Monday, February 25, 2013

Black Skimmer Surprise

Florida 2013 continued

Every trip down to Florida I try to make it to the beach at least once before sunrise. Sheppard Park is a busy place during the day, and so morning is an opportunity to spend some time by the ocean without the oiled and bikini-clad crowds. In the area of the park, it is also the only time of day you'll see anything other than a few gulls, as the other birds just don't tolerate all those people.

A few years ago I had gotten some shots of black skimmers. But it was before I really understood what I needed to do to get decent images of birds, and many were blurred and dim. I was really hoping there would be skimmers so I could get some better images.

When we arrived there were no skimmers in sight. I didn't even seen any terns, just a rag-tag group of gulls. I'm not excited about gulls, don't know them well and can ID only a few on sight. I snapped some half-hearted shots as I walked north up the beach. There were a few sanderlings and a ruddy turnstone, but they were not what I was looking for.

After a while I walked back down the beach and stood near the water for a few minutes. When I turned around to look back to the north I was stunned to see a small flock of skimmers had landed next to me!

Hello, Lady, we hear you're looking for black skimmers. Well, here we are!

I was so excited! I've never been this close to these peculiar birds before. I knelt down in the wet sand and started shooting.

Their feet look so small compared to the length of their bodies, but much of that length is beak and wings, which protrude several inches past their tail.

Such an oddity, the black skimmer is. First, there's that enormous and lopsided orange and black beak. Because their eyes are situated up in the their black caps, they look eyeless from a distance. Short but long-bodied, with bright orange legs and small black toes to match the beak, they look like they're wearing a clown suit.

I noticed, looking at this cropped image, that their nostrils are way down at the bottom edge of their top bill. Hmmm....


 This bird is clearly an immature, presumably from last summer's brood.

This was an incidental capture as I was focused on another bird, but this shows how thin the beak is. There's a reason for that....

Black skimmers feed by flying low over water near shore with the elongated and very narrow lower bill slicing through the shallows. When it hits something the bird brings its head down rapidly, snapping upper bill to lower, so that its whole beak is pointed straight down and in the water. Must be why its nostrils are on the sides of its beak--it would get water up its nose otherwise! Their long wings probably allow them to get enough lift with just half a stroke, since they fly so close to the water.

Photo from my 2010 post--I didn't see any skimmers feeding this time 'round.

I spent quite a while watching them as they are not a bird we see here in Southeast Michigan, and I think they are just amazing.

Unlike the gulls and terns and other shore birds the skimmers seemed ill at ease with people walking by on the beach--and there were a lot of people out enjoying the morning. The flock would just get settled, then someone would come along and they'd take to the air again. This made for some nice shots of them in flight--but that's for next time!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Palm Warbler in the Backyard

I have to back up for a moment, to before our walk at Ulumay. I was sitting on the back deck talking with my grandma while my mother took a nap. As we chatted I noticed movement in the live oak behind Andree. My mind immediately left the conversation as my eyes focused in on the little bird. What is that? I wondered. Not something familiar, and that was my cue to grab my camera.

Had to look up this little lady in Sibley's--a female palm warbler.

 I followed the little palm warbler through the branches as she looked carefully for insects.

Such a trim little bill, perfect for plucking bugs from tiny places.

Unlike the osprey, who nabs a big meal then eats at its leisure, these little birds have to work constantly to eat enough of their tiny prey to make a meal. I watched as she stretched out to reach ant?


What a treat to have her right there in the backyard. 

Up next: morning on the beach

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Ulumay and the Wood Stork

Looking at Merritt Island from above it is difficult to think of it as an island. Laying as it does between the mainland to the west and the barrier island that stretches down Florida's coast to the east, it seems all pretty well connected. Looking at this image it looks like it's more of a peninsula than island, but it is certainly bounded by water, with the Indian River to the west and the Banana River to the east. This is all part of the Intracoastal Waterway, and includes places like Canaveral National Seashore, the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge.

Ulumay Wildlife Sanctuary is at the south end of the island, (see the "A" pointer, above), south of 528 (the "Beach Line", a direct route from Orlando to the Atlantic) and relatively close to my grandma's house. I have been remiss in only visiting the place once before, but in my defense I had a pretty bad experience there the first time. This was not the fault of the park, but a result of my own ignorance.

