My favorite times of day are near dusk and dawn. The time of day, when the shadows get longer and you can sit outside without a hat on, with coffee or cold drink in hand, and contemplate the wonders of nature.
It’s the time of day full of chirping and songs, and the emergence of the critters. It’s the time before the sounds of daily human activities; the din of lawn mowers and leaf blowers, the constant chatter of workmen nearby.
Think of how your morning walk would change if you pulled out the headphone plugs, and simply listened to the sounds of nature. Tune in not out. I will use my iPhone on nature walks; it has an app called “Merlin” that listens to and records bird sounds, and in real time suggests a possible identification. For me, a nature lover who basically knows nothing, it has opened up a world of knowledge, and has brought me even closer to nature. As the names of birds are popping up on the screen, you get an idea of what may be making the sound, and aiding you in visually identifying it. The app can also be used by someone with a hearing loss, someone who can hear, but the sounds may not be crisp enough.
As areas are developed, and natural land is changed, birds lose their favorite trees and water sources. Several of my friends have installed screech owl nesting boxes, in their yards, within view of their windows or porches. In the wild, screech owls nest in abandoned holes created by woodpeckers for example. Before I get a nesting box, I need to use “Merlin” to see if I already have owls in my yard, or vicinity. There might just be a natural "house" in my wooded acreage.
“Birders” are a pretty great bunch of people. A friend was invited for a cocktail at the home of a neighbor who had a “screech owl” nesting box in a palm tree outside the porch. Yes, lively Key Largo nightlife…sipping on a drink while listing to the “HOO”. She later found an appropriate spot in her own yard, where she could enjoy the owls, who came year after year thereafter, until hurricane Irma tore the house down.
Have you ever heard someone say they never see any birds in their yards? Or maybe they do not know where to start looking for birds. The answer is, look in your backyard.
Ask yourself, what does a migrating bird or even a local bird, have to eat in your yard? Do you have any native plants? With development and habitat loss, there are increasing pressures on wildlife. If everybody just planted one native plant, that's a start. In a suburban jungle one native tree may be fruiting, while in another there is pollen and nectar attracting bugs and caterpillars. That is what they need to eat. It's like you going to the store and there is only cat food there. What are you going to eat? Birds need fresh water, and cover too, so they may hide from predators.
Owls can be a great source for natural pest control and it is free. No pesticide service or poison filled plastic boxes needed! Screech owls feed on all sorts of bugs, cockroaches, lizards, beetles, moths and rodents. Whatever they can see, catch in the air or pounce on is fair game. Spraying for bugs eliminates a food source. Owls can also be threatened by pest control of the another kind… rat traps containing poison are a huge problem. The rat entering the box does not just eat the poison and die there, they eat the poison, then leave the trap, to slowly die from the effects wherever they wander off to. Unfortunately for the birds of prey such as the owl, or the hawk, that same poison does not discriminate between the rat, and the bird that just ate the rat.
For all of us, birds alert us to seasonal shifts like migration, teach us about communication, and the cycle of life through behaviors like predation, mating and nesting. Screech owls mate in late fall, and you can hear their noises. The baby owlets emerge from the nesting boxes in April or early May.
Nature is the Law. It makes me want to get up early in the morning and keep going. The ecosystem is provided free of charge, no accessories required. And the benefits are lower rates of anxiety, depression and stress.
Anyone out there ready to turn back the hands of time to the way things were in our youth? Our house pets were dogs and cats; they taught us responsibility, and were family members. There were also goldfish, a small turtle lagoon, caged parakeets or hamsters, and fluffy white “Blossom B Rabbit” who lived in a pen under the shade tree. Exotic creatures lived in zoos; venomous snakes, alligators and crocodiles were housed at the Miami Serpentarium until the late 70’s. .
Soon people began buying a new kind of pet: the harmless looking baby snake, sitting on a rock under a heat lamp in a pet store terrarium without thinking that when mature, the creature would be 20 feet long, weigh 200 pounds, live more than 25 years, and must be fed with live mice, rats, and eventually rabbits. There were reports of pythons in the Everglades in the ’70’s and 80’s, most likely caused by people releasing their unwanted pets, to happily slither off into saw-grass marsh or cypress slough.
Look out for snakes in the proverbial grass! If it were only that easy.
For years Everglades park managers were convinced these invasive snakes were escapees, or former pets, not part of a breeding population. Florida offers virgin hunting grounds for pythons, who are carnivorous, but aren’t picky. Last year in N. Key Largo 40 pythons were captured. These captures were humanely euthanized, and then necropsied to examine their stomach contents, which revealed a diet of possums, raccoons, woodrats, and cotton mice. Pythons are biological vacuum cleaners, their jaws are fitted with sharp, inward-curving teeth to grab their prey, while they coil their body around it. Pythons are ambush predators, so they patiently wait for animals to go by for their next meal.
The number of possums and raccoons in our area is fairly high; this may be because the Keys are fairly early in the python invasion, and/or because there are a lot of food resources available, so more young are born, and survive,
Poor Henry the Westie, family member of Julie and Rob, who one day on his regular “potty break” was traumatized by a near fatal encounter with a large python lurking in his backyard. It was the quick thinking of his dad, who snatched him from within inches of the pythons head. Later on Julie got to wondering where had the raccoon gone that regularly visited her pool for a drink. She concluded it must have been nabbed by the python. She said there was a feeding station next door, and that may be why the python has chosen this area to hunt. Soon after hearing this, I began scanning my property for potential food sources that may attract pythons, and guarding my doors from my cat’s possible escape.
