Fishing and sunning, what a life

Double-crested Cormorant at Indian Riverside Park. This one is a juvenile – its feathers are lighter in color than an all-black adult.

Note the little “fishing hook” at the end of its bill.

Time to dry the feathers!

Double-crested cormorants are gregarious birds that are almost always near water. Their main two activities are fishing and resting, with more than half their day spent on the latter. When at rest, a cormorant will choose an exposed spot on a bare branch or a windblown rock, and often spread its wings out, which is thought to be a means of drying their feathers after fishing. (Cormorants have less preen oil than other birds, so their feathers can get soaked rather than shedding water like a duck’s. Though this sounds like a liability, this is thought to be an adaptation that helps cormorants hunt underwater more effectively.)

Ahoy, bird!

Just a duck

She preens.

I was standing at the edge of the pond at Indian Riverside Park yesterday morning, trying desperately to get a decent shot of a pair of (unidentified) hawks flying from from tree to tree, sometimes swooping low across the water. Or maybe I could get that noisy kingfisher, flashing past then perching and rattle-calling… but it just a bit too fast and far off.

It was one of those days where you don’t get the things you are trying hard to get.

But here was this duck, practically at my feet.

“Look at me. I am beautiful,” she said. And so I did.

Florida Mottled Ducks are relatives of mallards but the male does not have a green head and looks a lot like the female. You can tell them apart by the color of the bill: males’ are yellow and females’ are orange.

The Florida mottled duck, often called the Florida duck or Florida mallard, is a unique subspecies found only in peninsular Florida. This nonmigratory duck spends its entire life within the state’s brackish and freshwater marshes, ponds, lakes, rivers, canals, ditches, and mosquito impoundments on the east and west coasts and inland.

Bird eyes

This is Artie. He’s an educational ambassador at Treasure Coast Wildlife Center. He can only stare straight ahead. No, I mean it. Like all owls, his eyes cannot move. He turns his head when he wants to look in a different direction.

Great Horned Owls like Artie have the largest eyes of all North American birds – they are almost the size of a human eye.

More amazing owl eye facts, from GreatHornedOwl.net

The size as well as the position of the eye is perfect for hunting at night. The bigger lens means that the owl can absorb as much light as possible. That is how the bird manages to see things even in low-light conditions.

More on owl eyeballs (actually eye tubes!)

Bald Eagles also have large, fixed eyes, like owls. So weird, right? In fact, it’s true that ALL BIRDS have very limited eye movement in the socket.

Birds have the largest eyes relative to their size in the animal kingdom, and movement is consequently limited within the eye’s bony socket.

But eagles do have eye superpowers that humans don’t. According to the webpage on Eagle Eyes at the National Eagle Center site…

Eagles use both monocular and binocular vision, meaning they can use they eyes independently or together depending on what they are looking at.

An eagle eye has two focal points (called “fovea” [singular] or “foveae” [plural]) one of which looks forward and the other to the side at about a 45 degree angle. These two foveae allow eagles to see straight ahead and to the side simultaneously. The fovea at 45 degrees is used to view things at long distances. An eagle can see something the size of a rabbit at more than three miles away.

And…

Eagles can distinguish more colors than humans. They can also see in the UV range of light, allowing them to see the urine trail of prey.

Like most birds, eagles have upper and lower eyelids plus a “third eyelid” called a nictitating membrane.

The nictitating membrane closes horizontally across the eye and provides moisture, protection and cleans the eye.

This eagle is Golfball. He is a permanent resident on display at TCWC. He was hit by a golf ball while perched on a tree branch at a golf course and it broke his wing. He has a partial wing amputation. When I clean his enclosure, he chirps at me.

More on eagle vision

If you swapped your eyes for an eagle’s, you could see an ant crawling on the ground from the roof of a 10-story building. You could make out the expressions on basketball players’ faces from the worst seats in the arena. Objects directly in your line of sight would appear magnified, and everything would be brilliantly colored, rendered in an inconceivable array of shades.

That sounds amazing!

Hawk eye.

Herc is a fine specimen of a Red-tailed Hawk. (Note the reddish brown tail.) He is an educational bird at TCWC. He has a partial wing injury.

Herc too has very large eyes compared to the size of the head.

The visual ability of birds of prey is legendary, and the keenness of their eyesight is due to a variety of factors. Raptors have large eyes for their size, 1.4 times greater than the average for birds of the same weight, and the eye is tube-shaped to produce a larger retinal image.

Notice also…

In most raptors, a prominent eye ridge and its feathers extend above and in front of the eye. This “eyebrow” gives birds of prey their distinctive stare. The ridge physically protects the eye from wind, dust, and debris and shields it from excessive glare.

My, what big eyes you have too!

Ali’i is a female Red-tailed Hawk at TCWC. She has a broken wing at one shoulder and is blind in one eye after being hit by a truck on King’s Highway in Martin County. She’s a big bird, but pretty easy to get up on the falconer’s glove. She’s a pro!

Another big-eyed raptor: Phoenix the Short-tailed Hawk.

