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Attention, birders: Cedar waxwings with a penchant for a farmer's blueberries meet their match in one African Barbary falcon

SPRING LAKE — The clear morning air resonated with the cheerful chatter of birds and dew dripped from fat blueberries as Maryann Stein loaded her gun.

She fired a firework above her fields. It sparked and shrieked, the piercing sound erupting against the treeline.

A hidden gray swarm of birds rocketed from the dense bushes, fleeing with purple-colored morsels. Startled, they took flight in unison, weaving like a Chinese dragon.

The cedar waxwings are beautiful, if you're not a farmer. They are a tiny, colorful, migratory bird with a voracious appetite for blueberries. To Stein, matriarch of Brooksville Ridge Blueberries, a 60-acre farm in Hernando County, their chipper chirping — "zee-zeet!" — is the sound of money being plucked from the bush.

"Isn't that awful?" said Stein. "There can be thousands in there and you just hear this chirp, chirp, chirp."

She loaded another "bird banger" and fired.

• • •

Man's battle against nature — particularly birds — is a classic struggle. Farmers devised the scarecrow for a reason.

Standing outside her barn, Stein listed all the bird deterrents she has employed during the March-to-May harvest season since she started the farm eight years ago: artificial owls, air horns, fireworks, a speaker system broadcasting bird distress calls, hawk-shaped kites, strings of reflective CDs, inflatable windsocks and propane cannons.

She knows fellow farmers who tried laser shows, a grape-extract fog, remote-controlled planes, nets and shotguns.

"People say, 'Why don't you use scarecrows?' But you can walk up and wave your arms and the birds do nothing."

As if on cue, a horde of cedar waxwings brushed within inches of Stein's straw hat as she walked along a row. The birds' collective movement sounded like a gust of wind.

To birdwatchers, cedar waxwings are a beautiful sight: shiny reddish-brown and gray plumage, black eye masks, red wax-marked wings and yellow-tipped tails. Each spring they arrive in massive waves and pillage their way north. Sometimes they grab whole berries, but often they just peck a hole in the biggest, juiciest ones and knock them to the ground.

It's difficult to put a price tag on the damage, Stein said, but she estimates the birds cost her tens of thousands of dollars in a bad year. A 2007 federal study estimated birds and wildlife cause more than $50 million in damage nationwide to blueberry producers each year.

As for deterring the birds, most studies reach this conclusion: "current technologies have minimal effect."

The most effective deterrent is covering fields in nets, but it's too costly and cumbersome for most independent farmers. Stein found the best results using "exploders," the propane-powered cannons that intermittently fire blasts of air to frighten the birds.

"They are loud, they are obnoxious and even the birds get used to them after a while, but loud sound is probably the next best thing," she said between deafening booms that made her jump. "I hate them. And the neighbors complain like we are enjoying ourselves."

In neighboring Pasco County, the cannons have rattled neighbors and stoked a controversy. The county commission even proposed banning them, but the effort failed last year.

Stein's farm has received a number of visits from code enforcement officers. She said her neighbors still talk about the time a propane tank leaked and exploders jolted the neighborhood all night long.

To avoid more headaches, a year ago Stein began looking for a more natural deterrent. She heard about grape growers in California using birds of prey, like falcons, to scare birds from the vines. But few farmers in Florida — if any — had tried it. It took a half-dozen calls and dead-ends before she reached Scott McCorkle, a master falconer from Apopka, north of Orlando. He gave her a demonstration last spring. She liked the potential, so this year, as the birds descended, she hired him for the harvest.

All man's contraptions couldn't solve this problem, she decided. She needed nature to fight nature.

• • •

Stein gave up firing the "bird bangers" just after 8 a.m. To her relief, a car pulled up a few minutes later with a sharp-taloned bounty hunter named Spyder perched in the passenger seat.

Scott McCorkle, 57, lifted Spyder to his black-gloved hand and covered Spyder's eyes with a hood that looked like a mini-helmet with a stiff tassel. McCorkle attached a thin radio transmitter to his left leg. Spyder pecked at his hand.

