Saturday, March 29, 2014

Spring arrived but birding was slow

We got out on our local wetlands patch early, about 20 minutes before sunrise. Rain was forecast for later in the day so we kept a wary eye on the skies. It was too dark for photos when, while walking in, we saw a raccoon and a Gray Fox. 

This photo of a Little Blue Heron had to be tweaked to bring out the details under the poor lighting conditions.

 Little Blue Heron 20140320 
The heron assumed this typical foraging posture that makes it easy to identify, even from far away.

Little Blue Heron 2-20140320

The red and yellow epaulet of this male Red-winged Blackbird glowed through the darkness.

Red-winged Blackbird 20140320

After processing this photo of a Belted Kingfisher, taken at some distance, I realized that it was a female. The male would lack the rufous belly band.

Belted Kingfisher female 2-20140320

The sun rose due east as expected on the vernal equinox, under a menacing and quickly building cumulus cloud. 

Sunrise and clouds on first day of spring 20140320

Gray Catbirds were still numerous. This one posed nicely as sunlight burst forth.

Gray Catbird 20140320

We did not see a single warbler. With rain threatening we hurried back home after walking the mandatory two miles in and out of the wetlands. A couple of doors from our home, this White-winged Dove was collecting nesting materials in a neighbor's yard.

White-winged Dove gathering twigs 2-20140320

It clouded over but the precipitation actually held off, so I checked our back yard for photo opportunities. An Anhinga was drying its wings at the edge of our lake.

Anhing in back yard 20140320

A flock of White Ibises probed the water's edge.

White Ibis in yard 20140320

A European Starling hunted for insects on the lawn.

European Starling 20140320

Nearby, a Northern Mockingbird demonstrated its hunting technique...

Northern Mockingbird 20140320

...flashing its wings to startle prey items.

Northern Mockingbird flashing wings 20140320

Northern Mockingbird flashing wings 2-20140320

The female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that caused us so much concern has abandoned our ailing Mahogany tree and now has adopted the same type of tree in our neighbor's yard. Over a three months period of observation, her plumage has transformed from juvenile to nearly full adult. Here she was on December 24:

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 2-20131224

Now she is quite nicely adorned with full red cap and eponymous yellow belly.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 20140320

From the number of sap wells in our neighbor's tree I assume she had been busy here for some time before we banished her from our yard.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 2-20140320

Gray skies continued with rain for the next few days, and finally a cold front blew through to chase away the clouds. This is the view from our back patio.

View from patio 20140325

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Bald Eagle Nest (Guest Blog)

I feel lazy and am letting Graciela, our 9 year old granddaughter who is visiting us from Illinois, write her observations. Graciela already has some experience writing in my blog: Grocery Bag Birding Boots and Illinois Back Yard and Neighborhood  Enjoy! 

Today my Grandfather took me out to see the eagles. First I had trouble adjusting the binoculars but Grandpa helped me and I could see the eagles plain as day.
 Graci at eagle nest 20140317
I saw two eaglets. One was standing up and the other was sitting down.
 Bald Eaglets Glory and Honor 20140317 
The one that was standing up did not have any white on its chest whatsoever and was also exercising its wings.
 Bald Eaglets younger Glory flapping 20140314
When the other one stood up it had a white V on its chest. Grandpa said that the one with the white was Honor, the oldest one, and the other was Glory.
 Bald Eaglets older Honor on right 20140314 
We went over to some dead trees to see if we could spot the parents but they were not there, so we went back. Then Grandpa heard and saw a Pileated Woodpecker. I didn't see it but heard it nice and clear. Then one of the parents flew in. Grandpa was pretty sure it was Pride (the Dad) but wasn't so sure. It could have been Joy (the Mom). Whichever parent it was, it brought a fish. Honor picked up the fish in her beak but Glory just waited nicely.
 Bald Eagle male Pride at nest 20140317 Bald Eaglet Honor eating fish 20140317
The eaglets mobbed the parent and he flew to a branch just over the nest and stayed there for a few minutes. During that time they were calling to him.
 Bald Eaglets with male parent 20140314
Then Pride flew over to some dead trees along the road.
 Bald Eagle Pride 2-20140317

