New bird: escaped swamphens thrive in Florida wetlands

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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.

Yesterday I joined members of Audubon of Martin County for a birding adventure at Lakeside Ranch Stormwater Treatment Area, near Lake Okeechobee, from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. It was partly cloudy with temperatures in the mid-70s, and nice to be outside in slightly cooler and less humid temperatures. The rainy season can end now, thank you.

Here is our eBird checklist, compiled entirely by other members of our party even though my name is on it. I am too much of a newbie to be confident about my sightings. But this trip, led by the VP of our local Audubon chapter, really helped me.

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Isn’t this strange and beautiful bird? There are various kinds of swamphens all over the world, members of the wetland-loving Rallidae family of rails, crakes, coots and gallinules, but the population in Florida is nonnative… like a lot of other animal species here. We didn’t see any feral hogs yesterday but there are so many in that STA that they regularly cull the population.

We were watching these swamphens and some other native gallinules and one more-experienced member of our party, trying to remember what they are officially called, termed them “the bad purple invasive ones.” A beginning birder on the trip, who was born in Spain, said to me later, “Well, I’m invasive too. If it lives here now, I think it’s a Florida bird.”

I was reading about our little swamp dinosaur yesterday afternoon, after reviewing my photos and wanting to know more about several species. The tale of Florida’s Purple Swamphens, now Gray-headed Swamphens, is pretty interesting.

University of Florida: Florida’s Introduced Birds: Purple Swamphen

The widespread destruction caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 resulted in the accidental release of many species of non-native wildlife in Florida, including Purple Swamphens. It is believed that most of the individuals found in Florida escaped from bird keepers in the Pembroke Pines area as a result of the hurricane; however 6–8 individuals also escaped from the Miami Metro Zoo around the same time. Purple Swamphens were first documented living in the wild in Florida in 1996, and by 1999 the population in Pembroke Pines had grown to at least 134 birds. Purple Swamphens were first reported in the Everglades Water Conservation Area in 2006.

ABA: Introducing the Purple Swamphen

Gallinules on steroids. That’s how ABA Checklist Committee Chairman Bill Party thinks of Purple Swamphens. Pranty, an expert on exotic bird populations in the ABA area, is a prominent advocate for thinking and birding beyond a simple tick on a checklist. Thanks to the diligent research of Pranty and his colleagues, the Purple Swamphen is now countable on ABA lists. In this article, we are introduced to the strange, troubling, and fascinating story of the Purple Swamphen. It is a story that is still unfolding, and we hope that birders will contribute additional knowledge and understanding to the matter.

Bird of North America: Gray-headed Swamphen

A large, colorful rail with dark purple to blue colors and a large red bill and frontal shield, the Gray-headed Swamphen is a recent addition to the avifauna of North America due to the establishment of a nonnative population in southeastern Florida. Although recently known as the Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio), the taxonomy of this species is complex and various taxonomic bodies now spilt the P. porphyrio complex into 6 species, including the Gray-headed Swamphen (P. poliocephalus).

The native range of the Gray-headed Swamphen extends from the Middle East through India and southern Asia to northern Thailand. In 1996, this swamphen was discovered in Florida at Pembroke Pines in Broward County, the result of unintended releases from one or two private collections nearby. The following decade saw the Gray-headed Swamphen expand its range within Southeast Florida, including the Everglades, the Everglades Agricultural Area, and Lake Okeechobee, with dispersers found outside this region. From October 2006 through December 2008, an eradication program by state agencies removed 3,187 swamphens. However, the eradication campaign was deemed a failure at reducing the distribution and abundance of swamphens, and was discontinued. Since then, the Gray-headed Swamphen has continued to increase in the region and the species is now a common sight in stormwater treatment areas, water conservation areas, agricultural areas, and constructed wetlands in urban and suburban Southeast Florida.

The Gray-headed formerly-known-as-Purple Swamphen is “Florida” bird #65 for me. I have now surpassed my New Hampshire “official” blogged count. I’m trying to naturalize in my new home.

Red-bellied woodpecker

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Two on a tree.

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There are plenty of Red-bellied Woodpeckers in our neighborhood. It was the same in New Hampshire. Year round residents in both places.

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They are noisy birds.

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I guess they don’t have to sneak up on their food.

