Sunday, January 9, 2022

 

    American White Pelicans

 

Captiva and Sanibel Islands, Southwest Florida

25 December 2021 – 8 January 2022

 

    shell-strewn beach

When snow and cold begin to pay a visit to the DC area, it is time to retreat to some place far to the South, where sun and warm breezes dominate. On Christmas day we flew from DC to Fort Myers, Florida, rented a car, and drove to Captiva Island for two weeks of R&R and Nature.


    Anhinga

Captiva Island is just north of Sanibel, famous for its shelling beaches. Captiva is home to ‘Tween Waters Inn, sandwiched between Pine Island Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. ‘Tween Waters has been hosting nature-lovers for more than a century—people like Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Theodore Roosevelt, Roger Tory Peterson, and J.N. Ding Darling. We stayed in Frangipani Cottage, one of the original cottages from an earlier century.

 

                          Brown Pelican

 Here are the things we do once we get settled in: walk on the beach, collect shells, bird-watch, bike to Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, kayak around Buck Key, and get up early to commune with the visiting Manatees.  

    Royal Terns

The Gulf beach is home to a variety of wintering waterbirds: sandpipers, plovers, terns, gulls, skimmers, and pelicans. Birds are present and active no matter where you go on Captiva and Sanibel.

 

                           Osprey

No other place on Earth supports a larger and more active population of Ospreys. It is not uncommon to look up from your beach chair and see an Osprey plunging into the Gulf waters for a fish. Look up and there are four, no six, no eight Ospreys circling overhead. Are these wintering birds from up North or are they permanent residents? Hard to say... noisy pairs of Ospreys are occupying nest platforms, looking much like breeders...

 

    Bald Eagle

And yes, there are Bald Eagles here as well. We see these big birds lumbering overhead every day—but not in the numbers equal to the Ospreys, whose high piping notes are heard all day long.

  

    Magnificent Frigatebird

Lots of birds soar overhead in the deep blue Gulf sky. Skinny black birds with long tails appear out of the blue and circle slowly without moving a wing—these are Magnificent Frigatebirds. The male shows off his bright red throat gorget and jet black plumage—handsome indeed! He looks small high up there in the sky. Don’t be fooled, the male has a wingspan of 90 inches.

  

    Pileated Woodpecker

 Waterbirds are featured here, but there are some landbirds around. The photograph above is of a Pileated Woodpecker male who spent more than an hour chiseling into a rotten part of a flowering Bauhinia tree. On another day I watched this same bird at a tall palm, harvesting bright red fruits.

 

    Flame Box Crab

But there is more to see along the Gulf Shore. How about that Flame Box Crab, which I picked up in the sand one morning. This remarkable creature is apparently common in Gulf waters, along with the better-known Blue Crab. 

    Ophioderma Brittle Star

Sand dollars and sea urchins wash up on the beach, as well as several starfish, the most attractive being the one shown above. The shore every morning is littered with marine invertebrates, mainly in the form of “seashells.”  We loved hunting for the more beautiful of these. 

                        young Florida Fighting Conchs and Banded Tulips

Every shell collector on the beach is searching for the holy grail—Scaphella junonia, commonly known as the “Junonia.” Carol found a piece of one this season, but whole specimens are rare as hen’s teeth. We settle, instead, for good specimens of the more common species—moonsnails, cockles, whelks, tulips, and the like. 

                        tiny Rough and Atlantic Calico Scallops

There is something very relaxing about walking the beach  in search of a pretty sea shell. We never get tired of doing that. We bring back large numbers to our cabin, and then return most of them to the shore at the end of our stay. A few of the very best come back with us for display in wooden bowls in the living room at home. We never tire of their beauty. 

                        Great Blue Heron

A bike ride through the Nature Loop of the Ding Darling National Wildlife Sanctuary is always worth doing. Herons, egrets, spoonbills, and ibises are the featured birds. Here are some examples. 

    Little Blue Heron

 

    Yellow-crowned Night-Heron with a shrimp

 

    Reddish Egret


    Roseate Spoonbills

Walking the Gulf beach on the early morning is another birdy experience—mainly for plovers, sandpipers, and terns. The birds on the beach tend to be rather confiding, allowing close approach for photography, another relaxing pleasure here... 

