It’s Not Rocket Science

Last week Arthur and I visited the Nature and Technology exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC). We hadn’t been inside the exhibit space for quite a while; access to it had been restricted during construction projects related to the new Atlantis exhibition building. Nature and Technology is across from the Rocket Garden; notice the reflections in photo below.

Nature and Technology

The first part of the exhibit is devoted to early human interactions with the area now known as the Space Coast. Native American history, pioneer life, citrus farming techniques, and other topics are covered via posters and artifact displays.


The historical exhibits weren’t familiar to us from previous visits, and we later learned that it and the rest of the Nature and Technology exhibit had recently been updated. For the nature portion, a short boardwalk runs through several of the different habitat types found on Merritt Island. Each habitat is accompanied by informational signs, materials to mock up the particular habitat, and stuffed animal specimens.

nature walk

While the mock nature walk is fairly standard on first glance, we noticed some unfortunate errors and inconsistencies on the new signage. The first one we noticed was a three-time loser.

Lagoon poster

no, and no

Northern Pintails

MOTTLED DUCKS are not BLUE-WINGED TEAL (photo) are not NORTHERN PINTAILS (specimens). The specimens and photo are all quite lovely; shame they are not marked correctly! The specimen marked (3) is a GREAT BLUE HERON, so just the photo, which depicts a TRICOLORED HERON, is in error there.

The next thing that jumped out at us was a sign which read, well, see for yourself:

Gull ID help

Maybe I am being extra nitpicky by letting this bug me on two levels: 1) there’s no such thing as a Sea Gull and 2) why are they going generic on the signs, suddenly? My first guess is that this is a Lesser Black-backed Gull (yellow legs) but I suck at gulls so that guess isn’t worth much… Help from the Flickr Bird Identification Help Group suggests this is a Great Black-backed. Anyway, here is the accompanying specimen:

Gull ID help

Pink legs, pink beak with black tip — first winter Ring-billed Gull? (Thank you to Flickr user Fool-On-The-Hill for ID assistance)

The non-specifics continued down the nature walk.

Flatwoods poster

At least the accompanying specimens matched the pictures. A RED-BELLIED WOODPECKER and a RED-SHOULDERED HAWK are perched beside their corresponding numbers.

I think it is absolutely wonderful that the KSCVC has such an exhibit devoted to the amazing wildlife found on the property at Merritt Island. I always enjoy the video they play on the bus tours that highlight the refuge, and I especially love how excited everyone is when the driver pauses the video to point out the ginormous actual Bald Eagle nest that can be seen from the bus during the drive back to the bus depot. In the exhibit, the specimens and habitat displays look great. It’s unfortunate that some of the items are mislabeled. Arthur and I mentioned it to staff at the information desk as we were leaving, and our comments were taken very seriously. I don’t know if they will be able to change the signs any time soon, but with our season pass you can bet we’ll drop by the exhibit again and have another looksee.

Bald Eagle
No complaints about this gorgeous Bald Eagle on display

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Posted in Birding Blooper, Florida, Museum | 1 Comment

Celebrating Vultures: IVAD 2012

IVAD 2012

Back in September Arthur and I visited Disney’s Animal Kingdom to celebrate International Vulture Awareness Day (IVAD), as we had last year. This year, most of the activities were found at the Rafiki’s Planet Watch area of the park.

There were displays about vultures, including information about vulture restaurants. In addition, the long-standing mystery of the Jungle Book vulture species identification was finally solved.

IVAD 2012

IVAD 2012

Jungle Book Vultures

At Rafiki’s Planet Watch there is a special medical exam room which allows for public viewing. Appropriately, the veterinary procedure scheduled for that morning was a routine exam on one of the park’s Rüppell’s Griffon Vultures.

Rüppell’s Griffon Vulture

Rüppell’s Griffon Vulture

A small outdoor stage hosted a short program with an education Black Vulture named Beaker.

IVAD 2012

Vultures can normally be found elsewhere in the park, too. Over at the Flights of Wonder show, we watched Audrey, a young Andean Condor, fly over the audience. Here she receives a treat from a handler. Sometimes a young King Vulture named Elvis makes an appearance.

Andean Condor

And then there are always wild vultures, soaring over the park on any given warm, sunny day.

