Saturday, May 31, 2008

Colorful Blackbirds - the Baltimore Oriole

Remember the old nursery rhyme about four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie? “When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing. Now wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?”

You may very well wonder what the attraction of singing blackbirds would be. The blackbirds we hear around us are anything but accomplished singers. The squeaks, rattles, cronks, and crinks of the redwings, grackles, or cowbirds would be pleasing only to the most tone-deaf, or perverse, of monarchs.

However, the blackbirds of the rhyme are the (Common) Blackbirds of Europe. The Blackbird of Europe is a thrush, and like all thrushes, it has a rich repertoire that would be pleasing to the most discriminating of monarchs. So it is understandable why the blackbirds sang, undoubtedly in delight at somehow having survived being baked in a the pie.

When the English colonists settled on the shores of North America they saw many new birds. Many of these birds were somewhat similar to the birds they knew back home in England, so they gave the New World birds those Old World names. The blackbirds are one such example of superficially similar birds being named for an Old World bird.

New World blackbirds are, in fact, completely unrelated to the Old World Common Blackbird, or to any other Old World bird. New World blackbirds are in their own family and are found only in the Western Hemisphere. There are currently 103 species classified in the Icteridae family. Icteridae comes from a Greek word meaning “jaundiced,” or yellowish. (I have no idea why that name was applied to the family.)

I have developed a recent fascination with the blackbirds. You may very well wonder why. They are often noisy and aggressive. The male Red-winged may have flashy epaulets, but the species is so common that in many places it is considered a pest; even bird lovers often regard it as a “dirt” bird. The Brown-headed Cowbird is a brood parasite - regarded as lazy, voracious, and ugly; it is one of the birds that birders love to hate.

But ... not all blackbirds are completely black, and some in the blackbird family (Icteridae) are accomplished singers. Another instance of misnaming will quickly explain this.

When the Catholic followers of the Lord Baltimore settled the colony of Maryland, they encountered a bird which was superficially similar to the Eurasian Golden Oriole (a member of the Oriole family - Oriolidae). The male sported the coat-of-arms colors of their patron - bright orange and black - and so they named the bird in his honor: Baltimore Oriole. (I believe these good Catholics were also responsible for naming a bright red bird the cardinal in honor of the church princes who also wore bright red robes.)

However, the Baltimore Oriole is not an oriole; it is unrelated to any Oriolidae. The Baltimore Oriole is a New World blackbird, an Icteridae.

Most New World orioles are classified in the genus, Icterus, and typically sport yellow or orange plumage. The females are often paler yellow, jaundiced, as their genus name implies.

This year seems to be an especially good year for the Baltimore Oriole. In my neighbor’s fully blossomed apple tree, and in the cherry trees across the road, a spot of orange moves along a branch, pausing for a burst of song. “A thousand orchards are in bloom,” enthused Edward Forbush, “and among their tinted blossoms the resplendent Orioles with songs of joy weave in and out. Ever in New England this beautiful, elegantly formed bird is associated with blooming apple orchards, and with peach and cherry blossoms.”

At least two males are contending for territory and serenading their lady loves in my neighborhood. Adaptable to human presence, they may build their nests in shade trees and wooded residential areas, as well as open woodlands and orchards. I have seen a few Baltimore Oriole nests. The nest is a flimsy looking, hanging pouch, usually at the end of a branch. It is commonly 25-30 feet from the ground. The female builds the nest while the male sings nearby. She also incubates the four eggs (sometimes five or six), while the male sings nearby. The male finally gets into the parenting act when the young hatch; both parents feed the nestlings.

Year after year I have noticed that the Baltimore Orioles seem to vanish during July. Not a note is heard, nor a hint of their presence glimpsed. Then they reappear in August, the males again singing from high in the branches. During their disappearance, Baltimore Orioles undergo a complete moult. They are secretive and quiet. Then just as quickly as they have reappeared after the moult and resumed their song, they disappear again, off on their migration to Central and South America.

