Fishing Line

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) actively looking for fish.

I went to the dam at the Guana-Tolomato-Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM NERR) to try to get pictures of Osprey catching fish. The dam has an outlet from Guana Lake to the Guana River and the fish hang out on both sides of this outlet. The fishermen flock to this place and so do the birds. Its a better place to try to get pictures of osprey in action than a kayak. Trying to focus on a swiftly moving bird diving into the water after a fish while in an unstable craft is challenging. I thought standing on stable ground at the dam would be promising.

I was not disappointed in the opportunities to get a picture, but I was disappointed in my results. It was joy to be outdoors on a great day taking pictures. It will not be torture to return again and again to work on getting the great picture I strive for. I’ve included a couple okay ones here. I am hoping to capture a sequence of pictures that shows the osprey rotating the fish so that it is face forward. Osprey always align the fish after catching it.

While at the dam, I got a phone call from a friend. While chatting with her, I noticed a tern struggling in the water. I hung up, ran to my car to get my net, and ran to where I thought the bird was headed. By the time I got there, a fisherman had reeled the bird in and was trying to untangle it from fishing line. He was struggling to hold the bird, who was not happy, while also untangling the line. I netted the bird and held it still, keeping its beak from inflicting damage while the fisherman untangled the bird. It was a success and the bird took off after a short hesitation to catch its breath. Although I would have been able to help without the net, it made things much easier. I am glad I carry it in the car.

Royal tern (Thalasseus maximus). It may or may not have been the one that got entangled in fishing line.

When I returned home to go through my pictures, I noticed several pictures of birds touching fishing line. While taking the pictures, I did not notice the line. Although the birds were touching the line, they were usually not getting tangled and were able to fly away. Clearly, sometimes they get entangled.

Royal tern with fishing line against its right wing. It did not get entangled on this effort.
Gull fishing. Notice the fishing line horizontally in the picture and just touching the birds right foot.

I also may have an answer to how the laughing gull I photographed about a week ago (blog post here) got a broken bill. The cement around a portion of the dam where the fish are gathered slopes into the water. I saw a tern dive for a fish where the cement lies under the water. If a bird dove too far, it would hit the cement with its beak.

While I was photographing the birds fishing, the fisherman nearest me caught a fish. He was happy to have me take his picture, a Filipino man with a fish. His name was Noli and he jokingly asked if he would be in National Geographic. I said “no, but he could be in my blog post”. He smiled. I noticed that when the fishermen could not social distance from non family members, they wore masks. Noli was not wearing a mask, but he was being safe and I was able to capture his smile. I had my telephoto lens on the camera, so we were clearly social distancing.

Noli with his recent catch.

I watched this boat-tailed grackle steal a fisherman’s bait fish.

Boat-tailed grackle (Quiscalus major) eyeing a fisherman’s bait fish.
Boat-tailed grackle as a successful thief.

I captured a short video of the red-bellied woodpecker rescue who hides from me behind his branch when I clean his cage and feed him. He keeps peeking out from behind the log. Yesterday, I meant to get video but failed to press the correct buttons and got a picture of a log in a cage. You will find this video more interesting.

The Gift of the Loon

Injured common loon in the back of my Jeep.

Last Sunday was the Christmas Bird Count for the St. Augustine circle. I am the lead compiler for the bird count and the section lead for the waterways. I was very fortunate to have the Guana-Tolomato-Mantanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM NERR) provide a boat for part of the waterway and St. Augustine Ecotours provide a boat for another portion. I was on the GTM NERR boat. We had a great day counting lots of birds, including many oystercatchers. At one point, it started to rain and we got wet. I had rain pants and a jacket. I waited until it started to rain and at that point did not want to remove my boots to put the pants on. Pick your poison. Wet feet or wet pants. I chose to live with wet pants.

Around the time the rain stopped, we found an injured loon on the shore. The captain of the boat pulled to the shore and I jumped out to get the loon. I threw my jacket around the loon and it was very easy to capture. That was not a good sign. I brought it back in the boat and held it in my lap wrapped in the jacket while we continued to bird. At one point, I needed to use my camera to document something and placed the loon in the boat. It was very docile and stayed there. I left it there for the remainder of our trip back while we continued to bird. It seemed content and even took a nap. At one point, it did its beautiful haunting loon call and immediately captured the hearts of the three of us in the boat. That is an unmistakable sound and hearing it so close while watching the bird make the call was an incredible experience.

On the way back, we noticed a large wound on the back of the bird near the tail. It was scabbed over, so it wasn’t fresh. The bird was in good spirits but clearly something was wrong.

