Saturday, February 23, 2013

A quiet morning on the wetlands

When we moved from New Mexico to South Florida in 2004, we resolved to spend all our winters there. Even after we purchased a condo in NE Illinois near our daughter's family we rarely ventured north after late October. This winter we scheduled an unusually late visit to celebrate our son-in-law's birthday, but it was marred by his serious accident in early November, when he broke both legs in a fall from a tree stand. 

In early January, while he was still bedridden, our daughter fell and broke two bones in her lower leg. So far we have spent most of the months of October through February in Illinois, helping them and our two young granddaughters. His parents flew in to assist, and this allowed us to return to Florida for a few weeks to host house guests at Christmas and again in late January. There appears to be light at the end of the tunnel, as this week our daughter was able to bear weight (but not drive for 5 more weeks), and her husband drove to his Chicago office after an absence of over 3 months. 

Here in Illinois we have been occupied with domestic tasks-- transporting the girls and the patients to and from school and medical appointments respectively, preparing meals (etc.), and have spent little time afield. I prepared this post in late December, but all of the above, plus the hatching of our local eaglet, my encounter with the snipes, and especially the Whooping Crane excitement caused me to postpone publication.  

Their two Tibetan Mastiffs have been good company. Weighing over 100 pounds each, they love the snow and cold.

Agramonte and Sagua 20130222

To top it off, there have been problems with Internet connectivity that had to remain a low priority. Luckily, this post remained in Blogger as an unpublished draft. By now the mockingbirds and cardinals are singing there, so although a bit late, it permits me to keep my commitment to post every week. It describes a mid-winter walk into the recovering Everglades mitigation area adjacent to our home:

We enjoyed another pink dawn before walking out on our local South Florida wetlands patch. This photo was taken about 15 minutes before sunrise on December 12, 2012.

Sunset HDR 20121212

Along the way there was a noticeable lack of bird sounds. Gray Catbirds, mostly out of sight, mewed softly.

Gray Catbird 20121213

This Blue Jay emitted a remarkable imitation of a Red-shouldered Hawk, then an Osprey call.

Blue Jay 20121213

From an overhead wire, a people-watching Eastern Phoebe peered down quizzically at a bird-watcher.

Eastern Phoebe 20121213

As if to brighten things up, a Common Yellowthroat chattered from the brush, then posed nicely out in the open.

Common Yellowthroat COREL 20121211

It was an unusually quiet morning for birding, quite a departure from the previous two weeks, when pelicans and spoonbills were present on the wetlands lake. At first it was moderately foggy, causing soft photos. I processed this one of an adult Little Blue Heron in black and white in an attempt to overcome the scattering of light by the atmospheric conditions.

Little Blue Heron monochrome 20121213

Predictably, American Kestrels have returned to spend the winter here. I witnessed an interesting interaction between two of them. I believe both were males, and they were probably competing for foraging territory. Taken at a distance, my photos are poor.

American Kestrels interacting 20121213

American Kestrels interacting 2-20121213

Following the encounter, one of the kestrels flew off, and the "winner" occupied the coveted top of an Australian Pine.

American Kestrel 20121211

A preoccupied Red-bellied Woodpecker shared a branch just beneath the kestrel.

Red-bellied Woodpecker on Australian Pine 20121213

The kestrel then settled on a wire in the abandoned utility easement, joining a Loggerhead Shrike that protested mildly. Coincidentally, the next day the wire, which has hosted scores of my photo subjects since 2004, was taken down by the utility company! (See my story about this wire here)

Kestrel and shrike 2-20121213

A Great Egret was fishing in a flooded area next to the lake.

Great Egret 20121213

An immature Little Blue Heron flew by,

Little Blue Heron immature 20121213 did this Ring-billed Gull, carrying something in its mouth.

Ring-billed Gull carrying object 20121213

Pied-billed Grebes were quite vocal, clucking like little chickens.

Pied-billed Grebe 20121213

On our way out, this Northern Mockingbird was reluctant to vacate a post at the entrance to our subdivision.