The 1-year-old African Barbary falcon is an acrobatic flier with a dark mustache, glossy oak wings and houndstooth-patterned chest.

A captive-bred bird, Spyder considers McCorkle his father. And McCorkle treats him like a son. When he was young, he let Spyder sit on his head while he shaved. The bird earned his name as a baby when he skipped across McCorkle's bathroom floor to catch a spider. The only birds in the house are Spyder and McCorkle's prized peregrine falcon.

McCorkle explained that Spyder often creates his own itinerary, flying away for hours before casually returning. McCorkle calls him lazy. This is his first year at Stein's farm and it is largely an experiment.

Spyder doesn't know how to catch the wily waxwings. McCorkle and Stein just hope his natural instinct guides him.

McCorkle walked to the rows of blueberry bushes and removed Spyder's hood. He took flight and sprinted toward the dive-bombing cedar waxwings. "He'll go after anything with wings," McCorkle said.

It didn't take the birds long to recognize a predator. They scattered to the protection of a nearby tree. Spyder went to rest on the crest of the barn. He ruffled his feathers to feel the morning sun and surveyed his domain, satisfied.

• • •

High above, Spyder circled on the rising thermals until he became a dot, then a speck and then seemingly disappeared.

Even at that altitude, his silhouette terrified the cedar waxwings into hiding. The fear is ingrained in the birds' DNA. "They know he can catch them," McCorkle said.

Spyder can still see his prey below. His retina is dimpled inward to give him telescopic vision.

But even in Spyder's third week, coming daily except for Saturday, the waxwings aren't scared into submission. McCorkle hoped for a cumulative effect — a recognition that a predator lived here and a desire to retreat. The fear didn't overcome the sweet reward.

In the distance an air horn bellowed as often as an alarm clock. It seemed that most of the birds had swarmed to a neighboring farmer's fields.

Spyder eventually floated downward and swooped low above the fields. He used the bushes to screen his target's vision. This was not how McCorkle taught him how to hunt. He seemed to be teaching himself a new way to snatch the birds as they leave the bushes.

He typically catches prey in missle-like dives from hundreds of feet above. He strikes his prey when they don't see him; the force of the impact means death is usually quick. But at this lower height, it's tough for him to catch the small, maneuverable birds because they are quicker and faster from the line. Spyder needs momentum, a flying start.

McCorkle enticed Spyder with a treat. Spyder caught the lure and McCorkle lifted him from the ground. The key to falconry, he said, is keeping the bird hungry enough to hunt but fed enough to have energy.

A siren from a bullhorn called the workers to the fields, where they stripped the bushes of blueberries in the waning days of harvest.

Spyder took off again, chasing a bold group of cedar waxwings through the distant treeline. This is another learned skill. He doesn't need McCorkle to prod him to fly anymore.

"He's just playing with them," McCorkle said. "I'd like him to catch a waxwing. I think it would give him a lot of incentive."

• • •

An hour later, Spyder flew low, chasing a cloud of birds. He dove suddenly between two rows.

No one saw what happened next. McCorkle lost sight and needed his radio transceiver to find Spyder.

Spyder sat atop his prey, wings spread wide hiding the prize. Dark red guts stuck to his beak. Feathers littered the ground. Stein rushed to the scene with a camera.

Spyder devoured half the kill before McCorkle could lift him from the ground. He put what was left of the waxwing on his glove.

McCorkle beamed like a proud father. His wife took a succession of pictures.

Spyder tore at the meaty pieces and then munched the feathers like a cow chewing grass.

"Nice red meat," McCorkle said.

"They are blueberry-fed," his wife added.

Spyder took his last bite, gray feathers with yellow tips.

Stein looked across her fields. Not a bird in sight.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

On the Web:

For more photos of Spyder, go to magazine.tampabay.com.

Attention, birders: Cedar waxwings with a penchant for a farmer's blueberries meet their match in one African Barbary falcon 05/29/09 [Last modified: Sunday, May 31, 2009 7:49am]

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