Blue-gray Gnatcatchers

A blue-gray gnatcatcher feeding its nestlings.

Yesterday, I discovered a nest of blue-gray gnatcatchers. I have been hearing the squeaky sounds of blue-gray gnatcatchers a lot lately but they are hard to see. They are tiny birds that flit among the leafy branches looking for insects. I saw an adult in a tree next to the sidewalk and it stayed close and I got a few pictures. After a few seconds, I saw it fly to a nest in the same tree. I was able to determine there are four babies in the small nest. The nest is not much bigger than a hummingbird nest and looks similar.

A blue-gray gnatcatcher checking me out. Notice the placement of the eyes.
A blue-gray gnatcatcher feeding a moth to its nestlings.
A blue-gray gnatcatcher with an insect in its beak.

I went back again this morning and got some video. The babies look like they may be leaving the nest soon.

Last Count

Snowy egrets. The yellow feet distinguish them as snowies.

It was the last bird count of the nesting season at the Alligator Farm. There are still eggs that have not hatched yet and young chicks still in the nest, but many of the babies have moved on or are hanging around the Alligator Farm. They are adorable and a joy to watch. While we count, we have to concentrate on getting the numbers correct. I do not usually photograph during a bird count unless there is something of interest like a banded bird. After we finished counting today, I hung around to enjoy the birds and get some photos and video.

Tri-colored herons.
Baby bird perched precariously on the palm boot. There are alligators on the ground below.

The little chick below fell out of the nest onto the boardwalk and I got some video of it trying to figure out how to get back in the nest. It could not fly and tried to climb the fence. It eventually climbed the fence into a palm tree, but it was not the right tree.

Chick that fell out of the nest onto the boardwalk.
The egg had just hatched and this tri-colored heron parent is removing the shell from the nest.
Tri-colored herons.
Tri-colored heron with a punk hairdo.
Young wood stork.
It is tough to tell what type of bird the babies are when the parents are not around. Cattle egrets, snowy egrets, great egrets, wood storks, and little blue herons have white chicks. Great egrets and wood storks are fairly easy to identify if you can get a look at their bill. The other birds can be difficult which makes it tough to count. I have a particularly hard time with baby snowies versus baby little blues.

This is probably the last nest of roseate spoonbills to hatch this season at the rookery.

Fifty Baby Alligators

Baby alligators.

I went to the Guana-Tolomato-Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM) today to continue taking photographs for the North American Nature Photography Association bioblitz. I found about 50 baby alligators. Baby alligators are adorable. When they are young, they have yellow markings. These little alligators were concentrated in the same general area. Alligators have the coolest eyes.

Baby alligator.

I got some photos of lichen and fungi. I was hoping to find a snake but had to settle for a frog.

Tree frog.

I managed to get some pictures of blue-gray gnatcatchers this evening. I hear them when I walk on our street but they hang out in the upper parts of leafy trees and it is difficult to see them. They also move constantly and quickly. I suspected there were some parents feeding young a few houses away, but I could never get a good look. This evening, they briefly spent time in a tree with several bare branches and I got lucky and captured a parent feeding a fledgling.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) feeding a fledgling.

Crab in the Living Room

Squareback marsh crab (Armases cinereum)

Regis found this marsh crab in our living room yesterday. At first he thought it was a leaf until he realized it had legs. It was difficult to catch. It is small and fast and immediately went under the couch. When Regis moved the couch, the crabbed moved with it. We have a dog that sheds a lot and that hair accumulates under the couch. The crab was hindered by the dog hair. I pulled as much stuff off him as I could before releasing him back into the marsh. We can not figure out how he got into the house. The doors have been shut because it is too hot to leave them open. He could have hitched a ride on Dart. We have had a snake, birds, frogs, anoles, and now a crab in the house.

Counting Birds at the Alligator Farm

Tri-colored heron fledgling at the Alligator Farm

I count birds at the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine weekly during the nesting season. Next week is our final count. Many of the baby birds have grown up and left and a few are stilling hanging around the swamp. I love doing this because the birds are fascinating and I love my fellow bird counters. It is very difficult to count the birds because they will not stay still, it is hard to see the chicks in the nest if they are hunkered down, etc., etc. Once we move to a different angle, we have trouble figuring out whether we already counted a particular nest. We try hard to be accurate and do the best we can, but it is a tough job. Watching the birds nest and the chicks grow up in the rookery is a rewarding experience. Today, Gen the curator, gave us Alligator Farm tote bags and T-shirts with wading birds on them. I counted birds this morning and I am already wearing my cool T-shirt.

