Friday, July 28, 2006

No Longer Bitter(n) in the Least

Nemesis Bird.

A term describing any particular birds that one can never seem to find, no matter how hard one tries. Usually includes the more maddening element that several people JUST saw it before you arrive or just after you have left.

Mine has been the Least Bittern for years. I have gotten used to phrases such as, "I don't understand. There are usually 3 or 4 in here every time I go through..." and reports of sightings in places I have driven through just the morning before and came up empty.

After a large influx of Bittern sightings reported out at Viera Wetlands treatment plant near Melbourne, I took advantage of a rare Sunday without banding scheduled and drove over to be there by daybreak. I was assured I should be able to find several glimpses of my target bird. No problem!

I took a drive around the 'click ponds' counting wading birds and a few alligators and then headed over toward the wetlands proper. Posted on the chain link fence near the front office was an impromptu sign. A message, hastily written in marker, read, "Wetlands closed. Line break."

Gripping the steering tightly, I turned to car back toward Orlando. Might have even cursed. I pictured those little herons discovering my scheme to locate them the night before and working feverishly to make a hole in the pipeline in an effort to spoil my day.

The following morning the wetlands were reported open again. Least Bitterns were reported. Of course.

Ah, well. There will always be next year. I actually thought that. Bah!

Two weeks later found another opening in the schedule and the niggling need to find that bird kept brushing up against the back of my brain. At 5:30 AM on July 16th I started my drive toward the wetlands. So did a lot of other birders.

The drive was more crowed than usual. A number of super-huge lenses were poking out of slow moving vehicles. I was focusing more on sighting my Nemesis.

The usual suspects were easy. Common Moorhens escorted many, many chicks. Limpkins hung close to the pickerel weeds near the road. Ibis glided in as the sun rose higher in the morning sky. Oddly, I saw NO raptors the whole day. However, there were more Black-bellied Whistling Ducks than I have ever seen in one place. The first trip I ever made to Viera found zero BBW Ducks. Now they are breeding there.

It took more than an hour, but I finally saw a small bird weaving through a stand of bulrushes. At last! The Least Bittern hunt was over! I took a few really bad shots and then saw another Bittern farther out, walking on the lily pads out in the open. Whew!

I was content to head home at this point. The images weren't that great but were enough to verify my find. The check mark could hit the list after nearly 6 years of searching. Since it was still early I decided to swing around the wetlands a bit more. Who knew what might show up.

Same species as before. Added a pair of Least Terns, a few American Coots, Tri-colored and Great Blue Herons. Found a few more Bitterns along the way. Slightly closer than before but nothing to share on the photo web sites. Then...

While taking some shots of a Moorhen with a couple chicks in tow I glanced over to the left and noticed a couple of birders back on one of the berms. The man was near the shoreline next to a small clump of bulrushes. He had a standard 50mm lens and was getting low to the ground and snapping away.

"He's got a Least Bittern right next to the road!" I figured. Had to be. There were no other birds in sight. Now I had to get over there. Problem is, all of the roads are one way and I was already past the spot they were at. I needed to get all the way around the berms again, and fast! And hope the bird stayed put.

I safely drove around the roads as quick as possible, trying not to attract too much attention to my urgency. 15 minutes later I eased up to spot I thought was were I saw the couple earlier.

The Bittern was still there! It was so busy searching for small minnows that it didn't even look up when I stepped out of the car. I shot a roll of film and a lot of digitals. From as close as 8 feet from the Bittern.

Least Bittern

All those guys shooting birds from 60 yards away with giant lenses and here I was right next to my subject. Just the way I like it. I headed home. If I were walking, there would have been a spring in my step. A leap in the air for good measure. Instead I drove and smiled.

Main lesson of the day: When birding, don't just look for birds. Pay attention to fellow birders. They sometimes will tip you off to something that makes your day.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Out of the Burrow

I have seen many Burrowing Owls in the past. However, they were all in either zoos or being rehabed at sanctuaries. Nothing I could ever include on a Life List of any note.

In the Spring of 2006 there started to be a lot of postings about sightings of the wild owls in various locations in the state. All of them to the south. Far to the south. A day trip to south side of Lake Ockeechobee is almost always out of the question for me at any time.

I grew unhappily used to the fact that the owls would remain off the List for the near future. Then I got an email on Friday afternoon.

Seems there was a group of Burrowing Owls living in a rural area (won't be for long by the looks of it) located just a bit north of Orlando. A trip of an hour is much more doable on almost any day. I picked an opportune evening and headed out.

Following the brief but perfect directions, I arrived at the site not long before sundown. Being new to the area I thought it might take a little extra time tracking the owls down. Would they even be out at this time of the day?

I didn't have to look too hard. As I neared the zone where they were said to be, owl Number One hopped up onto a fence next to the road.