We darted over and Grandpa wanted the bird to look straight out so that he could see whether it was the male or the female by the shape of its head. Its feathers were all ruffled up and it had its back to us so he did not get a good glance so he checked the pictures as soon as he got home. It was the male (Pride). 
Graci at eagle roost 20140317 
When we got home he asked me if he could take a picture of the Mediterranean Gecko we caught. I told him where to look for it because I saw one there the last time I was visiting. At that time I found a baby Gecko. This time when Grampa caught it he scared his tail off! He thought it was a worm of some kind because it was wiggling, but I knew it was the tail. I was laughing so hard! When a gecko sees one of its most feared predators, it will drop its tail so the predator will go after it, which allows the gecko to sneak off and regrow its tail.
 Mediterranean Gecko 20140317 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Sapsucker wars

Just before Christmas, 2013 we first noticed this immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on an East Indies Mahogany tree in our back yard. Busily drilling a neat line of holes in the bark, it was instantly recognizable as a woodpecker by its shape and habits, and as a sapsucker by the longitudinal white line  along its wings, the "sapsucker stripe." 

I regarded its appearance as an opportunity to observe the sapsucker's plumage transition into that of a full adult. This happened over the next 10 weeks, but we also gained insights about its habits and its fighting nature when it came to squabbles over rights to its favorite tree. We did not expect to become directly involved in a confrontation with this little creature, but eventually love turned to hate and a life was at stake.

These photos taken December 24, 2013, which showed a hint of red on the bird's forehead and a lack of any red feathers on its throat, suggested that it was a female.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 4-20131224

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 4-20131225

The next day (December 25) I was able to better document the red area on its crown. The large number of sap wells on the tree suggested that it had gone unnoticed for several days.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 3-20131225

The sapsucker stayed with us for an extended period. It visited daily, sometimes appearing before sunrise and tarrying until after sunset. It often was present for several hours each day, busily drilling holes, drinking the sap and eating the insects it attracted. We watched as its plumage gradually matured. 

On January 13, 2014 the red area was a bit more noticeable.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 2-20140113   

According to experts, the plumage change in this species is very gradual and often not complete before it migrates back to breeding grounds to the north. Yet, only five days later, on January 18, I thought it had undergone a rapid and dramatic transformation.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker adult female2-20140128

However, I was wrong, for a moment later I noticed that there were TWO sapsuckers on the tree, the adult female pictured above as well as to the right in the photo below, and our familiar juvenile bird.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers 20140128

The adult sidled up beside the youngster, which I took as a friendly gesture, but before I could raise my camera they locked in a ferocious battle. Both fell to the ground, out of sight behind a hedge. Moments later, the adult bird flew away, apparently defeated by the juvenile.

The adult bird showed up again on February 2, appearing very alert and anxious that the rightful owner of the sap tree might show up. Although the second bird did return briefly a couple of times, we never saw both together after that.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker adult female 20140201

The young bird resumed its peaceful routine, tapping holes and feeding on our tree. On February 9, 2014 she had developed a black "bib." and her facial markings were more distinct. The red area had enlarged, covering the entire top of her head.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 20140209

The bird was almost invisible when foraging with her back to us. No wonder we had not noticed her earlier. Here she is on February 16, 2014.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 3-20140216

On the morning of February 23 the adult reappeared briefly, again looking around all the time as if in fear of being discovered. This time I had my best photo opportunity. Because I did not want to scare the birds, most of my previous shots were taken through the back window of our home. For this one, I sneaked out the front door and stole around the side of the house with the sun at my back.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker adult female 20140223

Later that day, the immature sapsucker resumed an interesting series of encounters with a Yellow-rumped Warbler that was intent on stealing from its larder. The warbler often perched on a plant hanger pole, waiting for the sapsucker to disappear on the other side of the trunk.

Yellow-rumped Warbler in yard 2-20140219

As quickly as the warbler landed, the woodpecker chased it away. It rarely had time to explore one of the sap holes.

Yellow-rumped Warbler sap-stealer 2-20140223

Yellow-rumped Warbler sap-stealer 3-20140223

The chase went on for hours. The sapsucker might fly away but return in a flash as soon as the warbler perched on the coveted tree. They never came to blows; the warbler was much too quick.

By February 28 her crown was almost as extensive as that of the adult, and facial markings were more distinct.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 20140228

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 2-20140228

Mary Lou expressed concern about the damage that the sapsucker was inflicting. Based upon my cursory research, I reassured her that we would be dead and gone before the bird could do serious harm. We continued to enjoy its presence. 

Under local laws, each new home must have at least one native tree. Our mahogany qualified as such, and we were very fond of its symmetrical spread. Our deck faces east, and the tree casts welcome morning shade. 