Kettle of Black Vultures

That’s how we celebrated IVAD this year, but I should confess — I celebrate vultures as often as I can. Yesterday I celebrated by handling a Turkey Vulture patient at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey for the first time!

Thank you to my fellow volunteer Robert for taking this photo!

IVAD 2012

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Posted in ACBOP, Disney, Festivals & Events, Zoo | Leave a comment

Awesome adaptation against brood parasites

Nestling Superb Fairy-wrens learn unique begging calls from their mothers — before they even hatch. Researchers “conclude that wrens use a parent-specific password learned embryonically to shape call similarity with their own young and thereby detect foreign cuckoo nestlings.” In other words, the baby birds must chirp a secret password to be fed.

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A delicious, nutritious moth makes a nice meal for a migrating Yellow-rumped Warbler. Photos taken 17 October, 2012, at Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve in Lake County, Illinois.

delicious moth

delicious moth

delicious moth

Since we’ve been back in Florida, we’ve been spending a lot of time away from home. I haven’t seen any butterbutts in the yard, but I haven’t had much opportunity to look. Hopefully that will change very soon! It’s always a pleasure to see Yellow-rumped Warblers in the yard!

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Posted in Illinois, LCFPD, Migration | Leave a comment

Caching In Plain Sight

We don’t have any back yard nuthatches at our home here in DeBary, Florida. I sure wish we did, because they are so much fun to watch! Boogieing up and down trees, calling out like little squeeze toys, zipping around the yard…

Last month, while visiting my parents in northern Illinois, I thoroughly enjoyed checking out their feeder birds, which included a group of at least three White-breasted Nuthatches. One bird in particular was busy caching sunflower seeds. Often it would grab a seed and fly out of the yard to caches unknown. But a few times it worked on sticking seeds into a nearby stretch of old wooden fence. It was a lot of fun to watch this bird grab seeds

Ghost of White-breasted Nuthatch
The ghost of White-breasted Nuthatch strikes again

and fly the short distance to the fence at the back of the yard, seeking the best possible location to stash its precious seed.

Where shall I cache my seed?

If the seed fits...

Put my seed between them? Are you crazy?

Once the perfect spot was found, the nuthatch had to cram the seed in place. Sometimes this required minor body contortions.

Perfect crevice

More leverage

After caching several seeds in the fence, the nuthatch tried out a new spot. Pressing a hard seed into gnarly bark was a much quicker affair.

Good caching spot?

Classic pose

Brown-headed Nuthatches are the only nuthatch species we usually expect to find here in central Florida. This fall, great numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatches have been moving south. This afternoon, a Florida birder reported seeing one in my county (Volusia). I hope to add a second nuthatch species to my county list very, very soon.

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Posted in Illinois, Yard Birds | Leave a comment

Banded Reddish Egret on Bahia Honda

In mid-September Arthur and I drove down to the Florida Keys for a few days of camping, birding, and snorkeling. One morning we took a walk along Bahia Honda State Park’s Sandspur Beach before snorkeling. We saw a few birds, including a Reddish Egret who was actively hunting in the surf. The light wasn’t great so I wasn’t planning on taking any photos, but then I noticed the bird was banded. I got out my camera and took a few shots.

banded Reddish Egret

banded Reddish Egret

From my photos, I was able to tell that the last five digits of the band were 24697. With this partial information I went to the USGS Report a Band site to report the sighting. I was surprised that I was unable to submit the form without the full band number. So I did a little Googlin’ and found Clay Green via Heron Conservation. Though he wasn’t banding birds around the Keys, I was hoping he’d be able to send my information on to someone who could use it.

The following reply came back from Dr. Kenneth D. Meyer of Avian Research and Conservation Institute (posted with permission).

We (ARCI) banded this bird on 27 January 2010 on Ohio Key, Florida Keys (near where Amy saw it). Sexed by blood sample as male.

We were deploying satellite transmitters at the time but did not tag this bird because he had a large growth (external, abdomen) which Dr. Marilyn Spalding, a veterinary pathologist, advised may have been a result of a previous nematode infection (Eustrongylides sp.) that had become walled-off.

We have observed the bird several times since then while working in the area, but not recently. Very good to know he’s still alive and in the area. The eight Reddish Egrets that we captured in the lower Keys and tracked by satellite all remained year-round in the area, making habitual seasonal movements of, at most, 30-40 miles.

