Backyard Bird Count

I heard that some of the volunteers for the annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count were going to sit on their decks the morning of the St. John count and see how many different species came by. Though I spent that day creeping through the bushes surveying ponds and beaches on the south shore, afterwards I thought it might be nice to just focus on the resident birds coming by our house.

This year for the first time I had put out some water with a touch of sugar. I hung it in a dried calabash one of my friends had cut and painted to look like Santa. At first no birds came to see Santa, but as soon as one Bananaquit couple discovered the water, those two kept coming back. Then there were more.  

Soon things got even livelier. Some Antillean Bullfinches got interested in Santa, but they were repeatedly driven off by the territorial bananaquits. To defuse the tension I decided to give the bullfinches some birdseed as a holiday treat of their own.

Meanwhile tiny Black-faced Grassquits were checking for smaller seeds in the patch of lawn my husband has been patiently and somewhat frustratedly cultivating. They got very excited when he decided to re-seed an area that was looking particularly thin. 

The shimmery Green-throated Carib hummingbirds are attracted to the bougainvillea flowers just off the porch. 

And along the back walkway Lesser Antillean Crested hummingbirds make nests in the plants hanging along the wall.

But most of the other neighborhood birds keep their distance.

Yellow Warblers are native to the Virgin Islands, and are always a bright welcome sight. They don’t come right up to the house, though, because they eat bugs in the trees. They flit back and forth, or perch nearby and sing their distinctive song – supposedly saying “sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet.”

The pigeons here are nothing like the ones in New York. The Scaly-Naped ones are large and fierce looking. They sit in nearby trees and have a low, sad cooing call that sounds like “Who are you? Who are you?”

Zenaida Doves are similar to Mourning Doves I see in New York. You mostly see them walking on the ground, but if you get too close they fly up and you hear a whistling sound from their wings. Though they are lovely birds, they do make a mournful drawn-out hooing sound a little bit like an owl. I hear it as “Who WHO cooks for you?”

The Smooth-Billed Anis always travel in packs of five or more as they fly past our house. They actually make shared, communal nests too, which is quite unusual for birds. They are black like crows, with large beaks like parrots, and actually squawk loudly like shrill parrots as they go overhead or perch in the trees. 

Of course there are less frequent visitors that occasionally stop by the yard, and many other birds nearby in the mangrove wetlands, along the shorelines, and in the woods. They are not always easy to see though.

The most frustrating part of my backyard birding – in fact all my birding – is hearing hidden warblers going “chip, chip, chip” in a nearby tree and not being able to see them, much less identify them. But I suppose they have their own reasons to stay out of sight, and to call to each other, and are not the least bit concerned about my frustration. Fortunately there are some birds that are friendlier and are willing to let us watch them.

But wait, no, really the most frustrating birds in the yard are the Pearly-eyed Thrashers. They are not at all shy – in fact we view them as garden enemies and wage defensive campaigns against them. What do they do? They eat the precious sugar apples off our tree while we are patiently waiting for them to ripen. They crawl inside the papayas and hollow them out so you think the fruit is still intact until you go to pick it. They strip the cherries off the trees while they are still green.

  Then they sit on a branch and tweet. “You are losers. So sad.”  

Exhibitionist Clapper Rails

I had just returned from a trip to New York when a friend stopped me in the grocery store and excitedly told me about that morning’s bird walk at Francis Bay.  A pair of normally elusive clapper rails were not only visible that day, but actually began mating in plain view!

Of course I was jealous. I wanted to run right out there and see for myself. But you can’t expect birds to perform on demand, especially not ones that are normally so shy.

Clapper rails mostly live in swampy coastal areas. On St. John they stay low down in mangrove wetlands, walking around (they rarely fly) and using their long thin bills to pick up crabs, insects and small fish. Supposedly the saying “thin as a rail” refers to their ability to slip through small spaces in a tangle of intertwined roots. They tend to lurk in the shadows, and their coloring helps provide even more camouflage. They have loud voices though, and are more often heard than seen.

Except, it seems, during courtship. Like other birds and animals, a male clapper rail may have to behave aggressively and even fight over suitable nesting territory in order to attract females.

Once he has established his position, however, he can become less pugnacious and more seductive. According to the Audubon Field Guide, during courtship the male clapper rail approaches the female, points his bill down, and swings his head from side to side. He may also adopt attractive manly poses, for example, standing erect with his neck stretched and his bill open.

