I don’t know about you, but the Common Grackles have taken over my birdfeeders and birdbaths. If you are interested, I’d gladly sell you a few or all of them.
Of course, you know I’m kidding. I couldn’t resist since April 1 is better known in the U.S. as April Fools Day. When I was a principal, the students loved to fool me on April 1 with all means of shenanigans. I was always glad when April 1 came on the weekend, like today.
So, April Fools Day! And in case you are interested in the grackles, please contact me a.s.a.p.
I found it on the way home from Florida. Without success, I had looked for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker in South Carolina’s Cheraw State Park. I had also searched extensively for the rare bird in the tall pines of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge near Folkston, Georgia.
Since we would pass by Cheraw State Park on the return trip to Virginia, I decided to try again. We had the time, and I needed to stretch my legs and aching back. I stopped at the park’s welcome center and spoke with a ranger about where to look for the woodpecker. He gave me precise instructions, and I was where I needed to be in five minutes.
When my wife and I exited the van, we heard woodpeckers chipping, calling, and flitting high in the pines overhead. Were they the ubiquitous Downy Woodpeckers found in every state, or were they my nemesis bird? It turned out they were both.
To protect the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, scientists mark their cavity trees with rings of whitewash a few feet off the ground. That enables them to keep a close eye on the welfare of the rare birds. Look up, and the entrances to their nests are easy to find. Spotting the elusive woodpecker is a bit harder.
I was careful to stroll, always alert for any sound or sight of birds foraging. It didn’t take me long. Straight above me, a handful of small woodpeckers moved from limb to limb, pinecone to pinecone, searching for any moving insect protein.
I raised my binoculars and spotted what I was sure was a Red-cockaded Woodpecker. But birding alone is iffy, especially in search of rare birds. I briefly saw the big white patch on the bird’s cheek, a reliable field mark. But I had no one else to verify it was a Red-cockaded. That is protocol in IDing rare birds. My wife is not a birder, so I could not use her observations.
Soon, other small woodpeckers appeared and chased the Red-cockaded back to its nesting tree. Even with binoculars, it was hard to distinguish the Downys from the Red-cockaded. I took a few photos, hoping the rare bird was in one of them.
Still, I submitted my observations to eBird, the preferred app of birders. Of course, it flagged the Red-cockaded and told me what I already knew. My find was a rarity.
It wasn’t until we returned home, unpacked, and settled in that I could finally download my images to my laptop. With that done, I could enlarge the photos and see what I had captured digitally. My heart sank when I spotted not one but three different Downy Woodpeckers feeding in the treetops amid shadows and filtered sunlight.
However, one photo, taken without the zoom lens, clearly showed a large white patch on the bird’s cheek. About then, I got an email from a regional volunteer reviewer for eBird. He politely questioned my sightings and asked me to add details to verify my sighting. I did just that and added the two photos you see here.
That evening, the reviewer replied via email and thanked me for the additional information and photos. He certified that I had indeed seen a Red-cockaded Woodpecker! I was thrilled.
What’s the next rare bird on the list to find? The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, of course! (For you non-birders, that’s a joke. The Ivory-billed has been declared extinct, though a few supposed sightings occasionally pop up. None have produced evidence of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker).
I wish you could see the view from my winter window. It’s nearly the total opposite of the one from our home in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
Each winter, my wife and I spend a few weeks away from the cold and snow. We’ve done so for a dozen years. We always head to Fernandina Beach, Florida, a small town that anchors Amelia Island, a barrier island northeast of Jacksonville.
The weather is not usually balmy there. After all, Amelia Island is Florida’s northernmost spit of land. Still, it’s not northeast Ohio, where we used to live, nor Harrisonburg, Virginia, where we moved five and a half years ago to be close to our three oldest grandchildren.
So, we pack up the van and head south for brighter, warmer days during winter’s darkest. Of course, when you rent a condo on the Atlantic Ocean, the weather is as fickle as a two-year-old. Sometimes it plays nice, and sometimes it doesn’t. Nevertheless, we take our chances and hope for the best.
So far this year, sunny, warm days have been the rule rather than the exception. We couldn’t be happier.
I often sit at my computer in front of large plate glass windows and attempt to finish my work. By work, I mean doing morning devotions, checking emails, and reading stories online. That’s my routine in Virginia. Only I look at neighboring houses, vehicles, pedestrians, and dog walkers passing by.
But I am easily distracted in Florida. Besides being a writer, I’m also an amateur photographer. I bounce from desk to balcony to capture the menagerie of what I see. A beautiful sunrise over the ocean equals a pleasant start to any day.
Then there are the beach walkers, dog walkers, beachcombers, Navy helicopters from a nearby Naval station, and so much more. I gladly take it all in before my first spoonful of cereal.
Please click on the photos to enlarge them.
