Last Saturday morning we got up early and drove over to Bok Tower, a natural area sanctuary in Lake Wales, Florida, not far from our home. The Gardens open to visitors at 8 a.m., so we weren’t overly optimistic about seeing many species that late in the morning.
As we walked along, we were reminded why the term birding is now preferred over bird watching. It’s because many times when you’re out in nature, you hear a bird species’ distinctive song, even if you never actually see the bird.
We were thinking about writing a blog about a day when you’re out birding without seeing a bird that isn’t high in the sky or at the top of a tree a quarter mile away. On those days, you just need to tell yourself you’re having an enjoyable walk outdoors in nature.
And you have a chance to breathe fresh, clean air . . . and think, imagine, and dream while you contemplate the awesome scenery around you.
It was about that time, though, that we heard the distinctive song of a cardinal nearby. We stopped and scoured the tree where we thought the cardinal might be perched.
We never did see the cardinal, but in a large magnolia tree a few yards away, we saw fluttering movement.
Concentrating on the magnolia, we watched a very small bird seemingly leap from branch to branch in the thick, dark green foliage.
The bird was tiny and mostly a light grey color.
We were fortunate to get a photo of the little bird before it flew from the tree. When we looked at the photo, we realized it wasn’t a bird that we’d ever seen before.
James Audubon drew some wonderful, accurate illustrations of birds almost 200 years ago and his resource would have been our go-to not too long ago. These days, there’s Merlin.
Merlin Bird ID is a free app from both the Apple and Google app stores that you can put on your smartphone, tablet or computer. It was created by the Department of Ornithology at Cornell University.
Merlin has about 8,000 photos of birds, as well as more than 3,000 recordings of birds’ songs from the Macaulay Library. It also offers identification tips and range maps from the Birds of North America Online and Neotropical Birds.
With Merlin, you can identify a bird two ways:
- Answer five simple questions about the bird. Merlin will answer with possible matches.
- Snap a photo of a bird and upload it. Merlin Photo ID will offer a short list of possible matches.
In the case of the little grey bird with the yellow marking, the five questions didn’t come up with an answer of a species that we could expect to see in central Florida in the middle of summer (July 21st).
But, the photo upload identified it as a female American Redstart. The reason it didn’t appear in the first try, is that this species is only seen in South Florida in the Winter and generally doesn’t start its winter migration until August at the earliest.
And to reinforce our sighting, the Audubon Guide to North American Birds describes an American Redstart as a “warbler [that] flits about very actively in the trees, usually holding its wings and tail partly spread, as if to show off their patches of color. At times it feeds more like a flycatcher than a typical warbler, hovering among the foliage and often flying out to grab insects in mid-air.”
Precisely the activity we witnessed in that magnolia tree.
Discovering a bird where it’s not supposed to be is one of the reasons birders bird.