Tuesday, June 30, 2009

New Birds For My Sarasota County List

Lunch today was at the Beach House Restaurant on Anna Maria Island. The weather had a nasty side to it making it a perfect day to watch for waterspouts. None formed but the clouds looked ominous enough to produce one. Maybe next time. My blackened mahi-mahi sandwich washed down with two grippingly-cold Landshark Lager beers made for an excellent early afternoon on an island, mon.

After lunch and a stroll on a Longboat Key beach to check on the Black Skimmer nesting colony there (lots of Loggerhead Sea Turtle nests also!! way cool) I drove to Lido Key beach where I tried once again for a couple of birds that had become frustrating to add to my Sarasota County list.

I scored big and early on this trip.

My first success was finding two family groups of Gray Kingbirds near one of the obnoxious condominium developments on the beach. This is by far my most favorite Caribbean/West Indian bird and has been since I saw my first one on New Providence Island in the Bahamas, mon, on June 4, 1984.

You can learn a bit more about Gray Kingbirds at this link
Leaving the Kingbird family groups I drove further down the island to a patch of West Indian hardwood hammock that had a mangrove fringe at the water's edge. Here I finally found Black-whiskered Vireo for my county list. You can read my frustrations in searching for this bird fifteen days ago at this link.

Leaving the Vireo I drove to South Lido Beach Park where I hiked the beach (had I been a surfer today would have been a great day to try hanging 10 - there were some awesome storm-generated waves crashing ashore). As I stumbled around watching Magnificent Frigatebirds hang motionless in the winds, my first Sandwich Terns for Sarasota County sailed by me in search of some fish to scare senseless before making them into dinner.

I continued along the beach hoping for some Snowy Plovers or Wilson's Plovers or maybe a Willet for my county list but no such luck today. Curiously I saw all three of those shorebirds while eating lunch at the Beach House (in Manatee County) a couple hours earlier. Oh well. Another quest I guess.

All in all it was a great way to spend an afternoon - eating fish, drinking beer and watching birds. Just think my old colleagues in Washington DC are glued to a desk in Arlington Square worrying about who will be selected to be the new Branch Chief and other things that have nothing to do with resource protection. And while they did so I was enjoying natural resources. I think mine was a better location today.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Mocking of Mockingbirds

In July 1983 I sat in the backyard of a friend's home in Laurel Maryland where we listened to a Northern Mockingbird going through his repertoire of voices. Because this bird was so prolific with the number of songs it knew, Danny and I decided to make a checklist of all the species it mimicked. By the end of the day we counted 34 species that this Mockingbird had mimicked almost to perfection. One of them was a Western Kingbird.

At first I was a little baffled by how a Northern Mockingbird living within spitting distance of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland could know the voice of a decidedly western species like Western Kingbird. Over time it dawned on me that the Mockingbird may have encountered a Western Kingbird (or plural) in the winter in Florida where Western Kingbirds are fairly regularly as a wintering species.

That made sense. However how do you explain the Northern Mockingbird I watched yesterday (June 18, 2009) as it repeatedly uttered the song and call of a Black-billed Magpie!

This range map from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology shows the normal range of Black-billed Magpie in North America. While looking at the range map note how incredibly far the west coast of Florida is from the normal range of Black-billed Magpie. How on earth did this Mockingbird in my yard learn a Black-billed Magpie's voice and be able to mimic is so perfectly. Was it innate or did he just randomly sing the Magpie's voice? Baffles the hell out of me!

Persistent Parula's

Northern Parula (Parula americana) is a fairly common nesting species, common migrant and uncommon winter resident along Florida's west coast. During the winter they can be found foraging in almost any woody vegetation. During the nesting season they are found almost exclusively in association with forest vegetation where Spanish moss grows in profusion. Spanish "moss" isn't really a moss but an epiphytic plant that grows on and from another host plant species.

The Florida Breeding Bird Atlas shows the range of this species during the nesting season in Florida. Note that Sarasota County is about at the southwestern limit of its nesting range.

I heard the first apparently territorial male Northern Parula of the year on March 10 2009. Since then I have heard them daily ever since. I have at least five territorial males that I hear regularly on my daily 16-mile bicycle rides through urban areas of Sarasota County. Just today for instance, June 19, 2009, at 2:00 p.m. with the temperature at 92 degrees I heard the same five males singing. Two of them are on opposite sides of Honore Avenue where they are consistently and persistently singing throughout the day. It doesn't matter how hot it is or the angle of the sun, these birds keep singing and defending their territories.

In my native Wisconsin I remember first seeing Northern Parula on migration about May 10 and during the nesting season you could hear them singing until about July 10 or so. Hearing one sing after 11:00 a.m. would be a rarity at the end of the nesting season. Once their brood was out of the nest the singing ceased. However here in west Florida they seem to not want to give up. Given that they started singing in early March and given the short incubation and nestling period of wood warblers, the birds now have to be on their second broods. The Florida Breeding Bird Atlas mentions that they stay on territory until early August. I wonder if they have three broods?

I'll have to keep my ears piqued to determine how long I keep hearing these warblers singing. Don't get me wrong - I love the sound of singing warblers. I'm just baffled that they are still at it and in the middle of the day when most "normal" birds would have given up and conserved some energy.

