This is nuts… an article about the birds of the Gulf of Mexico in 500 words or less… right.
Do you know how many species of birds live in and around the Gulf?
It’s a lot…
Birds have the fewest barriers, and the widest range of just about any animal on the planet. They can easily fly over deserts, mountains, and oceans. Most of us have seen gulls in every parking lot in the United States, and we know that many species intentionally migrate over these large landscapes.
This little blue heron is stalking prey in a Gulf coast salt marsh.
Photo: Molly O’Connor
So, we are going to focus here on just “seabirds”. But how do you define a “seabird”? An ornithologist I worked with many years ago told me – “if it eats seafood… it’s a seabird”. I do not know if all ornithologists would agree with this, but this is what we are going with.
On our barrier islands we find mockingbirds, cardinals, and many other “woodland” birds. Since they do not eat “seafood”, we will not include them here. I have seen seabirds grouped into (a) offshore birds, (b) nearshore birds, and (c) shorebirds. Offshore birds would be those that spend most of their lives on the wing, in flight over open water. Nearshore birds are those that leave land when the sun rises for a day at sea, but eventually return that evening. And shorebirds are near the beach all the time.
Though still uncommon in some parts of the Gulf, the brown pelican is a very recognizable bird along our shores.
Photo: Molly O’Connor
I used an old bird guide to make a list of such birds that have been found in the Gulf region. As many of you know, some are only seasonal. Published in 1980, Roger Tory Peterson’s Birds of the Eastern United States list 94 “seabirds” that are either full time, or part time, residents of the Gulf. Most (92%) are shorebirds.
This guide suggests there are six species of offshore seabirds that visit the Gulf region. These species have long tapered wings and can remain aloft for hours or days. Many have special glands on their beaks to excrete salt, since they would have to swallow seawater if at sea for a long time. Shearwaters and petrels have been recorded over the southern Gulf. The northern Gannet (which prefers the arctic region) has been reported over the northern Gulf. Two species of boobies have been reported as well.
I was only able to find one record of a “nearshore seabird” and that is the Magnificent Frigate bird, also known as the “Man-o-War” bird. It gets its common name from its habitat of “pirating” food from other seabirds. It can catch food on its own but seems to enjoy stealing from others. They can be seen nearshore on very windy days high above sorrowing almost still with their “bent” wing design. In the southern Gulf they nest on mangrove islands and locals there see them on a regular basis.
Bald eagles are becoming more common along the Gulf coast.
Photo: Charles Pulley
Based on this guide, there are 87 species of shorebirds in the Gulf region, 59 only winter here. The list is huge and includes loons and cormorants, pelicans and herons, gulls and terns, and the stilt legged birds such as herons and egrets. Many hunters await one of 19 species of duck that spend winter here and in recent years encounters with bald eagles have increased.
Birds lack teeth so they must either grab, or cut, their prey with their bills. Members of the pelican family are famous for their “pouches” which they use to hold food for their young. Oyster catchers can snip open the bivalve with their blade-like bill. The black skimmers have a longer lower bill they dip in the surface of the water as they fly over attracting fish, which the skimmer grabs on its second pass over. Many seabirds are excellent divers and some swim very well, chasing prey beneath the waves.
Many of these shorebirds have been nesting on our barrier islands for thousands of years. Here there are few predators and the warm sand provides a great nesting spot. However, humans have connected these isolated islands to the mainland with bridges and new predators can easily grab the chicks right off the beach. The increase of non-island predators has placed some species on the protected list.
There is a LOT more that can be said about these common and amazing animals. We encourage to take time and do some birding. It is easy, you are already there, and they have no problem displaying their behaviors while you watch.
‘Bobwhites in Pine Savanna’ Workshop Set
For Jan. 30 in Marianna, Florida
The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) and partners will host the Tri-State Bobwhite Symposium for professional land managers and landowners Thursday, January 30, 2020, in Marianna, FL.
It is the second Working Lands for Wildlife–Bobwhites in Pine Savanna workshop funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and is expected to draw attendees from three states. The program goal is to restore pine savanna on 82,000 acres across seven states using thinning, prescribed fire, and native grass restoration. Federal funding is available to landowners who choose to pursue pine savanna management on that designated landscape.
Bobwhite quail are popular with many hunters and management is trying to restore them.
“Private lands are a critical and necessary component for landscape-scale restoration of wild bobwhites, which is what NBCI is all about,” said NBCI Forestry Coordinator Steve Chapman. “Active management of pine forests on those lands, while still meeting landowner objectives, is a key NBCI strategy, and 82,000 managed acres will show the dividends of this approach.”
Dr. Jess McGuire, Quail Forever’s Working Lands for Wildlife bobwhite coordinator, added that “in order to achieve this level of restoration, wildlife professionals must be trained in the nuances of bobwhite management.”
The workshop will be from 9am–2pm at the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) office, located at 2741 Penn Avenue, Suite 3, Marianna, FL 32448. Preregistration by January 23 is required by contacting email@example.com or online at http://bit.ly/tristatequail.