When we got back to the dock, one of my boat mates went to the bait shop to get some fish for the bird. Once the bait shop knew the situation, they did not ask for payment for the fish. We brought the fish to the loon and it gobbled them down. I was hopeful this was a good sign.

Common loon in the back of my Jeep. My jacket on the left was used to capture and hold the bird for awhile until it was clear that it was calm enough to sit in the boat until we returned to the dock.

I dropped the bird off at the emergency vet since it was Sunday. At that point, I had to wait to hear the outcome. If the bird could be saved, the Ark Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center would get the bird and that is where I volunteer. After dropping off the bird, I was wet and covered with sand and such from holding the bird. I was a mess. But, the CBC is only a one day thing and I headed off to bird another spot before the sun went down. I couldn’t wait to take a shower when I got home.

When I got home, my wonderful husband not only had dinner almost ready but he had made a huge batch of homemade shortbread cookies from a Hestan Cue recipe. After dinner, I didn’t hesitate to gobble down enough cookies to undo the 10 pounds I managed to lose over the last four months. Fortunately, I didn’t do too much damage. The cookies were delicious. There were too many cookies for two people that can’t share with their neighbors because COVID makes that a bad idea. We were stuck with eating them all ourselves.

Shortbread cookies made with a Hestan Cue recipe.

The manager of the Ark contacted me the next day to let me know the loon was euthanized. It had a broken wing and a pelvic fracture and could not be saved. She said is was not uncommon to see injuries like this with loons. They can be attacked by large predators when they dive. I was heartbroken, but at least it did not die a slow death on the beach. The gift of the loon was to give the three of us a haunting and beautiful experience listening to its call up close an personal. It was a very sweet bird and I am so sorry it didn’t make it.

Common loon sitting in the back of my Jeep. I did not have a box and it was content to sit on the towels I had.

In the meantime, a few days ago, I got a male red-bellied woodpecker to care for until release. The little guy wound up covered in a sticky substance and in the process of getting it off him he lost a lot of feathers. He is in my care until he can grow his feathers back sufficiently for release. He is not fond of having humans near his cage. Unfortunately, he has to put up with me or Regis feeding him and cleaning out his cage every day. He is staying on our lanai and it has been cold, so Regis or I have to cover him every night since he doesn’t have all his feathers to keep him warm. We try to limit our exposure to him since we make him nervous. He has a log in his cage that he hides behind whenever I come near. He peeks out from the side to keep an eye on me. He couldn’t be more adorable. I wish there was a way to get his feathers to grow back faster so he could be released. He is getting used to us letting the dog out and he doesn’t panic as much as he is figuring out the routine.

There is a red-bellied woodpecker behind the branch. He peeks out occasionally to keep an eye on me.

I was just notified that I may be taking on some baby killdeer chicks if they make it through the next few days. I saw a video of them and they are as cute as can be. Its puzzling to me how the Ark wound up with killdeer chicks in December but who knows.

A Tale of Two Vultures (or Three)

Black vulture (Coragyps atratus).

I have been volunteering at the Ark Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation organization and have been training to clean up the location where many of the birds are kept until ready for release or forever in some cases. Today, I was mostly on my own until the very end. Karen, who runs the Ark, wanted to bring a bird for me to hold while she wrapped its wing. The plan was to arrive around the time I finished cleaning up the pens and feeding everyone.

I have cleaned several times with a friend and more recently under the guidance of Karen. This was to train me to do it on my own. Karen left me mostly alone last week but helped when it came time to feed everyone. Today, I was to do this on my own and if I had remaining troubles, she would help me when she showed up with the injured gull.

One of the first things to be done, is send all the birds out of a couple pens into an enclosed yard so that the pens can be cleaned out. The enclosed yard does not have wiring over the top. The birds in rehabilitation cannot fly, so they aren’t going anywhere. But, the local birds hang out to see if they can sneak some food somehow. The black vultures are the most trouble. They are crafty and smart and will do whatever they can to get some food.

After the pens are cleaned and food is put out, it is time to round up the patients. They are mostly pelicans, one vulture, and one gull. They know the drill. When you go out to round them up, they are usually happy to come back in because they know the buffet has been spread for them.

I got to the part of rounding everyone up and sending them back. I know there is one black vulture under our care, Buzzy, who cannot fly. Usually, when I go into the outside pen to round everyone up, the intruder vultures fly away and the only vulture left is Buzzy because he can’t fly. He likes hanging out with his vulture friends, so reluctantly goes back into the pen. But, he does.

