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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Two extraordinary ducks: one Hooded; the other Ringed

[Naples, FL. December 2012]

One look at this extravagant duck and it becomes clear that it is unsurpassed:

And indeed the Hooded Merganser is unique in its looks (the expandable crest, for one, is irresistible); it is also uniquely North American; and, moreover, it is the smallest merganser on the continent.

Strongly sexually dimorphic, the female [left] is a drab, brown and grey version of the male. Like other mergansers, the Hooded has a serrated bill and prefers to dive for food.

Hooded Merganser seen in Naples, FL.

A cavity nester, Hooded Merganser babies tumble down to the ground within 24 hours of hatching and follow their mother to the nearest lake.

While it is no mystery why this attractive merganser should deserve the epithet "Hooded", perhaps more of a mystery is spotting the ring on this duck:

If you can see the ring on the bill of this duck, you would be forgiven for calling this the ring-billed duck. However, a closer look will reveal a brown ring around the necks of both the male (right) as well as the female (left). This faint, hard to see, and hardly distinctive feature explains why this duck is known as the ring-necked duck. Evidently, the neck ring is much more visible on dead specimens that were examined by Edward Donovan in 1809 when he named the species.

The male ring-necked duck is related to the tufted duck of Eurasia to which it bears a strong resemblance.

A popular target in the hunting season, about half a million of these birds are shot annually in the US; Florida alone accounts for 92,000 kills as reported by the US Fish and Wildlife Service's "Harvest Information Program" publications available at: FWS Publications. These publications also detail how many geese, snipe, woodcock, rails and other birds are "taken" as part of the "responsible hunting" that US FWS promotes as part of their "bird management" initiatives.

Florida is a preferred destination for over-wintering waterfowl. And, assuming ducks such as the Hooded Merganser and the Ring-Necked Duck can get past those looking to "harvest" their lives along their migration, the many bodies of water in Southwest Florida will continue to offer refuge to these charismatic ducks.

Friday, December 28, 2012

A US (near) Endemic: Brown-headed Nuthatch

The brown-headed nuthatch could be a US endemic -- "could be" because other than a small population on the Grand Bahama, it is not found in any other country. And, some authorities consider the Bahamian bird a separate species in which case it is an endemic already. Regardless, this is a very special bird -- details to follow:

Firstly, the brown-headed nuthatch is one the smallest nuthatches in the world; a distinction it shares in the US with the appropriately named pygmy nuthatch at about 4" in length.

This small dynamo was observed at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. This nuthatch is fairly confiding and will approach the observer quite closely and its call is distinctive -- resembling a squeaky toy.

The nuthatch does have a brown head [unlike some bird names that were apparently chosen by the colorblind] and a white patch on the nape of the neck. The upperparts are a delicate grey while the belly and throat are white.

Secondly, the brown-headed nuthatch uses "technology" while feeding. It is one of those rare birds that is known to use a "tool" (a piece of bark) while extricating insects.

Like all nuthatches, it is adept at vertical travel up and down tree trunks.

Another characteristic of the nuthatch is that they are frequently seen looking up as they travel down as in the pose above. All in all, a very special (and cute) bird.

The next denizen of Corkscrew Swamp is a loud, indeed, very loud wren:

The Carolina Wren has lungs and vocal chords that would put most other birds to shame -- it is the loudest bird in the Swamp.

Like other wrens, it keeps its tail cocked while it rummages for food close to the ground. Seen from the back, its white eye-stripe and rich cinnamon hues are clearly visible.

Moving on to the final bird in this post -- this is a creature that is common but rarely seen. Always hidden in some thicket, it can, however, be heard calling in the mornings.

The brown thrasher is the only thrasher found in the Eastern US. It is an excellent mimic with over a thousand entries in its songbook.

At Corkscrew, look for this shy bird in the Parking Lot; especially, left off the main entrance.

The other place to look for Brown Thrasher is immediately to the opposite end of where the strollers/wheelchairs are parked as you enter the boardwalk. It is almost impossible to get an unobstructed shot of this elusive species.

