I took a stroll last week past an oak hammock, down towards the edge where the willows meet the pond cypress swamp near my home in SW Florida. While the lone wood stork flew overhead and turkey vultures rode the thermals, I walked through the still bare leafed cypresses laden with their catkins full of pollen and their smaller female cones ready to receive. The pollen fluff from the willows greeted me first while warblers flitted and called, eating as they jumped, flew or crawled from branch to branch. I stood among stands of tall coastal plain willows mixed with red maples, dahoon holly and wax myrtle, the result of a wet prairie evolving into woodland after years of no fire.
There were more than enough clouds of gnats, swarms of flies and assorted larvae to feed this hungry flock of mixed song birds. Finding my spot and being careful to avoid the fire ant piles, I sat and watched the Black-and-white Warbler work the willows. This bird appears to be very successful at finding food between the furrows of the bark, along stems, and under leaves with ceaseless movement. Just as quickly as he appears into my view in front of the willow trunk, he disappears behind. And for just a moment I have an opportunity to look at him straight on. I waited patiently for him to reappear but this time it was near the base of the small shrub. Now, this bird was hammering into the bark. For a fleeting second I wondered if he had learned this skill from the woodpeckers he hung out with and then of course I realized this was the woodpecker he was hanging out with, a Downy Woodpecker to be precise. Often when I am birding I only have a chance to glance at the head , back or wing, so I have learned to catch on to some identifiable characteristics. Both are bark foragers but in this instance the giveaway was the behavior. The warbler is more like a vacuum cleaner, hopping and creeping with his tail held up; the downy is more like a pneumatic drill sitting back on his tail. But they look so similar with their small size and their black and white coloring! Both of their heads are striped but there is a white stripe on the Downy’s back and the belly is white not striped. The absence of a red patch on the head identifies it as a female. The warbler’s strong contrasting black and white stripes with the white eye stripe and white wing bars identify it as a male. And as I looked closely at their beaks, the Warbler’s was thinner when compared to the chiseled beak of the woodpecker. Although identifying them at last gave me satisfaction; their behavior was far more interesting to observe.
When I first arrived 12 years ago this land was still a wet prairie and the wading birds were the ones to see here with flocks of roseate spoonbills, egrets, herons and ibis. But for the time being, the songbirds and woodpeckers are the stars of the show filling their bellies and of course, the hawks and eagles are close behind waiting to fill theirs.