Salineño Serenity

By Peter Kleinhenz

I’ll tell you; feeling intense fear and peace at the same time is a strange emotion. Certainly, it isn’t one that I experience often. To be fair, it isn’t often that I’m standing in a totally unique landscape, with the calls of unrecognizable birds echoing around me, all while looking over my shoulder in a place where violent crime is not uncommon.

Looking across the Rio Grande to Mexico at dawn.

I was standing on the banks of the Rio Grande in Salineño, Texas. As a part of my Lower 48 Big Year, I was to spend the day birding in extreme South Texas where tropical birds like Altamira Orioles and Buff-bellied Hummingbirds barely penetrate the United States. Due to a fortuitous happenstance involving a flight attendant friend, I can fly anywhere in the U.S. for free. And, whenever I can, I do.

I hiked down this old trail, strewn with water bottles and caches of supplies for crossing migrants.

Fighting exhaustion from flying all day, sleeping for three hours, and driving two and a half hours in my rental car to this tiny riverbank village in the middle-of-nowhere, I struggled to locate birds. I recognized zero calls and the thick vegetation made locating birds a challenge. I only count the birds that I see, partly to make the Big Year more difficult and partly because I like to see birds. The various species seemed to be mocking me. Was that, “Hey, stupid, Mexico is 75 yards away and this is one of the most common border crossings sites there is!” that I heard?

Believe it or not, I justified spending the early morning hours alone in this dangerous place to myself. After all, this was one of the only places in the U.S. where White-collared Seedeaters, Red-billed Pigeons, and Audubon’s Orioles could be found. Plus, it wasn’t filled with people like most other major birding sites within the region. It met my criteria.

An extremely-rare old growth Montezuma cypress grows along the Rio Grande.

I veered off the path and bushwhacked through thorn-scrub along the river bank until I reached one of the only old growth Montezuma Cypress trees growing in the United States. The massive limbs dangled above me and above the brown water that many people vehemently opposed to immigration have never laid eyes upon. Among the leaves, Groove-billed Ani’s, Green Jays, Brown-crested Flycatchers, and a Great Kiskadee went about their lives as if they were in Mexico. They had no idea how rare they were in the U.S. To them, this was just another tree. To them, there was no border.

I stood there, smiling, until a couple tears fell down my cheek. My girlfriend had broken up with me two days before. I had just received disturbing news about my health. My financial situation, due to a couple unfortunate accidents, was abysmal. And yet, it was all ok in that moment. The birds seemed to speak for all of nature. “We’ve got you”, they said. “Don’t forget why you’re here,” they advised. “Enjoy these rare moments,” they directed.

The Rio Grande, looking south towards Mexico.

So what if I didn’t stumble upon any Red-billed Pigeons or Audubon’s Orioles?  I found something far better. I found an inner peace that, however temporary, reminded me there is so much to love about this world. The birds, it seems, knew this all along. Or at least I thought that’s what they said.

Aucilla Wildlife Management Area Bioblitz Yields Many Exciting Finds

By Peter Kleinhenz

A great egret perches on the edge of the Wacissa River at the Aucilla WMA bioblitz.
Photo by Emily Ellis

What the heck is a bioblitz? A bioblitz consists of various teams made up of members of the public going out with taxonomic group experts to search for as much life as possible, within a set geographic area, within a set period of time. On May 6, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission held just such a blitz at Aucilla Wildlife Management Area in Jefferson County.

Groups searched for birds, plants, reptiles/amphibians, and insects. The bird group was led by Apalachee Audubon members Budd Titlow, Don Morrow, Rob Williams, and Dana Bryant. They were joined by Scott Davis, a St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge ranger, who assisted with plant identification.

