Saturday, August 10, 2019

A List of Breeding Birds of Skidaway Island, Chatham County, Georgia

The following is a list of birds which currently breed on Skidaway Island, have bred in the recent past, there is evidence, or there are reasonable expectations of nesting because adult birds were found on the island during the appropriate nesting nesting season. The species list is in taxonomic order.

Wood Duck
Mourning Dove
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Clapper Rail
Common Gallinule
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-heron
Yellow-crowned Night-heron
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Mississippi Kite
Bald Eagle
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Eastern Screech-Owl
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Acadian Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
White-eyed Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Fish Crow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Purple Martin
Barn Swallow
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown-headed Nuthatch
Marsh Wren
Carolina Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Brown Thrasher
Northern Mockingbird
House Finch
Chipping Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow
Eastern Towhee
Orchard Oriole
Red-winged Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Common Grackle
Boat-tailed Grackle
Common Yellowthroat
Northern Parula
Pine Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Summer Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Painted Bunting          72
Least Bittern
Cooper's Hawk
Red-eyed Vireo
European Starling
Indigo Bunting             5


Saturday, June 15, 2019

Sunbathing Barred Owl

In the past few weeks two young Barred Owls have been regularly showing at my feeders and water feature during dry days.  More recently it has been only one.  This afternoon, alerted by a ferocious bark from the dog, we found the one had returned.  In fact earlier it had been overhead in the trees above the driveway where the song birds were equally as excited as the dog.  The owl does a lot of sitting, so it is hardly mesmerizing to watch, but today it jumped down from the bird bath and spread its wings on the ground to sunbath(?). 

More likely it was using the opportunity to rid itself of mites and otherwise keep its feathers in good condition. As you probably know already, owls' eyes are fixed in their sockets, so the only way owls can see what is taking place around them is by twisting their heads.  It looks odd, but it works, and along with an incredible sense of hearing and remarkable eyesight, they can easily locate their prey.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Nature's Waste Management

Several years ago on a hot summer day walk I came upon a young lady approaching from the opposite direction, peering at the vultures circling above with a look of fear and repulsion on her face.  She said in passing"I cannot stand those big birds".  I restrained my impulse to launch a pedantic lecture and responded that she really didn't want to live here in summer without them; they were critical to the well-being of this community.

This Turkey Vulture found something stinky in the 
rushes next to a salt marsh

True, they are no match as eye candy for Painted Buntings and Prothonotary Warblers, but they do the job keeping our warm and humid air clean enough for us to breath without gagging. The Turkey Vulture, with the bare red head and neck, is the larger of the two species, but strangely enough it feeds on small roadkill such as squirrels.  The smaller Black Vulture, the one with the white wing-tips, sometimes feeds in large flocks on the side of the road, and a gang can make quick work of something as large as a deer. 

However, the choice of foraging is related to how both species find food. Turkey Vultures have a much better developed sense of smell which may account for why they frequently find smaller carrion that Black Vultures miss. Turkey Vultures will arrive at a foraging site first, and the Blacks follow by observing the feeding behavior of early arrivals. 

The naked heads also serve a purpose. Since both birds can frequently be observed eating from the inside out (gross!), it prevents contamination of their feathers, and the potential spread of disease. In fact their very scavenger role in the ecosystem helps prevent the spread of disease to other animals as well as humans. So, while this treatise is about neither pretty bird nor pretty subject, woe unto our island without a healthy population of both species.
A sinister looking Turkey Vulture 
roosts for the night

Vultures, often incorrectly called buzzards, are widely spread across much of North and South America, and are closely related to the endangered California Condor.  In fact it wasn't too many years ago that the American Ornithological Union grouped our majestic Bald Eagles with vultures. 

They are masters of the air as they hunt for prey.  
A soaring Turkey Vulture from below
Turkey Vultures in particular are not often seen flapping their wings, but both species hunt for rising columns of warm air called thermals.  Those currents keep the birds effortlessly aloft for long periods of time while looking for the next meal.

Unlike other raptors, the hawks and eagles, vultures feet are adapted for walking.  They have no sharp talons and depend entirely on the bill to tear into their prey. 
Interestingly, in  spite of their homeliness the Turkey vulture's scientific name Cathartes aura is often interpreted as 'purifying breeze'.  Indeed.

