Backyard Brief: Bird Picnic in Florida

Last week, I was in south Florida with my husband visiting his parents at their Naples condo. They’ve been snow birds for the past five years now. Given the harsh winter we’ve been having, I’m starting to think they have the right idea. It was the perfect break from a senselessly cold March in Ohio, and we had a great time.

One day, we took a trip to Big Cypress National Preserve, just north of the Everglades, to go “alligator hunting,” as my father-in-law put it. He and I share the shutter bug. We made a single stop at the H.P. Williams Roadside Park, near Ochopee. Along with some great reptilian shots and plenty of bird pics, I managed to get close-ups of a butterfly hanging out with a napping gator. The birds included herons, cormorants, and anhingas. I’ll share those photos soon.

After walking the boardwalk, perusing along the river, and snatching our alligators and birds, we snacked at a picnic table in the clearing. With granola bars, Cara Cara oranges, red seedless grapes, and my Weight Watchers snack bars, we observed two smaller birds I could not readily identify. I took several close-ups.

As it turns out, I could not identify them less readily later on either. First, back at the condo, I used Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s bird ID tool at Allaboutbirds.org, starting with categories and silhouettes, comparing the flycatchers, sparrows, warblers, and finches (though I knew that was less likely based on beak shape) to my photos. I’m less skilled at identifying birds by call, and I couldn’t be sure any sounds I heard came from the birds observed.

From a clear silhouette in the branches, my first instinct said this was a kind of flycatcher, but my initial search produced nothing definitive. The question hovered, niggling.

It took coming home and browsing through both my Sibley guide and the Kaufman, looking again at my shots, to narrow it down and draw some conclusions.

Now I’m pretty sure I’ve got them right. After finding them in the print field guides, I went back to Cornell’s site and looked them up directly.

A male eastern phoebe

and a male palm warbler.

The phoebe, sure enough a kind of flycatcher, preferred the branches of the tree we sat under. The warbler’s stay was briefer and solely on the ground, resulting in fewer, more difficult shots and blurrier images.

The distinctive parts of the phoebe I knew to look for in the books were the smooth black eye and dark cap/face, lighter undersides and throat, relatively small size, and thin, short beak. It took some sifting, as the bird is rather plain looking overall, but experience and an understanding of field guide maps got me there. Looking closer with the guide, it seems this one was also a juvenile, due to the yellowish undercarriage. The Sibley guide uses call-out labels on their illustration of the bird to emphasize the gray “smudge on sides of breast,” the “yellow belly,” “dark head,” and “dark tail.”

The other bird I suspected was a warbler of some kind from the start, as I’d studied those through our local park’s program on warbler identification a few years ago. The key pieces were rusty cap, yellow facial streaks, yellowish rump, and larger size. The palm warbler, like most warblers, has quite a unique set of features, a little more striking than the phoebe’s. Among other features I observed, Kaufman notes the “well-defined pale eyebrow” and the fact that the palm is among those “warblers that stay low.” His low profile and brief stay account for my not seeing the “yellow undertail coverts” and “tail-bobbing action.”

Both guides indicate two types of palm warbler, brown western and yellow eastern. This specimen fit both descriptions in some respects and neither in others. Its position in southern Florida, though it is a rarity in general, would have assure me it’s the eastern type, had the maps not shown a greater prevalence of westerns in the region. Perhaps by “eastern” they simply mean exclusively so. Most likely, due to a duller overall yellow than the very golden illustrations and photos in the guides for the eastern, this was a brown, or western, palm warbler male. The white sides are tell tale.

Birds I’d never seen before up close from my own perch in Ohio, though phoebes and palm warblers are both possible to find here, just sort of hung out with us at this southern Florida park in the preserve. Nice to make new discoveries.

Speaking of new discoveries, in the next post, I’ll share the most dramatic one, which occurred at the condo community, on the other side of the pond from our unit.

And, out of curiosity, I looked up poems involving the phoebe. My first result was this fun audio reading by poet Valerie Gillies comparing Scottish species to their American cousins, emphasizing movements and calls. Delightful Scottish trilling.

Sources Consulted

Big Cypress National Preserve

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds

H.P. Williams Roadside Park

Kaufman, Kenn. (2000). Kaufman field guide to birds of North America. New York: Hillstar Editions L.C., Houghton Mifflin.

Sibley, David Allen. (2000). The Sibley guide to birds. National Audubon Society (Ed.). New York: Chanticleer Press, Inc., Knopf. 

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