Bioblitz participants check out a butterfly captured by butterfly expert, Dean Jue, at the Aucilla WMA bioblitz. Photo by Andy Wraithmell

33 participants, ranging from 9-year-olds to grandparents, trekked on trails, forest roads, and through the forest in search of life. Each team surveyed for all taxonomic groups and had the opportunity to visit three different natural communities. Groups checked traps for turtles and cave invertebrates, paddled down the Wacissa River in search of birds, and netted butterflies feeding on roadside flowers. Life (including ticks) abounded.

Participants cataloged their finds using iNaturalist, as part of the Florida Nature Trackers program. This data will ultimately be shared with FWC biologists and the Florida Natural Areas Inventory in order for them to better understand, and conserve, the life found on the area. Below is a list of the birds observed that day:

Wood Duck

Wild Turkey

Great Egret

Cattle Egret

Little Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Turkey Vulture

Swallow-tailed Kite

Mississippi Kite

Red-shouldered Hawk

Common Gallinule


Spotted Sandpiper

Common Ground-Dove

Mourning Dove

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Barred Owl

Common Nighthawk

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Acadian Flycatcher

Great Crested Flycatcher

White-eyed Vireo

Yellow-throated Vireo

Red-eyed Vireo

American Crow

Fish Crow

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Barn Swallow

Purple Martin

Carolina Chickadee

Tufted Titmouse

Carolina Wren

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Swainson’s Thrush

Brown Thrasher

Black-and-white Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Swainson’s Warbler

Hooded Warbler

Northern Parula

Pine Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler

Eastern Towhee

Summer Tanager

Northern Cardinal

Help Us Protect the Upper Apalachicola River

By Peter Kleinhenz
My first hike in Florida took me to an improbable place. I hiked through recently-burned sandhill, through shaded steephead ravines, and back up through a scrubby oak forest in The Nature Conservancy’s Bluffs and Ravines Preserve. All the while, I had my head down looking for snakes or way up while looking for birds. The cliff seemed to come out of nowhere. Before I knew it, I was looking out to the horizon that seemed hundreds of miles away.

The view from Alum Bluff. Photo by Rob Williams

I was looking out over the upper Apalachicola River floodplain from Alum Bluff. This rise above the chocolate-brown waters of the Apalachicola River represents the highest cliff in Florida. The precipice descends 130 feet to the river. From its heights, you can see the shadows of gar swimming in the water and flattened shells of moving with the current. No buildings mar the view looking west. It’s just forest.

A recent change in ownership has left this floodplain forest, and nearly 40,000 acres of similar floodplain forest, steephead ravines, and upland forest available for protection. All told, over half of the non-tidal portion of the riparian area of the Apalachicola River transferred to new ownership. With it comes new opportunities.

Apalachee Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, and Apalachicola Riverkeeper have all suggested that the state of Florida preserves this species-rich land through a conservation easement. Conservation easements give land owners benefits for leaving portions of their land undeveloped. The state would theoretically compensate The Forestlands Group, the new owners.

Well-managed sandhill habitat in the upper Apalachicola River basin.

The legislature recently passed a budget that provided the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) a grand total of $0.00 for land purchases in 2017-2018. Over 70% of Florida voters supported Amendment 1, which was originally understood to support land acquisition efforts. Instead, the Amendment has mainly funded water infrastructure projects and agricultural initiatives. The recent budget left many scratching their heads but environmental groups, such as ours, have not given up when it comes to getting biodiverse land conserved.

On June 16, a presentation will be held regarding whether or not the Acquisition and Restoration Council of DEP should review the property for inclusion on its list of potential properties to purchase. Want to help? There will be opportunities for letter-writing, phone calls, and public participation in hearings. The more people that show support, the more likely we will be able to work with our partners to make this easement happen.

We hope you will help us ensure that the prothonotary warblers that sing, the wood ducks that nest, and maybe even the ivory-billed woodpeckers that elude us may continue to do so in this important tract of land indefinitely. We’re talking about Florida Forever, after all.

