Monthly Archives: January 2018

Shorebirds along the shore

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This may be the first time I’ve seen this shorebird, the Killdeer, actually along the shore. It’s usually golf courses or parking lots or road medians.

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We arrived late this afternoon at our beach rental in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Little Lagoon behind, Gulf beach across the street in front, and quite close to Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. I ran right out to the lagoon to take a few photos before dark.

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It’s not breeding season but these two Killdeer were very flirty with each other.

A shorebird you can see without going to the beach, Killdeer are graceful plovers common to lawns, golf courses, athletic fields, and parking lots. These tawny birds run across the ground in spurts, stopping with a jolt every so often to check their progress, or to see if they’ve startled up any insect prey. Their voice, a far-carrying, excited kill-deer, is a common sound even after dark, often given in flight as the bird circles overhead on slender wings.

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Great Blue Heron was chilling out.

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Speaking of chilling, there were some dead fish (mullet?) on the beach. I think it is because there was a hard freeze here last night. The weather has been unusually cold all over the east coast.

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Lovebirds?

They were chasing each other constantly.

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Often seen in dry, flat landscapes, running and halting on the ground in search of insects and earthworms. Although the Killdeer is common around human habitation it is often shy, at first running away rather than flying. When a Killdeer stops to look at an intruder, it has a habit of bobbing up and down almost as if it had hiccupped. Near the nest, Killdeer distract predators by calling loudly, bobbing, and running away. Killdeer are some of the best-known practitioners of the broken-wing display, an attempt to lure predators away from a nest by feigning injury. Pairs of Killdeer tend to stay together for one to a few years.

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Killdeer have the characteristic large, round head, large eye, and short bill of all plovers. They are especially slender and lanky, with a long, pointed tail and long wings.

Brownish-tan on top and white below. The white chest is barred with two black bands, and the brown face is marked with black and white patches.

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They are members of the Plover and Lapwing family, Charadriidae.

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Cold fish.

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Lagoon view.

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Double band on the chest is distinctive, almost distinguished… if they weren’t so busy robbing and running and calling kill-deer, kill-deer!

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John James Audubon…

The Kildeer is by most people called a “noisy bird and restless.” Now to me it is any thing but this, unless indeed when it is disturbed by the approach or appearance of its enemies, more particularly man, of whom indeed few wild birds are fond. Watch them from under some cover that completely conceals you, and you will see them peaceably and silently follow their avocations for hours. In this respect the Kildeer resembles the Lapwing of Europe, which is also called a restless and noisy bird, because men and dogs are ever in pursuit of the poor thing, which after all its vigilance often falls a prey to the sportsman, who condemns it merely because it endeavours to draw him from its nest or young.

Auld acquaintance: butterbutt

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Yellow-rumped Warbler in the neighbor’s banyan tree yesterday evening near sunset. There were a couple of them flitting around, calling softly. I pished them closer and got a few photos of one of them. (I’m always still surprised when that works.) Unfortunately, no good view of their defining feature, the bright yellow rump patch.

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Yellow-rumped Warblers are here in winter, fly north in April, and return south in late October. Here is a very cool animated map showing the species distribution and relative abundance throughout the 52 weeks of the year in North America.

The Yellow-rumped Warbler is one of the most abundant birds in North America, connecting almost every part of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico during its annual cycle.

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This is the first time I have noticed them in Florida. I first met them in my New Hampshire backyard in October 2016. Warning: gorgeous autumn foliage that will induce intense nostalgia if you have ever lived in NH!.. (But today they are having a blizzard.)

#59 is a butterbutt

Last two days

Reaching the peak

Thank you, little bird, for connecting the old and the new for me.

(This is my 67th Florida bird. My bird total in NH was 64.)

Twelve 2017 birds

A few of the many birds I saw in 2017…

january

A cuteness of peeps, at Santa Lucea Beach on Hutchinson Island.

february

Amazing feather colors! Living with a few other macaws and lots of rescued wildlife at the Treasure Coast Wildlife Center.

March

Sometimes I see random cool birds on a walk around the neighborhood.

april

Fishing the easy way, at Sandsprit Park in Stuart.

May

Sexy spoonbills on Bird Island, as seen from a small boat.

june

A little pal in the backyard.

july

Lizard lunch in Sewall’s Point.

august

Warblers passing through our little peninsula between the Indian River Lagoon and the St. Lucie River.

september

Woodland hunter in Snug Harbor, Stuart.

october

Noisy neighbor.

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Raptor at the Stuart Airshow.

december

The ubiquitous waterbird.

Strike a pose

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Great Blue Heron is a big bird, from three-and-a-half to almost five feet tall, with a six-foot wingspan. They hold still for photos too.

The feathery “ruff” around this one’s neck indicates it’s an adult.

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I saw the GBH today at the little pond across the street from the Sewall’s Point town hall. The Indian River Lagoon is just beyond those mangroves.

Cool, rainy and windy weather… with a cold snap to follow.

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A beak that stabs like a dagger. En garde, fishes and amphibians!