I have been especially excited about the Baltimore Orioles this year. In the past I have rarely had a really satisfying look at the orioles. Most times I managed only glimpses of the bright orange male as he moved through leafy branches or sang near the top of a tree. This year, however, the first male to return to the neighborhood came to the suet feeder. Then he was joined by a second male. Only a few feet outside my kitchen window, I watched them replenish their fat reserves from the suet basket.

This in turn prompted me to put out orange halves. I have tried attracting orioles with oranges in the past. The oranges eventually dried out and turned moldy, but the orioles never came close. This year the orioles came to the oranges immediately, and for over a week it seemed that I was replacing the picked apart orange on a daily basis.

Now, however, this brightly colored blackbird is turning its attention to the business of breeding and nesting. There will be much to keep him occupied for the next month or so.

People who say they don’t like blackbirds are wrong! Most blackbird haters love the Baltimore Oriole, and the Baltimore Oriole is a blackbird. Its plumage is so brilliant, that it has been called the golden robin, the fire bird, or the fire-hang bird.

If you were confused by the bird names and relationships at the beginning, here is a brief recap: the Old World oriole is an oriole, unlike the New World oriole which is a blackbird, unlike the Old World blackbird which is a thrush, like the American Robin.

The blackbirds in the pie were thrushes, and thrushes are accomplished singers. But I daresay that the New World blackbird I am listening to outside of my window at this moment is also a very accomplished singer. He is handsome and brilliant in the bright colors that once adorned Lord Baltimore’s coat-of-arms.

Good birding!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Birds and Storms in Cape May

About two weeks ago I was in southern New Jersey, in Cape May, visiting some family. On that May Monday, a “November” nor’easter struck the Jersey coast: Heavy rain, 40 mile per hour winds that gusted to 70, warning of coastal tidal flooding. By mid-morning, schools were dismissing so busses could get children home before high tide. By mid-afternoon, tolls were lifted on bridges and roads so residents could evacuate the coast. It was foul! Give me a Vermont blizzard any time.

I made one brief excursion outside and noted, in passing, that the intracoastal salt marshes which lie between the barrier islands and the mainland, were completely flooded. I wondered how the marsh dwelling birds were faring. Severe weather often takes a toll on birds.

Tuesday was a glorious spring day and I was out birding early. I wondered whether I would see any signs of the unusually severe spring storm. Cape May is located on the north shore of a body of water that migrating songbirds cross during the night. Sometimes such a place has a “fall-out.” Birds fly north into a strong head-wind. They are so exhausted that as soon as they reach land they “fall out” of the sky and begin feeding to replenish their depleted fat reserves. Some birders relish such a fall-out when any tree might contain a dozen warblers frantically looking for food. I have often thought that such relishment is a bit perverse - that birders could take such joy in seeing birds in such extremity.

There was no fall-out on the day after the storm. The migrants that may have waited out the storm on the southern shore of the Delaware Bay, probably flew during the night. Although the winds were still brisk and from the north, they were not overwhelming. The migrants would have crossed the few miles of open water and then kept on going, touching down when daylight came somewhere in the pine forests of southern New Jersey. Then refueling, they would resume their journey to Vermont.

So I did not see a warbler fall-out as a result of the storm. There was the occasional down tree, the broken branches, lots of leaf litter, but no exhausted little songbirds nearly dead on the wing. Instead, the birds were back doing what they needed to do. They had hunkered down in some sheltered spot. Now they were singing! ... carrying nesting materials, chasing away another male or chasing after a female. And I had a grand time.

As a by the way: Cape May has a well-deserved reputation as one of the premier bird watching places in North America. It is a destination for serious birders from around the world. Every time I have birded in Cape May I have encountered people from beyond North America. On the other hand, as I have wandered the many wildlife management areas, I have almost always encountered someone who says in passing, “Boy, it’s slow today.” Go figure.

