Waiting in the Wings

It’s that strange in-between time again. The nominally “dry” season in Florida is nearing an end, and the trees are blooming. The ducks have mostly left, along with the American Robins. But the Blue-headed Vireos, along with Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers are hanging about. Some of the winter “rare-but-regulars” like the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher haven’t gone yet.

blue-headed-vireo

The Blue-headed Vireo’s song sounds like a sweet, “Be seein’ you! See you later!” which is apt for this time of year.

 

ring-necked-duck-drake2

Since this photo was taken a couple of weeks ago at the Viera Wetlands, the Ring-necked Ducks have mostly left.

But within a few weeks, the migrants will be heading north, stopping in Florida to rest and refuel, as many will still have thousands of kilometers to go to get to their breeding grounds. The local winter residents will make a similar journey and we’ll be saying “good-bye” to them until fall.

yellow-rumped

A Yellow-Rumped Warbler, finding tiny insects and mites on Spanish Moss.

During this quiet time, I’ve been out to the Viera Wetlands, Pine Island Conservation Area, Turkey Creek Sanctuary, Spruce Creek Park, and Fay Lake Wilderness Park. They all seem to be holding their breath. To me it seems like the winter residents have been holding on longer this year. This may be because, despite the record-warm winter in the U.S. (particularly the southeast), there have been strong storm systems moving through, some dumping quite a bit of snow.

common-yellowthroat

This male Common Yellowthroat, at Spruce Creek, hasn’t quite got his full “domino” (black facial feathers) yet.

However birds sense weather, it seems they “know” to hang back and wait sometimes. It’s tempting to think this is an ancient and fail-safe wisdom animals share, but the truth is weather is a major hurdle that migrating birds have to face, twice each year. Many do not make the journey due to winds or extreme temperatures. If a food source fails to appear for them during a “fallout” or a rest, or is covered in too-deep snow, they may actually starve. But nature has given birds some innate abilities to read their environment and make the best choices they can. The ability to fly gives them an edge, too. If food is scarce, they can move on – as long as they have the energy to spare.

greater-yellowlegs

Many shorebirds, like this Greater Yellowlegs, have a long trek ahead to their Arctic tundra breeding grounds. This bird was taking maximum advantage of the warm Florida days to fatten up for the journey.

Of course, as smaller birds start to make their way, predators will follow. Raptors time their migrations to coincide with their prey, who have conveniently put on plenty of fat (i.e., energy and calories).

merlin

A Merlin, scoping out her targets at the Viera Wetlands. She’ll be leaving Florida as well, following food and fortune  perhaps as far as the Arctic Circle to breed. 

 

coopers-hawk

Other raptors, like this Cooper’s Hawk, stay in Florida all year, taking advantage of the various prey that make their way here.

Readers of this and other Florida birding blogs may already know, but the past several years have been disturbingly “slow” for migration, particularly through the east-central part of the state. Many bird populations have been in a documented decline since the 1960s (or before), and Florida has seen immense residential and commercial development since that time. Even with protected habitat like our city, county, state and national parks, the continued fragmentation and elimination of key habitats are taking their toll.

fishermans-landing

What can you do to help (both in Florida, or in your own location)? Support conservation initiatives and land protection plans. Even if residential or commercial development seems inevitable, there are ways that are less harmful that the typical “bulldoze and pave”methods. Developments can be designed to work more with the environment than in spite of it. These methods may cost a bit more to implement up front, but the long-term savings and value in a better looking and healthier community are worth it. Support politicians and legislation that protect our air and water. Business can coexist with these laws, and have done so for decades. Unbridled growth may reap a lot of cash in the short term, but we all pay for it in the long run with expensive clean-ups and degraded, less livable spaces.

Pretty Pine Island

Hey everyone! Enjoy these photos taken from this past weekend’s adventure to Pine Island Conservation Area. It’s been quite a while since I visited this spot, and it did not disappoint. Although not really an island itself (at least not any more), it is on Merritt Island, very near the Kennedy Space Center (the Vertical Assembly Building is easily visible) and the wildlife refuge.

pine-island-north-pond

The north pond does support decent recreational fishing. There were very few alligators than usual.

redwing-blackbird

A male Redwing Blackbird, showing his epaulets. He was singing and displaying for a mate.

painted-bunting

Female Painted Bunting; one of very few green birds native to the US.

