New yard bird: Green Heron

Green Heron (Butorides virescens), Boca Raton FL, November 26, 2013.

The week before Thanksgiving continues to be busy at the homestead. On Tuesday and Wednesday—both rainy, windy mornings—we had a special visit from a new bird for the yard: Butorides virescens, the Green Heron. It’s a nice little marsh bird, but rather uncommon here so far from the nearest canal or other permanent wetland. We felt quite favored to have it drop in. I managed to get a couple of decent (if you squint, you almost can’t see how blurry they are) snapshots before herding the kids into the van for school drop off:

Green Heron (Butorides virescens), Boca Raton FL, November 26, 2013.

Green Heron (Butorides virescens), Boca Raton FL, November 26, 2013.

These birds are somewhat awkward looking, don’t you think? And when they raise their crest, they look even more, um, interesting:

Green Heron (Butorides virescens), Boca Raton, FL, November 27, 2013

Green Heron (Butorides virescens), Boca Raton, FL, November 27, 2013

And then when they stretch their necks out? Fuggedaboutit:


Green Heron (Butorides virescens). Boca Raton, FL, November 27, 2013.

Green Heron (Butorides virescens). Boca Raton, FL, November 27, 2013.

Each time this bird has appeared, I’ve seen it through the kitchen windows near the house and then been forced to open the glass doors, thus scaring it a bit farther away than I’d like and making it skittish and hard to approach. And since my good telephoto is just at the limit of my ability to hold by hand, I just can’t quite get that perfect shot. But if it keeps coming, I’ll keep trying!


The etymology of the taxonomic name is uncertain. Butorides, according to my copy of Choate,  is apparently a coined modern Latin word probably related to butio, “bittern,” with -ides (from Gr. eidos) meaning “resembling.” Virescens, of course, is “growing or becoming green.” (An alternative explanation is that butor comes from bos (cow) and taurus (bull), in which case the Green Heron resembles a bull-cow. You see why I don’t always follow Cabard and Chauvet.) Gruson is no help, following, as he so often does, Choate (or perhaps it was vice versa, as Choate published in 1973 and Gruson in 1972).


Cabard, P. and B. Chauvet. (2003). L’Etymologie des noms d’oiseaux. Paris: Belin.

Choate, E. A. (1985). Dictionary of American Bird Names, Revised Edition. Boston: Harvard Commons

Gruson, E. S. (1972). Words for Birds: A Lexicon of North American Birds with Biographical Notes. New York: Quadrangle.

Shooting through glass doors

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). Boca Raton, FL, March 1, 2013.

When you have the opportunity for a photo of a bird in a nice setting, you run for your camera. This Northern Cardinal was singing in the starburst and bougainvillea on our neighbor’s property, in perfect view of our glass doors in back. So I went and grabbed my camera and fired off a few shots through the dirty glass before attempting to head outside and get a clear shot.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). Boca Raton, FL, March 1, 2013.

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). Boca Raton, FL, March 1, 2013.

Unfortunately, I had neglected to factor the toddler into the equation. Seeing the open door, he rushed to close it, not realizing (or not caring) that his beloved daddy was trying to squeeze off a few shots using the doorframe to steady the camera. The last thing I saw before my eye exploded in blinding pain was this:

The fast approaching door.

The fast approaching door.

A good photographer must always be aware of the dangers around him.

Spread your wings at Pondhawk


The Monday after Thanksgiving is a great time to get out to a nearby natural area. While most folks are back at work after a four-day weekend, those of us who have the foresight to request this day off get to experience something fairly rare around this time of year: solitude! The prospect of some alone time, combined with the knowledge that two of Palm Beach County’s best birders had reported a juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker at a location near me decided my destination on this fifth day of a four-day weekend: Pondhawk Natural Area, which, as loyal readers of this blog know, was formally opened just a couple of months ago.

And on this day, as expected, I had the place all to myself!

I started out on the concrete walking trail, chasing warblers and other birds as the fancy struck me, and I wound up assembling a fairly respectable list without even trying very hard—28 species, including House Wren, American Kestrel, Osprey, Red-shouldered Hawk, and the target bird: Red-headed Woodpecker. But that wasn’t the only, or even the primary, goal of the excursion. I just needed to get back out into one of the prettiest natural areas in Boca Raton. It’s a very pretty park, with 5 different ecological communities (you can’t really call these tiny snippets of area “ecosystems”)—scrub, scrubby flatwoods, mesic flatwoods, hydric hammock, and sawgrass slough.