Sapsuckers do not "suck" sap , but their brushy tongues are specialized to lap it up. They also eat insects attracted to the sap, and I was surprised to learn that about a quarter of their stomach contents consist of tree tissues extracted from under the bark

They drill holes through the bark into the vascular layers that transport water and nutrients. Xylem, just under the bark, circulates water up from the roots. Phloem lies next to the wood and carries nutrients manufactured by the leaves to those parts of the tree that are actively growing. It mostly flows down to the roots, but also redirects nutrients to any part of the tree that requires energy, such as new buds, flowers and fruit. Between the xylem and phloem is a multipotential layer of cambium, a permeable membrane which produces the cells that make up the two vascular layers and regulates movement of water between them.  

Sapsucker damage to Mahogany 2-20140228

Most of the literature about sapaucker tree preferences focuses upon the northern areas where the birds breed. They are known to attack over 1,000 tree species, but were said to favor birch, maple and fruit trees. An Internet search revealed that a western species (the Red-breasted Sapsucker) caused extensive damage to Curlleaf Mountain-Mahogany. In the Florida Everglades, the West Indies Mahogany is a frequent host. We noticed that the northern side of our tree was turning yellow and the leaves were falling off. The main branch that supports this area was most densly riddles with sap wells.

Sapsucker damage 6-20140228

Thus began our war against the sapsucker. We started with water pistols and escalated to streaming a jet from our garden hose, but the sapsucker either just moved higher up the tree or flew to an adjacent mango tree and returned to the mahogany as soon as we moved away. We draped the trunk with canvas, but the bird just moved its activities to areas above and below the fabric.

Sapsucker tree with drape 20140302

Although the bird should be returning north within a few weeks, we did not want any further damage, so we resorted to using a sticky substance which deters birds from roosting. So far it has worked. The sapsucker should be returning north very soon.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron display

We got out before sunrise. It was cool and still, in the low 70s. We found heavy fog on the wetlands next to our home. 

Fog lifting PASTEL over Harbour Lake impoundment 20140224

Two White-tailed Deer, barely visible, strained to see us through the mist, and then bounded off.

.White-tailed Doe in fog 3-20140224 

White-tailed Doe in fog 2-20140224

Black Vultures on an old power pole were like ghosts,... 

Black Vultures in fog 20140224

... and a Great Egret looked so soft against the diffuse background. 

Great Egret in fog BW 20140224

The fog began to lift a little after sunrise and the rays of sun pierced through. A westerly breeze dried the vegetation. 

Sunburst 20140224

The fog had lifted by the time I got to the heron rookery, where three pairs of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were displaying in courtship and also to assert territorial rights between males. Last season we had eight pairs of Yellow-crowned plus three pairs of smaller Green Herons nesting here. The rookery occupies a narrow strip about 200 yards long on the right (east) side of this canal, in the back yards of several homes. 

Road construction at the far (north) end of the rookery has caused concern they might abandon the area, but they have persisted despite the disturbance. Note the yellow containment float intended to keep construction debris from floating down the canal.

Heron rookery 20140307

As I approached, I noticed a male Yellow-crowned Night-Heron standing next to the canal.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron male 20140307

I did not witness any mating, but one male was already building a nest. 

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron male building nest 20140307

The bright red legs of the males indicate that they are in breeding condition.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron male 5-20140302

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron 2-20140226

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron male 3-20140307

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron display 04-20140224

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron display 05-20140224

The demure females looked on. Note their paler legs and less yellow in their crowns.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron female 1-20140224

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron female 20140307

We saw five pairs of Night-Herons and two that were still in immature plumage. One of these stood alone. 

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron immature 20140226

Three pairs of Green Herons now have reoccupied territory at the south end of the rookery. The male of this species also develops blood-red legs. 

Green Heron male 3-20140226

Two venomous Cottonmouths cavorted in the canal, which was loaded with small fish. Spring is in the air!

Cottonmouths courting 20140224

As I approached, they sped off in opposite directions, as if illicit lovers caught in a tryst. Unlike the non-venomous water snakes, Cottonmouths swim with their heads held up above the surface.

Cottonmouth Water Moccasin 20140224

On the way back home two shrikes had a friendly encounter. 

Loggerhead Shrikes 20140224

Loggerhead Shrike 20140224

Mockingbirds, cardinals, Carolina Wrens and Red-winged Blackbirds were singing. It quickly warmed into the mid-80s. 

Northern Cardinal:

Northern Cardinal 20140307

Red-winged Blackbird:

Red-winged Blackbird singing 20140307

The vultures were no longer shrouded in fog. They dwarfed a single Red-winged Blackbird.

Red-winged Blackbird with vultures 20140224