Clandestine Birding!

June 19, 2017

I had the opportunity to bird some parts of south Florida on two different days this past week. Mrs. Lonely birder booked some travel to Cuba and since she didn’t want her family to worry (especially given the upcoming travel announcement from the executive office), asked me not to let anyone know she was out of the country until her return. I had some fun playing Cloak-and-dagger, hiding my eBird lists and not letting anyone else know where I was, either (I’m easily amused).

My first stop was the Yamato Scrub Natural Area on Tuesday morning to see the Least Grebe that had been reported this month. It took a lot of patience (thanks for that advice, Dave Goodwin), I had success! This species has only been recorded in Florida a few times.


It took a while, but eventually this Least Grebe (and they are small) swam out of the reeds.


The bird was out and visible for about 5 minutes before vanishing into the reeds again.

Here’s my full eBird list for the visit:
Another rare bird had been seen not too far away and I took the opportunity to locate it as well. Reports of a Tropical Mockingbird started coming into the Brdbrain e-mail list, and later confirmations started coming in via eBird a couple of weeks ago. This is a pretty big deal, as there have been no official state records of this bird until now.

The bird was associating with (and reportedly engaging in nest-building activities!) a Northern Mockingbird at some beach parking in Lake Worth. Sure enough, that’s what I found.


This bird was grabbing either berries or insects from the trees and harassing Fish Crows.


Tropical Mockingbirds lack wingbars and have white tail markings restricted to the lower part of the tail.


Like all birds, this one is functionally illiterate, so knows it is always where it belongs.

The bird diversity was a lot lower here, and even the beach seemed devoid of much in the way of wildlife (there’s a large pier with a restaurant on it). The most numerous species were European Starlings and Rock Pigeons, but here’s the eBird list:

When it came time to drive to Ft. Lauderdale to pick up my wife on Saturday, I stopped at Wakodahatchee Wetlands to find a rare but regular visitor there: a Neotropic Cormorant. I was ultimately unsuccessful in locating that bird, but it was fun to see all the chicks and fledglings on the various small island rookeries. There were many Wood Stork chicks, as well as various egrets and herons tending young of all ages.


Many of the Wood Stork youngsters were about ready to fledge.


I think these are Great Egret chicks, given their size and bill color.

There were cormorants around, including several on nests. One nest had at least one small chick, which would poke its head out every once in awhile as a parent protected it from both the sun and the rain (there was a large thunderstorm nearby that held off for the duration of my visit).


Yes, that orange blob just below and left of center is a Double-crested Cormorant chick.


I still get almost mesmerized by the turquoise eyes of cormorants.

I walked the boardwalk twice, hoping the Neotropic Cormorant would come in to roost or feed, but it was not to be. I did have a couple of nice encounters, though. First, an adult Purple Gallinule walked out from under the boardwalk where I was standing, letting me watch it forage for a couple of minutes.


Purple Gallinules are less common than their “Common” cousins, and may be getting displaced by the Grey-headed (or Purple) Swamphen – a recently established feral/escapee species.

Then some quick movements caught my eye a bit further down the boardwalk, and I saw a small, black shape darting among the water plants. A single Purple Gallinule chick was running around. I don’t know if the adult I had just seen was a parent or not, but this is the first time I’ve seen a Purple Gallinule chick at this young of an age.


Gallinule chicks are born precocious, meaning they are alert and mobile within hours of hatching.

As I was photographing the gallinule chick, I heard a Red-wing Blackbird call from nearby. I turned around to see this guy right behind me on the boardwalk railing. He was missing a leg. Sometimes birds (especially shorebirds) will tuck a leg up and keep it concealed, even when hopping about, but this bird was actually missing his leg (when he flew off I saw the remaining stub). But he seemed otherwise quite healthy and was unperturbed by my presence.


This male Red-winged Blackbird was singing and displaying right next to me. He was missing a leg, evident as he flew away a short time later.

I circled around the rest of the boardwalk, and looked one more time for the Neotropic Cormorant, but to no success. The sky darkened some more and rather than risk getting caught in the open during a Florida thunderstorm, I headed for the exit.