When captured and when later observed, this bird had several white and gray primaries, wing coverts, and tail feathers (bilateral). I’m wondering if Amy saw this or was able to take any photos.


Here I have to admit that at the time of the sighting I was so excited to a) see a banded bird and b) be able to photograph readable band photos that I didn’t spend nearly enough time just plain observing the dang bird. D’oh. It was behaving in a manner I would consider entirely normal for a Reddish Egret – actively hunting by darting around the shallow water, gingerly avoiding us human observers but acting neither overly wary nor especially confiding, and moving around on the beach as big waders do. I also didn’t notice many odd white feathers on the wings or tail, and I certainly didn’t notice any lesion on the chest. Here are my two best photos of the bird.

banded Reddish Egret

banded Reddish Egret

After seeing my photos, Ken indicated that the lesion had been quite large; it may be out of sight in my photos or it may just be gone.

I was glad to find the group who banded the Reddish Egret (REEG, by the way), and that my information may have been slightly useful. I learned my lesson, too. I am quite content to quietly observe a single bird for an extended period of time… but in this case I got a little bit overexcited about seeing a banded bird. Next time, I need to calm down and do what I enjoy most — observe the bird! After I record that band number, that is!

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Red-cockaded Woodpecker relocation & monitoring

After observing the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers during the early portion of last week’s field trip (see post Looking for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in Ocala NF), we returned to an abandoned cluster of woodpecker cavities to learn more about how biologists study Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and how they establish new, active clusters.

Monica Folk, our field trip co-leader, is a biologist specializing in endangered species. She worked to reintroduce Red-cockaded Woodpeckers (RCWOs) in the Disney Wilderness Preserve, which now has a sustainable population.

The heart of establishing a new, successful cluster of RCWOs is the artificial nest cavities. Since it takes a male woodpecker up to 4 years to complete one cavity, biologists give the birds a head start by installing pre-made cavities into living pine trees. The cavities are made of solid cedar wood. A woodpecker-sized hole is drilled downward into the wood and then a panel is placed on top to close the box.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker nest box
Cedar nest box with PVC around the opening and wire reinforcement on the front

The hole is cut out of the front and then fitted with a piece of PVC pipe to prevent other woodpeckers (Red-bellieds and Pileateds, primarily) from taking over the box. If this happens, the box is “blown out” and will no longer be used by the RCWOs. Wire mesh is also added to the front of the box to prevent predation and damage by other woodpeckers.

Old RCWO nest box damaged by other woodpeckers

Chainsaws and crowbars are used to carefully cut out the hole in the living tree. The outside of the box is covered with adhesive and then the box is pounded into the tree. To make the cavity more attractive, hammer holes are pounded around the cavity opening to release resin. Once a bit of sawdust is added to the box, it’s ready to house a RCWO.

resin holes
Using the back of a hammer to make holes around the artificial nest cavity

Damaged cavities can be replaced, and cavities used by other species (Eastern Bluebirds and Carolina Chickadees are two species that may use abandoned RCWO cavities) can be cleaned up to make them attractive to the woodpeckers once more. During the demonstration, Monica used a shop vac to clear out bluebird nesting material from an otherwise fine nest box.

Once the requisite number of cavities are set up within a cluster area (10 acres or so, depending on habitat), and the required and desired number of clusters are set up within a reintroduction area, site biologists may receive juvenile birds from established breeding sites. Retrieving birds is a very involved process which requires a lot of prior research and contingencies for a myriad of possible scenarios come “kidnapping” day.

net for capturing Red-cockaded Woodpeckers
A long net is telescoped up to the opening of a RCWO cavity

Birds are captured using long, telescoping nets. The net is placed over an active roosting cavity once the bird is inside for the evening; the tree is disturbed (tapped or shaken) to get the bird to fly out again, this time into the net. The RCWO flies out and eventually lands at the end of the long net. It is then safely removed from the net and then placed into a special box.

RCWO transport box. Notice rainbow-colored “sleeve” which helps prevent escape

The box has a cloth “sleeve” attached around the top. The sleeve allows biologists to open the wooden box and reach in to remove or replace the RCWO without the bird escaping. During the relocation process, the birds are captured at or after sundown, and sleep the night in the box. The next day, starting at sunrise, the birds are hand fed (!!) 3 prey items (ie crickets) every 45 minutes (!!), until sunset. It’s odd that these wild birds will readily accept food in the hand, but their natural biology has them eating nearly constantly every waking moment, so their hunger must override any fear they might have of humans.

