Thursday, January 27, 2011

Upon Further Review - The Lesser Scaup?

As my friend and I approached the wetland, we could see activity near the water, mostly obscured by a perimeter of tall cattails. As we ascended an artificial rocky berm that formed the bounds of this human made wetland we could see an armada of floating ducks and we both responded with an excited “scaups!” and then danced around as if we had just scored a touchdown.

Shouting while birding is not recommended but neither of us had seen a Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis), so it was hard to contain our excitement. There were around 400 of the birds paddling the small 20-acre wetland.
For those of us that maintain a “Life List” of bird species we have seen, checking one off is a big deal. For some it’s enough to simply see a bird fly over head but I like to watch and observe them, photograph them as much as possible. In doing so I notice different behaviors, color patterns and habitats and I have a record of when I took the picture. I often forget from season to season.

We left the marsh and the raft of birds, pleased that we had spotted not only a new species for the life list but an abundance of them.

When I returned to the car something didn’t seem right. Scaups are found in Broward County, Florida from December through February. Males are black and white with a blue beak – check. Size of a Mallard – Check. I looked at the photos on the Audubon Guides Bird app. Uh-oh. Scaups are white and gray across the back. Time out. I scrolled down to similar species. We need a booth review. I began pouring over the dozens of pictures I had taken of the “scaups” and noticed these had a white ring on the bill and when the neck is outstretched has a burgundy ring around the neck.

Upon further review – the call is over turned – We have a Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris)! A new species for my life list. Score!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Flying With Scissors The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

There’s a great book called “100 Birds and How They Got Their Names.” I don’t need it today. Although I’ve never seen the bird perched before me, I know exactly what it is and why it’s called a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus).

At the end of a long day touring the Western Everglades, I’m driving a van of tourists back to Fort Myers. My tour narration has ended and most are asleep until I shout “Scissor-tailed Flycatcher!”, make an expert U-turn on a desolate road and park under the telephone wire the bird is perched upon. I’m excited. The guests are excited, but they’re not sure why yet. The salmon-bellied bird with a white-head and long tail feathers looks down at us with ambivalence. He’s perched on a wire just like they are known to do.

Scissor-tails spend most of their year in Texas, Oklahoma (where they’re the state bird) and other plain states, but during the summer most migrate south to Panama. A few end up in Florida and about one hundred were spotted in 2010.

The scissor-shaped tail gives them the ability to make acrobatic maneuvers in flight as they seek out airborne insects. They will go to the ground for grasshoppers and other terrestrial arthropods but this one does an air show for us, grabs a meal and perches on the next wire.

During courtship they can do reverse summersaults and other enticing displays for the female’s approval. Long ago the extended tail feathers may have helped birds of the same species recognize their own, but these days the scissor-shape is a sign of genetic fitness and thus used for mate selection.

One of the tourists is snapping picture after picture and turns to me and says “If the guide is taking pictures, I better take pictures too!”

And she should. It’s an amazing bird.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

What's Your Wingspan? - The American White Pelican

As our boat rounded a sandbar in the 10,000 islands portion of the Everglades, I noticed a flock of twenty five, massive American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) resting and preening their feathers on an ephemeral tidal island. As the boat navigated around the backside, a flock of Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) came into view along the waters edge and the contrast in size between the birds was stunning. I considered for a moment that this was a different, smaller species of cormorant, but the white pelicans are just that big.

The Double-crested Cormorant is not a small bird. With a wing-span over 50 inches and weighing over five pounds, the heavy-bodied diving bird is a conspicuous sight in the water, on power lines and in flight. When standing next to the American White Pelican, they look tiny.

The American White Pelican is the Airbus of birds. They can weigh up to twenty pounds and have a wingspan over nine feet wide. In Florida there is no bigger bird. Consider your “wingspan” is roughly your height. Mine would be five feet nine inches. I’m only nine inches taller than a White Pelican.

Long, broad wings allow the pelicans to reduce energy use by taking advantage of thermal updrafts and wave lift. As warm air rises, it creates a column of warm air that pelicans and other soaring birds can use to their advantage and rise to higher heights. Wind pushed up and over waves also provides a lift for many birds gliding over water.

