjacent to Honore Avenue I saw a Black Racer dash across the path in front of me. Maybe 100 feet further there was another Black Racer - only this one didn't dash so fast.

The second snake darted out of the vegetation at the side of the path and tried to cross directly in my path. When it did, I ran over the snake probably 1/4 of the way to its tail (I have never figured out where the body ends and tail begins on a snake). Regardless I ran over the snake. In the instant after I hit the snake it instinctively reached back to strike at whatever had just harmed it. In this case that would be me.

The snake bit me on the lower calf just above my left ankle. They have no fangs so it was just a slight bruise.

Because the snake stopped its movement long enough to bite me it was still in position to be run over again by my rear tire. And that is what happened.

Now feeling guilty, I got off my bike and went to check on the snake to make sure it was o.k. When I approached it, the snake darted off into the vegetation and I didn't see it again. I assume it was o.k. because it didn't stick around to answer questions.

The last time I was bitten by a snake was in June 1979 out in Lincoln County Nebraska. There I was collecting a plant to be added to the herbarium at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. When I put my shovel in the earth to begin extracting the plant I inadvertently upset a Prairie Rattlesnake that I didn't see snoozing in the shade of the plant.

The rattlesnake bit me in the same calf as this Black Racer and when it did I swung the shovel around and decimated the snake. It was the only snake I have ever killed.

I'll have to keep an eye out tomorrow when I am biking to see if either of the Black Racer's had returned to that bike path. I'll just have to make sure I don't run over any of them this time.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cool Highway Sign

Drivers approaching the Celery Fields from the west on Palmer Road first see this cool highway sign when they arrive at the edge of the area. Apparently someone somewhere is proud of the Greater Sandhill Cranes that live in and near this wetland area.

When I first saw the sign I remembered back to March 1979 during my first sojourn along the Platte River in Nebraska. There we were studying the distribution of Sandhill Cranes along with a host of other aspects of the species' ecology. One morning while parked on the edge of the road looking at cranes a local resident pulled up behind my car, got out and walked to me. I was in a Fish and Wildlife Service vehicle with a Service emblem on the side of each door (we used to call them "targets" in those days).

Reaching my car the man asked me what I was doing. When I explained it to him he admonished me to start carrying a sidearm in my car for protection because of who I worked for because "you're trying to save those god damned cranes." Well, yes, we were.

Now some 30 years later that attitude no longer prevails along the Platte River where Sandhill Crane watching in March is the number one tourist attraction in Central Nebraska. Crane watching is now more popular than watching horse races at Fonner Park. The fact that crane watchers bring 10s of millions of dollars into the local economy each spring has a bit to do with the change in attitude.

I've not been a resident of Florida long enough to know the politics of cranes here. Apparently any animosity that may have existed in the past is gone because local government is putting up signs alerting people to the presence of this most noble of birds.

Song Sparrow - 200th Species for my Sarasota County List

Just returned a minute ago from a bone-chilling jaunt through the Celery Fields looking for any birds that may have arrived after yesterdays pronounced passage of a cold front. I was eating lunch at a beachside restaurant in Venice Florida when the front blew through yesterday about 2:00 p.m. As it passed I thought of Buffett's new song "Surfing in a Hurricane." The wind was ferocious and there were surfers offshore eating it all up.

But back to today. Right now the temperature is a near-freezing 58 degrees and the northeast wind is howling at 14 miles per hour. This would be a balmy July day in North Dakota but I'm not in freaking North Dakota any more!

I arrived at the Celery Fields about 9:00 a.m. and walked my now familiar circuitous route along the berms/dikes that surround several of the artificial wetlands there. Moving through some rank vegetation growing in one wetland basin I heard a familiar call note from a bit further north in Virginia and knew instantly that a Song Sparrow was in the neighborhood. After some vigorous pishing I got the bird to jump up out of the vegetation and give a presentable view from the stalk of some species of Scirpus (fluviatilis perhaps?).

Checking my records on getting home this was the 200th species I have recorded in Sarasota County. Not a bad county list. 197 of those 200 species have been recorded this year.

Song Sparrow was made famous many years ago by the research done on this species by Margaret Morse Nice, a housewife from Ohio who became caught up in the Song Sparrows in her yard. After some concerted effort on her part, Mrs Nice was approached by degreed ornithologists who sought out her extensive knowledge of bird biology and behavior.

Not long after finding the Song Sparrow, a pair of Swamp Sparrows started calling from a different wetland. They soon became species #201 for my Sarasota County list.

