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).

Grackles Won’t Leave

Grackles perched underneath our bird bath.

I think the grackles will be with us forever. They like it here. I put them outside and they hang around very near the lanai and patio. I left the lanai door open and the slider open today while doing my projects in the house. I heard a crow making lots of noise on the patio and went out to see what was going on. I leave lots of food for the bluebirds and grackles so it is not surprising other animals show up to take advantage of the buffet. The crow left when I showed up and shortly after that the grackles moved onto the lanai and are not interested in leaving. I later saw a raccoon on the patio and Dart would not get engaged to solve the problem. By the time he got interested, the raccoon was almost gone. I think the grackles like their situation and are like those teenagers who won’t leave home.

The older bluebirds continue to visit. They usually do not like me approaching them now but a few times they let me feed them some crickets. I pulled out my camera and got a couple images today.

The young bluebirds continue to grow up, but two of them still require me to force feed them. I was excited to get one of them to eat a couple crickets today and eat formula without having to pry open its beak. Perhaps the other two will be easier to feed within a couple days. They are exhausting. Because they will not eat easily, I feed them less food more often.

Bluebirds, Grackles, and the RV

I released the older bluebirds the other day and they spent the last two nights with us. They come back regularly to be fed. About mid-day today, they stopped coming back as often and when they did, they would not come close. They would sit on the gutter and beg for food. Since I can’t fly, they are out of luck. I have a variety of foods available to them if they are having trouble on their own. Tonight, at least two of the bluebirds came to the back of the house but did not come to the cage or in the lanai to spend the night. Since I see them out there, I know they are okay and I am glad they do not need me anymore.

The beginning of the video shows that the little bluebirds that almost died are doing well and the second part of the video shows that the released bluebirds come back to the cage to eat mealworms.

Yesterday, one of the released bluebirds showed up for some food with something sticking out of its mouth. Fortunately, we were able to grab it and see that it had attempted to eat some stringy vegetation that got wrapped up in its insides. Even more fortunately, Regis was able to pull it out without a problem. I never realized how much difficulty young birds have figuring out what is edible and what is not.

I let the grackles out all day today and they hung close by. I left the cage on the patio and occasionally one or both would sit in it for a while. There were some mealworms in the cage and at one point I saw an adult grackle enter the cage with one of my young grackles and eat a few mealworms and leave. Tonight I brought the grackles in. At some point, they will feel more comfortable and not want to hang around us.

The younger bluebirds that were near death when I got them are a difficult bunch of birds to handle. They still need to be force fed. I feed them a formula that has all the nutrition they need to get going but it can be a mess if the bird does not participate in the feeding. Since these birds do not make it easy to feed them, they have formula on them. I wipe it off after every feeding, but they look terrible. I hope they turn around soon so I can work on getting them cleaned up. They turned out to be a much bigger struggle than I expected but I am grateful they are still with us and I will put up with them being royal pains.

The motorhome is for sale at North Trail RV and they posted some pictures. We have had awesome experiences in it. If you want to do the same, hop on down to Fort Myers and buy it! Click here.

I got my incredible Mavic 2 Pro drone last Wednesday and life has been too crazy to even open the box until recently. I pulled it out and charged the batteries and attempted to fly it yesterday. What a mess. It was very difficult to get things going and I had to remove the otter case from my phone so it could be inserted in the controller. I drop my phone regularly, so I am certain I will have to buy a new phone soon. Ouch. It took so long to get it connected and the firmware updated that I had to go back and feed the little bluebirds and Regis was able to take it for its first flight. When I came back, I took it for a flight and apparently did not have the settings correct on the camera. Following is a link to my maiden flight. All I did was have it go up and take pictures. But, it was doing video and not pictures so nothing worked the way I had planned and it is over exposed. If the weather is good I will try again tomorrow. Today got a way from me with the 9 birds I’m trying to handle and my poor dog who is still not himself.

Bird Release

Today I released the four older bluebirds and the two grackles. It took a while for the bluebirds to leave the cage, but once they did they all left. I sat in the backyard a few times during the day and saw at least 7 baby bluebirds out back and two adults. We have a some bluebird parents that recently fledged some birds and they are almost the same age as our bluebirds. The adults did not bother the babies so all was well. Whew! I could not tell our bluebirds from the wild ones but all seemed well with the world.

Later in the day, I did not feel comfortable that the grackles were ready for release so I gathered them up and brought them back to their cage. It was good for them to get some time outside exploring the world so it is all good.

I kept the lanai door open and later in the day one bluebird flew back in. I grabbed it and placed it in a cage and went outside and easily got two more. Regis was able to get the fourth bluebird. They are spending the night safely with us and I will let them out again tomorrow to explore their world.

The youngest bluebirds that I got that were near death a few days ago have come back to life today. I had to move them to a cage because they are exploring and perching. Unfortunately, they are still hard to feed but I hope that changes soon. I hate to force feed them. I am thrilled to see them jumping around and exploring their surroundings. Wahoo!

Dart continues to intermittently eat. I don’t know what is going on. If he is still not eating regularly by Monday, I will get some blood work done to see if that tells us what is going on. This precious dog is so important to me that I will do everything I can to help him.

Regis’s mom is improving well. Yay! We look forward to her joining us at home at the end of the month. I think she will enjoy sitting on our patio and enjoying the natural world in good weather.

After I put the birds to bed last night, I got a glass of wine or two and well after 9:00 I got an emergency call about an owl that had been hit by a car near to us. Since I had some wine, Regis drove while we retrieved the bird. The hope was that it was slightly concussed and could be released the next day. If so, we would hold it overnight and let it go. Sadly, it had major injuries and we transported it to the emergency vet. We do not know the outcome at this point.

I got my drone last Wednesday and have it ready to go. Tomorrow looks good for a test run. I’m very excited to see what kind of photos I can get. I can’t fly it in high winds and that happens often here. We shall see. It is crazy that I am more stressed about flying this drone the first time than the first time I flew an airplane by myself. I was sixteen when I flew the plane and may not have been smart enough to be more concerned.

Still Alive

These baby bluebirds are struggling to live and making progress. Their eyes look much better today.

The little bluebirds are still alive. I got three baby bluebirds that were barely alive yesterday and was concerned they would not make it through the day. I was certain at least one of them would have perished during the night. All three of them pulled through. They were still very weak this morning but have been getting stronger throughout the day. Their eyes look better. Nevertheless, they are still weak and it may take a couple more days before they behave the way they should for their age. They are still difficult to feed but have been participating more with each feeding.

I put the bluebirds and grackles in the open area of the lanai so they could stretch their wings and sit on real branches. They did very well together. They often sat together on the same branch. One of the grackles was hopeful that the bluebirds would feed it.

Grackle looking for the bluebirds to feed it.
The six older birds that should be ready for release soon. The bluebirds are more ready than the grackles. It is cute to watch them snuggle together.