A Great Day at the Southside Community Resource Expo

Tallahassee CARES Community Resource Expo, South City

Saturday, March 27, 2017

By Elizabeth Platt

The day was sparkling as we arrived at 8:30 to set up the Audubon display tables along Polk Street in front of the I-Grow Community Garden which faces Orange Avenue to the south.  Devoted largely to the growing of vegetables by the Tallahassee Food Network, the garden is also the site of a 120 square foot pollinator garden planted by owners and staff of Native Nurseries, and funded by Apalachee Audubon.  This garden, maintained by the garden team and a few neighbors, has been the learning focus of a small number of children from the neighborhood; each of the 20 native plants in the garden will attract the specific insect with which it has co-evolved, and will in turn begin bringing birds to feed on the insects.

Peter Kleinhenz helps kids play the migration game.
Photo by Elizabeth Platt

There were two sites for the Audubon display, the first of which was at the garden where creative, fun, and educational hands-on activities were supervised by Betsy Sullivan, Laurie Jones, Dee Wilder, and Peter Kleinhenz.  Betsy had created a matching game with eight pictures of birds, each of which had a different kind of beak, eight tools each corresponding to the function of one of the beaks, and eight representations of food that would be eaten by one of the eight birds.  For example, the hummingbird’s beak performs the function of a straw, and the straw would be used to take nectar from a flower.  Environmental educator and board member, Peter Kleinhenz had brought a migration game, consisting of a map of North America with migratory flyways indicated, several colored rings that each represented a wildlife refuge, and bean bags representing birds that would be migrating along one of the NA flyways.  The object was for a child to toss a bean bag into a ring.  The learning objective was for kids to understand that the location of the refuges with respect to each other is crucial to the survival of the birds during migration.

Pat and Carol educate kids and adults about Apalachee Audubon activities.

Laurie, a science teacher like Betsy, and Dee Wilder, grant writer who helped conceptualize the multi-faceted project that led to the Expo, assisted Betsy and Peter, and helped visitors when they arrived at their station.  Norma Woodcock, supervisor of the I-Grow garden and steward of the pollinator garden as well, was with us all day, giving tours of the I-Grow garden and talking to visitors.  Later in the day Judy Goldman came to help, and Lily Anderson from Native Nurseries, also an AAS board member, arrived with a small display of plants and helpful literature.  She and Peter later erected a bird box and baffle at the east end of the larger garden.  During the digging Peter encountered an eastern spadefoot toad, an unusual animal that emerges from deep underground only once a year to  breed.  It was quite an exciting moment!

Elizabeth, Peter, and Norma work on installing a bluebird box in the garden.

The other Audubon area consisted of two tables down Polk Street closer to the other exhibits.  There Pat Press and Carol Franchi, AAS board and education committee members, established their display of books, the most popular of which is one that shows a picture of a bird associated with its call or song.  They, too, had a number of brochures and bookmarks with the AAS web address to distribute as they chatted with visitors.  AAS President Budd Titlow, Elizabeth Platt, expo event coordinator for AAS, and Christina Mbuya, FAMU environmental studies graduate student, assisted, engaging visitors in conversations about birds seen in their neighborhood.  At that location were two posters that had been made by youngsters in the neighborhood shortly before the Expo, one illustrating the native plant, insect, bird connection, and the other displaying several common birds they might see in South City.

What we learned during the expo is that South City people are indeed interested in the natural world around them, are often dedicated gardeners, and openly welcomed AAS to their neighborhood.  I believe participants thought the day was well-spent, and that the neighborhood should remain a focus of AAS.  There are willing ears and hearts interested in the message of good stewardship of our precious environment and the creatures who inhabit it with us.

Elusive To Impossible: The Future of the Black Rail

Few birds in the United States raise eyebrows like the black rail. In birding circles, mentioning a sighting of a black rail is akin to mentioning a successful summit of Mt. Everest in a climbing circle. Sure, it’s possible, but it’s certainly not something that typically occurs without an incredible amount of effort.