Here’s the complete list for Wakodahatchee Wetlands:

Overall, it was a nice couple of days worth of birding in south Florida. It’s always fun documenting rare or new species for an area, as well as seeing familiar faces in different places. Once my wife was home safe and sound I unhid my eBird lists (a dubious endeavor, as it turns out), mission complete!

Am I Blue?

Last weekend I made the trek over to the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive [map]. I haven’t birded much outside Brevard County this spring. This was my first visit to the lake since last Fall. With temperatures rising into Summer, birdwatching outings like this are generally easier on the body, even in the car with the AC turned off.

The area between the entrance gate to the North Shore Restoration Area and the Wildlife Drive proper is referred to as the “Gate Area” and even has its own eBird hotspot. I usually forget this and all my eBird reports get lumped into the Wildlife Drive hotspot. I am probably not unique in this. In any case, in the Gate Area it is typical to find both Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks. Sure enough within 30 seconds of driving in, there they were.


A male Indigo Bunting in partial sun, backlit. Notice how his blue plumage is dark and unsaturated.


This is the same bird as above, but in full sun.

Seeing these birds early in the morning with passing low clouds made for interesting changes, as illustrated in the two photographs above. While most colors on a bird, like red, yellow or green (and even black or white) result from light reflecting off pigments in the feathers, birds that are blue look that way for a different reason. Instead of a “simple” reflection off pigments, blue colors come about because of a particular way that light reflects through a feather’s 3D structure. Red and green light interfere and cancel themselves out inside the feather, while blue light gets amplified before coming back out. The result is that brilliant blue you see. But that also means that when there’s less light, due to backlighting or clouds, the light coming into and out of the feathers lowers the color blue levels. This is even obvious in more “common” birds, like Blue Jays. On really overcast days I joke and call them “Grayish Jays”. OK, not the pinnacle of humor, but hey. Here’s a link to a Smithsonian Magazine article that explains it if you want to know more.


This Blue Grosbeak isn’t quite in full breeding or adult plumage – he had quite a bit of brownish gray streaked throughout. That heavy bill (gros is French for big) and brown wingbars are diagnostic field marks for this bird.

The Wildlife Drive can also be counted on for swallows, especially Barn Swallows and Purple Martins. Often less common swallows, like Northern Rough-winged, Bank, or Cliff Swallows can be found. The martin babies are fledged but still depending on parents for much of their food.


I have to chuckle at this photo. It looks like this Purple Martin couple had an argument and aren’t speaking. In fact, they had just been cozied up to each other but their fledgling brood swooped past, looking for a meal. They are about to divide and conquer. This won’t last long. Martin parents are pretty strict in getting their babies to fend for themselves.

Florida has continued in a mostly dry pattern but we’ve had some showers and storms lately. The wetland areas around the Lake weren’t dry; almost anywhere there was sufficient water there were Common Gallinules, many with chicks of various ages.


This female gallinule had chicks nearby (I could hear them squeaking), but they stayed wisely hidden in the adjacent weeds.

Black-necked Stilts were present as well. Although I didn’t see any chicks, I did see a few of the birds engaging in faux injury displays and diversionary flights. This indicates to me that there were probably some chicks around but mostly out of sight.

These birds, as well as the numerous Boat-tailed Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds were reason enough to smile and enjoy the morning. I even had a quick look at an Eastern Towhee.


This towhee was singing his heart out. This specific location usually has a towhee in spring, but I can’t be sure it’s the same bird.

The weather was unseasonably hot and as the morning wore on the number of active birds diminished. I did see a pair of Orchard Orioles and caught brief glimpses of Least Bitterns and Fulvous Whistling-Ducks as I made my way along the eighteen-or-so kilometer (eleven-or-so mile) drive.

While it’s not unusual to see a Swallow-tailed Kite or two in the skies by the lake, Mississippi Kites are a bit less common. It was nice then to see one quickly glide across the skies as more buntings and grosbeaks sang along the road toward the exit.


Seeing kites in flight is similar to watching ballet. There is beauty, grace, agility, strength, and speed. In a flash, this Mississippi Kite was gone from view.

