HART BEAT: CHRISTMAS BIRDS IN ST. LUCIE

Gray-headed Swamphen

Gray-headed Swamphen

“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. After about 45 minutes we found the bird and got some diagnostic photos. At the Count meeting that evening we learned that not only had no Gray-headed Swamphen ever been seen on a prior St Lucie County Christmas Bird Count, but none had ever been previously reported in St Lucie County. In fact, Jewel had to fill out a Rare Bird Report to accompany the photo, for any Gray-headed Swamphen found or reported north of Palm Beach County (where they are regular at Wakodahatchee and Green Cay) is considered suspect and requires all kinds of verification before the report will be accepted. Apparently the experts are not convinced that we mere mortals are able to distinguish between Gray-headed Swamphens and Purple Gallinules.

During the search for the Swamphen, I could not resist taking photos of the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Limpkin, and Green Heron we saw there. The Green Heron was a bonus, for Jewel’s team had not seen a Green Heron earlier in the day, so we were able to add another species to her list for her final report. At the report meeting we learned that Black Scoters and Surf Scoters, including males of each, had been seen by the team surveying South Hutchinson Island. The following day Vin Gallogly took me to the reported location and we quickly found a flock of nine Black Scoters, no Surf Scoters, and no males of either species. We also found the two reported female Bufflehead and a Horned Grebe that had not been reported. Photos of each of those species documented the birds we saw, but are not of sufficient quality for me to inflict them upon you, Dear Reader.

On Christmas day we were treated to a boat trip with Deena and Dana Wade who led the team that canvassed the North Fork of the St Lucie River, by boat, during the count. They had reported the very unusual sight of a back yard along a canal where a large number of egrets and herons were gathered around a bird feeder. We traveled along the river to the canal where the feeder had been found and there they were, 36  egrets and herons all at one time: a Great Blue, Tri-coloreds, a Great, several Snowys, a Cattle, and a large number of Little Blues, both adult and juvenile, around the feeder, in the yard and standing guard on the bird-wash covered roof of the house.

In the trees at the water’s edge we found a juvenile and an adult Black-crowned Night Heron that undoubtedly were attracted by the feeder. Curiously there were none of the usual feeder birds that might be expected anywhere in the area. We inquired of a near-by neighbor who happened to be passing us in his boat what he knew about the birds. He told us that he understood the home owner was an eccentric bird photographer who filled the feeder with fish food to attract the fish eating birds, and that the next door neighbors were very upset with the constant collection of the birds that soiled their homes and made so much mess and racket. He also told us that the neighbors had from time to time even resorted to setting off fire crackers to scare off the birds.

On our way to the canal we traveled on the river and saw many of the expected birds, but only one duck: a male Lesser Scaup. During a short stop at the dock at Veteran’s Memorial Park a young Red-shouldered Hawk posed briefly on the fence along the water; and as we were leaving the dock area we saw a Yellow-crowned Night Heron right close by our boat, affording an outstanding photo opportunity.

Back on the river we encountered a young couple in their boat with a motor that had stopped running. Captain Dana offered to tow their boat back to the dock for them. He told them he would have to tie a “bowline” knot on the end the rope to tow them.

This brought back a flood of old Boy Scout memories for me, when we would tie all kinds of knots and the “bowline” was one of the basic knots. It is used to create a non-slip ring at the end of a rope which can be slipped over the bow cleat of another boat for towing purposes. The “bow” of the “bowline” is pronounced like the “bow” of a bow-tie, fiddler’s bow, or a bow and arrow. But it is used to tow a boat by the “bow” of the boat, pronounced like the “bow” by an actor or musician at the end of a play or performance, the “bow” out of an obligation, or like the “bow” of a tree branch (Oh, sorry, that “bow” is spelled “bough.”)

Is it any wonder foreigners trying to learn English consider it the most difficult language to learn? At least learning the difference between Swamphens and Gallinules is not as difficult as trying to determine whether the bowline knot should be pronounced like a bow-tie or a tree bough that might break as in that old children’s song – “Rock-a-bye Baby.” If the bowline knot doesn’t keep the bough from breaking, “down will come baby, cradle and all.” Right on the Swamphen.

NORTHERN GANNETS & BIRDER FOLLY

Photographing Northern Gannets may take some extra effort (Photo 7)

Photographing Northern Gannets may take some extra effort (Photo 7)

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. I also knew the birds were pretty far out and the photos were not particularly good, but I sent them anyway, along with permission to use them. (I subsequently saw the newspaper interview and saw that he did not use them, but opted instead for a generic Northern Gannet photo from the national Audubon Society, which I readily concede was better.)

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, ten years later.

Driving across the Bay Bridge as we approached the eastern Delmarva side we saw a large number of northbound migrating Northern Gannets congregated in an area fairly close to the bridge itself, certainly close enough to attempt photos with my then less than stellar photo equipment. The problem was that there was no place to pull over or stop to take photos. I did notice however, that on top of the four-foot concrete wall by the side of the bridge there was a two-foot-wide cap, perhaps wide enough to walk back to where the birds were for photos.

Jewel told me I was crazy but dutifully parked in a pull-off at the eastern end of the bridge and waited while I walked on the top of the two-foot wall cap about a half mile back to take pictures. The fact that there were speeding cars on one side of the cap and about a hundred-foot drop, first down to the land below the bridge and then water below the bridge on the other side, did not deter me.

I took my pictures and walked back to the end of the bridge where there was a friendly policeman waiting for me. After a stern lecture and threats to arrest me, (I’m not sure what the charge might have been, for although it sometimes should be, stupidity is not a crime) he must have concluded I was not a terrorist and asked what I was doing. I showed him some of the photos I took and his entire demeanor changed. He actually became interested in the birds and wanted to know more about them.

After about a 45- minute session, he extracted a promise from me that I would never walk out on the bridge cap again and let me go to return to Jewel just a short way up the road. I have kept my promise and have never walked out on that cap again. Incidentally, Jewel’s lecture was much sterner than the officer’s, for she had more time to prepare it.

Some of the birds actually flew fairly close to the bridge and afforded nice classic photos of the typical Northern Gannet in flight. (Photo 1). There were quite a number of birds in the air, and most of them were adults. (Photo 2) One landed on the water, looking regal and actually close enough to take a photo. (Photo 3) Farther out there were a number of the Gannets resting on the water with a few young birds mixed in with the adults. (Photo 4) At Playalinda Beach on the coast of Merritt Island one of my more recent shots shows an adult below and a mostly dark juvenile above. (Photo 5)

Later I remembered that in the 1970’s I had made a Super 8 movie of the Northern Gannet nesting colony on the top of the cliff at Bonaventure Island in Canada. Knowing that I had the movies digitized, I decided to try to take screen shots of single frames from the movie and see if post-processing might enhance them enough for use in this column. The results give some idea of the compactness of the nesting birds (Photo 6), a close-up of an adult with a very young baby (Photo 7) and a head shot of the adult on the nest, depicting the bright blue eye and the interesting pattern of the beak. (Photo 8)

While discussing the various species of birds and displaying photos that I have taken of them is the focus of this column, sometimes the circumstances of getting the photos is almost as interesting as the birds and the photos themselves. It occasionally might put on display some of the stupid things I have done to take photos. But for those of you who know me well, it was okay in this instance, for I was then more than nine years removed from the time that it was expected of me to use good judgement in every aspect of my life. Retirement is very liberating in many ways, including the freedom to do stupid things upon occasion. Now being older and wiser, I would never do that walk again, even without the promise to the nice policeman.

(NOTE: Photos are cropped for thumbnails. Click for full version)

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.