Birding by RV, ch 4, Everglades

 

Everglades

2-6 April 2015

After departing Markham County Park, we begin thinking of Everglades National Park and its wonderful birds.  However, we are not there yet and  pull into a Wal-Mart in Cooper City northwest of Miami. Without a detailed map it is difficult to know, except by signage, when leaving one city or town and entering another. Cooper City melts into adjacent and likewise crowded streets of Pembroke Pines, south to Hialeah and east to Miami Beach. Founded way back in the dark ages of 1959, the site of much of Cooper City is on former citrus land. Before that, the Everglades dominated the site as it once did within the time “civilization” first moved in to wipe out Indians and drain water. The stamp of human occupation on southeastern Florida is disheartening.

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Anhinga is just one of the many birds to see in Everglades National Park

 

Our location today is about a 200-mile drive from a locality once occupied by Dusky Seaside Sparrows, a bird ornithologist and birders considered famous. Before the mid-Twentieth Century, the sparrow was endemic to Florida. We all know finding endemics is one of the main reasons for birding in a particular locality. This was a bird on any serious listers hit list. It is highly unlikely a Dusky Seaside Sparrow would show up outside of Florida. This sparrow was also a target species for birders because people realized its population was dwindling. Dusky Seaside Sparrow might not be around to count in the future. It was a target species when I birded in Florida in late1962 and early 1963. Never mind that taxonomy later caused the Dusky Seaside Sparrow to be relegated from species to subspecies and to cause the loss of a species on my ABA life list.

What made me think of the sparrow is that it became extinct. Regardless of its present taxonomic status, the taxa known as Dusky Seaside Sparrow will no longer grace the checklist of any birder. While that thought bounces around inside my skull, my stream of consciousness or something like that, evolves to wondering about three other species of North American birds that may not be extant today and could they have been checked on my ABA list some time before today. The outcome really is dependent on timing on my part and timing concerning the biology of the three species. Finding any one of those birds during my earlier efforts could have determined what species would be ABA 700.

What if the imagination plays the grand exercise of what if? It might go something like this. What if, while traveling down the East Coast in 1962, my arrival near Charleston would have been during spring instead of fall? Why the question? I unknowingly visited the exact location of the last confirmed report of a Bachman’s Warbler (see Birder Interrupted, Ch 17) during the fall of 1962, but the last Bachman’s Warbler was observed in the spring that same year. The warbler is most likely extinct, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service officially list it as critically endangered and possibly extinct. I should have altered my itinerary in 1962. However, I did not. Would it have made a difference? Probably not, but… Another species with the same optimistic designation by the Fish and Wildlife Service is Eskimo Curlew, a species photographed at Galveston in March 1962. I thought I would be at Galveston in the spring of 1963, but my car gave up its life. I might have seen an Eskimo Curlew if I had made it to Galveston, but I did not. What if I had, or what if I had seen an Eskimo Curlew at one of the locations representing a smattering of records up to 1976? What if an Ivory-billed Woodpecker revealed itself while I searched western Florida in 1963 (see Birder Interrupted, Chapter 22)? What if Linda and I saw the large woodpecker in Arkansas? We visited relatives in Little Rock in the spring of 2005, but were unaware, at that time, of the reported sighting and photographs alleging the occurrence of an Ivory-bill. The sightings and photographic documentation is not without controversy. We, as are many, are not convinced that anyone witnessed an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but why not remain hopeful? What if the Ivory-bill in 2005 was waiting for Linda and me to visit the swamps so few miles away?

What if I did find a Bachman’s Warbler? If I had, Egyptian Goose would have been my 700th ABA species. Actually, it seems that my chances of finding an Eskimo Curlew was better that seeing the warbler. What if an Eskimo Curlew flew my way and what if a Bachman’s Warbler topped off the search? If such phenomenal luck had come my way, Snail Kite would have been number 700. That would be a good result. What if, in 2005, Linda and I found an Ivory-billed Woodpecker? That would be amazing! My 700th ABA species would then be Gray Kingbird.

It is all in the timing. Although my birding time overlaps some of the years the three what if birds most likely became extinct, I still was in the wrong place and time to lay eyes on any one of those birds. Today, birders have even less chance to see Bachman’s Warbler, Eskimo Curlew or Ivory-billed Woodpecker. As the clock progresses, more and more birds will become extinct or so rare it will be impossible or nearly so to find them. Since 1500, over 190 species of birds have gone extinct. Guam has lost 60% of the native species in the last 30 years mostly from predation by introduced brown tree snakes. Hawaii has lost 30% of its endemic avifauna and will lose more if the snake gets there. The snake has hitched rides in airplane wheel-wells and it is conceivable that this unrelenting predator could establish a breeding population in ABA territory. What a horrible thought.

