Red Knots

Red Knots

It’s almost October, time to start getting ready to head south. The Tree Swallows already left by the middle of July; our last few very late breeding Purple Martins flew off for Brazil on August 26th; and the Barn Swallows vacated our barn a few days later. Bird feeders that were covered with birds and had to be filled every day, now sometimes go three or four days before needing refilling. Many of those bird species, Orioles, Wrens, Catbirds, Towhees, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, etc.. that came north to raise their young have already started their southward migration or will be leaving before long. Meanwhile, the winter birds that we can expect at our feeders throughout the season have not yet arrived. Before long the White-throated Sparrows, Juncos, Purple Finches, Pine Siskins and who knows what other winter birds may appear this year, will begin to show up. We humans head south primarily to avoid the winter cold; but for birds, migration is more a matter of food abundance. Of course, we humans do love the wonderful selection of the myriad restaurants available to us in Florida.

For birds, migration is a very complex adventure that takes many different forms. For example, the champion long distance migrating bird is the Arctic Tern, (photo 2) rarely seen in Florida. They migrate from the northern-most high Arctic, south to Antarctica and back every year. During their typical 25- to 30-year life span Arctic Terns will have traveled 1.5 million miles, equivalent to three trips to the moon and back. (I took my slide photo of this Arctic Tern in Antarctica in 1994 and digitally copied it to display here.) Conversely, some high mountain species, such as the Sooty Grouse of the Pacific Northwest, (photo 3) winter in dense conifer forests at high altitudes and migrate in the spring to lower, more open elevations to raise their young, by simply walking down the mountain. (Another digitally copied slide from 1997).

Another well documented long distance migrant is the Red Knot. After wintering in Tierra del Fuego, southern-most Argentina, they will first fly non-stop 4,000 miles to specific beaches in northern-most Brazil where they stop for only a few days to re-fuel on mussels and clams before beginning their second leg of the journey. (See the map in the third reference below.) Their second stop comes 3,500 direct flight miles later on the beaches of Delaware Bay in New Jersey where they spend a number of days rebuilding their reserves on energy rich horseshoe crab eggs (photo above) before embarking on the final 2000-mile leg to the Canadian high Arctic.

When I first began birding in the late ‘40’s and ‘50’s Delaware Bay beaches would undulate with thousands upon thousands of Red Knots. Even today, while their numbers have plummeted to less than 10 percent of their mid-20th century population, their appearance along Delaware Bay can be impressive. (photo 4) With only two specific location refueling stops on their journey, the condition of those areas is critical. Along Delaware Bay, horseshoe crabs, were used by fishermen for bait, by farmers for fertilizer, and are still being used by the pharmaceutical industry. Then along came hurricane Sandy. Unsurprisingly, horseshoe crab populations have plummeted and the Red Knot along with them. And now there is also the increasingly added risk of the impact of global warming, not to mention property development, on their stop-over locations. Red Knot as a species may be the poster child for the threats we humans pose to some of our bird friends. Happily, some Red Knots usually over winter in Florida each year and can be seen at Merritt Island or Sanibel most years. Or even occasionally in Fort Pierce at Jetty Park. (photo 5)

There are several additional  types of bird migration: short distance, such as that of our beloved Florida population of the Painted Bunting (photo 6) which migrates to the Carolinas for breeding; west to east, such as that of the Scissors-tailed Flycatchers (photo 7) that come from the southern mid-west to Florida for the winter, while most of their species head to Central America; eruptive, such as occurs in those years when their winter food supply is low and species such as Snowy Owls, (photo 8) Redpolls, Crossbills, and other winter finches head south to survive; and leap frog, in which species such as Blue Jays, Cedar Waxwings, and Flickers move from New England to the mid-Atlantic, while the same species birds that were in the mid-Atlantic move south to Virginia and the Carolinas, those in that area having already moved farther south and so on.