Additional partners include Quail Forever, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, University of Florida Extension, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Through multiple agreements, NBCI, in collaboration with Quail Forever and Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources/University of Georgia, will provide at least one of these workshops in each of the seven states identified in the project geography. Those states include Alabama, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Partners will also produce educational materials detailing management techniques and the results of intentional, targeted pine savanna management for bobwhites as part of the overall project.
Headquartered at the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture/Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, NBCI is a science and habitat-based initiative of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) to elevate bobwhite quail recovery from an individual state-by-state proposition to a coordinated, range-wide leadership endeavor to restore wild bobwhites on a landscape scale. The committee is comprised of representatives of 25 state wildlife agencies, various academic research institutions and private conservation organizations. Support for NBCI is provided by the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Program, state wildlife agencies, the Joe Crafton Family Endowment for Quail Initiatives, the University of Tennessee, Park Cities Quail and Roundstone Native Seed.
As the migratory birds stop off or stay in the Panhandle this winter, they need to find food, food and more food. There is a wide variety of migration activity in Florida beginning in the fall months of September, October, and November. From woodland song birds to waterfowl to the annual warbler invasion, so many different species show up in Florida. While year-to-year migration patterns and winter foraging grounds can shift for some species due to a variety of reasons, some birds stay in Florida for the winter months of December, January, and February. Some may arrive early and others may stay late.
Some North American breeding birds endure harsh winters; however, they are physically suited for cold environments in a number of ways. One, they are able to drop their metabolic rate to a near comatose state using very little energy. Two, they are able to position their feathers, or puff up, to trap heat generated by their own body. Others need to head to warmer climates.
Birds migrate for two reasons. Food and weather avoidance. North American breeding birds who nest in the northern part of the continent will migrate south for the winter. As winter approaches, insect and plant life diminishes in the snow-covered states. Migrating birds head south in search of food. Places like Florida are rich in insects, plant life, and nesting grounds.
Birds need high energy food to stay warm. Berry and seed producing plants contain proteins, sugars and lots of fats. Many native trees, shrubs and grasses can aid migratory and winter visiting birds in their relentless search for food. Gardening for birds and other wildlife enables an opportunity for people to experience animals up close, which providing an important habitat in the urban environment.
For more information on which plants are preferred by specific bird species go to: https://www.audubon.org/native-plants
For more information on landscaping for wildlife refer to: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/UW/UW17500.pdf
Ospreys, or fish hawks, build their nests from sticks atop dead trees. Photo credit: UF IFAS Extension
Big hurricanes like Dorian (Bahamas) and 2018’s Michael (central Florida Panhandle) were devastating to the communities they landed in. Flooding, wind, rain, loss of power and communications eventually made way for ad hoc clearing and cleanup, temporary shelters, and a slow walk to recovery. Among the most striking visual impacts of a hurricane are the tree losses, as there are unnatural openings in the canopy and light suddenly shines on areas that had been shaded for years. In northwest Florida, pines are particularly vulnerable. After any hurricane in the Panhandle, you can drive down Interstate 10 for miles and see endless pines blown to the ground or broken off at the top. During Hurricane Ivan 15 years ago, the coastal areas in Escambia and Santa Rosa lost thousands of trees not only due to wind, but also to tree roots inundated by saltwater for long periods.
Dead trees left by hurricanes serve as ideal nesting ground for large birds like ospreys. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Nature always finds a way, though. Because of all those dead (but still-standing) pines, our osprey (Pandion haliaetus) population is in great shape in the Pensacola area. How are these two things related? Well, ospreys build large stick nests in the tall branches/crooks of dead trees, known as snags. They particularly prefer those near the water bodies where they fish. When I first moved here 20 years ago, I rarely saw ospreys. Now, it’s uncommon not to see them near the bayous and bays, or to hear their high-pitched calls as they swoop and dive for fish.
If you are not familiar with ospreys, they can be distinguished by their call and their size (up to six foot wingspan). It is common to see them in their large nests atop those snags, flying, or diving for fish. I usually see them with mullet in their talons, although they also prey on catfish, spotted trout, and other smaller species. They have white underbellies, brown backs, and are smaller than eagles but larger than your average hawk. One of their more interesting physical adaptations (and identifying characteristics) is their ability to grip fish parallel to their bodies, making it more aerodynamic than the perpendicular method most birds use.
Ospreys mate for life, and cooperate to build nests and care for young. The species has overcome many complex threats—including DDT damage to eggs and habitat loss—but the sight of them flying is always inspiring to me. They are a living embodiment of resilience amidst adversity.
Pokeweed is currently producing many purple berries containing seed ready for avian distribution.
Half a century ago the AM airwaves included a tune by a rock singer who crooned about Polk Salad Annie. While not exactly epic lyrics, it did have a catchy beat which made it to number eight on Billboard’s Hot 100.
The basis of this dish was common pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), a native of North American perennial weed frequently found in pastures as well as fence-rows, fields, wooded areas and neglected residential landscapes.
