December 2008


Waaaaay back in the murky depths of, um, early December, Corey over at 10,000 Birds tagged me to name my top five desired life list birds. This required some thought. So much thought, in fact, that I couldn’t narrow it down to just five.

So here for you today: My top 5 would-be lifers in just the ABA area.

I had to set some ground rules for this. I didn’t include any extinct or presumed-extinct birds, otherwise they would have taken over the list. Obviously I would give the left nut I don’t strictly speaking have for a look at an Ivorybill, Bachman’s Warbler, or Carolina Parakeet. This led to a strange conundrum, in which I couldn’t include the bird I most want to see in the world; the California Condor, of course, which I can (and must!) see, but which cannot at present go onto my life list because, according to the finicky but ultimately necessary ABA listing rules, it’s extinct in the wild and the current, post-captivity free-flying birds don’t count, sorry.

I still really want to see one, though.

I also didn’t include any birds that appear in the ABA area only as accidentals; those will be dealt with in the next entry.

Still, it was really hard, and this list has to be understood as not so much as hard and fast, but as a sort of ponitilistic expression of a larger vision of seeing and understanding all sorts of birds and their habitats. That said, let the meme begin:

1. Vermilion Flycatcher. As a kid, I would flip through the Peterson’s Guide, dreaming of birds I had never seen, and I’d often linger on the Kingbirds and their kin. We had Eastern Kingbirds in plenty on the Olde Homestead – someone, after all, had to keep the Red-tailed Hawks in line – but the rest of that section was the stuff of dreams.
Chief among those dreams were the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and the Vermilion Flycatcher. Scissor-tailed came true, wonderfully and improbably, in 1997, when the Olde Homestead briefly played host to a vagrant. But I’m still waiting for a Vermilion.

2. Marbled Murrelet. The alert reader will have deduced that I have a thing about auks. And this is perhaps the weirdest and wildest of all the alcids. It also represents one of our weirder and wilder ecosystems, the oldgrowth temperate rainforest of the Pacific northwest. Maria Mudd Ruth does a better job describing exactly why this bird rocks in her excellent book on the subject than I can in this little paragraph.

3. Black Rail. It’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in elegantly spangled black, gray, and rust feathers. Where does it winter? We don’t know! Is it declining? We don’t know! What is its breeding behavior like? We don’t know! There could be one standing behind you RIGHT NOW, but if you look around, it won’t be there.

4. Whooping Crane. Arguably, this bird is in the spot that the California Condor should have had. Whooping Cranes were as close to the brink as the Condor, and required as much effort and intervention to save, but since a few birds were never taken into captivity, they’re an ABA 2 rather than an ABA 6. But I can’t take away from the appeal of the Crane in its own right. All cranes are freighted with a resonant load of wildness and majesty; the Whooping Crane, five feet tall and starkly white, is among the most splendid species of bird life that the continent has to offer.

5. Blue-winged Teal. Every birder has some embarrassing gaps in the old life list, things they should have seen years ago but simply haven’t. With the Red-headed Woodpecker and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher both cleared out of the most embarrassing slot this year, Blue-winged Teal moves up in the rankings to become the unseen bird that taunts my dreams.

Up next: my top five most wanted birds world-wide. I may have to flip a couple thousand coins, so it could take awhile.


No more perfectly elegant punctuation of the season’s change could be than the storm we witnessed this weekend; a reminder that nature has power to get the attention of even the most comfortable of us, and that though our calendars may be arbitrary and laced with the names of dead gods and emperors, the patterns that underlie them are solid and real.

Of course, it’s one thing to observe this power and another thing to live in it. Storms are exciting and lend significance to life when you merely observe, or come safely through the edges… not so much when you get whomped with the full force. Just ask any resident of New Orleans or Galveston. So I was impressed by the snow and sudden cold; the birds, with coping skills honed by evolution, were mostly just interested in staking their place at whatever table they could find. The feeders in the Ramble, for instance.

But first, we looked for Owls.

Yes, in an excess of that strange elation that comes with first snowfall, I’d sort of talked up the possibility of Long-eared Owls in the park to maybe just a slightly exagerrated degree. So we entered the park, magnificently frosted and looking picturesque, and wandered the Pinetum for some time, peering into the trees and eagerly scanning snowy lumps, squirrels’ nests, squirrels, and large pinecones for any signs of owlitude. Any occasional Blue Jay called, but not in an angry, “Here’s an Owl!” way; a few Mourning Doves and the usual plethora of White-throated Sparrows rounded out the scene.

Alas, a solstice Owl was not to be ours.