I saw most of the warblers that I would also expect to see in Vermont, but the real attraction of a spring trip to Cape May is to see the birds whose summer range does not normally extend as far north as our forests: flashy southern species like the brightly throated Yellow-throated Warbler - or the brilliant swamp dwelling Prothonotary Warbler with its orange-yellow head and breast - or the black-cowled, yellow bodied Hooded Warbler - or even the drab, sparrow-colored Worm-eating Warbler.

Probably my favorite southern warbler is the Yellow-breasted Chat. Except for its flashy yellow breast, the chat doesn’t look or sound anything like a warbler. It’s big - roughly tanager sized, with a large, un-warbler-like beak. It has big white spectacles on its eyes. It tends to hide in bushes and chatter away like a thrasher or catbird. Since it is spring, I saw it climb to the tree tops and sing, if you can somehow call its mockingbird, catbird like noise a song.

On the third day after the storm, we interrupted our trip home with a stop at the Brigantine unit of the Forsyth National Wildlife Refuge north of Atlantic City. With coastal marshes, fresh and saltwater impoundments, scrub, forest and field, it is one of my favorite birding places.

In early April, I spent half a day in the refuge, much of it watching a pair of Osprey going through their courtship rituals and remodeling their nest. On this trip, she was incubating; he was watching alertly from a nearby perch, ignoring her constant calling.

Along the edge of a muddy channel, a Clapper Rail emerged from the grasses. Often heard but seldom seen, this shy and elusive marsh hen was joined by a second bird, and we watched their courtship rituals until they slipped discretely back among the grasses.

On the far side of the eight mile refuge drive, we stopped to watch a young Great Black-backed Gull troubling with something in the shallow waters. Feathery and black with a long neck and long beak, we speculated that the gull was feeding on a cormorant. The black-backed is a big bird, and gulls are notorious nest robbers. But it seemed early for cormorants to be nesting, and this did not seem to be a small cormorant, like a hatchling, that the gull was dealing with. When I tried to approach for a closer look, the gull carried off his prize.

A short distance further on, a Herring Gull was trying to tear apart a similar carcass, and just beyond, another black-backed had yet another. All appeared to be cormorants. Ahead of me on the road, crows were working on a couple of dark objects. They flew as I approached on foot. The two carcasses were fresh, not yet picked clean, but with the choice viscera and meaty chest gone. Both were Clapper Rails. Nearby a pair of Turkey Vultures waited impatiently for me to return to the car.

The scavengers were at work, cleaning up after the spring storm. It was a bonanza for them. We saw half a dozen carcasses in a short distance. How many more were scattered through the marsh grasses? We saw only the large birds. What was the silent toll on small songbirds?

We see the beauty of nature. We marvel at the grace of a heron in flight, the delicate plumes of an egret, the bubbly enthusiasm of a singing songbird, the brilliant color of a warbler, the antics of a nuthatch, the sweetness of a chickadee. We may marvel at the dash of an accipiter, providing it does not consume its prey - one of our feeder birds - within our line of sight. And when the rain and wind rage, or the temperature drops, we wrap ourselves in the protective cocoon of our home, beyond sight or thought of creatures which must endure. We seldom look on the other side of the rose glasses, and when we do, we do so quickly, ignoring the harsh and unlovely.

Life is not all sweetly singing songbirds and colorful warblers. There is a lesson in those scavengers picking apart the cormorants and rails killed by the storm. I am not exactly sure what the lesson is, but my gut tells me it is a lesson I should not ignore. Perhaps I should pass over the bird books above my desk, and turn for a time to a theologian or philosopher.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Chasing Birds in the Florida Keys

In mid-April, I was in the Florida Keys looking for birds. I had certain “target birds” which I hoped to see. They fell into two categories. The hard to get to, easy to see birds were the ones that required a two hour boat trip to the Dry Tortugas. I’ve written about these the last two weeks, so you’ll have to dig out your old newspapers.