The reason this plant is only on the menu of the economically distress is all parts of it contain saponins, oxalates, and the alkaloid toxin phytolacine. The roots and seeds of this species contain the highest concentrations of these compounds.
As winter moves to spring, this plant is emerging from its winter dormancy. The warm summer of 2019 has accelerated the regrowth in north Florida and the surrounding states.
Once pokeweed becomes established, it regrows each year from a large, fleshy taproot which penetrates over a foot deep. The crown of the root is where the plant is regenerated and can be as large as five and a half inches in diameter at the soil surface within two growing seasons.
Pokeweed usually has a red trunk like stem, which becomes hollow as the plant matures later in the year. Leaves become quite large as the plant grows to its full potential and are the basis for the Polk salad.
The process for rendering the leave edible by humans, or other mammals, involves boiling and washing with a second boiling and more washing. Short of eminent starvation, it is not a good or safe meal choice for dining.
When in bloom the individual flowers appear green to white and are typically missing petals. Fruits are green when immature and turn a deep purple to black at maturity which is the basis for one alternate name for this species, inkberry.
Each fruit contains about nine small, hard-shelled seeds. Pokeweed can produce a few thousand seeds to over 48,000 seeds per plant annually.
In the right situation these seeds may remain viable in the soil for over four decades (40 years). When exposed to favorable environmental conditions the seed sprout and the process is repeated.
While not a suitable selection for people or livestock, birds eat the fruits without much evidence of harm and are usually the means for seed dispersal. Roosting sites along fence rows and under utility lines frequently show signs of seed deposits.
In addition to feeding cardinals, mocking birds, cedar waxwings and other avian species, the pokeweed is host to a variety of insects. Some are beneficial and others are not.
A number of caterpillars utilize this weed to sustain their larval stage of development. Unfortunately, some other less desirable insects use the local weed, too.
Pokeweed can act as reservoirs of various viruses transmitted by insects which are destructive to vegetable and ornamental plants. Whiteflies and aphids are the main culprits, but other insect species can contribute the disease issue.
Old rock tunes aside, it is best to leave the pokeweed and Polk salad to the bugs and birds.
To learn more about pokeweed read the UF/IFAS publication COMMON POKEWEED.
Mississippi kites are smaller but impressive aerialists as well. Photo by Andy Reago, Flickr Creative Commons.
Dime store kites were never very expensive, but it still seemed like a luxury when I was growing up and it was a rare thing for us kids to see a store-bought kite flying over our neighborhood. An old paper grocery bag (remember those), some cotton string for the corner loops, and two dog fennel sticks cut from the back field provided the basic ingredients for us to make our own. With a little creative cutting and gluing, and the attachment of a tail made from torn strips from a worn-out shirt, it was a thing of grace and beauty and was soon aloft on the wind. On a good day, with the right breeze (not too light, not too gusty), we could run out two full rolls of kite string until the kite was just a speck in the distance. The real challenge was winding all of that string back in after the kite came down across houses, powerlines and fields.
Please forgive the digression but thinking about the topic for this article sent me on a little trip down memory lane. We are fortunate to have two very interesting avian species of kites that grace our summer skies over North Florida. Both are exceptional aerialists but one of them in particular will leave a visual image that is hard to shake. The swallow-tailed kite (Elanoides forficatus) is one of the most impressive birds on the planet with its stark white belly and under-wing coverts, outlined in bold black trim. Its deeply forked tail gives rise to several descriptive names such as split-tailed hawk and fork-tailed hawk, among others. Each spring, swallow-tailed kites migrate in small groups back to their breeding range that extends into the Florida Peninsula and sections of the Panhandle, including several North Florida counties. I’ve seen up to 21 kites flying over the Apalachicola River floodplain during this time of year. Forested swamp habitats along river corridors are particularly valuable for foraging and nesting areas but these graceful flyers are also observed over agricultural fields and pastures where they catch dragonflies and other bugs on the wing; usually dining in the air. Nesting takes place in treetops and young are fed a mixed bag of insects, tree frogs, lizards and small snakes, most snatched from the treetops in flight. Occasionally, the young of other birds are taken from their nests and added to the menu. After the young have fledged from the nest, it isn’t long before our kites head back to their wintering grounds in South America. Young birds can be identified by their less-deeply forked tail, due to the short outer tail feathers.
The other kite that graces our area during summertime is the Mississippi kite (Ictinia mississippiensis); not quite as flashy as its fork-tailed cousin but beautiful in its own right. Adult Mississippi kites are a pearly gray color with darker wings and tail. They are significantly smaller, with a wingspan of about 3 feet (swallow-tailed kites have a wingspan up to 4.5 feet). Wintering grounds are in South America also but the breeding range in the US includes several western states such as Texas, Oklahoma and even sparsely in New Mexico and Arizona. This species is known to vigorously defend its nest by dive-bombing trespassers who get too close.
I see both species flying around my house in Wakulla County and without fail, I pause to appreciate the grace, beauty and tremendous distances covered during annual flights by these long-distance migrants. Keep looking up during our summer months and you may well be rewarded by a glimpse of these two “kites over North Florida.”