April 2008


Thursday I dipped on a potential life bird. They can’t all be like the Western Tanager and Scott’s Oriole, of course – it wasn’t a total surprise that the Prospect Park Yellow-throated Warbler failed to stick around. Nor could I be mad, when my quick after-work trip yielded my life White-eyed Vireo at the Lily Pool instead. And, for dessert, one of those moments that the Inimitable Todd should really be there for but never is; a remarkable partially leucistic American Robin with a sporty eye-stripe pattern on an otherwise white head, a white tail, and a lightly spotted but mostly normal Robin body. I was quite awestruck by the little guy (or gal) and I hope zie sticks around.

On Sunday last I had an even better day; I was scheduled to work the Park Slope Food Coop Environmental Committee’s Earth Day Table from 1 to 3, which meant that the morning was all about birding. The flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers were going to 11, if you know what I mean; I got my first-of-season Yellow and Prairie Warblers, and a Palm Warbler for my BGBY; and the Lake was skimmed by Barn and Tree Swallows and at least one Northern Rough-Winged Swallow. One swallow doesn’t make a spring, but there were plenty on Sunday, making their beautiful little chittery noises and moving like they embodied joy (even though I know it’s really hunger.) The Woodpeckers were very active, too – particularly a Northern Flicker and a Red-bellied Woodpecker who both had their eye on the same resonant snag (the Flicker got the better of the encounter.) In the Vale, I spotted a Blue-headed Vireo, also a life bird and excellent at living up to its name (it also lived up to its old name, Solitary Vireo; that is a bit more poetic, but since the split gave us more species to see and one of them has the excellent name of Plumbeous Vireo I can’t complain.)

It’s times like this when I feel like it’s a real waste to have a job.

Sunday Species:

House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
American Robin Turdus migratorious
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
Yellow-rumped Warbler Dendroica coronata
Palm Warbler Dendroica palmarum
Yellow Warbler Dendroica petechia
Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
American Coot Fulica atra
Great Egret Egretta eulophotes
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula
Ruby-crowned Kinglet Regulus calendula
Pine Warbler Dendroica pinus
Barn Swallow Hirunda rustica
Tree Swallow Tachycineta bicolor
Swamp Sparrow Melospiza georgiana
Rough-winged Swallow Stelgidopteryx ruficollis
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Double-crested Cormorant Phalocrocorax auriatus
Prairie Warbler Dendroica discolor
Herring Gull Larus auratus
Field Sparrow Spizella pusilla
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
Blue-headed Vireo Vireo solitarius *LL

Thursday Species:

House Sparrow Passer domesticus
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
American Robin Turdus migratorius
White-eyed Vireo Vireo griseus *LL
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Yellow-rumped Warbler Dendroica coronata
Swamp Sparrow Melospiza georgiana
Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Palm Warbler Dendroica palmarum
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus

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So, as long-time readers may remember, my winter present from the Inimitable Todd was a pelagic trip out of Cape May with the fine folks at See Life Paulagics. The trip was to take place in March, but it got nixed by a restless ocean and rescheduled to last weekend. Up until just after noon on Saturday, we weren’t sure if it was a go or not, so everything was a bit seat-of-pants.

Since we’d already had the swanky-twee b&b experience, we decided to get kitchtastic (and cheap) this time around and stay at Wildwood. As it turned out, it was Paint Your Pool and General Spring Clean Weekend for just about every one of Wildwood’s iconic retro motels, but that just meant that the room we finally managed to secure was very cheap. And smelled of paint, and didn’t have an alarm clock, but hey – it wasn’t like we were going to be spending a lot of time there! The boat was due to leave at 6.

Now, once upon a time, I got up at 4 am to listen to the high-test wacky talk radio on the Born-Again Christian radio station out of Buffalo for an hour before heading out to milk cows*. But these days, with my citified lifestyle and all, 6 in the morning is a bit of a challenge. This is a major failing in a birdwatcher, and goes a long way to explaining the paucity of Rails on my life list. But for this, I could do it. Even without an alarm clock. My new cell phone has an alarm clock, anyway.