The male might also offer the female something to eat. Crustaceans are a favorite food, and there are lots of red fiddle crabs living in the mud surrounding the ponds. The male clapper rail could probably entice a female with some of these feisty little guys.  

The clapper rail couple builds a monogamous bond through working together on building a nest, protecting the eggs and rearing their brood. As part of the courtship and mating process, some clapper rails will even work on synchronizing their calls, so they sound like only one voice.  

We hear clapper rails calling all the time near our house. When we walk down by the black mangrove pond, the clattering they make in their throats sounds like a sudden burst of applause – thank you, thank you – or perhaps more likely, alarm. Either way, everyone knows you are there.

Sometimes it is so loud you think there must be hundreds of them around, though probably there are only a few making all that noise. Still, we can’t be sure because they mostly hide down among the mangrove roots, camouflaged and out of sight.

One group of researchers at Stanford suggested that the rails can get so used to being invisible within their normal habitat that they don’t realize they can be seen when they come out in the open. So what might seem like boldness or indifference to discovery may actually be lack of understanding that they are exposing themselves to viewers.

Visibility can be a problem because some people like to do more than watch. Clapper rails are also called marsh hens because they are about the size of chickens and have a similar taste which, at least in the past, has made them attractive to hunters.

Though I haven’t yet seen any of the seemingly uninhibited clapper rails in courtship mode myself, I did once catch a coy one taking a bath in the morning. You can see the racy video here:

Giving Thanks For Sugar Apples

Comfort food took on a whole new meaning for me this month. I started waking up in the morning with dread in my belly and Dylan songs running through my mind. “Ain't no use jiving.  Ain't no use joking…. Everything is broken.” Great he won the Nobel Prize. Bad news that he was right, the world’s gone wrong.

How to start the day when you can’t bear to listen to the radio, or read the paper or scroll through your Facebook feed? Better to go outside and see what the birds are squawking about.

What a difference in the yard this season. Last year the drought took out the coconut and mango trees we had planted, and starving deer ate everything else they could reach. The sugar apple tree survived but many of the fruits turned hard and black, mummified by fungus.

Now it is dripping like a rain forest out there and the native trees are full of activity. Gray king birds and Zenaida doves are picking the seeds out of the white caper pods, and scaly-naped pigeons have harvested most of the black mampoo fruits and pigeon berries.

So I have sought solace in the garden with the birds and the trees. Though vulnerable, as we all are, to coming storms, they are undisturbed by the news.

The sugar apple tree has been loaded with heavy ripening fruit, and one night when the wind got going in the night we woke up to find some of them dropped on the lawn like exploded custard grenades.

There is a delicate art to harvesting sugar apples. You want to pick them before the pearly-eyed thrashers can get to them and hollow them out. But if you pick them while they are too hard they may sit inside on the counter in safety but not ripen properly, or at all. You need to leave them on the tree until their sections start to separate, showing spaces in between that look yellowish pink, and they feel just slightly soft to the touch. That can take weeks. But slightly soft can turn squishy in just a few hours, and then they let go and fall to the ground in a mess.

We found that the best approach was to give each sugar apple a gentle squeeze every morning. My husband brought out the ladder and stationed it next to the tree so we could easily reach up into the branches and feel each fruit. If any were getting soft, we tried to remember to check them again at dinner time.

Checking the sugar apples turned out to be both calming and engagingly competitive. It is difficult to outsmart a thrasher, though this year they have been a bit less aggressive. Maybe because there are also lots of other fruits and berries around.   

When we planted the tree about 8 years ago, it was a gift from my son and his girlfriend. I had never eaten a sugar apple. It is a tropical tree, native to the West Indies, and the fruits don’t travel well (as you can imagine from my harvesting challenges), so people from the north often aren’t familiar with them.

Even if you found one in the market in New York, you probably couldn’t properly appreciate it. In his last book, Wild Fruit, Thoreau discussed the special pleasures of native fruits: “It is a grand fact that you cannot make the fairer fruits or parts of fruits matters of commerce; that is, you cannot buy the highest use and enjoyment of them. You cannot buy that pleasure which it yields to him who truly plucks it.

This year there were more sugar apples than ever, and too many got ripe all at once. Instead of hoarding them as special treasures, I have given them away, frozen a few, taken them to pot lucks – and still greedily eaten as many of them as I could.

