HART BEAT: BARBED WIRE BIRDS

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Barbed wire is mean stuff. It has lots of sharp edges and can cut and cause scratches for the unsuspecting and is just a notch below razor wire for keeping unwanted “guests” out and preventing fruit trees, vegetables, cows, horses, goats and the like from wandering about.

Under no circumstances is it any bird photographer’s preferred posing pedestal for capturing the portrait of some beautiful bird. (No, I do not intend to again discuss my disdain for photographing birds on man-made objects.) But sometimes some birds just seem to prefer to spend most of their time on barbed wire fences.

For example, the Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Western Kingbirds that spend almost every winter along Okeechobee Road west of Fort Pierce work from the barbed wire fences along the road, soaring out over the fields and orchards guarded by those fences to catch the insects, bugs and butterflies that provide their meals. Even though there were plenty of citrus trees in those fields prior to this year when they were all removed, the birds never spent any time in those trees, apparently preferring the open range and view provided by the barbed wire fencing.

Four Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, two gorgeous long-tailed adults (photos 1 and 2) and two shorter-tailed juveniles (3) could be seen atop the fences almost every day this past winter. It was even possible to travel along the road at the speed limit and spot the birds in their customary locations, and then simply stop, pull to the side of the road and observe them on the barbed wire fencing, often flying out to catch some unsuspecting prey. (4 and 5)

Joining the Scissor-tailed Flycatchers this winter, as well, were three Western Kingbirds, two adults (6) and one juvenile. (7) The birds would range out over the fields encompassed by the barbed wire fencing and snatch prey right out of the air. (8) On one occasion one of the adult birds, while flying by the top barbed wire strand, obviously spotted a caterpillar attached to the barbed wire. (9) It immediately came in, captured, detached, and devoured the caterpillar in short order. (10) One does not normally regard barbed wire as harboring a possible food source for birds, but perhaps such occurrences may happen more often than we realize.

Sparrows also seem to love to perch on barbed wire fencing. Savannah Sparrows, arguably the most commonly found sparrow in Florida, can be found on the ground and occasionally in trees or shrubs. But for some reason they more often appear on barbed wire fencing and make for easy photographic subjects. (11) (So much for the lazy photographer, “no photos on man-made objects” standards notwithstanding!)

And Grasshopper Sparrows, the only ones I have ever seen in Florida, other than in the hand after having been trapped during a banding operation that St Lucie Audubon participated in during a field trip in January 2007, have been on barbed wire fencing. (11 and 12) The Grasshopper Sparrows shown here were photographed just off Okeechobee Road just west of Fort Pierce in 2007. I have returned to the same locations in recent years, hoping to upgrade my photos, but have never found them there again. In fact, I do not know of any St Lucie County areas where Grasshopper Sparrows might be found any more. I’ll need to do more intense searching.

Eastern Phoebes, Loggerhead Shrikes, American Kestrels, Palm Warblers, Northern Mockingbirds and Meadowlarks, also love barbed wire and are regularly found perched on fences when searching for Scissor-tails and Kingbirds. But they are more frequently found in trees and shrubs and more natural surroundings. In my experience, admittedly limited to these few birds in St Lucie County, only these two species spend the bulk of their day on barbed wire.

Come to think of it, there is more of a connection between barbed wire and food than I have previously realized. All the fruits and vegetables that are protected from marauding thieves, and the meat and milk cows, that are prevented from wandering out onto 65 miles per hour highways are protected by barbed wire. When viewed in that light, barbed wire is wonderful stuff, made even more attractive by a couple of species of beautiful birds.

And now, I am going to go and paint some lipstick on some poor unsuspecting pig somewhere. Wish me luck.

HART BEAT: JOE OVERSTREET ROAD

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Snail Kite

Snail Kite

“Joe Overstreet Road never ceases to amaze me. There always seems to be some new bird that I haven’t seen there before.” The speaker was a participant on a recent St Lucie Audubon field trip to this less well known, but excellent, birding location in central Florida on the southern edge of the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes just north of Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area and about 45 miles south of Orlando.

I have birded the area pretty regularly for the past 15 years and have written HartBeat columns about it twice (February 1, 2018, and July 1, 2018). We did find a couple of species on this field trip, and the scouting trip four days earlier, that I had not seen there before, or at least we saw them much better than ever before.

 

For example, on several prior trips we have seen Snail Kites there, but always at a great distance and only with telescopes and less than optimal viewing conditions. This time Snail Kites were close at hand and very cooperative. We also encountered a small flock of American Robins passing through feasting on Brazilian Pepper berries as they continued their north bound migration. Another new species for the road, found this year for the first time (at least, by us) was the Brown-headed Nuthatch. A tiny little bird, it was often difficult to see as it worked the large pine branches where it was looking for food.

If we ever saw Purple Gallinules there on earlier trips I don’t have any record of it or photos to show for it. But this time, there they were, right in front of the small pavilion that juts out into the edge of the lake at the end of a short boardwalk. And I don’t recall ever seeing the famed headless Limpkin before. I suspect we have seen Pied-billed Grebes at the Landing on previous trips, but I don’t have any evidence of them, so I include this one seen also from the pavilion.