Years ago Lisa and I drove down with our bikes. My grandma told us there was a trail at Ulumay that circled the park (or did we just assume this?). We were happy to have a place to ride that wasn't on a busy street so we drove the 10 minutes to the sanctuary and started riding from the parking area at the south end off of Sykes Creek Parkway. All was fine for a while, the trail wide and mostly dirt. Then it narrowed, from the width of a car to a foot path, and we found ourselves navigating tree roots and branches. Then, it just sort of piddled out. Still thinking there would be a trail up ahead we pushed on, getting off our bikes and walking them through the wilderness. Several hours after we began we finally emerged on 528. We took the busy streets back south and eventually found the parking area and our truck. We were tired and dirty and a bit rattled, and I hadn't been back since.

Bird paradise in the midst of humanity.

Tuesday afternoon, after photographing the osprey, a neighbor suggested I go to the Ulumay Wildlife Sanctuary. She described the place and how to get there. I was pretty sure this was the same place Lisa and I had had our biking adventure (I didn't remember the name). Having some time to kill that afternoon, my mom and I decided to drive out to the sanctuary and go for a short walk, then pick up dinner on the way back. Once we arrived at Ulumay I was certain this was the place of our ill-fated bike ride.

Ulumay and the Indian River from the fishing pier.

The first thing we saw as we pulled up to the parking area near the fishing pier was a wood stork, waiting for handouts.

He was non-plussed, and stretched languidly.


I was curious to know why the bird is bald, but haven't been able to find any explanations. I understand why vultures are bald, being carrion eaters, but the stork is a fisherman, so that doesn't make sense. Perhaps it is to help regulate temperature during hot weather, as they nest in the tops of trees. Perhaps no one knows!

A face only a mother could love.

He finally got annoyed and walked off to go stand in the grass.

We walked for a bit on the trails and saw a variety of birds, including yellow-rumped warblers (they were everywhere down there!), and three birds who were "new", although I have no doubt that I have seen/heard them before and I just wasn't paying attention then: the ground dove, fish crow and mockingbird. I took photos of them all but they aren't great, really just to add to the Album of Identification, so I won't bother you with them here. You can see them on my Flickr page,

For more info about Ulumay and its history:

For information about the wood stork:

Next up: Warbler in the back yard

Friday, February 15, 2013

Osprey Takes Flight

Florida 2013 continued...

On our way to Rotary Park Tuesday morning I spotted this osprey pair in a tree in someone's backyard, at the end of a street very near my grandma's house. For purely selfish reasons I was excited to see the birds nesting on something other than a man-made platform--to get photos of them in a natural setting. It seems to me that a platform would be more sturdy, but hey, who am I to say? I pulled the van over and took a few photos, making a mental note to come back later and set up the tripod.

Osprey are birds that have become fairly common in Florida, and we have begun seeing them around our home, especially at Appleton Lake, where we go to fish and watch the sandhill cranes. That wasn't always the case, of course. Like most raptors their populations were devastated by the effects of DDT poisoning. The ban of that chemical in the early 70's--along with the work of many dedicated volunteers--allowed the osprey and other top predators make an incredible comeback.

A few months back I started a project to sort and organize my bird images. My primary reason for shooting birds had always been to get subject matter for my art. It has since turned into a quest to photograph every bird I see, a sort of visual life list. I decided to open a Flickr account (see the thingy at the top right of this page) and upload my best image of each bird I've photographed. I also decided to get them printed and put together a photo album because I'm a paranoid freak and will never quite trust digital files.

Anyway, I was surprised to see that in many cases, the more common the bird, the fewer the photos I had of it, like the American robin. I also discovered that in some cases the photos I had just weren't very good. I expect that with a species like the yellow-billed cuckoo, which I've seen only once and then very briefly, which I'm happy to have gotten any images at all. But with birds like the osprey, which I have taken oodles of pictures of, I was disappointed at how poor my images were--blurry, back-lit, you name it. So one of my goals on this trip was to get better images of birds I've already photographed. This was a great opportunity to improve on my osprey photos.

Boy, was I right!

Later in the day I walked down to the corner with my camera and tripod and set up on the edge of someone's yard, under a big pine. I'd only been there a few minutes when an osprey flew up the to tree where I was standing. I thought it was going to land on a branch about 15 feet up on the opposite side of the tree, but instead, as it approached the branch, it jabbed its feet out, breaking it off. The bird whirled around with a small part of the dead branch in its talons as the remainder thudded to the ground 10 feet away!

I managed to get the camera on it as it approached the nest.

Osprey with building material.