As for now I'm waiting until it warms up a bit so I can go put 16 miles on my bicycle. Hopefully this Arctic weather won't last much longer.

Friday, October 16, 2009

An Alive Opossum!

Yesterday evening while trundling down a trail at the Celery Fields, just after having three gorgeous Sandhill Cranes fly over me not 20 meters high, I came on to an Opossum stumbling down the grassy trail toward me. On seeing me the Opossum darted for nearby thicker vegetation, thereby ensuring that it was possibly going to live an hour longer - maybe more if it was really lucky!

So why is it that the simple observation of the only marsupial in North America worthy of a note on my blog?

As this range map

indicates, during my adult life, I have lived in the range of the Opossum all but the six years I lived in North Dakota. In all of those years and all of the traveling I did and poking around in forests that I did, and looking in other habitats that I did, I have not seen many alive Opossums. In fact, yesterday's animal at the Celery Fields was only the 14th living Opossum I have seen anywhere in my nearly 58 years!

Opossums appear to live dead along the side of highways more than any animal I know other than, maybe, Armadillos. And living in the south I have seen a zillion dead Opossums. There are two carcasses that I pedal by daily on my bicycle ride in Sarasota for instance. But to see a live one is a rarity.

When I lived on Oak Street in Grand Island Nebraska I had an Opossum there who for some reason used to like to run around on the roof of my garage. I could lay in bed at night and listen to it milling around on the roof. Eventually I started putting iceberg lettuce on the garage roof to attract the critter so I could watch him and maybe learn a bit about them. Then one night while I was watching the Opossum eat lettuce on my roof a Great Horned Owl stealthily flew in and snatched the Opossum and flew off with him, quickly converting him into a late evening dinner.

Their propensity for turning up dead was best illustrated by a graduate student at the University of Georgia who was trying to do her thesis research on Opossums while I was stationed on that campus. She eventually gave up trying to put radio transmitters on them and learn about their movements when 80 percent of her radio-tagged animals turned up dead from collisions with vehicles within 10 days of being tagged.

So, for me, it was a big freaking deal getting to see this alive Opossum. It was funny seeing it because the first thing I remembered when I identified the critter was John Hudson explaining in Mammalogy 408 nearly 40 years ago the dental formula of Didelphis virginianus and telling us that they have 52 teeth as opposed to our 32. Don't ask why I remembered that trivial bit of worthless information.

If you want to learn more about the biology of North America's only marsupial you can do so at this link.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sarasota County's Celery Fields

Just southeast of Sarasota, between Fruitville and Palmer Roads there is a series of stormwater retention wetlands (PUBx) that are maintained by the county to store and manage excess water during the rainy season. When its not raining the wetlands stay around and produce some excellent waterbird habitat. The berms and surrounding uplands support an interesting collection of woody vegetation that likely supports a few wintering sparrows and similar species.

I found the Celery Fields last spring and birded them several times before it got to be too miserably hot. This afternoon I made a two hour stroll along the berms at the Celery Fields checking to see what was around for migrants and potential winter residents. Despite signs suggesting other residents the only non-bird creatures I found there were other humans.

My day list included 41 species of which five were new for my Sarasota County list. Those included Blue-winged Teal, Sora, American Coot (the venerable "Minnesota Mallard" to Wisconsinites), Marsh Wren and Chipping Sparrow. The fields seem to have a lot of potential for some great birding in the colder months ahead.

Included in the list were about 30 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks

and maybe 20 Blue-winged Teal, the latter working their way down to the Caribbean and northern South America for the winter.

The best find of the day was the Limpkins, all nine of them, that I found while strolling around the wetlands.

My list for the day is below. I look forward to many other fruitful days checking the wetlands and the scrubby vegetation now that cold temperatures (70s) are about to arrive.


Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Tricolored Heron
Little Blue Heron
Snowy Egret

White Ibis
Glossy Ibis

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Mottled Duck
Blue-winged Teal

Turkey Vulture


Sandhill Crane


American Coot

Black-necked Stilt


Greater Yellowlegs

Ring-billed Gull
Laughing Gull

Mourning Dove

Belted Kingfisher

Barn Swallow

Carolina Wren
Marsh Wren

Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Fish Crow

European Starling

Tennessee Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Palm Warbler
Common Yellowthroat

Chipping Sparrow

Red-winged Blackbird
Boat-tailed Grackle
Common Grackle