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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

November Warblers at Corkscrew Swamp and Musings on Audubon and His Legacy

[Corkscrew Swamp, FL. Nov 2014]

While everyone has heard of John James Audubon, it may be a surprise to some that Audubon is not considered to be the father of American Ornithology (that honor surely belongs to Alexander Wilson), but, what isn't disputable is that Audubon is most assuredly the foremost American master of bird art -- and hence, by consequence, singularly responsible for inspiring millions of people to delve into the fascinating subjects of the avian world through his exceptional imagery and vivid picturization of American birdlife.

This blog, in turn, is humbly inspired by the traditions of Audubon -- in documenting the visual brilliance of our Avifauna -- and by Wilson -- in exploring avian science and the issues that affect bird conservation. Both endeavors in which this blogger is engaged in sincere pursuit though with full knowledge of the resulting shortcomings that must inevitably accrue from aspiring to their high, perhaps even unattainable, standards.

Audubon was more than an Artist and Ornithologist, in his later years he was also a confirmed conservationist. The orgy of slaughter in America peaked in the late 1800's and early 1900's and it was in response to this scale of wanton killing that the Audubon society was established nationally in 1905. Thus every time this blogger visits an Audubon Sanctuary, he is reminded of this quote:

“A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.” [often misattributed to Audubon, this quote is actually from Wendell Berry]

And it is in this spirit that we offer to the reader eight species of North American wood warblers -- eight feathered jewels representing a tiny part of the avian treasure we must bequeath to successive generations -- that were observed at the Audubon Society's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Southwest Florida:
  1. Prairie Warbler
  2. Black-and-white Warbler
  3. Louisiana Waterthrush
  4. Yellow-throated Warbler
  5. Common Yellowthroat
  6. Pine Warbler
  7. Palm Warbler
  8. Myrtle Warbler
We start with Prairie Warbler:

Prairie Warbler -- usually found at the periphery of the Sanctuary

Instantly recognizable in basic or alternate plumage due to its unique facial markings; its eye both eye-lined and prominently circumscribed, the Prairie Warbler is found year round in Southwest Florida. The migratory population (such as this one seen in Michigan) winters largely in the Caribbean unlike the Florida subspecies.

Black-and-white Warbler seen at Corkscrew Swamp
The Black-and-white Warbler, another Eastern warbler, surpasses the Prairie Warbler in both distribution and population by a factor of almost 20 (the global population of Prairie Warbler is about 1.4 million while that of the Black-and-white is about 20 million).

Black-and-white Warbler
Does the Black-and-white Warbler's zebra-esque plumage serve any functional purpose?  Does it help confuse predators or camouflage it from its prey? Or is it merely the neotropical breeding strategy of "the most outrageously flamboyant suitor gets the girl?" Surely, fascinating topics to explore; what we do know, however, is that the Black-and-white is unique among warblers with its nuthatch-like foraging habits as it creeps hurriedly along tree trunks and tree limbs in search of insects and spiders.

Our next warbler is a Waterthrush -- earlier grouped with the Ovenbird, the genus Parkesia now contains only two species: the Louisiana Waterthrush and the Northern Waterthrush. It is the former that was observed at Corkscrew during this blogger's visit:

Louisiana Waterthrush seen by the South Lettuce Lake at Corkscrew
As can be seen from the above images, the Louisiana Waterthrush has a great affinity for water and, while its size is much smaller than that of a thrush, the drab buff-and-pale color scheme is certainly reminiscent of one.

Louisiana Waterthrush
Both Waterthrushes are found at Corkscrew in migration and, when seen together, it results in a situation that inevitably leads to an identification challenge between these two very similar looking, similar sounding and similar foraging Waterthrushes.

Our next warbler, however, presents little ambiguity to even the most casual of observers; the Yellow-throated Warbler:

Our 5th warbler is the aptly named Common Yellowthroat:

Preferring wet and weedy environments and conspicuous on account of its loud (and harsh sounding) chips, the Common Yellowthroat doesn't look markedly different from its breeding best excepting pinker legs and a lighter green on the back.

Also observed was this Pine Warbler -- still showing a fair amount of yellow:

And, this bright Palm Warbler:

Palm Warbler seen at Corkscrew
Finally, we present a Myrtle Warbler -- these, after the Palm, are probably the most numerous over-wintering warblers in Southwest Florida:

Myrtle Warbler

John James Audubon's declared ambition in 1820 was to depict every single species of bird found in North America -- and, in 1825, his dream came to fruition in the publishing of the epic "Birds of America" which detailed 497 species in breathtaking beauty -- a spectacular achievement indeed! (imagine doing this today without the use of eBird, Birding Guides, and Bird Lines).

Even today, it is striking how much our birding ambitions mirror Audubon's quest from almost 200 years ago. However, how we pursue and document the fulfillment of these ambitions has changed considerably (thanks to the inexorable march of technology) -- from the use of watercolor, copperplate etchings and subscription art books to digital photography, social media and internet blogging. And, consider some common examples of birding quests today:
In this, and countless other ways, we can sustain the American traditions of Audubon and Wilson to document, depict and publish our avian observations and therefore contribute, in however small measure, toward the preservation of our birdlife for future generations as so passionately exhorted by Wendell Berry.
Epilogue: some background on the examples chosen:
  • Any reader of ABA publications will be familiar with Brian Small's exquisite and exhaustive work where it features frequently
  • Kenn Kaufman's "Kingbird Highway" is a classic and epitomizes, in many ways, the wanderlust brought on by a birding quest. 
  • I met Robert B (who was doing a Big Year) in 2012 in June in Texas while birding Estero LLano Grande SP where I added many lifers to my list. Incredibly, I ran into him again 6 months later at Sabino Canyon, AZ, when both of us were chasing the same rarity: the Rufous-backed Robin
  • Missing a couple of warbler species myself, "52 Small Birds" was both informative and inspirational as it details one man's quest to photograph all species of wood warblers in the US
  • Bob's excellent work at SW Florida Birder is well known and who cannot but enjoy the thrill of the vicarious chase of a rarity or the beauty of SW Florida's birdlife as so passionately captured by Bob.

1 comment:

Bob Pelkey said...

Thoroughly enjoyed catching up with your blog, Hemant. The trip to the Florida panhandle was much fun as well. It was unfortunate that many Great Florida Birding Trail venues had to be passed due to time constraints.