I spent most of my time on that concrete trail, which winds through the mesic and scubby flatwoods (yellow and green areas in the map below) that surround the pond (the orange hydric hammock in the map), but I also took an excursion onto the sandy trail that leads through the southwestern portion of the site (also mesic and scrubby flatwoods). I never did get onto the trail through the scrub proper.

Both scrubby flatwoods and “true” scrub are dominated by shrubby, scrubby plants that don’t need a whole lot of water: sand live oak, saw palmetto, prickly pear cactus, etc. Where there are “woods” around (hence scrubby flatwoods), they are usually sand pine or, in slightly wetter scrubs (mesic, halfway between dry [xeric] and wet [hydric] sites), slash pine. The flatwoods areas at Pondhawk have numerous snags (dead trees left standing in the wake of a wildfire on this part of the site back in 2010) and living slash pine trees, providing excellent foraging and even nesting habitat for woodpeckers like the red-bellied (common in Palm Beach County) and red-headed (much rarer in Palm Beach County):

Another characteristic plant of scrub or scrubby flatwoods is Feay’s Palafox, with its interesting tubular flowers arranged into a very pretty cluster (called an inflorescence):

You should always look closely at flowers; then, when you think you’ve seen everything, take a picture. I knew there was an ant hitchhiker on this flower, but I didn’t notice the pale creature on the second “tube” from right until I got the image onto the computer.

I have no idea what the pale creature is; I was assuming jumping spider at first, but it’s not in focus and no matter how hard I squint, I can only make out 4 or 5, not 8, legs. And the body is rather elongate for a spider, although some of those tiny jumping spiders can be fairly “tubular.” Heck, it might not even be an animal!

When I arrived at Pondhawk, I was just hoping to see some pretty scenery like that flower; I had little to no expectation of actually encountering the “object” of my visit (the aforementioned Red-headed Woodpecker). I don’t chase birds, and I don’t really even go out of my way for them; I just like to get out into nature and, while I’m there, they’re one of the more interesting things to look at—when I can tear myself away from the plants and the insects, that is. And when I do set out with a specific bird in mind, more often than not I miss it, anyway, so perhaps I’m only making a virtue out of necessity by deciding to focus on the whole experience, rather than the “goal.”

This time, though, I got a bit lucky: I actually did “get” the bird. I can’t say, though, that I got a satisfying picture of it; it was always just too far away, or just on the wrong side of the sun, or the sun was behind a cloud, or it flew right over my head and I couldn’t focus fast enough. Still, I managed to document the bird, which was nice:

Everyone’s still a bit confused about what this bird is doing here, so far south of its known nesting sites in the county. Red-headeds are slightly migratory, in that they move locally in winter to exploit better resources than they can find near their nesting sites, but only if their nesting sites are deficient in some food resource. Up north, a poor mast crop (acorns) is what triggers this migratory response; down here, with seemingly abundant year-round resources, it’s a bit of a mystery why this juvenile bird would wander like this.

Eventually the woodpecker got tired of me chasing it from snag to snag, and decided to fly right over my head (too quickly for me to get a picture, drat it) and back up to a site far enough away that it wasn’t worth hiking over to, so I continued on my way and left him (or her) in peace.

On the way out I got a couple of other decent shots, like this Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a tree overlooking the pond, thus doing its best to look like the avian version of the “pondhawk” for which the site is named:

What really got me excited, though, was my first-ever sighting (well, documented with a photo anyway) of one of the spreadwing damselflies, Carolina Spreadwing (Lestes vidua):

Carolina Spreadwing is the only spreadwing we’re likely to see this far south in Florida; the only other species that occur in our area are either blue or green, not mostly brown. Very little appears to be written about this species, so I can’t tell you much about it. The generic name, Lestes, means robber (some say predator) in Greek; vidua means widow in Latin. The official etymologists of North American odonates, Paulson and Dunkle, list this specific name as “widow; allusion unknown.” And that’s all I can tell you about it as well! This very young female (based on coloration) did her best to elude me, and she even exhibited some behavior that our great Florida odonatologist, Sid Dunkle, describes as follows:

Interestingly, they close their wings over their backs, and drop their bodies to parallel their perch, when a dragonfly flies near. Pairs in tandem do this also, but the approach of a human does not elicit this behavior.

