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!

Stilts and limpkins

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We took a drive all the way around Lake Okeechobee yesterday. On one little walk we spotted this wild animal!

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Just kidding. It’s Radar, our goofy German Shepherd.

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On another stop we spotted the aptly named “Stilt” bird… the Black-necked Stilt.

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We were at the Harney Pond Canal Recreation area on the west side of the lake, near the little town of Lakeport.

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There is a strange rickety bridge/ boardwalk over to an island.

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Nice views of what, from this Army Corps of Engineers map, appears to be Fisheating Bay.

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Incoming stilt.

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On the little island is another boardwalk with a view, going up to a little observation spot. Hundreds of dragonflies everywhere!

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Here are a few.

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It was very windy, with an east wind, and some dragonflies were clinging to branches, windblown.

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Looking back at the recreation area across the bridge.

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Looking out into the bay and marshes.

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Hey, what’s that bird? It’s new to me. I searched the internet later and discovered it’s a Limpkin!

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission:

The limpkin is a long-legged species of waterbird that has dark brown feathers with streaks of white on the head and neck and absent on the rest of the body.  Limpkins can grow up to 28 inches (71.1 centimeters) long, with a 42 inch (106.7 centimeters) wingspan, and weigh up to 46 ounces (1,304 grams) (The Cornell Lab of Ornithology 2011).  White blotches and triangular marks can be found on the neck and upper body.  The key physical feature of the limpkin is their down-curved bill, which is used to feed on their primary prey, apple snails.

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Thirsty Turkey Vulture.

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Black Vulture soaring over us.

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Limpkins and maybe some kind of gallinule?

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A nice watery, marshy spot.

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View from the rickety bridge.

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Black-necked Stilt.

A striking black-and-white bird with very long, thin red legs, the Black-necked Stilt is found along the edges of shallow water in open country.

And…

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

A visit to the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center

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Ardea alba, the Great Egret, on the roof of an aviary for injured birds at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center in Tavernier, Florida.

I visited last Friday afternoon, during a three-and-a-half day trip to the Sunshine State. Here is a Flickr photo album of the bird center.

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Beautiful bird.

There were 4 or 5 Broad-winged Hawks, mostly with wing injuries. One was missing an eye.

A boardwalk led visitors among the different enclosures. Turkey vultures and hawks were segregated with their own kind, but the shorebirds were all together in several large enclosures.

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Sad Turkey Vulture.

The enclosures were large and airy (outdoors) and very clean. This place seems well-run and well-cared for. The only other person I saw while I was there, besides one staff person, was a man with one leg, another visitor.

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The path among the aviaries ends at the Florida Bay, where I sat on a bench among a bunch of Brown Pelicans and watched White ibises dipping their beaks into the mud in the mangroves.

A sanctuary for healthy as well as injured birds, it seems.

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Big yellow eyes. This Great Horned Owl is one of the permanent residents due to injuries.

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Three cheers for Bird Ladies, especially this one.

The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center (The Center) is a not for profit 501(c) 3 conservation organization dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of native and migratory wild birds that have been harmed or displaced, to providing or locating a humane shelter for those birds that cannot be released, and to educating the public toward the importance of coexistence with all wild bird species.

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Impractical but pretty feathers, grown by the Great Egret in breeding season. This bird kept appearing just ahead of me during my hour long visit, posing it almost seemed.

The Great Egret is the symbol of the National Audubon Society, one of the oldest environmental organizations in North America. Audubon was founded to protect birds from being killed for their feathers.

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Poof, a small gust of wind and the nuptial plumes were a mess.

The pristinely white Great Egret gets even more dressed up for the breeding season. A patch of skin on its face turns neon green, and long plumes grow from its back. Called aigrettes, those plumes were the bane of egrets in the late nineteenth century, when such adornments were prized for ladies’ hats.

I have more photos from my trip and will make a couple more albums, when I get around to it.

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Great Egret on the roof, with the moon.

More than 95 percent of the Great Egrets in North America were killed for their plumes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Plume-hunting was banned, for the most part, around 1910, and Great Egret populations quickly began to recover.

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