Archive for January, 2023

Jan 23

A Red-bellied Woodpecker in Pennsylvania

Red-bellied Woodpecker
A female Red-bellied Woodpecker flies onto a branch and works along its edge. Her soft colors shined in the afternoon light.

A rolling kwirr kwirr came from my right, so I leaned forward to look out the small window in my photography blind. In one of the walnuts, oaks, or locusts would be a Red-bellied Woodpecker, but nothing popped out. A half-inch of snow lay on the ground, and the trees were naked of leaves on this December day. The ground dropped off quickly to my right and down to a narrow ravine where the small creek flowed from the spring behind me. To my left, the hill’s slope was more gradual. Patches of multiflora rose and grasses grew under the sparse canopy. I’d set up near a fallen tree whose exposed roots might make excellent perches for birds coming to the food I’d scattered.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are now the most common woodpecker on my sister’s farm, where I grew up more than fifty years ago. But they weren’t in Western Pennsylvania during my youth and into the beginning of my adulthood. Back then, several high school friends and I went to Maryland to see this species. We drove all night and camped on the Delmar Peninsula, then birded the area for species not found in our farm country.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker looked right at me even though I was hiding in a blind.

The kwirr was a little louder now; the bird was coming closer. These are medium-sized woodpeckers, bigger than the Downy and Hairy but smaller than the Pileated. In the last half-century, Red-bellies have expanded north, moving throughout Pennsylvania, into New York and Ontario, and up through much of the mid-west. Probably several things have allowed them to do this. Planting ornamental bushes and trees has provided more food, increased bird feeding in residential areas has supplemented natural foods, and climate change has helped them, too. These birds regularly feed on seeds; ornamental planting has provided winter fruits and suitable foraging surfaces for bugs. The Northern Mockingbird is another species now common near my sister’s farm that wasn’t this far north in my youth.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker turned sideways to look back into the forest.

A pale-brownish bird dashed onto the branch and hung from the backside. It had a long-pointed bill, little bits of red on its forehead and nape, black and white striped back. Definitely a Red-bellied Woodpecker, a female. She hopped forward a couple of times, moving to keep the branch between her and me as much as possible. She knew I was there. Her toes gripped the wood with long nails, two toes forward and two backward. Although she didn’t need it for bracing in this horizontal position, her stiff tail was pushed down on the branch. I am particularly fond of the soft tan colors of her chest and belly. The red is far back on their bellies and often not prominent. Males will usually have more of a red wash across their undersides. People often question why this bird isn’t named for its red head, but another woodpecker possesses that name.

She moved up the branch, picking seeds up, and then in a flash, disappeared down over the hill.

A female Red-bellied Woodpecker has a little red on the forehead and the nape and the brown-gray on the top of the head.
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Jan 23

The Pantanal of Brazil

The wetland Savana of the Pantanal.

The grass waved slightly in the morning breeze, touching the railing on the boardwalk. My knee was braced on a post as I scanned east and then north across this vast wetland. Structurally, the marsh looked much like the Florida Everglades, where I worked for more than a decade. Earlier, a Snail Kite had quartered back and forth, hunting apple snails, and five Great Egrets had flown over on their broad white wings. Both species are found in Florida, and my work there focused on their conservation. Wood Storks had been abundant at this place, too, a species endangered in the United States but doing fine in Brazil. 

The grass species here looked different from Florida, not sawgrass, and the trees on the hammocks were more tropical, with many palms and broadleaf species that I didn’t recognize. This was the Pantanal, a wetland almost as big as Florida, extending across southern Brazil and into Bolivia and Paraguay. A squawk caused me to turn around; a pair of Hyacinth Macaws flew on steady wingbeats west over the marsh. These are the largest parrots in the Western Hemisphere. They feed on the fruits of palms. Definitely, I was not in the Everglades and hadn’t been for the previous week.

Hyacinth Macaw

In the 1980s and 1990s, I worked on the conservation and restoration of the Everglades. My research group studied the needs of birds and how to restore a healthier ecosystem. I also spent endless hours in planning meetings with federal, state, and local officials and with industry and agriculture interests. Collectively, we made massive progress on the needs of these wetlands. From my start there, in 1984, I heard of the Pantanal and how this tropical wetland still functioned pretty much untrammeled by human hands. It had been a dream of mine to see this place, get a feel for its wildlife and how it functioned, and look for parallels and differences with the Everglades. Now, forty years later, I’d finally made it.