Now, there were plenty of dragonflies flitting about, so I can’t exclude the possibility of this damselfly doing this in response to them rather than to me, but on both perches that I chased this little lady to, she closed her wings over her back in what I thought was a response to my approach:

This behavior confused me so much that I couldn’t be positive this wasn’t a “normal” damselfly that was exhibiting spread-wing behavior, rather than a spreadwing exhibiting “normal” behavior. When I got home and read Dunkle’s description, I felt a little better about my ID on the bug. It still hasn’t been confirmed by either bugguide or Odonata Central, but I’m fairly confident she is who I say she is.

Hope to see you out and about next time!

New backyard bird: Chimney Swift


A bird that’s probably familiar to many of you is Chaetura pelagica (Linnaeus, 1758), more commonly known as Chimney Swift. It’s been described by Alexander Sprunt (1954) as “resembl[ing] in appearance a cigar on wings” because of its tubular body and long, long wings. Most of the time you see it on the wing, flying overhead chasing down its insect prey, and twittering like mad. It always reminds me of the last line of one of the most famous of Keats’s odes, “To Autumn”:

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Keats’s swallows are what we call here in the States “Barn Swallows,” Hirundo rustica (Linnaeus, 1758). They are the most widespread species of swallow in the world, and they are what the poet saw at dusk on September 19, 1819, as he wrote what was to become the most anthologized poem in the English language. We have Barn Swallows here in Florida, with records in every season for Palm Beach County. We see them gathering in large flocks on our annual trips to the flooded fields of western Palm Beach County in August, and  they are even reported breeding in neighboring Hendry County.

But the bird that occurred today at my house, while it looks largely similar to the swallow through the process known as convergent evolution, is not even closely related to the swallow family. (The idea of convergent evolution is that animals that specialize in similar ecological niches, the way swallows and swifts specialize in catching insect prey on the wing, often evolve similar body shapes. In this case, long, pointed wings and a beak with a large gape. In a more general example, the wing itself evolved separately in the mammalian, insect, and avian groups.)

Chimney Swifts are actually more closely related to the hummingbirds than to the swallows they resemble. This fact has been known at least since Arthur Cleveland Bent’s magisterial series on North American birdlife: Life Histories of…. Bent published the volume on Cuckoos, Goatsuckers, Hummingbirds and their Allies back in 1940 as United States Museum Bulletin 176, although most birders with extensive libraries have the Dover edition, which the publisher released in two slim volumes to increase their profit margins. (After starting this post, I found out that the text is available online as well, so you don’t even have to go to the trouble of devoting 3 or 4 feet of bookshelf to the printed version.)

Bent writes of the migratory nature of this bird:

From its unknown winter quarters, somewhere in Central America or on the South American Continent, the chimney swift comes northward in spring and spreads out over a wide area, which includes a large part of the United States and southern Canada.

Individually, the swift is an obscure little bird, with a stumpy, dull-colored body, short bristly tail, and stiff, sharp wings, but it is such a common bird over the greater part of its breeding range and collects in such enormous flocks, notably when it gathers for its autumnal migration, that as a species it is widely known.

Does that last sentence remind anyone else of Keats’s swallows? Hmmm? Well, never mind, then…

The write-up in Sprunt (1954) and Stevenson and Anderson (1994) updates Bent’s “unknown winter quarters” to a locale in the upper Amazon Basin, determined by bird banders in the 1940s, who recovered a few birds banded in Tennessee. According to Sprunt,

The Chimney “Swallow” as it is often and erroneously called, is one of the most familiar birds of the country, as it appears in multitudes about human habitation…. Not the least interesting thing about this very interesting bird was, until recently, the mystery of its winter home. No one knew for certain where it was. Then, in May of 1944, word was received from the American embassy in Lima, Peru, that some bands had been turned in, “secured from some swallows killed by Indians” along the border of Peru and Colombia, some 6 months earlier. Most of the “swallows” were Chimney Swifts and had been banded in Tennessee (F. C. Lincoln, Auk, 61:604, 1944). Thus a mystery was solved and the supposition that some of the birds wintered in South America vindicated.

Bent describes the behavior of this bird in terms of its “curious” relationship to people:

Although the species spends the summer scattered over a large part of the North American Continent, it never, except by accident, sets foot upon one inch of this vast land. The birds build their “procreant cradle” in the chimneys of thousands of our homes and crisscross for weeks above our gardens and over the streets of our towns and cities, yet, wholly engrossed in their own activities far overhead, they do not appear to notice man at all. Indeed, it is easy to believe that the swift is no more aware of man during the summer, even when it is a denizen of our largest cities, than when in winter it is soaring over the impenetrable jungles of Central America.