Most of the ABA species that are on the brink are endangered because of two-legged snakes. Human caused demise of species is not limited to Hawaii and North America. Habitat loss due to human proliferation is rampant. Overpopulation of humans and our destructive ways have put a blight on the world. Dwindling populations of birds and habitat is a sign of pending extinction and eventually that of our own. The sign of trouble, the canary in the mine, the likely disappeared Ivory-billed Woodpecker, is not new. Our role in its causes is not new. Rates of extinction and dwindling populations of birds and other wildlife have been ignored beyond repair for many species and may be too late for countless others. Some species will become extinct before we have discovered them. This is especially true in such biologically unexplored regions of South America.

If anyone is going to see the affected species or least the species we know are endangered, we had better hurry before they become as rare as hens’ teeth, the state when their population sinks to such low numbers that recovery of the species is impossible.

For those who are listers, it should be kept in mind rarer species are difficult to find. A lister might serve their life lists by concentrating on rare and endangered species. Get them before extinction gets them. The next generation of listers will likely have greater difficulty in finding rare and endangered species. After all, in a generation the birds found today may be fewer in number years from now. In my lifetime, now exceeding seven decades, I, at least anecdotally, strongly believe certain species are not nearly as abundant as when I began looking in the late 1950s. Studies of many species prove my observations. Today, it may not be difficult to find a target species since communication is improved. That ease in finding does not necessarily equate to a healthy population. It could mean having acquired good information on a local and small number of individuals.

What if I birded the next ten years starting with my original 600 species and searched with the same amount of time and money? Can I expect to find 100 species in a decade? Ignoring inflation, would reaching 700 species by 2025 be more expensive? Because of so many variable, most of them obvious, some not so much, the results of the quest for 100 species now would differ from what actually happened ten years ago. Of course, these dates require me to be well and able at age 81. For those younger birders looking for 100 more species, many have to face the problem of depleted habitat and diminishing populations of target species. So, the question: What if the decade of searching for 100 species began in 2020? What if the quest began in 2030, 2040 or later? By 2050, the human population in the United States will likely increase to 438 million. That is an increase of 142 million since 2005. World population will increase by two billion from now to 2050. Where will the meadowlarks sing?

What if the human population did not increase, and subsequently, the rate of natural habitat destruction slowed or even stopped? What if we could be intelligent enough to alter our destiny by controlling our rampant population explosion and know how to save all inhabitants of the planet? Such a dream is not going to happen, but despite human encroachment, a few species have actually increased. Opportunity to find a Snail Kite is but one of a handful of positive outcomes in conservation. Yes, not all is doom and gloom. As a measure of what has happened to ABA land, Scott Weidensaul, in “Return to Wild America,” retraced Peterson and Fisher’s 50-year-old epic “Wild America.” Weidensaul found wilderness and change.

There have been strides towards saving America, mostly imposed through laws instead of people doing the right thing without having to be first told or paid. It is too bad that greed and ignorance is such a component of ecological downfall. The Endangered Species Act comes to mind as one of those laws passed to protect wildlife. That law, although at the whim of politicians and often gutted beyond its purpose, has helped some species. However, a handful of species is not an avifauna.

Human populations will continue to grow, perhaps not at rates predicted, but there will be more of us. In Florida, the population was 2.8 million in 1950, or a few years before Peterson and Fisher visited the state. A few years before my first visit to Florida, the population had nearly doubled. In 2004, when Scott Weidensaul retraced the route in “Wild America” the population in Florida went from 5 million in 1960 to 17.4 million. Over two more million folks occupied Florida by the present year 2015. Florida is now the third most populous state. About every four people will reside in a house on a lot. According to some smart person, 3.4 lots requires one acre. Two million people, those recent inhabitants up to 2015, need acre upon acre, no, townships of land to set up shop in Florida. Natural habitats, naturally, takes second fiddle to human occupation. Will houses, business and pavement cover the attractive aspects of Florida? Will what makes Florida attractive become extinct?

Climate change will alter distribution of all those Floridian humans, not to mention destroy coastal habitats. Where will Snail Kites go when seawater seeps into their presently fresh-water marshes? Where will people go? Will humans build on the slopes of mountains or take the least expensive route by occupying the flatter interior of North America? Of course, that might depend on whether the grasslands and other habitats survive drought. Time will reveal the plight, but, again, where will the meadowlark sing?

While contemplating the surviving natural world too few years from today, I shake my head to rattle my brain to think more positively, enter Wal-Mart and realize I left the shopping list back in the RV. As I approach the RV, a person walked up and said, “Someone hit your RV.” Another person stands nearby and tells me that another person is watching the vehicle that hit the RV. I begin to inspect the damages. The right rear plastic lens covering the tail, brake and signal lights is on the tarmac and in pieces. The bulbs appear in good condition. While anxiously pulling at my beard, a medium-sized pickup parks at the rear of the RV, thanks to witnesses who more or less herded the driver back to the scene of the accident. That so many people took the time to help is wonderful. In broken English, the driver of the pickup admits to causing the damage and two young women passengers, who speak English, walk him through the process of exchanging information. I phone my insurance. They say calling the police is not necessary.