A Black Vulture with its exposed head and neck.  You can listen to the Black Vulture's lovely song right here.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

And Now a Rooster

For the past 10 days or so I have been hearing chicken-like sounds at Priest Landing in the early morning.  It didn't take too long to realize it was a rooster, either escaped or deliberately left there.  After the first two days I did not hear it for the next few. Naturally I assumed that one of the list of predators we have on this island got an easy meal.  Wrong...

June 8, 2019

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Priest Landing

Sometimes, right under my nose, I tend to neglect birding opportunities on our own island because I get fixated on some other location. Such is the case with Priest Landing at the upper end of Skidaway (not to be confused with Priest Landing Drive in The Landings).  If you haven't been there, it is public access, on the right fork of McWhorter past the north gate and dead ends at the Wilmington River.  It is easy to drive up there at any given time, on any given day, and see almost nothing, but at daybreak most of the year it can be magic for birds on the lagoons and hidden wetlands which border the road on either side. When the sun is well up it often goes quiet.  

At the dead-end a walking trail runs off to the left on a dike which impounds the largest freshwater lagoon on one side, and contains the salt marsh on the other. On a falling tide during migration, when the mud flats are exposed, the marsh can be alive with shorebirds.  The lagoon itself hosts a variety of species large and small, some hidden in the cattails which border the perimeter. There are unseen ducks and sparrows in winter. 

In Spring it helps to have an ear for bird song, and many skilled birders identify much of their talley by ear alone. Birders have reported in excess of 170 species at Priest Landing and the one mile drive in. Actually the total is over 180, but some of the species reported are by less experienced observers, and some calls range from questionable to bizarre in the eyes of the Skidaway Island Ornithological Union Checklist Committee -  a committee of one. 

Photography there can be tough because often the birds are shy and or distant, but I am including a few here that were worth saving.

An immature Red-tailed Hawk blends neatly with its surroundings at Priest Landing 

A Wood Duck pair

With the arrival of winter Priest Landing can host over 50 Wood Ducks at once

This young Northern Pintail spent about two months on the back side of the big lagoon

Green-winged Teal are skittish and shy - and don't like to have their pictures taken. They have been regular the past three winters.

There is not much handsome about a Wood Stork, but the swampy environment of the lagoons would not be the same without them

This Great Egret looked almost regal perched
on a dead snag in the water

The Green Heron is migratory, but can almost always be found in these algae-covered lagoons during breeding season

The Black-crowned Night-heron is a fixture on the two big ponds

A young Wood Stork shares a perch with
a visiting Roseate Spoonbill
The bright red shield of this Common Gallinule contrasts easily with the water plants in which it is partially hidden

The simple slurred-whistle song of the Eastern Wood Pewee
is at the top of my favorites list -  

Listen to the Pewee

Friday, May 10, 2019

Western Wanderings

In spite of the variety and abundance of birds on our own Skidaway Island, at least once a year I get the urge to go to Arizona's Chiricahua desert in search of new species, particularly to photograph and record them.  It is not always just birds, and inevitably I end up sleep deprived. This year more than ever, and I brought home a raging head cold to prove it.  Of course being wide awake at 3:00 A.M. has its advantages as is evidenced by the shot below.

May 4 2019: Milky Way with a meteor shower
I didn't stumble on this shot.  In fact I knew last August that May 4 would be a new moon and there are a handful of places in the area where light pollution is not an issue.  However, I will admit to shock when I returned to my apartment to discover not only the Milky Way, but a meteor shower as well, all framed by the rugged walls of Cave Creek Canyon.  I still don't know for sure what planet is glowing brightly left of center. I think it is Venus.

In the past I have hoofed around on my own, but this year I opted for a guide for 1/2 day, and it paid off handsomely. She found me 3 'life' birds (birds the observer has never seen before) and finally a pleasant 45 minute visit with a pair of tropical Elegant Trogons house hunting in sycamores for the mating season (never easy to photograph.)  The female did not appear all that interested in this particular offering. This is the male exploring the prospective digs.

Elegant Trogon

Whiskered Screech-Owl
Although some of 'our' birds are also found elsewhere in North America, the West frequently has counterparts. Owls, woodpeckers, thrashers, orioles, and warblers to name a few. Our Eastern Screech-owl breeds as far west as Texas, then the Western Screech-owl takes over in lower elevations in the West, and the Whiskered Screech-owl in higher mountainous areas.