The snakes have migrated to the Keys over land and by water, and are adapted to hiding underground, in the cracks and crevices of a geological ancient coral reef. There is whole subterranean world under our feet; a space where pythons have the ability to occupy and where man has an inability to detect, and they stay beyond reach in impenetrable mangrove swamps.
So how many pythons are there? Too many! Some distrust the agencies putting out the data, and believe the numbers are exaggerated for whatever reason. I'm no scientist, but the fact is pythons never were in my neighborhood before and now they are. EDDMAPS is a website, that shows on a map, the actual places where pythons have been sighted or captured.
The best thing people can do is be on the lookout for pythons. The most important thing to do if you see a python is take a photo. Document it, and then report it immediately. Percy the python sniffing dog is successful if it is a very recent sighting, a few hours or a day, but not more than that. If you see a python, call 1-888-IVEGOT1
As homeowners we should adopt cultural controls: things we can do to modify the habitat, without physically or chemically harming animals. We can eliminate food sources that attract small mammals such as rats, possums and raccoons to our homes. To prevent infestation of not only rats, but also pythons. we can close up crawl spaces under our homes, place mesh over vents that may be missing or cracked, and eliminate any holes big enough for critters and snakes to go through.
Indeed, things have changed since our youth. The night watchmen and security patrols have always had an eye out for suspicious human activity while on patrol; now their watch must be expanded to include the night creatures, If you were to drive on CR905 at night, you would potentially see pythons cruising the side of the road. Agencies must make it a condition of employment, and provide the training and incentive, to remove the python, not just drive right by it.
On the way to her boat in the marina, my friend Denise and I we were stopped in our tracks by a large white bird standing motionless on the dock as it scanned for prey.
It seemed un-phased by our approach. Even my movements to remove my camera from the bag did not ruffle it's feathers. The bird was watching us, since its eyes are on the side of its head, but also far enough forward, to peer into the water.
When Denise began singing I was sure the bird would depart; she defended her actions by declaring “Do you know of any singing predators?”
Despite the glare, the surface motion, the mix of seagrass and plastic on the water's surface, the bird knew that two feet below it's perch on the floating dock there were fish. Herons have binocular vision that gives them excellent depth perception, and their eyesight is about three times more detailed than that of man. Their visual field covers 180 degrees in the vertical; a bird standing with its bill horizontal can see fish swimming near its feet. Their stealthy, quick reactions and spear-like bill rewards them with fish which are swallowed whole.
This familiar “crane”, which I later identified as the white form of the Great Blue Heron, known as the Great White Heron, or as the “experts” say “White Morph Blue”, is America's largest heron, measuring 46”, and is found along the coasts of southern Florida, the Yucatan Peninsula, and in the Caribbean.
The other large white wading bird we see in the Keys is the Great Egret. It has a slightly smaller bill and always has black legs compared to the typical yellow/greenish/pink legs on the white morph blue. At distance with a scope the legs are the best field mark.
There are Great Blue Herons in the Keys, and their range extends from Canada south to Mexico and Florida, and even as far as the Galapagos Islands. They are sometimes overlooked simply because they are not as conspicuous as the whites.
There is another even less common form of heron, the Wurdemann morph. It’s also known as the intermediate morph where the dark and white forms overlap in Florida, They have the body of a Great Blue Heron, but the white head and neck of the Great White Heron.
Many Great Blue Herons have lost their fear of humans, walking on lawns and expecting castoffs from fishermen. Fisherman should make sure they stay clear of the heron’s piercing bill, as well as be responsible for securing their fishing gear, lines, hooks, and lead sinkers. Injuries due to fishing line entanglement are very common in wild bird populations. as birds can get tangled up in that junk while wading and foraging.
Broken wings, poisoning, electrical wires, and bald eagles can also cause injuries or death to these birds. So much so, that wildlife rehabilitation emerged as a profession in the late 1980’s. These organizations are made up of professionals, but most rehabbers are volunteers. Laura Quinn, the “Bird Lady” who founded the Wild Bird Center in Tavernier, is seen in these photos taken in 2009, along with philanthropists Barbara and Bob Gintel, releasing a Great White Heron on the edge of the mangroves in N. Key Largo. According to their website, “Our past, present, and future are the direct result of one woman embracing her passion and caring for the environment and wildlife in the Florida Keys.”
As human populations grow and more wild habitat is lost, it becomes increasingly difficult to find adequate release sites.
Singing predators? My friend Denise is correct in her theory that man is not a concern for a direct assault, unless in the rare case some idiot decides to shoot a bird. It is the unintended consequences of our actions that pose a threat, Consider the wedding event hosted on a spit of land, formerly mangrove habitat, surrounded by water on three sides. The sounds of singing, and music fill the air, drowning out the bird’s ability to hear a potential predator, and at the same time plastic utensils and wrappers, cups and party balloons are dancing into the sea. Reality check: the plastic junk floating in the water does not come from offshore; it comes directly from the island we live on.
Wildlife rehabilitators know the health of our wildlife is a barometer on the health of the environment. Policy makers as well as merry makers, need to consider how their actions may impact wildlife, including pollution of the environment and habitat loss.
If you need to report an injured bird in the Upper Keys, 24/7 BIRDGENCY-ONLY HOTLINE (305) 852 - 4486 ext. 1
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