    Black-bellied Plover


 Dunlin


  Sanderling

 

    Red Knots

 

    Snowy Plover


    Wilson's Plover

A visit to historic Old Sanibel village is a good thing to do on a gloomy day. Lots of 20th century history here, where things got started near the end of the 19th Century. The natural highlight to the village was a Green Iguana (below). 

                              Green Iguana

Captiva is famous for its Manatees, which winter in marinas and mangroves all around the back side of the island. They like the marinas because here they can usually find some access to freshwater, which they drink. We would go looking for friendly Manatees every morning, either at the ‘Tween Waters marina or at Jensen’s Marina, in downtown Captiva. We were able to get within a few feet of these wonderful creatures—often adults with little youngsters by their side. Some of these Manatees weigh more than 1,500 pounds, and yet they were often in water no more than a 2-3 feet deep. 

    adult Manatee with hidden baby to lower right (photo: Chris Mocharla)

 

    portrait of a baby Manatee

We had two close-up Manatee experiences while kayaking. In the first instance, a big adult  Manatee looked up over the side of the kayak, and in the other, a large Manatee surfaced under our kayak, creating considerable excitement, but no harm to us or to the creature... 

    portrait of an adult Manatee

Kayaking was a favorite pastime. We would take a circuit that crossed Roosevelt Channel to Buck Key, then through a narrow and jungly mangrove passage across Buck Key to Pine Island Sound, and thence back to ‘Tween Waters marina. These circuits provided various wildlife encounters—swarms of small skates on the surface, sunning Anhingas, hunting Ospreys, leaping fish, passing dolphins, and more.

 

    Zebra Heliconian

Our favorite butterfly of the area is this Zebra, which we saw most frequently at the Visitor Center of the Wildlife Refuge. I never tire of this tropical beauty! 

Perhaps the biggest surprise on the wildlife front was a close encounter with a Bobcat, right on the campus of ‘Tween Waters. Returning from the beach after watching the sunset, we returned to the campus to find clots of people excitedly pointing at something in the gloaming. A lanky adult Bobcat strolled between the cottages, as if this were its home territory. This is a sighting Teddy Roosevelt would have appreciated!  

 

    Sunset over the Gulf with Venus in upper right



 

Friday, December 3, 2021

 

                    Pileated Woodpecker adult male

 

Snowy Sojourn in the Adirondacks
28 November – 2 December 2021

After Thanksgiving I had the urge to experience old-fashioned Winter. I went online and checked out weather forecasts for various northern destinations. Old Forge, in the southwestern Adirondacks, offered several days of winter temperatures and the promise of snow. So I packed the car and drove 8 hours due north to the Adirondack Lodge in Thendara, just a short walk down Route 28 from Old Forge. I had stayed at the Lodge in February 2020, about two years earlier, and liked the location, offering access to some diners, restaurants, abundant walking tracks, and birding locations.

 

      vista down Adirondack Scenic Rail Bed, Thendara 

I had checked the winter finch report and the news was that aside from Purple Finches and American Goldfinches, things were pretty quiet. And the birding in November in the Adirondacks is pretty slow, so I planned to focus on snow-walking and conifer gazing, with birding only as a back-up. 

 

      Red-breasted Nuthatch, adult male

On my first morning in Thendara I walked the rail bed of the Adirondack Scenic Railway. This I had done in February 2020 and I knew it was a good place to start testing out my legs. It had snowed the night before, so the trees were frosted. In fact, I would see snow falling for parts of four days, and every evening produced snow, so the timing of my visit was good.

That morning I had hopes of completing a walking loop that would end up in downtown Old Forge, but an unbridged (and unfrozen) branch of the Moose River prevented that. So I back-tracked to my motel, and then walked into town for a late breakfast at the Front Door Diner. After four hours out and about, having walked a bit over 5 miles, at 11 AM I sat down in a warm and well-lit room and had a hot cup of coffee and a big plate of breakfast. That was supremely satisfying.