How do we regard this bird that does not know we are on earth? We are glad to have swifts breed in our chimney; we like to see them shooting about over our heads, and we enjoy their bright voices; yet, do we feel such friendship for them as we feel for a chipping sparrow, for example, which builds sociably in the vines of our piazza? The little sparrow may be wary, and may fly away if we come too near, but at least it pays us the compliment of recognizing our existence. The swift, however, is not even a semitrustful neighbor; it is a guest that does not know we are its host. We may almost think of it as a machine for catching insects, a mechanical toy, clicking out its sharp notes.

But let us note this fact. Every ten years or so the swifts do not appear about our house in the spring. Something has gone wrong on their journey northward. Our chimney will be empty this year; there will be no dark bows and arrows dashing back and forth above our roof, no quick pursuits and chattering in the evening. All summer something is lacking because there are no swifts to enliven the season. We realize, now that they are gone, how we should miss their active, cheerful presence, if they never came back again. But we may be sure they will come back–next year perhaps–to visit us again, this most welcome “guest of summer.”

I always enjoy hearing them pass about overhead, when I’m gardening or swimming with the kids in the pool. Whenever I hear them twittering, I point it out to the boys. Eric is starting to get mildly interested in it, at least to the extent of agreeing that birds are “so pretty” and their songs are “so nice.” Daniel, on the other hand, is absolutely ga-ga over birds, at least the prints of birds that we have hanging on our walls.

Speaking of hanging on our walls, I haven’t even gotten around to showing you the impetus for this post! For the past couple of days, I’ve noticed that there is a rather insistent quality to the chittering near our house, and yesterday I heard flapping in our chimney. Could it be? Could our chimney be blessed with a swift family building its nest?

I still don’t know the answer to that question, but a look up top shows that the possibility certainly exists:

Open chimneys invite Chimney Swifts to move in.

And since our fireplace doesn’t have a flue (there’s something in there that blocks the rain and catches the leaf litter that blows in, but there is evidently still a large passage through which animals can squeeze), this morning my office was paid a visit by one of the birds itself.

Imagine my surprise on entering my little office to hear a flapping inside the room! I saw a little black bird up on top of my tall bookshelves and immediately closed the door to make sure the creature didn’t fly into the rest of the house where it might get irretrievably lost or hurt. Then I opened the window, removed the screen, and began trying to herd it out through the opening. Easier said than done.

After a few minutes of trying to get close enough to it with the screen in hand so that I could sort of shoo it out, I gave up on the hands-off approach and decided I’d better just let it settle down somewhere while I took a few pictures and thought things through. No sooner thought than done.

After I stopped chasing it, it seemed to take some comfort, settling in to a cozy resting place on the top shelf, which, as it happened, is the home of my copies of Bent’s fine Life Histories series:

Here you can see it clinging to volumes two and three of Cardinals, Grosbeaks, Buntings, Towhees, Finches, Sparrows, and Allies. (Apparently it can’t read, or doesn’t know its place in the taxonomy of North American bird life!)

Eventually I was able to get close enough to it to take a decent portrait:

Then, perhaps proleptically encouraged by the words I was soon to read in Bent’s write-up of the species (“banders who have handled the birds report that they show little or no fear (or consciousness) of man and appear tame to an extraordinary degree”), I was able to sneak up on it from below and wrap it up in a towel. I was concerned that it would be as nervous and fluttery as it was when I first walked into the room and surprised it, but it went completely still and allowed me to snap a few awkward shots with my left hand, while holding it in my right:

Here you can see the bristly tail feathers Bent described, and you can also see how much longer the wings are than the tail. (“Primary projection,” that is, the difference between the end of the longest of the innermost wing feathers (tertials) and the end of the longest of the flight feathers (primaries), is a different metric, and is of little use in identifying swifts or swallows because they’re always flying so you never see it!)

After a couple of clumsy left-handed shots, I took pity on the poor bird and set it on the windowsill and removed the towel, whereupon it instantly sprang into action, whirred once around the tiny courtyard, and hasn’t been seen since.