Shortly after sunset, the birds are relocated to their new habitat. One young female and one young male are placed into a new cluster. Each bird is put into a cavity, where it sleeps for the night. A screen cover is placed in front of the opening to ensure the RCWO remains inside its cavity until the next morning. The cover is removed remotely from below with a string attached to the screen. RCWOs typically vocalize at waking, and keep in contact with their cluster-mates throughout the day. With this habit, the new birds are able to find each other at first light and hopefully begin foraging and/or exploring the new territory together.

peeper scope
Monica holds a “peeper scope” in retracted position

The woodpeckers are monitored during the breeding season. In the past, biologists had to climb ladders as tall as 40 feet in order to look inside nest cavities. Nest monitoring takes place every 7 days and a biologist may have several clusters to check – that’s a lot of climbing! Today biologists may utilize a “peeper scope” — a camera set up on a long telescoping pole with a monitor or viewfinder at the bottom. The scope is raised up to the level of the nest and gently poked inside.

peeper scope in nest hole
Peeper scope peeping inside a nest cavity

RCWOs may lay up to four eggs. Incubation begins after the second egg is laid; the eggs hatch after just 11 days of incubation. The nest is usually in the male’s cavity. The female will incubate during daylight, where she is fed by the male throughout the day. The male incubates at night (which makes sense — the eggs are in his cavity, after all!).

peeping at a peeper scope monitor
No eggs, just nesting material from an old bluebird nest

Biologists check the nest cavities for eggs. Depending on the number of eggs found, they can calculate when hatching may occur. This is important to know, since the chicks develop quickly. Eleven days after hatching, the chicks are still featherless, but their legs have already grown to their full size. This is when the chicks are banded.

The procedure for retrieving the chicks for banding seems a bit tricky. The nest cavities are permanently installed in the tree; there is no hand-sized opening. Biologists climb up on a ladder and use a small, delicate plastic “noose” to gently pull the chicks, unseen, out of the nest. A simple mirror on a stick is used to check that all hatchlings have been removed from the nest. The chicks are carried down to the ground, banded and measured, and then gently returned back to the nest.

Monica shows the small plastic noose used to extract the chicks

RCWOs at the Ocala NF sites we visited are fitted with five bands each. Three color bands are on one leg, while the other holds the metal federal band and one color band. This means the birds can be monitored without further capture and RCWOs that branch out to new territories can be identified and followed.

It was fascinating to learn about Red-cockaded Woodpecker biology and monitoring. Life bird + learning cool biologist stuff = big win!

NOTE: I’ve composed this post from information that Monica shared with us during the field trip; hopefully I’ve gotten the facts straight but obviously any factual errors here are strictly my own.

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Posted in Banding, Endangered, Festivals & Events, Florida | 2 Comments

Looking for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in Ocala NF

On Friday, September 28, Arthur and I attended a field trip at the Clearwater Recreation Area of Ocala National Forest. The trip, part of the inaugural Wings & Wildflowers Festival, was to look for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and learn about how biologists study and conserve this endangered species.

Ocala NF trail
A part of The Florida Trail that crosses into Ocala National Forest

We began our walk out to a Red-cockaded Woodpecker (RCWO) “cluster” just after sunrise. Along the way, trip co-leader Monica Folk told our group about RCWO ecology, family groups, and nesting behavior.

RCWOs are somewhat unique in that they are cooperative nesters. Just about 8% of bird species are known to be. Cooperative nesting means that offspring from previous nesting seasons may stay close to their parents and help raise subsequent broods. Young females are usually the first to branch out from the extended family, much like Florida Scrub-Jays (also cooperative nesters, also endangered).

RCWOs are also unique in that they are the only species of woodpecker to make their cavities in living pine trees. The birds roost in individual cavities at night, so a family group consisting of 4 birds should normally have at least four cavities within its territory (the cluster). The males excavate the cavities and it takes up to four years to complete one cavity. Active cavity trees can be identified by small holes bored around the cavity entrance. RCWOs create these little wells which cause the tree to exude resin; the resin helps protect the cavity from predatory rat snakes.