I watch the tide charts as much as I do the beach. I’m not alone. Joggers, runners, bikers, and shell seekers use the flat, wet sand as their personal expressway. I see the same people at about the same time every morning doing their separate things.
The dark, swarthy, tanned skin tones quickly identify the veterans. The pasty-pale pedestrians are asking for sunburns. The younger generations pass their elders rapidly unless they’re trying to steer a dog in the same direction and pace they want. I’ve witnessed many a canine confab between northbound and southbound owners and pets.
People aren’t the only regulars that come into my view. Brown Pelicans play follow-the-leader only inches above the rolling waves. Resident Ospreys sail overhead, hovering high above the gentle waters if they spot a potential meal.
I keep an eye out for dolphins and whales, too. The dolphins regularly feed in the waters a hundred yards offshore. Last year I was fortunate to spot an endangered Right Whale and her newborn calf floating at the surface like logs. The bright morning sun glistened over their dark, blubber-puffed skin.
Pelicans, an assortment of competing gulls, and terns often follow the dolphin’s lead hoping for spoils that manage to escape, if only temporarily. I especially enjoy the antics of the Forster Terns that zoom along and then climb in a glide over a school of fish. The terns divebomb toward the salty sea, hoping to scoop up delicate sushi morsels.
I especially enjoy watching the smaller shorebirds dash to where the water recedes along the soft sand. Willets and tiny Sanderlings drill and peck for small crustaceans deposited by the rhythm of the waves. Somehow the tiny Sanderlings always manage to outrun the encroaching foamy water. Their little legs seem to move 100 miles per hour.
Please click on the photos to enlarge them.
The ocean itself has been unusually calm so far this winter. Most passing weather fronts that constantly stir up the waters into angry waves have thankfully evaded us.
Still, I love the tender interplay between the sky and the Atlantic. Their colors intermingle, making it difficult to tell one from the other where they meet at the horizon near the Gulf Stream.
Every once in a while, rangers cruise up and down the beach in their off-road four-wheelers. Their primary duties are to clean the shore of any trash or driftwood and to keep an eye on early morning and after-school surfers. They also stop to chat with strangers who quickly become friends. The latter seems to occupy most of the rangers’ time.
Farther out in the deeper water, I use binoculars to watch shrimpers ply their nets 24/7 unless the dense fog obscures them. Occasionally freighters and dredgers sit in the channel that leads to the little port of Fernandina Beach. Their bright white LED lights punctuate the moonless night’s darkness.
I see all this and more through my winter window. I am most grateful I can take it all in before we return too soon to my more mundane vistas.
My wife and I come to Florida for a few weeks each winter. There are many reasons we do so besides the warmer weather. Magnificent sunrises and sunsets enrich our lives.
The sunrises come to us. Our rented condo is on the beach facing the Atlantic Ocean. I only have to walk from the bedroom to the front windows to enjoy dawn’s show. Sometimes I stand in awe at the glorious beauty before me.
Sunset is a different story. An hour or so before the time for sunset, I check the western sky. If it looks favorable, we delay supper, and my wife and I head to one of several locations for picturesque photos.
Depending on where we go, we’ll head out 15 minutes to half an hour before dusk to be ready for nature’s glory to unfold. The image below was taken near a marina on Egans Creek in Fernandina Beach. I was fortunate that these fishermen called it a day at the sunset’s peak.
I found this when I checked the potential for a lovely sunrise at 6:30 this morning. With sunrise still 45 minutes away, these clouds should have been turning all shades of pink, orange, and red at this stage.
Instead, the low clouds set a foreboding mood, as if denying the sun its daily duty. Then I noticed the crescent moon in the photo’s upper right-hand corner. And the phrase, “By dawn’s early light,” came to mind.
For citizens of the United States, those words should mean something. They are in the opening line of our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” The lyrics come from a poem, “In Defence of Fort McHenry,” written on September 14, 1814, by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812.
I wondered how this sky compared to the one that inspired Key’s patriotic poem. Unlike the scene Key painted, thankfully, no bombs were bursting in the air here in Fernandina Beach, Florida, this morning.
But the mood of this photo, with the splinter of a waning January moon peeking between the clouds, also inspired me. I hope it does the same for you.
I’ve never been a beach kind of guy. I prefer the fields, hills, and forests. When we winter in Fernandina Beach, Florida, on Amelia Island, I head to Egans Creek Greenway for peace of mind. That’s a bit ironic since our rented condo is on the beach facing the Atlantic Ocean.
I enjoy watching dolphins swim by and the many birds of prey, shorebirds, and other avian species plying the ocean waters. I also delight in the lovely sunrises, though they have been few and far between this year. I’m not complaining. We’ve had plenty of clear blue skies and above-average temperatures in the two weeks we have been here.