tricolored-breeding1

Male Tricolored Heron in full breeding plumage. This individual is showing no throat stripe.

sparrow-mystery-3-4-2017

This Swamp Sparrow almost had me fooled into thinking it was a White-throated Sparrow. 

mockingbird

You can tell it was a chilly morning by how puffy this Northern Mockingbird is.

savannah-sparrow

Savannah Sparrows are fairly common in central Florida, but it’s always a pleasure to see them.

turkey-vulture

A Turkey Vulture using its large wing area to warm up for the day.

yellow-rumped

Yellow-rumped Warblers are still hanging around. Soon they’ll be north, in their breeding range.

tricolored-breeding2

It’s a little hard to see, but this breeding male Tricolored Heron is less blue than the one pictured above, and he has a white stripe from belly to chin.

pine-island-north-pond2

By late morning, it had warmed considerably, but the day was gorgeous.

pine-island-elevated-path

A raised wooden path provides dry access to a wildlife blind (with no wildlife to see today, sorry).

Here’s the link to my eBird list:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34957708

My thanks to Jim Eager for helping me properly identify the really blue Tricolored Heron. I had not realized the variation in breeding males, and had almost committed to calling the bird a Little Blue/Tricolored Hybrid!

Also thanks to the members of the Brdbrains e-mail list for helping me sort out the Swamp Sparrow identification. I tell you what, sparrow ID is HARD, even for experienced birders. If you struggle with these “little brown jobs”, don’t give up and know you’re in good company.

A Rare Day at St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park

The transition into Spring continues, here in Florida. The wild weather roller-coaster some of my northern friends have been experiencing is more of a gentle ride here. Even so, summer-like (for Florida) temperatures have been happening, and the effect on Spring migration is being debated by birders and ornithologists. With the meteorological see-saw this winter, the departure of some winter residents seems delayed, at least in comparison to last year. There are still American Robins and Tree Swallows in the skies and trees; Hooded Mergansers are still swimming in the retention ponds, diving for who knows what.

In that spirit, I trundled myself down to St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park to try and find the “trifecta” of pine flatwoods birds: Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Bachman’s Sparrows, and Brown-headed Nuthatches. Two of the three are endangered, but while relatively common in the southeast US, the Brown-headed Nuthatch does face habitat pressure in Florida, especially south of the Panhandle.

The park is divided into four sections: east-west by Interstate 95 and north-south by the C-54 canal (which drains the land west of the park and flows into the St. Sebastian River). The Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are generally found in the northeast section, which is home to a small breeding colony. These paths are named and marked as the “Yellow Trail” on the park maps. I hiked a loop from the easternmost parking area, north along the “Red-cockaded Woodpecker Link”, around to the west, then south toward the horse camp and back across to where I started.

Although it took a while to hike in to the heart of the NE preserve, I was serenaded by many male Bachman’s Sparrows along the way. Pine Warblers also had a strong presence in the park, flitting from tree to tree, even as a stiff breeze began to blow as the Sun climbed.

pine-warbler-rear

Sometimes this is the best view you get…

St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park is large enough that managed burns are done on various parcels every few years. That has resulted in a very healthy pine flatwoods habitat, as evidenced by the prevalence of wiregrass, instead of Saw Palmetto along the ground.

wire-grass

Some palmettos are alright in a pine flatwoods, but many residents (Bachman’s Sparrows in particular) prefer wiregrass.

There were also pockets of Brown-headed Nuthatches, but these birds are almost constantly in motion. Coupled with the rising wind, photo opportunities were non-existent.

I was happy to have gotten 2 of the “big 3” to that point, but really wanted to get some decent photographs. As I walked along the “Red-cockaded Woodpecker Link” trail, I came across the various nesting trees, so marked with a white stripe.

rcw-tree1

RCW nest tree.

rcw-hole

Although some of the “stucco” front has come off, this is a functional nest box, likely in use.

Sure enough, nearby were at least one pair of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers (RCWs, as they are often called by birders). The birds have a distinctive call note, which they use to stay in almost constant contact and  I heard them long before I saw them.

rcw1

RCWs will often fly to the base of a tree, then work their way up, looking for insects.

rcw-closer

Like all woodpeckers, RCWs use their stiff tail feathers to help prop them up against the trunks of trees.

rcw2

This bird was near the top of a tree, ready to fly out and across to the base of another.