Shiny resin

RCWOs have a lot of other specific habitat requirements in order to successfully nest. The type of vegetation found in the ground cover, wildfires and forest rejuvenation, and even tree fungus (!) are just a few things that come into play.

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers like to nest in the same kind of trees humans cut for timber on a mass scale in the last 150+ years. Habitat loss has resulted in the RCWO population currently estimated to be 12,500 individuals, which is about 1% of its original population.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat
Looking for RCWOs in suitable habitat

Biologists are helping RCWOs by preserving suitable habitat and identifying potential future habitat, and by introducing birds into areas fitted with artificial nest cavities (more about those in an upcoming post). Our walk brought us to an area fitted with a few artificial cavities where a lone male was known to live. The male was associating with a female who was thought to roost elsewhere (a commuter!). So when we came upon at least three individuals actively feeding at the cluster, it came as somewhat of a surprise. One of the birds was clearly exhibiting the begging behavior of a juvenile, indicating nesting success at the site.

The sun was behind the birds as we watched them, but I managed to take a few record shots. Our binocular views were much better; we were able to drink in this new life bird.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

The below video isn’t in focus but you can see two RCWOs scooting upwards, with debris from a third bird falling below. They move around the trees, tearing off pieces of bark to find insects below. We were watching them have breakfast. Listen to their cute squeaky toy call, too.

In my next post I’ll share some of what we learned about how biologists establish new clusters and monitor the birds. Hint: some of it involves really tall ladders!

Artificial RCWO cavity

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Teacher vultures

I recently started learning to handle birds at my new volunteer gig at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey. It’s very interesting to me how the equipment and procedures are a bit different than what I learned at Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation. I have started working with the handsome American Kestrel Newton, who I got to handle on the glove for a couple of hours at a program two weeks ago. Oh, it was such a joy for me to hold this precious little avian ambassador and talk with visitors during the event.

Since today is International Vulture Awareness Day, I’ve been thinking about vultures on the glove. None of the vultures at ACBOP are glove trained, but that may be for the best in my case, since I don’t have the best track record with vultures. The first time I tried to handle Junior the Turkey Vulture I ended up with a little scar on my hand. Don’t get me wrong, I love vultures, just love ’em, but after ACBOP’s Uff-da went after my ankle, I think the feeling is not quite mutual.

Anyway, vultures are part of raptor education programs and are glove trained at centers all over the world. Here are some cool photos I found on Flickr of vultures on the glove, in flight programs, or educating the public in zoos. Thanks to the photographers for sharing their photos with a Creative Commons license.

Eurasian Griffon on the glove | Vulture by Maurice Koop

Turkey Vulture
Turkey Vulture on the glove | Turkey Vulture by Michael @ NW Lens

White-backed Vulture flight program | 2008-07-06-13h26m55.IMG_2116le by A.J. Haverkamp

American Black Vulture on the glove | Vulture by RichardGlenSailors

Andean Condor being fed
Hand feeding an Andean Condor | Andean Condor being fed by San Diego Shooter

Vera takes off
Lappet-faced Vulture flight program | Vera takes off by *Pete

Palm-nut Vulture in jesses | Sailing by patries71

Rodney - Hooded vulture
Hooded Vulture flying to glove | Rodney – Hooded vulture by piX1966

Cape Griffon Vulture in your face | Ybgvt_1b by gvgoebel

Jack Hanna ~ rare Egyptian Vulture
Egyptian Vulture with celebrity zookeeper | Jack Hanna ~ rare Egyptian Vulture by something.from.nancy

Rüppell's Vulture
Rüppell’s Vultures at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge | Rüppell’s Vulture by Powered By Birds

David with the White Headed Vulture
White-headed Vulture on the glove | David with the White Headed Vulture by Richard Towell

Felix the Vulture
Cinereous Vulture on falconry perch | Felix the Vulture by RCanine

Greater Yellow-headed Vulture on the glove | 2008-03-15-13h14m52.IMG_3562e by A.J. Haverkamp

King Vulture on the glove | IMG_8945e by A.J. Haverkamp

California Condor portrait
California Condor at the zoo | California Condor portrait by San Diego Shooter

cincinnati zoo vulture feeding
American Black Vulture goofing off | cincinnati zoo vulture feeding by Paul J Everett

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