Yes, birds. Lots of birds.

Bird #1: the Limpkin, “uncommon, local, and inconspicous” in southern swamps and marshes, with a piercing, eerie cry that humans sometimes confuse for a damsel in distress. We were blessed to drive right up alongside a whole family of them. (Everglades National Park)

I finally listened to my wife. We escaped the cold, gray grip of Midwestern winter to join the family in the neotropics. My girls also got some quality time with both sets of grandparents.

Of course, I tried to pack in as much outdoor adventure as possible without neglecting some true rest.

I’ll forego the soliloquy on the Everglades – it’s endlessly fascinating – but suffice it to say you should read The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise.

While you go get the book, here’s another bird photo:

Bird #2: the industrious Palm Warbler in it’s understated non-breeding plumage (the yellow rump being the identifier). They nest in Canadian bogs and spend winters along southern U.S. coasts, picking crumbs from picnic areas (like this one), or foraging in open areas like coastal grasslands (where I first saw them).

The federal government was shut down, but Everglades National Park remained open and we booked a 15-mile tram ride with a private company, who fortunately were still able to earn their daily bread.

Back to birds. I keep a “life list” of birds that I’ve seen. (Yes, of course there is an Excel sheet going). South Florida stays warm enough for hundreds of continental species to overwinter there, so I was able to add to my list without too much effort. After all, I wasn’t supposed to be working!

New birds to me included 13 in all: boat-tailed grackle, black-and-white warbler, blue-headed vireo, painted bunting, glossy ibis, limpkin, red-shouldered hawk, purple gallinule, black-crowned night heron, semi-palmated plover, fish crow, white-eyed vireo, and burrowing owl.

Bird #3: the ubiquitous Snowy Egret. Their beautiful plumes were all the rage in late 19th-century headwear… the feathers by weight exceeded gold in value. Activists saved this and many other species from extinction by outlawing the unregulated slaughter. At least one game warden – Guy Bradley – gave his life for these creatures, being murdered by poachers. (Tigertail Beach, Marco Island)

Birds are the perfect gateway for people interested in exploring the natural world around them. They can be colorful, noisy, conspicuous, curious, and clever. They may be solitary or in flocks of thousands. They indicate whether a habitat is present or not, what the climate is doing, how the insect populations are responding.

Bird #4: Burrowing Owl. Populations of these 9 inch predators are stable here on densely populated Marco Island, but they are declining elsewhere, and scientists are trying to figure out why.
Yes, they build burrows right in the lawns of big condo buildings, sandwiched between a road and the sidewalk. That is to say, we build condos and roads on all sides of their home. Volunteers help maintain these protective barriers.

Burrowing Owls have the good fortune of being perceived as adorable by most of the humans that moved into their habitat, so they get the red carpet treatment. People will even sign up to have artificial burrows installed in the lawns of their million-dollar houses in hopes they will move in. See this news piece for a good overview.

Can you spot the yellow leg band in the first photo? Unique combinations of the color and position of bird bands allows researchers to keep tabs on who is whoo-whoo.

Just for fun, I sent a photo with time/location/observations to the research team and got a quick response:

Hi Adam, Thanks for the report! This is YX-GY (1094-34386). He is a male owl and was banded as an adult in June 2018, along with his mate and three chicks. He weighed a healthy 129g and had a pretty long tail of 70mm. His mate was also recently observed last week at the burrow, so we’re glad to see they’re both back and hopefully ready to begin nesting soon. Thanks and happy birding!

Some other birds are – unfortunately for them – perceived as repulsive by a lot of humans. As a result they are scowled and shot at, even though the services they provide cycle nutrients and prevent epidemics of diseases. Poor crows and vultures…

Birds #5 and 6: Pictured are a black vulture (perched) and a turkey vulture (soaring), two species that clean up dead animals and redistribute important nutrients back across the ecosystem. And what a gorgeous observation tower! (Everglades National Park)
The Black Vulture. “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I’ll go eat roadkill and protect humans from an epidemic of contagious disease.” (Fakahatchee Strand Preserve)

There were also a few familiar and friends, like the Gray Catbird, found in almost any Midwestern thicket during the summer. Birds, of course, don’t care what we call “natural” vs. “man-made”. They make use of it all.

Bird #7: Gray Catbird, taking a quick sip from a bubbler.

Others are much flashier. It was a treat to get a fleeting glimpse (and only a poor photo) of the Purple Gallinule.

Bird #8: The Purple Gallinule, “Jewel of the Everglades.” Catch me if you can! (Everglades National Park)

Some birds are just big and unique, and that’s enough for me. Wood Storks fit the bill. I was able to catch a few different individuals at different angles. Get ready for the Stork-fest…

Bird #9: The Wood Stork, standing 3-4 ft tall and boasting a 5-ft wingspan, soars without a care. Or so it seems. (Robinson Preserve, Bradenton, FL)
An immature Wood Stork mingles with (or just tolerates) a Snowy Egret in Everglades NP. Not done with the stork photos yet.
Sideview of a Wood Stork, painfully close to being in focus. Sigh… let’s try again…
A Wood Stork lifts off and pumps for a little altitude.

A lot of folks describe certain forests like a “cathedral.” We have woods at The Center where people get that feeling.

The Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is one such site (link). It is home to the largest old growth Bald Cypress forest in North America, as well as a huge Wood Stork rookery. Other-worldly, eerie, glorious (at least outside of mosquito season). Creation’s beauty on full display. Here we find our last few birds (I promise).

Bird #10: A Great Egret patiently waits for a meal.
Bird #11: A immature White Ibis perched above the swamp waters.
A few dozen White Ibis congregating. Their feathers are white with black wing tips upon maturing, while their bill, face, and legs stay pink.
Bird #12: A Little Blue Heron – half as tall as our familiar Great Blue Heron – takes advantage of it’s diminutive size by walking on water. Well, on the floating Water Lettuce anyway. These birds have declined by 55% since 1966, due to habitat loss and human-caused changes in local water dynamics .

The Audubon Society is to be commended for defending this natural treasure and interpreting it for the public.

That’s more than enough birds for one post. But you don’t get birds without habitat. Some of these cypress trees were already growing here when Ponce de León came ashore 500 years ago. This first tree is named “Leopold” after one of America’s most esteemed ecologists, Aldo Leopold. I thought the name was a fitting tribute for someone who truly took the long view.

This tree predates the United States by a few centuries.

“The Leopold tree is 500-plus years old, one of the forest’s oldest, and at 98 feet tall, one of its tallest. The toll wrought by numerous hurricanes has cost the tree its top and most of its branches, leaving a massive main trunk that, chest high, is 22 feet around. Its fallen branches combine with the litter of cypress needles, cones, leaves from other trees, and the roots of nearby plant, contributing biomass to the spongy organic peat of the forest floor. Peat acts like a sponge to wick moisture up to the cypress roots year-round. The moisture in turn keeps the forest cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.” (source)

This giant Bald Cypress has dropped it’s green needles (leaves) for the winter, but its branches are still loaded with other aerial plant species called epiphytes, which live right on its surface.

Epiphytes above, fungal networks below, nutrients cycling in and out, and birds, panthers, and otters streaming under, around, and over.

A forest elder embodying connectivity, community, and generativity.

8 Replies to “birds!”

  1. Ellen Dodge

    Thanks for the wonderful tour, Adam! I’ve heard about the great variety of birds down there but have not had the opportunity to see it for myself.

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