Warbler time at Ocean Bay

Cape May Warbler eyeing the fruit on a fig tree.

Ocean Bay Riverside is a red-hot hotspot on eBird right now, during spring migration, as warblers alight in the mangroves and fig trees for rest and refueling before resuming their epic semi-annual treks.

Cape May warblers were there when I stopped by on Sunday.

Many of our migratory warblers seem to lead double lives, and the Cape May is a good example. It summers in northern spruce woods, but winters in the Caribbean, where it is often seen in palm trees. In summer it eats insects, but during migration and winter it varies its diet with nectar from flowers and with juice that it obtains by piercing fruit. Birders easily recognize the tiger-striped males in spring, but drab fall birds can be perplexing.

Northern Parulas are found at Ocean Bay occasionally in winter but especially during migration and not at all during summer.

These wood warblers do breed in other parts of Florida though, mainly central and northern Florida, and all through the American South. They breed in forests where there is plenty of Spanish moss which they use for nest building. LINK.

Perhaps because the Northern Parula is the smallest eastern wood warbler, its wintering population in the United States is largely restricted to subtropical Florida. Curiously, the Northern Parula’s wintering distribution and breeding distribution in Florida hardly overlap.

They also winter in the Caribbean and eastern parts of Mexico and Central America.

This warbler is a female Black-throated Blue. During migration I have consistently spotted BtBs with other warblers like the Cape May, Northern Parula, and American Redstart. I suspect all of these warblers traveling together came from, or through, the Caribbean.

You can help these tiny long-distance travelers by turning off non-essential lights at night. Read about Audubon’s Lights Out program HERE.

Ovenbird in mangroves

An Ovenbird perches on a mangrove root, yesterday morning at Ocean Bay Riverside on the shores of the Indian River Lagoon on Hutchinson Island in St. Lucie County.

I followed a couple of these charming little birds for a while, trying to get a few good shots in the dim light of a foggy early morning.

According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds

The Ovenbird’s rapid-fire teacher-teacher-teacher song rings out in summer hardwood forests from the Mid-Atlantic states to northeastern British Columbia. It’s so loud that it may come as a surprise to find this inconspicuous warbler strutting like a tiny chicken across the dim forest floor. Its olive-brown back and spotted breast are excellent disguise as it gleans invertebrates from the leaf litter.

A tiny chicken, I love it. But why is it called an OVENBIRD?

Its nest, a leaf-covered dome resembling an old-fashioned outdoor oven, gives the Ovenbird its name.

I have seen and photographed an Ovenbird just once before, on North Hutchinson Island (also known as Orchid Island) in Vero Beach, at Captain Forster Hammock Preserve, in September 2019, posted here: Not the hammock you swing in. But that photo was not really in focus, so let me add this focused Ovenbird to my collection.

Ovenbirds winter in Florida, Central America, the Caribbean, and northern South America. At Ocean Bay they are seen mid-April through mid-May, then again late September through October.

Seiurus aurocapilla is in its own genus, genetically distinct from the rest of Parulidae, the New World warblers.

Dappled dabblers

This small dabbling duck is a Blue-winged Teal, seen at Green Cay on April 9. This is a male, with the bold white stripe in front of his eye.

I love his speckles!

Here is a female, I believe, stretching a wing and leg on the same side of her body… just like my hens used to do.

Small dabbling ducks have such a pleasing shape. Don’t you just feel relaxed and peaceful when you look at a duck at rest?

The Blue-winged Teal is among the latest ducks to migrate northward in spring, and one of the first to migrate southward in fall.

They love warm weather, lingering in Florida with the last of the snowbirds.

Blue-winged Teal spend the winter/ non-breeding season in the far south of the U.S., and in Central America and northern South America. They breed in summer in the northern U.S. and Canada.

Cool fact: Blue-winged Teal are the second most abundant duck in North America, behind the Mallard.

Blue-winged teal are the second smallest duck in North America and are highly distinctive during flight due to their bright blue wing patch. Populations are highly responsive to wetland conditions in their breeding range; those years with many small temporary wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region typically produce large hatches of this species.

Glory be to God for dappled things

The swamphens, mudhens and moorhens of Green Cay

“Welcome to Green Cay!” announces the Red-winged Blackbird, the unofficial mascot of the reconstructed wetlands habitat in western Boynton Beach that is managed by Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation.

Link: Green Cay Nature Center and Wetlands.

A one-and-a-half-mile long boardwalk traverses 100 acres of wetland habitat with SO MANY BIRDS to see! And other creatures too.

Porphyrio poliocephalus is preposterous and pretty.

