Sunday, August 16, 2009

Spring Break in the Panhandle (Part Two)

Better late than never I always say. (C'mon...I was busy, Ok?)

When we last left our intrepid travelers they had just reached the panhandular city of their destination; Panama City, FL. The next stop was to pull into the campground and set up camp for the week. St. Andrews State Park is located on a quiet tip of land just opposite the melee of the extremely "Disneyland-esque" main portion of Panama City. Opposite, in that a body of water called the Grand Lagoon separates the glitz and gaudy from the quiet and serene. Don't think me too harsh here as I'm only pointing out the dichotomy. Your "thing" just might be tuned right in to the neon, fair rides, loud music, countless tattoo parlors, trendy eateries, and hundreds of recreating college students all experimenting with a form of perceived "adult" behavior. Years ago I might have joined in the frivolity, but not now, not this time. Panama City and its even more promiscuous cousin, Panama City Beach are areas in transition. Each is attempting to carve out a lasting identity and finds itself divided somewhat between the factions that don't mind swooping in for the quick buck and the long time residents and those with vested long term interests. In spring of 2009 it was evident that the economy had laid its suffocating hand on the neck of the construction industry as many a development had stopped dead along with many a dream crushed in the process. Money was lost by the oyster bucketful as the speculation cash supply dried up. Well, as far as the Devereauxs were concerned, we would sprinkle as much of our hard-earned "stimulus money" into the local coffers as possible; doing our part. We tend to support the Mom and Pop establishments whenever we can anyway, so it was a win-win

We found our site after check-in and began setting up as per usual; Nola and I doing mostly everything. The weather was wonderfully Floridifically warm and the breezes from both the ocean and the lagoon sides kept the air moving nicely. Bugs were practically non existent for the week and the birding was fantastic! The sugar white sands of the many beaches attract tens of thousands to them each year, with a favorite spot of many; the Lagoon. Mothers can bring their small children there, protected from the wilder waves by the man-made, bouldered "jetty." Max began filming one of his famous Youtube videos patterned after his (then) favorite movie; Life Aquatic. I helped as I could while keeping an eye open for birds. Yes, Dedra...birds...those flying things honey. She spent a great deal of time on the white sand working on her tan soaking up the sun, so she was good; birds or no birds. The shelling at St. Andrews is pretty scarce so finding anything unique was particularly hard, however the quality of the small available varieties is still wonderful. One can find zillions of really cool gastropods, bi-valves, Florida cones, Olives, scallops, and the typical broken sand dollars. This year hundreds of dead sea urchins littered the waterline along with the occasional expired pufferfish. Fishermen, fisherwomen and fisherkids stood steadfast on the jetty wall staring at their lines in hopes of landing some bizzare sea creature. (Well, probably not, but that's what I would want if I was out there amongst them). Just off this side of the park, across St. Andrew Bay lies Shell Island. It's a place that I have not gone as yet and perhaps I will some day, but every time I hear about it and its desolation (no shade whatsoever) I think that I'd best be better prepared for that sort of excursion before paying the money to be marooned and toasted. if you are curious, click on the link HERE to learn more about how to get there. You'd think that there'd be better shelling on "Shell Island" but that's not what I hear, so if you want to save your money for another tee shirt or bundle of firewood, that's probably your best bet.

The waves along the ocean (gulf-side) are larger and surfers are seen attempting to make a go of it. Personally, not being a surfer myself and not playing one on TV either, but having a bit more than half a brain: I can tell you this ain't no Tamarindo, Costa Rica. It hardly looked worth all the paddling it took to get out there if you ask me...but then again the surfers probably would say the same of chasing a Loggerhead Shrike across a crowded parking lot. Night time on the beaches is a blast. We always take our high-powered spotlights along to find washed-up weirdness on the beach. Ghost crabs dash in and out of the surf and the occasional unidentified creature rolls itself up and out of the water to be discovered. The roar of the waves in the pitch black is slightly unsettling and wildly exciting too. Try it the next time you are camping near the's exhilarating...your kids will go nuts too.

