HART BEAT: LEAST BITTERNS

“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.

As so often happens with Least Bitterns, one of the smallest herons in the world that are frequently smaller than the leaves of plants where they love to nest, hide and hunt prey, after diligent searching we would see perhaps an eye and part of a beak, (photo 2) but with time and extreme patience the bird would finally put in something of an appearance. (photo 1, above) Note the red lores at the base of the bill, the Least Bittern’s breeding plumage indicator, similar to the Great Egret’s green lores, the Snowy Egret’s red lores, the Great Blue Heron’s blue lores or the Cattle Egret’s lavender lores.

Then again, sometimes Least Bitterns will show up right out in the open, even along the boardwalk at Green Cay or Wakodahatchee, providing outstanding opportunities to see the birds up close and personal, (photo 3) While Least Bitterns migrate north and breed all the way to southern Canada, on the east coast all the way to the Mississippi River, and at some locations along the west coast of the United States, they can be found year round in Central and Southern Florida but are much harder to find in the winter.

At first glance male and female Least Bitterns may appear to look very much alike. But if seen from the back, the male will have a darker bluish-green, almost black, crown and back, (photo 4) while the female will have a lighter brown colored crown and back with prominent white vertical streaks on both sides at the base of the wings. (photo 5) Juveniles look most like females but are generally paler in color. (photo 6)

While small fish, such as minnows are the Least Bittern’s mainstay diet, they also eat small snakes, frogs, salamanders, slugs, crustaceans, and even small shrews, mice and dragonflies. Least Bitterns do not hunt by wading in the water as other herons do; instead they hunt from a hidden location in reeds and tall vegetation where they hang onto the stalks of plants near the water’s surface with their oversized feet. In this manner they can fish in deeper water than their larger heron kin because they will hang on and just plunge their head into the water to catch a passing fish, coming up to shake off the droplets of water after a successful strike. (photo 7)

When many birders prepare for an excursion they have much paraphernalia to gather together: binoculars, telescopes and tripods, cameras, a portable seat or cushion for those long days waiting for a rare bird, lunch and beverages, (years ago I birded with a group that always carried a bottle of wine to celebrate any life birds that anyone in the group might encounter, and as you should have suspected, they always made sure to have a rank novice along for the day), and most recently, Jewel now insists I tote along a first aid kit, which sad to say has come in more handy than I ever would have expected.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we birders could pack a good supply of patience with all the other gear we carry? You know, when Bored Birder says, “Okay, I’m getting tired of waiting for this stupid bird to show up, let’s go to a movie,” you could reach in your pocket and pull out some of your supply of Patience and help Bored Birder over the rough spot.

Oh yeah, we do already have that now: it’s called a mobile device and Bored Birder can check out Facebook or Twitter. Then Bored Birder probably won’t even care if “this stupid bird” ever shows up. Patience in your pocket, a relatively recent innovation for birders: almost as good as giving up and going to a movie. Or instead of Patience, would it be more accurately called Distraction?

For more information on Least Bitterns, see: www.birdwatchingdaily.com/news/birdwatching/finding-bitterns/; and www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Least_Bittern/lifehistory; and www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/least-bittern.

HART BEAT: MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS

Magnificent Frigatebirds

Magnificent Frigatebirds

“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.

Upon arrival at the island Frigatebird activity was immediately evident, as several were perched in trees (2) and there were numerous birds flying around the island. Curiously, all were either males (3) or juveniles (4 and 5). I took over 800 photos of Magnificent Frigatebirds that evening but did not have one single photo of a female. Nor was there any evidence of displaying or nesting activity. While I don’t know exactly why we saw only males and juveniles, I surmise that we were observing non-breeding males, or bachelors and teenagers.

Magnificent Frigatebirds are most adept fliers and gain many of their meals by harassing other sea birds until they relinquish the fish they have caught, which the Frigatebird will then snatch right out of the air after the hapless victim has dropped its catch. However, Frigatebirds are also able to catch fish on their own with their long hooked beaks, snatching fish or squid close to the ocean surface without ever getting a single feather wet. They have short legs and very small feet and consequently never walk or swim.  Another unique feature of Magnificent Frigatebirds is the fact that while males will bring the nesting materials for the female to build the nest, the males will abandon the female and their young offspring in order to do a second nesting with a second female that same year. Thus, females do all of the chick raising, which may actually last for up to a full year, causing females to breed and nest only once every other year.

While watching the Frigatebirds effortless soaring over the small mangrove island was indeed fascinating, the most interesting aspect of the 2019 boat trip did not occur until I got home and reviewed my photos. A “Great Egret” was displaying and I took a number of shots of it to add to the massive collection of displaying Great Egret photos that I already have.

Except that when I closely examined the photos, the bird turned out to be the much rarer white morph of the Great Blue Heron in breeding plumage, a sight I had never seen before. (6) Note the Heron’s breeding blue eye lores instead of the Great Egret’s green breeding lores, and the pink legs instead of the Great Egret’s black legs. Finally, the massive all yellow bill is another indicator, as the Great Egret’s smaller bill and black upper mandible in its breeding plumage are also distinctive. When we returned to the boat ramp under the Stuart bridge a pair of Least Terns was working the shallows along the shore providing us with one more unexpected surprise for the trip. (7 and 8)

Much as I would have liked to prove the “no Frigatebird nesting” message wrong, I have come away once more with no evidence to refute that claim. In fact, upon checking with Mr. Google I have learned that indeed the Dry Tortugas does seem to be the only place that Magnificent Frigatebirds nest in the United States.

Of course, waiting eight years to check the Indian River island again did not increase my odds of possibly finding an aberrant incident of nesting which, who knows, may have occurred what with all the obvious breeding behavior observed on that March 2011 visit. Perhaps the real answer is to seek a “sneak and peak” warrant to set up monitoring cameras like the police use to find terrorist or illicit sex activity. Well, doesn’t Frigatebird breeding activity fall into one of those categories?

For more information on Magnificent Frigatebirds, see: birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/magfri/introduction and www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Magnificent_Frigatebird/lifehistory#; and www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/magnificent-frigatebird.

For a discussion on the white Great Blue Heron see: www.sibleyguides.com/2007/11/great-white-heron-not-just-a-color-morph/.

HART BEAT: BARBED WIRE BIRDS

HART BEAT: BARBED WIRE BIRDS

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.

HART BEAT: JOE OVERSTREET ROAD

“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.

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.