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.