I usually break open the ripe sugar apple, delicately pull out a juicy section and put it in my mouth, carefully extracting the seed and saving it in a saucer. After the rainy night when the ripe ones fell and smashed, I went out and collected all the fruit that had gotten suddenly soft. There were sugar apples all over the counter. I broke open one of the softest ones and held the whole thing up to my mouth in a wonderful mess of drippy, joyful sweetness.


Greater or Lesser Yellowlegs? Look at the Bill

When I went to help with the Fish Bay beach cleanup I noticed that a few of the island’s migratory shore birds were back from their breeding areas up north – and were taking the time to pick up a few things themselves along the shoreline.

The color of their long legs was a giveaway – but were they greater or lesser yellowlegs? Sometimes it’s not so easy to tell. Lesser yellowlegs are usually about 10 to 11 inches tall, while the greater ones are slightly stockier and range from 11-15 inches tall. Not a very clear distinction. 

Lesser Yellowlegs
Greater Yellowlegs

My birding buddy, Kathy, told me to look at their bills.  For the lesser yellowlegs, the bill is supposed to be about the same length as the size of its head. The greater ones have bills that are about 1.5 times the size of their heads, and are somewhat thicker and blunter. Unfortunately you aren’t always close enough or at the right angle to get a clear look at their profiles.

They sound a little bit different too, if you have a chance to hear them. You can compare their calls here:

Overall, you will see more of the lesser yellowlegs on St. John, so that is usually my first guess. Both types breed in the far north in the summer then move back south, but greater numbers of the lesser yellowlegs seem to stay on and spend the winter on St. John.

Though both types can be seen in freshwater or saltwater habitats, I have mostly seen groups of lesser yellowlegs in the shallow freshwater ponds or brackish wetlands around Fish Bay. 

Though they have also enjoyed picking through the rich treasure trove of tidbits that arrive when the sargassum seaweed piles up along the shoreline.

How Magnificent is the Frigate Bird?

I have never seen a magnificent frigate bird up close. Mostly they appear as dark figures hovering high overhead, easily recognizable by their sharply arched wings.

During one of the weekly bird walks at Francis Bay, National Park Ranger Laurel Brannick mentioned a recent National Public Radio report about scientists who put electronic tags on frigate birds and found out they can stay aloft for weeks, barely even moving their large wings (which are up to six feet across).

One frigate bird was recorded soaring 40 miles over the Indian Ocean without a single wing flap.

But it wasn’t just finding out that they effortlessly travel long distances that was amazing. It turned out that they also reach heights of over two miles above sea level as they travel, way higher than other birds.  

How do they get so high without flapping? They use the clouds.

Puffy cumulus clouds looking like cotton balls form over the sea when warmed-up air rises in a plume. Water vapor condenses into a cloud as the warm air rises and cools. The frigate birds catch a ride on the warm updraft of air and then move along inside the cloud. 

If they are floating up there so long, how do they eat? Again they use the clouds.

They are fish eaters, and the updraft of air that lifts them also stirs the sea water, bringing up nutrients, which attracts small fish, and then larger ones, sometimes creating a boil of feeding fish. When that happens, the frigate birds can drop down through the cloud, pick up some of the fish thrashing around below, and then ride back up the thermal plume.

Astonishingly for fish-eating birds, frigate birds will drown if their feathers get wet. They have to grab fish with their hooked beaks while staying well above the waves. Laurel told me she once found a dead frigate bird floating out in the water on the North Shore. Since their feathers aren’t waterproof, they get very heavy when wet and can’t fly.

An alternative way the frigate birds get fish is by stealing them from other birds. This behavior has earned them a reputation as pirates – which brings me to my own story about seeing a so-called ‘magnificent’ frigate bird in action.

One afternoon I stopped by Maho Bay for a swim and was getting near one of the buoys offshore when I noticed a white bird sitting there, with some black on its head. It looked like a tern, but I couldn’t see what kind so I slowly swam closer to get a better look.

As I approached I decided that it was a royal tern. I also saw that it had a skinny fish hanging from its beak, maybe six to eight inches long. While the bird watched me cautiously, it raised its beak, shook it around, and managed to get the fish down inside its throat. I was very impressed with how the small tern could swallow a whole fish like that.