Corkscrew Swamp affords a variety of habitat that makes for engaging birding at any season as these 3 species can confidently attest.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Warbler not of the Prairie

Good news is that the Prairie Warbler can be found in Florida year round; bad news is, if you go looking for it in the prairie, you will never find it. The poorly named Prairie Warbler is an inhabitant of scrub, forest, and mangrove habitat in the Southeast and Southcentral US.

Prairie warbler seen at Corkscrew Swamp.

An attractive warbler, the Prairie Warbler is known to use two different songs suitable for different occasions: one to defend territory; the other for romantic purposes.

At Corkscrew, look for this warbler at the edge of the Swamp; not in the interior.

Seen in the morning just outside the entrance to Corkscrew Swamp, a flash of yellow distinguished this warbler from the more numerous yellow-rumped's.

The other warbler sighted at the Swamp is much less flamboyant:

A ground nester, the shape of the nest gives this warbler its name.
Seen in June on territory in Michigan, the Ovenbird is strongly territorial -- checkout an earlier blog post where it was observed in the vicinity of Hooded, Blue-winged, and Mourning warblers: breeding warblers of Port Huron SGA.

Leaving the Sanctuary, there were two additional observations worth a mention:

Three caracara -- 2 just outside the turnoff into Sanctuary Rd; the other across the mine sitting on a fence post.

Farther down Immokalee Rd, a group of wild Osceola Turkey were observed -- catching their plumage in sunlight highlights the iridescence of bronze, green and gold. Good to see these 'gamebirds' making a comeback.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Photo-Essay in Blue-Grey, Black and White

[Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Collier Co., FL, December 2012]

This post purports to be nothing more than a wanton indulgence in the visual imagery of the blue-grey gnatcatcher and the black-and-white warbler. Hued in simple yet powerful colors.

Both species were photographed at Corkscrew Swamp where they are commonly seen in season. As in all my photographs, no flash was used; and therefore, natural lighting conditions render each image in the same way that the subject was observed by the naked eye without the assistance of any artificial lighting.

[1] Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher

This species is gregarious and if you see one, you are bound to see a few more. Their presence often heralds the head of a "wave" of birds: warblers, vireos, even flycatchers.

[2] Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher

The black-and-white warbler is an incredibly challenging subject to photograph -- moving quickly across branches and creeping up and down tree trunks, it rarely pauses to permit accurate focus or composition. But when it does, its monochromatic elegance can be stunning.

[3] Black-and-White Warbler

[4] Black-and-White Warbler

[5] Black-and-White Warbler

[6] Black-and-White Warbler

[7] Black-and-White Warbler

[8] Black-and-White Warbler

[9] Black-and-White Warbler

[10] Black-and-White Warbler

I've often wondered how, in the field, it would be possible to frame a bird against a perfectly dark background that would highlight the subject and not distract from the composition. This shot is the closest I've come: the still waters of the swamp serve to form the perfect backdrop. In this shot, the warbler's hyperactive foraging proves successful and an arachnid is swiftly consumed.

[11] Black-and-White Warbler

#11 is my personal favorite; it shows the warbler in an acrobatic pose, characteristic of the species, in the midst of its foraging routine. Which one is yours?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Razorbills in the Gulf

[Off Sanibel Island, Florida, December 2012]

Look up "Razorbill" on the "All About Birds" resource hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the following appears:

A large auk of the northern Atlantic Ocean, the Razorbill can be found offshore in winter as far south as New Jersey, and occasionally Virginia.

Not this year: a major irruption is occurring as this post is being written in SW Florida (as well as on the Atlantic side) as noted in the following eBird article.

I ventured to Sanibel Island based on a tip from Bob Pelkey and after a fruitless search at Blind Pass (separating Sanibel from Captiva), proceeded to the Lighthouse and Pier area where, in the distance, 3 small black objects were observed bobbing on the waves:

The Razorbill is a very special bird: it is the closest living relative of the Spearbill, or Great Auk, a magnificent alcid that was shot, clubbed and collected to extinction.

