Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Postcard from Space Coast.

Thursday, January 29, 2015
Birders on a field trip for the Space Coast Birding Festival.
Though I was late to the party this year, thanks to an overlapping event out west, the 2015 Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival was its usual spectacular self. A lot of trade-show activity, catching up with friends, seafood meals, and a bit of birding and photography were crammed into the 3.5 days I was in Titusville, Florida, home of this annual winter festival.

Space Coast has a lot going for it as a birding/nature festival. There's the amazing variety of birdlife present in central Florida in late January. There's the lure of warm weather, ocean beaches, palm trees, and sunshine. There's a huge auditorium full of vendors selling all manner of things birdy. And there's plenty of Florida-grown fresh fruit available to help fight off that case of scurvy you've been harboring all winter.

I'm always impressed with the number of field trips and talks that Space Coast puts on. And these aren't just for birders or about birds. There are events focused on manatees, tortoises, plants, and ecosystems, too, which makes this one of the most well-rounded nature events in North America—perfect for that non-birding spouse or friend who is interested in those aspects of nature that lack feathers. Also if interest is the fact that the region regularly lives up to its "Space Coast" moniker. This year there was a rocket launch of a satellite into space, which was quite the spectacle and easily viewed from anywhere in the area. Nearby Cape Canaveral hosts a huge NASA Kennedy Space Center complex from which most of our space-oriented launches and landings have happened through the last half-century. Interestingly this space complex is why there is so much undeveloped land in the Space Coast region—things like giant rocket launches require lots and lots of real estate to be conducted safely, not to mention all the design, construction, testing, and research that goes into such activity. We have the space program and its large footprint to thank for such magnificent natural places as Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore, home to some very sought-after bird and animal species such as Florida scrub-jay, gopher tortoise, and Florida manatee.

This year I helped to lead two field trips at Space Coast. One was a relaxing walk around some of the the 400-acre Enchanted Forest Sanctuary, one of the largest in-shore patches of habitat along Florida's ancient coastal dunes. Even though the birds didn't cooperate so much (thanks to the rainy, blustery morning), we were treated to a tour of the native plants that thrive in the sanctuary by volunteer Elaine Williams.

On Sunday I was part of a team guiding a trip called Central Florida Specialties with Floridians Dave Goodwin, Jim Eager, and Mark Hedden. This trip left festival HQ at 5:00 am in order to make it to Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area in time for the morning stirrings of the red-cockaded woodpecker. Alas, despite our best efforts to get there, we somehow missed this endangered species (though it had been seen in the exact same spot two days prior). That was about the only miss in an otherwise amazing and full day of birding. Fifteen minutes after giving up on the woodpeckers, we were all looking at a Bachman's sparrow 50 feet away, then even close. Followed by a small group of brown-headed nuthatches in the slash pines nearby. Whooping and sandhill cranes, wood stork, every other eastern species of woodpecker, snail kite, merlin, American pipit, wild turkey (the smaller, darker Osceola/Florida subspecies), anhinga, caracara, osprey, Bonaparte's gull, white pelican, and a surprise vagrant Bullock's oriole from the West were among the day's avian highlights. Yes, it was a wow kind of day.

Wood storks.

Earlier in the week I got to spend a morning tooling around Viera Wetlands with my son Liam, who, despite never officially declaring himself a birder, seems to have picked up a lot of bird knowledge by osmosis from his mom and me. We saw loads of cool birds including a super-close loggerhead shrike, but perhaps Liam's favorite things were several sunning American alligators and an otter that galumped across the dike road in front of us. Liam ID'd it immediately, which made me really proud and happy.
American alligator.

Brown-headed nuthatch.
Male Bullock's oriole.
Loggerhead shrike.

 On Saturday night I was honored to be the keynote speaker for the festival. I gave a new version of my "Perils & Pitfalls of Birding" talk and the assembled crowd seemed to enjoy it. Afterwards Julie and Wendy Clark and I sang a few Rain Crows' songs to close out the show. You can hear an earlier version of my "Perils" talk in the archives for my podcast "This Birding Life."

If you've never experienced the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival, you owe it to yourself to check it out. My kudos to Neta and Rhonda Harris and their fantastic festival team for putting on a can't-miss event. And to Brevard County for preserving wild places in this corner of the Sunshine State.

If you simply cannot wait to get to the Space Coast region of central Florida, there's a Bird Watcher's Digest Reader Rendezvous happening there in late February of 2015 (just three weeks from now as I'm writing this post.) We'll be visiting most of the nearby birding hotspots that the festival trips hit and seeing (we hope) all of the same fantabulous birds. More info is here on the Reader Rendezvous pages of our website.

Here's hoping our paths will cross again soon, somewhere out there with the birds.

Liam (right) and BT3 goofing off in the field.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How to Groom Your Baboon

Wednesday, December 3, 2014
I was fortunate to be invited along on a familiarization birding and wildlife tour of Uganda with my friends Tim Appleton and Dominic Mitchell. The trip has been epic and I'll be posting and podcasting about it in the months ahead. But I just had to share one little scene that we witnessed yesterday.

We've been seeing olive baboons constantly on this trip through Uganda. They are along every road and in our near many villages and settlements. Some of them even stoop cars to beg for food.

This troop was spotted along one of the roads through Queen Elizabeth National Park and they demonstrated a very important lesson in baboon grooming, which I'm pleased to share with you here.

First examine your groomee carefully.

Next, spot a pest or bleb that needs to be removed and carefully remove it.

Examine the removed item closely.

Then eat it to ensure that it does not reattach itself to your groomee.

Receive the thanks from your gromee—you'll know by their body language.
Here endeth the lesson. Go forth and groom your baboons with your new-found skills and knowledge.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Tundra Swan Song

Friday, November 14, 2014
Tundra swans. (NPS Photo/ Tim Rains/via Wikimedia)

Twice in the past week I've heard calling (you can't really call it singing) tundra swans here in southeastern Ohio. The first time was last Friday night just about dusk. I was sitting alone, watching a small bonfire in the fire ring on the hill near our garden when I heard the crazy, high-pitched voices of a flock of tundra swans in the dark sky overhead. Just as my face was breaking into a smile from the realization of what I was hearing—only the second record of tundra swans for our farm—the local coyotes started up, jolted into action I think by the weird, kind of doglike sounds, coming from the sky. I have no idea what the coyotes were thinking but it was a very cool natural catalyst connection.

Listen to a flock of tundra swans:

The second tundra swan episode happened this morning. Bird Watcher's Digest  intern Mollee B. and I were shooting some product shots in the BWD office parking lot when I again heard the swan's anxious yelps. This time it was daylight and, while screaming "HOLY [naughty word]! Tundra swans!" and racing across the lot to alert the BWD staff, I spotted the flock, high overhead.

The swan flock over the BWD offices. I think they came by to check us out!

We all ran out to the front of the building and everyone (except Ann, who ignored my screams—remind me never to go mountain climbing with her—and Dawn, who was out of the office) got to see them. A large V of more than 30 individuals!

I've only seen this species a couple of times here in Washington County, Ohio—usually along the Ohio River in winter. To encounter them twice in one week (and add them to the BWD office list) was a special treat!