The easy to get to hard to find birds were the ones accessible by car. The American Birding Association publishes a series of bird finding guides. I was using (obviously) A Birder’s Guide to Florida by Bill Pranty. The ABA guides provide very precise directions to the best birding spots within the volume’s area, along with maps and whatever other information might be useful to the bird seeker. So I knew where my target species might be found and I knew how to get to those places.

In addition, the Florida Keys are easy to navigate. US 1 runs their length to Key West. There are a few roads off of US 1 on some of the larger keys, but not many. So finding the spots was easy.

Finding the birds was another matter. I missed two of the birds I hoped to see. The Mangrove Cuckoo is even more secretive than the Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoos which sometimes summer in our region and may or may not be seen depending upon the tree caterpillar supply which is their major food source. Plus, the Mangrove Cuckoo lives in mangrove swamps, not easy places to gain access to, though boardwalks in various parks help with the access. I went to many of the places where they purportedly could be seen. I even swallowed my principle of not harassing birds by using song recordings, and played a song recording in the hope that a jealous male might respond. But no success. Mangrove Cuckoos are difficult to locate, require lots of patience, and some luck. So missing the cuckoo was not a surprise.

Nor was it a particular surprise that I missed the Antillean Nighthawk, a close relative of the northern nesting Common Nighthawk. Nighthawks are best seen and heard at dusk. Dusk is my bedtime. Need I say more?

The White-crowned Pigeon is a Florida Keys specialty. Don’t let the “pigeon” part turn you off. This bird still retains all of its wildness. All of the guidebooks talked of the difficulty of seeing this species. The White-crowned Pigeon forages, roosts, and breeds in the tree tops. It is shy and hard to approach. It is most likely to be seen when it flies out of, or into, its nighttime roost, or when it is flushed by something. All of this means that the sightings may be fleeting.

None of these characteristics boded well, although we went to many of the places where it was known to roost, scanned the tree tops of likely foraging locations, and watched for pigeons flying overhead. There are never any guarantees when looking for birds, and I did not expect any with the pigeon.

I took my camera with me when we went for dinner in Key West. We had to see some of the tourist things, and I feel obliged to take some of the tourist-type pictures. There were a few birds to be see, as well: Brown Pelicans on the harbor piers, Ruddy Turnstones on the docks, and Red Junglefowl scavenging among the tables of the restaurant. The junglefowl are still considered feral chickens even though they have been managing on their own on the southernmost keys since the early 1800s.

Late evening as we walked back to our hotel, I noticed a pigeon perched on a power line, then looked more closely. Our binoculars were in our room, so the camera zoom provided the confirmation. It was a White-crowned Pigeon. I managed a couple of adequate photographs, and then it flew. One never knows where a target bird will appear.

The Gray Kingbird is fairly common in the Florida Keys and proved to be the least challenging of our target birds. It looks like a bulked up Eastern Kingbird, a Barry Bonds on steroids. We weren’t even looking for it when we saw one perched on a power line. Leaving our hotel in Key West in the early morning, we heard its noisy chatter from high in a tree.

This brings me to the Black-whiskered Vireo. We went to the end of the road on No Name Key in the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge. Key deer, small versions of the white-tailed deer, grazed on the road side. We explored the shoreline, watched diminutive Least Terns and robust Royal Terns resting. Along the road we located the White-eyed Vireo which was singing and then heard what we thought was another, but different vireo. In the car, we listened to the identical song on the track of the Black-whiskered Vireo. Then we began the quest for a glimpse.

The Black-whiskered Vireo is a close relative of our Red-eyed Vireo, and like our Red-eyed Vireo it often sings and forages in the thick foliage in the middle and top of trees. There are times when our vireo can be notoriously difficult to see. The Black-whiskered Vireo was just like our Red-eyed. We heard it here; we looked for some movement among the leaves. We saw no movement; we saw nothing fly. But now it sang from a tree to the left, and then a hundred yards down the road. It was in a tree right on the edge of the road; we saw a bird fly further from the road and sing like the vireo.

