Monthly Archives: April 2013

A Day in the Life of a Snail Kite

Hello!

I am a Snail Kite.   I live in southwest Florida, not too far from Fort Myers and the Gulf Coast.  This post is a bit about me, and what I did yesterday morning for the first hour after sunrise.

Snail Kite

Check out my awesome hooked bill.  I use it to eat my favorite food: apple snails.  I love me some snails!

This is my home: Harns Marsh.

Harns Marsh2

I live here with my bird buddies, including a whole herd of Limpkins.  Limpkins are dang noisy this time of year, filling the whole marsh with their spooky courtship yodeling.  Here are two Limpkins that I sometimes hang out with:

Limpkin

Best Limpkin

The first thing I did after I woke up was to get breakfast.  I chose an apple snail. That’s what I have for breakfast every morning.  First, I snagged one out of the marsh and took it up to my feeding wire.

Snail Kite with snail

Then I used my fancy bill to pull the juicy snail right out of its shell.  I don’t need the shell anymore, so I just dropped it into my shell collection which I keep down below my perch.

Snail Kite drops shell

Then I gobbled up the snail meat.  Yum!  Tastes kinda like chicken.

After breakfast, I saw that my lady friend was nearby, so I went over for a quick visit.

Snail Kite Copulation

We’re expecting baby kitelets later this spring.  Then I flew around the canal area a bit, showing off for this crazy bird watcher.  I got tired, so I landed in one of my favorite trees.  But I forgot that this mockingbird was building a nest nearby.  He got all up in my grill, and kept dive-bombing me until I backed off.

Snail Kite Harassed by Mocker

Stupid mockingbird.  I don’t eat mockingbird babies!  I only eat apple snails.  Mmmm, snails… maybe I should get a few more for a snack?  Then later on I’ll swing my and visit my friend, the Burrowing Owl, to see if he’s in a better mood than yesterday.

Burrowing Owl Cape Coral

Nope, I guess he’s still pissed about the old “apple snail shell down the owl burrow” trick.  Heh heh, that was a good one, though.

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Dangers of the Everglades

Everglades NP

I recently risked life and limb to spend a day among the many terrors of Everglades National Park.  Sure, the National Park Service would like you to believe that visiting their little watery empire on the southernmost tip of mainland Florida is perfectly safe.  But I’m here to tell you the truth.  If you can handle it.  It’s okay if you want to skip this post – it’s the scariest one I’ve written all year.

The danger that comes immediately to mind is, of course, giant alligators.  I saw several that were close to eight feet long.

Gator1

They sit there, close to the path, watching you.  And they have sharp teeth, which they advertise by leaving their gaping mouths open for hours at a time.

Gator

I understand that once a man was actually bitten by an alligator in the Everglades!  Maybe back in 1967 or something.  And all he was doing was teasing it and trying to feed it chicken scraps by hand.  They’re dangerous beasts, I tell you!

Do not approach alligators

Of course, there are other deadly creatures in the Everglades as well.  See if you can spot them in the photo below:

Bear Lake Trail

This is Bear Lake Trail.  I walked it for several hours to find Mangrove Cuckoo (found one, near the end!).  But the cuckoo isn’t scary (nor is it in this photo).  The dangerous thing in this photo is the mosquitoes.  All 5,849 of them.  Giant Everglades Mosquitoes.  Thanks to the 100% DEET bug spray I was wearing, only 5,199 managed to bite me.  Note to the Puget Sound Red Cross: I will be postponing my next whole blood donation for about 6 weeks.

As if the mosquitoes and alligators aren’t enough, there are the spiders!  And they are huge!  And scary!  And amazingly cool.

Large spider

And did I mention snakes?!

