Old Man Winter Blinks

“It’s snowing still,” said Eeyore gloomily.

“So it is.”

And freezing.”

“Is it?”

“Yes,” said Eeyore. “However,” he said, brightening up a little, “we haven’t had an earthquake lately.”

(The House At Pooh Corner, A.A. Milne)

 

“What’s that?”, Gini asked. “Where?”, I replied. “Over there, along the banks of the stream.” My eyes followed the direction of her outstretched finger. It was March and we were in western Pennsylvania. Our small station wagon was straining to contain all our worldly possessions and we had been married less than a week. The journey north began in our native Florida, land of sunshine, sand and salt and we were bound for Syracuse, New York, to attend university and begin a life together. Now, we were taking a lunch break in the springtime woods with trees unknown to us sprouting leaves and flower buds. It was cold. Venturing forth to investigate my bride’s query of curiosity, I marveled at the clarity of the swiftly moving water and the rippled design of the sandy stream bed. The sky appeared as though dirty white pillow cases had been rumpled up and discarded about carelessly. The object of my search looked like soap suds such as one would see from a washing machine drain line or perhaps sea foam from a pounding surf along the wrack line at the beach. As I put my fingers into the white concoction and closed my hand around the iciness I realized I had just made a snowball. Hurrying back before it could all melt into nothingness, I breathlessly exclaimed “It’s snow!!”. My Lady was duly impressed and implored that we linger here, in the woods, in the Spring of our lives, admiring Our First Snow.

We soon discovered that moderation in many things in Life may be the key to happiness. I found this to be especially true regarding snow. This epiphany came to me during my sixth consecutive day of chipping ice from the car door and shoveling that lovely, wet, heavy white stuff from the driveway just for the privilege of driving slippery-slidy on a road full of cars performing the same circus-like act. Those glorious days were to be followed by equally glorious years in which we were blessed to have lived in many different locations. The lush forests and lakes of upstate New York with blazing autumns and deep snows provided everlasting fond memories. Living in the near-desert environment of west Texas was totally surprising. The astounding diversity of wildlife, amazingly adaptive flora, the genuine honesty and welcoming nature of the residents – still one of our favorite experiences. Several years in Europe taught us that people are much the same the world over. Kind, warm, accepting. A recurring theme we were happy to discover everywhere we traveled. Germany reminded us how beautiful a fresh snow in a deep forest can be and how much fun it is to shovel the stuff from one’s driveway every day for months on end (there’s that moderation thing again).

Each experience taught us a bit about specific locations, the world in general and, most importantly, about ourselves. One thing we eventually realized – we missed Home. Although, thanks to Gini’s resilience and cheerful optimism, we truly felt at “home” wherever we lived. We settled back into the Florida lifestyle without too much effort. The warmth of the sun on our faces almost all year, damp beach sand between our toes, plucking an orange from the tree and squeezing its contents down our throats, the tug of a speckled trout on the line, the taste of that trout cooked over a wood fire, the sound of hundreds of Spring “peeper” frogs in the marsh at night and the ability to go birding and spot dozens of species just about any day of the year.

All of this is not meant to “rub it in” for any of you not equally blessed. Rather, it’s just a reminder that we all live in a truly wonderful spot full of potential. If you are currently experiencing more than your fair share of cold or wet or unpleasantness of any sort, take heart! Spring is not too far away and soon your woods, streams, mountains, birding and attitudes shall be renewed.

In the meantime, please enjoy a small bit of winter birding from our local patch. As the population changes with the seasons, Lake Parker Park can be quite productive due to its lake frontage, small marshy areas, wooded tracts and open grassy expanses. A recent trip produced 58 species, my personal high for this location. Highlights included wintering warblers, terns, gulls, a hunting night heron, surprising a raptor and a fisherman demonstrating his technique.

Don’t let Old Man Winter get you down He has blinked and will soon be asleep.

 

We enjoy large numbers of Palm Warblers during our winter season. A few arrive still in breeding plumage and we see both eastern (a bit brighter yellow overall) and western (browner versions) species. They’re fun to watch with their constant tail pumping and habit of foraging on the ground sucking bugs from every blade of grass.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

 

Royal Terns are typically found near salt water but for some reason Lake Parker is home to a few who seem to like it here. Almost as large as the Caspian, North America’s largest tern, Royals are identified by their large orange-colored bills and clean white foreheads. The forehead will turn black during the breeding season (March-July). The second image shows an adult and immature tern, the youngster showing dark wing bars, a faint bit of striping on the head and a small bit of yellow still on the feet (younger birds have yellow legs/feet).

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

 

The big Caspian Tern has a redder bill than the Royal and the forehead usually shows some black all year. Some first year birds may have a white forehead. Also, Caspians will show some dark under primaries while a Royal will be mostly white.

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern

 

Ring-billed Gulls are fairly common at the lake and are about the same size as a Caspian Tern. The immature gull shown here has a pinkish bill and legs, a lot of brown in the plumage, dark wing bars and a dark band on the tail (seen when flying). The adult is almost all light gray with dark wingtips and yellow bill.

