Thursday, November 3, 2011

Big Brown Bird with a sharp tongue and a limp

As a child, back in New Jersey, I often took vicarious birding trips to the sub-Tropics. Roger Tory Peterson was my virtual companion (See my review of Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson). I remember looking through my 1939 Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds at such exotic southern birds as the Wood Ibis (now properly known as Wood Stork), White Ibis and Limpkin. None of these three were included among Peterson's glossy plates. The former appeared as an ink drawing of its head, comparing it to the White Ibis, which also was not otherwise depicted. (The Reddish Egret, another Deep South specialty, was considered to be so rare that it did not even deserve an image).

A Limpkin was shown calling, and Roger described its cry as "A loud, repeated wail, Kree-ow, Kra-ow , etc., especially at night:"

All these birds had two things in common: they were long-legged waders that I imagined moving through still water among moss-draped  trees, and I held out little hope of ever seeing any of them. In those post-Depression days our travel was constrained by the limitations of our family car, a 1937 Ford sedan that, while younger than I,  already was showing signs of age. Its exhaust pipe spewed blue smoke, and Dad carried at least a couple of spare rebuilt fuel pumps and extra inner tubes so that he could install replacements when they failed on the road. (I eventually inherited this car and its problems, some aggravated by my own foibles: (Chickie the Cops!)

For our family, Florida was indeed a far-off place, as were destinations anywhere north of Derby, Connecticut, west of Philadelphia or south of Washington, DC, places where we had close relatives. I held hopes of one day seeing a Northern Mockingbird, a Tufted Titmouse, or a Carolina Wren. In my day they were rarely observed in the northern part of New Jersey, but now all three species are common there,   . Happily, the Northern Cardinal, which disappeared from its northern range during the early 1900s, (presumably driven out by severe winters) began to repopulate the area around New York City in the mid-1930s and had become quite common in our suburbs by 1945. Similarly, the Tufted Titmouse population was to explode there in the mid-1950s.

Of all the Florida specialties, I was most fascinated with the demure Limpkin, named for its halting gait, and famous for its haunting "mad widow" calls that pierced the night. Hear the cry of the limpkin at this link.

Across the Everglades: A Canoe Journey of Exploration by Hugh Laussat Willoughby (1898) "But the worst sound to sleep through is the cry of the limpkin. When do these birds sleep? or do they ever sleep ? We have seen them about all day, ..." (Free copy of this e-book is available at the link)

 Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his classic Life Histories of North American Birds  series wrote (ca 1927):"The voice of one crying in the wilderness" is the first impression one gets of this curious bird in the great inland swamps of Florida." He goes on to quote from a letter he received from T. Gilbert Pearson, who investigated the status of the limpkin in Florida : "In May, 192l, I left Leesburg, Florida, in a motor boat, crossed Lake Griffin and descended the Okiawaha River to its confluence with the St. Johns River. During this trip of three days, in which a constant lookout was kept for limpkins, only 11 individuals were seen and another was heard calling one morning near our camp. Three of the birds were so tame that it would have been very easy to have shot them from the boat with a .22 rifle. In one case we passed within 40 feet of a limpkin sitting on a dead limb. The noise of the motor boat did not even cause it to leave its perch. Natives along the river told me the bird was excellent for food and some years ago it was not an uncommon custom to shoot 20 or 30 before breakfast... The bird is so easily killed, so highly esteemed as food, and is found in a State where so little attention is paid to the enforcement of the bird and game laws, the prospects of its long survival are not at all encouraging.

If ever I got to Florida, the Limpkin was the bird I most wanted to see. Highly specialized in its diet, the Limpkin subsists almost entirely upon Florida Apple Snails, which it can pluck from their shells in in 20 seconds. Its bill is specialized for the task, as it is compressed laterally like scissors, and its tongue is long, thin and barbed, the perfect tool for extracting the body of the snail.

