Species mark the seasons
When Meta was little, we spent time at a friend’s house on the Chesapeake Bay. Living on the water was a new experience for her, but, a keen observer like most children, Meta soon pinned things down. She divided the year into “osprey season” (in summer they sat on buoys in the bay) and “grapefruit season” (in December the fruit arrived in local supermarkets).
In south Florida, ospreys are around all year, so for me, the bird for spring/summer is a toss up among the chuck-will’s-widow, the swallow-tailed kite and the Northern bobwhite, which I heard this evening for the first time in 2018.
After a long cold winter — which is growing rare around here — the first call of the bobwhite elicits a kind of feral joy. What I love so much about this bird is that he says his name so clearly and in the same vernacular, whether he is in south Florida or southern Maine.
Bobwhites are on the decline. The Audubon Society estimates the populations declined by 82% between 1966 and 2010, making this bird all the more precious.
The epitome of grace, swallowtails — a Florida bird — steal my heart when they swoop low over my van without flapping their wings. They arrive in late February and before the fall equinox have departed for South America. They are in good shape conservation-wise.
How could anyone ignore the chuck-will’s-widow? Though mostly unseen, it has a nighttime call that is so loud, so distinctive, it begs attention. I worry that these nocturnal birds, which around here frequent the edges of Oscar Scherer State Park, might attract cats on the prowl. Insect eaters, they also are in decline. Cornell Lab’s site, allaboutbirds.org, cites pesticide use as one of the reasons.
Winter features no contest for me. It is “eagle season.” The Oscar Scherer State Park eagles are chattering away as I write this; this winter, I have been fortunate to watch the young fledge and practice living in the world.
My avian year is not only divided into halves but also into quadrants. Comings and goings are scattered throughout the year, some at opposite times from what I experienced in the North.
Robins arriving en masse in fall remind me of spring evenings in my Annapolis garden. Clouds of tree swallows are a wintertime phenomenon. In summer, when northern waters are filled with bird life, around here, the beach empties out.
On a day in July, the beach can be deserted except for an ibis or two, one little blue heron and a couple of brown pelicans, all permanent residents. Sandpipers have migrated north to the Arctic to breed, a migration of thousands of miles for these creatures that weigh just a couple of ounces each. Ruddy turnstones also make this long trip. Royal and sandwich terns move up the Gulf Coast to Egmont and other keys, where they congregate in large colonies to nest.
Then in late summer/early fall, families of terns are back on the beach. Bigger than their parents, the “babies” demand to be fed. Once again, sandpipers scurry back and forth among the waves, probing the sand for crustaceans. Ruddy turnstones live up to their name.
Bird time can be experienced on a daily schedule. Around dawn, mourning doves, the gentlest of alarm clocks, nudge me to get up. Cardinals “chime” the hours, though not with the precision of the church clock near my house in Nokomis. And their calls differ over the course of a day — “Tweet tweet tweet” marks the early morning, followed by “Sweetie sweetie sweetie.” Any number of variations on that theme come later. An hour or two after sunrise, woodpeckers — pileated are the loudest of the group — make themselves known.
All through the day, blue jays, Northern parulas, white-eyed vireos, warblers and mockingbirds fly though the pines, stopping to rest and feed. Crows and vultures ride the thermals. Ibis pass over in search of new green space to probe for grubs. The arrival of a red-shouldered hawk is loudly announced by screeching jays.
Birds are just one part of this tree community. Butterflies — I have counted six species, including Monarchs — flit along the woodland edge and stop to nectar on Spanish needles; so do bumblebees.
Squirrels chase one another up and down the pines. Sometimes I hear them sharpening their teeth. Rabbits emerge to feed on the grasses.
The end of the day brings a flurry of activity, including flyovers by gulls, egrets, whistling ducks, a lone great blue heron and sandhill cranes on their way to roost. Of the yard birds, cardinals are the last to roost.
The sun has long set, and Laurel and I await the call of the chuck-will’s-widow. There it is, right in front of us. It has been many years since she heard it in Ohio. In vain, we search the grasses for this plain brown bird, a member of the nightjar family.
All this wildlife exists in my small window of view, within a few acres of Oscar Scherer. Translate that into 1,400 acres, and we have a miracle in this increasingly urbanized landscape.
Last week, I was talking with Anita Mitchell, a snowbird neighbor who heard from her son on Cape Cod that the ospreys had returned to Barnstable. Surely, they are back on Chesapeake Bay.
Here in Florida, what shall it be? Bobwhite, swallow-tailed kite or chuck-will’s-widow season? I leave it up to you!