Two days later in the early morning we were on a different key looking (unsuccessfully) for the Mangrove Cuckoo. Prairie Warblers sang from prominent perches. A junglefowl ambled by to see if we had any crumbs to share. Black-and-White Warblers and White-eyed Vireos sang. So did a Black-whiskered Vireo. In between good looks at the other warblers and vireo, we searched for the elusive Black-whiskered Vireo - in this tree, and then that, down the road and up the road, and now back again in this tree. Pete Dunne calls the Black-whiskered Vireo a “canopy bugaboo,” and I have no argument with that.

But then ... typical of the vireos ... the Black-whiskered Vireo suddenly came out of hiding. They (more than one) paused on a branch, stayed still, sang and posed for us. They looked like washed out Red-eyes, but one perched on an open branch, lifted his head and sang for us, showing the thin, black whisker on his chin which gives him his name. For a long time (at least a couple of minutes) the vireos stayed in the open - probably a couple of males were disputing among themselves about whose tree they were in and who would win the affections of the lady. That is what spring is about, at least among the birds.

Of the target species, the Black-whiskered Vireo was the most satisfying. We found it without anyone’s help, first identifying it by its unfamiliar song. We had to work for a sighting, but when we finally achieved the sighting, it was not a “BLD” (better look desired). We saw the washed out color, the eye strip, the dark eye (not a red-eye) and the black-whisker. It was good birding.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

More Birding on the Dry Tortugas

The Dry Tortugas have a reputation for superb spring birding. In addition to the nesting colonies of tropical seabirds which I wrote about last week, these tiny spots of land in the Gulf of Mexico are a resting place for migrating birds.

Eventually I tore my gaze from the clouds of Sooty Terns over Bush Key, the perching Brown Noddies, and the whisper-like flight of the Magnificent Frigatebirds, and began exploring other parts of Garden Key and Fort Jefferson.

On the pilings of the old pier, Royal Terns perched regally, along with several Black-bellied Plovers, most still coming into the breeding plumage which gives them their name. A single Whimbrel briefly showed its long, down-curved bill before tucking it beneath a wing and dozing off in the warm mid-day sun. On the sandy shore, a pair of Ruddy Turnstones, like the plovers not yet into their variegated breeding plumage, turned over stones and seaweed in search of food. A single Spotted Sandpiper flew from the beach where a pair of Brown Pelicans were preening. A Sandwich Tern alighted briefly near the pelicans.

I turned from my vantage point and began walking through the campground. A woman came from around the copse of trees. “Did you see the owl?” she asked with quiet excitement. “It went this way.”

I fell in step beside her. A few yards on, we paused. Perched in the grass was a Short-eared Owl, the West Indian race of this wide-spread species that I have now seen from Massachusetts to the Hawaiian Islands to a remote speck of Florida. This time, however, I could clearly see the short feather tufts which are mis-named “ears,” and which give the owl its name. After a few minutes, it became tired of being stared at and flew off around the walls of the fort.

Inside the walls of Fort Jefferson, the old parade ground is now a grassy expanse with a scattering of trees and shrubs and the reputation for being a spring-time birding hotspot. Most of the visitors to the National Park missed this quiet attraction. There had been no strong weather fronts so there was no songbird fall-out with birds dripping from trees. As the majority of visitors wandered about the old gun emplacements and strolled the top of the fortress walls, they probably wondered about the couple dozen people skulking about with binoculars and spy glasses on tripods or stretched lazily on the grass staring at a tree.

