A Little Extra from September

September 20, 2018

Here are a couple of photos from my hike in Saint Sebastian River Preserve State Park, earlier this month.

pine-lilies
Pine Lilies are native to Florida and the US southeast coast. You can find them in places with acidic, moist soils. They are heat tolerant, too. Very Florida. This species is “Threatened”.
bobwhite
I flushed a covey of Northern Bobwhites from the ground. The male and most of the females took off out of sight.  This remaining female flew into a nearby pine tree and tried to become invisible. When it became clear that the wildlife paparazzi (me) had found her, she lept into the air, flew over my head and landed somewhere in the wiregrass.

 

Back to Birding

September 4, 2018

September is a month of continued change. Early migrants and shorebirds are starting to arrive and stop over on their way south for wintering grounds. The weather is very slowly starting to cool off in Florida, making longer outings less uncomfortable.

This past weekend I used these opportunities to check out the early season action in St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park [map]. A Red-headed Woodpecker – a relative rarity for Brevard County – had been reported off and on in the park this summer, and I wanted to find it.

st-sebastian0
Proper fire management has helped minimize palmetto cover and give the native wiregrass and other herbaceous cover a chance to flourish.

Despite the late summer season, there were still Bachman’s Sparrows singing in the northwest and northeast sections of the park, and several small flocks were flushed out of the palmettos and wiregrass as I walked the Green Trail in the northwest quadrant.

bachmans-sparrow
Bachman’s Sparrows are often elusive after breeding season, but the birds were active and relatively easy to find.

Barn Swallows have been moving through the area for a couple of weeks now, and there were several large groups working various open areas and resting on wires. Quite a number were juveniles, of course.

swallows
A juvenile (left) and an adult (right) Barn Swallow, preening as they rest in the early morning light. 

As I hiked part of the Turkey Link Trail, I heard some calls that sounded very much like a Red-headed Woodpecker, some distance to the east. Eventually, I looped back to my car (at the visitors’ center) and drove along the dirt road a bit farther east, near the park service building. After walking about 100 meters north, I could not go any further due to standing water, but I heard some more of the same woodpecker calls not too far away. I decided some judicious audio recordings might help me definitively identify the bird. I played 3 or 4 Red-headed Woodpecker calls and immediately got a reply in some pine trees just about 50 meters away. Unfortunately, I could not locate the bird visually, and eventually the bird moved further into the park and to the east.

While on the Green Trail I encountered some of the area’s non-avian friends, like some understandably skittish deer and a very cooperative and beautiful Luna Moth species.

deer-blur
At least one of the deer stood still long enough for a photo! Everyone else was too fidgety and flighty, but I kind of like the blurred aesthetic.
luna-moth2
A beautifully back-lit Luna Moth, about the span of my hand (over 10 cm or 4 in).

I was also surprised by a loose aggregation of Peregrine Falcons a couple of hundred meters overhead. I have seen falcons (Merlins) migrating south (along the beach) in relatively close proximity, but never the larger Peregrines.

After making my way back to the car, I drove over to the Yellow Trail at the Northeast Quadrant. The nearby canal had a few wading birds and even a small flock of Wild Turkeys.

turkeys
A couple of Wild Turkeys on top of the canal berm.
green-heron
A slightly bedraggled looking Green Heron, near the manatee viewing and fishing area.

I was anticipating a long walk along the Yellow Trail before seeing any Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, but I was pleasantly surprised by an overflight of two of the woodpeckers, only a few hundred meters from the trailhead. A few Brown-headed Nuthatches also popped by for a quick hello.

nuthatch
A Brown-headed Nuthatch pausing just long enough for a photo.