As I neared the end, I saw some vehicles had quickly pulled off the side of the road to the west of the sod fields. One couple was walking rapidly to the side of the road with a scope – a sure sign of seeing something remarkable. Initially I thought about stopping and heading over to ask what they were tracking. Here’s the thing about birding in Florida: sometimes out-of-state birders will nearly run each other down to get a good view of a Limpkin or a pale-form Red-shouldered Hawk – birds that are rare and exciting for them but not quite so for the locals. For this reason, I did not immediately pull over myself to see what was causing the commotion. I carefully drove around the next corner which looked across to the area they – and by now others – were checking out. On some large brush piles I saw an afore-mentioned pale-form (or “Florida Form”) Red-shouldered Hawk hunting lizards on the ground. Satisfied that I had seen what the commotion was, I completed the drive before heading for home. I was especially happy with my blue feathered friends I saw that morning.

Here’s the complete eBird list for my day:

To my dismay, I found a way to be blue myself the next morning. It turns out that on those very same brush piles a Fork-tailed Flycatcher was seen. This is another rare bird for Florida; one that had been seen the previous week in Clewiston (near Lake Okeechobee) but I was unable to make that long drive at the time. To add insult to injury, it turns out I had likely driven by a White-faced Ibis earlier in the drive. White-faced Ibises are also rare in peninsular Florida, though a more common visitor than a Fork-tailed Flycatcher. I had seen a White-faced Ibis at Lake Apopka several years ago, but passing by two Florida rarities in one afternoon was a little disappointing.

Reports of both birds are still coming in, including this past weekend but I just didn’t have the motivation to make the two-hour drive out there again (plus the weather was much more uncooperative). We’ve had several days of much needed rain but this makes birding, even from one’s car, difficult.

The lessons I learned is this: trust your gut and if there’s any smidgen of doubt, pull over! Even it if had “only” been the Red-shouldered Hawk instead of the flycatcher, it would have been a nice view, a special moment with other birders, and a chance to welcome visitors to a favorite hot-spot. What else could matter as much as that?

A bit late, but we’re humming along…

It’s been awhile since my last post, and while things have quickly quieted down into a more “summer” pattern here along the Space Coast (especially with the way above average temperatures), the last few weeks haven’t been without some birding drama.

It started with a report from Mitchell Harris, via eBird and the Brdbrains listserv of a potential Bahama Woodstar hummingbird at a local sanctuary. There had been only 2 “official” state records of this bird since the 1970s, and since many female and juvenile North American hummingbirds look quite alike, there was a brief collective pause as the data and photographs were evaluated. The sighting was quickly confirmed, and birders from all over the state and the country descended upon the oft-overlooked Maritime Hammock Sanctuary, south of Melbourne Beach.

Myself included, after a few days of anxiety over missing it due to work obligations. I managed to get there super early one day and, along with 25 or so other birders, got a nice look at this rare gem of a bird. Enjoy these few photos.


The rufous “armpits” are a good indicator this is a Bahama Woodstar.


The bill is a bit stouter than that of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (it also looks like the bill was damaged or deformed a little at some point).


Although not well pictured here (or above) the tail pattern – rufous outside of green central tail feathers – was seen as the bird occasional spread its tail.


The bird would rest for several minutes before heading back to forage, primarily among honeysuckle flowers. When the flowers began to wilt and fall off, the bird must have gone on its way.

Having likely been transported over water from the Bahamas via the continuing, strong south and southeastern winds this spring, this hummingbird used the time to rest and refuel while waiting for conditions to allow it to return to it’s usual range. After being seen consistently for four or five days, once the honeysuckle ran out and the winds calmed down, the reports stopped.

A rare and exciting find, and by chance my 300th Florida life bird!

Migrant Days

They say patience is a virtue, so you may understand that many of us birders along the Space Coast have felt seriously virtuous this Spring. It was long overdue for something more serious to happen, along with the fall-outs at the end of April (see previous blog entries).