So off to the Ramble we went, stopping along the way to say hi to the locust grove Red-headed Woodpecker, who obligingly perched just over our heads. Also over our heads, Canada Geese winged south, arguing vigorously about who had had the bright idea of staying north this long.

The Ramble in Winter

The Ramble in Winter

The feeders were jammed; not even a drive-by by a young, brown-tailed Red-tailed Hawk could dissuade the masses of Goldfinches and Titmice that crowded every feeder. A few Chickadees and House Finches jockeyed for position among them, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker checked the trees for stray flecks of peanut butter. I scanned eagerly for a Pine Siskin, but that was not to be either.

But the bird attracting the most attention from passers-by, far more than the Red-headed Woodpecker or even the Red-tailed Hawk, was without a doubt the Central Park Wild Turkey, now fully refeathered and looking slick to greet the new season.

Lookin Good!

Lookin' Good!

It’s important to face cold, dark days in your best form. That’s why we celebrate. That’s why we feast.

The Solstice Trip on Birdstack
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“Locust grove”, for me, will always be an evocative description. The Olde Homestead has a locust grove – a magic place just beyond the railroad tracks that as a wee child defined the rear boundary of my world, since I wasn’t supposed to cross on my own and potentially get hit by a train. When I was with my parents, though, then we could go to the locust grove, which was an amazing place – dark and cool and flanked with elegantly corrugated trees. Birds I have seen there include a Barn Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, and a rapidly-flying-away-thing that may or may not have been a Woodcock or Snipe.

But I never saw a Red-headed Woodpecker there. Indeed, the only Red-headed Woodpecker I have ever seen on the Olde Homestead was a dead one, under a maple of the yard when I was – maybe 5? 6? (Any idea, Mom?) Dead birds, of course, do not count for life lists, and so Melanerpes erythrocephalus has remained a frustrating gap in my life list.

So I was delighted to hear that Central Park had a locust grove; and even more delighted to hear that an immature Red-headed Woodpecker was there. Red-headed Woodpeckers, usually immature, not-very-red-headed ones, winter in the park from time to time. They’re acorn lovers, fond of open woodlands, forest edges, and fields with scattered trees – so in a pinch, Central Park is not a bad place for a young bird without an established territory, especially one that might be feeling the pinch of unusually low acorn crops throughout much of the eastern part of the continent.

Still, the Central Park locust grove is not much of a grove, only two strands of trees stretching from the theater along the edge of the Great Lawn. Not a candle to the Olde Homestead grove. The flocks of Blue Jays seemed to like it well enough, though, and plenty of other woodpeckers – Red-bellied, Downy, and a Northern Flicker. No Pileated, of course. But there was a lingering Hermit Thrush. And, after I walked it’s length twice and was getting ready to give up, the young star.

The neat thing about immature Red-headed Woodpeckers is that, without the bright flaming beacon of “Look no further! You have identified this bird!”, it’s easier to appreciate the rest of the bird’s aesthetics, like the patches of white adorning the wings when they fold over the back – patches that, in younger birds, often have random black splotches that allow for a degree of individual identification*. This particular individual looks a tiny bit like it has a Metroid character on its back. Sort of. If you squint.

The Gray-head moved up and down his chosen branch in plain view, to my delight, for long enough that I had to leave before zie did. On my way out of the park, I only had enough time for a quick look at the south side of the Reservoir, decorated in festive winter Hooded Mergansers, Shovelers, and Buffleheads. A single Pied-billed Grebe was mingling with the Mallards.

It’s amazing what you can see in an hour before work.

Birdstack list

*Which would later contribute to the realization that there are actually TWO immature Red-headed Woodpeckers wintering in Central Park.

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Of course, just because there were days when I didn’t “go birding” while I was in Florida doesn’t mean that I wasn’t looking for birds. Walking around the neighborhood and adventuring afield on errands turned up great stuff for the alert eye, like:

People? Yawn.

People? Yawn.

An incredibly confiding Red-shouldered Hawk which ignored leaf blowers, a large sanitation truck, and us as it caught the morning sun on a parking sign. No, it wasn’t wearing jesses.

A Cattle Egret that dashed practically underfoot in the parking lot of a supermarket, prompting me to wonder if it was using cars as “cattle”, either for the insects they flushed, or the lovely collection of sun-baked goodies they tend to collect on their grills….