Snake Bight

Ok, actually I didn’t see any snakes.  The sign is a bit of Everglades humor.  A “bight” is actually a shallow bay.  Heh, heh… funny huh?  Snake Bight?  Here’s a bit more Everglades humor:

Rock Reef Pass

Yep, south Florida is pretty flat.  Almost literally as flat as a pancake.  [Ok, you could imagine a theoretical pancake that was bumpier than the Everglades – use your imagination!]  I’ve been across several passes in my big year: Snoqualmie Pass at 3022 feet, White Pass at 4501 feet, and Washington Pass at 5477 feet.  But this is the lowest pass I’ve crossed all year.  And dangerous, too! Especially if it were hurricane season.  Which I guess it’s not.  But still.

Ok, back to more danger.  Um, cowbirds.  Very dangerous.  Well, not dangerous to humans, mostly, but very dangerous to many species of songbirds like warblers.  Cowbirds are brood parasites, which means they lay their eggs in the nests of other smaller birds.  The bigger baby cowbirds outcompete the other nestlings for food, and may even shove the other birds out of the nest.  As a result, the warblers end up spending the breeding season raising a cowbird chick instead of their own offspring.  I saw many Brown-headed Cowbirds, like this one:

Brown-headed Cowbird

This is the same species of cowbird I saw being trapped when I visited Kirtland’s Warbler habitat last summer.

But the Everglades also has another species of cowbird, the Shiny Cowbird.  This is a species normally found in Central and South America, but a couple individuals have made their way all the up to south Florida (possibly by way of the Caribbean).  I saw a couple of these Shiny Cowbirds near the Flamingo Visitor’s Center at the southern end of the Everglades:

Shiny Cowbird

I see that you’ve made it this far in my scariest blog post ever.  But I have to warn you, the scariest part is yet to come.  It is such a terrifying phenomenon that there were warning signs EVERYWHERE about these creatures.  So what is more menacing than alligators, mosquitoes, and cowbirds combined?

Vultures will damage your vehicles

Yes, vultures.  But not just any vultures.  Everglades windshield wiper-eating vultures.  Apparently they like to chew on rubber things.  Like car parts.

Tarps for vultures sign

How scary is that?!?

I won’t even mention the fact that I think a bird pooped on my hat.  I hope there’s not a strangler fig seed in there.  Or else in 40 to 50 years, I might be entombed in Ficus roots!

Strangler Fig

[Ominous music fading in…]

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South Florida Photo Essay

I have arrived in South Florida.  I’ve actually been here for several days, but have been too busy trying to see everything there is to see here to work on my photos and blog posts.  I’m here in the Sunshine State to see some special subtropical birds which reach the northern (or western) edge of their range here, and also to catch a bit more of spring migration as birds stream through Florida on their way north.  Also, at the end of my trip I’ll be catching a boat out to the Dry Tortugas, a set of islands in the Gulf of Mexico about 65 miles west of Key West.  (More on that later!)

Instead of taking you through my travels here so far chronologically or geographically, I’m just going to post a bunch of pictures and tell you a little about each one (or at least about most of them).

There is a lot of water in Florida.  The ocean and the gulf, ponds, canals, wetlands, mudflats, and the Everglades (which is basically like one giant sheet of extremely shallow water).

Wakodahatchee Wetlands

All of this water is a bonanza for water birds of all types: herons, egrets, sandpipers, cormorants, etc.  Here is one of my favorite, the Least Bittern:

Least Bittern

That is an adult, hunting for minnows in the shallow water.  A juvenile Least Bittern peeks out of a nest not far away:

Least Bittern Chick

Cattle Egrets are everywhere.  They often forage in the same fields with livestock, eating the insects and other small animals kicked up by the large mammals.  It’s also nesting time for the Cattle Egrets, and here are two making a nest together:

Cattle Egret nest

I think this Double-crested Cormorant is too hot, based on its “panting” behavior:

Cormorant

The riotous pink of Roseate Spoonbills are everywhere.  My daughter loves these the best.  This picture is for you, Piper!  I’ll try to get a better photo later this week.