In the aftermath of both Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Irma in 2017, many of the longleaf pines in Florida have been getting further decimated by the Southern Pine Beetle. For example, at Turkey Creek Sanctuary as many if not more trees are being lost to the beetle than to Hurricane Irma. The beetles take advantage of weakened or diseased mature trees, so the affects of recent hurricanes have helped intensify the current infestation. I did not notice too much in the way of damage in the Northwest Quadrant, and most of the Northeast Quadrant seemed healthy until I ran into a couple of clusters of dead and dying pines on the Red-cockaded Woodpecker Link Trail. Luckily, there didn’t seem to be many affected trees (at least that were within my visual range).

beetle-damage
Dead trees, no thanks to the Southern Pine Beetle.

As I made my way along the Red-cockaded Woodpecker Link Trail the weather, which had been slightly threatening all morning, started to worsen a little and some light rain began to fall. Besides some Pine Warblers and a few other birds, it became quiet as I made my way across a drainage feature around a cypress dome and finally back out onto the Green Trail. I misjudged the distance and wound up walking over 9 kilometers (over 5.5 miles)!

St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park is a nice gem at the southern end of Brevard County and northern end of Indian River county. It is bisected by Interstate 95, running north-south, and the channelized Saint Sebastian River (essentially a canal), running east-west. I find myself wondering if a set of elevated wildlife corridors spanning these features could benefit the park and local environment. Such corridors have been widely successful in many places here in the U.S. and around the world. Something to think about.

Here are my eBird lists for those so inclined.

Northwest Quadrant, partial Green Trail/Turkey Link Trail:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S48236358

Northwest Quadrant, partial Green Trail (east of previous):
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S48237400

Northeast Quadrant, partial Buffer Preserve Road section:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S48237656

Northeast Quadrant, partial Yellow Trail/Red-cockaded Woodpecker Link Trail:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S48241730

 

Slow Roasting

Summer is the slow season for birding, in most of Florida. As the Springtime migration ends, the local breeders raise their broods and then the region sort of hangs there for a while, in the heat and humidity, pausing for the Fall. With the high humidity and temperatures, as well as other non-birding obligations, there’s not much going on here at Lonely Birder Central. But not nothing. At one of the neighborhood ponds in Palm Bay’s Sandy Pines subdivision, there have been occasional Wood Ducks and even a Killdeer nest with hatchlings.

male-wood-duck
Male Wood Duck, warily taking to the water
female-wood-duck
Female Wood Duck resting in the grass.

I made a quick trip to Canaveral National Seashore [map] and Black Point Drive [map] at MIWR with Camille in July. Despite the heat, we managed to get just about 30 species one morning, including some Brown-headed Cowbirds, Northern Flickers, and Least Bitterns.

brown-headed-cowbird
A Male Brown-headed Cowbird, foraging along the roadside at Canaveral National Seashore.
least-bittern
Least Bittern at Black Point Drive. Note the red lores, indicative of breeding plumage.
northern-flicker
A Northern Flicker with a slightly tattered tail. This bird (along with most others) will undergo a feather molt before Fall, replacing most feathers.

Other interesting sightings so far this Summer include a Peregine Falcon in my own neighborhood, some Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at Turkey Creek Sancturary.

Here are some selected eBird lists for the day:
Canaveral National Seashore: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S46913525
Black Point Wildlife Drive: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S46915388

I had a fun excursion with my friends Sarah and Bella, with Sarah’s father and Bella’s sister. We drove down to the Moccasin Island Tract [map] and walked to the Bald Eagle’s nest (which was unoccupied), and got some good looks at Eastern Meadowlarks, a couple of Loggerhead Shrikes and some Black-necked Stilts that were nesting in the still-flooded grass, north of the parking area.

black-necked-stilt
Some distance from the parking area, some Black-necked Stilts had nested in the grass. Heavy spring rains had left prolonged areas of standing water with concealing vegetation, which these birds prefer to nest in.

As we made our way back to the car, we had an overflight of about a dozen or so Swallow-tailed Kites – the most I’ve ever seen at once in that area. They were sharing the airspace with a very different bird. Just one of many hazards our birds have to navigate every day.

swallow-tailed-kite
One of about a dozen Swallow-tailed Kites. This one’s tail is still relatively short, likely an indication it is a youngster.
ultra-light.jpg
Ultralight aircraft over Moccasin Island Tract.