Ring-billed Gull - Immature

Ring-billed Gull – Immature

 

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull

 

The Osprey in central Florida is so commonplace it’s easy to pay no attention to them. I tend to watch them for long periods because, well, they’re just so good-looking.

Osprey

Osprey

 

I was fortunate to find a Black-crowned Night Heron foraging in a small marshy area covered in a lush growth of duckweed. He stabbed into the green stuff several times but I never saw any prey. A friendly fellow walking his very noisy small yappy dog stopped to ask what I was photographing. I pointed to the pretty gray and black bird quietly flapping deeper into the woods and wished him a pleasant day. No, really, I did.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

 

It’s amazing how such a starkly patterned bird like the Black-and-White Warbler can become almost invisible against a tree trunk. The first image is the female with a paler head pattern and white throat. The male is more intensely streaked.

Black and White Warbler - Female

Black and White Warbler – Female

Black and White Warbler - Male

Black and White Warbler – Male

 

Winter brings an influx of Pied-billed Grebes to our area and it’s a rule that one must be included in any collection of photographs due to their “adorable” factor.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

 

One of our year-round residents is also one of the most attractive. Common Yellowthroats are quick to investigate anything intruding into their territory, are usually very vocal and as this male demonstrates, aren’t too bad to look at, either.

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat

 

Typically foraging in the higher reaches of the tree canopy and constantly on the move, a Pine Warbler is beautiful when you actually get a glimpse of one.

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

 

Speaking of beautiful, even with his mouth full, this Yellow-throated Warbler really brightens up the park.

Yellow-throated Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler

 

The most effective fisherman at the lake by far is the Great Blue Heron. Here, he shows the correct method for swallowing a whole fish. (Do not try this at home.)

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

 

There I was, scanning a small pond for birds and coming up empty. As I turned and started down the path, I discovered I was being watched as well. A young Red-shouldered Hawk was less than 20 feet from me and let me take exactly one photograph before relocating to a less busy location.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

 

Probably the most numerous species to be found during any walk in the woods here is the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. During winter it’s not unusual to find 20-30 of these little vacuum cleaners amongst the tree branches. This one took a break from his insect collecting to do a bit of preening.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

 

 

It was another wonderful day of birding in our local patch. Less than ten minutes from the house. On a winter’s day full of sunshine and warmth and birds. I should be careful and remember my own admonition about moderation. But, honestly, how can I get TOO much of this?? Hopefully, Old Man Winter is blinking wherever you may be. (As for those of you south of the equator, please read all of this again in June.)

 

We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

 

Additional Information

Lake Parker Park

 

See more birds at:   Paying Ready Attention   (Check out Wild Bird Wednesday.)

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Follow Your Nose

In order to improve as a birder, it’s important to develop a keen awareness of all our natural senses. Sight is quite helpful in spotting large and small bundles of feathers and matching them to their portraits in a convenient field guide (or in today’s modern world, an application on a “smart” phone if you can pass the IQ test which I haven’t yet mastered). Hearing a bird’s song may be one of the greater joys in life and has inspired poets for ages. Simply knowing the calls and songs of a particular species is sufficient to identify which bird is producing the sound. Touch comes into play a bit more subtly as most birders don’t actually handle the objects of their affection (hey! we’re still talking about birds here!). The notable exception being banders (ringers) or scientists. One must hone their sense of touch to quickly and accurately focus binoculars and scopes or to change camera settings without removing one’s eye from the viewfinder. As to the sense of taste, I shall not take the easy route and make some joke about “tastes like chicken” or recount the tall tale of a tour guide who had candy in his hand and pretended to pick up an owl pellet and placed it in his mouth to the horror of the group and announced: “Yep, that owl was here an hour ago.” No, I won’t stoop to that level. Let’s just agree that by going birding we have all proven we have good taste.

This brings us to the sense of smell. You haven’t achieved birding nirvana until you’ve stood in a seabird rookery or walked along a shoreline used the previous evening as a roost by several thousand pelicans. Yes, on those occasions you’ll be thankful for that keen sense of smell of which you’re so proud. You’ll also be wishing for a breeze to hit you in the face to clear away the tears.

In recent years, many communities have adopted innovative methods for handling malodorous human waste. One such method involves combining chemical treatment with natural filtration and many man-made wetlands have resulted. Basically, after waste is chemically treated it is pumped into a holding “cell”, a pond which has been planted with vegetation which helps filter impurities from the water. This water is then pumped into another “cell” where the filtration process is repeated. There may be several “cells” involved and the end product is much cleaner water being returned into the watershed. The good news for birders is these “cells” are magnets for all sorts of birds. The better news is many water treatment facilities have opened these wetland areas to the public and some have become birding “hotspots”.

How does one locate these areas? When I was very young and we visited my grandparents who lived “out in the country” the only bathroom they had was an “outhouse”. No indoor plumbing. When I asked Grandpa how I could find the outhouse if I had to go when it was dark, he replied: “Go out the back door and just follow your nose.” Thank goodness we have evolved from those days.