Black rails, a dimunitive species reaching only 6 inches high and possessing terrifying red eyes, don’t have the visual attraction of, say, an oriole. But what they lack in beauty they make up for in habit. Most of their lives consist of squeezing through dense, grassy vegetation (ever heard “skinny as a rail”?) in the salt marshes or isolated inland marshes they call home. Almost strictly nocturnal, their behavior is the opposite of what makes a bird easy to find.

A black rail skulks through the marsh.
Photo by USFWS

When birders seek these birds out, nothing is guaranteed. Most people visit known locales and play calls in the hopes of summoning the “Ki Ki Krr” response. For many, this is the only interaction with these species they ever have. Actually seeing one requires incredible luck. But even that slim opportunity may become much slimmer.

A recent report by the Center for Conservation Biology, and an article summarizing this research, suggests that black rails are disappearing…fast. The usual suspects of habitat loss, unbalanced ecosystems, and habits conducive to scarcity have limited the numbers of this species. But it’s climate change that’s pushing it over the edge.

Salt marsh habitat of the black rail in Florida

Most black rails in the United States live out their lives in coastal salt marshes, such as those existing within St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and Big Bend Wildlife Management Area. These habitats will be the first to go as the sea level continues to rise. And, when it does, the black rail will vanish.

All hope is not lost, however. The black rail currently sits in the company of the wolverine and Louisiana pine snake as a species very likely to be listed under the Endangered Species Act within the next few years. Of course, this is not assured. However, the attention even a proposed listing garners may alert the birding community that more land needs to be protected, more studies need to be completed, and more people need to become aware of this secretive species. Such efforts matter, whether any of us ever see one or not.

The Real Florida Belongs to You

Have you ever wondered what Florida’s landscape looked like in 1539 when Desoto’s expedition traveled up the peninsula from Bradenton to Tallahassee?  I used to think that he had to hack his way through a jungle of dense thickets.  Not so.  Florida’s upland landscape was open.  One could see a half mile across the pinelands and grasslands.  No trails were needed.  It was open country because of frequent fires caused by lightning and by Native Americans.  Fires created an abundant and diverse wildflower garden causing Ponce de Leon to name this paradise “Florida” after Spain’s Feast of the Flowers festival.  It was the land of flowers because it was the land of fire.

Desoto wouldn’t recognize the formerly open landscape today because, that which remains undeveloped, is choked with underbrush and other vegetation that has invaded the uplands.  Natural fires can no longer manage the pinelands and prairies as before.   Fortunately, government land management agencies and some private land owners are now managing their land with fire.

Wet Flatwoods, Jonathon Dickinson State Park Photo by Jim Stevenson

Thanks to the wisdom of Florida’s leaders in the 1940s, the Florida Park Service was directed to “acquire typical portions of the original domain of such character as to emblemize the state’s natural values and to conserve these values for all time.”  The park service is actively restoring park lands to their original condition, to the extent possible.  Trees can live to old age without being felled by chain saws and converted to board feet.  Our parks are the best opportunities to easily observe and photograph wildlife inhabiting vast prairies, swamps, pinelands and marshes.  This is possible because parks don’t tame wildlife, they tame people.

Today you can enjoy the largest springs and the four top beaches in the U.S., ornate cave formations, the largest sinkhole, diverse and abundant wildlife, and coral reefs in the world’s first underwater park.   We can enjoy recreation, and observing and photographing these outstanding natural values in our state parks—The Real Florida.

We trust our leaders will demonstrate such wisdom for the health of the state parks and enjoyment of the people of Florida and tourists.

Jim A. Stevenson
Former Chief Naturalist
Florida State Parks

Swallow-tailed Kites, by Jim Cox

Swallow-tailed Kite by Nick Baldwin

Swallow-tailed Kite by Nick Baldwin (click for larger view)

The early migrants will soon be with us. Step outside one morning over the next few weeks and you’ll be greeted by the sound of a Purple Martin, Northern Parula, Louisiana Waterthrush, or Great Crested Flycatcher as these birds return to our area from their winter sojourns.