I got the pelicans, gull, and a black vulture into the pen when I noticed that there were two black vultures in there. I checked the board indicating how many vultures we had and it said “1”. The other vulture likely sneaked in while I was rounding everyone up. I had to figure out which vulture was the intruder. I saw the gull attacking a vulture who had gobbled down all the cat food. The cat food is put out for the gull and the vulture in rehab. This vulture had cat food all over its beak. It then ran to the door to get out and it was now closed. Being stressed that it couldn’t leave, it promptly vomited everything it just ate. I knew this was the intruder. I somehow managed to get him out without anyone else escaping in the meantime. With full bellies, it would be harder to get the rest of the patients back into the rehab facility.

I thought I was done and was proud to have accomplished this without help. As Karen was driving up with the injured gull, I noticed that the one black vulture in the pen had flown to the top of the rafters. Hmmm. Buzzy can’t fly. That meant that the one vulture I had was not the correct vulture. I had to go back out and round up Buzzy. I managed to do that and get the vulture into the pen. Now, I had an intruder. Karen said it was likely this vulture had been a prior patient and been released. It knew the drill when round up time came. She indicated it was okay to let him spend the night.

I am particularly enamored with a royal tern that is in rehab. It follows me whenever I am in the pen and sticks close. Today, I was able to feed it a fish from my hand. I hope this little bird has a successful release in the future. It is absolutely adorable. I’m smitten.

A royal tern (Thalasseus maximus) in a rehabilitation center.

There is a gannet that is beautiful. It also took a fish from my hand. It lets me know when I am too close while cleaning the cage. It’s in good spirits, so I think it will be successfully released.

A northern gannet (Morus bassanus) in a rehabilitation center.

The other day, I was at the Guana-Tolomato-Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve and came upon an injured gull. I was in no position to catch it to help it out. It came very close to me, so I believe it was looking for some help. I came back the next day with food and a net hoping to lure it and catch it to help it out. I couldn’t find it. I will keep looking and I have some friends also looking. If the vet can fix that bill, we can rehab the bird.

Injured juvenile Bonaparte’s gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia).

This post was updated to correct the misidentification of the above gull.

Kayaking the Guana River

Banded American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) near some exposed oysters.

Today I went with a couple friends to kayak on the Guana River. We left from the boat launch at the dam a little after 9:00 in the morning. The tide was going out, so we had an easy outward run. There was no wind and the water was still. The only movement in the water came from our paddles, our wakes, the occasional mullet leaping out of the water, and the Forster’s terns diving for fish. There were feathers floating on the water and I tried to get a sharp image, but we were moving just enough that I could not get a good focus point on such a small object.

A feather floating on the water on the Guana River.

After almost an hour and half on a leisurely paddle out, we turned around to come back just as we started to see American oystercatchers flying in singles and groups heading back up the river. American oystercatchers have a bright orange-red bill, a red eye-ring, and a yellow eye. It is easy to see the long, bright bill even from a distance. At low-tide, they look for clams, oysters, and other mollusks to eat. They use their bill to loosen the muscle that keeps the shell closed making it easy to open the shell. As the tide was lowering, the oyster beds became exposed. The oystercatchers were heading for those beds.

American oystercatcher fly by.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, American oystercatchers nest in shallow scrapes in the sand or shell in open or sparsely vegetated beaches. The chicks leave the nest within hours but remain dependent on their parents for food for at least two months. Coastal development and shoreline armoring have resulted in extensive habitat loss and their breeding areas are vulnerable to boaters, pets, predators, and bad weather. Pollutants can affect the abundance and distribution of mollusks which affects the food availability. Although not Federally listed, Florida has listed oystercatchers as State-designated threatened. In Florida, nests are often protected with temporary symbolic fencing and signs. My personal experience as a bird steward has been that people often ignore this fencing, particularly photographers. I have also seen people allow their pets to run free through the colony. Disturbances cause the parents to fly away, leaving their young vulnerable. Bird stewards attend to the fenced off colonies on week-ends and holidays to educate people about the birds. We often have a scope that allows people to get a good look at the birds without having to get too close.

American oystercatcher looking for food.

The wind picked up on our way back and the tide, current, and wind were against us. There was more work involved to paddle back on the return trip. If we sat still to watch the wildlife, we started floating back down the river. We got a good look at some oystercatchers on the shellfish beds on the way back as well as some of the other birds that find food in the salt marsh. It was a beautiful day to enjoy the wildlife.

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) along the Guana River.
Willet (Tringa semipalmata) looking for food among the exposed oysters.
A fly by of a double-crested cormorant ((Phalacrocorax auritus).
Great egret (Ardea alba) along the Guana River.