Ibis in Swamp

Ibis in Swamp

As I mentioned before, vast numbers of White Ibises everywhere, along with Little Blue Herons…

And one more bird for my life list: a beautiful Yellow-throated Warbler that was traveling the neighborhood with a pack of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Titmice. This was an incredibly fortuitous bird; the Inimitable Todd and I had decided to go for a walk mostly just to get out of the house, and in the interest of taking the long way around we went up a street that we had no reason to be on. I heard an unfamiliar chirp and looked up just in time to see the bird flaunt its distinctive yellow throat, white belly, and striking black-and-white face.

So I returned to the chilly winds of New York well satisfied, and ready to start racking up some decidedly non-tropical birds….

The whole Florida trip on Birdstack

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Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling was an accomplished man; he won two Pulitzers for his editorial cartoons, founded the National Wildlife Federation, and came up with the idea for duck stamps. So it’s appropriate that he’s honored in the name of Sanibel Island’s famed mangrove-swamp preserve.

Still, I have to admit that his loopy signature is an odd logo to see as you drive into a national wildlife refuge; it looks more theme-parky than park parky, if you know what I mean. Or maybe that’s just the fact that I have a typical North American brain that was colonized by Walt Disney at an early age talking.

If that seems like an odd thing to criticize, just take it as a sign that I found nothing else to complain about while I was at Ding Darling, except that my time there was far, far too short. We needed to pick the Inimitable In-laws up at the mall in Sarasota (oh joy!) at noon. We left our host’s house with hope in our hearts and biscuits with sausage gravy in our stomachs (it’s the south, y’know?) around 7:30. The little sliver of time in between had to contain the return trip from Fort Meyers to Sarasota as well as my exploration of the fabled refuge.

In light of this, we decided to do the Wildlife Drive, a loop that takes you past otherwise inaccessible mangroves, shallow watery pans, creeks and woods. There are plenty of places to stop and get out along the way, which is a good thing, because there were a ton of things I wanted to get out and look at….

Things like a kettle of Magnificent Frigatebirds circling over the road and graciously providing much better views than my rain-soaked life Frigatebird back in March. Things like White AND Brown Pelicans floating leisurely like enormous bathtub toys. Things like flocks of Roseate Spoonbills feeding in the glittering distance, and a lone raccoon foraging on the mudflats among Little Blue Herons and assorted Egrets. Things like my life Reddish Egret.

The mangroves themselves were really neat; this is one of those ecosystems that you hear so much about, that is so evocative, that finally experiencing it can be a bit overwhelming. If you’ve never seen a mangrove, I can’t recommend this experience highly enough. If you’ve been, but were tragically dragged away before you could fully explore its wonders, well, you’ll just have to go back.

Trip list on Birdstack

Coming up next… meme-age and Florida odds-n-ends….

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Owls can be tricky. They’re mostly nocturnal, for starters. By day, your average owl keeps hirself very much to hirself, snuggled down in some tree hollow or snuggled up in dense evergreen foliage. Yet despite the fact that most people rarely or never see them, owls are compelling to humans. Maybe it’s the big binocular stare. Maybe it’s the erect posture, the often human-like expressions, the way the eared owls work their little tufts. Maybe it’s the mystery of silent wings in the night. Maybe their very elusiveness plays a role, preventing familiarity from breeding contempt. Anyway, a lot of people, birders and non-birders alike, have got it bad for owls.

Inimitable Todd is one of those people. And ever since he saw Bruce Yolton’s fabulous Screech Owl pictures in the Urban Hawks blog, he’s gone from mild affection to full-blown obsession. Now, I’m hardly in any position to deprecate someone with a case of birds on brain, so it became my mission to find some owls and look at them with him.

Togetherness is a wonderful thing, especially at the holidays.

In high spirits from the success of our Scrub Jay search, we turned the Iron Death Chariot towards Fort Myers. Our plans were solid; we would stop at a grocery to get lunch snacks and buy sangria fixin’s as a house-warming gift, meet up with one of Todd’s old friends (with whom we’d stay the night) and then go track down the owls in Cape Coral before darkness fell.

Unfortunately, our plan rested on the key assumption that we’d pass one of the many Publix that dot the Florida landscape or some other supermarket. This assumption seemed logical, since you can’t drive 500 yards anywhere else in Florida without passing a Publix.

But of course, when you assume, you make an ass out of you and the American retail establishment. No Publix were in evidence as we wended our way through the suburbs of Fort Myers. We met up with our host, dropped off our luggage, and headed out again. Though the weather was warm, the sun was in a hurry to get under the horizon. I began to worry.

