Two Florida Trips


(This 852nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 22, 2007.)


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Painted Bunting male and female

painted by Allan Brooks


It has been years since I visited Florida so my three weeks there on two trips recently was quite unusual. Neither was a birding adventure -- on one I didn't even take binoculars -- and both trips were during the summer doldrums between migrations. I did manage, however, to see many of the "expected" Florida birds and a few unusual species as well.


Before I tell you about those birds, I mention one striking difference I observed in Florida natural history since my earlier visits. In the past I saw only a few alligators; this time I found them everywhere I went in the southern half of the state. On one bus ride I watched the roadside drainage ditch and saw an alligator about every half mile either basking on shore or lying like a log half submerged. I would be hesitant to put my toe in the water there.


But back to the birds. If you have a field guide handy, you might want to review my list. Although I will generally follow phylogenic order (the order followed by bird books), this will also let me start with the nondescript and end with a fashion plate. The nondescript bird at the outset is the mottled duck, a southern replacement for our black duck and mallard. A few minor field marks are all that separate this brown and tan bird from our local black duck, not a clothes horse itself.


The next two species aren't all that handsome either, but at least the first I find loveable. Brown pelicans have those huge bills and it is hard to find them attractive when they sit gloomily on a shoreline post, but they appear almost elegant to me flying in small groups, their wings scarcely moving in the on-shore breeze. The other is the anhinga, known locally as the snake bird. It at least looks better to me than its cousins, the cormorants, but that may be simply because I so rarely see anhingas.


Then, of course, there are the Florida specialties, the wading birds. I didn't see them all but I certainly found a good selection. In one marsh north of Jacksonville I flushed a tri-colored heron (a species we old timers knew as Louisiana heron) but another heron remained. I assumed at first that it was another tri-color but it turned out to be an adult little blue heron. Its name should be little purple heron as I have never seen a more purple bird.


Remarkably, this year I had already seen in Buffalo all three egrets -- great, snowy and cattle -- that I found in Florida. But anyone enjoys seeing these lovely birds, once almost extirpated by the feather trade but now common and extending their range. I also found both white and glossy ibises, roseate spoonbills and wood storks.


I like our turkey vulture but join my southern friends in their dislike of the black vulture, which can become a neighborhood nuisance.


Two otherwise widely differing birds share apparel. I was fortunate to see a swallow-tailed kite, a handsome and appropriately named raptor, soaring over a marsh. And at another marsh a friend pointed out a dainty shorebird, a black-necked stilt, another striking black and white species.


Laughing gulls, those ha-ha callers, and least terns, both very rare in Buffalo, I found along the ocean shore. Florida has many dove species we don't have here. I saw two of them: the Eurasian collared-dove and the common ground dove. Then there are two more species that displace our local birds. The fish crow in Florida where I was is a common bird, its cah replacing our common crow's caw. And the Carolina chickadee, its deedeedeeing distinct from our black-capped. Without those calls I would have identified neither of those birds.


And finally, on the north end of Amelia Island my friend Earl Colborn pointed out a park feeder. On it was a painted bunting. If anything, this bird is too colorful. It has a bright blue head, an equally bright red eye that matches its breast, belly and rump and a green back. To me it looked like a bird colored by a child's crayon.-- Gerry Rising