Burrowing Owl

Soon, I found more and more of them. Several adults were keeping watch over the area, chasing off other birds and the resident Rottweiler running after rabbits in the fenced in yard. Behind another fence, owl chicks scurried around through the low weeds. This particular bird seemed to be in charge of lookouts. He let me get to within 15 feet for a series of images.

Burrowing Owl

Even now and then, depending on the wind blowing in from a developing thunderstorm, several owls would man the fence surrounding the chicks. This was my favorite shot of them taken just before I had to escape the rain.

Burrowing Owl

Glad to know we have owls a little more in reach, although this group has probably moved on since the babies have grown. Even better to know that friends are around to spread the joy!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Screech Owl Rescue

One should always be alert for birds because you NEVER know when you might find one.

We all have our daily routine and daily drives to and from work. Over time you can get a knowledge of what birds you should be seeing during a certain day in a certain time of year. Having only heard one Barred Owl in my neighborhood in 13 years any owl sighting would be unusual.

So, imagine the surprise when I almost ran one down on a nice, sunny morning on the way to work.

As I approached a familiar curve leading through a quiet, bricked street neighborhood I noticed a 'pile' of gray right where the road began to turn to the left. The car ahead of me drifted to the right as it took the curve and went around the mass.

I decided I would straddle it and adjusted my direction to make sure no wheels ran over what I believed to be dead squirrel. I was approaching quickly and almost upon it and began to grasp the wheel to follow the curve and then...

...a head swiveled around toward me and blinked a weary eye.

I hit the breaks quickly, my bumper stopping just short of the owl. I looked in the rearview mirror and found, to my surprise, that there was no traffic coming up behind me. Usually, this stretch of road is fairly busy. No one was behind me for a good mile or more.

I backed up and threw the gears into park and jumped out to assess the situation. The owl looked a bit battered and seemed to have sustained a bump on the head. Its eyes took turns trying to open as I got closer and tried to figure the best way to get it out of harms way. Mockingbirds started to buzz the owl.

I moved it closer to the curb with my foot, knowing that a well placed grab with a talon could do some serious damage to my fingers. It flapped slightly but didn't seem to want to fly. I finally grasped the bird from behind and moved it up onto the grass and farther from the street.

Traffic began to approach so I jumped back into the car and quickly began to circle the block, looking for a place to park so I could get back and see what else I could do for the owl. I managed to stop a couple blocks away and parked, grabbed the camera, and hurried over to the scene.

A man who lived across the corner had seen me move the owl and came over to check it out. Another man walking his dog joined him and they were watching to owl as birds continued to shriek and buzz it. We said our hellos and I kneeled down to get a shot of our new patient.

If I could ever imagine cartoon stars circling and injured animal's head, this was the poor fella.

Screech Owl

It had clicked its bill as I moved it earlier but never opened an eye wider than that. There was a small wound on the top of the owl's head just behind the right eye. There was a little blood but nothing life-threatening. As we discussed whether we should get it to a place for care another Screech Owl appeared across the street. I headed over to see if it, too, was injured but it flew up into the oaks where it was quickly mobbed by Mockingbirds, Blue Jays, and Fish Crows.

The newer owl didn't seem to mind the din and held firm about 40 feet above the street watching us and the hurt bird. Was it a mate? I had first thought the bird in the street was a young owl but changed my mind after a closer look and decided it was, indeed, a grown Screech Owl. A mate seemed to be a logical conclusion.

After thinking it over, especially after seeing the other owl join in, I determined that the best course of action would be to take the dazed owl across the street closer to the watching owl and find it a more secluded shelter so that the worried, mobbing birds wouldn't disturb it.

I picked up the owl, waited for a clearing in traffic and walked it across the street to a clearing in a group of plants. I was happy to see that once I released it this time it seemed to perk up for once. I grabbed one more photo before heading out back to work. I would stop by later to check on its progress.

Screech Owl

I called the local bird sanctuary and they thought I did the right thing and it should be alright after a rest. Later that afternoon, I stopped by to see how things were. Unlike the morning, the air was quiet. Both of the owls were gone. I will assume that the bird rested and flew off to have a happy life.

So, the next time you see something in the road be sure to avoid hitting it. You never know when it might just turn and stare at you!

For a sightly larger view of these images and a couple more Screech Owls, click here.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Swallow-tailed Kites

A recent post on a Florida birding list and another personal sighting made me remember that I hadn't posted anything on Swallow-tailed Kites since the best shots I got were during the "Time of the Washington Birds" posts. So many posts based on one trip seem to cry out for its own era.

The latest sighting was in a strange spot, to me. Smack over a neighborhood in a crowed portion of Greater Orlando. Even though Kites are very common in Florida through most of the Summer, they are usually seen over open fields or scattered woodlands. Seeing that bird in an urban area was even enough to raise a "Cool!" from my oldest son.

