Teacher and radio host Jerome A. Jackson on some close encounters with Southwest Florida birds.
In modern parlance, the term “bird-watching” is so out of vogue. Those who pride themselves on their “life list” of birds they’ve seen refer to their passion as “birding” and to themselves as “birders.”
And birding is big—a 2013 government report estimated that 47 million Americans over the age of 16 were birders.
I take pride in being a “bird watcher,” but admit to being a birder, too; the lure of the list peaks for me each year with my participation in the annual Christmas bird count, where the goal is to see as many birds and as many bird species as possible in a single day. It also spikes each time I see a new bird species in my yard. On a recent windy day I added brown pelican to my yard list as one sailed over my house! One of the wonders of birds is that they can and do show up almost anywhere.
But my life with birds goes deeper. “Discovery” for me isn’t satisfied by tick marks on a checklist, but by the wonders of birds that I see for myself by watching— often sitting quietly—on the beach, with my back against a tree in the woods, or even in my car parked in some opportune spot.
It all began when I was about 8 years old and started delivering a morning newspaper. I was out before dawn seven days a week, at the magic time when birds begin singing and moving around in search of food. At 14, I was counselor for Nature and Bird Study merit badges at Boy Scout Camp Eastman, near Nauvoo, Ill., quickly learning that I loved teaching others about nature. I would go to bed at night with a stack of 45-rpm records on the spindle of my phonograph, and the one on top was always a 1958 song by a group called the Teddy Bears: To Know Him is to Love Him. In a very real way, that record provided a stimulus for my career as an educator—both in and outside of the classroom, including programs I’ve hosted on television and radio.
It’s certainly been true of my encounters with birds in Southwest Florida, which offers some of the best birding in the world. Here is just a sampling of some of the ways I’ve come to know—and to love—our region’s birds.
One of the easiest birds to observe (and a species listed as threatened because we’ve lost so much of its wetland foraging habitat) is the wood stork. It’s sometimes dubbed “Old Gourd Head” because of its bald pate, often the same color as a dried calabash gourd. But wood storks aren’t all bald, and some have more color to the head. Juveniles have a head covered with very short down, and adults have a band of black skin at the back of the head that expands forward during courtship. Bill color of juveniles is yellow; that of adults is black at the base and horn-colored towards the tip except during breeding, when an adult’s bill can turn reddish brown.
When hunting, a stork wades slowly forward and often extends one wing as it swings its partially opened bill from side to side. The extended wing may reduce glare from the water, giving the bird a clearer view of potential prey, but it might also create shade that fish and other creatures rush to if they sense the approach of a predator. Safety is in a dark place? Not with a wood stork providing the shade.
Have you ever noticed a wood stork’s pink toes? These might provide a light background that allows the stork a clearer view of fish swimming by. It’s been suggested that pink toes may resemble big worms and serve as potential lures that bring dinner closer.
Once I was out with a group of students who were going to help me search about a square mile of pine forest for cavity trees of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. We spread out at about 30-yard intervals to walk through the forest in a straight line to the other side. I had given each student a compass and a referee’s whistle along with the instructions that if they thought they had lost sight of their neighbors, they should blow the whistle once and anyone who heard it was to respond by blowing their whistle once to say, “Here I am.” If they thought they had discovered a woodpecker cavity tree, they were to blow their whistle twice and everyone was to stop while they checked the tree out. If it was confirmed to be a cavity tree, they were to blow their whistle three times and everyone was supposed to go to the tree.
Then the whistle blowing began—and so did the Carolina wrens. Carolina wrens are small rusty birds with a very loud voice; their common song is a clarion whistled tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle or gibbardy, gibbardy, gibbardy. But it turns out they can also mimic the notes of a referee whistle. As soon as the first student blew his whistle, the Carolina wrens began repeating it. It took much of the rest of the morning for us to regroup and try “Plan B”—without the whistles.
The Carolina wren has a thin, inch-long slightly curved bill that it uses to probe into crevices to catch spiders. It can often be seen poking around under the eaves of houses or sometimes under the hood of your car. Carolina wrens build nests of pine straw and other materials in a hidden place—in the wild, often in a decayed tree—but near humans, a nest is often in an old boot, a coffee can, or a shoe box in a garage or in the middle of a potted fern. I once found a nest under the hood of my car—which I left parked for a month as they raised their family.
Colloquial names of plants and animals often tell us about their unique behaviors or ecology. Early English settlers in North America knew the green heron because they often encountered it as they hunted along small streams and lakeshores. Two colloquial names were common and are still heard today: “fly-up-the-creek” and “shite poke.”
The green heron often remains still—and unseen, because of its camouflaging brown, black and greenish plumage—as a human approaches. Then it flies off ahead of the human, “up the creek.”
I’ve seen it do this again and again when I continued in the same direction, but then, predictably, it would circle around behind me, back to its hunting site downstream.
The name “shite poke” also has its origin in the green heron’s behavior. Almost every time a green heron takes off, it defecates. “Poke” is an old English word for “bag,” and “shite”—well, it’s an old English word, too.
With its short legs, this bird may seem a bit sawed off for a heron, but it makes up for its leg “deficiency” with its acrobatics and fishing skills. I once watched a green heron perched about a foot above the water on a half-inch diameter twig, but then it suddenly stretched full length, hanging upside down from the branch as it grabbed a fish passing below. From a convenient perch or from the bank, a green heron will often use an easily caught insect as bait. The bird tosses it onto the water just as a fisherman might cast a line. After a fish comes for the bait, the heron gets the bigger meal, and may even retrieve his bait for another try.