Linda is in the store. I finally locate her, tell her about the accident and purchase some red tape to cobble up the RV lens. We finish our shopping, which is primarily food and return to the RV. Linda picked up several pieces of the tail light lens in addition to the ones I scooped into a plastic bag before going into the store. Before further ado, we check the lights. They blink and flash in proper fashion. Whew. So far, so good. With the tape, we put together the jigsaw pieces. Fortunately, two of the larger pieces screw on to the body of the RV. Tape holds the remainder in place to restore the lens to somewhat resemble its former self. This is the first time in my life when red tape is a good thing. An off duty police officer parks two spaces from us. I ask him if the patched RV lens is safe and legal. He assures that it is. Months earlier, a body shop expert I know advised me to purchase a couple of the rear RV lenses. He warned that if anything breaks, it would be one of those lenses. I did not take his advice, but so far, so good.

7 April 2015

Easter weekend came and went, as did my birthday.  Turning 71 somehow bothers me.  I am now on the down side of having few years to 80 and we all know what happens to most human in their 80s.  Of course, there could be a possibility of 800 ABA species seen before becoming 81.  Yes, anything is possible, but not everything.

Believing in positive possibilities, today we head to Kendall, where three countable introduced birds reside.  I had the pleasure of seeing two of them back in the 60s, but it would be nice to renew acquaintances.  The third, an introduced parakeet would be new.   The two I had earlier seen, Red-whiskered Bulbul and Spot-breasted Oriole will be new to Linda.

We spent last night at a Walmart in Cooper City near the scene of the accident. From the map, Kendall is reachable by taking I-75 south to Palmetto Expressway and onto US 1 for access to three sites highlighted in the finding guide.  One site, the author advises, would be best early in the morning.  That might be fine if you wake up at the site.  What the author does not mention is rush-hour traffic.  Having spent many years in Washington, DC, I know that rush-hour traffic is not something to dare, especially in an unfamiliar city. Of course, the author of the finding guide was not considering driving an RV. Had we attempted driving our RV through the Florida rush hour, we would have agonized every inch. What is worse, every inch counts when negotiating the wide body of our dual-wheel RV down roads that long ago stopped being adequate for today’s traffic. Thankfully, the drivers after the morning rush hour seem comparatively polite to those we encountered a couple of days ago during an unfortunate afternoon rush hour. As with birding, time is everything. There are times when you get the bird, no matter the circumstances.  

We schedule our travel to Kendall in late morning. Unfortunately, a sign pointing to Palmetto Expressway is missing along the route southward. At least, we do not see such a sign.  I did see a sign pointing to an expressway named Gantry or was it Gitalong, Gofaster or something, but I did not take a chance so as not to end up in Miami Beach or the Hialeah racetrack.  Before time to cry for help, we are heading southbound to I-95, a familiar number that passes through my old museum stomping ground.  Finally, we reach the bitter end of I-95 and are traveling south on US 1, aka the Dixie Highway.  I wonder if that name is in use for US 1 at its northern terminus in Maine.

Our first stop is the Royal Palms Tennis Courts billed as a good place for Red-whiskered Bulbul.  There is suitable parking space for our RV, which garners stares while occupying spaces filled with BMWs and similar ilk. There is not even a whimper of a bulbul.  The only activity is a bunch of female tennis buffs and down the street, about eight police cars at the intersection a block west.  Not far, as the finding guide guides, is a home where the residents are friendly to birders and where the bulbul, Spot-breasted Oriole and several species of parrots might be available for an ABA lister.  The house appears closed, no one or any vehicles are outside and an advertisement, probably for chicken or pizza delivery, is stuck between the front door and the door frame.  If there are birds there, they are out of sight.  I do not feel comfortable in knocking on the door so we drive to the next birding destination, Kenwood Elementary School.  A walk around the eastern end of the school produces one Northern Parula.  After checking in at the school office, which is a way to avoid being arrested, a teacher shows me a small group of trees that the school plans to be part of a nature trail.  The place is birdless.  Five or six parrots about the size of Nanday Parakeets fly overhead, all the while screeching as they disappear from view.  It is cloudy and the sun reflecting off some nearly snow-white clouds leaves only silhouettes to ponder.  By now, I know that evening rush-hour traffic will soon build toward a crescendo.  We have several miles to our staging area near highway 997, Krome Avenue, which will transport us south to Everglades National Park.