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Also by the pond, a lone Palm Warbler.

Cathartes the purifier

So I went looking for the first bird of the new year, open to what the fates would send me yet pretty much expecting some sort of majestic raptor or rare wintering warbler.

If it was to be a woodpecker, I was hoping for the jaunty Pileated. If it was to be a heron, I felt a Great Egret would be appropriate… or maybe my oft-sighted pal the Little Blue. A Roseate Spoonbill winging overhead would be a pretty in pink.

But you cannot choose your New Year’s bird, your New Year’s bird chooses you. Behold…

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… the Turkey Vulture.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology…

If you’ve gone looking for raptors on a clear day, your heart has probably leaped at the sight of a large, soaring bird in the distance– perhaps an eagle or osprey. But if it’s soaring with its wings raised in a V and making wobbly circles, it’s likely a Turkey Vulture. These birds ride thermals in the sky and use their keen sense of smell to find fresh carcasses. They are a consummate scavenger, cleaning up the countryside one bite of their sharply hooked bill at a time, and never mussing a feather on their bald heads.

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I was walking the dog, my camera hanging from my shoulder, attuned to the sounds and movements of birds around me. An Osprey above, flying too far away for a photo. The little chirps of what may have been Palm Warblers, invisible in the trees. The noisy calls of Red-bellied Woodpeckers in someone’s backyard.

Instead my first good look at any bird, with a positive ID and photos, was of a committee of vultures, silent silhouettes lazing late into the morning on their dead-tree roost, waiting for sun and thermals to lift them into the sky to circle and scan for brunch.

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A group of vultures is called a kettle, committee or wake. The term kettle refers to vultures in flight, while committee refers to vultures resting on the ground or in trees. Wake is reserved for a group of vultures that are feeding.

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There was one Black Vulture with six Turkey Vultures.

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Cornell Lab of Ornithology…

With sooty black plumage, a bare black head, and neat white stars under the wingtips, Black Vultures are almost dapper. Whereas Turkey Vultures are lanky birds with teetering flight, Black Vultures are compact birds with broad wings, short tails, and powerful wingbeats. The two species often associate: the Black Vulture makes up for its poor sense of smell by following Turkey Vultures to carcasses. Highly social birds with fierce family loyalty, Black Vultures share food with relatives, feeding young for months after they’ve fledged.

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Black vulture pair feeding on a mule deer, John James Audubon, via Wikipedia.

American naturalist William Bartram wrote of the black vulture in his 1792 book Bartram’s Travels, calling it Vultur atratus “black vulture” or “carrion crow”. The common name “vulture” is derived from the Latin word vulturus, which means “tearer” and is a reference to its feeding habits. The species name, ātrātus, means “clothed in black,” from the Latin āter ‘dull black’.

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A Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura.

Cathartes means “purifier” and is the Latinized form from the Greek kathartēs/καθαρτης. Is aura from aureus “golden” or Aura, the Greek goddess of the breeze?

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Grasping the tree with its dark pink, clawed foot.

I have noticed Black Vultures here in Florida year-round, maybe more of them in winter, but I think the Turkey Vultures are here mainly in winter. They benefit from each other: the Turkey Vulture smells and locates the carrion and the Black Vulture has a stronger beak to start the tearing.

And they benefit us too.

National Geographic: Vultures Are Revolting. Here’s Why We Need to Save Them.

THE VULTURE MAY be the most maligned bird on the planet, a living metaphor for greed and rapaciousness. Leviticus and Deuteronomy classify vultures as unclean, creatures to be held in abomination by the children of Israel. In his diary during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle in 1835, Charles Darwin called the birds “disgusting,” with bald heads “formed to wallow in putridity.” Among their many adaptations to their feculent niche: the ability to vomit their entire stomach contents when threatened, the better to take quick flight.

Revolting? Perhaps. But vultures are hardly without redeeming values. They don’t (often) kill other animals, they probably form monogamous pairs, and we know they share parental care of chicks, and loaf and bathe in large, congenial groups. Most important, they perform a crucial but massively underrated ecosystem service: the rapid cleanup, and recycling, of dead animals. By one estimate, vultures either residing in or commuting into the Serengeti ecosystem during the annual migration—when 1.3 million white-bearded wildebeests shuffle between Kenya and Tanzania—historically consumed more meat than all mammalian carnivores in the Serengeti combined. And they do it fast. A vulture can wolf more than two pounds of meat in a minute; a sizable crowd can strip a zebra—nose to tail—in 30 minutes. Without vultures, reeking carcasses would likely linger longer, insect populations would boom, and diseases would spread—to people, livestock, and other wild animals.

Thanks, clean-up crew.

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Pink hibiscus blooming today, on the first day of 2018, in our front yard. The flowers only last a day or so.

First bird of the year, in years past…

2015 (NH): The sometimes dazed but indefatigably diligent downy woodpecker.

2016 (NH): Northern cardinal in the snow.

2017 (FL): Grackles running around at the gas station.

Happy 2018!