Adding to my worries is the fact that the community of Cape Coral is a bit of a poor man’s Venice (and that man is poorer than ever these days, judging by the number of For Sale signs on lawns,) crisscrossed with little canals. This is super for boat owners, but since no one cared to build a bridge every block, not so convenient for driving. Moreover, though the layout is a grid, the streets are conveniently named things like SW 42nd ST, SW 42 Terrace, SW Forty-second Avenue, and SE 42 Road. So I was a bit nervous about even finding the place where the owls were supposed to be, let alone the owls.

The place where the owls were supposed to be was a sports complex, which we did find, replete with a couple of kids doing batting practice. We cruised slowly around the block-sized complex, spotting a number of suggestive roped-off mounds with holes in them, but no owls.

Ok, I thought, I can live with this. Sure, I really pumped the owls up to the Inimitable Todd, but he’d understand. One incredible new species for the life list is nothing to sneeze at; and look, there’s a Loggerhead Shrike on the telephone wire, I haven’t seen a Loggerhead Shrike in years, that’s a good bird, and no doubt I’ll be back in Florida again far sooner than I’d like, and there are also Burrowing Owls out west, and no doubt we’ll have a good day tomorrow, and it’s fine really….

“We should get out of the car and walk around,” said the Inimitable Todd, and swung into the parking lot.

No one ran up to shoo us away or charge us money or arrest us for trespassing, so we stepped out and began walking up the side of the road. I passed the rope-off mounds, 1, 2, 3, 4, and went to take another look at the Loggerhead Shrike. It looked down on me with something I imagined was very much like pity, but probably it was just annoyed that I was too big to eat.

“Hey, there’s an owl!” said the Inimitable Todd behind me.

Now, it is well-known that I can get a bit excited about birds. My first Brown Creeper, for instance, provoked me to interpretive dance. But Todd was over the moon about this owl. He stared at the owl. The owl stared at him. He gushed about its eyes. It stared at him. He snapped some photos, and I handed him the binoculars so he could attempt some digiscoping. It stared at him.

Burrowing Owl, Digiscoped

Burrowing Owl, Digiscoped

I myself was a bit moved as well. And impressed. Very impressed. The camouflage on this bird had to be seen to be believed. I had walked right by it, even though it was the target of all my hopes and dreams at the moment!

How did I miss this?

How did I miss this?

We walked the rest of the way up the block and found two more owls, which I had also missed. More photos were taken.

As the sun set, we cruised back to Fort Myers…. and found a Publix.

My Black Friday birds

Coming up next… we visit Ding Darling, the refuge that sounds like it’s named after a cartoonist for a very good reason.

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What to do with the day after the big Thanksgiving feast? I suppose, if you like to be traditional, you could trample a Wal-Mart employee to death or shoot someone over a disputed spot in line in Toys-R-Us. Or, you could go birding. I never was big on tradition, myself.

Armed with Nate’s helpful directions (from the apparently quite useful A Birder’s Guide to Florida (Lane Aba Birdfinding Guides Series #175)), the Inimitable Todd and I had two target species for the day: Florida Scrub Jay and Burrowing Owl. The Florida Scrub Jay, as the name suggests, is a canny corvid endemic to Florida*, where it is severely threatened by the decline of the scrub-oak habitat that it depends on. The Burrowing Owl, as the name suggests, is an adorable yet lethal big-eyed bird that lives in holes in the ground; it is notable for being one of the few species of owls that is frequently spotted in the open by day, and like the Florida Scrub Jay, it is being negatively impacted by the development mania that has been strangling the life out of Florida for nearly a century (although unlike the Jay, it has other bits of home range to fall back on.)

The drive from Tampa to Sarasota was a bit tedious, although as with all drives through Florida it was enlivened by massive kettles of Vultures, both Turkey and Black (no doubt scoping out the mall parking lots for the weak and sick among the thundering herds) and roughly 50 million Cattle Egrets stalking the road margins(not a scientific count.) I also spotted a Sandhill Crane, my year bird for the species, along the side of the road; it was only a brief look, but one of the wings appeared to be uncomfortably akimbo, which together with the recently-pegged Wood Stork and other roadkill that we passed along the way, put me in a somber and reflective frame of mind.

Still, once we ditched the Inimitable Parents with their friends in Sarasota (they wanted to hit the outlet stores) things began to look up. The Oscar Scherer State Park turned out to be near at hand, and a helpful ranger pointed us in the direction of the exact scrub where the Jays were given to hanging out. Under a sun that put me more in mind of July than November, we trekked across this fire-sculpted habitat – a landscape that is fascinating to the trained eye, but to the causal observer probably looks like a great place to throw down a mobile home park or a car dealership. Loud, buzzing insects (someone later told us they were Carolina locusts) jumped out of our path with nearly ever step, and a mature Bald Eagle gave us a quick thrill by swooping low over our heads, but the jays were not in evidence until we were juuuuuuuuust about to give up and go looking for water. Then and only then we spotted a single scout bird** standing tall at the top of the shrubbery. After a bit, it decided that we were no threat and came in for a closer look; another bird popped up as well, and a third could be heard rattling around in the bushes but remained more circumspect.