We ended that adventure with a nice visit at the Viera Wetlands parking area by a Crested Caracara.

Visit our eBird list to see a couple of Bella’s photos and a complete accounting of our species there:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47045453

There’s been one small change to the blog. If you look at the top of the right-hand sidebar, you’ll see a button that says, “Buy me a coffee”. This is a link to my Ko-fi page, which allows you to send me a few dollars (the equivalent of coffee you probably pay too much for) if you like what I’m doing here with the blog, or whenever you find a particular post you connect with.

I’m not looking to make a lot of money, just some extra cash to defray the cost of gas or food, or a festival registration fee, etc., when I go on a birding adventure. Thanks for reading what I have to say and looking at my photos, whether you donate or not.

Stay cool, everyone!

 

A Simple Key to Recharging

May 20, 2017

I had a quick visit out to Cedar Key last weekend, along with Mrs. Lonely Birder and some of her family. As they are not known to be early birds, I took the opportunity for some solo adventuring out to the wildlife management areas near Cedar Key [map] at dawn. The map is a little confusing, because the signage around the park said I was in the Lower Suwannee River National Wildlife Refuge but the Suwannee River is almost 10 kilometers (6 miles) northwest of where I was. If any readers have an insight into the parks situation at my location, please enlighten me! These few hours of solitude were just what I needed after the trying events of the past couple of months.

lower-suwannee-at-dawn
The extensive mud flats here, with many shellfish exposed in beds that might attract plenty of shorebirds, under the right conditions.

I started out by walking around and onto Shell Mound, an ancient pile of shells left by generations of the area natives, from neolithic times to the early European colonization/imperialistic era. The woods more mostly quiet, but for the calls of some White-eyed Vireos, some Clapper Rails in the adjacent salt marsh, and some Carolina Chickadees.

shell-mound-trail
Walking atop Shell Mound and it’s millions and millions of crushed shells.

Near the boat ramp and fishing pier/observation deck, a pair of Great Crested Flycatchers were making a ruckus watching me as much as I was watching them!

great-crested-flycatcher
A mildly agitated and intensely curious Great Crested Flycatcher.

There was a scattering of few shorebirds on the mudflats, but otherwise the more numerous flying things were the thousands of mosquitoes and midges swarming around me. The bug repellent held its own, though, and I only suffered a few bites before making for the shelter of Shell Mound and back to the car.

I then stopped at the Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve and walked a short distance, listening to and watching the Eastern Towhees, Common Yellowthroats, and White-eyed Vireos. I had a nice fly-over of a Wood Duck pair, as well as some “mystery” bird calls I never really deciphered.

I picked up Mrs. Lonely Birder and the Lonely-In-Laws back at our motel and we made our way to Cedar Key “proper” for a nice afternoon of walking, shopping, and art galleries. Cedar Key is pretty and the tourist traps are a lot less “in your face” compared to many of Florida’s beach towns or keys.

cedar-key
You won’t find many beaches on the main part of Cedar Key, but it’s a very pretty place.

Even though we didn’t venture out into the more “natural” areas, there were birds tucked around here and there, particularly off shore where there were some people fishing and kayaking. But even along the more built-up parts had visitors.

peep
A Sanderling coming into breeding plumage. I almost never see these birds with this plumage, so at first I thought this was a Semipalmated Sandpiper. Thanks to the Brdbrain E-mail List community for setting me straight!
ruddy-turnstone
The above Sanderling was strongly associating with this Ruddy Turnstone (also in breeding plumage). There were eating small crustaceans near the Nature Coast Biological Station.

A handful of Barn Swallows were swooping along through the area, but only one landed anywhere that I could see and paused long enough to get a good look (and a few photos).

barn-swallow
I’m not certain, but I think this is a young-adult Barn Swallow (just past fledgling), based on the “bib” on the throat. 