The warmth and fair weather have allowed me to spend enjoyable hours on the Egans Creek Greenway. The Greenway is a preserved wildlife area sandwiched between two busy east-west roadways, including the northernmost section of Florida’s noted A1A Coastal Highway. It’s my sacred place, though it is hardly quiet.
Egans Creek Greenway is a place to discover all of nature’s wonders. Visitors can find alligators, Ospreys, butterflies, river otters, and much more in, on, and among the waters, marshes, and greenery. Opened at the turn of the millennium in 2000, the Greenway is an undeveloped park for conservation and passive recreational use.
Egans Creek runs north through the far northeastern section of this barrier island. Housing developments and commercial buildings like hotels constantly push at the edges, even though the area is designated a preserve. The Greenway is managed by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which has its headquarters adjacent at the north end of the marsh.
The Greenway consists of over 300 acres of protected lands, which include slivers of marine woodlands, wetland bushes, and a sizeable briny marsh. Trails for walking, running, biking, and birding wind throughout the Greenway. Maps are available at the Greenway’s entrances, and benches are dotted along the grass-covered paths.
In the dozen years we have been coming here, I have found the Greenway my place to relax, explore, and rest. Its location forces me to focus on what is right in front of me and always watch for surprises. Last year a Northern Harrier swooped low across the marsh. Roseate Spoonbills make rare appearances.
I especially enjoy the creativity it affords me if I only take the time to see it. The stark contrasts of crimson buds of red maple trees against the shiny green leaves of Live Oaks create a festive feel. Or the orange and black of a lone Monarch butterfly settling on a barren stalk keeps me mentally alert and spiritually alive.
Please click on the photos to enlarge them.
An added enjoyment is meeting new people on the Greenway. Some stop to talk or inquire about what I am seeing. Others just run or bike right on by. Rowdy teenagers occasionally pitch a stick at a sunbathing alligator or spook birds with their boisterous talk.
Nevertheless, these experiences allow me to tune out the human-induced noises that permeate our lives. In the case of the Greenway, commercial jetliners approaching Jacksonville International Airport 30 minutes away buzz overhead. So do smaller planes taking off and landing from the local airport two miles southeast of the Greenway. And then there are the military helicopters flying up and down the beach from Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville.
Sirens wail away, responding to the next emergency. Trucks, motorcycles, and cars hum along the adjacent streets. Train engine horns from tracks along the riverfront invade the Greenway’s peace and tranquility.
Despite those acoustic interferences, I still find the Greenway a respite, a private sanctuary in a very public place. I accept that I cannot change those annoyances. I can concentrate on solitude and enjoyment in whatever I find each time I walk the Greenway.
January’s Full Wolf Moon rose over the Atlantic Ocean about 15 minutes before sunset last evening, January 6, 2023. That made it rather difficult to find on the horizon. The moon easily blended with the pale pink background of the Belt of Venus.
I had my cameras ready, and my wife spotted it first. I aimed my 35 mm camera on the tripod and snapped away. I also used my point-and-shoot camera with a 1,725 mm lens when fully extended. I concentrated on holding it still enough to keep the photos from blurring. In addition, I took a few pictures with my iPhone.
The following photos show the sequence of the full moon rising. Please click on the images to enlarge them.
The photo above was my first shot once we spotted the moon. A large bird hovered over the ocean and appeared at about 11 o’clock on the moon’s face. The red object at the far right is a bouy that helps mark the channel into the St. Mary’s River that serves as the state line between northeast Florida and southeast Georgia.
The moon became more evident in just two minutes as it rose slightly above the ocean.
This photograph provides the view from our third-floor condo. Note the freighter on the horizon in the upper right-hand section of the photo.
Nine minutes later, the moon hung unmistakeably above the Atlantic.
With the sun now set, the full moon dominated the eastern sky.
Watching the moon rise over the ocean is always a treat. The unobstructed view gives viewers the opportunity to fully appreciate the spectacular sequence and beauty of another rising full moon.
Each winter, save 2021 due to the pandemic, my wife and I escape Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley for warmer climes. We head to Amelia Island, Florida. If you are familiar with Florida’s geography, you know that Amelia Island is northeast of Jacksonville. It’s the northernmost barrier island in Florida. The St. Mary’s River separates Florida from Georgia, so it’s not consistently balmy like Miami or Naples.
We stay in a rented condo complex only yards away from the Atlantic Ocean. On days when the weather is nice, it’s a great location. When the weather turns less than desirable, it can be downright cold. Nevertheless, the island and surrounding areas offer plenty of outdoor amenities like birding, hiking, and photography for me to enjoy.
Since we face east, I relish the many beautiful sunrises. However, the results are often somewhat foggy if a cold front stalls offshore. When we arrived on New Year’s Day, the temperature hit 75, and the sky was mostly sunny. By morning, we were fogged in. Still, I took the photo above as our first Florida sunrise in 2023.
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