When I first walked into the parade ground, two things caught my attention. Cattle Egrets stalked through the grass. Accustomed to following cattle and eating the insects which the hooves stir up, these long-legged waders were wading the short grass in search of scarce insects. There are few insects on the keys of the Dry Tortugas, and the Cattle Egrets which stop at Fort Jefferson find such slim sustenance that they sometimes take to chasing, and taking, songbirds instead. These Cattle Egrets stayed in the grass, were wary whenever someone began approaching them, and occasionally found something to eat. At least, I did not see them pursing songbirds. They were in breeding plumage with rusty orange patches on the head, back, and neck. Immigrants from Africa to the Western Hemisphere in the late 1800s, they are now widespread in North America and expanding in other parts of the world.

The Cattle Egrets were not stalking songbirds, but songbirds and shorebirds were not free of danger. A dark, fast moving, pointed wing silhouette swept over the walls, circled the parade ground rapidly, and landed on the top of a tree. At the Putney Mountain hawk watch a dark, fast moving, here-and-gone hawk which prompts a “What was that?” reflex ... is a Merlin. On the top a tree in the middle of the Fort Jefferson parade ground, I focused my scope on a Merlin, perched erect and alert. For the next couple of hours this small falcon flew about the fortress walls and returned to perch. It was an adult male, an experienced hunter, and sooner or later he would return with food in his talons.

The same pattern with intervals of hunting and rest was followed by the Short-eared Owl, which used a tree on the other side of the parade ground as its operational base. This past winter, I watched a Short-eared Owl on Plum Island as it defined, on its own, a day of good birding. The owl and the Merlin would have easily made this day at Dry Tortugas National Park a day of good birding. But remember, they came after the hordes of Sooty Terns, the perching Brown Noddies, and the whisper-like flight of the Magnificent Frigatebirds had already defined the day as a good birding day.

The birding wasn’t over, but it did mellow down. I was finally able to turn my attention to the trees and shrubs harboring the songbirds. The numbers and variety were not great, but each different species was something of a surprise, a discovery, often a welcome anticipation what would be awaiting me when I returned to Vermont: Black-and-white and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Northern Parula, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Eastern Kingbird.

In our northern climes, we don’t pay much attention to doves or pigeons. They are all Mourning Doves or Rock Pigeons. But in southern Florida there are at least three other doves and pigeons, plus tropical vagrants that might show up at any time. The dove atop a tree in the parade ground warranted a closer look, and gave me my first White-winged Dove since my last visit near a southern border.

As the sun climbed high and the day wore on, I adopted a different birding tactic. Instead of wandering around looking for birds, I found a shady spot beneath a tree with a good view of the bird fountain. I sat and let the birds come to me. It is an effective tactic, maybe more effective than barging about and disturbing the birds.

It worked. A Black-and-white Warbler foraged along a tree branch in its upside-down, nuthatch-like manner. A Palm Warbler wagged his tail in Palm Warbler fashion, causing me to mentally reminisce about the tail-wagging Eastern Phoebe which had begun singing outside my bedroom window just before I left for Florida.

Blackpolls came close. I know them as denizens of the high elevation spruce forests, one of the last migrants to pass through the Connecticut River valley where I usually do my birding. Here they were on a tropical island a few feet above sea level. I had to look twice to be sure I was identifying them correctly.

Seabirds, shorebirds, songbirds, raptors - all capped off with a period of lazy semi-somnolent birding - the Dry Tortugas provided a day of excellent spring birding.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

New Arrivals

Indigo Bunting made his first appearance this morning.

I saw the White-crowned Sparrow along the Connecticut River yesterday. Today one stopped by for some free seed.

Becoming rather common in the Connecticut River Valley, the Red-breasted Woodpecker is beginning to expand into the out-lying areas of Windham County. This handsome male spent most of the day visiting the feeder; other times he was "singing" in the trees.

Mustn't forget the Evening Grosbeaks busy with their pairing up.

And a follow-up on the Baltimore Orioles. Females are beginning to appear and the males are giving more and more time to singing and less time to feeding on the oranges. They flit around, but I haven't seen them lingering today as they did the previous several days.