The IT made some goofy noises and pretended to have a peanut, since we’d heard that this would draw them in, but they figured him for a faker and remained aloof. (Later we learned that feeding the birds has been forbidden at the park, since it apparently leads them to breed too early in the season and reduces nesting success, so I guess it’s just as well that we didn’t go the whole hog and actually bring peanuts.) Still, he got one good shot of the scout bird, in an attitude suggestive of the species’ characteristic curious intelligence.

Sentinel Scrub Jay

Sentinel Scrub Jay

While we watched the Scrub Jays not fall for our ridiculous peanut ruse, our attention was suddenly diverted to a nearby bare tree. Three Black Vultures, looking particularly massive and black due to their unexpected proximity, swooped in and landed on the straggly branches – a picture-perfect tableaux that only got better when they began squabbling in a language of hisses and slow flaps. I got the impression that I was looking at two parents and a well-grown fledgling who was just not getting the message that it was time for hir to move out and go it alone. The fuzzy-headed youngster was not easily dissuaded, though, and the stand-off never did fully resolve; all three birds eventually settled down to scan the horizon for perishing shoppers.

Our way back was punctuated by more of the usual suspects; Catbirds and a few Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, a species that seems to be almost as eye-catching in Florida as it is invisible up in New York! But we didn’t have much time to savor them, for we had promises to keep, and owls to find before we sleeped…

*Although it is in fact the only species of bird endemic to Florida, the Florida Scrub Jay is not Florida’s state bird. That dubious honor has gone to the near-pandemic Northern Mockingbird. Attempts to rectify the situation have so far failed.

**Scrub jays, unlike other North American jays but like some of their larger corvid relatives, are cooperative breeders***; and even outside of breeding season family groups travel together, with one or two individuals standing lookout while the others forage.

*** Cooperative breeding is when young birds remain with their parents for one or several seasons, helping raise their younger siblings, rather than striking out for their own territory. When territory is severely limited (as it is with Florida Scrub Jays, who despite decades of pressure have shown no inclination or ability to breed anywhere except in Florida scrub) it makes a lot of sense for a young bird with limited territory-getting skills to contribute to the ongoing success of hir parents rather than risk making a fatal hash of things on hir own. Why the ubiquitous and seemingly infinitely-flexible American Crow should also partake of such a strategy is less clear, and yet, they do. Maybe they just have family values.

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I have a confession:

When I first moved to New York City, and up until this weekend, I had a merely passing interest in Pale Male and the other raptor superstars of the five burroughs. Sure, they’re birds. They’re big birds. I’m pleased when I see them; I’m irate when they’re threatened by human activity.

But at the Olde Homestead, there have always been Red-tails (my youngest brother is named after them, sort of.) And in Ithaca, there have always been Red-tails. As far as I’m concerned, there have always been Red-tails, and there will always be Red-tails. Red-tails without end, amen.

Nevertheless, Pale Male and his rotating cast of lady friends are about the only Manhattan celebrities I know anything about, and so a few years ago I gave the Inimitable MIL* a copy of Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park. To my not particularly great surprise, when we came to visit I discovered that the book had migrated to the guest bedroom. So I read it.

At once, I saw that my historical perspective on the birdlife of Central Park was lacking. This country gal had no idea exactly how ground-breaking Pale Male’s early nesting attempts were. Marie Winn does a good job communicating the excitement, although the lack of strict chronology and a single attempt to forge into the disreputable realms of Salinger pastiche were distracting; she also balances her main storyline sure-handedly with vignettes of the other birds in the park, as well as insects, plants, and people. Given her infectious enthusiasm, it’s no surprise that Winn now has an excellent nature blog of her own.

Besides the fact that Red-tails, and Red-tail nests, and Red-tail triumphs and Red-tail tragedy are now old hat to jaded Manhattanites, much has changed in the park. Screech Owls were once not there, now they are; Gadwalls have gone beyond increasing to increased; and Mississippi Kites have been added to the park’s fly-over hawk list. Perhaps they might be the next city-nesting superstars?

*she is unto mother-in-laws like House Sparrows are to Sparrows – almost like one but not, in technical point of fact, actually one at all. Also, ubiquitous.

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