Rejoicing In The Familiar

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, a young man and his family began a journey that would return them to their native home. It had been over a thousand days and a thousand nights since they had last seen their homeland. Their excitement could not be contained and as they glimpsed the place they had missed so much, tears of joy welled in their eyes. Over the next few days and weeks, there was a lot of catching up to be done. Renewing acquaintances with the once familiar. Round door knobs, toilets with handles instead of overhead chains, pizza, blue sky, sandals, unreliable public transportation. It was good to be home!

Fast-forward several hundred years. Birders are weird. Some of us are quite content to enjoy the view from the kitchen window of regular visitors to our garden feeders and bird bath. Others of us prefer the challenge of the chase, spending the equivalent of a small nation’s gross national product each year to answer rare bird alerts from Antarctica to Zanzibar. The vast majority of us fit somewhere in between these two extremes. We do. As much as we enjoy watching “yard birds”, we love exploring and finding birds in interesting new places or seeing new species or ones we see infrequently. As for the chasing around the world thing, we’re not much for that lifestyle (i.e., we’re poor!).

No matter how far afield we go or what exotic species we may have just checked off our list, it’s always a sheer joy to see the birds with which we are most familiar. It’s comfortable. The eminent birder, ringer and blogger, Phil S., recently opined: “… it’s the same old species which provide the buzz of birding, knowing and appreciating a regular patch.” (If you haven’t visited Phil’s blog, well, why not?? Go here: Another Bird Blog. Do it now. I’ll wait.)

It’s that element of familiarity, with a known place populated with known species, that continually draws us to it as surely as steel to a magnet.  It gives us that “buzz” which Phil mentioned. We relish seeing a “wild” Mockingbird just as much as his suburban counterpart who nests in our yard. A bright red Cardinal and his piercing whistle are immediately recognized in the scrub oak tree we drove three hours to get to just as is the sight and call of the father of our neighborhood Cardinal family. Sure, we love finding new birds or migrants or rarities. A day spent with birds we know well, however, is just – comfortable.

Although too far away to be called our “patch”, we find ourselves regularly pulled in the direction of Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area. (See, Additional Information below.) Consisting of nearly 64,000 acres (25,900 ha) and located on the eastern side of Lake Kissimmee in Osceola County, this vast area consists primarily of dry prairie, cypress swamps, freshwater marshes, pineland and scrub. The diversity of flora and fauna is truly incredible. Our latest trip there was like visiting the home of an old friend. We encountered familiar birds and animals within a familiar environment. And we rejoiced.

 

Some images.

 

A distinctive black mask identifies the Common Yellowthroat male while his mate is more subdued in color but still sports the yellow throat for which the species was named.

Common Yellowthroat - Male

Common Yellowthroat – Male

 

Common Yellowthroat - Female

Common Yellowthroat – Female

 

Florida’s state bird is the Northern Mockingbird. Here he looks rather “stately” as he keeps a wary eye on us until we leave his domain.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

 

Native Green Tree Frogs have had a tough time holding their own against the invading horde of Cuban Tree Frogs. Once very common, these small amphibians are now quite scarce. This one was either napping or praying we wouldn’t spot him. These little guys are typically from 1-2.5 inches (2.5-6.4 cm) long.

Green Tree Frog  (Hyla cinerea)

Green Tree Frog (Hyla cinerea)

 

Narrowleaf sunflowers were on display just about everywhere that day.

Narrowleaf Sunflower  (Helianthus angustifolius)

Narrowleaf Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)

 

This is not a good photograph, but I had never seen this insect before. It flew into the truck and landed for a moment on the ceiling. Turns out it’s a Katydid Wasp and it’s clutching, yep, a Katydid.

Katydid Wasp (Sphex nudus)

Katydid Wasp (Sphex nudus)

 

We drove past what I thought was a long green palmetto leaf but it didn’t look right. Turns out it was a Florida Rough Green Snake. I estimated its length at about 30 inches (76.2 cm). It didn’t move as I lay prone in the middle of the road a few feet away.  One of its defensive mechanisms is to “freeze”. Of course, this fellow forgot that technique works best for him in the green canopy of a tree, not on the stark white of a sand road!

