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Showing posts from January, 2011

Black Skimmer

Highly gregarious and ultra-cool, a squadron of Black Skimmers rests on a Florida sandbar.

At ease, skimmers look like grounded F-14 fighter jets. When the pack takes to the air, they are transformed into a gracefully coordinated body of long-winged birds that commands one's eye. Moving in sinuous columns, the skimmers put on quite the airshow.

When seen up close, a Black Skimmer takes on a comical appearance, what with the orange-based Bozo bill. They also look faintly thuggish; like an avian tough wearing a black hoodie pulled low over the eyes.
Hold your thumb over the bill and temporarily block it from view, and the bird looks long, sleek, and ternlike. Expose the bill, and the skimmer takes on an undeniably odd and amusing look. It's as if its beak is deformed. But it isn't - the skimmer offers evidence of the miraculous possibilities wrought by fits and spurts of evolution; how forces of selection can shape such strange-looking features that are so beautifully functi…

Florida Snails

If you are amongst the myriad birders that migrate south to Florida to gawk over some of the Sunshine State's specialty birds, you must thank snails. But all is not well in the world of these univalved gastropods, as we shall see.

Windrows of apple snail shells litter the edge of a Florida marsh. I believe that all of these shells are of the introduced Island Apple Snail, Pomacea insularum. This invader, native to South America, has colonized much of peninsular Florida and can be locally abundant. High on any birder's Florida wish list is the spectacular and aptly named Snail Kite, Rostrhamus sociabilis. This female has an apple snail in her mandibles. Snail Kites have an incredibly long tip to the upper mandible of the bill, and their slender bill has evolved to harvest snails from their hard shells. But not just any snail - Florida Apple Snails, Pomacea paludosa. Unfortunately for the kite - and the snail - Florida's only native apple snail is under siege from at least …

Cape Coral's Burrowing Owls

Cape Coral is a city of about 160,000 in Lee County, Florida, near the Gulf Coast. Apparently it is the 2nd largest Florida city by area, but it doesn't have a big city feel. It might be called the "Venice of the America's", as there are some 400 miles of canals - more than any other city on earth.

But I wasn't here to seek gondolas - it was one of the most curious of feathered beasts that I sought.

A seemingly innocuous side street in residential Cape Coral. But wait! What are those exclosures dotting the grassy sands?

They're ropes strung to delineate active Burrowing Owl burrows! Here, a little fellow peeks from his lair. The wooden stake is there to provide a perch. It isn't hard to find Burrowing Owls in Cape Coral. Just troll the side streets and look for the short wooden crosses and/or roped off plots. When such a site is found, get out and look closely for the little owl. Big sudden movements may startle them and the owl will instantly duck out of …

Bill Thompson, Jr.: 1932 - 2011

Bill Thompson, Jr., back row, center, with his family. The world lost a great one when Bill passed on yesterday afternoon. It would take an abundance of superlatives to do Mr. Thompson justice. Everyone who ever encountered Bill came away feeling a little more important, a little better appreciated, and a little more liked. He was the kind of guy who always asked after others, was quick with a joke and a smile, and hid a mountain of talent behind a natural humility that had him more interested in you than talking about himself.

Bill, along with his wife Elsa, began Bird Watcher's Digest on a shoestring back in 1978, and of course the publication is now the best known amongst many such mags. There wasn't anything like BWD in 1978, and it was a most definite gamble to launch a birding-heavy magazine back then. But it worked.

I got to know Bill reasonably well over the last decade+, and it was always a high point to see him. The more I learned of him, the more impressed I became. W…

Florida Scrub-Jay

My friend Bernie Master happens to be down in Florida, and we met up this morning to go look for Florida's only endemic bird, the federally threatened Florida Scrub-Jay. Bernie took me up to Oscar Scherer State Park, and scoring the jays was a breeze.

Picture-perfect scrub-jay habitat, a mixture of scrub oaks, saw palmetto, and scattered slash pines. Lots of other cool flora, too.

It didn't take long before we heard the harsh scolds and querulous notes of a family unit of jays. Florida Scrub-Jays are ridiculously tame and extremely curious. This one investigates your blogger from the brush.

Florida Scrub-Jays have declined alarmingly. Their historical range once covered about 7,000 square miles, and they were probably quite common in appropriate habitat. Rampant development in peninsular Florida has destroyed much dry scrub and the jay's total population may now be as few as 7,000 individuals.
In 1995, the scrub-jay complex was split into three species: Western Scrub-Jay, I…

Loggerhead Shrike

A Loggerhead Shrike peers curiously at your blogger. Your blogger is quite grateful that he is not a mouse or grasshopper, lest he be pounced upon and torn asunder.

Shrikes are very common in this area (Naples) of Florida. One won't drive far without seeing one on a wire. They tend to be quite tame, and this individual allowed me to walk directly under him, snapping photos all the while.

Shrikes are brutish songbirds, pouncing on about anything that they can overpower. For graphic evidence of their ferocity, see THIS POST about a Northern Shrike.