Spoonbill

Black-necked Stilts are making a terrible racket.  Some people call them “pool poodles” due to their incessant high-pitched yapping:

Black-necked Stilt

Sandpipers, like this Solitary Sandpiper, are stopping off for a just a quick refueling on their way up to the Arctic.

Solitary Sandpiper

There are some cool plants here as well, like palm trees

Royal Palms

and many species of epiphytes (which grow on other plants):

Epiphytes

The Strangler Fig is a special kind of Ficus tree that starts life as an epiphyte.  Its seed lands in the top of a tree (thanks to a bird, who ate a fig fruit shortly beforehand, and excreted the inedible part).  The seed sprouts and lives as an epiphyte for several years.  Meanwhile, it sends runners down the trunk of its host tree, which eventually reach the forest floor and grow into roots.  The Ficus grows larger and larger, and eventually “strangles” the host tree, usually killing it.  It’s an ingenious evolutionary adaptation to living in dense tropical forests where little light usually reaches the forest floor.  Here’s a strangler fig near the Anhinga Trail at Everglades National Park:

Strangler Fig

I have a lot more cool pictures and stories to share, but it’s late (and I have a very early appointment tomorrow with a very annoying sparrow), so I will leave you with this turtles.  They have it pretty good, I think: soaking up sun by the pool, eating some flowers, and watching the gators float by.

Turtles

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Searches

My entire year has been devoted to searching and finding amazing things in nature and in schools.  But here is a short post about other kinds of searches.

I assume most of you are here because you know me – my family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, etc.  Or perhaps you found one of the hundreds of cards I have been leaving in my wake as I have been touring the country:

card

I’ve been trying to spread the word that preserving the natural world can go hand-in-hand with a healthy business environment and a strong local economy.

Although most visitors to this blog have met me before, quite a number arrive here through an internet search using a engine like Google or Bing.  How do I know that?  Because WordPress tracks visitors to my site that arrive through search engines, AND it records which searches were used to get here.  A little creepy, no?  But it has been very interesting to look through the search terms that landed visitors to my blog.  Some of them are very predictable, like:

  • sleeping spotted owl
  • authentic and needed innovation
  • ediz hook reservation for native birds
  • bronx science high school

Others are a little unusual, but I can still understand why someone might do such a search, and how they might end up here:

  • sparkle and flicker owl
  • small sea duck 4 letters
  • location of mineral water
  • how many owls are there in the us and what states do they live in?
  • bird at obtuse angle

And then, there are the howlers and real head scratchers:

  • how do you wipe your butt on a cactus
  • land/geographic characteristics of delaware in the 1600s
  • goose rocks me christmas tree made out of lobster traps
  • emu sleeping blanket
  • diagram of olympic jumping zones
  • should a student in australia come up with a formula for magnesium oxide other than mgo?

I promise I did not make these up.  Any fabricated search terms I could come up with could not complete with the genuine article, anyway.  How DO you wipe your butt on a cactus?  I hope to never, ever find out.  I will include more funny search terms in later postings.

Another search I did recently was for a replacement knob cover for my Nikon binoculars (seen here at the end of the red arrow):

binos

It seems I’ve been using my optics so much this year that I’m wearing them out!  The covering for the focus knob (which apparently goes by the official designation of ‘central axis button’) has come loose, making it very difficult to focus my binoculars.  And focusing, as you might have guessed, is an important function in any pair of optics.

I visited two local repair shops in the Seattle area, neither of whom could help me. A call to the Nikon service center was answered by a very polite and helpful-sounding woman, who ordered a free replacement part for me.  The downside: the piece is back-ordered, and won’t ship for at least 6-8 weeks.  Needless to say, this is not an acceptable solution during the spring of a big year.  So I visited my local hardware store and bought some waterproof silicone plumbing tape.  After removing the offending knob cover, I was able to patch together a temporary fix:

Binos fixed

Hopefully this will hold until the new part arrives.