In 2021, my friend Bob planned a trip to this place, and I asked if I could join him. Unfortunately, that expedition was postponed because of drought. But in July 2022, we came. Much of our time had been along the Rio Savore and Rio Sao Lourenco, traveling by skiff. July was partway into the dry season, and the water levels had dropped several meters from their wet season maximums. We were down in water courses, and the settings reminded me of the channels running through the coastal wetlands of Florida or along the Kissimmee River in the northern part of the Everglades. Occasionally, we could see over the banks and get a feel for the vastness of the marsh system. Oxbow lakes, small ponds, and depressions dot this landscape. I could imagine the wading birds concentrating at those locations as water levels fell; the caimans, this country’s equivalent to our Alligators, lining the shorelines to bask in the sun. A hike to oxbow would be spectacular but out of the question, for jaguars hunt these wetlands.

The view from one of the many rivulets that run through the Pantanal.

During the previous two days, we’d moved out into the savannas, staying at lodges rather than on a houseboat. The landscape from the boardwalk that final morning and the mixed habitats we’d hiked in the day before and earlier that day reminded me so much of Florida, a combination of the vast wetlands, savannas, and woodlands of the Everglades, Kissimmee Valley, and the Lake Istokpoga plains.

I’d spent three years working on a cattle ranch downstream of Lake Istokpoga. Like central Florida, the Pantanal is primarily private and occupied by massive cattle ranches. Its conservation, too, will depend on maintaining viable cattle operations and having the locals recognize and cherish the wilds. Bob hired a Brazilian guide, Paulo, and we used all local companies. The economy of this area was severely affected by Covid because tourism dried up for two years. One should – and we did – tip generously, for it helps build goodwill for nature.

Brazilian Tapir

After lunch on that final day, we would pack up and head back to Cuiaba and our flights home. On the dirt track out from Pouso Alegre, we spotted a South American Tapir soaking in a small pond. This big mammal sent a chill through my veins. It is a creature of the wilds and a symbol of wilderness. The tapir sighting was a nice close to our trip. I ended up seeing more than 130 bird species and numerous mammals, reptiles, and plants. One of the most remarkable things for me is to share a place with a local who repeatedly demonstrates their love for the land. Paulo and our local boatmen and drivers all gave us that gift.

Wood Storks going to roost in the Pantanal, Brazil.

The Challenge

The challenge I put to myself was to create a portfolio of photographs that highlights the unique natural history of the Pantanal and also had relevance to my scientific and professional background. The target was set at 13 photographs. This was the number to make a calendar. I took many tens of thousands of photographs, and the task became daunting. I wanted photographs that had meaning from this trip and also had meaning from my work in science and conservation.

This collection of photographs will give you a taste of the diversity and uniqueness of the Pantanal. It is a wetland of international significance, a UNESCO World Heritage site that needs much focus on its conservation and protection. Unfortunately, when I was there in 2022, the President of Brazil was promoting the exploitation of the wilds. Paulo told us that his administration had slogans saying that photographing wildlife was illegal and protecting nature was bad for people. This will only change with support from the people of Brazil. 

I only had a chance to see a small piece of the northern region of the Pantanal. Another trip farther south would yield many new and fascinating sightings. Maybe an anaconda, other parrot species, a giant anteater, or more cats would grace us with their wonder. A place worth another visit and much more study.

The Portfolio

Portrait of Jaguar – Our skiff glided around a bend on the Rio Sao Lourenco and drifted off a plane to bob on the shallow river. A capybara sat on the bank, staring out at us, and I immediately began to capture her pose. A few seconds later, someone mumbled jaguar. There, not 100 feet farther down the bank, a jaguar was starting to emerge through the tangled riparian vegetation.

Paulo, our guide, said it was a young female who had two almost full-grown cubs and was hunting to provide for them. The cat lay down and began to scan the river. In the Pantanal, they feed extensively on caiman and will also take capybaras. That large rodent squealed, jumped into the river, and began barking to warn others of the danger. The jaguar paid it no heed. Our boat coasted opposite the cat; my heart felt like it might jump out of my chest. I could have tossed her a ball or chunk of meat.

Jabiru – The male stork leaned over his three chicks and began to dribble water from his beak. The young quickly scrambled for the moisture. It was early afternoon, and the day’s temperature was hot. The tropical sun had the chicks panting. The lodge had constructed a tower that allowed me to stand 30 feet above the ground and not far from the stork’s nest.

When I climbed the tower thirty minutes earlier, the female was guarding the chicks. The male flew in from the north, passed the nest, and made a large loop out to the west. He glided on eight-foot wings and came in below my eye level, where I could look across his impressive back. He gently flew up to land on the nest’s rim. The female stepped to the side while the male moved amongst the chicks. One chick, then a second, took water directly from his mouth before he began to dribble water for them all.