Nearly extirpated from Florida 100 years ago by hunting and drainage of its habitat, the Limpkin's population has recovered. Of greatest concern is the threat to the native apple snail by competition from introduced Channeled and Island Apple Snails, and by invasive exotic vegetation that replaces the snail's food sources. Although it is currently on the US Fish & Wildlife Service list of Birds of Conservation Concern, the Limpkin is not one of the 200 birds on the American Bird Conservancy and National Audubon Society's United States Watchlist of species in greatest need of immediate conservation efforts.

Mary Lou and I finally got to see our first Limpkin in August, 2002. Our daughter and her husband had just moved to Florida, and we were visiting them from our home in New Mexico. Responsive to our desire to see a Limpkin, they drove us to Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in west Palm Beach County. We all walked the trails, frantically searching for one, as the skies darkened and thunder boomed in the distance. Under the threat of the approaching thunderstorm, I retreated to the car ahead of them, but they continued their quest. Just as the rain started falling, they ran back to join me, calling excitedly that they had found a Limpkin!

Of course, I thought they were fooling me, and after the storm's initial fury subsided a bit, my son-in-law convinced me that they had indeed seen the bird. Still suspicious, I accompanied him in the heavy rain to a ditch about a hundred yards away from the parking lot. Sure enough, there was a Limpkin, politely enduring the downpour as it awaited my return. That Limpkin was our first Florida life bird. In addition, we saw the endangered Snail Kite, which also is dependent upon Apple Snails as its food source.

These Apple Snail eggs were deposited on a suitable plant stalk at Long Key Natural Area in Davie, Florida:


Limpkins are quite common at Wakadohatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach...

Limpkin Wakodahatchee Wetlands 20090224

...In Green Cay Wetlands in Boynton Beach...

Limpkin 20100228

...and at Shark Valley in Everglades National Park:

Limpkin Scratching 20090528

In March, 2008 I found this Limpkin, well camouflaged, on a nest in Loxahatchee NWR. Its mate was standing guard, and I did not approach very closely. Males are known to viciously attack any creature that gets too near, including humans:

Limpkin on Nest 20100228

Now, most of our encounters with Limpkins take place at nearby Chapel Trail Nature Preserve in Pembroke Pines, Florida.. Earlier this year, we heard two Limpkins calling, one on each side of the boardwalk. To my ear, some of the Limpkin's cries include rattling sounds somewhat similar to those of the Sandhill Crane, a related species.

Suddenly, one of the Limpkins flew up to the top of a small tree:

Limpkin on tree 20110227

It then surprised us by flying in our general direction:

Limpkin liftoff 20110227

The Limpkin landed on the boardwalk railing and called again :

Limpkin on boardwalk 20110227

When I processed the photo, it provided a clear view of the Limpkin's unusually long and slender tongue:

Limpkin bill detail 20110227

"Superficially it looks like a large, heavyset ibis with an erect stance. The neck and bill are long, the latter laterally-compressed and slightly decurved, taking a sudden abrupt bend to the right close to the tip. Tip of the lower mandible is twisted horizontally and sharpened against the tip of the maxilla, an adaptation for removing snails from their shells. The tongue reaches the end of the bill and splits into horny filaments at the tip."

It then flew off in the direction of the second Limpkin:

Limpkin departing 20110227

Our most recent Limpkin sighting was this fly-by, also at Chapel Trail:

Limpking in flight 3-20110925


Monday, October 10, 2011

Birding in a "Fake Hammock"

The path to our favorite birding patch is only a few paces outside our subdivision's entrance gate. However, we must reach the gate by walking past about two blocks of residences. Clothed in our rugged garb, we accept quizzical stares from passing motorists, all dressed up as they bring their kids to school or head for the office. We are often recognized as birders, and have acquired some legitimacy by answering questions from neighbors, such as, "Did you notice that a lot of baby white cranes [translation: Snowy Egrets] have just joined their parents [translation: Great Egrets] along our lake?"

Here in Florida we must pay special attention to protection from sun and insects. Sensible wide-brimmed hats, trousers tucked into socks and long sleeves on the hottest of mornings make us stand apart on the fashion scene. No wonder Mary Lou regarded all birders as rather eccentric folk-- until she became one herself!

