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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Swallow watching in Florida

One of my favorite things to do in August and September in Florida is watch migrating swallows.   Most of the time, 99% of the swallows you see will be Barn swallows.  That's not to say they will be boring.  There are numerous juvenile birds with shorter tails and variably pale underparts.  Adults are also paler than in the spring; many of them will be pale to the point of being almost white underneath.  Once in a great while you will encounter what I like to call and Fork-tailed snow-swallow which is a fancy way of describing a leucistic Barn swallow.  I've only seen 2-3 of these among the millions of Barn swallows.

Where do you look for swallows in migration?

Try edges of water bodies, especially Lake Okeechobee.  If you're near the beach, head there.  Swallows (and many other birds) use the coast as a navigational aid.  Large open spaces like agricultural fields and pastures often attract migrating swallows and make good vistas for observing swallows.  Emerging termite swarms, or any other flying insects, are great places to observe swallows as they stop to fuel up.  You can often stand in the swarm of insects as the birds fly all around you, close enough to hear the bills snap as they catch their prey.

What do I look for?

Flight patterns can be helpful, but are variable with wind conditions and activity.  During high winds or when swallows are actively feeding, flight patterns can vary considerably.  Structure and size can help to pick out oddballs.

Wow, this is hard!

Swallows are very fast fliers, so don't get frustrated while watching them.  It takes time and patience to get good at swallow ID.  Even the best have a hard time identifying avery one.

Some ID Tips for swallows at this time of year in Florida (in order of relative abundance):
Barn swallow -  Iridescent blue upper parts.  Variably forked tail, nearly always more deeply forked than other species.  Dark reddish throat contrasts with rest of underparts.  Underparts vary from nearly white in faded individuals or juveniles to reddish or orangish.  Long, narrow wings often drawn back to the sides of the body when flapping.

Bank swallow -  Underparts very white.  Narrow brown breast band sometimes not visible, giving the appearance of completely white underparts.  This probably accounts for misidentification of this species as Tree swallow.  Tree swallows can occur at this time of year, but most of them don't arrive until October when they gradually become the dominant swallow species.  Bank swallows are noticeably smaller than other species with narrower wings and shorter, more slender bodies.  Tails are slightly notched, but not nearly so much as all but perhaps the very shortest-tailed Barn swallows.  Flight varies from flapping with the wings straight out to drawing the wings back as in Barn swallow.

Cliff swallow -  Sometimes more numerous than Bank.  Perhaps an earlier migrant.  A few known breeding colonies in Florida.  Noticeably thicker body and broader wings.  Tends to fly with wings straight out.  Often flies in roller coaster like fashion.  Dark throat pattern similar to Barn swallow.  Underparts much paler than most Barn swallows, not showing the reddish tinge of Barn swallows.  Upperparts iridescent blue with creamy or buffy, pale rump.  Pale forehead often looks like headlamp if the birds are flying straight at you.  Tail is short and squared.

Northern rough-winged swallow -  Brown on back as in Bank swallow.  Underparts variable, but smudgy brown, unlike clear white of Bank and Tree swallows.  Flight pattern is similar to Barn swallow.  More common around Lake Okeechobee where 100's or even 1000's are known to overwinter.

Purple martin -  Most of these pass through before August.  Those that remain are usually juveniles.  Much larger than other swallows.  Big body, broader wings, notched tail, and fairly uniform gray underparts.

Tree swallow -  A few usually trickle through in August before the hordes arrive in October.  Bright white underneath.  Some juveniles have have s slightly dusky breast.  Females are duller than males, but adult male and female show iridescent green on the back.  Juveniles can be brown on the back, making them look more like Bank swallows.  Tree lacks breast band, which can be invisible on some looks at Bank, are usually brighter white underneath and have broader wings and thicker body than Bank swallow.