Western Screech-Owl

Where we get along with our breeding Orchard Oriole and the occasional wintering Baltimore Oriole, the border states in the West counter with more than five other species including the spectacular Bullocks Oriole and the Hooded Oriole. These throw many observers off because all that orange is actually plumage adornment on these members of the blackbird family!

Hooded Oriole

Bullock's Oriole

Southeastern Arizona for birders is not always just about birds.  It is as much about place:  the town of Portal, its people, the environment of the Chiricahua Mountains and the desert valley. Portal, the village, probably has 200 full time residents, some of them retired biologists who worked for a while at the nearby American Museum of Natural History Southwestern Research Station. Because of the incredible opportunities to observe the night sky, astronomers have their own village about 3 miles from the Portal store, and on the other side of a mountain which blocks any stray light from the village.  At least two homes sport turrets for sophisticated star-gazing telescopes, and I am told some discoveries have been made there.

For birders there is the incredible South Fork trail of Cave Creek Canyon, a well known migrant trap, and home to one of the few colonies of breeding Elegant Trogons in North America.  Butterfly enthusiasts move in during summer, and like birders, use the full range of desert floor to mountain peaks. These desert mountain ranges are called sky islands and feature flora and fauna which change dramatically with altitude.  On top of all this, it is quiet, quiet enough for me to record birdsong and soundscapes, which our island definitely is not.  

So, with more than enough yak now, I will shut up and let you see some of the images of this special place.

6200 ft

Cactus flower

The entrance to Cave Creek Canyon

Somewhere behind this outcrop a Golden Eagle pair has an eyrie

A lone Loggerhead Shrike scans the desert for a meal

Coatimundi is related to racoon

Urban center of Portal

The post office 
Morning sun on the Canyon wall

The imposing mountain behind which sits Portal.  The building on the bottom is a cafe which is finally open after the owner worked on it himself for seven years to build it. There is no Home Depot around the corner, and the nearest grocery store is 50 miles away
The beautiful Arizona Sister butterfly taking minerals from the rocks beside Turkey Creek, high in the Chiricahua Mountains

The ubiquitous Cactus Wren at his command post along Highway 146 to Hachita, New Mexico

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Colonists on Skidaway

I have always envisioned this shot, but it never turns out exactly as planned.  All those white specks along the water's edge are Snowy Egrets in what is known as a rookery for nesting.  What is not apparent yet is the equal numbers of Tricolored Herons, Little Blue Herons, and some Green Herons mixed in.  As the nesting season gets serious there will be an explosion of additions as young hatch and beg for food.  It will then feel like there is no space for the trees and shrubs! Of course, that presumes that all the noise from unnecessary dumping and removing tree cuttings on the Sparrow Field doesn't scare them off.
Snowy Egret in breeding plumage - strutting his stuff
Tricolored Herons exchanging a branch 
to add to the nest
Tricolored Heron defending his nest space against
 an unseen intruder. 

A rookery like this is termed colonial for obvious reasons - a lot of birds crowding together. Ornithologists explain this behavior in various ways depending upon the species, but the most obvious reasons are abundant nearby food sources, and protection from predators. This rookery is located on Bartram Road and forms the perimeter of the Sparrow field on two sides. However, note that the nests are at the water's edge, which protects the birds from predation, at least from one side.  The bedlam a Great Horned Owl creates in search of an easy  meal will alert the others to take flight, and in that way ensures the flock will thrive, even if individual birds do not. There is also a rookery somewhat hidden on the far left side of the big lagoon, one on the island in Mid-Point, (much to he chagrin of the surrounding homeowners), another on the right as you drive into Deer Creek, and a less populated one around Delegal Lagoon. There are still others, less accessible, at Priests Landing.

So, if the nesting colonies are regularly successful, why after many years are we not overrun with wading birds?  Thank you for asking. Young birds, when they fledge and leave the nest, most often disperse away from the natal territory. Such an abundance of new empty tummies would quickly stress the food supply for all of them, endangering the resident birds as a whole.  This dispersal process also allows for species to populate new territories, and at the same time breeding with new flocks helps keep the larger population healthy with a diversified gene pool.

The Little Blue Heron is also a prominent tenant at the rookery.  It can be distinguished by the bi-colored bill, and overall blue plumage. 
Tricolored Herons have a white breast and belly, not readily apparent in these photographs