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Bird Brained

By Staff | Dec 14, 2011

Bill "Jake" Jacobson and his wife, Elaine, of the Sanibel Captiva Audubon Society. (Photo by Bill Schiller)

Birds of a feather are said to flock together, but on Sanibel Island, that notion not only rings true for the varied species of winged wildlife, but also a reflection of the many bird lovers that wing their way to the community which is nationally distinguished as one of the Top 10 Birding Destinations in America.

The coming weeks will give flight to a flock of avian-affiliated activities that include local participation in the National Audobon Society’s Annual Christmas Bird Count, the Sanibel-Captiva Audobon Lecture Series and Osprey Fest which benefits Sanibel’s Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (C.R.O.W.). January in Sanibel has even been officially deemed “Birding Month” by Ocean’s Reach Condominiums Resort which is offering special discounts and accommodation packages that come with the opportunity to win prizes and participate in select tours at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

“We want our guests to understand the importance of ‘Ding’ Darling and wildlife to this island,” says Andy Boyle, General Manager of Ocean’s Reach. “The Society is helping us install a webcam for our osprey nest and bird identification signage for our wetland and shoreline wildlife. When installation is complete… the cam will offer a 24-hour live feed of activities in the nest. In return, Ocean’s Reach is offering guided birding tours and discounts during January to guests who contribute to the refuge. It’s a great partnership.”

And on the subject of partnerships, it is fitting to note that behind every great birding activity on Sanibel, there are great people who devote vast measures of time, energy and intellect to ensure this community maintains certain allure for all avian enthusiasts. The following profiles offer some background on a few of the people who help make Sanibel a paradise for birds and bird-lovers alike.

Involved in Audubon

Canoe Tour Guide Bird Westall speaks 11 species of bird language. (Photo by Bill Schiller)

On the morning of December 17, while many are still fast asleep in comfy quarters, there will be many people throughout Sanibel (as well as the rest of the country) with binoculars in tow and ledgers with a lengthy list of bird species. These bird watchers will spend a portion of their day taking count of the various bird species they encounter along their way. In Sanibel, Bill “Jake” Jacobson is tasked with the chore of compiling local totals that are ultimately fed into Audubon’s national data system.

A former developer of software used in accounting programs, Jake has a talent for working with numbers, but as far as his birding activities go on Sanibel, he gives all credit to his wife, Elaine, who serves on the Board of Directors for the Sanibel Captiva Chapter of Audubon. “She volunteers me for a lot of things,” says Jake.

Elaine, who formerly worked in pharmaceutical sales, says her involvement with Audubon stems from a simple fact of life in Sanibel – “When you come here, you find there’s a lot you can do on a volunteer basis,” she says.

And she’s glad for that, because some years ago, when confronted with the idea of retiring from her career, Elaine says she felt frightened. “In my life, I ran as fast as I could, and did as much as I could,” says Elaine, noting the notion of retiring prompted concern as to what she would do now to keep busy.

She took up the study of opera and Italian language, honed her talents as a botanist, and during a trip to Sanibel, she began a certain fascination and appreciation for area wildlife. For the last nine years, Elaine has served as the Chairperson of the local Audubon Lecture Series.

At Periwinkle Park, Libby Baird is known as "The Bird Lady."

Their birding passions have essentially become a healthy part of their marriage and Jake says, overall, such pursuits pose other benefits. “Our outlook has changed through this work… it levels you, makes you stop thinking so much about yourself.”

In the days ahead, Jake will be very focused on the local bird population. While number collected during the bird count are not considered concrete totals, but more of representative gauges of population, Jake says he has 22 years worth of data which indicate some level of decline in numbers locally. He adds, however, that counts can often be stymied by a variety of factors that include wind, weather, tides and temperature. “When it gets cold, the birds tend to hunker down the same way people do,” says Jake.

He possesses a list of some 110 species that bird count volunteers will be looking to identify this Saturday. When asked if there is a special bird that volunteers would hope to see, Jake acknowledges a species known as the Mangrove Cuckoo.

The bird, which Jake says he has only seen twice in 11 years, typically makes a habitat amidst tropical thickets and mangrove swamps. One should study the terrain among shallow platforms of twigs sparingly lined with traces of fauna. The bird tends to wait motionless for long period, but upon seeing moving prey in the form of bugs, lizards and frogs, dashes to action in a series of hopping moves, and is said to work the prey back and forth through its beak prior to swallowing.

