Pond-side Birdwatching in Florida,
from Chaplain Bob’s Backyard: Part 2
by James J. S. Johnson
For He [i.e., God] maketh small the drops of water: they pour down rain according to the vapor thereof, which the clouds do drop and distil [literally, pour down and drop down] upon man abundantly. (Job 36:27-28)
For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and returns not there, but waters the earth, and makes it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth out of My mouth: it shall not return unto Me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
A pond is not a pond unless it has standing [“lentic”] water, — yet a pond will eventually dry up (and thus cease to be a “pond”) if cloud-dumped rains fail to refill its standing waters! (The same is true of running [“lotic”] waters – see 1st Kings 17:7.) Why? Because rain-provided water is always escaping ponds by evaporation. (That’s why swimming pool owners must continually add more water to their pools.)
Accordingly, every pond needs rain (or snow that melts into rain-like liquid water), sooner or later, to be a pond! Obviously, steady rainfall impedes birdwatching, so ideal birdwatching is done when it is not raining. Even so, all bird-watchers should appreciate the rains that God sends, from time to time! In fact, rain is a major part of God’s program for how our world and its diverse lifeforms function: birds need rain, other animals need rain, people need rain, plants need rain, even microörganisms needs rain, — and all of that water is continually recycled throughout the earth! In fact, Earth itself is mostly water!
As the prophet Isaiah noted [above]—and as every Gideon knows — God’s providentially sustained hydrologic cycle is comparable to how, all over the world, God carefully manages and orchestrates the specific influence and productivity of His written Word. For more Scriptures relevant to Earth’s water cycle, see also Deuteronomy 8:7 & 32:2; Job 26:8; Ecclesiastes 1:7 & 11:3; Amos 5:8 & 9:6; Psalm 19:1-2 (noting that solar heat affects the sky) & 65:9-10 & 72:6 & 104:10-18 & 135:7; Isaiah 30:23; Jeremiah 10:13 & 14:22 & 51:16; Zechariah 10:1; — and especially Luke 12:54.
This birding report follows “Part 1” of this mini-series. As noted in Part 1, I happily observed the busy birds at the pond that borders the backyard of Chaplain Bob and Marcia Webel (of St. Petersburg, Florida) on the morning of February 9th (AD2015), a Monday, when we saw 14 birds and heard (but did not see) a mourning dove. As noted before, those birds were busy — quacking, splashing, swimming, perching on shoreline tree branches, dabbling, diving, and with several of them sporadically flying here and there.
Already, 5 of those lacustrine birds were described in Part 1 (Great Blue Heron, Brown Pelican, Mallard, Double-Crested Cormorant, and Black Vulture). This Part 2 will feature 5 more: Wood Stork, Lesser Scaup, Osprey, Snowy Egret, and Common Moorhen. (Hopefully, the remaining 5 birds will be mentioned in an anticipated “Part 3” of this series.)
WOOD STORK (Mycteria americana).
The Wood Stork (in some places nicknamed “Flinthead”, and f/k/a “wood ibis”) is a huge, long-legged wading bird, built somewhat like a large egret, heron, ibis, or spoonbill. This bird is tall! — with adults growing from 3 to almost 4 feet high! The Wood Stork sports a long, flexible, blackish-grey, featherless neck. Its ibis-like head is likewise featherless and not likely to be called beautiful (except by its mother). Its powerful and prodigious bill is stout and slightly curved, well-fitted for probing in mud or muddy water, and for gobbling up fish, frogs, snakes, bugs, and worms located in wetland mud. Storks sometimes eat small birds, small mammals, and even baby alligators! The feathers of the Wood Stork are mostly white, except for the tail-feathers and black edge of its wings, which trail behind when the stork is flying. Its feet are noticeably reddish in color.