Another Blue Jay Release

A released blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata).

The Ark received another blue jay yesterday and it came to me for release. It appeared to be tame and the homeowner who found it was concerned that one of the several cats in the area would get it. Fortunately, we do not have outside cats around our house, so it was a great place to release the bird. Since the blue jay I released last spring continues to stay in the area and is the only blue jay in the immediate vicinity, I was excited to get another blue jay to release.

I got the bird last evening as it was getting dark, so I put it in a cage on the lanai and left it be. I later put a blanket over the cage because it was cold outside. In the morning, I removed the blanket at dawn, a bit before the sun actually rose above the horizon. Once the sun rose, the bird was ready to go. I didn’t want it to injure itself, so I gave it the opportunity to go and it chose to do so. It immediately flew into a tree behind our bird feeder and stayed there for at least two hours before it disappeared. We have lots of natural food in the area and there are numerous feeders at the houses along our street.

In hopes of finding the bird after it left, I walked to the end of the street and back and found Topaz (the blue jay I released last spring). I tried to get a picture but Topaz flew into an oak tree and rummaged around until it found an acorn. It got one and immediately left to land on the roof of the nearest house. I am reluctant to point my camera at someone’s house, so I let Topaz taunt me on the roof with the acorn in its mouth.

While sitting outside hoping to see the blue jay, I got a couple pictures of the local residents. Later in the day, I was able to get some video of a raccoon family we see occasionally. Yesterday we saw them and the siblings were fighting with each other constantly. Today, I saw momma and only one baby. I’m assuming that the sibling rivalry caused one of the babies to depart.

In the video, you can see that the baby is wet and has muddy feet. The momma and baby raccoon probably just finished foraging in the marsh and was coming to our yard to see if there was anything worth picking up. We have a bird feeder and some of the birds are picky about their seeds and throw them on the ground until they get one they like. I was joking with Regis that the raccoons probably pay those birds to throw seeds on the ground.

The baby raccoon appears to have been eating too fast and looked like it was about to vomit but didn’t. I toss a few things out for the crows and squirrels and if they don’t get to them first, the raccoons are happy to be the clean up crew.

A Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) that appears to have found a bumblebee to eat.
A yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata).
An eastern phoebe.
A pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) at our mealworm feeder.

Dunlins

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) searching for food in the salt marsh.

We went for a walk on the Palencia Boardwalk the other day and posted some pictures we took of the least sandpipers in our last post. We also saw dunlins which are also considered peeps. Peeps are little brown sandpipers. Dunlins are a little larger than the least sandpipers. They probe into the mud for food but tend to pick up invertebrates just below the surface. They do not probe deeply. The bills are very sensitive and they can detect prey by touch which allows them to feed at night. This is helpful in tidal environments when they can feed at low tide. Dunlins breed in the far north of the North American continent in the arctic and subarctic tundra and spend their winters throughout a large portion of the U.S. and Canada except for the Rocky Mountains. They stay in any wetland environment with muddy edges.

Dunlin probing for food.
Dunlin walking on the muddy edge in the salt marsh.

The Palencia Boardwalk is a great way to get closer to the wildlife in the marsh. To get many of the images, we sit or crouch on the boardwalk to get a better angle on the subject.

Linda sitting on the Palencia Boardwalk photographing sandpipers.
The Palencia Boardwalk. Picture taken in September 2019.

Least Sandpipers

Least sandpiper.

Yesterday, we went to the Palencia Boardwalk to see the wildlife. This is a boardwalk in our community that is about 3/4 of a mile long over the salt marsh and some islands in the salt marsh. There are a variety of habitats, therefore a large variety of wildlife. Regis and I spent a lot of time crouched down and watching the sandpipers from the boardwalk. For this post, I want to talk about the least sandpiper.

The least sandpiper (Calidris minutilla – minutilla meaning “very small”) is one of our smallest sandpipers and is often seen on the muddy edges of rivers, ponds, and marshes. The salt marsh is where you would expect to find these little birds. They walk across the mud flats probing their bill into the soil looking for invertebrates to eat. They are about the size of a sparrow. They are one of the small “peeps” which are brownish small shorebirds. Least sandpipers are the darkest, brownest “peep.” Besides its small size, this bird can be distinguished by yellow or greenish legs. Although this is a distinguishing feature, their legs are often muddy and hard to tell the color. The bill is slightly downward curved. These birds breed in the wet tundra and open areas of the boreal forest in the northern parts of North America. They breed as far south as Nova Scotia and British Columbia in Canada. They spend their winters in the southern United States and northern half of South America.