I note these early migrants with a brief pause in my step – a quick, simple mental tick acknowledging the progression of Spring. However, there’s one early migrant that invariable causes me to stop dead in my tracks and linger as long as possible in the passing moment.

The gorgeous American Swallow-tailed Kite also arrives in early March in our area and continues to spill across north Florida throughout April. It’s one early migrant that you’re more likely to see than hear–and it makes a Spring encounter much more captivating as a result. The sight of that large, graceful, thin-winged, black-and-white body moving above like no other bird — gliding not flapping, ascending rapidly on the wind with a slight tilt of its wings only to turn and freeze as if suspended by string.

Florida supports the largest population of these elegant birds in North America,  but that may not be a cause for celebration. The kite faces numerous challenges, and Dr. Ken Meyer, our program speaker in April, has a firm finger on the pulse of this bird’s declining health. It would be inappropriate to delve too much into all the great information Ken has generated over the years; instead we hope you will come and enjoy Ken’s presentation.

Here are some true/false statements that you’ll be able to answer after attending our program on April 28 on one of our most notable early migrants, the Swallow-tailed Kite:

  • The dark, black color of Swallow-tailed Kites provides protection from night-time predators.
  • Kites live primarily by feeding on squirrels, mice, and other small mammals.
  • Most of our kites funnel through a single pass high in the Andes to reach their wintering grounds in South America.
  • Our kites also fly around the Gulf of Mexico during migration to avoid a long, potentially treacherous flight over open water.
  • Kites fly with strong wing beats that enable them to move quickly into on-coming winds.
  • Fall migration is a huge social affair for kites where they aggregate in the thousands in some areas.
  • Kites like to nest in ancient live oaks because the dense branching provides better cover.
  • Kites are a declining, endangered species formally recognized by state and federal governments.
  • Kites mate while flying.
  • Kites rarely eat their prey on the wing.

Jim Cox is a long-time member of Apalachee Audubon and Stoddard Bird Lab Director at Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy

Birdsong Wood Stork Adventure

June 9, 2013
Reported by Pat Press and Carol Franchi

Early morning showers lightly dripping through the tall pines and fragrant magnolias greeted the excited group of birdwatchers and photographers at Birdsong Nature Center on Saturday, June 9th. We were all eager bird watchers ready to take in the deep south woods marshes. On arriving we were greeted by our Birdsong guide. We then caravanned down through the bluebird meadows full of raspberry bushes to the swampy pond where the wood storks were nesting with their two youngsters. The guides and some local photographers had set up telescopes and cameras on tripods aimed at the wood stork nest which gave us a terrific view. 

These scopes provided us with an unbelievable and wondrous sight. The wood stork youngsters were braving the showers and light breezes in their huge nest at the top of a gigantic tree. Surprisingly their nest was exposed to daily elements of extreme heat and often the usual spring afternoon thunderstorms. The parents shelter their nestlings under their huge wings to provide shade and protection on the piney ledge so high above the undergrowth.

In back of the wood stork nest was a nesting family of great blue herons. We could not see the nest, however we could hear their lively breakfast. The faithful birdwatchers listened with delight at the feeding sounds coming from the marsh nest. The parents flew in with breakfast and a loud cacophony of engaging screams, screeches and honks came flying back to our ears through the forest as the babies were being fed. Off to the right some white egret parents were swirling through the marsh woods lifting high on the breezes of the approaching late spring storm. Off to the right and slightly below the storks were two anhinga. They surveyed the marsh and then flew off above the forest.

The wood stork nest is the first to be sighted at Birdsong, though others have nested at plantations in South Georgia. These beautiful birds are being pushed into this area from their usual breeding grounds In Florida due to habitat loss, according to our knowledgeable guide. Birdsong Nature Center is planning a fundraising event in July called “Wood Storks: The Summer of Love.” 