Time in Kendall was a disappointment.  I should have been diligent to the fact that the three target birds have rather localized distributions.  Contacting someone on the ground, so to speak, might have yielded positive results.  Neil Hayward, whose big year is now the biggest, saw the bulbul, oriole and parakeet about the same time of year as today, but he found all three in places I did not look today.  I think we are a few streets off from these very local species. If I ever feel the need to see a Spot-breasted Oriole, a Red-whiskered Bulbul and a White-winged Parakeet, I would definitely approach Kendall ether from the west or the south and thereby avoid Miami and company and I think I would first ask someone for help.  A street address might be the ticket or a little salt on the tails of the trio would make them available for some kind of list.  At the risk of sounding like Green Eggs and Ham, we will miss them on our trip list and miss them on our year list. Linda will miss them on her life list and I will miss the parakeet on my life list.  Yes, we will.

8 April 2015

With our chances for three introduced species dashed by lack of preparedness, we drive south through Homestead.  Linda spots a needed coin laundromat.  Eager to begin the chore of laundry, Linda jumps out to guide me back into a parking place and then enters the laundromat to check it for cleanliness.  We have seen some such establishments that will do a great job on getting dirty laundry dirtier.  Before I am able to get from behind the wheel, I spot a dark bird landing on a power line at the edge of the street.  It looks starlingish, but it is not the starling I know and dislike.  The binocs tell the tale. It is a Common Myna.  I yell to Linda, who is coming out of the laundromat.  She grabs her binoculars and quickly agrees that all that yellow on its bill and face and the brown plumage points to the fact we have our lifer, Common Myna.

It is getting late as we enter Everglades National Park, the largest park east of the Mississippi and unique in its watery habitat not just in North America but also on Earth.  Everglades is beyond words, but it is not beyond harm.  People continue to work toward the demise of the Everglades.  Today, agriculture and urbanization replaces at least 50% of the Everglades. Only a small part is under protection, including Everglades National Park in 1947.  Nonetheless, the everglades, including the park, is always last to reap water from the abundant freshwater sources in underground Florida.  Before water heads southward down the 50 miles of the river of grass, water managers divert the flow for flood control, agriculture and for human consumption.  The park gets the last drink, assuming, of course, there is any left to wet the hordes of people now occupying the peninsula.  The plight of the Everglades is a never-ending story of encroachment of concrete and agriculture that eats away natural habitat and wildlife. Climate change will likely settle the situation, but in a most negative way. 

It had been well over 50 years since visiting Everglades National Park.  During my last time in the park, I saw Roseate Spoonbills.  This year, we cannot seem to lay eyes on this badly declining species.  Passing headquarters, I recall the late friends once working there and ignoring the turn for Royal Palm Hammock, I remember the camera ready views of Anhingas, herons and other species that have learned to trust close human scrutiny.  The late hour and fear there will not be a camping space at Long Pine Key keeps us moving forward.

The scene at Long Pine Key is a good alternative to the broken light.

The campground at Long Pine Key is actually almost empty.  We choose a site where the only amenities are a place to build a fire and a picnic table.  Pine trees tower overhead.  Palmetto fills in the understory, but there are more plants in the dense thickets that contain subtropical flora. One of the plants is poisonwood, which is 100 times more toxic than poison ivy. Another toxic plant is manchineel, also called little apple of death. It is apparently 1,000 times more poisonous than poison ivy. Both species grow in southern Florida and in the Caribbean islands, where I once had a close encounter of the dangerous kind. While collecting birds for the museum on St. Kitts decades ago, I shot a Gray Kingbird.  The bird was perched in a tree that began raining down its sap in response to the shotgun pellets. Fortunately, my guide yelled to me not look up. I did not and jumped away from the falling liquid. I am not sure which plant I dodged that day in the 1970’s since the names poisonwood and manchineel are often in use interchangeably. My outcome was without injury. As for the kingbird, data from it has been used in scientific studies and it remains to this day, a valuable resource for future investigations. I warn Linda to enjoy the campground, but watch out for poisonous plants.

Linda and I discover that the name Big Pine Key is a misnomer. The campground and surrounding pine forest is not on an island.  The forest habitat is growing on a slightly higher elevation than the nearly sea-level surroundings on what geologist dub Miami Rockland.  It is discontinuous so in that sense, the region is an island surrounded by different geological substrates.  As for the campsite itself, we enjoy the solitude of the virtually empty campground and finally, the silence we were missing during the last many nights.

9-10 April 2015

Birds in the campground are the usual suspects, the enticing liquid sounding cardinal, the clown mockingbird, a few skulking catbirds and a couple of White-eyed Vireos.  On the second morning, I notice the catbirds are less secretive and more vocal than yesterday.  A Yellow-throated Vireo is a nice surprise. In addition, reptiles entertain us. Linda especially enjoys the antics she identifies as brown anole displaying.