Tri-colored heron parent feeding its chicks. It visually appears as though the chick has been speared through the head with the parent’s beak, but that is not the case.

As I was arriving at the Alligator Farm this morning, I saw a squirrel get hit by a car in front of me. The squirrel ran out at the wrong time, so the driver would not have been able to do much. The squirrel made it to the side of the road, so I pulled over to check it out. As I was walking back to the squirrel, I saw that it was trying to climb the fence to the Alligator Farm but its back legs were hanging making me suspect it was now paralyzed from the waist down. A woman was in front of me walking on the sidewalk and touched the squirrel when she walked by. When I got to the squirrel, I was not sure how I was going to get it since my bird emergency bin was sitting in my garage. Since the lady touched the squirrel without incident, I grasped the squirrel and took it to my car. It did not react. That could have been a bad move on my part. I drove a few hundred feet to the parking lot of the Alligator Farm and let my fellow bird counters know that I was headed to the vet and would join them shortly. When I got to the vet, the squirrel was dead. It was probably a good thing. When I got back to the Alligator Farm and arrived inside, the woman who had touched the squirrel was there. She works at the Alligator Farm and recognized me and asked about the squirrel. I was sorry to let her know it did not make it. I brought the dead squirrel home and left it for the local wildlife and a raccoon retrieved it in the evening. I feel this is a good way to recycle it in the environment.

A green heron chick near the zip line at the Alligator Farm.
As I continue my bioblitz, I saw this Queen (Danaus gilippus) butterfly in my yard today.
I also saw these palm flatid planthoppers (Ormenaria rufifascia).

The best thing about bioblitzes is that I spend more time looking at all the life around me, not just the big stuff. Today, I found that an invasive species I thought I had eradicated is growing back. I submitted the picture to iNaturalist and it suggested a Chinese tallow. We had cut one down near this area and did everything we were supposed to do to make sure it did not come back. Apparently, we were not successful.

Likely, invasive Chinese tallow (Triadica sebifera).

NANPA Bioblitz

I think this is a squareback marsh crab.

The North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) has a bioblitz underway from June 4 to June 15. A bioblitz is an identification of all the lifeforms you see in a certain period of time. All the bioblitzes in which I have participated required a photo to be uploaded to iNaturalist.org. This is my third bioblitz and I thoroughly enjoy them. It forces me to take pictures of every lifeform I see and I find myself noticing things I would have otherwise missed. When I upload to iNaturalist, the software gives a preliminary identification and I either agree or disagree. I usually agree and then experts review the photo and either identify something else or agree with the identification. A minimum of two agreeing identifications are required to achieve research grade status.

Regis and I started our participation today. He went to the beach and got his best photo of a swallow-tailed kite. He got some photos of the kite eating on the fly, but the kite was too far away to identify the food item so I included one of the closer shots here. This is not the first time Regis got an image with a swallow-tailed kite eating while flying, which is how they always do it.

Swallow-tailed kite.

While he was at the beach taking pictures, I was trudging through the marsh behind our house. It was a muddy experience. I got some crab pictures but more importantly, identified what may be a problem in the marsh. We recently noticed an area in the marsh that has become devoid of grasses. We thought the water channels were changing. In the meantime, I have been doing research on the Guana-Tolomato-Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve for personal reasons and saw some information on periwinkles killing off marsh grasses. Today, I entered the area devoid of marsh grasses and this is what I found.

Periwinkles on a single blade of marsh grass.

That is a lot of periwinkles on one lonely blade of grass. I suspect this is a sign of periwinkles killing off the marsh grasses. I am reaching out to the GTM Reserve to see if they have any biologists working on this issue. I found the following information from the University of Georgia website.

“Periwinkle snails are easily spotted in most salt marsh, feeding on the cordgrass just above the water line. They don’t actually consume much of the grass – they are more interested in the fungi that live on the grass. But their chewing damages the grasses’ surfaces, allowing the fungi to further infest the plants. Healthy plants can keep this fungi infestation in check as long as they are not weakened by environmental conditions or required to support too many snails. According to this research, the recent marsh die-off occurred because severe drought stressed the natural defense systems of cordgrass and snails began to kill off the stressed plants. As the plants on which they fed died, the displaced snails began to move toward healthy cordgrass, forming dense fronts. These fronts began to kill off even healthy cordgrass and, in doing so, expanded into a concentrated wave of grazing snails that cascaded through the marsh leaving bare mudflats in its wake.”