The Gray-headed Swamphen…

is related to Florida’s native Common Gallinule, Purple Gallinule, and American Coot, the bigger, bulkier Swamphen looks superficially like a Purple Gallinule on massive doses of steroids. The Swamphen is an Old World species and is a relatively recent newcomer to Florida’s wetlands, being first recorded in Pembroke Pines, Florida in 1996, having likely escaped or been released from a private bird collection.

The Common Gallinule is the most common of the rail family in Florida, and possibly North America. Old timers call them moorhens.

Green Cay is a great place to see moorhens, swamphens, mudhens – all strange, long-legged denizens of freshwater marshes and members of the Rail family, Raillidae.

“Rail” is the anglicized respelling of the French râle, from Old French rasle. It is named from its harsh cry, in Vulgar Latin rascula, from Latin rādere (“to scrape”).

You would not think the striking colors of a Purple Gallinule provide camouflage… until you see these birds among blossoming pickerel weed.

Lurking in the marshes of the extreme southeastern U.S. lives one of the most vividly colored birds in all of North America. Purple Gallinules combine cherry red, sky blue, moss green, aquamarine, indigo, violet, and school-bus yellow, a color palette that blends surprisingly well with tropical and subtropical wetlands. Watch for these long-legged, long-toed birds stepping gingerly across water lilies and other floating vegetation as they hunt frogs and invertebrates or pick at tubers.

Another purple flower in the swamp: alligator flag.

Large leaves of the alligator flag, a native Florida wetlands plant.

Looking down from my dry perch on the boardwalk, I spied a Common Gallinule with a mostly-bald chick.

The chicks are precocial, leaving the nest one day after hatching. Parents feed them for about three weeks.

Not something you see every day! And one of many good reasons to get to Green Cay in spring.

An American Coot makes an appearance.

The waterborne American Coot is one good reminder that not everything that floats is a duck. A close look at a coot—that small head, those scrawny legs—reveals a different kind of bird entirely. Their dark bodies and white faces are common sights in nearly any open water across the continent, and they often mix with ducks. But they’re closer relatives of the gangly Sandhill Crane and the nearly invisible rails than of Mallards or teal.

The American Coot is also known as a mudhen.

I’ve only seen these birds a few times. I could hear a couple of old guys nearby talking about what they were seeing and I could tell they knew their birds so I doublechecked and asked, “Can you tell me, is that an American Coot?”

One of them said, “Yes, that’s an American Coot… and we’re Old Coots.”

These old coots know their coots and rails.

Another one of the preposterous swamphens (Gray-headed) snacking on roots and shoots.

More on this non-native bird from the first time I saw one, in October 2017: Escaped swamphens thrive in Florida wetlands.

If you crossed a small purple dinosaur with a backyard hen you would get the Gray-headed Swamphen. They do run around (seemingly on top of the water) like sleeker, more athletic chickens. Their feather colors are beautiful.

The mascots of Green Cay are also the guardians of Green Cay. These Red-winged Blackbirds said, “Not in my backyard!” to this Red-shouldered Hawk.

Carpe spring: a marshpiper, a stilt and a ruff, oh my!

I visited two birding hotspots in Palm Beach County yesterday. I’m posting about the second stop first, Peaceful Waters in Wellington, because of three wading birds I discovered at that location, including a rare bird.

eBird hotspot Peaceful Waters

Peaceful Waters is a peaceful place, a 30-acre wetland next to soccer fields in a park in the village of Wellington, Florida. A boardwalk and trails pass over and around shallow waters.

Florida Mottled Ducklings.

It’s baby bird season, which is one reason I made the trip. You’ve heard the expression seize the day. In Florida, birdwatchers want to seize the spring! for its nesting season AND migration.

Here is the first of my big-deal birds at Peaceful Waters: a Lesser Yellowlegs.

It’s a big deal to me because I have not seen one before, though I’ve known they exist ever since I saw a Greater Yellowlegs in a Hampton, New Hampshire marsh in October 2016.

The Lesser Yellowlegs is a dainty and alert “marshpiper” that occurs in shallow, weedy wetlands and flooded fields across North America during migration. It’s smaller with a shorter, more needlelike bill than the Greater Yellowlegs, but otherwise looks very similar. It breeds in the meadows and open woodlands of boreal Canada.

Looking at this Abundance Animation map, it looks like some spend winters in Florida; others go to South America.

Look for them in shallow marshes, ephemeral mudflats, and flooded fields in spring and fall, or on the tail ends of drawn-down reservoirs where nutrient-rich mudflats are exposed.

The Lesser Yellowlegs is Bird #225 for me on my sidebar count.

I also saw a striking wading bird, the Black-necked Stilt. I’ve seen them once before in the marshes near Lake Okeechobee, in April 2017.