Jake says it is unlikely volunteers who will be canvassing the entirety of the community will casually come across the bird, but they have more than 100 other species to identify. Afterall, as Jake says, “We’re sitting on one of the best birding spots in America.”

And to be sure, Elaine says Sanibel is one of the best places to be for people who like to get involved. Describing the “cohesive” support of Audubon Society Members who dedicate their time to protect local wildlife, Elaine says, “Sanibel has given all of us a reason to be… one of the reasons I enjoy being here is because I’m able to get involved here… this really means something to me.

On Thursday, January 5th, 2012 The Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Society will launch the 2012 lecture series with a presentation by world renowned crane expert, Dr. George Archibald. The presentation will be the first of eight to take place on consecutive Thursday evenings at 7:30 p.m. at the Sanibel Community House (2173 Periwinkle Way). All are welcomed to attend. A $5.00 per person donation is appreciated. For additional information, contact Elaine Jacobson at (239)395-1878 or go to San-Cap Audubon’s Web site at www.sancapaudubon.org.

The “Bird” Man

For the record, it should be noted that “Bird” Westall was known by that name long before he became so distinguished for his birding activities in Sanibel. He says the nickname stems from his acquaintance with a certain girl he called “Robin Red Breast” from schooldays of his youth. She, in poking a bit of fun at his nose and gangly physique, referred to him as “Bird” and the name simply stuck.

Bird has been a fixture of the local landscape and the lives of birders for more than 30 years. His arrival in Sanibel was prompted through his relationship with a girl whose brother formerly served as Executive Director of the Conservation Foundation.

Raised in Indiana, Bird’s relationship with wildlife in general essentially evolved after his arrival in Sanibel.

“My dad used to tell me, if you can’t eat it or hunt with it, what good is it?,” says Bird. “And naturalists were considered ‘strange birds’ that run through the woods in the nude.”

His attitudes about nature and wildlife took a turn while he was pursuing dual degrees in Anthropology and Public & Environmental Affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington. He went on to become President of the school’s fledgling Sierra Club Chapter, but during a visit to Sanibel, he developed a new awareness.

He says Sanibel was characterized as something of “a Utopian dream… supposed to be this place where community coexisted with nature.”

During his first weeks here, he found himself at a party. In one room, he noticed a map of the local area and upon pressing his face forward for a close-up examination, he was startled by a massive wolf spider which had perched upon the map.

In surprise and shock to its size, Bird says he began warning others about the giant spider, but his claims were evenly dismissed. “Someone finally came over and told me, ‘Don’t worry about that spider, it’s just a housekeeper,’ and I walked away thinking, ‘Now that is coexistence.'”

In the years that followed, Bird went on to perform pivotal roles with organizations such as the San-Cap Conservation Foundation and Florida Audubon Society where he served on the board of directors for four years. He has also served the City of Sanibel, not only as a member of the City Council, but as a Vice-Mayor and Mayor too.

He’s one for straight talk and honest, if not painfully blunt, admission of sentiments as to seeming hypocrisy that sometimes reveals itself in Sanibel. In this he makes a point about people who claim to be wildlife advocates until that point when, say, the alligator arrives in their backyard, or the Osprey leaves remnants of its fish dinner on the roof of their home. In the case of the alligator, reports do not result in relocation, rather termination of the alligator’s life, and Bird has plenty of local company when it comes to disagreeing with that practice.

He also has a lot to say about people who practice feeding of birds and other wildlife, suggesting that coexisting is vastly different from nurturing bad habits. “People have an innate desire to try and domesticate animals,” he says, nonetheless, it’s never in the best interest of the wildlife.

If there’s any species of bird for which Bird is most identified, it would be the Osprey. As the founder and president of the International Osprey Foundation, Bird has lectured throughout America and Europe. He is also recognized locally for developing a number of the poled-platforms that can be found throughout Sanibel that provide a foundation for Osprey to nest and feed.

Over the years, Bird has been active in researching population numbers involving Osprey, climbing many a pole to count hatchlings in nests. That work has resulted in medical injuries from time to time, requiring stitches in his head after being attacked by lunging Osprey. “You learn to duck when they come, but sometimes you don’t duck fast enough,” says Bird.

Fortunately, Bird doesn’t have to climb poles these days because he has learned to talk to Osprey, yes talk, in actual Osprey speak. He demonstrates a call or two, and explains how he can give the alert call which makes hatchlings raise their heads from the nest. He can make a count and make another call that makes them lower their heads. Osprey, in fact, isn’t the only language he speaks. He can talk Anhinga, Ibis, Spoonbill, some 12 separate bird languages in total.