He was also with me recently when we had a pair flying close by in another location and really thinks they are pretty neat. He was actually the first to see a Kite as we headed to a reliable spot to view them.

On the eastern edge of the Lake Apopka North Shore Restoration Area (LANSRA), is a route leading to the restoration area called Lust Road. The public section of Lust Road leads past a few open areas of brushy fields and ends at the LANSRA gate and is a favorite stop for many birders, especially in Winter.

The main reason to stop by in late Spring and Summer is a pretty good chance to see some Swallow-tailed Kites soaring over a weedy field to the south, scanning for something to eat. Every now and then they will swoop down toward the ground and either grab something or wheel back upward and continue scanning.

During the Winter months, this aerial ballet is taken over by Northern Harriers that stalk small birds and snakes which frequent the 3-5 foot weeds which stretch out for miles beyond the locked gates.

Swallow-tailed Kites primarily search for insects, reptiles, and amphibians. They were doing so after my son and I finished up helping on a check of owl boxes in Zellwood and I decided we should see what we could see on the way home.

Besides having the closest views of wild Swallow-tailed Kites, the feeding behavior they were going through was very interesting. There were many times when I could see the Kites pursuing insects. They flew by so quickly that I was spending most of my time trying to urge my camera to focus. I didn't even know I had a bug on film until I saw the prints.

Can you find the bug that was about to become part of lunch?

Swallow-tailed Kite

My older Pentax with autofocus was whining constantly as it was sometimes finding a Kite to lock onto and, more often, missing to target and zooming to infinity. Times like these make me want to snap the lens from the camera body but I stayed with it as long as possible. Every so often I managed to get an OK image.

Swallow-tailed Kite

The most interesting thing for the day was the feeding behavior being used by this pair. They would swoop into the dark green weeds and actually grab clumps of vegetation before angling upward again. Then, they would level out and use one foot to hold the weeds and the other to pull pieces away one by one.

Finally, all that was left was the insect which they would eat on the wing and continue to loop back around and dive for the next batch of insect-bearing weeds. Once they made their way to the end of the fenced area, they would cross the road and swing back toward the fields.

On the closest pass while we were there, a Kite flew directly over me. Maybe 12-15 feet right over my titled head which had a whining camera pressed tightly to it. I ended up with a full frame shot of the Kite's tail.

The next opportunity for an overhead fly-by proved much better. The bird was a little higher, maybe 20-25 feet as it flew over, and managed to cross directly over again. Not knowing how any of these shots might end up, we headed home and dropped off the film.

I was pleased to get at least one nice full frame shot. Look closely and you can even see the grasshopper that was just prized from a clump of weeds moments before.

Swallow-tailed Kite

Pretty soon the Kites will head south, making their way down into South America. I am hoping to run out to Lust Road again before they leave. If I can't make that, we still see them when we band birds out at Wekiva Springs. This years there have been up to 12 Kites circling at a time as the air heats up.

If you would like to see some Swallow-tailed Kites from Wekiva and larger versions of these shots, head over to my photo site and check them out.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

2006 Bird Babies

It has been a pretty successful breeding year around the neighborhood. Still looking for new Titmice but none so far. Let's take a look at what has been showing up this Spring and early Summer.

This year, the Cardinals moved their nesting spot. The past 2 years they have nested in a palm just outside our bedroom. I got some good shots of them 2 years ago and those shots are posted here.

We started seeing this year's young soon after they left the nest and started following their folks toward the feeders. We got home from a camping trip when I started hearing lot peeping, after a while, located where it was coming from. Now I know a Cardinal chick call pretty well.

They were often moving around the yard constantly. I finally managed to get a shot during one of the times that the Dad was feeding the baby boy. There was also a female chick this year and she feeds regularly at the feeder outside the kitchen window.


We had Cardinals breed just outside my office and I heard them all over the area. In late Spring, a pair of Cardinals decided to set up a nest right outside the front door of my in-law's home. The egg in the picture never hatched but the other two chicks survived and left the nest.


It was another good year for the Pileated Woodpeckers at Mead Gardens. They nested in a new tree this year and I found the whole family of four out one evening and managed to get a quick shot of one of the chicks as it checked me out as it followed the parents around the oaks.

Pileated Woodpecker

Mead also supported the first baby Barred Owls I have ever seen. I got a few shots of them one evening and those shots can be found in the bottom row of this page.

A trip to EPCOT this May revealed a very active colony of Purple Martins with a LOT of chicks patiently waiting for their parents to return with food. These are two of my favorite shots.


I especially like this chick with an almost bored expression.


I have also confirmed that the Blue Jays and Red-bellied Woodpeckers bred in the backyard area. There was also a sighting of a Great-crested Flycatcher feeding a chick in the tree right next to the house. A first for my yard counts.