Bent, A.C. (1940). United States National Museum Bulletin 176. Repr. 1964, New York: Dover. Available online as Life Histories of North American Birds.

Sprunt, A. (1954). Florida Bird Life. New York: Coward-McCann, National Audubon Society, USFWS and Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

Stevenson, H.M., and B.H. Anderson. (1994). The Birdlife of Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.


Flowering trees


Flowering trees add visual interest to your home landscape, sure. Some of them, like this Tabebuia tree (Tabebuia chrysotricha), that’s about all they do:

And they only do it for about three weeks a year. The picture above, taken in my front yard in late March, shows a beautiful yellow trumpet-flower tabebuia; today that tree looks a bit scraggly, with green leaves that remind me of a cross between a willow and an olive. I mean, it’s OK, but it’s nothing like its glory season:

Other trees, like the Royal Poinciana (Delonix regia), may look scraggly when they’re not in flower:

but even then they serve many different species of wildlife needs.

The pictures above were taken on the same day in late March as the tabebuia in all its glory, but this bare poinciana tree is playing host to several different bird species. And now in May, the starling in the top picture is nesting in one of the many cavities in this magnificent old tree. (Yes, I wish it were a more politically correct native species, like the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker I saw there earlier, or the Downy Woodpecker or Northern Cardinal I saw in it today while waiting for a decent shot at the starling, or even the Mourning Dove from March, but I guess it’s kind of appropriate: this non-native tree is hosting a non-native bird species!)

And you know what? I think the Royal Poinciana might be jealous of the Tabebuia stealing its thunder every year (the tabebuia flowers in March/April, the poinciania in May/June) because it is really pulling out all the flower stops now (Bijan Dehgan calls it “one of the most prized flowering trees in south Florida, and one of the most gorgeous trees in cultivation anywhere”):

D. regia is native to Madagascar (the generic name comes from Delos=conspicuous + onux=a claw, in reference to the long clawed petals; regia, regius means royal); T. chrysotricha is native to South America (it’s actually considered the national tree of Brazil; the generic name comes from the Brazilian native word for the tree, while chrysotricha means “with golden hairs”). Both trees do quite nicely here in South Florida, but I much prefer the poinciana, simply because I’ve seen so many more wildlife uses for it. That’s one of the reasons I’m not too keen on the beautiful exotic frangipani tree (Plumeria sp.) that are so common here: not only is it a non-native tree, but it doesn’t do a thing for the birds and insects I like to attract to my little corner of the world. I don’t want just pretty things; I want nectar sources for hummingbirds or beetles, pollen sources for bees. Sterile beauty is not something I will add to my landscape. I won’t root out the bougainvillea that was here when we moved in, but I won’t add to it. Anything I do add must combine the useful and the pleasant (dulce et utile, as Horace describes it in his letter to the Epistola ad Pisones, commonly known as Ars Poetica).

Starlings in other parts of the world seem to appreciate Horace’s advice, as well: On one of my trips to Delhi I saw this Asian Pied Starling (Sturnus contra) in a gloriously flowering kapok tree (Bombax ceiba, I believe):

A flamboyant flower for a flamboyant bird!


Dehgan, B. (1998). Landscape Plants for Subtropical Climates. Tallahassee: UP of Florida.

Happy (belated) birthday, John James Audubon


I’ve been sick, and preoccupied with a new house and new baby, so I missed it: yesterday was the 226th birthday of John James Audubon. Google did a very nice special logo of it:

In celebration of the event, I thought long and hard about rereading one of the many fine biographies of the man, or the accounts of the makings of his Birds of America, but then I just browsed through my Baby Elephant folio of the prints instead. Like I said, I’ve been busy and under the weather.

Bird on a wire (er, palm frond)


In the spirit of just getting out there, here is one of the cool birds (well, the only cool bird) Eric and I saw on our morning stroll down to pick up the last-minute pre-Thanksgiving groceries:

As you can tell by the blurriness of the image, I don’t bring my tripod along with me when I’m grocery shopping; I was lucky I had stuck my telephoto in the stroller. Chance favors the prepared hand, but there’s only so much prep I’m willing to do.