Although the situation seems suspicious that the marsh grasses may be dying back because of periwinkles, it is best to get more data to see whether this is what is happening. I will work on that.

On a lighter note, I saw a bluebird family at our feeder. The two adults and four offspring were at the feeder at the same time.

Eastern bluebird family.

I have been working on cutting the invasive vines behind our property over the last several days. Today, I went out with good intentions and noticed a movement behind me. A small fawn jumped up and leaped into the higher vegetation. There was no way I could continue my effort until I am comfortable that I will not impact this little Bambi.

Alligator Farm Bird Counts

Tri-colored heron chick.

I count birds at the Alligator Farm with several other volunteers on a weekly basis during breeding season. It is the high point of my week to spend time with the birds and my fellow bird counters. Every week we count roseate spoonbills and wood storks because they are a threatened species. Once a month we count 7 species (great egrets, snowy egrets, cattle egrets, little blue herons, tri-colored herons, wood storks, and roseate spoonbills). We always look for green herons. Today was our last full count for the season. The tri-colored heron chicks were particularly fun to watch. I saw a pair chase a parent around the rookery for some food. I was petrified that one would fall and become an alligator snack, but nothing bad happened on my watch.

Tri-colored heron chick balancing while chasing a parent around the rookery for food.

We will count spoonbills and wood storks for a few more weeks and then the season ends for counting. There will be a few stragglers.

The process can be rewarding when you watch the chicks grow up and drive their parents crazy. It can be heartbreaking when you notice that chicks have disappeared from the nest and did not make it. All in all, the birds are more successful raising their chicks at the Alligator Farm with the alligators roaming around at the base of the trees than elsewhere or they would not nest here. Raccoons are particularly tough predators for these birds and the alligators keep them from getting to the nests. Any chick that falls before being able to fly becomes alligator food. But, more chicks survive in this environment than elsewhere or they would not keep coming back to nest here in spite of all the people that visit. It is an amazing experience and I recommend a visit to the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine during nesting season to experience these birds up close and personal.

Snowy egret chicks. The chicks of all species can be viscous, although the roseate spoonbills tend to be nicer.
Mom, wake up, I’m hungry. A tri-colored heron chick with its parent.
Tri-colored heron chicks mobbing their parent.
The mobbing was worth it for one chick.

American Oystercatcher Chicks

Two banded American oystercatcher chicks on top of an oyster rake.

I love American Oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus). They have a beautiful orange bill and orange eyes on a black and white body. They have a distinctive call that I have been hearing over the marsh behind our house over the last several weeks. I figured they must be hanging out on the oyster rakes which cannot be seen from our house. It required me to get out in the kayak. Because the current, wind, and tides along the intracoastal waterway (ICW) behind our house can make it challenging to kayak, I had to make sure I waited for a safe launch. The tides are strong along the ICW and I was going to have to go against it either on the way out or back. I prefer to go against the tide on the way out so I can let it bring me back in on the return. I can deceive myself if I go with the tide on the way out and not realize how much work it will take to come back.

American oystercatcher.

I launched the kayak at the Nocatee Paddle Launch about a mile and a half north of our house and hugged the shore as I headed south. I do not kayak on the ICW on the week-ends because there is too much human activity on the water. All boat wakes toss me around, but wakes from larger boats that are driving fast can be dangerous.

As I neared the marsh, I could hear the oystercatchers before I saw my first one actively feeding on an oyster rake. An oyster rake is a place where oyster shells accumulate and there are often live oysters at the edges along with other food items for the shorebirds. At high tide, most of the oyster rakes behind our house are covered with water, so I knew the oystercatchers could not nest and raise chicks on them. There is an oyster rake further south that is more elevated and it is where the white pelicans hang out all winter. With the weather being calm, I paddled to the elevated oyster rake and could see from a distance that there were Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission signs posted at the top of the rake and I heard the oystercatchers calling. The signs were likely warning of active endangered nesting birds. I failed to bring my binoculars today (I always forget something) so I could not get a good look at the birds that were running around. I had to keep far enough away to not disturb the birds. I could see at least one bird running around near two adult oystercatchers and it did not have an orange bill. I did my best to focus on the birds while being tossed around regularly by boat wakes. It was not until I got home that I was able to see that there were two young, banded oystercatchers being raised on the oyster rake. That was a great gift of the day. After taking hundreds of pictures of oystercatchers, I let the tide do most of the work to bring me back.