Northern Mockingbird 20121213

I think I can see my reflection in its eye.

My reflection in mockingbird's eye 20121213

Our back yard actually had quite a bit of action later that afternoon. The White Ibises were out in large numbers. Nearly all are now in full adult plumage.

White Ibises 3-20121211

My telephoto lens has such a limited field of view that I had to back up to fit this Great Blue Heron into the photo as it foraged along the margin of our lake.

Great Blue Heron 3-20121211

A couple of ibises "spoiled" this image of the heron.

Great Blue Heron with ibises 20121211

The heron continued to walk towards me, and I had to back up into my next door neighbor's yard for full-frame views.

Great Blue Heron 2-20121211

In the meantime, I tried not to disturb an Anhinga that was drying its wings on my next door neighbor's lawn.

Anhinga 2-20121211

The Anhinga did not take kindly to my approach, and assumed a posture that looked threatening. 

Anhinga 20121211

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Latest chapter in Whooping Crane saga ends with capture

Mary Lou and I got out about 15 minutes before sunrise on the morning of February 10th, hoping to see the male Whooping Crane #15-12 ("Cypress") that was the subject of my earlier post, A Lonely Whooping Crane. I had expressed concerns about the lone crane's survival skills, and thought it might be in jeopardy if left without others of its kind.

We had missed sighting it the past 3 days, and our neighbor Scott also had not seen it at the spot the crane liked to visit, just across the street from his home. As usual, Mary Lou walked up ahead of me while I took a few "shots in the dark..." well, semi-darkness. She continued the full 1 1//2 miles into the wetland preserve and then returned home at her customary fast pace.

An immature Little Blue Heron hunted along a row of sedges. Under-exposed, I liked the color cast by the filtered light of dawn in the still air.

Little Blue Heron immature 20130210

This Osprey was silouhetted against the sky, and when I processed the shot I had to push the brightness all the way up.

Osprey 20130210

I kept vigil, hoping I had gotten there before the crane departed for its foraging grounds. Looking towards the Everglades, to the west over the lake, the sky had a pre-dawn glow. I tried to overlook the deep tracks in the mud flats, created by the ATV riders. The crane usually emerged from a field just in front of the green trees to the far right in this photo.

Harbour Lakes mitigation lake HDR 20130210

My cell phone rang. It was Mary Lou, telling me that she had met two wildlife specialists at the entrance gate, Jeanette and Ricardo, from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. They were asking about the crane. She related that I was about 1/2 mile up the gravel road, looking for it. The gate was locked and they could not access with their truck, so they rode their bicycles in. On the way in, they picked up the signal from Cypress-- in the direction of my neighbor Scott's home. Jeanette was carrying the receiver and antenna when she pedaled towards me. This crane did not carry a satellite locator, so ground reports were important to allow the researchers to know the general area in which they might track it with the short-range equipment.

Jeannette 20130210

I texted Scott and he confirmed that the crane was indeed on his front lawn. We entered the Harbour Lakes subdivision and encountered the crane just across the street from Scott's house.

Crane is wary 20130210

Jeanette spent over an hour gaining the crane's confidence. Several times it appeared spooked when pedestrians and especially those walking dogs came by. She fed the crane green grapes and corn.

Crane eating grape 20130210

It stepped in and out of the snare but Jeanette wanted a perfect capture. Her body language calmed the crane. She never walked directly towards the bird, but rather approaced it at an angle and usually looked away from it.

Jeanette builds trust 20130210

Several feral Muscovy Ducks and White Ibises joined in the feeding. Auto traffic increased as parents transporting children to schools and commuters heading to work moved by rapidly. We had to divert pedestrians, as the crane showed signs of being alarmed and prepared to fly. Then, the crane started walking away, across the road.

Crane walks away 20130210

Jeanette donned a white sheet similar to that used when the cranes are reared, as it hides the human form.

Jeanette in sheet 20130210

The crane actually came running to her! Within minutes the crane was captured. Here is a short video showing the entire sequence of events (Correction-- my lens system is 420 mm, not 720 mm-- I use a 300 mm + 1.4x extender).