So at five we were up, rapidly dressed – and ran into our first hitch. You see, in anticipation of being way the heck out to sea, we’d brought cold-weather gear made by the fine folks at Under Armour(tm). Well, we thought we had. Turns out, I had, and the Inimitable Todd had ended up with one of my skirts that happened to have much the same texture as an Under Armour shirt and had made its way into his drawer by mistake. That wasn’t likely to do him much good on the boat, so he had to go with just a t-shirt and waterproof windbreaker. Not auspicious.

The first bit of the boating was enjoyable. The sun was coming up as we left Cape May, and with it all sorts of bird activity, including my year Foster’s Terns and a Black-crowned Night Heron lurking on a jetty.

As we passed out of the harbor and into open ocean, we** started chumming – a strange practice in which one takes fish that someone went to all the trouble to pull out of the ocean, freeze, and put in a box, and then one opens the box, thaws the fish, and throws it back in the water for seagulls to eat. Quaint are the ways of birders. The chumming quickly drew a cloud of gulls – mostly Herring, with a handful of Laughing and Ring-billed closer to shore and occasional Lesser Black-backed. It turned out to be a very good day for Lesser Black-backed Gulls, actually – we saw them in all four different age-group plumages and in substantial numbers. I’d missed them the past few winters and was happy to see them, despite the fact that I’m not a gull person normally. Gannets put in a lot of close passes too, in their many plumages. We saw a number of Bonaparte’s Gulls, as well, but they kept their distance and didn’t give up any surprises, like turning into a Little or Black-headed Gull or anything.

Also keeping their distance were the Scoters – mostly unidentified, though I did get a lock on a distinctive male Surf Scoter for my first life bird of the trip and others more deft than myself at working out where three o’clock is on a boat got White-winged Scoter as well (fortunately, I already had White-winged Scoter, so I didn’t have to throw myself overboard or anything.) A couple of Long-tailed Ducks made a much closer approach, but flew by so fast that only their bold pattern and distinctive voices made them ID-able; nevertheless, ID’d they were. Life bird two.

Perversely, things quieted down more the further out we got, until by the time we got to where the scallop-boats were working we had nothing much to look at but the Gulls and Gannets and a peppering of distant Loons – both Red-throated and Common, many of the latter approaching breeding plumage. Fortunately for me, I can look at Gannets pretty much all day. I did feel sorrow about the plight of the Inimitable Todd, who was near to perishing with cold. People take warning; even putting the laundry away properly may turn out to be important some time.

I’d been looking at Gannets for some hours, and drifted into a state where I was more only half-looking at Gannets and with the other half of my brain listening to more experienced birds regale each other with World Series of Birding Advice, 700th-bird stories, and strange tales of things they’d observed birds eating, when suddenly something low and brown streaked down the side of the ship and a great cry went up. A Sooty Shearwater! I’d barely glimpsed it, and certainly would have had to do some wrestling with my conscience if it hadn’t been good enough to take an interest in our chum and circle back three or four times for clear views before it winged off. Life bird 3.

And then we went back to Gulls, Gannets, and distant Loons. At one point, we saw a Heron making hard for land; there was some banter about calling it a Western Reef-heron, but it proved to be a Great Blue.

It was, by all accounts, a slow pelagic; in a way, I think that was a good thing, because it gave me a chance to learn the ropes and prevented the Frozen Inimitable Todd from missing any once-in-a-lifetime photo ops. (I’d like to assure those readers who don’t like suspense that the IT did eventually recover.)

On our way back into harbor, things got a little bit lively again, with a number of Brant, a Great Cormorant, and to finish things off an Osprey and Merlin in close proximity across from the dock. Getting off the boat, I discovered to my dismay that I could barely walk or talk and needed a strong cup of coffee and half a muffin to revive me; it would later emerge that I’d also managed to get a nasty sunburn, because looking at Gannets had distracted me from all thought of refreshing my sunscreen.