The photo is from a US Forest Service link. No attribution given on the site so I assume its in the public domain.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Blue-headed Vireo in Sarasota in June!

Imagine my surprise this afternoon while pedaling up Lockwood Ridge Avenue just past Gocio Street when I heard the familiar voice of Blue-headed Vireo singing from the trees behind the Sarasota County Fire Rescue building. Not wanting to believe my ears at first I walked behind the building and searched a live oak where I finally saw the bird slowly and methodically moving through the vegetation. The temperature was 93 degrees F and the humidity 65 percent and this guy was singing like it was early spring.

The reason this was an interesting sighting can be found in the range map of this species available from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology You can listen to its song at this link.

I saw Blue-headed Vireos in Sarasota through much of March and early April and then on cue they disappeared. And I have covered the same route on my bicycle almost every day since early March. I've not heard a Blue-headed Vireo singing along here since late March. According to the Florida Breeding Bird Atlas there are no breeding season records of this species during the years the Atlas was being researched.

So why is this bird here now when it should be several hundred miles further north (and cooler!) than he is now? Its another of those ornithological mysteries that keep making it fun to look at birds. My guess is that either the bird experienced a nesting failure further north and decided to head back to the subtropics to avoid the rush but was still pumping testosterone and had to let off steam some how. The other guess is that he never went north at all this spring, preferring a more tropical climate at the littler latitudes.

Regardless its pretty cool having him here at this time of year.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Sarasota Wins One!

Just back now from the Sarasota Reds v Clearwater Threshers game at Ed Smith stadium. For the first time in six games, with me in the stands, the Reds won a game! I was starting to get paranoid thinking that my presence in the stands was causing them to lose.

Tonight however the Reds kicked ass and took names. They scored three runs in the third inning and three more in the fifth. Balls were sailing out of the park - including another one that scaled the 400 foot mark in center field and may still be in flight.

The final score was 7-3 Sarasota and that was good.

Where are the Black-whiskered Vireos?

Black-whiskered Vireo is the mangrove-loving tropical replacement of the Red-eyed Vireo; the latter once called the most numerous breeding bird in the forests of the eastern United States. Black-whiskered Vireos are most common in Florida throughout the Florida Keys. On the mainland they are regularly found north to Tampa Bay on the Gulf Coast http://myfwc.com/bba/docs/bba_BWVI.pdf

Black-whiskered Vireo arrives in this part of Florida rather "late" in migration - mid to late April and on arrival begins its monotonous song until some time in July when the nesting season ends.

This year I have been searching every conceivable patch of mangrove forest I can find in Manatee and Sarasota Counties here hoping to add this vireo to county bird lists. As of yesterday's latest futile attempt I still have not seen or heard it here. What's up with that?

Yesterday's foray was to Lido Key off St. Armand's Key just west of Sarasota. There is an abundance of mangrove forest there but I could not see or hear a single vireo. The same story has been true along Anna Maria Island, Longboat Key, on Siesta Key, and in mangroves near Venice and Osprey. Each attempt to find this bird has produced a big fat goose egg.

I'm not sure whats going on. Perhaps there is a contraction in the species range - something that always happens at the periphery. However with global warming making its march across the landscape you'd think the Black-whiskered Vireo would be expanding northward rather than maybe contracting southward. Whatever it is, they seem to be totally absent from otherwise preferred mangrove forests. This might be something to keep an eye on in the near future on Florida's west coast.

P.S. The photo is from the US Forest Service so there are no copyright issues - good old public domain

Monday, June 8, 2009

Great Crested Flycatchers

My resident pair of Great Crested Flycatchers has apparently fledged another brood. Right now they are darting around in the woody vegetation ringing the wetland outside my lanai chasing each other and calling "breep, breep, breep" all over the place. Life must be pretty cool as a Myiarchus flycatcher.

You can learn more about them at this link:

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

It was "seniors" night at the Sarasota Reds game at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota tonight. Although it aggravates the Cheney out of me to be 57 and considered "senior" it is still nice to see a minor league (Sarasota Reds are Class A) game for $2.00. Perhaps when I start showing up for the Early Bird Specials at Denny's I'll have to really worry about getting "old."

Unfortunately for the home team, the Reds sucked with a capital S tonight. They played the Brevard County Manatees, the leaders in their divison of the Florida State League. I wanted to see the game so I could watch a manatee walk on land, run, slide, and pitch.

The final score was Brevard 6 and Sarasota 3. I have yet to see the Reds win a game. Maybe its because I'm sitting in the stands? The game was scoreless until about the fifth inning when the manatees played excellent ball scoring 4 runs in rapid succession and when Sarasota's pitching started to stink. Sarasota has a lot of talent including a second baseman who I've seen make some major-league quality plays. I think if they can ever bring it all together they will kick ass and take names. They just aren't there yet.

One thing in Sarasota's defense was the shabby umpiring by the infield umpire. At one point he called a Sarasota runner out at second base who was clearly safe. I could see that from my seat behind home plate. However its a tradition of baseball to blame the lousy ump's for lousy umpiring.

The Reds are out of town on a road trip until June 13, a week from tonight. I'll hope they get some luck sent their way before they come home - that or I'll just stay out of the stands because I'm starting to feel like I'm jinxing them!