That became my mode—long early morning walk followed by a late morning breakfast.

 

      vista bright ridge in sun and foreground in shade featuring various conifers

The nice thing about walks in the snow is one gets to see mammal tracks. This first morning I saw tracks of many Snowshoe Hare, some White-tailed Deer, and perhaps a Coyote. For birds, I encountered Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, both nuthatches, Dark-eyed Junco, and Raven.  

 

      Two White-tailed Deer in snow

 

I bumped into deer hunter, Mark Hudon, along the route, and he mentioned he had seen tracks in the snow of a Fisher. That made my heart skip a beat. I have always wanted to walk up on a Fisher in the woods. Maybe this trip would be the time...

 

      Red Squirrel in snow

Walking in winter is special. One gets extra exercise because of the need for one’s boots to push through the snow. And on those days when there is not a hint of sun, and snow is falling from the ceiling of dull gray, one really feels the impact of winter-ness. The tips of my fingers never were warm. It is a world apart. And don't forget the solitude and the absolute quiet.

 

     Lighted Christmas tree in downtown Old Forge

 At 6 PM, I walked from my motel north to my dinner location, at the Slicker’s Adirondack Tavern, a distance of 1.4 miles. I walked up in the dark, the snow falling steadily. The walk up and back made the dinner that much more memorable. I felt like I had accomplished something. And Old Forge had already put out its holiday lights. The town and its businesses go whole-hog on the Christmas lights in all their varieties!

 

     snow falling at night in town

The next morning I headed north to the Uncas Road, one of those most-favorite birding destinations. It is snowing and because there is no wind, everything is be-whitened. Driving this unpaved back road that links Eagle Bay and Raquette Lake is to enter the deep North Woods. The forests here are mainly state-owned low country dominated by a range of old growth conifers. Spruce and fir line the sides of this narrow road.

 

    Uncas Road - extremely snowy patch of hardwoods with their bare branches encrusted

 I see flocks of American Goldfinches acting like crossbills by lighting down on the gravel roadbed in search of grit. The road gets very little traffic.

 

American Goldfinches on roadbed gathering grit

My first stop is the trailhead to Ferd’s Bog. At the start of the trail, up above the bog, is remarkable old growth mixed forest with giant examples of Yellow Birch, Red Spruce, Eastern Hemlock, and Sugar Maple. This area has never been logged. As the trail drops lower and lower, more and more conifers appear. Back from the bog it is a mix of Red Spruce and Balsam Fir. Out at the bog fringe it is small Black Spruce and Tamarack (American Larch).

 

    Ferd’s Bog looking toward Cascade Mountain

The middle of the bog is open peatland and a slow stream—technically this may actually be a fen. A boardwalk makes it possible to walk out to the very center of the clearing. I walk this route four times on this trip. I never tire of the walk, even though the boreal birds that make this bog famous with birders are not to be seen. But the scenery and the snow and the chilly weather and varying sky conditions all make the walk worthwhile. Standing there, I recall finding, back in late June 1989, in a stand of dead spruces, an active nest of an American Three-toed Woodpecker, the parents bringing food to the noisy nestlings. The nest hole was about 7 feet off the ground. I could stand right next to the nest and the parents would ignore me and fly right in to provision their offspring. That I will never forget. It has been more than a decade since that rare species has been seen in the Bog or its vicinity. Its possible the American Three-toed no longer exists in the Adirondacks. I hope that is not true. We need to get out and find it!

 

    Black-capped Chickadee

 Instead, I see Black-capped Chickadees (not Boreal) and Blue Jays and a Raven. And I do happen upon some tracks on a fallen log that is snow-covered—tracks of a Fisher that has recently passed this way. So I am definitely in Fisher country!

 

                        Tracks of Fisher on snowy log  (glove for scale)

 

On the following morning I drive to Upper Brown’s Tract Pond and park there to walk the snowmobile trail out to the boardwalk onto Brown’s Tract Outlet Creek. This is another lovely walk though conifer country—across an esker from one catchment to another. What is remarkable is how the forest type is so closely related to the physiography of the countryside.