I can’t wait to go again!

*I didn’t drink or do drugs in high school, I had to get rid of all those extra brain cells some way! What are you looking at me like that for? Also, being incandescent with rage before leaving the house is an excellent way to stay warm in the milk pit on a winter morning.

**by “we” I mean “the experienced professional chumming dude with thick gloves and a suitable knife, and certainly not me.”

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Common Loon Gavia immer
Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator
Forster’s Tern Sterna forsterii
Osprey Pandion haliaetus
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Laughing Gull Larus atricilla
Greater Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata
Northern Gannet Sula bassanus
Scoter sp.
Surf Scoter Melanitta perspicillata *LL
Bonapate’s Gull Larus philadelphia
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus
Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis *LL
Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus *LL
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Brant Branta bernicla
Great Cormorant Palacrocorax carbo
Merlin Falco columbaris

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Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!* Familial obligations over, flight home still twenty-four hours away, we had a full day to devote to birding and a plan about how to spend it. And a loaner car, since Pinellas County is not abundantly blessed by the gods of public transit and this was hardly going to count for the BGBY anyhow. And a bag with sandwiches, and a couple of bottles of water. And sun screen, and anti-bug goop, and a safari hat, and a camera, and binoculars and field guides – everything that goes into a successful Florida birding trip.

Well-equipped and hopeful, as you can see.

First stop, Brooker Creek Preserve. I hoped to pick up Brown-headed Nuthatch, Summer Tanager, Common Ground-dove, any sort of migrating warblers, maybe Limpkin or Swallow-tailed Kite.

What I found was this:

No, I don’t know what it is either. I doubt that it knows what it is itself. What it was, though, was one of only three birds that we saw in the several hours we spent in Brooker Creek Preserve; the other two were a Gray Catbird and a Northern Cardinal.

While we were standing on the boardwalk staring at the What-is-it, the mosquitoes noticed us. We applied the bug goop liberally, and this dissuaded most of them – but dissuading most of the mosquitoes in a Florida woodland only means that you’re encouraging natural selection for the hardy minority, unless of course you swat them. Which fortunately we had plenty of time to do, what with not seeing any birds.

We encountered three local birders early in the jaunt, who shrugged apologetically and said that there “wasn’t much out there today” – honest, but not exactly news, even by that point. A little later, it started to sprinkle – which did keep the mosquitoes down somewhat. We continued anyway. We had to, because otherwise nature couldn’t play the merry little jape she had up her sleeve, and unleash a heavy, fat-dropped subtropical downpour on us to the accompaniment of distant thunder just when we were at the point in the trail system most distant from the car. It would have been a shame to miss that.

By the time we made it back to the car, I finally knew what it felt like to be cold in Florida.

Still, all was not lost! Storms that come on quickly often quickly pass away. And though we had planned to make a straight shot to Honeymoon Island State Park, we had the option of instead making a meandering way there along the coast and trying to pick up some birds from the car as well. Hoping to shake the rain or at least dry out a little, we took that option.

When the sun peeked out, we decided to find a place where we could get out of the car and look around, Honeymoon Island or no Honeymoon Island. Thus it was that we ended up at Fred Howard Park, driving out the causeway fringed in shorebirds to a little sandy island fringed in shorebirds.

One of the first things that my eyes fixed on when I got out of the car was… well, it was a Boat-tailed Grackle, but once I’d walked a little bit, I saw a lovely big flock of Black Skimmers.

I’ve been enamored of Black Skimmers ever since I saw one from the Gil Hopkins Bridge two years ago, a welcome distraction from my pathetic efforts to pedal over. You would think that their asymmetrical bill would make them look goofy, but I find that they have a certain gravitas – look, they’re professionals at this skimming thing, they even have specialized tools!