In addition to the RCWs, the park had numerous Red-bellied Woodpeckers, a few Downy Woodpeckers and, what is becoming increasingly rare, a Hairy Woodpecker. The reasons for the Hairy Woodpeckers’ decline isn’t exactly known. Although almost identical in markings to the Down Woodpecker, the Hairy is about the size of the Red-bellied. It’s possible Red-bellied Woodpeckers (as well as European Starlings and House Sparrows) are out-competing Hairy Woodpeckers for nest sites, but there could be other factors, too.

downy

A Downy Woodpecker about to take flight.

As I passed the 1/2 way point in my hike, I came upon a large flock of mixed warblers on the ground a few meters ahead of me. The flock consisted of Pine Warblers and Palm Warblers, either catching aquatic insects in the water at the side of the path, or taking sips of water. As I was bringing my binoculars up to my face, a flash of yellow caught my eye to the right. At first I thought I had glimpsed a very yellow Pine Warbler, but when I got the bird in my binoculars I saw it did not look like a Pine Warbler.

Mentally, I started noting location, shape, and movement, then field marks from the head down. The thought process went something like this:
“Just at or above eye-level in some palm scrub near some hardwoods.”
“Bright yellow front.”
“Yellow on face with some black/dark near eye.”
“Dark gray or black necklace mark, more defined in the center of the chest”
“Bird has turned sideways to me.”
“Faint light eye-ring.”
“Gray upper parts, no wing-bars.”
“White under-tail coverts.”
Then the bird flew out of my field of view and I was unable to relocate it.

This combination of field marks and behavior point to a Canada Warbler. That was a life bird for me (I’ve had unconfirmed personal sightings before, but this time I got a really good look to feel comfortable claiming the ID), and a rare find in Florida, especially this early in the Spring! I believe the bird was either a female, though it could have been a male that hasn’t molted yet or a very worn bird.

After that encounter as the heat of the day built (it was unseasonably warm), the birds had quieted down a bit. I did see a few distant glimpses of Eastern Bluebirds, had the occasional hawk overhead, and heard several more Bachman’s Sparrows.

I had unsuccessfully tried to get some photos of perfectly posed Eastern Phoebes, just to have them dart off as I depressed the shutter. Finally, near the trailhead as I was exiting the trail, I managed to get quite close to a phoebe that was enjoying a bit of lunch.

phoebe-bug

Who doesn’t love live grasshopper for lunch?

phoebe-bug2

Down the hatch!

phoebe-bug3

All gone!

Here’s the eBird list for the NE Preserve:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34815475

This was the longest hike I’ve done in a while – over 9.5km (almost 6 miles) – so I expected to be dealing with a bit of soreness. Thankfully, so far, just my feet have suffered from some tightness and a little chafing. St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park is a great place for some species not easily found in Brevard County, so it’s well worth a visit. I suggest planning a hike or a birding adventure before the heat of summer, and get an early start. The park officially opens at 8:00am (though you might find the gate open a wee bit early sometimes). There are trails at the other three quadrants of the park, too, but each one could easily fill up a day of walking.

It was a good day. I saw four rare or endangered birds (one of which I never expected to see) and got to unwind before another work week. It won’t be long now until the songbird migration makes it way through Florida. Stay tuned for more adventures.

How Do You Prepare for Spring? Scrub!

The Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary is a small but important conservation property here in Brevard County [map]. As their brochure says:

The Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary was originally part of a larger span of high, dry scrubby habitat. Whenever possible, the EEL Program acquires land to help connect existing natural areas. However, as landscapes are developed with buildings and roadways, natural habitats become fragmented (broken up and isolated). Because scrub is favored for development, the Cruickshank Sanctuary has become an “island” in the midst of a developed landscape.

You can learn more about Brevard County’s EEL ( Environmentally Endangered Lands) Program by visiting their website.

As a scrub habitat adjacent to residential development, near the Indian River Lagoon, a diversity of species is to be expected, and that’s what I saw, including a heron fly-over. There were some Tree Swallows near the entrance, and a smattering of American Robins (small groups of robins were also seen, here and there, throughout the morning).

As with the Northern Mockingbirds around the county (and the state), the thrashers are singing in preparation of mating and reestablishing their territories. A sure sign of spring.

brown-thrasher

One of several Brown Thrashers I saw throughout the morning. Note the rich, russet brown of the back and wings.