By around noon, we realize that we need help in trying to avoid the hot and muggy afternoons.  We had signed up for three nights in Long Pine Key, but we discover there is room and electricity at the Flamingo campground. The Long Pine campground ranger kindly phones a ranger at the Flamingo campground to hold a spot for us. Our drive of about 30 miles southeast to the end of the tip of southern mainland Florida requires a couple of stops for Roseate Spoonbills. The likely ponds are void of any avifauna.  We have almost two weeks before our scheduled tour of the Dry Tortugas and Flamingo might just be the best place to bide our time. Flamingo is a good place and look for Mangrove Cuckoo and other species known to frequent the mangrove shore of the region.  A nice, new Shiny Cowbird could be a good addition to the old ABA life list. It is a winning situation.

11-22 April 2015

The opportunity to hook into an electrical circuit at Flamingo saves us from the sweltering spring temperature and the high humidity that contributes to the lush tropical environment. The campground loop is about a 400 by 200 or more yard oval, with 41 RV sites and sits about three feet above sea-level. One restroom sits near the center. Vegetation, ranging to maybe 20 feet, separates our loop from Eco Pond, which is 220 yards away, and the tenting loop about the same distance to our south. RVs of various sizes, including several class A and class C RVs dot the oval. Most everyone and his or her dog are inside their abodes and only the occasional fishing person arriving or leaving break the near silence. Mowed grass covers the campground. We learn the open space invites sea breezes and the short grass dissuades mosquitoes. Small trees among the campsites provide a little shade and a few amaze us. Top of the list is the Gumbo Limbo, a relatively smooth red-barked tree, which we discover is a favorite among people carving horses for carousels. More importantly, the Gumbo Limbo has numerous medicinal uses and the bark apparently has antibacterial properties.

Somehow, any memory of Flamingo from my early 1960s visit is lacking. I do recall nearby Snake Bight Trail, but I must have made a U-turn in my old 1955 VW beetle somewhere beyond the trailhead.  In fact, I probably drove north as fast as possible once exiting the mosquito-infested trail.  Colusa Indians once occupied Flamingo and other parts of coastal Florida Bay.  Since then, various non-natives have attempted to raise non-native crops such as cotton.  That was a failure.  Flamingo was a fishing camp for years and in some ways still is.  The park service finally took ownership of the region, which put a stop to illegal taking of wildlife and setting wildfires.  Slightly earlier, the taking of wildlife, in particular, wading birds, ran rampant anywhere herons and egrets grew feathers.  The millinery trade was big business, but conservationists worked in earnest to protect the birds.  In 1905, Guy Bradley, an agent hired by the National Audubon Society to prevent the destruction of wading birds, was murdered near Cape Sable, a few miles west of Flamingo. 

Herons and egrets were hunted for their feathers

Conservation efforts, especially the formation of the park, offers hopes for bird populations.  While populations of some species experience recovery, other species presently suffer from problems ranging from water wars to imported boa constrictors.  Few birds and very dry habitat is what fills the view today.  Even the resort rooms at Flamingo are gone from their foundations since the sweeping force of Hurricane Wilma in 2013.  There are no plans to rebuild the washed away bungalows at Flamingo, but plans to restore or at least maintain wildlife levels in southern Florida continue an up-hill battle. Of course, we still cannot find any Roseate Spoonbills.

At least every other day, I walk slightly over a mile from our campsite to Flamingo Visitor Center and marina. From our campground loop, the route goes past a ranger kiosk and the entrance to the tenting campground, and then, on a paved road, past to walk-in campground. Bradley Trail begins on the east end of the walk-in campground and ends at the center.  The smooth flat trail is as wide as a town sidewalk and bordered by mangroves, which cut off any chance of a breeze. That leaves me victim to oppressive heat and humidity and hungry mosquitoes. At least three opening in the mangroves permit walking from the trail to the shore. Each of the openings provides welcoming cool breezes from Florida Bay and often a shorebird looking for a meal. Once at the visitor center, I have a choice of sitting at a picnic table under the shade of the overhanging building or going up one flight of stairs to soak in the air-conditioned center. I first choose the picnic table. From there I check a flock of cowbirds foraging in the short grass near the shore before going upstairs.

Mangroves flanking Bradley Trail and nearby  Dunlins, stilts and more

Each time I check for recent reports of flamingos, I am strangely feel relief from the lack of sightings of the prized species on Snake Bight Trail.  After all, if there were such reports, I would feel compelled to go there. Snake Bight Trail was horrendous enough in winter during the early 60s.  How would it be remotely bearable now in April, with daytime high temperatures in the mid-80s?  There are reportedly 40 or more species of mosquitos in Everglades National Park and I am certain all 40 would gladly converge on any bare skin I might be foolish to expose.  Of course, if someone did find a flamingo at the end of Snake Bight Trail, I would, with considerable trepidation, hike to the bight despite mosquito bites.  The original inhabitants, the Colusa, apparently wore fewer clothes than a typical tourist does on a tropical beach today.  What was the trick to avoid being sucked dry?