I enjoyed them until a pair of bathing-suited small children ran into the area and flushed them, then began a more thorough scan of the area. A couple of Marbled Godwits – life birds for me – mingled with a bunch of Willets and the odd near-breeding-plumage Ruddy Turnstone. On the other side of the island, a Tern with a yellow-tipped black bill caught my eye, but unfortunately, before the Inimitable Todd could get the requisite pictures yet another wandering child scared it away. Still, there it had been, a Sandwich Tern – life bird two for the day. The rest of the island yielded more shorebirds – Semipalmated Plover, more Willets and Godwits, and a frustratingly silent Dowitcher. The IT became enamored of the Great Blue Heron that was soliciting fisherfolk for scraps along the side of the road – it was a most obliging model.

Then it was on the road again. I was trying to divide my eyes between the road shoulders and the telephone wires, hoping for both Common Ground-dove and Gray Kingbird, so when a Black Vulture popped hir head out of the ditch I was startled and discombobulated. It was a cool moment.

As we drove, the rain began to spit again. This worried me. I’d been assured that Gray Kingbirds were impossible to miss on the Honeymoon Island causeway, but if the morning had taught me one thing, it was that passerines are quite good at making themselves scarce in the rain.

Happily, we were on a rather quiet one-way street at the moment that I saw something too small and to reddish to be a Mourning Dove flush from the side of the bike path; I yelled, and the IT popped a quick illegal u-turn and let me jump out. Sure enough, Common Ground-dove. I savored it for a long minute before I returned to the car.

We weren’t far now from Honeymoon Island. So, sure enough, it started raining in earnest again. By the time we paid to get in and drove to the farthest point, it was pouring. We sat in the car and ate our sandwiches, staring out at the rain and the occasional Laughing Gulls and Osprey that braved it (you have been remembering to insert an Osprey into this trip every five minutes, yes?) When there were no more sandwiches, we drove to the Nature Center to see if it held any hot tips; there was a rumor of a Reddish Egret on the causeway, and some interesting dioramas, but nothing that could hold our attention until the rain stopped.

We found a place to park on the causeway without to much trouble, and the rain, seeing that we had left the park, let up again a bit. Walking up one side yielded the photogenic Royal Tern that I previously posted, and several Brown Pelicans, a large flock of Palm Warblers and some Mockingbirds gray enough that they gave me a tremor of hope. Then the rain noticed what we were up to and cut loose. Walking back down the other side of the causeway with a dripping hat, I saw something swoop out of the clouds with a distinct profile – raised my besmeared binoculars, and got my life Magnificent Frigatebird. It was an ideal note to end on – and it was the end, except for the Little Blue Heron that tried to fool me into thinking it was a Reddish Egret.

The end of the heron; the heron of the end.

So I dipped on the unmissable Gray Kingbird; likewise on Swallow-tailed Kite, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Limpkin. Still, it was a good trip, despite the getting drenched, and at least I have something to look forward to for next time.

Great Egret Egretta eulophotes
Osprey Pandion haliaetus
Boat-tailed Grackle Quiscalus major
Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Anhinga Anhinga anhinga
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Black Skimmer Rynchops niger
Laughing Gull Larus atricilla
Marbled Godwit Limosa fedoa *LL
Willet Tringa semipalmatus
Ruddy Turnstone Arenarea interpres
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis *LL
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla
Dowitcher sp.
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Black Vulture Coragyps atratus
American White Ibis Eudocimus albus
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Common Ground Dove Columbina passerina *LL
Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis
Palm Warbler Dendroica palmarum
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottus
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens *LL
Little Blue Heron Florida caerula

*This is now two Sundays ago. You’ll find out why soon.

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The highlight of my second day in Florida was a Royal Tern.

