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.
Bird photographers have the patience to sit behind a tree blind for hours waiting for the bird to appear. To the contrary, when I see a bird, I raise my camera to shoot and I get a photo of a bird flying away.
One winter, when the birds are plentiful, I hired a guide to tour the Florida Keys Backcountry on his flats boat. The guide was skilled in finding birds, the only problem, the 500 horsepower announcement of our arrival, caused the birds to fly, which then resulted in a high speed pursuit from my perch in front of the center console, firing 10 continuous frames per second with my camera. A guide's reputation is only as good as the fish they catch, or in this case, birds that are sighted. We return to the dock with bird images captured, albeit flying away. Looking back at the experience, it is quite disturbing, for me to have disrupted the birds for the sake of a photo. The only consolation is, unlike James Audubon's artwork, I didn't have to kill the bird, in order to paint it.
During July 2020, we're just emerging from Covid lockdown, and I get a call asking for help. My caller states he's undergoing cancer treatments and needs to focus on his camera to relieve some of his pain, and to feel productive. He wants to make a journal, and illustrate it with his photographs.
At our first meeting, I thought I was there to solve some technical problem with the computer and the camera. By the third session with Joe the C.E.O. (I always promised to keep his identity confidential), I realized I was his teacher, and guiding light in this journey, which had no certain end.
Joe was used to worldwide hunting excursions, and had impressive shots from those trips. But now with cancer, his travel was limited to what he could capture in his backyard. Fortunately for Joe, his backyard bordered on a wildlife refuge. where he was documenting the American Crocodile in the mangrove lined creek behind his house.
Joe thinks the photos are not turning out so well. On first inspection, let's say his photos were extremely artsy. There was a little motion blur, camera blur, and a few photo filters added for good measure. Joe thought perhaps it's his camera. I viewed it as the challenges of low light photography, and just trying to make something good out of what he’s captured.
I shared with him my recent experience involving my health, and how it affected my confidence and balance. I learned by attaching a mono-pod to my camera, my pictures would remain clear and in focus. I lent him my so called “photographer’s cane”, thinking perhaps his cancer treatments had affected his steadiness.
Immediately his photos improved. He went on to photograph with extreme competency an amazing array of species from his lanai, including Bald Eagle, Osprey, Crocodile, Heron, Egret, Red Shouldered Hawk, Red Cardinal, and Iguana. The images were compiled into a coffee table book, prefaced with Joe’s words, and then he put the camera away. Yes, away. Project complete. On time and a little over budget.
Fast forward to Spring 2021, not too far from Joe's lanai, in a small pool of water next to a bridge, I encountered a diverse group of wading birds, just hanging out. A rare sight, I had to give it a shot, so I set up my tripod and Hasselblad medium format camera. So far so good, it is quiet, the birds are unfazed by my presence behind the cover of a green buttonwood branch. The resulting sepia tinted photograph I call the "Breakfast Club” and features our winter wading and shoreline bird visitors including Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Little Blue Heron, Green Heron, Tricolored Heron, Snowy Egret, White Ibis, and Great White Heron.
Seeing these birds congregating within a residential community was a special experience. In 2020, scientists captured ten adult Roseate Spoonbills nesting in Florida Bay and attached cellular tracking devices so they could learn about their nesting and foraging habits. They’ve found the birds are using more ponds inside bay keys than the mangrove wetlands on the mainland that they historically preferred. Audubon incorporates trail cameras to monitor nesting success. The photos taken by the cameras are able to capture truly candid images of every movement these birds make. I cannot wait to learn more and hopefully see more birds in the future.
Joe passed this year. I miss him, however his memory lives on, whenever I sight birds in our midst.
There are the visible and the invisible birds. There are the ever-present seagulls perching on channel markers, that follow a the boat’s wake, or swoop down on outdoor diners as they jockey for crumbs. Hungry pelicans float beside fish cleaning stations in eager anticipation of the scraps from returning anglers. Noisy red-bellied woodpeckers tap tap tap-ing on tree bark in search of small bugs that constitute their diet. The bright red male cardinal and mate, sporting a slightly duller flock of feathers, flit through the shrubs. The noisy grackles taunt the indoor cats through the screen enclosure, and consistently poop in the rain gauge. The mockingbird, Florida's state bird, and the mourning doves, with their coo-coo-cooing, are all familiar sights and sounds… living in our midst.
We find these birds not just in nature, also in our neighborhoods. The tall white egret named “sam” or “george” whose regular circuit of sea walls, docks and neighborhood parks have earned him notoriety. Same too, the white ibis, are at home on the tidal mud-flats, but also show up on our front lawns and green spaces, probing the grass with their long beaks for whatever hidden treats lie in the soil. Immature ibis are brown with a white belly. Like an ibis flock seen at a crosswalk, some are well adapted to asphalt, as are the roosters and hens in the Tradewinds parking lot. We don’t have to search them out… they are in our midst.
In the northern end of the Keys, at the entrance to our island chain, lies the unique tropical habitat of the Upper Keys. Starting at the Circle K / mm 106, and extending 10 miles to the north is a two lane thoroughfare with bicycle path, called CR-905 or Card Sound Road. On each side is preservation land, I fondly refer to as the "hedge." On the west side of the road is Federal land, known as Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, on the east side of CR-905 is State preservation land, Key Largo Hammocks State Botanical site. Ever wonder what is behind that hedge? Fifty years ago it was all platted for development. There was a monster development planned called “Port Bougainville” just a mile north of the circle K, oceanside. Environmentalists and concerned folks, most notably conservationist Dagny Johnson fought for its protection. The goal of the acquisition was to connect parcels of nature, into one contiguous uninterrupted habitat. This preserved land contains an impressive collection of mature hammock, as well as recovering habitat, formally scarified and slated for development. The park entrance is designated by an arch left from the former “Port B” development, and portions are open to the public for passive recreational use such as walking and observing nature.
One recent Sunday morning I met up with a group of naturalists at the entrance to “Port B”. They had cameras, and binoculars, smelled of “Keys Cologne” mosquito repellant, and were covered up with long sleeves, long pants and hats with mosquito netting. For the next hour or so, we ambled through the "Port B”. The slightest movement in the brush would cause us to stop in strict attention. Our Upper Keys habitat contains a rich diversity of native plants, found only here in North America and add to that the migrating species who feed and rest here on their journeys North and South. The depth of the naturalists observations made me realize, "where have I been?" Though I understand the importance of native habitat for sustenance of wildlife, and can recite facts from my reading, this was nature LIVE!
While learning about the plants and wildlife, the camera is a great tool for making positive identification. There is an app called iNaturalist where experts and researchers are quick to provide identification of plants and wildlife, simply from a photo and location provided from your phone.
After an hour or so ambling through the "Port B", we opted to head south under the power lines next to the road. The sound of any songbirds were drowned out by the noise from the backed up line of cars trying to access US1. We pass a few littered sites, including old toilets, construction and household debris chucked into the woods. Flashback to what Card Sound Road used to look like pre-cleanup and park acquisition. We enjoyed a wonderful lunch at (another kind of bird) Buzzards Roost, talked about the morning’s discoveries, and shared photo successes. A wonderful meal and a park adventure, fresh air, and exercise provided me with a total reset.
Nature, it was what attracted me to the Keys in the first place, and yes though it is forever changing and becoming “less rustic”, we must share with all our visitors and friends the importance of preservation of nature, not only to sustain wildlife, but also for our quality of life.
This photographic website provides me the opportunity for self-expression, for sharing