The only sad note, so far, is that the Northern Mockingbirds lost their chicks. They had set up house in a small oak at the edge of the driveway. It was not a very well kept secret. Usually they nest in bushes well out of sight.


The morning after I took this shot I checked the nest again and it was empty. I wouldn't be surprised if the abundant Fish Crows got them. More crows around this year than in previous years.

I am sure there are more babies around. House Finches have been found nesting nearby and I bet the hawks are busy feeding young ones after seeing more and more hunting in the area lately. Definitely still worth paying attention.

Monday, July 03, 2006

The First Shall be the Last: Black Brant

The main reason I got interested in Dungeness Spit in the first place was reading that it was a good spot to find Brant. They are actually referred to as Black Brant in parts of the Pacific even though they are the same species as those found on the Atlantic coast. The Atlantic birds are supposedly more white, though I have yet to spot them here. Reports in the Winter sometimes place them off an island south of Melbourne.

With the crummy weather that had dropped on top of the area as I began the hike, I wasn't feeling I would be that successful. However, after a mile of so up the beach a large bird flew in from the south and right past me. Letting the wind hold the umbrella against my back I managed a shot.


'Had to be a Brant', I thought to myself (and probably said aloud) and followed it down the waves. It landed father out from me so I still couldn't be sure. Especially in the rain. It eventually drifted closer to the beach. More bad lighting was my companion.


I had to keep up the pace to the lighthouse before the tide turned on me so I struggled on in the weather and picked out a few different birds along the way. Shortly, a flock appeared over the waves and flew in circles around me.


This time, I could clearly see the marking by eye and knew I had the Brants. The rest of the birds I would find on the hike would be gravy. The planning worked out. I had the Brant and the Harlequin Ducks and later a new Grebe, Merganser, Cormorant, and Loon.

I had a great view of Harbor Seals just as I arrived at the entry way to the lighthouse.

Harbor Seals

Despite the cold, wind, and rain I was more than happy. Completing the hike was the larger challenge but I was strangely less tired than I thought I might be by the time I got back to the car. Several new Life birds will do that to you.

I would still find more Lifers that day. You can find posts to those Lifers by digging through the archives.

This post is the final of the birds from our March Washington state trip. Finally...

Now I can start catching up on local happenings.
Next up, babies in the neighborhood.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Harlequin Duck

Once I started to research the Dungeness Spit area I was finding a lot of mentions of Harlequin Ducks. Once I saw a picture of them I knew I had to find one on the trip. I penciled in the Spit as the most likely place I should be able to find a few.

Actually, we found a few on a quick stop at a beach on Whidbey Island. Some nice, distant, teasing glimpses of these awesome painted ducks. We headed to another small stretch of beach and they actually ended up closer to the shore while feeding in the surf.

Harlequin Duck

By the time I had made the trip to the Dungeness Lighthouse and back I managed to rack up several Harlequins as expected.

Harlequin Duck

It was actually harder for me to get a shot of the females. Can't remember why. I seem to remember they were diving as much or more and probably stayed behind the males from my point of view.

Harlequin Duck

Maybe they were just a little more shy since they were out with less makeup than their boyfriends?

Harlequin Duck

Glad I could add these birds to the list. Now if I can find them when there isn't a 40 mph wind blowing in my face...

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Black Oystercatcher

Having just found the unexpected Eurasian Wigeon after I left the Dungeness area I decided to look for any other birding spots in the guide that I could swing by on the way back to base.

There was a small park that only contained a Goldeneye and young Bald Eagle. There was another area listed as good but might take hours to go through so I had to pass. Then there was a marina on the list: The John Wayne Marina.

Yep. John Wayne. The land was donated by the family and the marina was built in the 80s. The Duke apparently loved the area. The more I look at how much more I could have seen in this area if I had time I can see why. Beautiful spot.

Wasn't sure what to find here that I hadn't seen but it was a nice place to check just in case. Glad I did. I still had yet to get a Black Oystercatcher on this trip and was sure I would have had one way before now.

There were some Barrow's Goldeneyes and a Bufflehead or two. Had a great view of a Pelagic Cormorant as I stared out across Sequim Bay. The water was flowing out very fast as the tide turned.

Then there was a sound coming from out on the rocks of the breakwater. A high-pitched piping of two birds landing next to one another. A quick check through the bins revealed that it was, indeed, a pair of Black Oystercatchers. No chance for any good shot from there, though.

I shrugged. At least I had found them. I began to head back toward the parking lot when I heard the piping again and turned in time to see the birds soar over to the rocks that I had just been standing on! A slow steady pace back to the spot found them about 20 feet below the top of the rocks but gave great views.


Once again, that finding something once you give up worked for me a lot on this trip. Next time I hope to explore this area and some surrounding islands and marshes much more.

Still have to get that Snowy Owl, after all.