My wonderment extends into the evening of the 16th while enjoying the peaceful beauty of a tropical sunset.  Of course, I do not have my camera.  The gorgeous scene occupies me almost completely as I almost forget I am standing near the camp restroom while waiting for Linda to complete her solar warmed shower.  One or two of the 40 some species of mosquito try to break my trance from the light glowing from the west as I attempt to realize some peace from the fact that only 13 of those species of blood suckers hold interest in savoring humans.  Slapping at one of the 13 mosquitos embolden to penetrate my elbow, I direct my gaze southwestward. Something large is flapping across the darkening sky.  Of course, I do not have my binoculars or a camera.  The shape appears hunched and not straight as most large, long-necked and long-legged birds do.  Even herons, with their necks crooked fly with the bill and the legs more or less positioned in a straight line.  The sunset bird is much too slim and definitely larger than any bird I know.  As the bird crosses between the unseen shore and me not far to the south, I quickly realize that the bird is nothing other than a flamingo.  It is close enough that I recognize dark primaries, but the remaining paler part of the bird is  not discernible.  Is it entirely pink or is the plumage pink and white?  What is the color of those long legs and the large bill?  I cannot tell.  The dimming light only allows identification of pale and dark hues, which, based only on videos should at least rule-out Lesser Flamingo.  Could the bird represent a Chilean or Greater flamingo?  Lesser and the two latter species would surely be escapees.  There are apparently no acceptable records in the U.S. of any species of flamingo other than American Flamingo.   Should I be happy that the bird leisurely flying toward Snake Bight is an unknown flamingo and let the observation join with many other unidentified species?

Is the bird an American Flamingo, the species sometimes occurring in southern Florida?  Is the bird an escapee or a wild American Flamingo?  Days earlier, a scrub-jay flew over the road.  The possibility that the jay was a Western or Island scrub-jay never crosses my mind.  The fly-over had to be a Florida Scrub-Jay.  I experience no distress in making that call, so why should I go with the odds that the flamingo I see is an American Flamingo. I promise myself that I will wear my binocs right up to lights out.

On Wednesday, 16 April, Linda and I revisit Flamingo Visitor Center where   I relate to Cindy, a ranger at Flamingo, that I observed a flamingo flying over the campground.  She tells me that flyovers of American Flamingos do occur on occasion.  I had already related my story of seeing the flamingo to a birder this morning and mention my anguish from whether I should count American Flamingo on my life list.  His resounding answer is, yes, I should add American Flamingo to my list.  After weighing the facts and suppositions, I manage to talk myself into marking American Flamingo on my ABA list.

Linda and I view some of the exhibits while waiting for a flock of cowbirds.  While at the visitor center, we learn the park will all but close as summer envelopes the region and that the only rare bird report in Florida is a Red-billed Tropicbird.  Linda and I are not budging for a species seen up the coast and that we may find on the pending Tortugas expedition.  

As we are leaving the visitor center, we see a flock of cowbirds foraging in a patch of grass near where we park.  We decide they are all Brown-headed Cowbirds.  Returning to the RV, we wait for additions or subtractions to the flock since a Shiny Cowbird might be waiting in the nearby trees.  I hear something unknown and investigate.  The sound is coming from a set of trees where the flock of cowbirds had scurried.  Foliage hides most of the birds, but the few I am able to view have brown heads or are unremarkable females.  The mystery sound continues until the flock or most of it flies from the tree and to the ground near the flagpole in front of the center.  Glassing them up and down reveals all the usual suspects.  The flock is slightly larger than the first group we had encountered, part of it splits off from the lawn in front of the visitor center and moves directly toward me where some grass and trees block the steamy sun.  Several of the birds near me are practically within arms-reach.  They occasionally gurgle loudly as if I do not exist.  As I register their tameness, at least at this time since the species around the center usually spook at the close presence of humans, a cowbird flies from a nearby tree.  It sails into the main flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds near the flagpole.  The bird reminds me of a small Brewer’s Blackbird or a Brown-headed Cowbird without its brown head.  The heat and humidity did not cause me to conjure up a headless cowbird.  There is no imagination here.  The new bird has an iridescent head, not of chocolate-brown, but a shiny purplish head.  This is a Shiny Cowbird.  I am still uncertain the sound earlier heard came from that or another Shiny Cowbird.  A female seen yesterday in front of the visitor center was likely a Shiny Cowbird as it sported a significantly prominent eyebrow.  As for that shinning male, it perfectly fits the bill to be a Shiny Cowbird.  If I were keeping track, and I am, the new Shiny Cowbird is ABA 704.

Returning to the RV with a shiny new species to a check off my lists, that is, my life list, ABA list and year list, I was relieved that the shade in the parking lot had kept our home on wheels relatively comfortable. We have been surprised that even direct sun light does not heat the interior nearly as rapidly as sun heated our old SUV. Nonetheless, the heat and humidity forces us to put up with the roar of the RV air conditioner.

