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.

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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.

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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.

american-redstart

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.

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

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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.

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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):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36449690

Turkey Creek Sanctuary (May 2, 2017):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36477711

Turkey Creek Sanctuary (May 3, 2017):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36507623

Turkey Creek Sanctuary (May 4, 2017):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36533233

Turkey Creek Sanctuary (May 5, 2017):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36558035

Pumphouse north of Port Malabar Road (May 5, 2017):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36570163

Lori Wilson park (May 6, 2017):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36584330

Maritime Hammock Sanctuary (May 8, 2017):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36650839
[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.

black-whiskered-vireo

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.

catbird

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).

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Fire at Black Point. (Photo courtesy USFWS)

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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!

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

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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: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36227122
Tuesday 4/25/2017: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36254038
Wednesday 4/26/2017: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36281378

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!

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.

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

 

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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).

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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. 

 

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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RCW nest tree.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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Who doesn’t love live grasshopper for lunch?

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Down the hatch!

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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.