The last few weeks have seen some of the best birding around parts of the Space Coast in years, though in perhaps a different manner than one might expect. While it’s true that not all warblers migrate at the same time, it’s more typical for several species to come through an area at a time. For example, years past it was normal for Blackpoll Warbler and American Redstarts to come through Turkey Creek Sanctuary around the same time each year.

This time, we seem to have gotten specific warbler days, with dozens (and in one case I’ve heard, hundreds) of one species to fall out for a couple of days, to be replaced by another after that species moved out.

It started with a “Black-and-White Warbler Day”, in which dozens of that species were moving through most of the park.


A Winter resident in Florida, the Black-and-White Warblers were fueling up on tiny insects in preparation for migration and breeding.

The very next day was a “Blackpoll Warbler Day”. The Black-and-White Warblers were still numerous, but the Blackpolls outnumbered them almost 3-to-1.


A Blackpoll male, showing his distinctive black cap (or “poll”) and characteristic orange legs and feet.

Of course, other birds were also present, though in smaller numbers. There have been steady trickles of Worm-eating, Cape May and Black-throated Blue Warblers all through these fall-outs.

After a dip in activity, another weather system moved through and we had two “American Redstart Days”, where many dozen of these quite active birds were flying all through the area parks.


Many redstarts were first-year males, just starting to get black feathers, and displaying their flashy tails, even while grabbing a drink of water.

Later in the week, Tom Ledford and others reported hundreds of Common Yellowthroats (a year-round resident in Florida, though the population changes as birds fly in and through from South America) along the coastal areas. There were still quite a few at the Maritime Hammock Sanctuary this week.

Some off-the-beaten-path birding was in the offing, too. Having heard reports of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in the residential areas near Turkey Creek, Camille and I took a quick look into an area north of the park in hopes of seeing it. We struck out on the cuckoo, but wound up seeing a small mixed flock of warblers that included Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, and Yellow-throated Warblers.

All this activity culminated in a surprise sighting for me this week.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been part of a Kirtland’s Warbler survey, using eBird to try and get a better handle on the migratory habits and travels of this species. Just a couple of decades ago, the Kirtland’s Warbler was on the brink of extinction as its breeding grounds were disappearing. With a better understanding of what is needed to manage it (fire, as it turns out), the population is rebounding. The entire population of this bird winters in the Bahamas, and we know where the birds should travel to get to their breeding grounds (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario), but they are almost never seen en route.

So far, the suggested survey points have not shown any Kirtland’s Warblers, and as the end of the survey period is approaching, I was resigned to the fact that I’d not be seeing this bird this year (or probably at all).

While birding the Maritime Hammock Sanctuary, I so happened to turn to face some scrub vegetation near a pond while searching for a Great Crested Flycatcher I heard nearby, when out popped a Kirtland’s Warbler! It stayed well in the open for several seconds, even bobbing its tail several times (a trait the species shares with just a few other North American warblers). My photos, however, are not so grand. I was so shocked to see the bird that I watched it in stunned silence in binoculars before it occurred to me to take a photo.


Maybe just enough to see the gray face and white eye-ring?


Gray back with black streaks are a species fieldmark.

I tried using the survey audio to call the bird back, but to no avail. As I’ve said, it is extremely rare to see this species in migration. I felt honored and privileged to get just a few precious seconds with this bird.

As a final note, I also finally got my Yellow-billed Cuckoo for the county this Spring. I’ve been sort of chasing this species for the last few weeks, with sightings reported just hours after a leaving a park.


Sitting high in a tree, this Yellow-billed Cuckoo was also calling out, which is the first clear vocalization from this species I’ve heard since my early birding days in Massachusetts.

Here are the various eBird lists, since April, documenting the Spring migration as it nears its end.

Micco Scrub Sanctuary (May 1, 2017):

Turkey Creek Sanctuary (May 2, 2017):

Turkey Creek Sanctuary (May 3, 2017):

Turkey Creek Sanctuary (May 4, 2017):

Turkey Creek Sanctuary (May 5, 2017):

Pumphouse north of Port Malabar Road (May 5, 2017):

Lori Wilson park (May 6, 2017):

Maritime Hammock Sanctuary (May 8, 2017):
[not including Kirtland’s Warbler on survey list]

There are sure to be a few more migrants coming through the rest of the month, but the bulk of the season is over. Strong southerly winds for much of the Spring probably caused most of the Hooded and Prothonotary Warblers (among others) to overshoot our area. And you know, that’s fine. The birds take advantage of any energy saving method to get them to their breeding ground in peak condition. If that means they overfly the parks around my home, I’m glad they made the safe journey. It’ll try to catch up with them in the Fall.