Not this Royal Tern:

Royal Turn on Honeymoon Island Causeway

This Royal Tern is actually from tomorrow. But I spotted the Royal Tern of the second day on a solitary walk on which I didn’t bring a camera (exactly when I would have seen my Ivory-billed Woodpecker, had I seen one.) I’d gotten up early in the hope – it turned out forlorn – of catching some Rails mucking about in the reeds of the Lake of Tarpons; other than the Tern, the walk’s highlight was when I saw a wandering cat (naughty!) ‘persuade’ a lizard to do the old dropping-the-tail trick, something I’d never seen in nature and was not about to experiment with on my own because I’m just too damn nice (also, too slow to catch a lizard.) The tail arched and thrashed with great vigor. Remarkable, really.

As it turned out, in this instance natural selection was not smiling on the lizard’s cleverness – the cat, probably long since jaded to such stratagems, was ignoring the tail and keeping a firm grip on the much meatier body. Cats being invasive, I did not feel the least bit guilty about distracting the creature with “here kitty” and petting until it dropped its prey. Of course, later investigation would teach me that brown anoles are invasive too, so six of one, half-dozen of the other. Oh well.

Then on to the lake, and a Palm Warbler that was actually living up to its name, and my encounter with the Tern. I have a lot of trouble with Terns; usually I encounter them going out of my field of vision fast and not allowing me a good look at one side or the other of their bodies. If I see the beak, I don’t see the tail, and if I see the tail, the underside of the primaries is only a glimpsed blur, and so on. But the Tern I locked on to above the lake was downright leisurely, circling back again and again, at a convenient height, and often flying into the wind enough that it was slowed considerably. And there was little else above the lake to distract me, other than a plethora of Laughing Gulls, the occasional fly-by Anhinga, and of course roughly ten gazillion Osprey. None of which was easily mistaken for a Tern.

So I was able to study the Tern at leisure, arguing with myself about whether the beak was really more orange or “carrot-red” and just how dark the primaries really were. It was then that I learned a valuable lesson about field guides. I am normally a devotee of my battered Peterson’s, but as it is a seriously out-of-date edition and as I also had an inkling of possibly encountering stray Western birds on the trip, this time I’d opted to bring the National Geographic Guide. Bad decision! Leaving aside issues of overall guide quality, once you’re used to a field guide you’ve trained yourself to do two things: you’ve trained your fingers to automatically flip to or at least near the appropriate pages for Terns – or Doves, or Blackbirds, or whatever – without looking down, and you’ve trained your eyes to make the mental translation between your own particular guide’s illustrational and textual quirks and what you actually see in the field. With an unfamiliar field guide, you have to stop and think about both. And when you’re looking at a fast-moving bird, stopping and thinking while looking down is something you can ill-afford. All your thinking should be done with your eyes on the prize.

Fortunately, this Tern was, as I mentioned, obliging, and I was able to work hir out to my satisfaction. First lifer of the day, and the one I cherished most – even though later, after I put my cell phone through the wash by mistake and had shoes with heels inflicted on me (but in such a generous way that I had no reasonable means to object,) I saw a Roseate Spoonbill feeding in a ditch as I drove to the Inimitable Todd’s father’s birthday party.

Well, ok, really the Roseate Spoonbill was quite damn cool too.

Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
Brown Thrasher Toxostoma rufum
Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Anhinga Anhinga anhinga
Common Moorhen Gllinula choloropus cachinnans
Boat-tailed Grackle Quiscalus major
Osprey Pandion haliaetus
Mottled Duck Anas fulvigula fulvigula
Laughing Gull Larus atricilla
American Coot Fulica atra
Palm Warbler Dendroica palmarum
Royal Tern Sterna maxima *LL
Cooper’s Hawk Accipiter cooperii
Great Egret Egretta eulophotes
American White Ibis Eudocimus albus
Roseate Spoonbill Ajaia ajaja *LL

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Florida has a lot of birds, especially in the spring. Whenever I go there, I’m never quite sure whether to be overjoyed (a lot of birds! And I’m looking at them!) or depressed (just imagine how many more birds there must have been here before they built repulsive housing developments and clumsy retail boxes, paved the spaces in between, and air-conditioned the shit out of everything…)

But even more than birds, Florida has reptiles.