Finally, migration patterns do shift over time. When I did my first Christmas Bird Count in Pennsylvania in 1959 we were extremely excited to find one pair of Canada Geese, the only ones on that entire count. Canada Geese, at that time migrated to South Carolina and Georgia where there were numerous Goose-hunting lodges. Over time the Goose-hunting lodges moved north through North Carolina, Virginia and Delaware as the geese migrated shorter distances each winter. Now, there are so many Canada Geese living year round in the mid-Atlantic that they are actually a nuisance (scourge?) and merely walking our farm lane by the pond requires us to do the “Goose-crap slalom.” I have only ever seen one Canada Goose in Florida, at the Vero Wetlands. (photo 9)

When thinking of bird migration I am reminded of that old vaudeville joke, “I just flew in from California. (pause) Boy, are my arms tired!” With the long distances some species fly that certainly is not a joke. It is a matter of survival. Even many Ruby-throated Hummingbirds fly non-stop 18-22 hours over the Gulf of Mexico.

First year birds make the migration trip without ever having done it before. Sometimes migrants encounter storms, even hurricanes, predators that follow their flight path for an easy meal, no place to stop and rest, only open water, glass sky-scrapers that reflect safe passage but cause catastrophe, buildings in places that were open spaces and perfect bird habitat just the year before, farm fields that were previously forests, and countless consequences and changes that one can’t even think of. For us humans, it is simply a matter of get in the car or plane and go. So simple! We can’t even comprehend what kind of problems birds encounter and overcome, just to survive. And yet, one of our common pejoratives is, “That guy is just a bird brain.” Maybe we should be so lucky!

For more on Arctic Tern migration, see: www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/1/100111-worlds-longest-migration-arctic-tern-bird/. For more on Sooty Grouse migration, see: birdweb.org/birdweb/bird/sooty_grouse. For more on Red Knots, including a migration map, see: www.audubon.org/magazine/may-june-2016/red-knots-are-battling-climate-change-both-ends. For more on horseshoe crabs in pharmaceutical use, see:  www.huffpost.com/entry/horseshoe-crab-blood_n_4950517. For more on the 12 different types of bird migration, see: www.thespruce.com/types-of-bird-migration-386055


Hairy Woodpecker examines Kestrel Box (1)

Of course, everyone knows curiosity killed the cat. But what about birds, what does curiosity do for birds?

A few weeks ago I was in my photography blind set up by the Kestrel box waiting for the parent Kestrels to return, or alternatively, waiting for one of the baby Kestrels to come to the hole in the box to look for the parents to come feed them. While I was there a young male Hairy Woodpecker came down the pole and discovered the box. (photo 2)

He was easily identified as a young male because he had a very small red spot on the back of the head which would someday in the future develop into a larger more distinctive and diagnostic red patch. As I watched he came along the side of the box and worked his way around to the front. (photo 3) He must have heard stirring inside for he became so curious he just had to peer into the hole to see who was there. (photo 1 at the top of the column) While I knew who was in the box, the young Hairy Woodpecker did not, but he must have been frightened by what he saw for he quickly went to the bottom of the box and stayed there. (photo 4).

Meanwhile inside the box one of the four young baby Kestrels (I know there were four, three males and a female, as they had just been banded the previous week) became curious as to who the intruder was just outside the entrance hole because the baby quickly came to the hole to check out who was there. (photo 5)

Meanwhile, the Hairy Woodpecker, now under the box, was moving around unaware of the baby Kestrel peering out of the hole. This must have alerted the baby Kestrel for it began looking down to see what the scraping noises were underneath the box. (photo 6) The young Hairy must have been able to tell when the Kestrel left the hole for he remained relatively motionless under the box until the baby Kestrel tired of the search and dropped down from the hole back into the box. At that time the Woodpecker quickly left the area. It was probably a good idea for the young Hairy Woodpecker to depart for if he had hung around until one of the parent Kestrels returned he might well have been the baby Kestrels next meal.