Scott took this photo of Ricardo and Jeanette at the conclusion of the capture. It is ironic that it was Scott who first photographed the crane after its arrival in the wetlands, and now he took the final photo to document its departure. (© 2013 Scott McPherran, used with his permission).

Ricardo and Jeannette by Scott 20130210

Soon Cypress was safely on his way to join a mixed flock of adult Whooping and Sandhill Cranes in the Lake Okeechobee area.

Scott Crane Photo Jeannette 20120210Ken

The female crane #13-12 ("Tussock") recovered and was earlier released in Tennessee (See the interesting local newspaper account here). A US Fish and Wildlife news release with a video link may be viewed here.

While I am excited about the possibility that an Eastern migratory population of Whooping Cranes may be established by this program, I must admit to some concerns about this captive-bred crane. These birds are shielded from human contact while they are raised. They are fed using crane puppets and not exposed to human handlers unless the latter are draped in white sheets to hide their identity. (View WCEP slide show on training captive cranes.)

Perhaps it would be better if they learned to fear humans at some point before being released into the wild. These two birds permitted many people to approach them very closely, including youngsters on ATVs. Lacking fear of humans, they visited suburban lawns and even walked up to people. Might it have been a good idea to teach them that humans should be avoided? What if the first people they saw shot off firecrackers or clanged pots and pans to frighten them? Perhaps this would discourage them from approaching human habitations, and yet permit them to adapt to a more urbanized winter habitat.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A lonely Whooping Crane

Most mornings this past week we have gotten out early to check on the welfare of the juvenile male Whooping Crane #12-15 who now wanders alone in our local wetlands and residential neighborhood. The female # 12-13 that accompanied him in his migration from Wisconsin and subsequent wanderings in south Florida suffered a foot injury and malnutrition. She is receiving verterinary care and rehabilitation at Disney Animal Kingdom in Orlando. For more information, see this earlier post on Birding is Fun.

Since losing his companion, the male has followed a fairly regular pattern of spending nights in a secluded corner of our birding patch the wetlands adjacent to our home, just this side of the patch of green trees in the background. Notice that the water levels have receded enough to allow the ATVs to trespass at will into the posted "protected" wetlands.

Crane hideaway 20130207

He is barely visible unless he emerges from behind the cattails that encircle a small pond which surely provides a food source.

Whooping Crane #15-2012 20130130

He usually flies out about 30 to 45 minutes after sunrise, and heads for a residential area just north of our home. Although the International Crane Foundation recommends that humans should not approach any closer than 200 yards, the bird often spends much of the day in the same spot, a broad patch of lawn between two homes. When I first saw him there he was standing right next to the sidewalk. I took these photos from the other side of the street, only about 40 feet away. I was impressed at how tall he is.

Whooping Crane 15 3-20130205

A pedestrian walked by, his posture suggesiting that he was deeply in thought or meditating. He seemed not to even see the crane, less than 10 feet away.

Whooping Crane 15 and pedestrian 20130205

I am concerned about the survival chances of a lone bird. Many species, notably geese and Sandhill Cranes, forage with others of their kind, but one member of the group always has its head up high looking for danger.This crane forages on a lawn that is certainly laced with fertilizer, herbicides and possibly pesticides.He has been seen eating acorns, but they are now in short supply, so they are not a reliable food source. Most of the wetlands are dried up. Earlier it had foraged along the canals but they are mostly dry. The receding water levels of the lakes and canals do provide rather extensive areas of exposed mud that attracts other birds.

One morning this week as we walked out before sunrise, the fog was lifting just above Mary Lou's head.

Fog lifting at sunrise 20130207

Only a few minutes later, the male surprised us by flying up from his overnight resting area just as the sun was coming up.He headed directly towards the residential subdivision, which is just north of our home. Eleven minutes later, instead of following his usual habit of staying there for much of the morning, he returned to the prairie location, and disappeared behind the stand of cattails, remaining there for over a half hour before once again flying up towards the cluster of homes.