Cute l’il reptiles, like the brown anole:

and not-so-cute, not-so-l’il reptiles:

and properly poisonous snakes, not like the wimpy snakes we have up in New York… but we didn’t have the opportunity to photograph any of those. How sad.

As a New Yorker, the concept of lizards just running around the landscape has a lot of novelty value. Seriously, I can’t get enough of them. So… reptilian! I love it!

But back to the birds. Lots of birds, too. Lots of BIG birds. On the drive from the airport to The Inimitable Todd’s parents’ home, I added Brown Pelican, Black Vulture and Osprey to my year list, as well as Boat-tailed Grackle when we stopped for breakfast. Osprey and Boat-tailed Grackle would, as it turned out, be dominant themes during the whole trip. It would be very very hard to go anywhere in the general Lake Tarpon vicinity and not see them.

After dropping our bags, it was time to get out there and walk around! Sure, we were just going to stroll the sidewalks of a ghastly over-lawned development, but A.) we needed to enjoy the weather while there was still novelty value in it, before we started to wilt, and B.) the IT’s parents had beguiled us (which surely wasn’t their intention) with stories about the 10-foot alligator that allegedly lived in the 100-foot pond out back. A forlorn and frankly inadequate-looking alligator trap had been placed out there at the request of someone in the neighborhood who had just had a baby and apparently mistook the alligator for a dingo, but the only living creatures in evidence when we stepped out were a Great Egret and an Anhinga (two more species that would turn up seemingly every time I set foot outdoors for the next few days.)

We walked around the pond. An Osprey flew over (to save space, as I describe the rest of the trip you may just want to mentally assert “and then an Osprey flew over” at the beginning and/or end of each paragraph.) We came to the edge of a tree-row, and sighted another pond, half grown over with lilypads, just beyond, so we went to see if the alligator had moved to new digs. Strange fish half-jumped from little diggings in the edge of the water as we went, and it became our project to see if we could sneak up on well enough to get a picture of it before it fled.

Apparently fish who live in alligator ponds don’t like to be snuck up on.

Suddenly, while we were concentrating on the fish, a commotion broke out amongst the lilypads. I swung my binoculars up and locked on to a couple of Common Moorhens. Common Moorhens, which are sort of like American Coots but with extra Satan, do make their way up to New York in the summer. But these were the first of the species to ever have the good fortune to wind up in my presence, so I was pretty psyched to see them. The glow last until we were chased back to the road by a local neighborhood watch zealot.

At least we weren’t tasered, and thus were still upright to hear a small buzzy sound coming from a short roadside tree. It took a bit of maneuvering and chasing, since the bird wouldn’t sit still, but finally I was able to lock it down as a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher – a second life-lister in ten minutes that I should really have picked up in New York years ago. Shades of the San Francisco Brown Creeper Incident.

Slowly – being still dressed for April in New York rather than April in the subtropics – we wended our way along. It was a bit disconcerting to see Northern Cardinals, to me the consummate snow-birds, picking about under palms, but there they were.

Finally we reached a little park on the edge of Lake Tarpon, where the Anhingas were out in force.

Snakebird does a funky dance.

There was more than just that afoot in this little spit of park, intended more for boat-launching and dog-walking than birding, though. A swampy area without enough open water to be dignified with the name “pond” held another Great Egret, a Great Blue Heron, and a pair of Mottled Ducks – Florida’s special entry in the Mallard-Black Duck sweepstakes, and my first truly irreplaceable life list entry for the trip. The Inimitable Todd was rather surprised that I was so insistent about photographing boring brown ducks.

Along the path we encountered a cagey Tricolored Heron, who, perhaps rightfully irritated at being deprived of the more romantic “Louisiana Heron” tag, flew off before the IT got a good photo. Nevertheless, this was another life bird, and though it isn’t remotely inconceivable that I’ll add this one to my New York list one day, I might wait a good long time.