So, I'm getting around to the birding part of this blog entry now, so thanks for sticking with me. It must be said straight away that of the 65 species I recorded while in the Panama City area, I picked up just 3 new life birds for my lifelist; Black Skimmer, the Eurasian Collared Dove and the magnificent Summer Tanager. Gulls were by far the most prevailant species in the area with egrets a close second as many were in breeding plumage and nesting nearby in specialized island colonies on inland waters. There was this one (idiot) guy who decided that he was such an amazing wildlife photographer that he parked his giant pickup on the side of the road, got out all his expensive camera gear, rolled up his pant legs (not sure why he bothered) and waded out into potentially alligator-infested waters up to his armpits within a good spit of the protected nesting Great Egrets to get a "better shot." He must have had some sort of Marlin Perkins complex to be sure. I took photos of him while I bitched (to absolutely no one nearby) as to what a moron I felt he was...grrrrr...but I felt better anyway. I went back to the campsite to watch the deadfall behind the camper for a while. It had become a bit of a mecca for several interesting species of ground-feeding birds since I "seeded" the area just a bit with Kaytee. Brown Thrashers, Northern Cardinals, Bluejays, red-Bellied Woodpeckers and the cutest pair of eastern Towhees hopped and skipped amongst each other pecking at my free-will offering. The most interesting bird to visit was the Red-headed Woodpecker. It would take a sunflower seed and wedge it into a crevice of the deadfall before pounding it into submission in search of the soft inner flesh.

One of the more spectacular sightings was a small tree full of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks that had decided to take a break near the boat landing. They dotted the branches with their crimson black and white feathers like ornaments. Each afternoon when the fishermen would come back to the landing, the Brown Pelicans would greet them. Their are signs clearly posting that it is not a good idea to feed them, however as we all know; signs be damned...that's for other people to read. At least their persistant mealtime begging and squawking was a good opportunity for a photo or two. Northern Mockingbirds could be heard and seen in multiple locations. They are the south's version of robins. Plus, while the Blue Grosbeak sighting was not my first, I was able to take a better photo this time and felt privileged to do so. As a matter of fact, even though my digital camera is not a "pro" model, I still highly enjoy taking images of birds...LOTS of them...just ask my family.

Then there was the hunt for the elusive alligator. It seemed that the majority of casual vacationer was far more interested in spotting a reptile than would ever get a kick out of a Great Blue Heron. I would be sitting on my bike seat on the side of the road staring through the brush at a Little Green and a car would stop to ask me if it was an alligator I was looking at. When I turned to tell them no it was a such and such bird, they would drive away before I could get it out of my mouth. Pity...they missed the unappreciated beauty and splendor of the Boat-tailed Grackle for peetey-sake. Sure I saw the stupid alligator...even got a snap-shot of 'em too, but c' seen one, you seen 'em all right? I even tried crabbing. Nola and I tied some chum-flavored chicken parts onto the floor of two Internet-purchased cages and sat them on the bottom of the bay at night. The only large crabs we caught were Spider crabs. Arguably, thee most hideous looking creatures God ever laughingly decided to place upon this earth. But creepingly weird enough to pick up with your bare hands. Watch it however, they are sharp little buggers with their armored-spiky shells

So the moral of this two-part story is: Go Camping. Plain and simple eh? You truly need to get outdoors and "rough it" a bit, turning off the TV and walking in the bushes for a hike to get the feel of really living. If you try it and don't necessarily like it, fine; you'll at least know what you are missing when you open up the mini-fridge for a San Pelegrino before you step into the hot tub...the rest of us will be just fine out there...catching real crabs. See ya' later alligator!

PS: When in Panama City, try Capt. Anderson's and Billy's Oyster'll thank me.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Whistle While You...

At times a quest for knowledge can take you a bit off the beaten path. (Right Church, Wrong Pew)

Whistling Robins. That's where it all started. I wanted to find out who knew what about this most perplexing of subjects and discovered way more than I ever wished for. As you know, if you are reading this, my absolute favorite bird is the American Robin; Turdus Migratorius. You probably even know why too, but that's not the focus of my ramblings today. What I wanted to know is why do some Robins whistle? (That was my first mistake)

If you know me, I like to dig too. No, not in the soft fertile soil, or the hard-packed clay (however that too is true) but I mean "dig" in the sense that I turn over things until I find the answer I am looking for. I also love the Internet as a tool for helping me do this. It is emotionless, patient, thorough, and does not ask me to repeat myself for mumbling. For all of its good points, it has one not-so-good one that must be dealt with and considered; it is very literal.

My case in point today will be my quest for knowledge related to my whistling Robin question. Did you know that if you Google the phrase "Robin Whistle" you'll discover a very sexy woman's sandal design from the people at FarylRobin named the "Whistle?" (Warning if you click on the FarylRobin site HERE, the site loads slower than the proverbial Second Coming) If your interest has been sufficiently piqued regarding the Whistle sandal and what it looks like, click HERE instead. (Disclaimer: Birdstud is not a salesman for FarylRobin, nor is any of his family affiliated with the company in any way )

So Googling onward, my next stop was a happy little (not) 12-line poem written in 1920 by Sara Teasdale entitled, "There Will Come Soft Rains."