Phoenix was brought to TCWC recently with a severe wing injury that eventually required amputation. She is young and adaptable, around 2 years old, and that’s part of the reason she made a good candidate for an educational bird. (You can visit Phoenix and the other educational and display birds Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Group tours are available with reservations.)

Short-tailed Hawks are a tropical species ranging from Florida south into Central and South America. They are fairly uncommon in Florida (maybe only 500 of them).

Phoenix is the first one I’ve ever seen (#227 on blog sidebar), and now I get to see her every day I volunteer.

A Short-tailed Hawk “seldom perches in the open; when hunting, it regularly soars very high, where it may go unnoticed by the observer on the ground. Unlike most of the Buteo hawks, the Short-tail feeds mostly on small birds, dropping from the sky to take them by surprise.”

For size comparison, check out the eye on this Brown Pelican in the pelican enclosure at TCWC.

And perched on the top of the pelican enclosure, a wild Black Vulture keeping an eye out for any clean up opportunities.

More on Bird vision.

The perfect tool for crustacean extraction

Winter solstice today at 10:59 a.m. EST, shortest day of the year as we curve around from fall to winter and days begin slowly to lengthen again.

I like this photo for getting a good look at the orangey-pink bill of a White Ibis. This one is an adult. The juveniles are mostly brown, with white underbellies. As they mature, they get mottled with more white feathers until they are snowy white all over.

This bird was walking near the edge of the pond at Indian Riverside Park the other day, keeping an eye on me in case I was one of the humans that brings bread or popcorn to feed the birds.

The proper food for getting your ibises to glow with good health is mostly a variety of insects and crustaceans found in mud in shallow water. The ibis’s long, curved, sensitive bill is made to find and grasp its food.

White Ibises probe for insects and crustaceans beneath the surface of wetlands. They insert their bill into soft muddy bottoms and feel for prey. When they feel something, they pinch it like a tweezer, pulling out crayfish, earthworms, marine worms, and crabs. They also stab or pinch fish, frogs, lizards, snails, and newts. Many of their prey are swallowed on the spot, but for really muddy items they carry them away to wash the mud off before eating. They break harder crustaceans with their bills and remove claws from crabs and crayfish before eating them.

Best way to “feed” these birds? Preserve shallow wetlands and other natural habitats. (They will also probe for insects like beetle larvae on suburban lawns!)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: To Feed or Not to Feed Wild Birds

Bold duck

Not your average duck face.

Muscovy ducks have taken up residence at the pond at Indian Riverside Park. This male was bold… in coloring and behavior. He came right up to me for his close-up.

Muscovy ducks have been introduced into urban and suburban areas in Florida where they often occur in high densities. These birds were illegally released primarily by private individuals for ornamental purposes or as pets. Muscovy ducks can be extremely prolific and local populations can increase dramatically in a short time. As a result, controversies frequently arise between residents who enjoy the birds and residents who consider them a nuisance.

A common creature tale in South Florida.

Catch of the day

Nice to come home from an idle wander with a crazy shot like this.

This Anhinga speared a relatively massive Mayan cichlid in the pond at Indian Riverside Park. I couldn’t imagine how this was going to work out. So I had to keep watching.

It started just as I was getting ready to leave after an hour of walking around the park on a beautiful Florida-winter morning and spotted the anhinga rising from the deep with a fresh catch.

There was some maneuvering and the anhinga dropped the fish once or twice.

It worked to get the fish into the right position for what was to come.

It’s going to figure out that this fish is too big to swallow, I thought.

It can’t possibly.

How is this happening?

What??

I am learning something about anhinga throats right now.

Geez, there’s a whole fish in that bird’s neck!

The fattened bird toddled off to the edge of the pond and sipped some water…

…then slid away, well fed.

I believe this is the same bird, a bit earlier in my walk. It’s a female or immature male, by the color of the neck. Males’ necks are black.

A warbler, a dove and a falcon at Hawk’s Bluff

Palm Warbler perched on a log, yesterday morning on the Hawk’s Bluff trail in Savannas Preserve State Park.

Yellow under the tail and constant tail-wagging help ID this bird. It is not skittish and will pose for pictures.

Hawk’s Bluff trail is a mile-long loop. Much of it passes through scrub habitat on the Florida Coastal Ridge.

From the higher parts of the ridge, you can see down to the wetlands and Lake Eden to the west.

Sandhill Wireweed is a deciduous shrub that is blooming now. The flowers are feathery and pretty among the cacti, sand and fallen trees.

Sandhill Wireweed is endemic to Florida and found nowhere else in the world. It grows in sandhills, scrub and dunes.

I spotted a couple of Common Ground-Doves. This one was closer to me.

They are much smaller than Mourning Doves or pigeons. They nest and forage on the ground and are good at not being noticed.

A dove the size of a sparrow, the Common Ground-Dove forages in dusty open areas, sometimes overshadowed by the grass clumps it is feeding beneath. Its dusty plumage is easy to overlook until the bird springs into flight with a soft rattling of feathers and a flash of reddish-brown in the wings. These small, attractive doves are common across the southernmost parts of the U.S. from California to Florida.

Reindeer or deer moss lichen likes this habitat too.

Looking closer, it was two members of the Cladonia family – Jester lichen (Cladonia leporina) on the left and Evans’ deer moss (Cladonai evansii) on the right.

