I discovered Alexandria National Cemetery last week. It is one of the 14 original national cemeteries established in 1862.
I walked through and noticed that the headstones were inscribed with names of men from “the North” who died during the Civil War, though Virginia was part of the South. A sign explained that Alexandria was captured and occupied by the Union as soon as war broke out, in order to defend the Potomac River entrance to the nation’s capital at Washington, D.C.
Our Memorial Day commemorations grew out of various Decoration Day traditions that began after the Civil War.
Blue Jay in another part of the cemetery.
This bird was looking young and handsome in blue and gray feathers.
The Gettysburg Address was on an outside wall of the cemetery superintendent’s lodge. President Lincoln gave the speech at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, PA four months after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.
A Starling disassembles a cicada, on a sidewalk in Alexandria, Virginia.
It’s a big year for bugs.
Cicadas crawl about forests all over the world, and most have annual life cycles. But periodical cicadas, which don’t exist anywhere else on Earth but the eastern United States, spend far more time underground before emerging in broods to mate either every 13 years or every 17 years. A different cicada brood emerges most years, but these groups vary greatly in size and location. This year will be special: The so-called Brood X is among the largest and densest. The insects will appear by the billions in three distinct hotspots that cross parts of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, and Tennessee.
House Sparrows were munching cicadas too.
Seems like a big bug for a small bird, but cicadas are slow and defenseless. Though perhaps their defenses are in their periodically large numbers.
Birds usually help keep bug populations in check, and the cicada influx will be a bonanza for a number of medium- or larger-sized birds that are big enough to dine on the two-inch insects. But because millions of cicadas emerge on a single acre of forest during big brood years, even the keenest birds hardly put a dent in the population.
I am visiting my eldest daughter Anna who moved to the DC area with her husband a year ago during the stress, masking and lockdown restrictions of Covid. Regarding meeting new people and enjoying the culture and variety of city life, she said, “I might as well be living on the moon.”
Earlier this spring, Anna discovered a woodland area along a stream a few blocks from her apartment. It connects to a small park with a paved path looping under trees and through the grassy flood plain. She goes there many evenings after a long day of working from home and before doing homework for her online classes. She has started to learn the birds.
A Great Blue Heron is a regular visitor to the stream.
Yesterday in the early evening, Anna logged her first eBird checklist there. A new birdwatcher has fledged!
These Mallards made the list, as did one Mourning Dove, two Blue Jays pestering three Crows (Fish or American, we weren’t sure), a couple of Carolina Chickadees in a willow tree, four European Starlings strutting around on the park lawns, two madly-singing Gray Catbirds, three Northern Cardinals, and a couple of House Sparrows.
She also learned that a pair of binoculars plus intent staring up into the tree canopy or down into a meadow can be a conversation starter with other nature lovers, dog walkers and curious passersby. Welcome back to Earth from the Moon, dear daughter.
You can know a Sandwich Tern by the yellow tip on its bill, as though it’s been dipped into a mustard jar. Mustard. Sandwich. Get it?
I’ve been lazy about learning my terns. So I especially tried to see terns last Saturday (a week ago) for birding’s Global Big Day.
I did a couple of eBird checklists, first along a favorite stretch of beach north of the House of Refuge in the morning, then north of Fort Pierce at Avalon State Park in the afternoon.
I contributed two checklists to the amazing world total. Nice to be a part of the big day, but it reminded me I don’t always enjoy a diligent count of carefully identified birds while also trying to get a few good photos.
Royal terns loafing in the bright afternoon at Avalon.
My husband helped during my afternoon excursion. He had the binoculars and I had the camera and the iPhone eBird app. So I would ask him to count and also check and describe the birds up ahead in that flock on the beach to see if they were a mix of different species or they were all the same.
The Royal Terns were active and plentiful on that stretch of the beach. They are large terns with dagger-like orange bills, black legs and a long, forked tail.
Breeding adults have a full black cap that sometimes looks a bit shaggy and unkempt in a strong breeze. Non-breeding adults look like they have the receding hairline of male pattern baldness.
Forked tail of a Royal Tern with a full black cap.
Caspian Terns are the other large terns along Florida beaches. I will try to get a photo and show the differences between the two.
The medium-sized terns around here: Sandwich. Breeding birds also have a shaggy crested black cap. Non-breeding birds have a partial black crown, as shown above.
I followed this Ruddy Turnstone with my camera for a few minutes this afternoon out on the rocky shoreline near the House of Refuge on Hutchinson Island, in Stuart.
This bird is “wearing” its more colorful breeding plumage. See the difference between breeding and non-breeding feathers HERE.
Ruddy Turnstones breed in the arctic tundra. The rest of the year they are along the coasts in the Americas and Eurasia, sometimes very far south. Some birds fly 6,500 miles between breeding and non-breeding grounds.
This is an oddly rocky spot along the Florida Atlantic coast. The turnstone seems to fit right in, though these “stones” are a bit too big for this bird to “turn” them over to look for bugs and crustaceans.
Sometimes I come here just to look out at the ocean. The water is a beautiful color from our raised, rocky vantage point.
Ruddy Turnstones are long-distance migrants with a worldwide distribution. They’re found in at least five different populations on both North American coasts as well as in South America, Eurasia, Africa, and Australia. All North American populations breed in the Arctic and travel and winter in large flocks that may include other shorebirds
Blue is non-breeding and migration; yellow is the breeding grounds of the Ruddy Turnstone. Pretty impressive migration. Map from the American Bird Conservancy.
These medium-sized sandpipers are a common visitor to our shores, and a good bird to know.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
…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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!