Finally, I will leave you with a cool ‘find’ that I wasn’t even searching for.  It’s a new short documentary entitled Gulf Crossing, and you can watch it FREE online.  It talks a great deal about the migration phenomena that I have discussed in recent posts, and features truly tremendous video of some spectacular migrating birds.  You can watch it here: http://gulfcrossingmovie.com/Gulf_Crossing.html

Enjoy!

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Spring Texas Wrap-Up and Yankee Bobbytraps

Texas flowers

My second visit to Texas during my Big Year is in the books.  I will return to the Lone Star State in May for a brief excursion to Big Bend National Park.  But until then, here is my trip wrap-up.

Miles by car: 2206 (3rd-most behind Minnesota/Wisconsin/Michigan and Summer California/Arizona)

Miles by foot: 40 (approx)

Total species seen: 230 (a new record for my Big Year trips!)

New Big Year Birds added: 34 (I’m currently at 579 total since I started on June 12, 2012 – it may be possible for me to break 600 in the next 2 weeks)

Total number of individual birds seen during my April Texas trip (according to my eBird summary): 5380 (approx)

Highlights: Attwater’s Prairie Chicken, Black and Yellow Rails, Elf Owl, finally seeing Aplomado Falcon, and birding in Louisiana for the very first time

Favorite Duck: Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Coolest Thing to Just Sit and Watch: The heron rookery at High Island’s Smith Oaks, where hundreds of Great and Snowy Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, and Neotropic Cormorants are showing off their spectacular nuptial plumage, courting, mating, bellowing, building nests, incubating eggs, and generally carrying on and creating quite a show.

Rookery

Bird that would be outrageously cool if it were rare instead of incredibly abundant, or if it were less annoying (perhaps if it didn’t get together with 750 of its friends and white-wash your car with poop while you go in to the grocery store for ten minutes): Great-tailed Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Best Yankee Booby-trap: The Container of Not Sweet Tea at a Houston area restaurant

Yankee Boobytrap

This one might require a little explanation if you haven’t spent a lot of time in the South.  In order to understand what’s going on here, you need to know three important details: 1) No self-respecting Southern drinks unsweetened tea.  It just isn’t done.  2) Most Southerners don’t hate Yankees, but they don’t really like ’em that much either.  3)  To Yankees, Sweet Tea may sound like an two word phrase with an adjective and a noun, like ‘green shirt’ – but it isn’t.  Sweet Tea may have two words, but it describes one single, specific thing – like cotton candy or Kansas City.

Looking at the picture above, a Yankee might take this to mean that the container on the right dispenses sweetened tea, and the one on the left unsweetened tea.  A Southerner knows better.  The one on the right dispenses Sweet Tea, and who the heck knows what’s in the other one – but it sure ain’t Sweet Tea.  It might be radiator fluid.  It would be like labeling one container ‘water’ and the other one ‘not water.’

I concluded that the ‘Not Sweet Tea’ container must be a booby-trap for unsuspecting Yankees.  I watched this beverage station for a good 30 minutes while I ate lunch.  Seventeen people came to get Sweet Tea, but no one tried the ‘Not Sweet Tea.’  I had a Diet Coke.

Provided the FAA doesn’t furlough my air traffic controllers, I’ll be on the red-eye to Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday for 12 days in South Florida.

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More Migration Miracles

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are a number of migrant oases dotted along the Gulf Coast which can be good for seeing neotropical migrants winging their way past.  I visited a several of them, from the South Padre Island Convention Center to Lafitte’s Cove near Galveston all the way to Peveto Woods in southwestern Louisiana.

Welcome to Louisiana

Peveto Woods

But some of the oldest and most famous coastal migrant traps are the Houston Audubon Society’s nature preserves in the tiny town of High Island.  Boy Scout Woods and Smith Oaks have been attracting birds and bird watchers to this section of the Texas coast for decades.