Good Birding!!

Monday, May 05, 2008

Color in the Yard

The two male Baltimore Orioles continued to bulk up on my suet all of yesterday and this morning.

Then they finally discovered the orange halves I put out and they went to work on those.

The orioles are so bright and stunning that it is hard not to give them complete attention. The orioles held their own against the larger blackbirds and jays, and went head to head with the grosbeaks.

And speaking of grosbeaks, they are in the yard as well, although this handsome gent I photographed early this morning along the Connecticut River near the Cerosimo mills.

I feel that I shouldn't neglect the regulars, such as this dapper looking Hairy - after all, he stayed the winter while the others wimped out and spent the snowy months in the tropics.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Baltimore Oriole on the Suet

This rainy, dreary Saturday became much brighter when a Baltimore Oriole came to the suet feeder, the first time this has happened in my yard. I have orange halves out, but he showed no interest - just the suet. Then a second one arrived. The feeders were trashed by a bear a few nights ago, so I bring them in at night; it's a pain putting them out in the morning when all I really want is my first cup of coffee, but when the oriole started coming throughout the day, I forgot the inconvenience. What a show! Then a second male showed up. I suppose in a few days when they start establishing territory they will not be quite as friendly toward each other, but today they shared the suet with one another, as well as with a Blue Jay, Downy Woodpecker, and White-breasted Nuthatch. Evening Grosbeaks are also regulars at the feeders and brought more brilliant color with the fresh plumage, so I had to include a photo of one. They breed in the neighborhood and last year brought their young around in the late summer. Maybe the orioles will do the same this year.

Birding in the Dry Tortugas

The thing about birding is - eventually you have to go places you would not normally go to see birds you would not normally see. Southern Florida is a place I would not normally go. It is flat, hot, humid, gets hit by hurricanes, and is mostly owned by developers who build mile after mile of look alike strip malls. But it does have a few places that intrigue me.

The Florida Keys, for example: a long, curving line of small islands stretching across shallow oceans for some 200 miles, if you take them all the way out to the Dry Tortugas. Several pulp fiction writers base their eccentric characters in these tropical islands and waters. Sampling the setting has long been a draw for me, getting a taste for how these writers filter the Florida atmosphere and scratch at its underbelly, just as Archer Mayor filters Brattleboro and scratches its underbelly.

That’s one magnetism of southern Florida, albeit, a weak one. The other magnetism, a much stronger one is, of course, the birds. There are birds found in the Florida Keys that are very hard to find anywhere else within the borders of the United States except in those barely above sea level, tropical islands.

In mid-April I traveled to southern Florida and I had the good fortune to see some of those birds. They fell into roughly two categories: the ones that were easy to get to but hard to find, and the ones that were harder to get to but easy to find.

The latter category - hard to get to but easy to find - are the birds of the Dry Tortugas. The Dry Tortugas are seventy miles from Key West, the southernmost inhabitable island of the Florida Keys. With no potable water, the keys of the Dry Tortugas are not inhabitable, although that did not deter the U.S. Army from building Fort Jefferson on Garden Key beginning in 1846. It is now a national park.

I had two choices for seeing the birds of these remote pieces of land. One was an expensive, three day, guided birding trip, with overnight anchorage within sight of nesting rarities. The other was a one day trip on a national park concessionaire’s fast boat. I chose the shorter and cheaper trip.

I had hoped that the two hour trip to Fort Jefferson would provide some good pelagic birding. Unfortunately, the boat was too fast and the seas too high to allow for any near approach to birds or use of binoculars. I saw a few gulls near the harbor, occasional gannets and pelicans, and a couple of small groups of egrets, probably Cattle Egrets, crossing the open expanse of ocean. Sometime in the 1870s and 1880s, these remarkable birds crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to South America, and by the 1950s had expanded to North America. Seeing them thirty miles from the nearest land provided a first-hand experience of their ability.