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,

And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pool singing at night,

And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,

Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one

Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,

If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn

Would scarcely know that we were gone.

After reading that uplifting bit of prose, I felt like I needed to apologize to someone for some reason...hmmm, I wonder what that was about. Anyway, my next stop along the road less traveled was a grainy, blurry YouTube site that featured a kid named "Robin" who learned to "whistle" in an extremely pathetic way. Of course I watched it (and all the subsequent attempts) with the same fascination that one has while watching a slow-moving train wreck...I couldn't NOT watch it, you know? Perhaps I somehow "wished" that whistle-challenged Robin would STOP whistling long enough to provide me with the answer to my question? I moved on with a heavy heart to one of the MANY references to a curious bit of "whistling" associated with a short-lived forgetful BBC series dealing with the life and times of "Robin" Hood. Some "artist" with a copy of Audacity and Windows Movie Maker had apparently sifted through hours of gritty, entertaining footage from the ill-fated show, pairing it with the "whistling" theme from the Disney animated film of the same name. (HERE) Note: This is NOT entertaining in the slightest, but the whistling is kind of amusing for 20-30 seconds.

Can you believe that someone out there actually had the cajones to criticize Mary Poppins and it's "factual faux pas" in purposefully casting an "American Robin" singing IE: "whistling" from Mary's finger and windowsill, and not the far more believable "British Robin?" (Was this a "union" thing, or was the American Robin, too pricey?) Perhaps that same critical individual failed to notice the utter fantasy involved with a woman who can fly with a standard bumbershoot? (and don't even THINK of Googling "bumbershoot" or you'll get the Seattle Music and Arts festival)

So far you must think me mad or (at least) horribly off track. Not so dear reader, for I had a breakthrough during my next series of word reordering; what was a "whistle" to me, was in fact a "seet" to the most amazing bird audiologist on the planet; Donald Kroodsma! What I was missing from my frantic Googling attempts was this important distinction, and when you are as accomplished and respected as Mr. Kroodsma is, you can call it like YOU hear it. In his book, "The Singing Life of Birds" he gets around to addressing the subject of my quest. I say "gets around" because this book, while technically unmatched, is just not a summer light reading escape. It is jam-packed with technical jargon, graphs and sonagrams that would take a scientist to appreciate and is quite tedious in that regard, however I do own the book and like the pictures. No really, the CD that's attached is well worth having, so if you think you'd like to take a shot at wading through the pages and pages of techno-jumble, then by all means pick it up (for the CD anyway). Me, I'm a kinesthetic learner anyway (and make no apologies for that) so it stands to reason that I just want the Cliffs Notes version and to be shown the door so I can go out and play...but I digress. From Donald Kroodsma to several old-time .PDFs interspersed around the "seet-ing robin" world, I finally found my answer! Robins can sound a warning (aerial alarm) when a predator (namely another meat-eating bird) raptor is in the neighborhood. That makes perfect sense to me now. The time I have heard their high pitched (often subtle) "seet" calls in my own city neighborhood were when there actually might have been a Cooper's Hawk in the vicinity. There are PLENTY of those frightening predators in the area and I can imagine that the robins saw them first, sounding out their warning to all who had the good sense to heed it. It must be noted that many birds sound alerts for various reasons, lurking hawks and eagles among them, however the robin's whistling "seet" call is quite unique (at least to my ear).

Certain alarm calls can even relate information as precise as the predator type and risk level. How individuals respond to these calls may depend on both the intensity of the call as well as the age of the responder. Scientists have investigated the aerial alarm call of the American robin and specifically examined how call rate (reflecting intensity) and age affect the anti-predator behaviors of responders. Both juveniles and adults significantly altered their behavior upon hearing recorded playbacks of "seet" calls; they foraged less and increased vigilance and other anti-predator behaviors. Adult robins were also able to distinguish between low intensity and high intensity calls; skygazing, an important behaviour that allows robins to scan for raptors, increased with call rate. Juveniles, on the other hand, skygazed less and there was a trend for juveniles to spend more time alert than adults suggesting that some learning may be involved. When a robin hears an alarm "seet" call, they most often repeat the call and stop moving so as to "hide."

Yes, the robin's whistling "seets" are truly an important evolutionary development in this fascinating species, and one that provides an important service for fellow avians. For humans, it is another in a long list of natural wonders that causes us to ponder, investigate, record and speculate...and nowadays, finally Googling for the "truest" answer to our questions. Now I know for sure and so do you. Kinda' gives you that clean as a whistle feeling don't it?

Seet choo later dear reader! - Birdstud