Boy Scout Woods

When the north wind blows, Boy Scout Woods can blow your mind with an incredible diversity and sheer numbers of birds.  While I was there, a moderate southeast wind was predominant; good weather for migrating, and many birds overflew the coast riding the favorable tailwind, stopping miles inland at larger tracts of favorable habitat.  Even under these conditions, the sanctuaries at High Island produced a slow but steady influx of warblers, tanagers, buntings, and orioles.  And while small songbirds (known more formally as passerines) are the usual highlight at High Island, the sanctuaries also play host to other kinds of migrating birds, like this nighthawk, who is trying to catch a quick nap before continuing on its migration once night falls again.

Lesser Nighthawk

High Island also serves another function, a more social one for us humans.  It is one of the great Meccas of the birding world.  All serious birders eventually make the pilgrimage to High Island, and it’s a great place to meet and talk to other birders.  Some of them are from up the street, and some of them are from Europe, South America, or Australia.  Some are first timer newbie birders who marvel at the local Cardinals, and some are grizzled veterans who can ID a flying Prothonotary Warbler from 200 yards away, just by its ‘chip’ call note.

The grandstand area is the grand central station of the High Island birding community.  Audubon memberships and t-shirts are bought and sold.  Wooden bleachers have been set up near a small pond, a water drop, and a fruiting mulberry tree.  Birds and birders circulate there throughout the day to see and be seen.

High Island

There is a network of trails and boardwalks that go throughout the property, which travel through a couple of different habitats from weedy fields to mature stands of oak.

BSW Trail

The sanctuaries use to host several dozen hundred-year old oak trees, but many of them were damaged or killed by a series of hurricanes that included Ike and Rita.  While they are different places now with many of the big trees gone, the High Island sanctuaries are still good for birds, and a new generation of trees is growing up.

Of course, there are many species of birds who are on tremendous journeys of their own for whom trees and bushes offer no respite at all.  Shorebirds like sandpipers, plovers, godwits, and curlews need open fields, mudflats, and beaches to feed and rest.  Houston Audubon is doing its part to help these birds as well, and I spent an afternoon at their Bolivar Flats tidelands preserve a dozen miles or so south of High Island on the coast.

Bolivar Flats Sign

There I got to see thousands of shorebirds taking a break from their epic trips.  Some of these birds “winter” in Patagonia (during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer!) at the southern tip of South America and breed at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska.

This Red Knot is just transitioning into his rusty summer plumage.

Red Knot

I saw many, many Willets, including this one who was doing a dance (I think it was the Willet Hokey Pokey):

Willet dance

Each shorebird was hanging out in its own preferred habitat.  This Long-billed Curlew stalked the waterline:

LB Curlew

A Hudsonian Godwit fed in the grass:

Hudsonian Godwit

And Wilson’s Plovers loafed in the dry sand up the beach:

Wilson's Plover

Protecting this habitat is vitally important for migrating shorebirds.  Yes, they can travel 10,000 miles in matter of weeks.  But they can’t do it if they don’t have rest and refueling stations along the way.  If the entire Gulf Coast succumbs to beach condos and oil refineries, these shorebirds will be squeezed out of existence.

Oil refinery

Fortunately, groups like Houston Audubon, the Nature Conservancy, and the Texas Ornithological Society are fighting to preserve important sections of coastline, and the birds who call this area home.  One way to learn more about shorebirds and their amazing migrations is to band them.  Researchers place tiny plastic and metal bands on the birds’ legs, and use them to track the birds along their migration route.  I was fortunate enough to spot a banded Piping Plover, and used the internet to report my sighting to the ornithologists who banded it.  If you look closely, you can see the red and white bands on its legs in the picture below:

Banded Piping Plover

My trip to Texas is winding up, and it is time to go home and spend some time with my family.  Soon, it will also be time to finish planning my next adventure:  Florida and the Dry Tortugas.