Whooping Crane 12-15 at 0835AM  20130207

After he flew over the wires behind the houses, he turned back 180 degrees and headed towards me, landing at the east shore of the lake in the conservation easement/mitigation area that we call our birding patch..

Whooping Crane 12-15 at 0839AM  20130207

The crane preened, then foraged actively. 

Whooping Crane 12-15 at 0858AM  20130207

Whooping Crane 12-15 at 0849AM  20130207

I could not identify its prey. Boat-tailed Grackles were in abundance, and they were finding food in the mud along the shore. White Ibises, Tricolored and Little Blue Herons as well as Great and Snowy Egrets were taking aquatic prey. I hid next to a clump of high grass, and the crane seemed not to notice me. The crane exhibited more situational awareness than when it was in the residential area. When the other waders and blackbirds suddenly flushed (I am not sure why, but they acted as if an eagle, harrier or Peregrine flew over), the crane became very alert and held his head high. He looked up into the sky as a gull flew over. 

Whooping Crane 12-15 at 0850AM  20130207

Then he seemed to notice me and kept looking my way. Soon afterward he took flight and disappeared in the direction of his nighttime resting spot on the wet prairie.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Common Nighthawk is honored

What started my fascination with birds? When I delve deeply into the recesses of my memory, I find no sudden epiphany. I recall looking out the back window of our second story apartment onto the flat roof of the dry cleaner’s store, where a nighthawk was sitting on its eggs. My father had discovered it and pointed it out to me. It was interesting to see that the eggs were laid directly on the roof pebbles, without any semblance of a nest. A few days later, the eggs suddenly disappeared. In their place, unbelievably well-camouflaged, were two chicks. Knowing the date we moved away, I was no older than four years. It sticks in my memory, but did it light a flame? (From my review of Avian Architecture)

The Common Nighthawk seems a rather inauspicious creature to be proclaimed as the American Birding Association's Bird of the Year. Yet its designation delights me, as one might surmise from my above comments about the species. 

Since moving to south Florida I have had interesting encounters with migrating flocks as well as locally nesting nighthawks. Most challenging have been my attempts to capture their airborne images. Their halting, herky-jerky flight pattern guarantees many frames of blurred wingtips and tailtips, or more commonly,open sky.

I am delighted when one tilts just so, to allow the early sun to illuminate its undersides.

Common Nighthawk 20110602

It zigs just when I expect it to zag.

Common Nighthawk 20120419

As if to spoil my profile shot, it opens its gaping mouth.

Common Nighthawk 20110427

It can look like a bump on a rock, confident that its camouflage protects it from view.

Common Nighthawk 20110419

Conventionally, it perches lengthwise on branches...

Common Nighthawk at sunrise 20110422

...but then defies convention by performing a high-wire act.

Common Nighthawk onwire 20110501

A pair of nighthawks was acting territorial. One swooped down and "boomed" just over my head as I stood in the middle of the gravel road. It repeated the action several times as I moved along, landing down in front of me.

Common Nighthawk 2-20110605

The next morning, Mary Lou was ahead of me as we walked along the edge of the road. Suddenly a nighthawk flew up right in front of her-- it actually flew towards her, then fell to the ground, flopping and rolling as if in agony. It was obviously a distraction display, and the amount of energy that went into it suggested that she had nearly stepped on the eggs (or more likely young birds). I had to set the camera on macro to get these shots, as the bird allowed a very close approach before moving away. We briefly examined the area but did not see any eggs or young-- not surprising, as they can be well camouflaged.

Common Nighthawk 20120614

Later in the day, a nighthawk flew up from this nesting site along the edge of the road. Since the eggs are far apart, perhaps the bird was shading them from the sun with her wings rather than sitting on them. 

Common Nighthawk eggs 20120613

Back on its "nest," the nighthawk, photographed from a safe distance, was almost invisible. Interestingly, they have been known to relocate their eggs if disturbed, rolling them rather than picking them up in their mouth as was once believed.

 Common Nighthawk 20110420