 

     Lower Brown's Tract Pond Outlet boardwalk

The boardwalk takes me out into a headwaters of a stream that drains from Upper Brown’s Tract Pond into Raquette Lake. It is boggy country and the catchment is lined with Black Spruce and Tamaracks. I listen for Black-backed Woodpecker, but no luck, even though this is their habitat. I do manage to see a Beaver foraging along a open patch of water. It sees me and quickly retreats. Birds are few, mammals are even fewer. If it was not for the tracks in the fresh snow, I would hardly know there are mammals here (except for the Beaver).

 

    Beaver doing its thing, ice be damned!

 

I stop and admire a stand of great White Pines that rise above the ridge of the esker I cross to return to my car. These trees have diameters topping three feet—they are the forest giants here. They dwarf the Eastern Hemlocks and Red Spruces and Balsam Firs that are scattered about (the hemlocks higher up, the spruces and firs mainly lower down the slopes).  

 

    White Pine giants on ridge above Brown's Tract Outlet

 One of the few common species here now is Blue Jay. I encounter them in ones or twos just about everywhere I go. The Canada Jays are nowhere to be seen for some reason. This spot, with the tall conifers, seems to be popular with flocks of Red Crossbills. I walk this trail three times on my trip and hear them every time, and occasionally see one or two perched atop one of the conifer spires.

 

     Blue Jay

 

 

    Small conifers encrusted with fresh snow

 

When one hears the tapping of a woodpecker, one hope for something rare, but often it is a Hairy or Downy—both of these common species like these woods.

 

    Hairy Woodpecker 

Still, it is the glorious scenery that is captivating on my walks. The shapes of the snow-clad conifers as well as the encrusted hardwood branches—so long as it stays cold and the wind relents. These scenes are ephemeral, gone in a morning if the wind decides to blow or if the temerature rises.

 

    Snowy Ridge

One afternoon I walk the town roads on the ridge east of Thendara and Old Forge. This is a woodsy suburb of these two tiny towns. Here on the well-drained hillsides the hardwoods dominate—American Beech and Yellow Birch and Sugar Maple. I hear the loud thwack of a Pileated Woodpecker at work on a big old Yellow Birch. It ignores me as I slowly edge closer and closer, until I am standing about twenty feet from the bird. And it continues to excavate. Why does it not fly off, as they usually do?

 

    Pileated Woodpecker attacking the rot

The chickadee flock is the most common of the avian phenomenon here in the snow. Black-capped Chickadees, usually attended by one or two Red-breasted Nuthatches, and perhaps a Brown Creeper, are actively hunting for winter food. I spish and the chickadees zoom right down to greet me. I love their friendliness!

 

    Sunlight on Red Spruce, Balsam Fir, Tamarack (bare of needles), and perhaps an Eastern Hemlock (left to right)

I did manage to see some Pine Siskins mixed in with American Goldfinches, but the latter were here in much greater numbers.

 

    Pine Siskin

The only other common winter finch is the Purple Finch. I encounter flocks of five or ten birds on several of my walks.

 

     Purple Finch adult male

White-tailed Deer seem to move into the towns in winter. Perhaps the browsing is better in people’s yards. I watch one deer reaching high to take the feathery end-branches of a Balsam Fir. I am surprised to see a deer take the redolent needles of this fir, but there is not much else to choose this time of year. Down in town, I see another pair of small deer. I spish and the smaller of the two slowly and directly walks up to me, hoping for a handout. I reach out my hand and it licks my fingers. I am able to reach out and pat it on the head. Its pelt is rough. Petting a wild White-tail is a first for me...

 

      White-tail browsing Balsam Fir

Wednesday evening I check in with weather.com. Winds are going to blow from the south and temperatures are going to rise above freezing on Thursday. The end of my early winter. I therefore plan to pack the car early Thursday AM and drive south back into the warmth of the Mid-Atlantic. I had three days of falling snow, 20+ miles of walks through the snow, and perhaps 20+ species of winter birds. And, of course, the encounter with fresh tracks of a Fisher in the powdery snow of Ferd’s Bog.

 

    Red Crossbill adult male