The tern seemed pretty pleased as well, when suddenly we were both shocked to see a large dark shape swooping down like fighter jet, ferociously pecking at the tern, then coming back quickly to attack from the other side. I soon realized it was a frigate bird because of its size and dark wings, but at the time didn’t understand what it was doing.

After a few minutes of ducking to avoid the sharp beak of the frigate bird, the tern decided to get down from its perch on the buoy and seemed to be using its wings to swim away through the water. The frigate bird continued to attack the tern in the water until finally in desperation the tern raised its head and pecked back.

At the exact moment the tern opened its mouth in defense, the frigate bird reached in and pulled the whole fish out by its tail and triumphantly flew off. I felt really sad for the poor battered tern.

When I got back to shore I excitedly told my story to my friends, who hadn’t noticed a thing. Unfortunately I didn’t have any photos to document the drama. They suggested that in the future I should wear a Go-Pro camera on my head if I was going to be bird-watching while I was out swimming. Maybe not a bad idea.           


Equinox in the Tropics

Snowy Egrets gathering in Maine for migration

September 22 was the autumn equinox. In the northeast the days gradually get cooler, the birds gather to make their way south, and trees begin to drop their leaves in preparation for winter.

What does it mean for St. John? There aren’t the same sorts of seasonal changes here affecting the birds and trees. Really, the most important climate factor is the end of hurricane season, and that isn’t until November. 

One thing I like to notice is migrating birds coming down from the north – some staying for the winter and others heading further south.

Birds get ready to migrate due to genetic predispositions, plus environmental triggers. I recently learned that the most important trigger is the length of the day, not falling temperatures. Interestingly, birds perceive changes in daylight not through their eyes but through sensors buried deep in their brains that respond to variations in the tiny amounts of light that penetrate their skulls.

Lesser Yellowlegs arriving in Fish Bay on St. John, VI

Trees, too, take their cues from changes in the length of the day in the north, since the earth’s orbit is more reliable than yearly temperature patterns as an indicator of the coming change in the seasons.

At the equinox, the length of the day and night is pretty much the same all over the world.

I had to review the science of how that works. The earth’s axis is tilted at a fixed angle of about 23.5° as it travels around the sun. That means the northern part of the earth is sometimes tipped towards the sun (summer), and sometimes away (winter). As the orbit continues, there are two points when the earth’s tilt is sideways to the sun, and then both northern and southern hemispheres receive roughly equal amounts of sunlight. After the September equinox, it is the southern hemisphere that will be tilted more and more towards the sun, while the north heads towards winter.

At the Equator the amount of sunlight and the length of the days and nights are pretty much always the same. 

St. John is 18.3° north of the Equator. That puts it within what is called the tropical zone, which extends 23.5° north and south of the equator. This is the area of the earth’s surface that gets the most direct sunlight all year.

Starting in late September, St. John does experience some changes due to the shifts in the earth’s orbit. The days are about two hours shorter in the winter, and the water temperature can go as low as 78°F. Brrrr.

But St. John’s seasonal climate changes are more affected by other factors than the amount of sunlight – like the easterly flow of the trade winds carrying hot Saharan air off the coast of Africa, interacting with warm ocean temperatures in the Atlantic to cause tropical storms. And in the winter the Bermuda High, a semi-permanent area of high pressure to the north, sends down cool ‘Christmas winds’ between December and February. 

The northern experience of the autumn equinox involves a certain amount of anxiety about adjusting to the dark and cold. Winter is coming! Yes, yes, there is the magic of rebirth, flower buds and birds singing in the spring, but I am sure my Swedish ancestors did not relish those long months without daylight, wondering if the sun, and the birds, would really come back this time.

Maybe it is better to live in a climate with fewer spiritual lessons based on cycles of loss and renewal. 

Great Blue Herons breeding in Maine over the summer

I like to think of the birds as returning to St. John. At least some of them spend more time here than in the north – only leaving when the spring explosion of insects and plant growth in the north provides them with abundant new resources for breeding. A long trip, a lot of hustle, and then happy to be back when they are done. Coming where the weather suits their souls…   

Pine Trees in Paradise

Why are there tall evergreens on St. John that look like Christmas trees? Don’t they belong up north?

I got to wondering about this when I was up in the Maine woods this summer working on a book about trees in St. John, as part of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship’s Tree Appreciation Project.