Least sandpiper probing into the mud searching for invertebrates.
Least sandpiper searching for food in very shallow water.
Least sandpiper searching for food on the drier mud flat.
If you look closely, you can see a small worm in this least sandpipers bill.

While walking the boardwalk, we saw a large nest in one of the dead trees that was not there the last time we visited. Shortly, two bald eagles arrived on the nest. What a thrill to have a nesting pair of bald eagles so close. We look forward to watching this pair raise a family.

We saw about 25 cedar waxwings. These are our first waxwings of the season.

Cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum).
The Palencia Boardwalk over the salt marsh on the edge of the intracoastal waterway in St. Augustine, Florida.

More Pollinators

Two feather-legged scoliid wasps (Dielis plumipes). The greyish one was pestering the brownish one.

I’ve been enjoying taking pictures of the pollinators on the plants in my garden. It’s easy to spot butterflies and bumblebees in the garden and see some of their details with the naked eye. I find it hard to get a good look at many of the other insects without stopping their motion with a camera. Getting an in focus picture can be challenging, but I find the results rewarding and worth the difficulty.

Having a close-up image reveals interesting details. The feather-legged scoliid wasps have tiny hairs on their legs and rings of hairs around their abdomen. The fly in the last picture below has wicked looking pointed hairs on its body and strange looking mouthparts. I am calling them hairs because I do not know what else to call them. The great purple hairstreak below has an orange and blue body. A close-up image makes it easier to see behaviors such as how a butterfly extracts nectar from a flower.

I have been using iNaturalist to help identify them. According to the website at www.iNaturalist.org, “iNaturalist is an online social network of people sharing biodiversity information to help each other learn about nature.” I upload my pictures to iNaturalist and it makes suggestions on identification. I make the selection I think is most correct. If I can not determine which is correct, I select the highest taxonomic order for which I am comfortable. That can be as simple as identifying it as an insect. Knowledgeable people either confirm the decision or make a further identification. iNaturalist allows for uploading pictures of all life forms. I have used iNaturalist for posting microscopic life forms I found while doing oyster spat counts at the Guana-Tolomato-Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM NERR). I took the pictures with my cell phone through the eye piece on the microscope.

A white peacock butterfly (Anartia jatrophae) on a rosinweed flower (Silphium integrifolium). The rosinweed has been a great hit with the pollinators.
A white peacock butterfly missing a part of its wing.
Another white peacock butterfly missing part of its wing.
Not a pollinator, but I loved this green anole (Anolis carolinensis) hanging around.
A cloudless sulfur butterfly (Phoebis sennae). The legs are grasping the firecracker flower (Russelia equisetiformis) while the tongue is getting to the nectar inside.
A great purple hairstreak butterfly (Atlides halesus) on the bloom of a sweet almond bush (Aloysia virgata).
I believe this is a type of Tachinine fly (Tribe tachnini). It is a good thing these flies are not very big because they are wicked looking.

Pollinators

Long-tailed skipper (Urbanus proteus) on a rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) flower.

We recently installed a garden in our backyard with mostly native plants. Over the last week, I’ve been trying to capture some photos of the pollinators visiting the flowers. I recently volunteered at the GTM Reserve for butterfly monitoring, so I am particularly intrigued by how many different species of skippers exist.

I have been finding it very difficult to photograph these insects because they move quickly and it is hard to get them in focus. When I am successful, I load the pictures on iNaturalist to make sure I have a proper identification. I’m providing a few images here, even though a few are out of focus. I am intrigued at how paying attention to the details on these insects is rewarding. If you don’t pay close attention, you don’t see their marvelous features.

Long-tailed skipper on a rosinweed flower.
Brazilian skipper (Calpodes ethlius) on a rosinweed flower.
Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on a firebush (Hamelia patens) blossom.
Saltmarsh skipper (Panoquina panoquin) on a Romerillo (Bidens alba) blossom.
Furrow bee (Halictus) on a romerillo blossom.
A polka-dot wasp moth (Syntomeida epilais) on a coreopsis flower.

North American Nature Photographers Association

Graceful Arctic Tern.

I am excited that my image above was selected as part of the top 250 images in the North American Nature Photographers (NANPA) 2021 Showcase. The NANPA Showcase includes six categories: scapes, birds, mammals, macro/micro/all other wildlife, altered reality, and conservation. NANPA recently released most of the images which can be viewed here. The remaining images will be released next month. The images are stunning and worth a look.

If you are a nature photographer, I recommend joining NANPA. They are advocates for photographers rights and ethics in nature photography. They have many membership benefits including education opportunities and member discounts. For more information go to http://www.nanpa.org/membership-2/.