We enjoyed the opportunity to take in the sights and sound of nature and to take in the serenity of being in the forest. Take a short trip up Meridian Road into South Georgia and give yourself this a birding treat!

Pat and Carol’s Excellent Adventure

Audubon Camp on Hog Island, Maine
Reported by Pat Press and Carol Franchi

Bird enthusiasts, educators, and nature lovers came together from all over the country this summer at the Hog Island, Maine, National Audubon Camp. AAS Past President Kathleen Carr attended the Field Ornithology Camp in June, and Nick Baldwin, our chapter’s long-time resident photographer, attended the Arts and Birding Camp in July. Last to attend were Pat Press and Carol Franchi, the Apalachee Chapter’s Education Committee leaders. Both retired teachers and sisters attended the week-long Sharing Nature: An Educator’s Camp in late July and came home with plenty of ideas and enthusiasm. They plan to share their ideas with local communities about birding education, conservation, ecology, nature and environmental studies.

One of the most interesting evenings enjoyed by Pat and Carol was the program given by Dr. Steve Kress, celebrated Audubon scientist, author, and Chairman of National Audubon’s Bird Conservation Programs. He presented his work on Project Puffin. A Board Member of Hog Island Camp, Steve Kress has been working on saving puffins for over forty years. Puffins are these unusual and colorful-looking North Atlantic seabirds that had moved north to Nova Scotia due to environmental factors. Dr. Kress designed a seabird nesting restoration project for Eastern Egg Rock, a small rocky island in Muscongus Bay, Maine, where puffins had previously nested.

One of his most successful experiments was using painted wooden puffin decoys to attract nesting pairs to the island. Puffins are naturally curious and socially gregarious, so they stopped over to visit and eventually stayed. There are now many puffins coming to Eastern Egg Rock Island. Dr. Kress also explored using mirror boxes to trick the puffins into having interactions with themselves and thereby gaining social familiarity with their setting. His amazing Project Puffin information is on the internet and we encourage everyone to visit.

One of the most enjoyable field trips the Hog Island Campers experienced was our day-long boat trip out to Eastern Egg Rock Island for photo shooting and bird watching. Among the many birds Pat, Carol, Kathleen, and Nick saw were puffins, guillemots, eider ducks, loons, ospreys, eagles, terns, gulls, and herons. On a nearby island in Muscongus Bay they sighted harbor seals and giant black-backed gulls, as well as playful dolphins.

The bay itself and the many islands along the Maine shore were a perfect environment for these beautiful creatures. Muscongus Bay is a lobsterman’s and fisherman’s paradise. The shining blue waters are covered with fleets of colorful lobster boats, sailboats, and marker floats each identifying individual lobstermen’s lines of traps. As you can imagine, the last night on the island was a magical evening of celebrating nature, camaraderie, sharing ideas and projects, as well as eating a lobster feast fresh from the sea.

Outside the kitchens there was a tall tower which housed a huge osprey nest where the family’s antics were being viewed by a 24/7 camera and broadcasted across the internet. Each time the parents came to feed the two nestlings we were a captive audience for their screeches and delights during feeding times. A path past the osprey nest was a good spot to watch the fledglings preparing to flee their nest, an event that was soon expected by the camp residents.

Pat Press, a Reading and Early Childhood Education Specialist, has prepared a list of suggested books for young readers, as well as a list for teens and adult readers, to become familiar with nature and environmental studies, as well as entertaining reading for pleasure. Picture books for young children should be read aloud and enjoyed together. There are many teacher/parent resources which can be used to enhance the children’s and young adult’s experiences in learning about nature and the creatures with whom we share this beautiful natural environment. You can access these resources at Apalachee Audubon, National Audubon, Hog Island Audubon Camp, and Project Puffin.

Dr. Steve Kress, Project Puffin
North Atlantic Puffin
Hog Island Audubon Camp, Maine
From Hog Island Website 2013



Welcome to the official blog for the Apalachee Audubon Society. This blog will host  different voices from our organization and will feature a variety of topics.