Ring-billed Gulls take three years from birth to reach full maturity. On this trip we saw both first year birds, born last summer, transitioning from their first winter into their second summer, and full adults with the red ring around their eyes.

On the way back out from the Landing we found a pair of young Woodstorks with their smooth orange-colored bills which will grow gray and grizzled as they age. Also on the trip there were perhaps a hundred Sandhill Cranes around the cattle feed stations on the various farms we passed, and we diligently searched through them hoping to find the occasionally reported Whooping Crane that has been seen with them. Alas, we were without luck, notwithstanding one of our participants beseeching the “Great Goddess of Birding” for such a sighting.

Finally, there were many Bald Eagles constantly flying around all day long, including one that posed on a snag not too far from the nest where it’s mate was sitting right on Joe Overstreet Road, and a rain drenched and bedraggled adult, with two very young and blackish babies on its nest, which was the last sighting of the day at the intersection of Canoe Creek Road and Grant’s Bass Road on the way home from Joe Overstreet.

A lesson to be learned from birding Joe Overstreet Road is that there are probably many small nugget birding locations out there just waiting to be found. The landing at the lake features a small ramp for fishing boats and a lake tour boat operation which birders sometimes take to find more birds farther from the Landing itself. Consequently, birders have been traveling the road for years and could hardly help but notice all the good birding activity.

There is a phenomenon known as the “Patagonia Rest Stop Effect” named after a spot in Arizona a couple of miles from the town of Patagonia where years ago a rare bird was found. Birders found so many other either rare or unusual birds there that they began stopping by regularly to check it out. Thus, another birding hotspot, like Joe Overstreet Road, became established. I know birding friends who think their backyards qualify also, but I suspect they would soon tire of multitudes of birders appearing there with any kind of regularity. Better to stick with searching along public roads and byways until new spots are found. Good luck searching out there.

HART BEAT: CHRISTMAS BIRDS IN ST. LUCIE

“Get your camera and come with me; you have to get a photo of this bird!” Jewel then showed me a cell phone photo she had taken through her telescope of a Gray-headed Swamphen (until a recent name change, Purple Swamphen), identifiable but not completely satisfactory, in her Christmas Count area earlier that very day. As it was then 3:30 in the afternoon, we still had time to go find the bird and try to get photos before the Christmas Count meeting at 5 pm.

NORTHERN GANNETS & BIRDER FOLLY

NORTHERN GANNETS & BIRDER FOLLY

The email asked for any photos I might have of Northern Gannets that might be used to accompany a newspaper interview on the gannets. I knew I only had a few recent photos from out on the beach during a recent trip to Merritt Island….

Sometime later I remembered that I had taken some Northern Gannet photos from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Virginia back in 2008, in the very earliest days of my attempts at bird photography, and wondered whether with the magic of modern post-processing I could rehabilitate them into passable photos for this column. I found them after some searching, (I never throw anything away) and recalled the effort I went through to get them, which is the story I recount here now, 10 years later.

HART BEAT: REDDISH

HART BEAT: REDDISH

You completely missed Reddish.” A relatively new HartBeat reader who had just acquired a copy of Volume 1 of the HartBeat columns (Volume 2 is currently being edited for publication by my son) was commenting on one of the early columns in the book entitled  “Red By Any Other Name.”

He was right: there was red, cardinal, scarlet, crimson, and vermilion, as the column featured the Vermilion Flycatcher. But I had failed to include reddish. Thankfully, he did not mention that I also missed rose, rosy, roseate, ruby, ruddy, rufous and rusty, all presumably additional shades of red. But for now, the focus is on reddish, as in the Reddish Egret, the only bird featuring that descriptive name.

HART BEAT: YELLOWTHROATS

The doctor’s new patient information form I was required to fill out included three questions I had not encountered before. They wanted to know my “color,” “ethnicity,” and my “country of origin.” “Color” was easy: I was “sun-tanned with various bruise splotches” caused by the blood thinning medications I take. I was not sure what they were asking for in “ethnicity,” so I checked the definition and found “…belonging to a social group…with common cultural tradition.” OK, I am an environmentalist, belonging to a number of environmental organizations, so “environmentalist” went down on the form. “Country of origin” proved to be a more difficult question.

HART BEAT: AMERICAN AVOCETS

“Will we see any Avocets or Stilts?” This is a question we get on almost any field trip to a location where either or both species might be expected. Clearly, these two similar black and white birds, with their long, backward bending legs, long up-curved bills and distinctive plumage, are definitely favorites for most birders. While they are similar in many ways, they are also different.

HART BEAT: BLACK-NECKED STILTS

Certainly the Black-necked Stilt is aptly named, for if ever a bird appeared to be walking on stilts, this is it. (1) However, as stilted as a human stilt walker may appear, the Black-necked Stilt seems to be able to glide along on its long legs very naturally. On the other hand, when coming in for a landing (3) or flying, (4 and 5), the long legs seem to fit that awkward part of the stilted definition.