Maine is known as the Pine Tree State, and its famous evergreens have evolved to deal with long winters. Their needle-like leaves can carry out photosynthesis even when the temperatures drop below freezing, and minimize water loss – a major advantage over broad-leaved trees, which lose more water through evaporation and have to constantly replace it by pumping water up from the ground. When the ground starts to freeze, those broad-leaved trees have to drop their leaves and shut down for the winter. Pines need less water, and also have stronger cell walls and antifreeze chemicals that keep the water flowing and prevent frost damage to their interior water tubes.   

It didn’t seem like Maine pines would be comfortable in St. John’s hot, dry winters, even though many other Northeast residents are happy to come down and enjoy the warmer climate.

Still the pines were doing okay with the hot weather in Maine in August, and there are some pine trees that do grow in warm climates. It turns out there are even some species native to the Caribbean.   

But the tall evergreens on St. John are actually from the South Pacific. They are commonly called Norfolk Island Pines, though they are not really pines at all. They are Araucaria heterophylla trees native to a three-by-five-mile island east of Australia, not too far from New Zealand. Temperatures there never drop below freezing.

The island was uninhabited in 1774 when Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy sailed by on one of his trips to explore the world and expand the British Empire. While he reportedly described it as “paradise on earth”, he mostly seemed to be thinking about how to exploit its resources for conquest and commerce. The tall pine-like trees growing there – some up to 200 feet tall – seemed like they would provide a valuable new source of ships’ masts for the navy. Captain Cook claimed the island for Great Britain, and named it for the Duchess of Norfolk.

The trees in England that were suitable for use as masts had long since been cut down, and access to a supply of good mast trees was a major factor in dominance at sea during the era of wooden sailing ships. Pine trees were prized because they were straight and tall, and their resin reduced friction between the grains of the wood, enabling them to withstand the pressure of strong winds on the sails.  

Earlier, the British colonies in New England, including what is now Maine, had proved to be a good source of white pine trees large enough to be used as strong ‘single-tree’ masts. When Captain George Waymouth first explored this part of the coast for the British in 1605 he was awed by the seemingly endless forests and brought back samples of the impressive white pines, along with some seeds which he planted in England.  

By 1690, settlers in the New England colonies had already cut down many of the big pines to build houses, boats and furniture. To preserve the important mast supply, the British surveyed and claimed all the large, old-growth white pines as the property of the King. The colonists resented these restrictions on their use of the valuable pine trees, and often cut the trees anyway. Over time this resulted in conflicts between settlers and British authorities, which became one of the factors leading up to the American Revolution.   

In 1774, with few mast trees forthcoming from the rebellious American colonies, the British were understandably excited about Captain Cook’s discovery of a new source in the Pacific. Unfortunately for the British Navy, the tall, straight trees on Norfolk Island turned out to be unsuitable for making masts – they were brittle and broke off because they lacked the resin that made the white pines resilient. Their wood was subsequently used for less demanding types of building purposes in Australia and other British territories. Over time, these tall, attractive trees were also widely planted as ornamentals in tropical and sub-tropical areas around the world. 

Eventually the grand Norfolk Island Pines became important in an entirely different type of commerce – as potted Christmas trees.

German settlers in America brought with them their tradition of decorating evergreen trees for Christmas, and by the late 1800s this practice had caught on around the country. Pine, spruce and fir trees began to be grown in plantations and cut for short-term holiday use. Growing up in New York City, I loved walking through pop-up stands of evergreens for sale in December on busy streets. They formed mini-forests filled with the distinctive scents of the north woods. But it was sad when all the trees were thrown back out on the streets as trash after the holidays, somewhat dried out but still often glittering with tinsel.

In recent years, some people have avoided feeling guilty about cutting down and then quickly discarding beautiful trees by instead buying ‘living’ Christmas trees in pots. It turns out that many of these trees sold for this purpose are young Norfolk Island Pines. Because they are used to warm temperatures, they can stay healthy for a longer time inside people’s homes than northern evergreens.
A few years ago a friend in St. John gave us one of the potted Norfolk Island Pines as a present, complete with red bulbs and bows. We kept it on our deck for a while, then decided to plant it in the yard. It was hard to find a place suitable for it, considering the possibility that it might grow to be 200 feet tall – and how big around? 

It only grew to about 15 feet tall, though, before drying up during the drought last summer while we were away. I was sad to come back and see it had not survived, even though it was not native to this island, and would probably have obstructed our driveway if it had actually grown to its full size.