As soon as we docked on Garden Key, the situation was very different, and I quickly joined other bird watchers who were peering across the shallow water at Bush Key. If it weren’t for park regulations, uniformed rangers, and a large sign discernible to all but the most myopic and warning “Island Closed,” it would have been easy to wade over to this place of such intense interest. Bush Key - its sandy shore, scrubby vegetation, and the skies overhead - teemed with thousands of birds. We were looking at a nesting colony for an estimated 25,000 pairs of Sooty Terns and 2,000 pairs of Brown Noddies (a tern relative). On other nearby keys, there are also nesting colonies of Magnificent Frigatebirds and Masked Boobies (closely related to the Northern Gannet which breeds in the north Atlantic). Occasional rarities also get thrown into the breeding mix, but I was quite content simply to look in awe at birds which roam the tropical oceans, coming to shore only to nest, and then do so by the thousands.

The Brown Noddies perched on the old docks of Fort Jefferson, so there were good looks to be had of this bird. Not so the Sooty Terns. They kept their distance; they were on and above their breeding grounds on the nearby key. They were noisy. Old sailors used to call them, “wide-awake.” My source did not explain whether the name came about because they are noisy by day and by night, or because their noise kept everyone else awake day and night. Audubon, who likes to pass along the observations of others, does not record this name from his visit to the Tortugas aboard a U.S. revenue cutter, but does refer to the Sooty Tern as the “Black and White Sea Swallow,” a name which describes the bird’s plumage and swallow-like flight pattern.

On this same trip, Audubon was also told that the other sea swallows “were called Noddies, because they frequently alighted on the yards of vessels at night, and slept there.” That’s one explanation for the name, “Noddy.” The other explanation suggests that the name means “simpleton,” and was given by sailors because it was too dumb to take flight when they approached. Audubon reports that the Brown Noddies stayed on the ground when sailors went ashore to gather their eggs, whereas the Sooty Terns took flight in mass.

It was certainly the case that I saw thousands of Sooty Terns in flight above Bush Key, their noise carrying easily across the water, and that I saw dozens of Brown Noddies perched on old pilings, unconcerned about those strange creatures peering at them with funny things on their eyes.

When I needed to rest from viewing the terns and noddies, I looked up. Above Fort Jefferson there were always a few, sometimes a dozen or more, Magnificent Frigatebirds. They floated effortlessly, as though gravity had no meaning to them. With long, pointed wings that span eight feet, these birds are masters of the air. They can’t walk, they can’t sit, and they can’t swim. They can perch on a tree limb, channel marker, or ship rigging. And they can fly! They soar magnificently, staying aloft for hours, leading some to speculate that they sleep on the wing. Nimbly they plunge to grab prey from the water, “See him now!,” wrote Audubon, “Yonder, over the waves leaps the brilliant dolphin, as he pursues the flying-fishes, which he expects to seize the moment they drop into water. The Frigate-bird, who has marked them, closes his wings, dives toward them, and now ascending, holds one of the tiny things across his bill.”

Or the frigatebird may leave fishing to other birds, preferring to steal from a gull or gannet, even forcing the victim to disgorge from its gullet what it has caught and swallowed. Hence sailors named it for the fast sailing frigate, preferred vessel for pirates and privateers looking to rob a slower moving vessel.

The frigatebirds entranced me. Mesmerized, I watched them suspended on a spot high above. Then a wing adjusted and a bird rode higher in a tight circle, to a great altitude, until it was a small speck. Another drifted, aimlessly it seemed, but calmly and easily riding the winds and air currents. Over and over I forced my attention somewhere else, to the ramparts, the garden like parade ground, the swirling terns or perching noddies. Until another frigatebird dipped nearby drawing my attention as it floated along. It was good birding!

Sometime soon I’ll tell you about the hard to find birds in the easy to get to places.


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