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Migration Miracle

People in Seattle often ask me why I go to Texas to go bird watching.  And they often do so with a skeptical tone in their voice and a perplexed expression on their face.  There are many reasons why Texas is arguably the very best place in the United States to go birding.  One is the large number of specialties that occur here and nowhere else in this county or in the world (Golden-cheeked Warbler, Black-capped Vireo, and Attwater’s Prairie Chicken to name only three).  A second reason is the proximity to the Mexican border, where many Mexican species reach their northern-most limits and a few rarities from further south occasionally just venture into the US (like Least Grebe and Crimson-collared Grosbeak).  These reasons alone would make Texas a must-visit.  But there is a third reason to come down to the Lone Star State, and it has to do with migration.  In order to fully understand why Texas is such an amazing place to see migrating birds, it’s helpful to back up a minute and consider why birds migrate in the first place.

Migration is an expansive and complex phenomenon.  Birds migrate for many different reasons.  But here is a brief introduction to why many of our birds “fly south” in the winter and “fly north” in the summer.  A big clue can be found in our global geography.

world map

Even a casual glance at a world map shows that there is more land mass north of the equator than south of it.  In addition, the two largest continents of the Southern Hemisphere taper to a point as they approach the South Pole, leaving a relatively small land mass at high southern latitudes near Antarctica.  In contrast, continents in the Northern Hemisphere tend to flare outwards as they go north towards the pole, creating a huge expanse of territory in the north temperate and arctic regions.  These lands in the northern US and Canada, northern Europe, and Siberia can be bitterly cold in winter, often locked below layers of ice and snow.  In the summer however, these vast areas warm considerably.  There is abundant nesting habitat, swarms of insects, and an explosion of seeds and fruits there during the brief boreal summer.  In short, it is a paradise for birds, but only for a few short months from early May to the end of the September.

While many birds are content to live their lives in the tropics year round where temperatures are mild and food is consistently available, some species have discovered that it is worthwhile to travel north during our summer, feast on the incredible abundance present, raise their young, and then high-tail it out of there before the weather turns again.  It is a risky strategy, but one that can pay huge dividends.  We call these birds who have taken on this high risk/high reward lifestyle in the Americas “neotropical migrants.”  They include our summer breeding songbirds like warblers, orioles, tanagers, and flycatchers.  We often think of them as “our birds,” but really, we are just borrowing them for a few months.  They spend most of the year in Central and South America, often leaving as early as August and not returning until May.

Now you can begin to appreciate why Texas can be an amazing place to see birds in the spring and the fall.  Almost all of the neotropical migrants who breed anywhere in North America must pass through (or at least over) Texas twice a year.  Anytime in April or September, you can be almost any place in Texas and see migrants passing through.  But there are some locations which are truly special places to see migrating songbirds, especially the true dare-devils of this risk-loving group.

Suppose you are a Yellow Warbler, and you are trying beat all of your peers to the prime nesting habitat in an Ohio wetland.  Arrive too early, and there are no insects to eat and you may freeze to death.  Arrive too late, and all the of best territories and mates are already taken.  So you need to race there as fast as you can right during the “Goldilocks” window – not too early, and not too late.  Traveling up from Central America, you could play it relatively safe, and travel all the way around the Gulf of Mexico.  Some birds do this; we call them “Circum-Gulf migrants.”

Traveling north, they eventually hit the Gulf of Mexico somewhere near the Yucatan Peninsula (perhaps at point A, below).  There they scream “oh crap!” (or whatever birds scream when they find out that 600 miles of open water stand between them and that sexy female warbler they hope to find in Ohio), and turn to follow the Gulf all the way around the eastern coast of Mexico and up into Texas, arriving at Point B several days later:

Gulf Map

Of course, there are also the dare-devils that I mentioned earlier.  They eye the Gulf and say to themselves, “Hey, 600 miles is no biggie.  If I leave here at sunset, I could fly all night and all morning and be there by lunchtime – especially if the weather is good and I have a SE tailwind to push me along.”  These extreme risk takers, called Trans-Gulf migrants, are making a pretty good bet.  They can save a couple days of precious travel time by flying nonstop over the Gulf of Mexico.  Of course they cannot eat or drink en route, and they can’t rest until they make landfall, some 18 hours later.  For healthy birds, everything is usually fine unless they meet bad weather in transit, like a northerly headwind, rain, or (worst-case scenario) thunderstorms.

