CHANGES

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The joy of Emeralda returned with a vengeance in fall.  The expectations of new birds, new behaviors, and new insights returned as the temperatures began to drop and weather patterns entered a new phase.  Each week, there are new and often unanticipated shifts in the composition of the bird fauna and, in some cases, the behavior of individual species. Weather in autumn runs the gamut from drizzly rainy days to achingly bright sunshine and azure blue skies.  The great blue heron on the left appeared to be stoically awaiting better times, while the great egret on the right just seemed to be soaking in the sunshine and loving it.

Some of the migrants that showed up some time earlier increased in numbers, such as the belted kingfishers.   Still warier than most marsh birds, one or two birds occasionally let me get a bit closer and tantalize me with the prospect of frame-filling photographs, but then explode away with their mocking chatter just as I'm about to take the picture.  I frequently hear other photographers commiserating about the difficulty of photographing these striking birds, so I shouldn't feel singled out, I guess.      

There are some new arrivals as fall progresses.  Shorebirds have begun to appear in small numbers in the last couple of weeks, including dowitchers, killdeer, snipe, both species of yellowlegs, and a least sandpiper or two.  That's a lesser yellowlegs on the left, and a common snipe on the right.   The yellowlegs will probably move on through and winter elsewhere, but the snipe will remain throughout the winter. 

I've been seeing red-shouldered hawks  more often recently (that's a juvenile on the left), and in October, a pair of adult bald eagles began appearing perched together in the top of the same tall cypress every morning.  Too far for a decent shot, but too cool to resist shooting anyway.

The herons and egrets continue to be omnipresent, though there are subtle (and some not so subtle)  shifts in abundance and distribution.  Cattle egrets, for instance, have all but disappeared from the flow-way, though they bred here in the thousands earlier in the year.  Least bitterns have left, but a few American bitterns (below left) have arrived to show the same sort of shy, secretive behavior.  Great blue herons are widely distributed and obvious throughout the flow-way.  Cliche shots, I know, but these birds are so large, impressive, and handsome that you have to photograph them when the opportunity arises.   I didn't notice until examining the slides that the bird on the middle right below has a deformed bill tip - the ends of his beak cross, kind of like a cross-bill, a conifer-feeding specialist of the north woods.  A new species of heron, perhaps - the cross-billed heron? 

Other birds, perhaps not thought of as migrants by most, also increase in numbers.  Both black and turkey vultures (those are turkeys on the right) are resident in Florida, but are joined in winter by an influx of birds from the north.  On many summer censuses, vultures weren't seen at all, but after about October, both species are nearly always seen by about 10 or 11 a.m., when sufficient thermal updrafts have developed for them to begin soaring and searching.  I occasionally see them down on the dikes, probably feeding on dead fish.  Butterflies like the gulf fritillary are also probably at their peak abundance and diversity in the fall, as several species are in the process of their fall migration down the peninsula.

  As during the spring, when temperatures were rising, falling temperatures bring the gators out to bask.  On sunny mornings following a cool evening, dozens of small to medium-sized animals are seen wherever there are well-exposed, sunny mudflats.

On October 7, another unexpected natural history event that makes this project so delightful occurred -  mass arrival of the wood storks.  That's next.

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