“Is it sick?” or “What is it?” are questions I often get each fall regarding Northern cardinals that are visiting backyard bird feeders. Cardinals may be the single most popular bird for those who have bird feeders, those who create bird calendars, and those who want to add a bit of nature on Christmas cards. Cardinals are unusual in the way they undergo their annual replacement of body feathers. The annual molt of most birds, including the cardinal, takes place from late summer through early autumn. In most birds this molt is gradual, so that while the bird may look a bit ragged, it’s still covered with feathers. Some cardinals and some blue jays lose all the feathers on the head at about the same time, leaving them bald for about two weeks. I call them “vulture” cardinals and jays.
A few years ago when I was teaching in Mississippi, there was rarely a spring that went by that someone didn’t bring me a shoebox with a bird that they thought had been injured and that, strangely, they had found in their fireplace. When I peeked inside, I was never surprised to see that it was a chimney swift. I would lift the lid, hold the bird in my hand, and lead its benefactor outside. There I would examine the bird’s wings and legs, bring the bird up close and pretend to whisper in its ear. I’d look at its benefactor, tell them that it was now just fine, and give it a gentle toss—whereupon it would fly off, leaving me to chuckle and my new friend standing there in amazement.
No, it wasn’t magic. It was simply a chimney swift. These birds have wings that are so long and legs that are so short that on a horizontal surface such as the floor of a house, there isn’t enough room for them to flap their wings and take off. To take flight, a chimney swift must be in free fall. That’s why they roost in chimneys and hollow trees. To fly, they first have to drop.
Nothing can be more endearing than a “tiny-ball-of-fluff” chick, and several Southwest Florida birds accommodate us by parading producing chicks in environments that humans frequent. Killdeer are a prime example. While they are shorebirds, they often nest at the edges of gravel roads, patches of gravel around ball fields and even on graveled rooftops. They make a shallow scrape in the gravel and lay their pale tan and brown-blotched eggs. Sites on the ground near roads, buildings and ball fields are vulnerable to human disturbance, and many nests are lost before young can hatch. Rooftop nests can be very hot, but less accessible to humans and predators, so rooftop killdeer are often more successful in hatching young. But how do they get off the roof? The parents fly to the ground and call to the chicks, and the chicks take a leap of faith. They are so light and covered with such thick down that they usually land without injury.
It began as a menacing, slow, deep hiss, but quickly grew louder, more intense, long-lasting and threatening. Never had I heard anything so frightening. And it didn’t help that I was in the middle of a dense and very dark swamp thicket and that a sudden odor coming from in front of me was absolutely nauseating. But I found the source, and it wasn’t the entrance to the gates of hell. Both the sound and the odor were coming from two black vulture chicks that were about three weeks old and about the size of half-grown chickens. They were cute—no other word for it: rounded balls of pale flesh-colored down that reminded me immediately of the “shmoos” in old L’il Abner cartoons.
Black vultures typically nest in such places, and their eggs are just laid on the bare ground. The sound they produce is really a long, forceful exhalation that no doubt scares some would-be predators away. If that doesn’t work, when an intruder gets close they “offer” up their last meal. Their down is oily, and once on your hands or clothes leaves a smell that takes a great deal of scrubbing to eliminate. These members of nature’s cleanup crew actually prefer fresh food and are abundant in Florida, with the ranks of turkey vultures swelled by migrants each winter.
I was once asked by a molecular biologist why I continued to study birds. He said, “We already know all there is to know about birds, all you have to do is Google it.” He was so wrong. We have so much to learn; the birds have so many secrets to their success. Our ability to protect troubled species and keep others out of trouble depends on our success in understanding the intricacies of the relationships of birds to one another, their natural world, and us. Keep watching.
Jerome A. Jackson is the author of 15 books, a teacher at Florida Gulf Coast University and host of the public radio show With the Wild Things.
Where the Birds Are
Myakka River State Park, 13208 S.R. 72, Sarasota. The park is host to about 200 bird species; Audubon volunteers help visitors identify birds at the boardwalk area.
The Celery Fields, 6893 Palmer Blvd., Sarasota. This 300-acre preserve hosts a big array of species and is on the Great Florida Birding Trail. It will soon be the site of the Sarasota Audubon Nature Center.
Oscar Scherer State Park, 1843 S. Tamiami Trail, Osprey. One of the best places to see Florida scrub jays, a threatened species found only in Florida.
The Venice Area Audubon
Rookery, on Annex Road off U.S. 41, between the Anderson Sarasota County Administration Center and the Highway Patrol building. Herons, egrets, ibises and more are common here.
Carlton Reserve, 1800 Mabry Carlton Way, Venice. A 24,000-acre reserve, with wood ducks in residence all year, as well as wild turkey, barred owls and six species of woodpeckers.
Jelks Preserve, 2300 N. River Road, Venice. The Audubon Society has recorded 84 species of birds here, with two active osprey nests. Bird checklists available at the entrance kiosk.
Lemon Bay Preserve, 6200 Osprey Road, Venice. This 215-acre spot
welcomes not only scrub jays but
warblers, buntings and bald eagles.
Manasota Scrub Preserve, 2695 Bridge St., Englewood. Woodpeckers, warblers, blue-gray gnatcatchers, hermit thrushes and hawks call this 145-acre preserve home.