The latest additions to my wardrobe and gear have been an insect-repelling shirt, waterproof snake-resistant boots and an OP/TECH Dual camera/binocular harness. Here I am, all decked out and ready for action. Photo courtesy of Mary Lou.

New Gear 20110916

The harness solved a vexing problem. Until now I carried my camera and binoculars slung over my neck and opposite shoulders. This is a troublesome arrangement. Not only do the straps conflict with each other, pinching and constricting my neck all around, but their business ends can become hopelessly entangled. It's very disconcerting to lift the camera for a shot and find the binocular strap wrapped around the long lens. The harness (or halter) stores the two items of equipment independently on each side and distributes their weight on a single soft neoprene yoke that goes over both shoulders and is secured by a chest strap. Strangulation is out of the question.

The snake boots are something else. A few close encounters with Water Moccasins notwithstanding, I am usually very careful about looking where I step and am not afraid of any snakes-- provided I see them first. 

My attitude changed a couple of months ago, when (wearing sneakers) I went out in the pre-dawn darkness to try to obtain a photo of one of the Bobcats that live in the wetlands. I forgot to take a flashlight and depended upon the moon and a little key chain LED lamp to light my way. This was fine until I had to cross some deeper grass, and felt I might be taking my life into my hands. Indeed, another photographer who walked out that way a couple of mornings earlier and obtained a knock-out Bobcat portrait, told me he saw four small Water Moccasins along the same path. Why didn't I see any? This experience, and prodding from my spouse, son-in-law and daughter, as well as a couple of birding friends, led me to finally buy the snake boots.

This past Friday, we got out about ten minutes before sunrise and took our usual warm-up "power walk" to the Harbour Lakes Impoundment, a lake about a mile away from our gate. Here, a day-old full moon hovers overhead, and the first rays of sunlight have just reached the trees on the far side of the lake.

Dawn moon over Harbour Lakes Impoundment 20110914

An Osprey flew over, the early rays illuminating its flight feathers from below.

Osprey 20110916

A Red-shouldered Hawk followed close behind the Osprey.

Red-shouldered Hawk 2-20110923

Along the way, I stopped to photograph a Common Ground Dove...

Common Ground-Dove 2-20110413

...and a Loggerhead Shrike.

Loggerhead Shrike 20110914

Truth be told, I just don't take one picture and move along. Usually I shoot as soon as I spot my subject, then move in cautiously for better views. Rather than shoot in bursts, I like to catch the bird in action while calling, preening, or looking up, down or over its back. Such poses seem more interesting than simple "field guide" side-on views. If a twig or leaf is in the way, or part of the bird is in shadow, I try to angle around it or wait until the bird moves into a more suitable location. 

Approaching nearer to the subject requires stealth and slow movements. Each bird seems to have a limit as to how closely it may be approached. The shrike usually flies off if someone gets within about thirty feet, though there are exceptions. All this takes time and can be very BORING to a non-photographer birding companion. I know this from experience, having taken up photography only recently, and used to hate it when photographers held up other birders' progress.

Therefore, Mary Lou usually leaves me with my camera and starts birding her way back home within an hour, alone. That's her, fading away in the distance.

ML heading home2 20110914

Look closely at the above photo. Mary Lou is just passing the small, compact wooded area that I call my "fake hammock." Although it is an isolated area of hardwoods and is dry underfoot all year long, it otherwise bears no resemblance to a "real" hammock, which is an elevated island in the Everglades, populated by native oaks, mahogany, maples and palms. 

While my fake hammock contains ligustrum, exotic Brazilian Pepper and lantana, it also has several large native Florida Trema trees (Trema micranthum) with an endless crop of nutritious berries that continue to ripen all winter. These trees are very attractive to wildlife. 

The first time I heard a Florida birder talk about finding birds in a certain “hammock,” I wanted to correct him. Up east, the only hammocks I knew were made of canvas and slung between two posts. I thought he meant to say “hummock,” a word that I first heard used by a farmer, who pointed to a hill out in the middle of his hayfield that was too steep to mow and had gone over to shrubs and trees. Of course, I’ve since learned that “hammock” has a very specific meaning in any discussion of Everglades ecology. 