Cave swallow -  Very rare migrant or lingering breeders.  Many Cave swallows breed under bridges in eastern Miami-Dade County.  These may disperse to other areas in late summer.  Cave swallows from Texas may wander around to the east side of the Gulf of Mexico into Florida.  Very similar to Cliff swallow.  Rump and forehead usually more rusty colored.  Throat not as dark as Cliff, orange color extending up the side of the head and behind the eye.  Flight pattern more similar to Barn swallow, tending to draw wings back toward body more so than Cliff which usually keeps wings out from body.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Why do I do it?

I was recently asked a few questions about my experience in birding and what I find so interesting about it.

- What is the most memorable moment in your 25 years of birding and guiding?

So many moments over the years.  I suppose the most memorable moment occurred during my second Florida Big Year in 2001.  It was in the afternoon one October day, during a long day of searching for year birds.  I walked down the Oak Hammock Trail at Merritt Island NWR.  Prior to federal ownership, there was a homestead in the area.  Just off the trail is an artificial pond, where annually, an Alligator raises it's young.  I had walked to this pond many, many times while birding the hammock and on my own and during Christmas Bird Counts.  Never did I find anything of interest, but it always seemed a good spot.  This time, I arrived and, as always, there was nothing of particular note.  I looked up at a Golden Orb Spider on it's web and it disappeared, consumed by a Sulphur-bellied flycatcher.  The pic on the link does not do justice to this remarkably beautiful and extremely rare (in Florida) bird.  I was stunned by the bird's sudden appearance, but recovered in time to check under the chin for the complete, dark strap connecting the stripes that edged the throat.  I was just a little disappointed to see this as the lack of this feature would have opened the possibility of Streaked flycatcher, a new bird for the U.S. rather than a mere county bird (I saw one on my first Big Year the year before in Miami.)   Still, this was one of those unforgettable experiences in birding and one of the real reasons why I do this.

- Is there a region or event that draws your attention most during the (Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife) Festival?

Picking favorites is a difficulty for me.  The favorite varies with the time and my mood.  The lower keys, the only tropical region of the continental U.S., has always been a favorite part of the keys for me.    One park, located in the middle keys, has always intrigued me.  Long Key State Park, a thin strip of land between US 1 and the Atlantic, has a remarkable array of habitats and birds.  Here you can walk the narrow sandy beach in search of shorebirds, stand atop a shaky wooden tower and survey the top of the mangrove forest, walk the nature trail with it's mangrove swamps, tropical hammock and open barrens where swallows and hawks often pass low overhead, or even rent a canoe and explore the tidal creek and surrounding waters.  Many a rare bird has shown up here with reports of Key West Quail-dove, Western spindalis, and others over the years.  It is a good spot for Mangrove cuckoo and Black-whiskered vireo in the spring and summer.  I have been here many times, but always feel as if there is more to be seen.  During the Florida Keys Hawkwatch last year, the hawk watchers conducted early morning surveys of the nature trail before heading to the hawk watch.  We ran a couple of tours with the Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival after the hawk watchers surveyed and we got very different results.  Migrant songbirds move mostly at night, but they often continue to move on their trajectory after making landfall, thus the birds that are there in the early morning are not necessarily going to be the ones you see later when the park opens at 8.

- Is there a bird in this region you favor more than others?

Same problem of picking favorites.  I suppose the Antillean nighthawk is my favorite in the region.  Their only breeding grounds in the U.S. are in the Florida Keys, although a few might venture up to the mainland at times.  Common nighthawks, a species with which they were once "lumped", breed on the mainland and into the upper keys, but the lower keys are the domain of the Antillean nighthawk.

- What continues to draw yo to birding and sharing your knowledge with others?

Because it's fun?  I don't really know.  I am very interested in Florida's ecology, especially the birds, but really everything about it.  I enjoy sharing that passion and my knowledge with anyone who will listen, which is why I like to lead trips for festivals and guide people about the state.  I try to do more than just show people the birds, but tell them a bit about the birds and the land and how it all fits together.