Black-necked Stilts are among the most stately of the shorebirds, with long rose-pink legs, a long thin black bill, and elegant black-and-white plumage that make them unmistakable at a glance. They move deliberately when foraging, walking slowly through wetlands in search of tiny aquatic prey.

They have the second-longest legs in proportion to their bodies of any bird, exceeded only by flamingos.

When they are not resting or preening, Black-necked Stilts spend much of the day wading in shallow waters to capture aquatic invertebrates, small crustaceans, amphibians, snails, and tiny fish. They prey on larval mosquitoes, soldier flies, brine flies, caddisflies, dragonflies, mayflies, crickets, grasshoppers, many kinds of beetles (including weevils), water-boatmen, crayfish, brine shrimp, tadpoles, and very small frogs and fish.

Black-necked Stilts are in Florida in all seasons. I guess I haven’t been looking in the right places! I must spend more time visiting the freshwater wetlands away from the coasts.

I might have overlooked this sandpiper if I didn’t ask a birdwatcher nearby for help IDing the Lesser Yellowlegs. He said, “And did you see the Ruff over there?” and pointed.

Then I remembered that morning, when I had glanced through eBird to see what I might see in my planned trip to Green Cay. In the Palm Beach County section, there were lots of photos of the Ruff and I had noticed the location too: Peaceful Waters.

But then I forgot about it because I was so focused on Green Cay. Plus I’m not really expert enough to go chasing rare birds.

But at Green Cay, I got to chatting with a few birders who recommended some other locations in the county, including Peaceful Waters. I thought, “That sounds nice; I’ll go there after lunch.”

What’s the big deal about this Ruff?

“They live in Europe and Asia,” the nice birdwatcher told me.

“Oh geez,” I said, “that bird took a wrong turn.”

That happens sometimes, then a flock of birders will show up to see and appreciate the rare bird. South Florida Rare Bird Update.

The Ruff did not want to share its little patch of green and chased away any other bird that came near.

Apparently adult male Ruffs are striking in breeding season, with lots of extra plumage fluffing up in a “ruff” around its head and neck.

This far-wandering Ruff is blogged bird #226 for me!

A loop around the pond, and precocious goslings

I watched these two cormorants swimming and diving for fish around the edges of the pond at Indian Riverside Park the other day.

I believe the darker one is an adult and the light brown one is a juvenile. They were staying close together, diving and surfacing at the same time – the young bird mirroring the older bird.

A Blue Jay was keeping an eye on me.

Great Blue Heron at the west side of the pond.

Muscovy Duck heading toward a woman calling for her. “Lily, Lily! I brought you something.”

People feed the birds and ducks here.

Florida Mottled Ducks are closely related to the more familiar mallard. The male has a yellow bill and the female’s is orangey and darker.

Egyptian geese keeping watch over three chicks.

So cute!

Egyptian Geese are native to the Nile River Valley and other parts of the Middle East. They are yet another non-native that is beginning to breed “in the wild” in South Florida.

Oh the tiny wings!

The feathers are all down at this age. So soft.

This one stopped to rest. But not for too long.

Soon it was time to forage again. They eat a variety of plants, seeds, tiny animals and insects. Believe it or not, popcorn and bread are not very good for them.

Egyptian goslings (like the chicks of domestic hens) are precocial, born with downy feathers and ready to start feeding themselves right away, as opposed to altricial birds born naked and helpless, staying in the nest for some time, needing to be fed.

Cormorants are altricial… and so are human babies!

Sneaking up on a Green Heron

At a busy park this morning there was a bird who doesn’t like to be seen, a Green Heron.

There were pigeons, ibises, cormorants and a variety of ducks in and around the large pond at Indian Riverside Park, and many people walking or sitting. But this Green Heron was not into the park scene.

He flew to a smaller pond away from the people and other birds. I followed.

From a distance, the Green Heron is a dark, stocky bird hunched on slender yellow legs at the water’s edge, often hidden behind a tangle of leaves. Seen up close, it is a striking bird with a velvet-green back, rich chestnut body, and a dark cap often raised into a short crest.

Green Herons usually hunt by wading in shallow water, but occasionally they dive for deep-water prey and need to swim back to shore—probably with help from the webs between their middle and outer toes.

Green Herons are common and widespread, but they can be hard to see at first. Whereas larger herons tend to stand prominently in open parts of wetlands, Green Herons tend to be at the edges, in shallow water, or concealed in vegetation. Visit a wetland and carefully scan the banks looking for a small, hunch-backed bird with a long, straight bill staring intently at the water.

And nearby, look for a medium-sized woman hunched over her camera staring intently at a wading bird.

There, it raised its crest briefly.

Green Herons also have much longer necks than you realize when you look at them in the typical “hunched” position. See the photo at the top of this post for the neck-extended view. Up periscope!