From the ground, a hammock indeed looks like a “hummock,” a tree-covered hill that rises high above the surrounding Sawgrass prairie. Hammocks are scattered throughout the Everglades, but they are actually quite level, and only a foot or so above the high water mark. It is the trees themselves that rise up in a graceful mound. In the dry soil, hardwoods of many kinds flourish, draped with ferns and air plants: mahogany, oak, maple, hackberry and gumbo limbo, as well as native palms. Cocoplum, commonly used as a hedge or small shrub in residential neighborhoods, grows to tree size. Hammocks serve as refuges for more terrestrial creatures such as bobcats, panthers and raccoons. 

It can be quite cool in the deep shade of a hammock. My only experience in walking through a "real" hammock has been on trails in Everglades National Park. In my neighborhood, the land has been drained and filled, and true hammocks are long gone. However, I did find this very lame imitation of a hammock at the edge of our subdivision, where for some unknown reason, the landscapers have allowed trees and shrubs to grow undisturbed. 

Trema berries grow along the stems of the tree and are in various stages of ripening.

Florida Trema (Trema micranthum),  -- Shrub with berries growing along stem 20110306

I had not entered my "fake hammock" since spring, and found the path that led into it overgrown with high weeds, vines and shrubs. I would never have ventured there without my new snake boots, but I forced my way through the tangled vegetation. Once inside, I found very little ground cover in the rather open shaded area.

An old folding chair had been left there a long time ago and it provided a nice place to sit and just wait for the migrating birds.

Catbird seat in Fake Hammock 20110914

I did not have to wait very long, as two vireos suddenly showed up to partake of the Trema berries. One bird's markings suggested it might be a Black-whiskered Vireo, but other views confirmed it was a common Red-eyed Vireo with "bad hair."

Vireo- Red-eyed vs Black-whiskered 20110914

No doubt about it-- they were indeed Red-eyed Vireos.

Red-eyed Vireo 3-20110914

For comparison, here is the much less common Black-whiskered Vireo that I photographed earlier this year in the same tree.

Black-whiskered Vireo 3-20110420

Just above my head, a male Prairie Warbler foraged in a sunny patch of leaves.

Prairie Warbler 5-20110914

A noisy group of three Red-bellied Woodpeckers flew in, allowing me to pull off a couple of lucky shots before they disappeared.

Red-bellied Woodpecker 2-20110916

There were very few mosquitoes and no deer flies, and it was almost cool inside my hiding place, as I watched a Black-and-White Warbler work its way toward my position.

Black-and-White Warbler 5-20110914

OK, I overdosed on Black-and-Whites. I probably took over one hundred shots, almost all through peep-holes between the branches, and most marred by the rapid movement of this little sprite. Then it came into the open and I finally got some full views.

Black-and-White Warbler 4-20110914

A Northern Parula peered down at me from the canopy.

Northern Parula 4-20110814

A male Black-throated Blue Warbler joined him.

Black-throated Blue Warbler 20110414

The otherwise dissimilar female Black-throated Blue Warbler shares the male's field mark, a white wing patch.

Black-throated Blue Warbler female 20110923

The Blue Jays have completed their molt, and this jay looked sleek and handsome.Blue Jay 20100930

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were almost as distracting as the many butterflies that fluttered in my peripheral vision. One perched on a clump of exotic Brazilian Pepper.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 20100108

A Baltimore Oriole was a surprise visitor.

Baltimore Oriole 20090609

A male Northern Cardinal gobbled up the Trema berries.

Northern Cardinal male 20110923

For me, the real treat was a pair of Ovenbirds that chased each other back and forth, rarely sitting still long enough for decent portraits; this one insisted on hiding behind a leaf as it eyed me.

Ovenbird 4-20110916

The other Ovenbird never perched nearby, requiring me to shoot through holes in the foliage into its shaded retreat.

Ovenbird 5-20110919

This little tailed butterfly is a Dorantes Skipper.

Dorantes Skipper 20110914

The most numerous butterflies were Zebra Heliconians, the State butterfly of Florida.

Zebra Heliconian 20110923

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