As with most of Florida, the usual resident water birds were there in large numbers. This handsome Brown Pelican (along with many of its friends) was patiently waiting for scraps from a man that was “preparing” some fish he had caught.

brown-pelican
Adult Brown Pelicans are really quite striking birds, in my opinion. 

Also waiting for fish scraps were a bunch of Laughing Gulls. Almost all the adults now have their characteristic black hoods and white eye-arcs. This bird seemed to be having some trouble balancing on an old piling.

lauging-gull
Laughing Gulls are handsome birds, even if they can be a nuisance at some beaches. Here at Cedar Key, I didn’t find them troublesome.

After a nice lunch and a bit more shopping (mostly of the “window” variety), we headed back east toward home.

For the curious reader, here are select eBird lists from the day.

Lower Suwannee NWR – Shell Mound:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45581629

Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve (part):
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45581640

Cedar Key:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45596545

1-heart-cedar-key
Definitely worth coming back for a longer stay!

Perhaps next visit I will get out to the less developed keys and poke around, but for this past weekend, some strolling, shopping, and yes, birding, was just right.

Global Big Day 2018: Two-county day

May 13, 2018

I thought you all might enjoy some photos from Global Big Day 2018. If you don’t know, the goal of any “big day” is to see as many species of birds in a single day as you can. With that in mind, as well as a few rare targets species to find, Camille and I visited several locations on Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (Brevard County) and then made our way to Joe Overstreet Road and Landing (Osceola County), totaling about 80 species for the day.

We were hoping for Whimbrels and a reported American Golden Plover, but came up empty on both counts. There were still plendy of good birds to see, though! Here are the Brevard area eBird lists:

East Gator Creek: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45283989
MINWR Visitor Center: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45286447
Pumphouse Road (cut short by rain shower): https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45288223
Black Point Wildlife Drive: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45294821
Incidental list in Titusville: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45295462
River Lakes Conservation Area: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45306422
Another incidental list: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45307554
A final list before ending the day: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45323725

After lunch, we made our way into Osceola County and Joe Overstreet Road and Landing. The sod fields seemed mostly empty of shorebirds, but both sides of the road were ringing with Eastern Meadowlark songs. Down at the lake, we had a surprise Pectoral Sandpiper, a good look at a snail kite, and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that gave us a bit of a chase around the picnic area. On the way out, we stopped to see a Pygmy Rattlesnake that had to be coaxed off the road by another wildlife watcher. Pygmy Rattlesnakes are the smallest species of rattlesnake, as their name suggests. This adult was barely 30cm (1 foot) long!

Osceola Count eBird lists:

Incidental list: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45309854
Another incidental (after a wrong turn!): https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45311261
And another incidental list: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45312009
Joe Overstreet Road & Landing: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45319072
More incidentals: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45320012

That was the extent of our Big Day, which was tiring but rewarding. Even “missing” the hoped for birds at the start of the day, there wasn’t much to complain about, with great weather and good birds for all.

2018 Spring FOS Meeting: Day 2 at the Wade Tract

May 8, 2018

“Old growth forest” is a term that for many of us, especially those from the northeastern USA, conjures up images of impassable, dark tangles and massive roots waiting to trip up anyone foolish enough to enter. Something straight out of Tolkien’s Fangorn Forest or the Fire Swamp from The Princess Bride.  But that kind of forest exists mostly in our imagination. Real old growth forests are more ordered and open than you might imagine, and almost every forest has been managed to some extent by humans since there have been humans.

In the southeastern US, fire has historically (and prehistorically) played the primary role in managing the landscape, and an old growth forest is much different than you might imagine.

Mid-range camera shot of an old growth pine forest with moderately-spaced trees and ground cover made of ferns and wire grass.
The forest at dawn, with a mature ground cover and light filtering through centuries old trees. This would have been a common sight from the Carolinas through Mississippi before European colonization.

When the so-called pioneers first started moving through the vast pine forests of the southeastern US, they commented on the openness of the forests and how it was relatively easy to transport their carriages and carts through the forest. The way trees compete for resources, such as sunlight and water, combined with regular burning, results in a landscape such as you see in these photos.