Most of the White Pelicans use their wingspan to their advantage as they migrate south from the northern plains and eastern Rockies in the US and Canada. Many spend the winter here in Florida where they work in teams, paddling on the surface and steering fish into shallow water where they can scoop them up with their pouched beak. It’s an entirely different strategy then that of the Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) who dive from the air into the water to capture their prey.
Above me, a flock of fifty or more White Pelicans soars above the Everglades. I envy their view. If only I had a wider wingspan.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Day Shift - The Tree Swallow

There’s a fine line between “Wow! that’s cool!” and “Run for your lives!”

While I couldn’t be a bigger bat enthusiast and have spelunked, paddled and hiked to the remotest places in the continental United States to see swarms of bats, I recognize that there are still some out there that are squeamish about the night flyers. For some, the sight of thousands of bats flying overhead might provide the inspiration for nightmares for weeks. In fact I still recall my little sisters paddling in circles at dusk on a lake in upstate New York. Bats harmlessly swarmed about their heads. The nocturnal navigators sought the insects that hovered over the sisters’ heads and the poor creatures had the added obstacles of canoe paddles waving through the night sky and young girls screaming. I love that memory.

The swarm of creatures above me on this cold December day cascaded through unseen air currents and undulated and burst in all directions like a daytime Forth of July spectacle. By my estimation there were over 10,000 of them and if they had purpose I could not discern it. Shifted to daylight hours and set on a cold Florida day, this loose formation of Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) strikes fear in few. They serve a similar purpose in the grand scheme of things. They feed on aerial insects as bats do, but you can see them in the sunlight. They have no teeth or leathery wings and thus do not suffer the prejudices of their nocturnal mammalian counterparts.

As benign as they may seem, it is absolutely imperative to keep your mouth shut during such air shows. It’s not that speaking would frighten a flock of thousands. They make enough peeps, chirps and squawks to rival an airboat. It’s the “precipitation” that rains down on me on this cloudless day.

I could care less. It’s worth it to see such a display. I only wish my sisters were here to see it as well.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010 - The Year in Scat

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

The same can be said for poop in a sense. Call it scat, droppings, excrement, dung, feces, manure, guano. It’s still poop. Calling it sweet might be a stretch.

I’m fascinated by animal scat. Absent of the animal, it tells us who passed by, when they passed by and what they ate. It comes in many telling shapes and sizes and sometimes it’s downright artistic. Here are my favorites in descending order.

10) The armadillo is my holy grail of scat – I know they poop. I’ve just never found any.

9) Most of the time I can make an educated guess. Sometimes it remains a mystery. This large pile was found just north of the Everglades. Coarse black hairs suggest a feral pig was eaten. I’m thinking Florida Panther.

8) Scat names can be species specific. If it came from a bat it’s called guano. In most parts of North America it’s easy to differentiate from rodent droppings of the same size. Bats eat insects with chitinous exoskeletons which do not get completely digested when passed in droppings. Under a bright flashlight the insect pieces sparkle.

7) American Black Bears range all throughout North America and as omnivores, have the luxury of feasting on whatever is on the outdoor buffet. A fresh crop of acorns from the Florida oaks have helped fatten up the bears for winter. A large pile of poop adorned with bits of acorn is the tell tail sign.

6) Turkeys enjoy a wide range of foods as well, including acorns and insects. This lovely arrangement of comma shaped droppings has evidence of an abundance of plant matter.

5) Domestic and wild cats have the good grace to cover up their scats with varying results. This bobcat scrapped some grass together to cover a bone and fur amalgam of poop.

4) Manatees are herbivores that feed on up to 100 lbs of vegetation a day. They’re gassy and they poop a lot. Manatees are rare and endangered and the sea is their toilet bowl. Finding a Manatee scat is a treasure.

3) Insects poop too as evidenced by the droppings from this juvenile Eastern Lubber grasshopper.

2) I believe Shakespeare was referring to otter poop when he noted “all that glitters is not gold”. Otters are from the mustelid family and have droppings that range from sweet smelling to rotten fish. They feast primarily on fish and their scat is uniquely filled with sparkling, undigested fish scales.

1) What do you get when you mix American Beauty Berry with a Raccoon? Art. You’re welcome. Happy New Year.