I’m pretty sure this is a resident, or at least an overwintering, bird. I’ve seen it from time to time on the giant cellphone tower down the street, and I saw it on our morning stroll yesterday as well. Maybe over this long holiday weekend I’ll take the time to set up my tripod and see if I can get some good shots of it…

Mockingbird snacks out back

According to Tom Lodge, “the flora and fauna present when Columbus arrived in what he called the New World (the Western Hemisphere) had arrived in the region by their own modes of dispersal, and had succeeded based on their tolerance of the climate, the habitats, competition, and numerous other factors” (183). And that’s why we encourage the use of native plants in your landscape—so the birds that depended on those plants for thousands of years before our houses and driveways and swimming pools and parking lots removed many of them can still have food and shelter as they go about their lives.

Above, Mimus polyglottos enjoys the shade of, and a snack on, Callicarpa americana. The Northern Mockingbird is one of ten (or so, depending on your taxonomist) species in the genus Mimus, which extends almost from the tip of South America all the way north to Canada, more than 100 degrees of latitude. The members include, roughly from north to south:

  • M. polyglottos (Northern Mockingbird)
  • M. gundlachii (Bahama Mockingbird)
  • M. gilvus (Tropical Mockingbird)
  • M. magnirostris (St. Andrew Mockingbird)
  • M. saturninus (Chalk-browed Mockingbird)
  • M. longicaudatus (Long-tailed Mockingbird)
  • M. dorsalis (Brown-backed Mockingbird)
  • M. triurus (White-banded Mockingbird)
  • M. thenca (Chilean Mockingbird)
  • M. patagonicus (Patagonian Mockingbird)

As its common name implies, M. polyglottos is the northernmost representative of the genus. It also has the widest longitudinal range, covering all of North America from east to west (or, since I’m “originally” from California, from west to east!). Back in 1988, when Robin W. Doughty was writing the monograph on them, they were absent from some of the northern reaches of Washington and Idaho; they have since closed that out, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s range maps. (See comparison below; click on the images for a larger version)

But Doughty’s text is still spot-on: these birds, where they are found, seem to outnumber all other birds. Describing both abundance and behavior of this species, Doughty quotes Roy Bedicheck: “Bird survey statistics confirm [Bedichek’s] belief that the mockers ‘tyrannize over other bird life by weight of numbers as well as by individual prowess.’ ” (Doughty 19). My sore head from many years ago in California when I got too close to a nest can testify to their tyranny over human life as well as bird life!

Usually, though, they’re quite nice neighbors, with a pleasant voice and plenty to chat about. We get along. Hope you do, too!


Doughty, R.W. (1995). The Mockingbird. Austin, TX: U of Texas P.

Lodge, T. (2010). The Everglades Handbook: Understanding the Ecosystem. 3rd ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

When is a burrowing owl like a prairie dog?

So I was riding my bike Saturday morning with Eric. It was hot. Hotter than last weekend, when the nice west wind and cloud cover brought a noticeable (not strong, just noticeable) coolness to one or two shady areas along the ride. This morning there was no such thing. It was hot.

Anyway, the heat reminded me that we were still in or near the dog days of summer, which I wrote about earlier, in connection with the moon. The Latin for dog days, of course, is diēs caniculārēs. (I inexplicably left that out of my post on the Dog Days moon.)

In any event, our bike route takes me, not by chance, through the portions of FAU’s campus that still serve as home to a small population of Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia.

I’m not sure that there’s a strong etymological connection between “burrowing” (cunicularia) and “of or relating to dogs” (caniculares), but the two words are mighty similar. And when you’re riding your bike through the heat associated with one of those words and you’re looking at the other,well,  the link is forged, and off you go. It’s not even an “unhappy association of ideas,which have no connection in nature,*” because, make of it what you will, it really does seem that A. cunicularia is more visible  during the diēs caniculārēs. It might just be that they still have young owls around the burrow to watch out for; it might be that they actually enjoy the heat.

And there’s a further connection: in most of the Burrowing Owl’s range in the United States (except here in Florida, of course), the owls frequently make use of prairie dog (Cynomys spp.) holes for their homes. Below is a picture of C. ludovicianus from Wikipedia for those of you who don’t know what a prairie dog looking out of its hole looks like:

A black-tailed prairie dog at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., looks out from a system of burrows, characteristically scanning the horizon. On average, these rodents grow to between 12 and 16 inches (30 and 40 cm) long, including their short tails.

Kind of similar to the Burrowing Owl, no?

Here in Florida, with the exception of the rare bird that has access to an abandoned gopher tortoise burrow, the owls tend to dig their own. I’m thinking that’s because Florida scrub sand is a lot easier to dig in than that thick prairie grass, and no one I’ve read offers a contradictory explanation.