His vocal talents come in particularly handy when tourist charter him as a guide for canoe trips in area waters. It is aviary nature to flee the scene when people are observed, but Bird gives out a call letting them know everything is OK. He says the gesture is made to prevent the bird from panicking and expending energy in flight from fear.

There’s no disputing his passion for the outdoors is something he shares with those on guided tours. As for sitting in an office and participating in an interview, he says, “When I’m in here surrounded by wall, I’m existing, but when I’m in the woods, that’s when I’m alive.”

As for living in Sanibel, a community that he calls “a great social experiment,” Bird says his understanding of birds has helped him gain an understanding of people too. He makes a point about intolerance that some express towards religion or race, saying such is a “facade” or used as “justification of what instincts are instructing them to do” in terms of self-preservation.

“Birds exhibit the same behavior,” he says “but their instincts are a lot more basic and less complicated than people.”

To arrange a guide canoe trip with Bird Westall, visit his website at www.canoewithbirdwestall.com or contact him by phone at (239) 472-5218.

The Bird Lady

As anyone at the security gate of Periwinkle Park will affirm, there are residents and visitors alike who frequently flock to that community with singular interest – “to see the bird lady.”

Her actual name is Libby Baird, but to the tens of thousands who have visited the park over the years, she is a curator of the coup and creator of what exists as Sanibel’s most fascinating, up-close and personal presentation involving a species of birds that may be non-indiginous, but living here a lot longer than some people. As a bird lover, Libby is the real McCoy, well, make that Macaw.

Her program features parrots and cockatoos, but there never addressed by their genus, no, for Libby responds to all by their names, which include: Terri, the yellow-headed Amazon; Dusty Rose, the rose-breasted cockatoo; Pumpkin, the scarlet/gold Catalina Macaw; JoJo, the affectionate Blue/Gold Macaw; and his girlfriend, the jealous and slightly temperamental Skipper.

On most weekdays, from November 1 through May 1, Libby Baird can be found conducting a program that is as entertaining as it is educational on the subject of parrots. For her part, Libby isn’t lecturing to foster the belief as to what terrific pets these birds make, just the opposite. Her goal is to help communicate that most people lack the requisite skills to be good pet owners, especially when it comes to parrots. She says these birds are both intelligent, demanding and emotionally needy, and most people have neither the time or mental stamina to keep-up with their demands.

The intelligence of the birds is very evident during the program as some, when in a good mood, will immediately respond to her gentle instruction, to display an outstretched wing. As for their emotions, some of the parrots are overt womanizers, while another, exhibits affection for men, especially any man with a mustache. Libby explains that the man who formerly owned the parrot recently passed away, and the bird misses him.

How can people know when a parrot finds them attractive? Surprisingly, like so many romantic encounters, it’s in the eyes. In this case, Libby explains how the parrot’s pupils constrict into a tiny dot, that’s a good sign, and blushing of the cheek, further good evidence.

Of course, sometimes, the parrots get a little carried away. Libby has lost her share of buttons, and has gotten the bad end of a beak with a clamp on her lips requiring stitches, but she shrugs it all off.

There’s no disputing her adoration for the birds, and no question of their affinity with her. When not lecturing to the audiences that gather, Libby can be heard having conversation with the birds, which she addresses by name. “Terri, I’m concerned by that paw, we’re going to have to get that looked at,” she says. “Rico, what has gotten into you today?” she asks.

Libby, who divides time between here and Burlington, Canada, says she wasn’t always a birder. A former Physical Education Instructor, Libby came to Sanibel some 20 years ago, and became enamored with the parrots which Dick Muench kept in a small enclosure. Over time, she got more familiar with the birds, asking to feed them or assisting in cleaning their cages. Soon enough, she was holding them and people, passing by, would inquire as to “what time” they might be able to hold them. This ultimately led to daily schedule of programs where children, parents and grandparents now gather to learn and lavish in photo opportunities. Libby sells postcards and DVDs with the parrots and proceeds help in covering cost of their care, which isn’t minimal given the lighting and security measures installed around their enclosure.

Many of the parrots were passed down to the park as owners have died or situations came negating their ability to provide proper care. Today, Libby receives letters and postcards from around the world from people who have caught her program, in one case, she even received a print from an artist. The original painting of the parrot sold for more than $1,600.

For Libby, there is real value in the relationships, and she says something that is as true about parrots as it is about people – “You might walk over to just see how beautiful they are, but then, you can’t help it, you fall in love with their personality.”