 Rough Green Snake  (Opheodrys aestivus carinatus)

Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus carinatus)

 Rough Green Snake  (Opheodrys aestivus carinatus)

Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus carinatus)

 

A native Florida Box Turtle is quite handsome despite some serious wear and tear to its outer shell.

Florida Box Turtle  (Terrapene carolina bauri)

Florida Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri)

 

AS SEEN ON TELEVISION!! Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. The highlight of the trip was Gini spotting this Dung Beetle rolling its package across the road. I have only seen this on television documentaries. Who knew Florida had Dung Beetles?? I found it fascinating the bug uses its rear legs to do the rolling while it walks on its forelegs. I couldn’t figure out if the two flies on the beetle’s back were drivers, supervisors or government contractors.

Dung Beetle  (Canthon pilularius)

Dung Beetle (Canthon pilularius)

Dung Beetle  (Canthon pilularius)

Dung Beetle (Canthon pilularius)

 

Dung Beetle  (Canthon pilularius)

Dung Beetle (Canthon pilularius)

Dung Beetle  (Canthon pilularius)

Dung Beetle (Canthon pilularius)

 

Occasional patches of Pale Meadowbeauty certainly brightened the prairie!

Pale Meadowbeauty  (Rhexia mariana)

Pale Meadowbeauty (Rhexia mariana)

 

A curious White-eyed Vireo alternately sang and gave his alarm call. Guess he couldn’t make up his mind whether we were friend or foe.

White-eyed Vireo

White-eyed Vireo

 

Shortleaf Rosegentian offered yet another color dimension to Nature’s incredible display.

Shortleaf Rosegentian  (Sabatia brevifolia)

Shortleaf Rosegentian (Sabatia brevifolia)

Shortleaf Rosegentian  (Sabatia brevifolia)

Shortleaf Rosegentian (Sabatia brevifolia)

 

A small butterfly, the Whirlabout, perches atop a slim stalk of Blazing Star.

Whirlabout - Male  (Polites vibex) On Blazing Star (Liatrus spp.)

Whirlabout – Male (Polites vibex) On Blazing Star (Liatrus spp.)

 

Even more purple. This Cloudless Sulphur apparently likes the nectar from a Mexican Petunia.

Cloudless Sulphur  (Phoebis sennae) On Mexican Petunia  (Ruellia brittoniana)

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) On Mexican Petunia (Ruellia brittoniana)

 

We even found dragons. A Carolina Saddlebags hangs on to a stalk of grass.

Carolina Saddlebags - Female  (Tramea carolina)

Carolina Saddlebags – Female (Tramea Carolina)

 

I was almost on top of this Killdeer before he moved slightly and I saw him. Amazing camouflage provided by the subtle plumage matched the surrounding rocks.

Killdeer

Killdeer

 

Obligatory alligator photograph. State law. Can’t be helped. Move along.

American Alligator

American Alligator

 

Butcher Bird. The Loggerhead Shrike feeds mainly on insects which she will impale on a thorn, branch or barb of fence wire. This makes it easier for them to eat. They have been known to cache several insects for later consumption.

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

 

As we left the area, one more familiar face bade us farewell. The lovely countenance of the Black Vulture with those chocolate brown eyes. One could almost discern a tear forming in his eye as we drove into the sunset.

Black Vulture

Black Vulture

 

 

Our day was full of familiar sights, sounds and experiences. We will return. Again and again. If, at the end of the day, you find your checklist has only the same old species with a mark beside it – rejoice! You have discovered the buzz of birding!

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

 

Additional Information

Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area

 

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

Posted in Birds, Florida, Photography, Travel, Wildflowers, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

A Little Beach Music

Standing in the wet sand gazing westward over the Gulf of Mexico as the light of the rising sun streamed over my shoulders, I could not discern any horizon at all. I was at the edge of the universe. Within my gaze was a vast nothingness. Within my imagination was everything. Waves washed over my feet in a rhythm as old as time. To the inexorable beat of this geologic drum the soprano screeches of gulls, terns and myriad shorebirds added a chaotic cacophony which reached into my reverie and jerked me back to the reality of a new day.