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I read somewhere that besides finding food in holes in trees, they sometimes hide their food there too. And of course they make a lot of the holes too.

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Woodpecker pantry!

What’s up, buttercup?

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Does this bird like butter, or what?

Only one photo was in focus, but I’m happy to I got it. Bagged that new bird!

This is a Yellow-throated Warbler, the internet tells me. It was a few blocks away from my home in Sewall’s Point yesterday morning when I went for a walk with my bird camera.

Audubon.org

A clear-voiced singer in the treetops in southern woodlands. Yellow-throated Warblers return very early in spring to the pine woods and cypress swamps, where they may be seen foraging rather deliberately along branches high in the trees. In the Midwest, they are typically found in riverside groves of sycamores. During the winter in Florida and other tropical areas, they are commonly seen creeping about in the crowns of palms, probing among the fronds with their long bills.

They eat a variety of insects including mosquitoes, YAY.

That’s Florida bird #64 for me! I am now tied with the number I saw, photographed, identified and blogged about in New Hampshire… in my amateur endeavor to connect with and enjoy the natural world through birds.

Parking lot bird

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What’s up, egret?

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Yesterday we looked for birds in a nature preserve and I didn’t get any pictures of any birds. Then when we stopped at Home Depot to get mulch there was a Cattle Egret walking around in the parking lot.

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Seeing a largish white bird walking around very close to people is still new to me, but Cattle Egrets seem pretty comfortable with it.

One day I saw one standing next to a cashier inside the garden center at the Stuart Lowes. Another time I watched one eat a lizard right in front of the doors of the Hutchinson Island Publix grocery store, with people walking around it.

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The short, thick-necked Cattle Egret spends most of its time in fields rather than streams. It forages at the feet of grazing cattle, head bobbing with each step, or rides on their backs to pick at ticks. This stocky white heron has yellow plumes on its head and neck during breeding season.

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Cool facts

  • Cattle Egrets are native to Africa but somehow reached northeastern South America in 1877. They continued to spread, arriving in the United States in 1941 and nesting there by 1953. In the next 50 years they became one of the most abundant of the North American herons, showing up as far north as Alaska and Newfoundland.
  • Cattle Egrets follow large animals or machines and eat invertebrates stirred up from the ground. They will fly toward smoke from long distances away, to catch insects fleeing a fire.
  • The Cattle Egret has a broad and flexible diet that occasionally includes other birds. In the Dry Tortugas off the coast of Florida, migrating Cattle Egrets have been seen hunting migrating warblers.
  • Cattle Egrets have many names around the world, usually referencing the grazing animals they team up with to forage. In various languages they are known as cow cranes, cow herons, cow birds, elephant birds, rhinoceros egrets, and hippopotamus egrets.

Rock on, dove

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Behold the humble pigeon, aka rock pigeon or rock dove, Columba livia.

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They like to hang out with friends and family on the fishing pier at Indian RiverSide Park. Nice spot with beautiful views of the Indian River Lagoon.

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Eye-catching iridescence.

Cool facts about “Rock Pigeons” from Cornell Lab of Ornithology…

  • Pigeons can find their way home, even if released from a distant location blindfolded. They can navigate by sensing the earth’s magnetic fields, and perhaps also by using sound and smell. They can also use cues based on the position of the sun.

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  • Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphics suggest that pigeons were domesticated more than 5,000 years ago. The birds have such a long history with humans that it’s impossible to tell where the species’ original range was.

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  • Rock Pigeons carried messages for the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I and II, saving lives and providing vital strategic information.

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  • Charles Darwin kept pigeons for many years after returning from his five-year voyage on the Beagle. His observations on the great variety of pigeon breeds, and the huge differences found between captive breeds and wild pigeons, helped him formulate some aspects of his theory of evolution.

Before and after

 

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Little Blue Heron, juvenile. Yesterday at Indian RiverSide Park in Jensen Beach.

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Little Blue Heron, adult. Yesterday at Indian RiverSide Park in Jensen Beach.

Shorebirds returning

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Ruddy Turnstone rests out of the wind in a footprint.

A shorebird that looks almost like a calico cat, the Ruddy Turnstone’s orange legs and uniquely patterned black-and-white head and chest make them easy to pick out of a crowd. These long-distance migrants breed in the arctic tundra, but spend the off seasons on rocky shorelines and sandy beaches on both North American coasts (as well as South America, Eurasia, Africa, and Australia).