Seen in its winter plumage, this magnificent, tube-shaped alcid looks like a penguin but can fly.

Razorbill seen off Sanibel Island:

Completely at home on the water [powerful 'flippers' set really far back near its tail, seen below], the Razorbill comes to land only to breed.

An expert diver, it surfaces briefly before descending into the waters to fish again.


The last record of a razorbill from the Gulf was in 2005 (at that time a single specimen), thus their presence this year is causing appropriately warranted consternation and excitement.

The authorities of High Birding are presently postulating what might have caused this "unprecedented" phenomenon and the leading explanation hypothesizes a scarcity of food in their traditional wintering waters. For all we know, the Razorbills could simply be re-enacting a migration route from 200 years ago before their numbers suffered a precipitous decline (but were thankfully spared the fate of the now extinct Spearbill).

Regardless of why they're here; they have certainly livened up the birding scene in Florida and have surely offered "lifer" opportunities to many in the area.

A Lesser Larid and A Dead Booby

[Little Estero Lagoon, December 2012]

The lesser black-backed gull is a European gull that winters in Africa. It is uncommonly found on the Eastern coast of the US but its occurrence is increasing. It was, therefore, a notable event to see two of these larids at Little Estero Critical Wildlife Area, on the Gulf side.

[Lesser Black-Backed Gull at Little Estero CWA]

 Seen on the beach grooming:

The main identification characteristics include a dark grey back, black wing tips with white spots, and, in winter plumage, streaking on the head and neck.

The lower mandible shows a red spot while the yellow legs and pale eyes are also distinctive.

Elsewhere on the beach, a brown booby carcass is found, almost blending in with the sand:

Definitely not how anyone would have wanted to see their first booby.

Moving on to a livelier subject, nearby, a snowy egret walks from one lagoon puddle to another. Each containing an evermore collection of concentrated fish left stranded by the receding tide. Good news for the herons who enjoy this veritable feast.

The serenity on the beach is broken by the sounds of excited yelping accompanied by a minor commotion that reveals a pair of oystercatchers chasing off their last season's young as they get ready for the upcoming nesting season.

The American Oystercatcher is always resplendent and never tires in being a cooperative and photogenic subject:

The black head and neck, brown back, white breast and belly and the trademark orange bill all make for a striking combination.

This brings to mind the following:

There is an old native legend about how the oystercactcher got its orange bill. Little Aw'aku ("joyful hope") once asked this question of his mother and she told him the story that she herself had heard from the ancients: Initially all oystercatchers had a pale grey bill, much like the Willet and other ordinary shorebirds. One day, the great Mountain God Ohak'inay became angry and exploded into fire and flaming rock; spewing rivers of molten earth that flowed in all directions [aka a volcanic eruption].

All the creatures ran helter-skelter except the ever curious and fearless oystercatcher which dipped its bill into the lava as it flowed into the sea. Blessed by Ohak'inay for his bravery, no harm accrued to the oystercatcher and when he pulled out his beak from the river of lava, it had miraculously acquired the color of liquid fire. Thus the oystercatcher's newly resplendent orange bill became a symbol of its strength and bravery which it boasts to this day.

Little Aw'aku asked his father about this beautiful legend and his father said: That may very well be, my little Aw'aku; however, an alternate explanation could also be considered. Have you thought about the play of evolutionary forces over millions of years? Perhaps, little Aw'aku, breeding success correlated with those male oystercatchers that had the brightest, most resplendently orange bills. And, over time, the pale-billed oystercatchers race was superseded by the orange-billed. You see, my little Aw'aku, his father continued, the Great Ohak'inay favors adaptability among His creation, and those that adapt the best, survival of the fittest if you will, are those that eventually prevail according to His divine will.

Little Aw'aku ran away unimpressed and prepared to hear another story from his mother. This time, about how the World would come to an end, thousands of years in the future, on December 21st 2012 at 9:15 am.

[Note: fabrication intended for entertainment purposes only].