Whatever the case may be, the answer to the question in the title of this post (when is a burrowing owl like a prairie dog?) is: all the time, sort of. Except in Florida. But particularly more so during the dog days of summer. Whenever they are.

*I refer you to John Locke by way of Laurence Sterne. The quote appears in Volume 1, Chapter 4 of Tristram Shandy, in which the eponymous hero makes oblique reference to the fact that his mother, whenever she heard his father winding up the clock in the hall knew to get herself all wound up as well.

Upland Sandpiper, a new life bird

On last weekend’s scouting expedition to western Palm Beach County we found a new life bird for me: Upland Sandpiper. Finding a life bird is getting to be a rarer and rarer event. Now that my Florida list is over 250 species (nowhere near the “full count” of 500+ that have been documented in the state), it takes a bit of effort to get a new one. For example, I’m expecting to have to canoe the mangrove islands down in the Everglades to get Mangrove Cuckoo (unless I get lucky on Lignumvitae Key). And if I want to see a Brown Noddy, I’ve got to get on a boat and head out to the Dry Tortugas.

So each new bird deserves a bit of a celebration, and that’s what today’s post is: a celebration of Bartramia longicauda, formerly Bartram’s Sandpiper, now Upland Sandpiper. It was first described by Johann Matthäus Bechstein in 1812, and only slightly later by Alexander Wilson in volume 7 of American Ornithology as Tringa bartramia; by the time Wilson’s description was picked up for volume 3 of the 4-volume 1831 Edinburgh edition of American Ornithology, [the edition Google has digitized, which is the only one I can access] it had become Totanus bartramius.

My first encounter with this species was on a sod farm off County Road 880 in western Palm Beach County. Wilson’s first encounter with the bird was near the botanic gardens of his “very worthy friend,” William Bartram, “on the banks of the river Schuylkill.”

If you read that last sentence carefully, or if you follow the link to the Google books scanned version of Wilson’s text, you’ll see that Wilson has laid a pretty trap for us. He’s found a new species of shorebird, and he immediately links it to water (the Schuylkill river) via Bartram’s gardens. But he never actually says that he found it near the river. He found it “near” the gardens, which are “on the banks” of that impossible-to-spell-without-triple-checking river in Pennsylvania.

He’s just having a little fun with us, is all; he goes on almost immediately to distinguish this shorebird’s habitat preferences from its congeners (well, Wilson considered them congeners, although now we place this bird in its own genus, Bartramia) in terms that most birders and field guide authors haven’t seen fit to change very much at all.

In the first place, this is a “grasspiper,” not a sandpiper:

Unlike most of their tribe, these birds appear to prefer running about among the grass, feeding on beetles, and other winged insects. (86)

And furthermore, this is the shorebird that you won’t find on the shore!

Having never met with them on the sea shore, I am persuaded that their principal residence is in the interior, in meadows and such like places. (86–87)

I would say that an overgrown sod field counts as a meadow, wouldn’t you?

Even John James Audubon, who delighted in contradicting Wilson whenever he could doesn’t dispute this part of the bird’s description; the most famous American ornithologist describes it in his Birds of America as “the most truly terrestrial of its tribe with which I am acquainted.”*

Wilson called the bird Tringia [sic] bartramia, while Bechstein called it Tringa longicauda; it is Bechstein’s specific epithet that has won the day. Wilson’s choice to honor Bartram has been respected, though, by placing it in the single-member genus, Bartramia. This is an excellent example of respecting tradition while revising it to be more descriptive: while the genus honors the original namesake of the bird, the specific epithet describes it: longicauda, long-tailed. And it’s true; compared to other sandpipers, Upland Sandpiper does have a fairly long tail; look how far past the wingtips the tail extends in this detail from NaumannNaturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas (Natural history of the birds of central Europe):

Detail of Bartramia longicauda, from Naumann, Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas (Natural history of the birds of central Europe). Image from Wikimedia.

You can also see it in Wilson’s plate from American Ornithology:

Plate 59 of Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology. Upland Sandpiper is at upper left.

The plate shows clockwise from top left, Upland Sandpiper, Sanderling, American Golden-Plover, Killdeer, Semipalmated Plover, and Spotted Sandpiper. Given its companions in this photo, which would rarely be seen together in life (the beach-loving Sanderling right next to the prairie-dwelling Upland Sandpiper?), it might seem that habitat preference got trumped by the need to have this bird appear on a plate somewhere. In fact, though, it’s probably the Sanderling who got crammed onto this plate at random; the others appear to be fairly near their preferred habitat, given that it appears on the grass with the appropriately placed UPSA and AMGP.