Snail Kite – The kite cruised just feet above the marsh, quartering back and forth, searching for Pomacea snails. These birds are highly specialized feeders, eating only a few varieties of snails. The gastropod will come near the surface, and the birds grab them with their talons, carrying them to a perch where they use that long curved beak to extract the meat. Snail Kites are endangered in Florida but doing well across Latin America. The red eye on this male glowed in the soft light and contrasted with his slate-black plumage.

Crested Caracara – The bird dipped its right wing as it passed, giving me a full view of its elegant body. The late afternoon sun provided warm light to show off its sleek plumage. This caracara flew down the Rio Sarare past our small skiff, its yellow cere and face glistening. The scalloping on its back and tail contrasted with the dark wings with a white window in the outer primaries. This species nested on the cattle ranch where I worked for three years in Central Florida. They like open savanna country there as they do in Brazil. These are members of the falcon group, and several species occur across Latin America.

Ocelot – The cat crept along the thin branches a few feet above the ground, stopped, and then looked through me like I was a window. It was about the size of a large house cat but with longer legs, especially the hind ones. Ocelots are arboreal hunters, quickly moving through the trees in search of prey. Our guide thought this female might have kittens someplace in the gallery forest along the Rio Sarare. Her claws were retracted, but their tips showed on her front paw. She moved like an angel, disappearing back into the forest without sound or effort.

Giant River Otter – The otter rolled onto its side, scratched its neck with the hind paw, and then looked behind it, snarling but making no noticeable noise. We’d been following the family group along the Rio Sao Lorenco for close to an hour. Giant River Otters are highly social. A breeding pair forms the core, and several others are helpers in raising offspring. The white markings on their face, neck, and chest are unique, providing a way of identifying individuals. These diurnal mammals were hunting fish, and we saw them catch several. Each ate their catch with no aggression and no apparent sharing. The species is endangered across much of its range.

Rufescent Tiger-Heron – The heron bolted from the marsh and flew right toward us. The sun made its body stand out against the dark forest background. The feathers were sleek, delicate, and in perfect shape. Possibly, the two outer primaries — flight feathers — on the wing were still last year’s and not as fresh looking as the others. Tiger-Herons are a bird of the tropics and something I’d not seen since traveling in southern Mexico decades ago. These birds are shy, often staying well camouflaged or sneaking off into the thicket and going undetected. 

Jaguar hunting – The jaguar had disappeared back into the gallery forest, but our guide thought it was hunting and would be headed upstream along Rio Sao Lourenco. We moved about a quarter mile, dropping a small anchor. Fifteen minutes later, the cat came through the bushes, her muscles tense, ears pointing forward, and eyes checking the shallows for a caiman. In the Pantanal, jaguars specialize in these crocodilians and grow bigger and stronger than jaguars over the rest of their range. We watched this female work the bank and shallows. Several times she waded into thick mats of water hyacinths but didn’t find any prey.

Southern Screamers – We’d seen the pair standing on top of this lone tree in the Pantanal the previous two days. The sun had been setting, and the light fading those days. We were fifteen minutes earlier on this day, so I waved to the boatman to slow down. Three screamer species occur in this unique family, Anhimidae. This species, the Southern Screamer, was the first one I’d ever seen, even though I’d known of them for fifty years. They are like mythological creatures, with a small turkey-like head and a bulky body of a goose. They possess a sizeable sharp spur on their wings and can use them in a battle to do substantial damage to an opponent.

Classification systems put them in with the Duck and Goose Order, but they have many characteristics of chickens, turkeys, quail, and pheasants. This group may well be a link between these two bird Orders. Remarkably, the ancestor of these two groups somehow made it through the mass extinction caused by the meteor that hit off the Yucatan 66 million years ago. This pair just stood there like an Inca god and goddess. Reluctantly, I said we were good to go, for I knew our party was thinking of the sweet caipirinhas waiting at the houseboat. I watched this pair until they disappeared, feeling like I was in the presence of something remarkable.

Capybara Family – The pup touched the female’s backside while the male sat ten feet to their left. A capybara family was on the sandy beach. This species is the largest rodent in the world. The female may weigh a hundred pounds, and the male even more. Over the last three days, we’d seen many along the Rio Sao Lourenco. They feed on aquatic plants, swim exceptionally well, and use the water to escape jaguars. Probably, additional ones were in the water or just over the berm, for they often travel in extended family groups. They are a distant relative of guinea pigs and look like overgrown ones.