White Ibis, Corkscrew Swamp, Florida
I have fled the icebox of Ohio, and I'm glad to be out there for a bit, I don't mind telling you. Made the drive down here to Estero - near Naples on the Gulf Coast - Friday and Saturday, and the Buckeye State was frigid when I left. My car's thermometer hit minus 2 several times in Ohio and it didn't get above freezing until southern Georgia. It was only 40 when I hit the Florida line and that's darn cold to the locals. Today only hit the low 60's but it was sunny and felt great to a tundra-boy such as myself.

Anyway, spent the day all over the legendary Corkscrew Swamp, and a few other hotspots near Naples. Lots of great birds and other animals, as well as plenty of cool plants. Tomorrow is a trip into the Gulf to go shark-tagging and I'm sure that'll be a wild ride. Hopefully we'll get a few of the toothy flesh-rippers and if so, you'll see 'em here.

Lots of other tours scheduled for the next week: Evergl…

Wildlife Diversity Conference approaches!

Mark your calendars for Wednesday, March 9! Put in for a day off, if need be. You'll not want to miss the now legendary Wildlife Diversity Conference. This event began some 20 years ago, with perhaps a few dozen enthusiasts gathered in a back room somewhere. Since then, it has mushroomed into what is surely one of the biggest one-day natural history conferences, anywhere. Last year, nearly 1,000 people came together to hear experts deliver presentations on a wide range of subjects, and I'd bet that this year is bigger and better than ever.

The Wildlife Diversity Conference is sponsored by the Ohio Division of Wildlife, and takes place in the fabulous and roomy Aladdin Shriner's Complex on the east side of Columbus. Access to the site is a snap - it's right off I-270, Columbus' outerbelt - and registration is a breeze. Just click RIGHT HERE.

Below is a taste of what the program offers:

This is a face only a mother could love, and probably only a wrinkled, slimy and ge…

St. Paul Island, Alaska revisited

A majestic Tufted Puffin is the centerpiece of this shot. A miniscule but spunky Least Auklet is in the foreground, staring needles at your blogger, while a Black-legged Kittiwake incubates eggs in the background.

If you're in the Columbus area, and would like to "virtually" visit St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea, feel free to come by the Grandview Heights Library at 1685 West 1st Avenue, Columbus, Ohio 43212 at 7:30 pm this Wednesday evening. I'm giving a talk about my experiences on this remote Bering Sea volcanic island for the Columbus Horticultural Society and guests are welcome.

St. Paul Island is a bird-filled, fascinating place that is a four hour flight west of Anchorage. You almost CAN see Russia from there! Tall jagged cliffs support a fantastic array of breeding seabirds, and jumbo Northern Fur Seals wallow on the black sand beaches.

Red-legged Kittiwake, one of the harder North American bird species to see, but not on St. Paul Island.

Hope to see you ther…

The Butcherbird

Yesterday marked the sixth annual Ohio Ornithological Society winter raptor field day at the Wilds. Twas rather a balmy day by January standards in a wide-open 10,000 acre former strip mine in Muskingum County, Ohio. Here, my group basks in the nearly Floridian low 30's temperatures as they scan for Golden Eagles (we saw one, albeit at great distance).

It never fails to amaze me how many people come out for this gig. We had 120 birders this year, and some years there have been 150. Of course, two years ago we did have some last minute cancellations and a few no-shows. It's possible that the minus 12 degree temperatures had something to do with folks begging out.

A big thanks to Marc Nolls of the OOS and all of the expert birders who volunteer their time to organize this extravaganza and lead the field trips. Major props go to Nicole Cavendar of the Wilds and her staff for hosting us as they do every year. Not only does the Wilds open up and heat the normally shuttered restaurant…

Frederick W. Case, 1927 - 2011

Fred Case signs books at a 2009 conference. Case was a botanical icon, legendary for his accomplishments and command of many subjects, not just botany. All of his books were topnotch, but to me, the book "Trilliums" is a true standout. I had the good fortune of meeting Fred on a number of occasions, and one of those times was when he was down to the Ohio State University to lecture on trilliums. What a show that was! Fred used two screens, two slide projectors, and held a clicker in each hand. In a fascinating command of both projector and trilliums, he romped us around the North American continent visiting all of the members of one of his favorite plant groups. Never saw anything like that from a lecturer, before or since, and don't expect I ever will again.

Fred Case was a true character and a huge bonus to the worlds of botany and education. He'll certainly be missed.

Case, Frederick W. Jr.
Saginaw, Michigan

Well known teacher and botanist passed away Wednesday, Janu…

Cleveland's City Mission donates valuable land

In a wonderful fit of irony, as I was composing my last post on the invasive grass Phragmites australis and its takeover of Mentor Marsh in the lower reaches of the Grand River, Randy Edwards wrote with exciting news from the upper reaches of the Grand River. Randy is the media relations manager for the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an organization that protects and conserves some of the best lands in the state.

The Upper Grand River and vicinity is about as close to wilderness as you'll find in northeastern Ohio. Not only is the stream one of Ohio's most pristine waterways, but terrestrial habitats along the river corridor are diverse, largely intact, and full of biodiversity including many rare species.

This map depicts the jigsaw puzzle of protected lands along part of the Grand, with the centerpiece being the 1300-acre Morgan Swamp. Morgan is owned by TNC, and is a fantastically wild and swampy place that is a treasure trove of wetland diversity. The sinuous…