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Willets are coming back south too.

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The willet (Tringa semipalmata), formerly in the monotypic genus Catoptrophorus as Catoptrophorus semipalmatusis a large shorebird in the sandpiper family. It is a relatively large and robust member sandpiper, and is the largest of the species called “shanks” in the genus Tringa.

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These rocks are part of the Anastasia geological formation. They are quite striking near the House of Refuge on Hutchinson Island.

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Also taking a break from feeding, a Sanderling.

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The beach, looking north. We stopped by yesterday in the late afternoon to see if there were any more falcons coming through. There were not.

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But this little Sanderling landed right next to me and let me take a few photos. Pretty plumage. Sweet little birds.

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The Sanderling’s black legs blur as it runs back and forth on the beach, picking or probing for tiny prey in the wet sand left by receding waves. Sanderlings are medium-sized “peep” sandpipers recognizable by their pale nonbreeding plumage, black legs and bill, and obsessive wave-chasing habits. Learn this species, and you’ll have an aid in sorting out less common shorebirds. These extreme long-distance migrants breed only on High Arctic tundra, but during the winter they live on most of the sandy beaches of the world.

Welcome back to your “winter” home!

Falcon migration

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Peregrine falcons were migrating south along the beach a couple of days ago.

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I saw a post on the Audubon of Martin County Facebook page about a pair of birders counting 40 or 50 of them on the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 4 near the House of Refuge. I was heading out to Hutchinson Island anyway in the early afternoon so I stopped by for 10 or 15 minutes.

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One after another, peregrine falcons were coming along the beach. Flap, flap, flap, glide. They were faced into the fierce onshore wind, both battling and using the gusts.

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Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

Powerful and fast-flying, the Peregrine Falcon hunts medium-sized birds, dropping down on them from high above in a spectacular stoop. They were virtually eradicated from eastern North America by pesticide poisoning in the middle 20th century. After significant recovery efforts, Peregrine Falcons have made an incredible rebound and are now regularly seen in many large cities and coastal areas.

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Also saw a few Frigatebirds. There have been more around lately, with our easterly winds.

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Such a distinctive shape.

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Next stop was a little further north on the island to Florida Oceanographic Society where I joined a workshop on Seagrass Collecting.

The F.O.S.T.E.R. program relies on community-based restoration efforts to restore seagrass habitat. With a growing volunteer base, F.O.S.T.E.R. restores seagrass by collecting and growing seagrass fragments in nurseries, constructing seagrass planting units, and transplanting living seagrass into the estuary.

We headed out to Stuart Beach to collect, in strong winds.

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We saw more falcons while we were there. Weirdly exciting!

Audubon.org:

One of the world’s fastest birds; in power-diving from great heights to strike prey, the Peregrine may possibly reach 200 miles per hour. Regarded by falconers and biologists alike as one of the noblest and most spectacular of all birds of prey.

A confusing white wading bird

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Yesterday this white bird was down the road at the retention pond/ swale that fills up when it rains a lot, and the rainy season is still going strong.

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A little Great Egret? No, it was too small and the bill and legs were the wrong color. I think it’s a juvenile Little Blue Heron that will grow up to be a purply indigo blue.

Juveniles are entirely white, except for vague dusky tips to the outer primaries. Immatures molting into adult plumage are a patchwork of white and blue.

But apparently it’s easy to confuse juvenile LBHs with juvenile Snowy Egrets: link. Argh, birding is so hard!

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The bird was wary of me and my wolfy dog. We didn’t stay long.

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The temporary pond at the end of our street. The bird was a-way over there.

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In the narrow “canals” along the main road, there were many, many tadpoles!

Addendum 10/6/17: I got ID help on a Facebook page, Hey, ABA… What’s this bird? The consensus is that it is a juvenile Little Blue Heron.

Waiting for birds

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I tried to get a bird or two today but it was so windy all I got was this tiny dragonfly down in the grass at my feet. It’s the size of a small sewing needle and its wings are apparently invisible to human eyes (or cameras). But just like a dragonfly it was boldly checking me out with its big googly eyes as I sat in a beach chair in the backyard waiting for birds.