When the wind blows from the north or storms brew over the Texas shoreline, birders head to the coast, to places like High Island (point B on the map above).  High Island is a tiny town just a couple dozen miles from the Louisiana border, and just half a mile from the beach.  It sits on a salt dome, so it is a dozen feet above the surrounding salt marsh flats.  The added elevation means that it’s the only place for miles and miles around that has trees (the little bit of added elevation means that their roots are not drowned by saltwater).  The Houston Audubon Society has several small nature sanctuaries in High Island filled with trees and native vegetation.

Boy Scout Woods

Trans-Gulf migrants that hit unfavorable weather are in trouble.  Some exhaust themselves and drown in the Gulf.  The ones that make it to land are in desperate need of a place to rest and food to eat.  They look for any suitable place to set down, even if it’s just a couple acres of trees like the nature preserves at High Island.  Birders on the ground can watch birds literally falling out of the sky.  You can see dozens and dozens of species – sometimes thousands of individual birds – hopping around at your feet and in the bushes, trying to find food and water and just rest for a minute.  My wife and I once witnessed a dozen Scissor-tailed Flycatchers come in off the Gulf just over the waves and crash-land on the sand dunes, where they sat, exhausted.  One April morning in Key West, I watched a thunderstorm precipitate a massive fallout of birds in a tiny park near the island’s tip.  I saw 100 Yellow-billed Cuckoos and 300 Indigo Buntings flopping around the bushes and small trees, along with about 60 other species of birds.  While fallouts are exciting for bird watchers, they are bad for bids.  The daredevils are paying a heavy price for their high risk strategy, many forfeiting their lives.

I didn’t witness any spectacular fallouts this time in Texas, but I was near the coast on several occasions when a light mist was falling or when the wind shifted slightly from the north.  At the South Padre Island Convention Center, there is a small planting of trees – really no bigger than a modest-sized suburban backyard.  But it is one of the only natural shelters for miles around for tired migrants.  The blue and yellow building in the picture below is the Convention Center; you can see the trees poking up slightly above the surrounding salt marsh:

Convention Center

One afternoon I watched that tiny area fill up with warblers, buntings, vireos, and orioles.  Even normally shy species were too hungry and tired to play coy.  This Black-throated Green Warbler flitted close around me for ten minutes, almost landing on my head:

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-throated Green2

As the Convention Center has become well known as a stopover place for migrant songbirds, volunteers have planted more trees and bushes, and even added a water feature for the birds.  Drips and water features are very attractive for neotropical migrants, who are thirsty from their flight and often want to bath and clean their feathers.  I saw a steady parade of birds come through the little pool, like this Yellow-rumped Warbler (left) and Nashville Warbler (right):

Warblers in the water

And then some Indigo Buntings came by:

Indigo Buntings Join

And even a Painted Bunting, whose brilliant blue, red, and neon yellow-green plumage is not adequately captured by this bad photo:

Painted Bunting

On that particular day, Nashville Warblers were particularly abundant, and I watched a steady stream of them come by to bathe:

Nashville Warbler bathing

A group called the Valley Land Fund decided to add a little more migrant stop-over habitat about a mile south of the Convention Center.  They bought up a number of adjacent vacant lots in a residential area, and planted them with trees and shrubs.  They fenced them off, but also created many spaces for birders to see into the new natural gardens they made.  In this way, the birds got a refuge, and birders got another place to watch the birds:

SPI woodlots

Valley Land Fund

Of course some migrant birds like sandpipers and plovers don’t find sanctuary in trees on their journey.  I’ll write about them in my next post.

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