On Saturday, 18 April, we make a trip to Homestead, the noun, not the verb, for restocking our larder for a few days.  On our return to Flamingo, we spy a Wood Ibis.  Trailing close behind the big white bird is a pink one.  Finally, at last, we have a Roseate Spoonbill! This pink species occurs from South American north to Caribbean Islands and the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida. Roseate Spoonbills were hunted during the millinery trade in the early 1900s. Populations recovered until pollutants, including pesticides, and oil spills caused widespread mortality. Destructive forces of the massive Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010 may be lingering, but hundreds of more local oil spills continue to blacken habitat required by wildlife. William Robertson asked me, then a wet behind the ears birder, for my count of Roseate Spoonbills during my visit to Everglades in the early 1960s. Bill was well aware of the plight of the species. Roseate Spoonbills in the US were estimated in 2006 at 5,500 by James Kushlan one of the directors of my unit at Smithsonian. Except in the Everglades, populations of spoonbills are now stable. There are two reasons for their decline in the park. One is the introduced boa. The other is upstream water management. Water levels go up and down at the whim of humans. Studies show that hundreds of young drown in their nests from too much water and spoonbills starve as the result of too little water. Linda and I are lucky to see the single Roseate Spoonbill.

Heavy thunderstorms dominate 19 April. The unpleasant sound of our air conditioner competes with the heavy raindrops pelting the roof. Eventually, the storm gets the better of the electricity, but by then it is cool enough to be without air conditioning.

Gumbo-limbo Tree                              Black Vultures after the rain

The storm knocked out cell service. A ranger at the Flamingo visitor’s center volunteered a landline phone so Linda could call a cousin about her brother, who died last Thursday. What a depressing shock. We last saw him in late October. Although ill from type 1 diabetes, we had looked forward to seeing him upon completing our travel across the country. Now, in Florida, we cannot be further from Oregon and decide not to return there until this fall.

Linda said she better appreciates American Crows having heard vocalizations possibly unique to birds in southern Florida. Birds found on 20 April, none of which seems nearly as smart as crows, are migratory Dunlins, Black-bellied Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones. All are partially in breeding plumage. The birds are foraging near the gently lapping water of the Florida Bay, which is only 2 feet deep many yards offshore. About 85 yards to my southwest is a small island, or is a group of mangroves, their roots submerged in the shallow water. Perhaps 140 years out is Bradley Key. I notice boat traffic even further from shore. Most likely the shallow inshore water is difficult to navigate. I pass the nesting Osprey and walk up the road to Eco Pond. It is birdless except for a few Black-necked Stilts and a single Avocet.

One last look toward Bradley Key brings more luck as a large white heron flies from the island to a heavily vegetated area southwest of the tenting loop. The leisurely flight brought the bird toward me as if it was checking me out before it turned away and apparently lands well beyond the campground. Dumfounded, not a usual state, I neglect to reach for the camera as I notice the yellowish legs dangling behind an all-white heron. It appears larger than any Great Blue Heron and is also larger than any other North American heron. As the bird gradually turns its large yellow bill westward, I am certain the bird is a Great White Heron.

Only a few Great White Herons exist today. The birds were driven to near extinction during the millinery trade, never mind their nuptial plumes are relatively short compared to other species of herons. Studies show reproductive success is greater in populations of Great Whites in the Keys and that numbers are going down because of losses of sea grass and subsequent loss of fish eaten by the herons. During my first visit to Florida in the early 1960’s, the population of Great White Herons was probably close 800 to 900 individuals. These magnificent birds were then considered a distinct species by the AOU. However, it was lumped with Great Blue Heron about ten years later. The latest edition of the AOU Check-list notes that Great White Heron is “generally regarded as being conspecific with” Great Blue Heron. “Generally” does not equate to everyone’s consideration, and David Sibley and H.L. McGuire are at least two among several who have ideas different from that of the AOU. Again, it is one of the many situations that may require additional research. However, the evidence seems to point in favor of recognizing, once again, these large white birds as distinct from Great Blues.

As for me, I am convinced that the Great White Heron may be a distinct species from the Great Blue Heron. Looking at the main reasons for considering the two herons conspecific, I have to wonder if the level of evidence would be sufficient if presented today. Hybridization is not the important reason for lumping as it was once upon a time. There are also genetic and other differences between Blue and White herons. Great White Heron is going on my escrow list. In case any readers have not been paying attention, an escrow list is a list of birds that are not under AOU sanction, but taxa I believe will eventually considered countable species. Great White Heron joins eastern and western Willet, Warbling Vireo, Marsh Wren and many others that will likely prove to represent species should that additional research convince the AOU.