Lichens, which are fungi and algae living in symbiosis, do not have roots and get all their nutrients from the air. They only grow where the air quality is good. That’s good to know!

I think this is some type of dayflower in the spiderwort family.

It wasn’t a very birdy day for me, but I did get a few shots of this American Kestrel. There was a high haze that gives this photos a weird sky backdrop.

These petite falcons are here all winter.

This one is a male, as it is “rusty above with slate-blue wings and two black slashes on the face.”

I also spotted this fine specimen of Canis lupus familiaris. She dogged me on the trail. Ruby is the younger of my two German Shepherds.

Look, up in the sky!

ro·se·ate (rō′zē-ĭt, -āt′)
adj.

  1. Rose-colored: the roseate glow of dawn.
  2. Cheerful or bright; optimistic: a roseate outlook.
    [From Latin roseus, rosy, from rosa, rose.]
    ro′se·ate·ly adv.
    American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.

spoon•bill (ˈspunˌbɪl) n.

  1. any of several large wading birds having a long, flat bill with a spoonlike tip.
  2. any of various other birds having a similar bill, as the shoveler.
    Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, © 2010

A bird true to its name and the semi-secret side door into the Savannas

Pine Warbler on a pine tree.

There is a dirt pullout on the east side of Green River Parkway at the Martin/ St. Lucie county line with room for 5 or 6 cars to park. It is right here: LINK to Google map. Most people park there to go for a walk or bike ride on the paved walkway that runs for a few miles along the parkway. But it’s also right near a “secret back way” into the Savannas.

Look carefully after crossing the walkway bridge over the drainage ditch and you will find a gated entrance to a sometimes-overgrown trail that leads to other little-used trails in the southern (Jensen Beach) section of Savannas Preserve State Park. (That section is more easily accessed from Jensen Beach Boulevard, which I recommend for first time visitors or those who want tidier trails.)

You may or may not want to take these trails less traveled, depending on the time of year and your exploring mood. Squish, squish. My progress was slow and careful, but that was fine since I was trying to sneak up on birds.

Pro tip: when you stop and stand still, first look down to make sure you are not standing in an ant mound or close to a snake. Then look around and up.

I was there a few bright December mornings ago and I found some birds like this Red-bellied Woodpecker feasting on holly berries.

Woodpeckers help “plant” holly bushes by spreading the seeds in their droppings. That’s one way to deck the halls.

My trail that morning was next to a wetland. I tuned in to the sounds around me and felt the warmth of the sun in the cool fresh air. This is medicine.

Wild things were near. I’ve always loved the feeling of being surrounded by secret life. What we perceive of it is the tip of the iceberg. See my About page for that poem I love, “Sojourns in the Parallel World.”

I tracked a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher for a while, as he went hunting for small insects and spiders. Catching gnats, another well-named bird.

A tiny, long-tailed bird of broadleaf forests and scrublands, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher makes itself known by its soft but insistent calls and its constant motion. It hops and sidles in dense outer foliage, foraging for insects and spiders. As it moves, this steely blue-gray bird conspicuously flicks its white-edged tail from side to side, scaring up insects and chasing after them.

The white eye ring is helpful in identifying these little gray birds, along with the busy tail motion.

Another Pine Warbler in a pine tree, where they like to be.

A bird true to its name, the Pine Warbler is common in many eastern pine forests and is rarely seen away from pines. These yellowish warblers are hard to spot as they move along high branches to prod clumps of needles with their sturdy bills.

I notice these birds much more in winter, because there are many more of them … as the northern Pine Warblers migrate south and join the resident Pine Warblers in larger foraging flocks. Favorite food? Pine seeds!

I think the most important quality in a birdwatcher is a willingness to stand quietly and see what comes. Our everyday lives obscure a truth about existence – that at the heart of everything there lies a stillness and a light.
― Lynn Thomson

Wetlands in early dry season

I stopped by “Green River” to see what I could see. It’s always easy to see a tall white bird like a Great Egret.

As wet season ends and dry season begins, the water is high right now at this water management area off Green River Parkway in Jensen Beach, near the Martin/ St. Lucie County line.

A Great Egret’s wingspan is between 52 and 67 inches. So, up to 5 and half feet from tip to tip.

Win at bird trivia!… The bird with the longest wingspan is the Wandering Albatross, Diomedea exulans, at 11 feet, 11 inches.

A Common Gallinule (heading left) and an American Coot.

Nice side by side comparison as they passed each other among the lily pads. Both species are in the Rallidae family along with rails, soras, crakes, moorhens and swamphens.

I see gallinules at Green River all year but coots only rarely and only in winter.

The waterborne American Coot is one good reminder that not everything that floats is a duck.

“Not everything that floats is a duck.” Nice. Pithy. Reminds me of Tolkien’s Aragorn: “Not all those who wander are lost.”

This pond cypress was a sort of weird Florida Christmas tree with a mirror skirt of water. It’s all so pretty with the lower angle of sunlight as we approach the winter solstice.

Look, a present under the tree… a Common Gallinule.

And this Anhinga was a pretty ornament.