The Wood Stork is typically mute (i.e., no vocal calls), communicating in other ways, such as by “bill-clattering”. Being very large – and therefore heavy — birds, Wood Storks try to conserve their food-provided energy when flying. Like other heavy birds (e.g., eagles, vultures, hawks), storks locate and “ride” thermal air currents, soaring and gliding when they can. A true wetland bird, the Wood Stork is comfortable in a variety of wet habitats (such as ponds, marshy pastures, and swampy woodlands). Storks construct huge nests for their families, typically as part of a stork colony (which may include literally thousands of stork pairs), often adding size to them year after year – some being built to about 6 feet in diameter and about 10 feet in depth! Usually storks are monogamous (i.e., a male and female stay paired till one dies) although, for reasons not understood, sometimes pairs can get separated during a migration. The dependability of the stork, in its migratory movements, is reflected in its Hebrew name (chasidah) which means “faithful” — see Jeremiah 8:7, explained in “A Lesson from the Stork” (posted at http://www.icr.org/article/lesson-from-stork ). Although they often migrate – spending summer in the southeastern states, these storks are known to reside in Florida (and parts of Georgia) year-round. (See range map in Donald W. Stokes & Lillian Q. Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to Birds – Eastern Region [Little, Brown & Co., 1996], page 47, — as well as National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Birds – Eastern Region [Alfred A, Knopf, 1994 revised edition], co-authored by John Bull & John Farrand, Jr., at page 379-380.)
LESSER SCAUP (a/k/a “LITTLE BLUEBILL”: Aythya affinis).
The Lesser Scaup looks a lot like the Greater Scaup, but there are two ways to distinguish these look-almost-alike ducks: (1) different shapes of their respective heads and bills; and (2) different winter ranges of territory where they live. Donald and Lillian Stokes note the following traits: “Head and bill shapes are most useful characteristics distinguishing [the Lesser Scaup] from the Greater Scaup … [on the] Lesser Scaup the head comes to a peak at the top or near the back [of the head]; [the Lesser Scaup] bill is slightly shorter and narrower [than that of the Greater Scaup].” (Quoting Stokes & Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to Birds – Eastern Region [noted above, in entry on the Wood Stork], page 75.) Regarding the respective ranges of scaups, the typical winter range territories of the Lesser Scaup includes the East Coast, Gulf Coast, West Coast, and non-mountainous regions of states (including most of Texas) that include the greater Mississippi River Valley’s tributary drainage basin.
The Greater Scaup, however, has a winter range that usually includes only the northern portions of the West Coast and East Coast, plus regions near the Great Lakes. (Compare the sparser ranges indicated in Stokes & Stokes, Eastern Region, at page 75, with the range maps in Roger Tory Peterson, A Field Guide to the Birds Eastern Birds: A Completely New Guide to All the Birds of Eastern and Central North America, abbreviated as “Eastern Birds” [Peterson Field Guides, Houghton Mifflin, 1980], at maps M43 & M44, with field notes at pages 58 & 72.) In other words, if it’s a scaup on a Florida pond, it’s probably a Lesser Scaup! The male of this duck has an easy-to recognize color pattern: its bill is pale blue, its head, breast, and tail are dark-blackish; its flanks are white, and its back is mottled grey. In bright sunlight the male’s head has a purplish iridescence. The female is mostly dark grey-brownish and black, with a noticeable white patch-like spots on both sides of her dark bill. (As with ducks generally, the easiest way to spot a female Lesser Scaup is to watch for a dark duck that pairs with a male Lesser Scaup!) These ducks are divers – they dive into pond-water to catch and consume submergent plant seeds, insects, snails, and small crustaceans. These duck are seen on ponds, lakes, rivers, and marshlands (including “prairie potholes” and estuarial saltmarshes). Lesser Scaups, like ducks generally, are social creatures – sometimes they aggregate in hundreds or even thousands! In many places, due to the availability of needed resources – which may be indicted by the size of a lake or pond, less than a hundred (maybe only a dozen) will group together. Bird-books sometimes allege irresponsible and irrational opinions about how scaups supposedly “evolved” (e.g., Bull & Farrand, Eastern Region [noted above, in entry on the Wood Stork], at page 403), without any forensic evidence for such science fiction. The real truth is that all Lesser Scaups (like all other ducks) ultimately descend from ducks that disembarked Noah’s Ark, about 4500 years ago, which Flood survivors were themselves s directly descended form ducks that God made on Day #5 of Creation Week (see Genesis 1:21).