CormoRANT: 04-28-2017: Gone Pishing…

What does it mean to be a “birder” or a “bird watcher”? Some of us pursue birds in the field as academic or scientific pursuits. We tend to shade those activities over into “ornithology” which is, perhaps too simply, the scientific study of birds. The rest of us have this passion to find these winged beauties for a million different and personal reasons. But it all boils down to the love of a challenge and the persistence to see things through. Whether it’s to finally conquer your “nemesis bird”, get your 400th state species, or figure out what the heck is making that weird “cheepy-urp!” call in your backyard, it takes dedication and love of the challenge to continue birding.

To that end, we have long employed optics and field guides. Some of us march out with camera lenses that almost make astronomical observatories feel inadequate. Audio recordings are nothing new to the study of birds, but with the relatively recent advent of smartphones and birding apps, almost anyone can walk into a yard, park, or forest and play a high-fidelity bird call or song. Be it alarm or predator calls, we are increasingly using these methods to at least get birds to come closer to look, or to pop out of that darn bush for half a second, PLEEEASE?! There’s much debate over the effects these recordings have on birds, and that’s a debate well worth having.

But one other audio aid birders have used far longer than iBird or Sibley or even YouTube streams is the simple “pish.”

Pishing is both a tool and an art form. Combining percussive “puh” and harsh “shushing” noises in quick succession, the sound is thought to create an alarm response in birds, especially the smaller passerines (though I’ve had crows come investigate on occasion). Sometimes I think they just come to laugh at someone in a big hat and cargo shorts spraying spittle all over his t-shirt. Some birders seem to get almost immediate responses to their pishes. Others’ attempts can grate on your nerves and you wonder what the big deal is, as you consider another reason to carry an umbrella along.

Sadly, I feel my pishes fall into the latter, soggy category. And I rarely have any success with my pishes, no matter how I alter the sound. Besides the aforementioned crows, I think I may have called up 2 Pine Warblers and one tired flock of late-winter Yellow-rumped Warblers since I started pishing 3 years ago. Before then, I was alway embarrassed to try it. If I was out by myself, it was almost like talking to myself. I guess when I finally realized I was often talking to myself, pishing didn’t seem such a long reach.

I suppose just like any other birding tool, and particularly audio recordings, pishing isn’t too invasive or troublesome when used judiciously. Pestering birds during critical times, like nesting or rearing young might be a bit much, but in general any amount of action you’re likely to raise isn’t much above the noise level for a bird that may have traversed 3500 kilometers, 10 interstates, a wind farm, a sports stadium, and predators – natural and unnatural – to get to your favorite patch of woods. But it’s probably best to be safe. Maybe your pish will be the proverbial (and salivary) straw that breaks the camel’s back. And in popular spots or during birding festivals, it might just about wear the birds out to hear hundreds of hiking boots, dozens of pishes and the actual and virtual shutter-clicks of a hundred cameras for a week straight.

In short, pish wisely my friend, and if you’re on the low end of the pishing mojo scale, like I am, maybe leave it alone. Your fellow birders will be happier – and drier – for it.

Spring Fall Outs 2017

Since my last entry we’ve had one small and one larger “fall out” of migrating birds here along the Space Coast. A fall out happens when birds encounter a weather event that forces them from flight to stop and seek shelter or food – or both – for a time before resuming their paths. Flying takes a tremendous amount of energy. Over a long period of time, many birds have developed methods to save that energy in flight. Neotropical migrants, like warblers, use approaching winds and weather fronts to time their overnight flights. For much of this spring there have been unusually strong southerly winds along the entire peninsula of Florida, allowing many migrants to fly very long distances with a tail-wind, often bypassing the state altogether. That has made for another fairly quiet migration, for the most part.