As I exited the port-o-potty, the sound of Sandhill Cranes filled the morning air as they moved to the nearby sod fields to forage. We were visiting Viera Wetlands (officially known as the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands, named for a county worker killed in a traffic accident). The wetlands are on the east coast of Florida near the town of Cocoa Beach and are very easy to find. (See the links below for maps and wetlands descriptions.) The wetlands consists of four “cells” of about 35 acres each and a central lake. The berms around the lake can be driven, biked or walked and total about four miles. The cells were dug to varying depths to attract a greater diversity of water birds and each cell was planted with a different mix of vegetation to assist filtration, erosion prevention and wildlife attraction. Surrounding the wetlands is a mix of deciduous and hardwood trees and a very large commercial sod farm. The area is only a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean and, in the other direction it’s just a few miles to the Indian River.

It’s fairly routine to spot 40-50 species of birds here without leaving the comfort of your vehicle. With more effort lists of 60-70 are feasible. On this day, we listed 52 species without trying too hard. Some of the highlights included the sights and sounds of Great Blue Herons courting and building nests, finding a Wilson’s Snipe hiding in the grass, watching a Limpkin enjoy escargot and spotting two wintering American Bitterns. All of that and lunch with Gini by the gazebo as we watched sparrows, ducks, cranes, grebes and alligators under a cloudless deep blue sky – who could wish for more?

 

Some of this stuff made it through the rigorous photo editing process.

 

Pied-billed Grebes breed in central Florida but during the winter migrants swell the population throughout the state. At Viera Wetlands it’s not unusual to find several dozen of these little cuties, sometimes floating in large groups for better protection from predators.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

 

This female Belted Kingfisher had a favorite palm tree stump from which she launched aquatic attacks and returned with her prize to devour before repeating the process. This time she grabbed a little salad along with her seafood entree.

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

 

One of our winter visitors to the wetlands is the American Bittern. Standing over two feet tall and with a wingspan of over three feet, it seems they would be easy to spot. However, their cryptic plumage and habit of “freezing” with bill pointed upward makes them almost invisible among grass and reeds. We were fortunate to find two today.

American Bittern

American Bittern

 

American Bittern

American Bittern

 

Even on our coldest days here in central Florida we can usually find a butterfly. I love it here. Apparently, so does this Fiery Skipper.

Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phylus)

Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phylus)

 

Savannah Sparrows also migrate here for the winter. Their beautiful shades of brown and rust blend in well with low ground cover. When annoyed, such as when someone’s trying to take your picture, they raise the crest on their head and give you “that look”.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

 

Water plus mud equals turtles. Florida Redbelly Cooters and Peninsula Cooters have different appearing shells and head patterns. We caught one Redbelly practicing its ballet movements. (The green on its shell is algae.)

Peninsula Cooter  (Pseudemys peninsularis)

Peninsula Cooter (Pseudemys peninsularis)

 

Florida Redbelly Cooter  (Pseudemys nelsoni)

Florida Redbelly Cooter (Pseudemys nelsoni)

Florida Redbelly Cooter  (Pseudemys nelsoni)

Florida Redbelly Cooter (Pseudemys nelson)

 

Great Blue Herons are quite noisy when trying to attract a mate. The males clap their beaks and flap their wings and hop and jump around and bring gifts (a stick) to their lady. You know, just like human guys. The prospective couple then picks out a palm tree and begins nest construction.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

 

Similar to the American Bittern above, the plumage of a Wilson’s Snipe blends perfectly with the grass and mud of a pond shoreline. They rely on this camouflage for protection and will often wait until you almost step on them before flushing.

Wilson's Snipe

Wilson’s Snipe

 

Terns are among the most graceful of birds in flight and this Forster’s Tern looks pretty good while resting, too.

Forster's Tern

Forster’s Tern

Forster's Tern

Forster’s Tern

 

Once the Blue-winged Teal finishes preening, he (and his reflection) look quite nice.

Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal

 

Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal

 

It’s hard to mistake the profile of the Northern Shoveler. This male’s green head, white breast and brown sides will become more solidly colored by breeding season.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

 

The small Green Heron is a year-round resident and always fun to watch as it patiently stalks its prey.

Green Heron

Green Heron

 

More tourists. Ring-necked Ducks are often mistakenly, but understandably, called “Ring-billed” Ducks. No matter what you call them, they are a handsome species.

Ring-necked Duck

Ring-necked Duck

 

Taxonomically unique, the Limpkin’s closest relatives are rails and cranes. Apple Snails are this bird’s preferred meal and it’s specialized bill has evolved to allow easy extraction of the snail from its shell.

Limpkin

Limpkin

 

 

Gini and I had another wonderful day together in Florida’s natural wonderland. Just remember, to locate a birding bonanza in your neighborhood, simply “follow your nose”!

(Or – you could just click on the links below for an actual map.)

 

We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

 

Additional Information

Viera Wetlands (Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands)

Domestic Wastewater To Wetlands Program

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