Older naturalists like Wilson and Bechstein seemed to have placed all shorebirds in the genus Tring[i]a; the specific epithet honors Wilson’s “very worthy friend, near whose botanic gardens, on the banks of the river Schuylkill, [Wilson] first found it.” The new standardized common name, upland plover, foregrounds this habitat preference in a way the previous name, for all its lore and association with the great naturalist William Bartram, son of the great botanist John Bartram, does not. (A.C. Bent begins his 1929 account of Upland Plover with the invocation “Let us be thankful that this gentle and lovely bird is no longer called Bartramian sandpiper.”)

Wilson also points out, perhaps with unconscious irony, that, when he saw three or four of them together that first time near Bartram’s gardens,  “they seemed extremely watchful, silent, and shy, so that it was with extreme difficulty I could approach them” (86). On the next page, the reader can infer why they are so hard to approach:

They are remarkable plump birds, weighing upwards of three quarters of a pound; their flesh is superior, in point of delicacy, tenderness, and flavour, to any other of the tribe with which I am acquainted. (87)

Hmmmm…. A plump, tasty bird that’s also watchful, silent, and shy. I wonder why?

Market hunting of this bird reduced its numbers substantially in the 19th century; A.C. Bent comments that

The upland plover is, or was, a fine game bird. Over 40 years ago, in my younger shooting days, these birds were still fairly common in Massachusetts, but it was no easy job to make a fair day’s bag; it meant tramping many miles over rolling, or hilly pasture lands, where the wary birds rose at long range and flew swiftly away for a long distance.

Bent also cites Forbush (1912) on the market hunting pressure on this bird in the U.S:

About 1880, when the supply of passenger pigeons began to fail, and the marketmen, looking about for some other game for the table of the epicure in spring and summer, called for plover, the destruction of the upland plover began in earnest. The price increased. In the spring migration the birds were met by a horde of market gunners, shot, packed in barrels and shipped to the cities.

Bent cites Wetmore and others on the hunting going on in the South American wintering grounds as well, but you get the idea: market hunting in the past, combined with habitat destruction now, has really given this poor prairie bird a tough row to hoe. The latest field guide I have says this bird’s numbers are “declining, especially in East.”

Which makes it all the more exciting (to me) to have seen, just like Alexander Wilson, “three or four in company” out at 6-Mile Bend. We had stopped at this field earlier that morning, when there were many more birds present, but either we were distracted trying to sort through the various Killdeer, dowitchers, and other species, or the birds simply weren’t there. They were in an overgrown field, whereas their compatriots were in the nice short sod in the foreground, so it’s quite likely that we simply overlooked them earlier.

Expert opinion in the matter has said that, at least on migration here in Palm Beach County, they usually aren’t seen early in the morning, so we can choose the more flattering explanation for why we missed them just after dawn: they weren’t there! Isn’t that much nicer than saying that we just plain missed seeing them? It might even be true.

Next time I’m out in the sod fields, I’m looking for Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

* Audubon does, though, make a point of mentioning that they do appear in large flocks: “It has been supposed that the Bartramian Sandpiper never forms large flocks, but this is not correct, for in the neighbourhood of New Orleans, where it is called the “Papabote,” it usually arrives in great bands in spring, and is met with on the open plains and large grassy savannahs, where it generally remains about two weeks, though sometimes individuals may be seen as late as the 15th of May. I have observed the same circumstance on our western prairies, but have thought that they were afterwards obliged to separate into small flocks, or even into pairs, as soon as they are ready to seek proper places for breeding in, for I have seldom found more than two pairs with nests or young in the same field or piece of ground.”


Audubon, J.J. (1832) Ornithological Biography. The companion text to the plates of his Birds of America. The National Audubon Society has made available a digitized version of the text, with accompanying (tiny!) images at

Bent, A.C. (1929). Life Histories of North American Shorebirds. Part Two. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 146. Reprinted New York, NY: Dover Press, 1962.

Floyd, T. 2008. Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America. NY: Harper Collins.

Wilson, A., & Bonaparte C.L. (1831). American Ornithology; or the Natural History of the Birds of the United States. Ed. Robert Jameson.

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