A short while later as I was passing by the front of the barn, three baby Barn Swallows just out of the nest were sitting on the lower half of the barn door, as a friend of mine says, “Practicing looking cute.” I couldn’t resist taking their photo and sharing it with you, even though it has nothing to do with this column. (photo 7) Actually, they are curiously looking out at the big wide world they are just beginning to discover.

Curiosity can kill cats but it can also kill birds. This curious young male Hairy Woodpecker, curious to see what or who was in the box was very fortunate that the parent Kestrels did not return while he was indulging his curiosity. And while the rest of the saying instructs us that “satisfaction brings him back,” that certainly would not have been the case if the poor young Hairy Woodpecker would have been digesting in the baby Kestrels stomachs.

For us humans, curiosity, while often dangerous, also sometimes leads to major discoveries. Just think how often the question, “I wonder if this will work?” leads to some innovation, new medicine or discovery that turns out to be a tremendous benefit for society. Then again, sometimes the answer, “No, it doesn’t work” leads to catastrophe. Curiosity is certainly a curious thing.

(Click thumbnails for full photos)


Purple Martins are colonial nesters. When I first read that fact as a young Boy Scout in my earliest days of birding, I wondered what Purple Martins nesting in the pre-Revolutionary War American Colonies had to do with their then current nesting habits. Not too long after that I learned that “colonial nesters” meant that Purple Martins nest in colonies in close proximity to each other.

And now, many years later, we are maintaining a good-sized Purple Martin colony of our own: 144 gourds in a combination of natural and plastic gourds configured just the way Purple Martins like them, with long necks and spacious round bowls




It’s June again, time to head to Maine for the annual (five years and running) attempt to photograph baby Loons riding on their parent’s back. After eight days of exhaustive searching we found only one active nest with a Common Loon incubating eggs on an old derelict unused dock. On this same lake in past years we have typically found five or six nesting pairs.

Also, contrary to past years, when we found nests with an incubating parent (yes, both parents incubate the eggs, unlike duck species, where only the female stays on the nest) the other parent was always in the water patrolling close by. Unfortunately, this year we saw only one such instance, while on a number of other occasions pairs of Loons were travelling together, suggesting their nesting efforts had already failed.

The particular lake we surveyed has suffered considerable fluctuation of water levels as this has been the wettest spring in years. Consequently, it is easy to surmise that other Loon nesting attempts this year have been flooded out as Loons typically nest inches above the water level and right at the water’s edge.



“There is a pair of Least Bitterns on a nest down at Green Cay, and I’m pretty sure I know where it is. Do you want to go with me to check it out?” Now that is the kind of call that is virtually impossible to resist.

Off we went to Green Cay a day later. Unfortunately, the nest was not where my friend thought it was, but we found local birders who did know exactly where the nest was and informed us where to look. “The nest is so deep in the reeds that you won’t be able to see it, but the birds do move around and if you are patient, eventually you will see one or the other of the pair.” How prophetic that piece of information turned out to be! Many of you, Dear Readers, have heard me say that the one thing I have learned in all my years of birding is Patience, with a capital P. And here again it proved invaluable.


“Frigatebirds don’t nest anywhere on the Treasure Coast. They only nest on the Dry Tortugas.” That’s the message I have heard ever since we started coming to the Treasure Coast of Florida, (Indian River, St Lucie and Martin Counties, Vero Beach, Fort Pierce and Stuart, for those readers unfamiliar with that area of east coast Florida) in the early1990s even though we saw Magnificent Frigatebirds flying along the coast regularly.

On March 14, 2011, I was fortunate enough to take a boat trip to a small mangrove island on the west side of the Indian River just off Sewall’s Point in Martin County, where male Magnificent Frigatebirds were displaying in full red throat regalia, obviously trying to entice females into breeding activity. Note the envious male with the deflated throat (gular) sac eyeing the magnificent performer. While there were numerous Frigatebirds, including males, females and juveniles, there was no evidence of nesting there then, and unfortunately, I was not able to get back to that island again later that year, or any intervening occasion until April 16th of this year, 2019.



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.


“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.


“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.



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.