Then it was time to actually, y’know, visit with these strange people who claim to be related to IT and were letting us sleep in their house. To their credit, though, they know how to pick a dinner joint:

I suppose that after a picture like this, even if I do ever see an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the ABA will never buy it. The dining establishment in question is Tarpon Turtle Grill and Marina. From their open dining area, I added my last lifer of the day: a flock of White Ibis head home after a long day. The Boat-tailed Grackles here were notable for their complete lack of shame. The Inimitable Todd was quite taken with them.

So ended the day, with my life list five species up and my year list burgeoning… and the real birding of the trip had scarcely begun!

Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis
Boat-tailed Grackle Quiscalus major
Black Vulture Cragyps atratus
Great Egret Casmerodius albus
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus *LL
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher Polioptila caerulea *LL
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
Fish Crow Corvus ossifragus
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Anhinga Anhinga anhinga
Mottled Duck Anas fulvigula *LL
Tricolored Heron Egretta tricolor *LL
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
Wood Stork Mycteria americana
Laughing Gull Larus atricilla
Little Blue Heron Florida caerulea
American White Ibis Eudocimus albus *LL
Snowy Egret Egretta thula

All photos, as always, by the Inimitable Todd.

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One of the funnest – and I use this word advisedly – things to fantasize about, as a North American birder, is tripping over an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Say on an otherwise vaguely discomfiting trip to your pseudo-in-laws’ place in Florida. The size. The shape. The white in the wing. The stopping of your breath, the moment when something – not your heart, contra cliche, because your heart is hammering out of control down in your breast where it belongs, but something large and round leaps into the bottom of your throat. The moment when you let out a string of expletives that no nice young lady should type. The frantic instructions to the Inimitable Todd, or your personal equivalent, to take a shit-ton of pictures. No, a metric shit-ton of pictures! And some video. God, modern digital cameras are great. Ah….

Excuse me. Anyway, the lure of lost species is strong. And that’s the thesis of Scott Weidensaul’s The Ghost With Trembling Wings: Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species. Weidensaul works the whole spectrum from the totally confirmed (Australia’s Night Parrot*, the black-footed ferret) to the crypto-wacky (the Loch Ness Monster and co.) In the process, he raises some important questions that every birder has to ask herself sooner or later, questions like:

1. What does it mean to see something? Birding is a sport built on eyewitnessing, and eyewitnessing is a lot more wibbly than birders – and cops – would like to admit. Every book I’ve read that purports to give an introduction to birdwatching cautions the rank beginner against seeing things what ain’t there. But any experienced birder will admit that practice doesn’t always make perfect, no matter how long you’re in the game. And as Weidensaul’s section on alleged black panthers in Great Britain makes clear, what people expect or hope to see can play as large a role in what they do see as what’s reflecting light into their eyes. Part of practice in the game of birding is knowing what you should expect and what you can reasonably hope for…

2. What is a species? Like my title, or the issue of free will, or what have you, this seems like a very simple question but once you actually start trying to answer you wind up wrestling with a squid. If you clone a Huia, or a woolly mammoth for that matter, what have you got? A Huia. Or a woolly mammoth. But not a Huia that has learned to sing and make nests from its parent Huias, and not a woolly mammoth that has followed the elderly matriarchs of the herd and picked up their techniques for finding good food supplies and avoiding short-faced bears. Does that count? Whose counting? Meanwhile, on the other axis of time and space, if all the Marbled Murrelets in Oregon are converted into toothpicks and Kleenex by the great engines of commerce but there are still plenty of Marbled Murrelets in Alaska, have we lost anything or not? Who gets to say? If we save a species only in zoos and captive breeding centers, and lose the ecological context it dwelt in, is it still the same species or a new one, some sort of cyborg?

This is not a gratuitously melancholy book. Hope and faith play central roles. But Weidensaul always makes it clear that hope and faith are human things, and the world is not obliged to conform to the narrative they create, no matter how uplifting a flash of white in the wing would be.

*which was rediscovered when a scientist standing at the side of the road realized he was stepping on a Night Parrot road pizza.

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