Wide angle camera shot of an old growth pine forest with widely spaced trees and close-cropped ground cover, primarily of grass.
The trees in this forest may look young, but 120 year old Longleaf Pines are sometimes only 18 inches in diameter. 

Unfortunately, nearly all the old growth forests in the US are gone, reduced to parcels like the Wade Tract, in southern Georgia (managed by Tall Timbers Research Station) [map]. I was fortunate enough to visit this landscape the day after the Florida Ornithological Society’s Spring meeting.

A towering 400 year old Longleaf Pine in the center of the frame. A group of several people look up at it from below and to the left.
A 400 year old Longleaf Pine towers over some of the FOS members.

Of course, being an old growth forest isn’t about dense growth or tall growth. It’s about being old. This has serious implications for plant and animal communities that normally exist in various symbiotic and complementary relationships. It also extends into the soil and the microbial and chemical processes that go on there.

If you want to learn more about old growth forests, and southern pine forests in particular, visit the Tall Timbers website or have a look around the internet.

As far as birdwatching, the Wade Tract was full of birdsong and surprises. For one thing, there were no migrant birds sighted on the property. While late April is normally past the peak for songbird migration in Florida, I had expected at least some warblers or thrushes to still be making their way through the panhandle. Despite this, there were plenty of resident birds around. I’ve never seen so many Red-headed Woodpeckers in one place.

A Red-headed Woodpecker looking to the left, framed by pine branches around the center.
With plenty of snags (environmental jargon for “dead tree”), several species of woodpecker and other cavity nesters were prevalent.

With so many trees of various sizes, you’d think there’d be no cause for squabbles for nest sites, but birds are nothing if not competitive. I saw a Red-headed Woodpecker chase a Red-bellied Woodpecker from a tree. They bickered and fluttered at each other and then the Red-bellied quickly flew into a nest hole.  The Red-headed watched, perturbed, for a couple of minutes, making little annoyed calls, and eventually flew away. The Red-bellied stayed holed up for the remainder of our time by this tree and poked his head out every once in a while!

 

A Red-bellied Woodpecker clinging to the left side of a section of pine tree trunk while a Red-bellied Woodpecker peeks out from a nest hole in the upper-center of the frame.
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker peeking out at a Red-headed Woodpecker that chased him from a perch just moments before.

The understory of the forest is open enough to provide suitable habitat for some birds that we more commonly associate with scrub and edge habitats, like Eastern Towhees and Blue Grosbeaks.

 

eastern-towhee
A male Eastern Towhee watched us go by while a female (probably his mate) foraged in the ground cover, below.

The frequent burning keeps the palmettos at bay, encouraging native wire grasses that Bachman’s Sparrows favor. Other birds that could be seen and heard throughout the tract were Indigo Buntings, Eastern Wood-pewees, Pine Warblers, and even some Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. In fact, I saw my first natural Red-cockaded Woodpecker nest holes. Other nesting areas for this bird use artificial nest boxes to compensate for the lack of old trees with heartwood fungal decay these birds otherwise require.

A woodpecker hole in a Longleaf Pine with sap dripping down above and below it. Blue sky behind.
A naturally excavated Red-cockaded Woodpecker nest. Note the sap running around the hole and that the birds use to help protect their homes from predators.

Here are the eBird lists for the day, including Tall Timbers as well as the Wade Tract:

Tall Timbers Research Station (dawn):
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45056654

Wade Tract list 1:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45061184

Wade Tract list 2:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45063409

After making our way through some more amazing forest vistas, we made our way back to Tall Timbers Research Station and said our goodbyes. It’s been hard to convey the awe-inspiring beauty of these spaces and what they have meant throughout history, so I hope you’ll take the time to find more information.

Live Oaks, draped in Spanish Moss, line the dirt driveway leading away from Tall Timbers Research Station
Live Oaks, draped in Spanish Moss, line the dirt driveway leading away from Tall Timbers Research Station