OSPREY (a/k/a “FISH HAWK”: Pandion haiaetus).
The Osprey is rightly nicknamed the “fish hawk” – they love to catch and eat fish! And, to the delight of bird-watchers, ospreys are not afraid to display their fish-eating lifestyle to nearby humans. Donald and Lillian Stokes make this interesting observation about osprey behavior: “Among our birds of prey the osprey is one of the most amenable to living near humans. Its main requirements are open water [such as a Florida pond!] where it can hunt for fish and a platform or strong tree where it can build its nest. Ospreys have occasionally built nests [or use habitual perching sites] right next to homes [such as a large tree in the Webels’ backyard, bordering the pond], in parking lots, and in public parks. Although they do not prefer being near humans [especially busy humans who move around a lot, causing distraction], they do seem to tolerate human presence, an ability that is a big asset for the survival of any species.” (Quoting “Osprey”, by Donald W. Stokes & Lillian Q. Stokes, in Bird Behavior, Volume III (Little, Brown & Co., 1989), page 159.] The Osprey has a range that includes river systems in America’s Great West (e.g., Wyoming’s Snake River), a well as coastlines on the West Coast, Gulf Coast, and East Coast. (See Stokes & Stokes, Eastern Region [noted above, in entry on the Wood Stork], at page 94.) This “fish hawk” is relatively slender, for a hawk, but obviously stouter than a falcon.
The Osprey is long-winged, white underneath (except the outer feathers of its wings, and its tail, which are brown), with a mottled brown pattern above; its head is mostly white, with a dark side-streak that passes “through” each eye and on the side of the hawk’s face. The talons of this fish-grabber are opened for prey, when the Osprey dives into water, tightly clutching any fish it succeeds in seizing after it splashes into the water. Sometimes a dead Osprey is seen hanging onto a riverine fish. How did that happen? Occasionally a strong fish flees when attacked by an Osprey, diving deeper with the Osprey still attached, as the desperate fish tries to avoid its avian pursuer. If the Osprey’s talons are embedded in the diving fish’s flesh, the fish may cause the Osprey to die by drowning, if the Osprey cannot shake loose its talons in time to escape. (Fishing always has its hazards, as any fisherman knows!) If the Osprey is successful, it quickly re-surfaces and flies off with its fish, adjusting its hold on the fish so that the fish’s face is pointed forward – for safe eating. Ospreys are sloppy eaters. If Ospreys eat chunks of their catch while perched in tree branches that spread over where you are sitting, watch out! Fish scraps may fall on your head – or something worse (!) might drop onto your head. Therefore, a wide beach umbrella (like one that Bob and Marcia Webel have, and use in their backyard, while bird-watching) is a good “shield” to have when Ospreys are eating above you.
SNOWY EGRET (Egretta thula).
This beautiful white-feathered egret looks like a small version of the Great Egret (a/k/a Great White Egret), except it has its trademark “golden slippers” – i.e., its long skinny black legs end with feet that are conspicuously bright-yellow (unlike the black feet of a Great White Egret). Also, the slender Snowy Egret has a thin black bill, in contrast to the thicker golden-yellow bill of the stouter Great White Egret. (See Roger Tory Peterson, Eastern Birds [noted above, in entry on the Lesser Scaup], pages 102-103 & map M93 & M444.) Sometimes the Snowy Egret’s feathers, at the back of its head, “hang loose” (i.e., these feathers won’t lay down close to the bird’s head/neck), looking somewhat like a comb-over that won’t “sit down”). Its feet stir up opportunities to find food: “When feeding [it] rushes about, shuffling [its] feet to stir up food.” (Quoting Peterson, Eastern Birds, at page 102.)