Gini and I have often talked about this land of our birth, the “Sunshine State”, being “in our blood”. We feel fortunate to have lived in several states within America as well as in Europe. After a time in each of those marvelous spots we found ourselves longing to return to the warmth, humidity, sand, salty air, evening breezes saturated with the sticky sweet scent of orange blossoms, Cuban sandwiches, deviled crabs, mullet jumping in the bay and, perhaps most of all, the irresistible pull of the music of the beach.

Today I was with a good friend and outstanding birder and we were visiting Anna Maria Island on Florida’s west coast in Manatee County. Just north of Sarasota and south of Tampa-St. Petersburg, the island caters to vacationers and offers many rentals near some really beautiful white sand beaches. We specifically paid an early morning visit to the southern end of the island at Holmes Beach. If we hoped to see any shorebirds it would have to be early before the folks with jogging shoes, beach chairs, metal detectors, fishing poles, BBQ grills and tanker trucks filled with tanning lotion began their daily duties.

We found a group of roosting terns, gulls, skimmers and smaller shorebirds and were challenged to identify and count all the individuals amongst the feathers, flapping and yapping. About the time we had a count on one species, the whole group shifted on the beach and we had to start over. As the sun rose over the condominiums, we headed for the parking lot and were satisfied to have found over 100 Black Skimmer, 90 Laughing Gull, 50 Sanderling, 45 Royal Tern, Ringed-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Red Knot and even three Barn Swallows swooping low over the surf. Although our final species tally was only 19, it was fun trying to get accurate counts on what we did find. (Side note: When walking in deep beach sand, one must multiply the distance traveled by five for the sake of accuracy. For example, I only walked one-half actual miles but with the “sand factor” I logged the mileage as “2.5 miles”. We birders DO like to be accurate. No, really.)

 

To paraphrase an old television commercial: “A birding blog without photographs is like a day without sunshine.” Herewith, your daily dose of Sol’s rays.

 

The first sunlight of the day illuminated a Sandwich Tern as she scoured the shallow water for a school of breakfast fish.

Sandwich Tern

Sandwich Tern

 

Larger than the Sandwich Tern, this Royal Tern with its bright orange bill displays impressive wingspread while making an abrupt turn to get a better look at something in the water.

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

 

Great Blue Herons seem equally at home on the beach, lake, river or swamp. A true “generalist” when it comes to locating food.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

 

Willets always seem to be late for an appointment. Probably with a hermit crab.

Willet

Willet

 

Red Knots are not that common in our area so it’s always good to see one scooting along the surf line.

Red Knot

Red Knot

 

True to its name, a Ruddy Turnstone picks up a stone (okay, maybe it’s a shell) to see if anything good to eat is underneath.

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone

 

The Knot and the Turnstone seemed to like each other’s company. (More likely, one was hoping the other would locate a seafood bonanza.)

Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone

Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone

 

Bright orange fungus on a piece of driftwood offered a bit of color on the stark white beach.

Fungus

Fungus

 

American Oystercatchers are fairly large creatures and have pretty impressive bills for capturing all manner of prey. This one materialized along the beach and found a likely fishing spot where he chased small crabs.

American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatcher

 

 

Appearing quite stately among the scurrying Sanderlings, a Ring-billed Gull staked out his own spot in the morning sun among shells broken by the pounding waves.

 

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull

 

The bill of the adult Black Skimmer looks quite substantial from the side but when viewed head-on has the appearance of a razor. A young Skimmer will soon obtain the handsome black plumage of his parents.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

 

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer (immature)

Black Skimmer (immature)

 

Typical of most kids, a juvenile begs his mom for food. She says, “I just fed you!”. Then yells at him to go clean his room. Poor kid finds a spot in the sand, flops down and heaves a big sigh as he’s pretty sure no one cares at all about him, especially those pesky Sanderlings in the background, preening all the time. (It’s quite common for Black Skimmers, adults as well as juveniles, to rest their large bills on the ground.)

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

 

 

No matter where you live, we hope you all have your own version of “beach music” which, no matter how hard you try, simply cannot be resisted.

 

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

 

Additional Information

Holmes Beach

Anna Maria Island

 

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

Posted in Birds, Florida, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 32 Comments