American oystercatcher.

Topaz, the blue jay I raised and released last year, continues to show up when I walk or ride my bike on our street. The bird flies to a nearby tree and makes a variety of noises. The last couple days it has been imitating a hawk for me. I got some video below.

Dart’s legs have been bothering him more than usual lately, so I started to massage them regularly. He has never been interested in me petting him or cuddling with him, but he appears to like getting his legs massaged.

Linda massaging Dart’s leg.

Regis noticed a hawk hanging out where we have seen the cotton rats. The bird appears to be interested in what it is hearing because it keeps moving its heard around trying to hear better. We have not witnessed a successful hunt.

Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)

I always enjoy watching one of the squirrels sitting with its paws resting on its chest.

Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Hispud Cotton Rats

Hispud cotton rats.

About a week ago, I saw a small mammal hidden in the vegetation near the marsh. I had a hard time getting a good look. A few days later, I saw it again (and a few others) and was able to get a good enough photo to post it on iNaturalist and confirm that it was a Hispud cotton rat (Sigmodon hispidus). That is a new animal for me. It took a lot of patience to stalk and wait to see them again so I could get a better picture. I think they are adorable and have interesting eyes. I am grateful for cameras since they allow us to stop the action in order to get a better look at something and begin the process of identification. Until I got a picture good enough to post on iNaturalist, I could only say what the animal was not based on my past experience (not a brown rat, mouse, or muskrat). Cotton rats are common. Now that I have seen my first one, I notice them more often.

Hispud cotton rats.

I continue to count birds weekly at the Alligator Farm. We focus on wood storks and roseate spoonbills every week since they are endangered. Once a month, we count an additional 5 species (great egrets, snowy egrets, cattle egrets, little blue herons and tri-colored herons). We always keep an eye out for nesting green herons that nest at the Alligator Farm occasionally. Gen, the curator, tries to band a few young spoonbills and wood storks each nesting season. It is a tricky endeavor since the birds nest over the alligators. She has to find nests that are easy to reach and do it at the perfect time so the babies do not jump to their demise but are old enough to be banded. I got pictures of some newly banded chicks today. Gen was able to band two of these siblings. The third chick, seen here in the bottom of the nest, was so small that she decided not to band it. It is now called the “runt”.

Banded roseate spoonbill chicks. There is a small chick in the bottom of the nest.
Young snowy egret.
Snowy egret nestlings.

Unfortunately, several weeks ago, we found a great egret hanging from a branch dead. It is wrapped in string. It got entangled and after landing in this tree, got stuck and could not escape. Because of the location above the alligators, it is too dangerous to extract the carcass. It is a sad reminder of how our trash has a negative impact on wildlife.

Great egret that died as a result of becoming entangled in string.

In the picture below, a tri-colored heron is feeding one of its chicks. If you have a good enough monitor, you may be able to see the fish in the adults beak.

Tri-colored heron feeding its chicks.
Tri-colored heron.

On my walks on our street, I have regularly been seeing Topaz, the blue jay I released last year. Yesterday, I heard a bird fly into the tree nearest me while on my walk and I recognized the sound the bird was making. It was the sound Topaz made when he/she was young. I walked over to the tree and when Topaz saw me, the bird displayed its “begging wings”, and flew off. It was so cool to know Topaz continues to recognize me and likes to say “hi”.

Bird Updates

I recently released the bluebirds that were near death when they arrived. They hated to be force fed and were quick to eat mealworms by themselves. I gave them the opportunity to leave by placing the cage outside with the door open and they did. The last one took two hours to leave the cage. We have not seen them since. I know that I did everything I could do for them and mother nature has to take it from here.

The original four bluebirds I released continue to visit. For the first several days after release, three of them came regularly for crickets and let me feed them. The fourth one did not always show up with the other three but visited often enough that I knew it was doing well. Following is a video of three of the bluebirds taking crickets from me.

They continue to visit and eat mealworms and crickets but will no longer sit on my shoulder or let me hand feed them. For a few days, I felt like Snow White because the bluebirds landed on me.

The grackles continue to arrive for food handouts. They hang out very close to the house and still let me hand feed them. They come to the patio and call for me when they want to be fed. When Regis or I walk out the back door, they fly to us. They know our every move.

I got the drone up a few times to take pictures. I was hoping to get the moonrise last night but the clouds over the ocean did not cooperate.

The Tolomato River (intracoastal waterway).