Like other egrets, the Snowy Egret habituates the marshy edges of lakes and ponds, as well as other marshy areas, eating fish and almost anything else it can grab with its bill. The summer range of this elegant egret is broad – it can be found at and near many lakes, ponds, estuarial marshlands, and even wet pasturelands throughout America’s lower 48 states. During winter it can be found all over Florida , as well as all along the Gulf Coast, along the East Coast as far north as North Carolina, plus parts of California (See Stokes & Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to Birds – Eastern Region [noted above, in entry on the Wood Stork], at page 35.) notwithstanding taxonomic “splitting”, this is basically the same bird that Europeans call the “Little Egret” (Egretta garzetta), which winters in northern Africa. (See, accord, Chris Kightley, Steve Madge, & Dave Nurney, Pocket Guide to Birds of Britain and North-West Europe [British Trust for Ornithology/Yale University Press, 1998], page 19.)
FLORIDA GALLINULE (a/k/a “COMMON MOORHEN” & “COMMON GALLINULE”: Gallinula chloropus).
This gallinule (i.e., chicken-sized marsh-fowl) is almost all black, with a characteristic and conspicuous yellow-tipped scarlet-red bill. (Actually the scarlet part of the bill can fade to a less vibrant reddish hue during winter.) Due to the specific color pattern and shape of this gallinule’s bill, ornithologist Lee Dusing aptly calls this the “candy corn” bird. (Some of us remember “candy corn” as a trick-or-treat candy.) This waterfowl makes a variety of noises, including chicken-like clucking noises (befitting its nickname “moorhen”). The Florida Gallinule is quite similar to the American Coot (which, though a similarly shaped black gallinule, is distinguishable by its all-white bill) and the Purple Gallinule (which is distinguishable due to its male’s iridescent peacock-blue, indigo, and slightly purplish breast and neck feathers, and its glossy green back feathers). The long “fingers” (i.e., toes) on their feet enable this gallinule to spread out their modest body weight so that they can “walk” on lily pads and similar vegetation that floats in marshy lentic waters. This gallinule (or “moorhen”) habituates lakes, ponds, and marshy wet places, often near cattails, summering in states east of and within the Mississippi River Valley, plus a few coastal place on the West Coast. (See Stokes & Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to Birds – Eastern Region [noted above, in entry on the Wood Stork], page 139; Bull & Farrand, Eastern Region [noted above, in entry on the Wood Stork], at page 459.) Its diet includes marshy vegetation (especially seeds), snails, land bugs, and water bugs. This rail-like bird is entertaining to watch, routinely bobs its head while swimming across a pond. Like coots they confidently swim in open-water contexts where they are easily observable to appreciative bird-watchers (like me).
Wow! That’s another 5 of the 15 birds that the Webels and I observed, that morning, from the Webels’ pond-side backyard. Stay tuned! God willing, the remaining 5 birds will be given their proper recognition, at this excellent bird-site!
On the morning of February 9th, AD2015, from the pond-side backyard of Bob & Marcia Webel (while enjoying breakfast and Christian fellowship with the Webels), I saw 14 birds: Great Blue Heron, Brown Pelican, Mallard, Double-Crested Cormorant, and Black Vulture – as reported previously – plus Wood Stork, Lesser Scaup, Osprey, Snowy Egret, White Ibis, Common Tern, and Florida Gallinule, — as reported above — as well as Muscovy Duck, Great Egret, White Ibis, and Common Tern, plus the cooing of a nearby Mourning Dove was clearly recognizable. It is hoped (God willing) that one more report will supplement this one, so the remaining 5 birds will be properly recognized for their lacustrine appearances on that Monday morning.
James J. S. Johnson loves duck ponds, having formerly taught Environmental Limnology and Water Quality Monitoring for Dallas Christian College, as well as other courses on ecology and ornithology. The hydrologic cycle Scriptures (quoted at the beginning of this bird-watching report) are especially appreciated by Jim, as a Certified Water Quality Monitor, certified by and serving the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, providing reports on Furneaux Creek to the Trinity River Authority of Texas. Like us all, birds need clean water! Accordingly, backyard pond habitats are for bird-watching!