Male and female Eastern Towhees were scrambling around in the underbrush, scratching for insects in the leaves and other debris. The birds were calling out to each other a lot, with their “chewINK” calls, but very little singing by the males. The males were more bold and inquisitive when I approached a few times, popping out into the open to check out what I was doing, and sometimes scolding me.

another-eastern-towhee

“Hey! Get off of my scrub!”

eastern-towhee

Before the mid 1990s, Eastern and Spotted Towhees were considered a single species, “Rufous-sided Towhee”. Here, you can see why that was an apt name.

The Sanctuary is a great home for various woodpeckers, including the elsewhere-rare Northern Flicker. I heard it mentioned during the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival that Northern Flicker numbers are declining, with the exact cause not yet known (though habitat loss and development pressure are always likely candidates). In addition to several flickers, I also saw Downy, Pileated, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. A Red-headed Woodpecker was reported earlier in the week, but I did not find that bird during my visit.

northern-flicker

Even in bad light, you can see the yellow feather shafts that gave this species it’s former name “Yellow-shafted Flicker” before it was merged with the “Red-shafted” variety into the Northern Flicker. A reminder that genetics aren’t always as ordered and simple as we think.

Of course the star “attractions” of the Sanctuary are the Florida Scrub-Jays.

scrub-jay-1

As usual, one of two birds will perch up on higher branches to act as look-outs for the rest of the family group as they forage and fly around their territories.

Many of the jays are banded, as researchers use these birds (and other scrub-jays on other properties) to research and conserve this endangered species. Naturally inquisitive and bold, this long-running research has also made the birds acclimated to human presence, making them approachable and easily photographed.

Long-time readers of my blog have seen some of the photos of Florida Scrub-Jays perched on my head. The birds look for people to hand them food (usually peanuts), as researchers had trained them to make it easier to band and examine the birds, and returning visitors used that “trick” to get close and personal with the jays.

Much of that has stopped, and with education and signage, the birds seem to expect handout less, and not a single bird landed on my head this time.

scrub-jay-2

This bird was warily watching a pair of Ospreys build a nest nearby. 

There was an Osprey pair building a nest, carefully placing large twigs and branches, one by one. Although Ospreys are fish eating raptors, small birds and other animals are always careful to watch for anything hawk or eagle-like in their skies.

osprey-nest

There had been a largely complete nest here last year, but winds (likely from Hurricane Matthew) knocked it down. 

After placing some branches another Osprey couple approached. There was a brief fight over the nest site, with the building couple chasing the others away.

Meanwhile, the scrub-jays looked on and continued on their business. There were other raptors around, including a Red-shouldered and a Red-tailed Hawk, but they did not seem interested in the jays.

scrub-jay-3

Another sentinel.

I also scared up a flock of mixed sparrows into some scrub, where they lingered for a few minutes, allowing me to get some reasonable looks at them. There were Savannah, Field, and Chipping Sparrows, as well as two rare Clay-colored Sparrows.

chipping-sparrow

One of the Chipping Sparrows, with the distinctive rusty cap and black eye-line.

Clay-colored Sparrows are rare visitors to Florida. They breed in the north-central United States and south-central Canada and winter in Mexico. According to published information, they like to stick to scrub and brush along field edges, even in winter, so finding it in a scrub sanctuary, surrounded by residential development made this species a nice find.

clay-colored-sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrows have a bold cheek pattern and darker grey collar, on an unstreaked breast, which help identify them.

Most of these sparrows will soon be departing for their breeding grounds, well north of here. Their presence, along with the Osprey nest-building and increased singing and displaying of resident species indicates that we’re on Spring’s doorstep.

For those who like to follow along with eBird, here’s the “official” list.

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34511049

I haven’t been posting links to my eBird lists lately, but I think there’s some value to making that information more easily available, so I’ll start doing it again more regularly.

After wrapping up my hike at the sanctuary, I did a quick stop by Riverwalk Family Park, but it was mostly quiet there, so I headed for home.

Hey, guess what?

I have an announcement!

meadowlark-sings

“HEY YOU GUYS!”

As part of my efforts to expand the reach of my blog, I’ve now activated my domain, lonelybirder.org!

young-spoonbill

“Hey everyone, check it out!”

The former wordpress.com address should redirect to the new one, so there’s no need to change your bookmarks or whatever, if you don’t want to. Any ads at the bottom of my blog posts should now be gone, also!

Stay tuned for more birding!

“OMG I am so happy!”