 He perched for a few minutes, calling out to his mate--LOUDLY.

"Hon!! Where do you want me to put this? Hon? HON!!"

And then...magic.

I would swear this bird is looking right at me.

 He lifted his wings...

...spread them wide...

..and with one powerful thrust, took the the air...

...flying for a moment right at me.

He quickly veered to my right and out of the frame. I was breathless with excitement!

I stayed for a while longer and watched while as many as five osprey were visible in the sky above me. Some few by with fish clutched in their talons.

This bird has a small fish in its left foot.

I was to receive one more gift from these gorgeous birds. After talking to some of the neighborhood kids, who where understandably curious about me and my doings, I had another bird fly right at me and into the tree beneath which I stood, clutching a good sized fish. She landed not more that five away, perhaps 12 to 15 feet up the tree. I got a stiff neck trying to watch her. What a treat!

Mmmm.  Not sure what kind of fish. Perhaps a snapper?

Bon appetit!

Next: Ulumay Wildlife Sanctuary and the wood stork.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Let's Write a Blog!

Florida 2013

It's been so long since I've posted that it feels a bit like I've never done it before! I do apologize for the delay though. I had over 2000 images to sort through, most of which were garbage but with some goodies mixed in.  The bad part is you still have to sort through the crap to get to the gems.

As I mentioned before these trips to Florida are primarily to visit with my grandma, who turned 90 last year. My secondary motive is to get shots of birds to draw. While I have always tried to mix in a healthy dose of outdoor activities I now have another reason to head south in the winter--birding!

The drive down with my mother was uneventful. We passed through the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina after dark, winding up and then down I-40 in a long trail of semi trucks. Sunday afternoon we drove through the bottom-lands of eastern Georgia, where the Altamaha River fans out before it reaches the sea--a place I hope to visit in the future. We arrived at Andree's with enough time to unload and settle in before dark.

Not much happened Monday. I washed the van, which was slick with road salt from the drive down. At a rest area outside Asheville I had noticed the heat shield for the catalytic converter had come loose and was hanging dangerously close to the pavement. It was dangling from the back and I was worried we would catch it on something and rip the exhaust apart so I had to get that fixed. We made it down to the beach in the afternoon, at very low tide, and I found small whelk or conch, in pretty good condition, buried just past a short drop off at the low tide line. My mom commandeered it as a souvenir.

Tuesday I had hoped to go down the coast to Archie Carr NWR, but my mom wasn't feeling well so we stuck close to home. Rotary Park is about a mile from my grandma's and has a 1/4 mile boardwalk through a nice little slice of Florida forest, so we went there instead. We saw a number of songbirds, like this pretty little yellow-rumped warbler.

Later along the trail we came across a hermit thrush.

It was very accommodating and landed on a dead branch above the boardwalk so I could get some better photos.

We saw more than birds on our short walk. This Southeastern five-lined skink sat warily on the boardwalk.

My mom talked to the woman running the small nature center at the park after we finished our walk and the woman said a lot of people are afraid of these little critters, possibly because they think they're snakes. Really?? The damn thing has legs!! You know what people do to things they're afraid of. Sigh....

Ignorance is bliss--unless you're a five-lined skink....

Next: Some pretty awesome osprey photos.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Florida Preview

Hi all! I am sitting on a hotel bed somewhere in northeast Tennessee, pooped after 13 hours on the road. I'll be happy to get home tomorrow afternoon, and hoping that slippery roads don't hold me up.

I took around 2,000 images while in Florida, which really is an absurd number. I have already gone through some of them, deleted the bad ones (the vast majority) and saved them to a flash drive--I like to have things backed up.

My mother and I spent some time at the beach, the Brevard Zoo and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. I also watched an osprey eat a fish almost directly over my head just down the street from my Grandmother's house. I least three new birds to my life list, and got some better shots of others I'd seen before. I'm really excited to share these with you.

As a preview to my trip, here is an image of the first new bird I saw at MINWR--a Reddish egret. I had looked at Sibley's at some point prior to my trip and seen this bird in the book, and thought well, that would be a neat one to see. I need to start hoping for, oh, a million bucks.

Reddish egret chasing its prey.

Anyway, this was one of the goofiest birds I have ever seen. It runs and jumps and twirls as it's fishing, throwing up its wings and changing direction in a blink of the eye, a gangly bird with ADD. I laughed out loud several times watching it.

It will take me a day or two to sort through my files, then will start sharing them with you.