Toco Toucan – “Toucan,” came from the person beside me. A large, yellow-orange beak dropped through the canopy and landed on a vine slightly above eye level. The Toco Toucan was elegant, looking like he was dressed for a gala. Blue skin surrounded his black eye, and then bright orange wrapped that. He wore a snow-white bib, black body, and fire-engine red under his tail, white above. His legs and feet were a baby blue. Not a single feather was out of place. A second bird, identical in plumage, landed not far away. The sexes are similar in appearance, and there was no way I knew which was which. 

Yacare Caiman – The caiman made a beeline for me. Its eyes appeared glued to mine, and its long tail waved back and forth in rapid s-curves, propelling it along. I looked at the gunnel on the small skiff, maybe only six inches above the water line, and back at this beast. It was at least 6 feet long, perhaps as much as eight. A bow wave radiated out from its snout, and its teeth started to show at the waterline. These are fish eaters, and the boatman waved a fish in the air while squeaking for the crocodilian to approach. Still, seeing this primordial predator approach sent a chill through my body.

Lesser Kiskadee – The flycatcher zipped down onto the log floating at the river’s edge. Its muscles appeared taught, like a sprinter in the racing block. These are aerial pursers, and it was looking for a flying insect to dash after. Their bills are moderately wide, making a perfect net and pincher for grabbing a moth, fly, or dragonfly. The black and white pattern on its head and throat stood out in the bright sun, and the yellow underside looked like a beautiful, tailored outfit. In a blink, it was gone, twisting and turning as it tried to nab some morsel.

Thank You!

This capybara wants to wish you a wonderful and happy New Year. May the wilds bring you joy, solace, and a sense of awe. Thank you.

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Jan 23

The Peer of the Blue Jay

The Blue Jay cocked its head to the side as if thinking deeply about something, before focusing on scarfing up some seeds.

The Blue Jay landed on the old turned-up root and then looked right at me. I felt like something of great intelligence was peering into my eyes and seeing right through me. This jay is in the crow and raven family and has the smarts. It seemed to be letting me know that she knew I was trying to hide in my photographic blind. I’d been putting food around the old stump for several days and had just zipped myself into the tent-like structure with my telephoto lens sticking through a small opening.

The jay was stiff, frozen for a second as it stared right at me, apparently knowing that I was trying to hide in a small blind.

I studied the feathers on this magnificent specimen. The blue glistened in the light, accented by white flecking on the wings and face, and she possessed the right amount of black fringe. The feathers appeared fresh, not showing any signs of wear. Blue Jays replace their feathers in late summer and early fall. Young of the year go through a partial molt while adults replace all their feathers. Energetically, it is an expensive process; growing the new plumage takes nutrients and much protein.

The wing feathers on a Blue Jay show the intricate design typical of this species.

Almost five decades ago, I did my master’s thesis on this species, a comparative study of molt in Blue Jays and Scrub Jays in central Florida. There, Scrub Jays finish nesting in June, while Blue Jays often have a second brood and go into August. The study showed that both species wait until their nesting season is over to molt, and each takes about two months to replace all their feathers.

With a flick of its head, the peanut bit flew from the front of the bill’s tip into the Blue Jay’s gullet.

The blue of this one’s feathers was intense. That color is not from a pigment but rather from how it reflects light; only the blue wavelength comes off. The feather’s structure forms the blue color in birds. Apparently, my grandfather figured this out in the 1920s and published a paper in The Auk. He was a chemistry professor at Cornell University and collaborated with his friends at the Cornel Laboratory of Ornithology. I don’t remember meeting my grandfather; he died before my second birthday. I sometimes wonder what other bird stuff fascinated him.

This movie takes 55 seconds. The Blue Jay pauses several times, and you might think the movie is over, wait for a few seconds. He flies away in the end.

The first Blue Jay flew away, and another landed on the wood. They are highly dexterous with that bill. It grabbed one peanut bit, flipping it up in the air and to the back of its mouth. A second individual began to gulp seeds, gradually filling its mouth with a nice little collection. It, too, then dashed back into the woods. Blue Jays will stash seeds for later. First, they will open a small hole in the ground, depositing the mouth full and then covering up the stash with dirt and vegetation. Eventually, they come back and dig the titbits up to eat.

Several more jays came and went over the next few minutes before they seemed to disappear as quickly as they had arrived. Other birds — chickadees, titmice, sparrows, and cardinals — began to come now that the jays had moved to some other endeavor. 

The wing feathers and back plumage on this Blue Jay were smooth, slick, and in perfect shape. The pattern of blue, white, and black made the wing and tail stand out. To me, these birds always look like they are ready for a galla, all decked out.
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