Meanwhile, on the shore of Florida Bay thunderstorms and rain begin about midnight and stop at sunrise on 21 April. The thick humidity is beyond oppressive. A Gray Kingbird is patrolling the campground.  The deluge of rain, spilled by passing thunderstorms collects in every low place, which, in southern Florida, is almost everywhere.  Rain continues to fall most of the day and the usual cooling sea breeze is quiet.  If the kingbird is a harbinger of things to come, any change in avifauna is late in revealing itself.  Any influx of spring migrants is not in sight. According to a park employee, a recent rain and absence of wind usually brings the full wrath mosquitos and other blood starved insects.

On Earth Day, 22 April 2015, we drive north to tour Anhinga Trail, but barricades block the road to the trail. We should have expected the closure. Yesterday, a note under a windshield wiper announced a visit to the park by President Obama.

What could be a better place than Anhinga Trail for a presidential speech? At least that is the way I recall Anhinga Trail when I last saw it in 1962. It was a place for speeches and other utterances of amazement. It was a place full of several species of herons, ibis, gallinules, alligators coming in sizes from small to large. By large, my guess is large enough to eat a careless birder. Of course, fishing in water and perching nearby, with wings held out to dry, were the trail’s namesake, Anhinga. I definitely wanted to share the trail with Linda. We should have taken the walk when we first entered Everglades National Park a few days ago. Perhaps Anhinga Trail is less spectacular today because of heavy predation on wildlife by Burmese pythons. Introduced by accident or intentionally in the 1990s, this constrictor numbers into the thousands. Large ones may be 23 feet long and weigh 200 pounds. They eat whatever the desire, including large mammals and alligators. We never saw a Burmese python, and we did not see raccoons, a common prey item to the giant snakes. According to surveys, populations of raccoons have dropped by 99%. Populations of other mammals and birds are likewise in the squeeze. Attempts to rid the park of invasive species, especially the boa, are ongoing.

In addition to walking the Anhinga Trail, we plan a stop at headquarters to talk with rangers there who earlier emailed me about Black-whiskered Vireo. My only experience with Black-whiskered Vireo, aside from probably cataloguing one or two for membership into the museum collection back in the day, was while looking over Dick Bank’s shoulder at a series of several similar species of vireo including Red-eyed, Yellow-green and Black-whiskered Vireo, the last species which I spied in 1963 in Florida. That would be at least a decade before taking up shop at the museum and now over 50 years ago since slapping mosquitoes in Florida. However, not everyone will believe my observation of the tropical vireo. Why question the sighting? The answer is that the species is practically unknown in southern Florida in winter.

Here is the story. On 14 January 1963 I was birding Snake Bight Trail in Everglades National Park. Trekking down the path and leaving a bloody trail of well-nourished female mosquitoes, I managed to find a Mangrove Cuckoo, my target species. Then, according to my notes, “A Red-eyed Vireo foraged just off the trail. What? I thought. That species should not be here now. Ignoring increasing blood loss, I strained to see the needed field mark, which was there. Yes, it is a Black-whiskered Vireo.” Looking back, I think I actually am able to visualize that Black-whiskered Vireo and see the black whisker as vividly as I shudder from the clouds of mosquitoes. Later, I ran into Bill Robertson, the park biologist who I had earlier met on a Christmas Count that winter. I told him about the cuckoo, but I have no recollection or record that I informed him of the vireo.

Papers by Henry Stevenson and by Bill Robertson and Glen Woolfenden show the vireo is gone during winter. Although there was ample time for several subsequent years for me to communicate my observation to those ornithologists, I recall that I never did. I only briefly met Glen, but Henry and Bill were regulars on my bird calendar and I miss the opportunity tasking their expertise. What would those late chroniclers thought of my observation or a more recent Black-whiskered Vireo seen during a Christmas Bird Count.

Based on near lack of winter sightings, I recently contacted Everglades National Park. Archivist Bonnie Ciolino sent me copies of their bird observation cards. Not one included a winter sighting of a Black-whiskered Vireo. If I did report the vireo to anyone in the park, my observation card must have been ripped in shreds following laughter and disbelief. Now, decades later, I doubt myself. Of course, while in the early 1960s in Florida, I did come up with a couple of good records, but the Zenaida Dove and Black-faced Grassquit became confirmed records. As for the vireo, it was just a bunch of mosquitoes and me. Should I remove Black-whiskered Vireo from my ABA list? To date, I am keeping it on my list.

Near park headquarters

Today, large black SUVs, hundreds of patrol cars representing several police departments, rows of police motorcycles, vans and large buses that ferried the press and countless unmarked cars of all sizes cover the grass at the edge of the road and block any possibility of talking to anyone at headquarter about a tropical vireo. Uniformed personnel, including park rangers, men in black, and others, some armed with guns, others with cameras, direct traffic, watch and wait. Obviously, headquarters, like the Anhinga Trail, is closed. Although disappointed, we hope visiting President Obama will carry weight to increase the budget of the National Park Service. We hope he will put on notice those entities, the realtors, city planners and agricultural interest that continue to deplete the water that is the lifeblood to the Everglades.

 

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