At the beginning of April, a cold front did sweep across the state, and some early migrants were forced down into area hotspots. At Lori Wilson Park, that generated some excitement as a rare Black-whiskered Vireo stopped for a couple of weeks. This is likely the same bird that also stopped there last year, so it remembered the park as a safe haven and place to refuel.


Like many recurring and rare visitors, this bird had a favorite hang-out in the park. In this case a mature Gumbo Limbo tree, producing berries that vireos seem to love.

The season’s first Red-eyed Vireos were also present, as well as familiar faces that hadn’t found their favorable winds quite yet. Prairie and Yellow-rumped Warblers were still there, as well as the park’s large contingent of Gray Catbirds.


Catbirds generally prefer to skulk in the underbrush, but this bird had come out in the open to get some water.

A complication this spring for any migrants that do need to stop and “top-up their tanks” is the lack of rainfall since the end of winter. Many places around the state are in drought and fire hazard warnings were up for much of the first part of April. The conditions only got worse as the month has worn on. The marsh habitat of Black Point Wildlife Drive on Merritt Island caught fire last week and about 5,000 acres burned. Fire is a natural and necessary force in shaping central Florida’s natural landscape, but only in area adapted for it. The area around Black Point is a wetlands habitat, dominated by mangroves. A hot burn there stands to do damage, even to the soil. It’s early days yet to know how much damage may have been done. The fire is suspected to be human induced, though the origin might never be truly known. If you smoke, please properly extinguish whatever you’re smoking and don’t light up when in areas prone to fire (which in recent days is just about anywhere outside).


Fire at Black Point. (Photo courtesy USFWS)


Photo courtesy of USFWS.

After the small fall out at the start of April, conditions returned to strong, southerly winds again, even through the Spring meeting of the Florida Ornithological Society. The FOS meeting was in Ruskin this year, near Tampa. I’ll have a little to say about that coming up in another blog entry.

Finally, this weekend we had another front come through. Though not as strong as the one a couple of weeks ago, there were more birds in the sky as we’ve reached peak migration time for many species. The results were dramatic. Over at Fort De Soto park (just days after I left the area after the FOS meeting), dozens of tanagers and grosbeaks descended on the park, though the warbler numbers were low.

Closer to home, Turkey Creek Sanctuary finally saw its largest number of migrant warblers of the season. Over two days this week I went out before work to see what made pit stops there.

Tuesday morning had large numbers of Black-and white Warblers on the move. This species winters in Florida, Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America. It breed throughout much of the eastern US and Canada. There were also Black-throated Blue Warblers, American Redstarts, and Blackpoll Warblers throughout Turkey Creek Sanctuary. Small numbers of Cape May and Worm-eating Warblers were also there, and at least one Black-throated Green Warbler – a long anticipated life bird for me!


Finally! I’ve been hoping for this bird for a while. 


The extensive black throat feathers identify this Black-throated Green Warbler as a male.

Many of the birds were moving west, out of the sanctuary and into the adjacent neighborhood. I think this might be because of the limited food supplies in the park itself. The native and ornamental trees in the neighborhood might be irrigated, thus producing more fruit and attracting more insects.

The following morning saw much the same mix, except the predominate bird was the Blackpoll Warbler. I saw at least 3 dozen, mostly males, throughout the entire southern part of the Sanctuary (the northern area – specifically the Sand Pine and Turkey Oak trails – remain closed as trees and debris are being cleared, due to last Fall’s hurricane Matthew.

Here are three eBird lists from Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. I included Monday’s list for a comparison to what happened after the fall out conditions.

Monday 4/24/2017:
Tuesday 4/25/2017:
Wednesday 4/26/2017:

Food supplies in the sanctuary are still low, but these birds are finding enough for at least a brief stopover.

I expect things will taper off again as the winds are already turning more southerly. There are still a few weeks to go for migration, so hopefully there will be more chances for birds to make stops along the Space Coast. Many of these species won’t be seen here again until October.

I know this entry is a little light in the photographs, but such is the way with small, fast moving targets. I was excited that my Black-throated Green Warbler was as accommodating as he was!