Summer at Turkey Creek

I was feeling well enough yesterday to head out to Turkey Creek Sanctuary, despite the oppressive humidity and only 3 hours of sleep! Now that summer is in full force, my expectations tend to be low in terms of my birding, but just having a hike in the woods is a good treat. Of course, things never quite turn out how one expects and I ended up having a pretty good outing.

I started out heading toward the Scrub Trail area first, which immediately paid off. I could hear raptors calling in the area. From the sounds of the calls (which sounded like overworked squeak toys), I believed them to be immature Red-shouldered Hawks. There were two of them and at first glance as they quickly flew off toward the Scrub Trail and Harris radio tower area, I thought I could confirm my suspicions of their species; however, first one, and then the other obliged me by perching in the trees right overhead. Closer inspection showed them to be juvenile Cooper’s Hawks.

The first of 2 juvenile Cooper’s Hawks (possibly a female).

The second juvenile Cooper’s Hawk (smaller, likely male). I barely captured its awkward landing onto the branch.

These two characters provided a constant backdrop of sound and comical aerial displays for the whole morning wherever I was in the sanctuary. As they called out and flew circles around the immediate area, I happened to notice this Northern Parula sitting very very still, occasionally glancing nervously up at them. After the hawks passed by and were out of sight, it became more active and several more voiced their tiny displeasure at my presence. I suspect a nest was nearby, and the whole clan chipped and chirped at me along the path as I went.

Northern Parula nervously scanning the skies.

I walked from there to the dam overlook (technically a weir) and spillway, where the Melbourne-Tillman Canal empties into Turkey Creek. Although the weir and the “tuff boom” flotation barriers end up catching quite a bit of trash, the area upstream does provide habitat for wading birds and other species that appreciate the slow moving water. There were a few Green Herons and a Tri-colored Heron working the area, as well as a solitary American Coot. I also spied a tiny baby alligator. [Edit 10-28-2013: Not a tiny alligator, but a Florida Softshell Turtle. They have very flexible necks, and can hold their heads up in a way that doesn’t expose their shells.]

Tricolored Heron.

American Coot. Love the red eye.

Not a tiny alligator, but a Florida Softshell Turtle.

I watched the birds there for a few minutes, but that part of the sanctuary area is not shaded, and it was already getting oppressive. I headed back down the trail and toward the boardwalk to head up to the Sand Pine Ridge Trail while the lighting was still good and the sun not so high. Aside from a couple of Carolina Wrens and two Fox Squirrels (no pics), it was already fairly quiet. I did hear one or two White-eyed Vireos, too. As I started to head west along the trail, I noticed a new trail sign, “Turkey Oak Trail” and decided to check it out. As the sign on the other end of the trail suggests, this trail is fairly primitive. In part, it crosses through the upland part of the sanctuary that saw the most damage and tree-fall from the hurricanes in 2004. If I remember correctly, hurricane Jeanne did the most damage here. In some parts of this area over 70% of the canopy was removed from fallen trees or stripped branches. The remaining trees are still leaning.

Leaning trees from 2004 hurricane damage.

Some parts of this new trail are in some denser vegetation, though, with some evidence of fire. Quite a few logs that had laid on the path have sections cut out, which provided this nice looking mushroom a place to live.

This mushroom is a fun guy (fungi).

There were quite a few Blue-grey Gnatcatchers in this part of the sanctuary too. Two things about gnatcatchers that I really came to appreciate yesterday: they are tiny and they never stop moving. One managed to sit still just long enough for me to snap this photograph.

Mighty mite!

This Turkey Oak Trail basically runs north of and parallels the Sand Pine Ridge Trail, so I came out very close to the start of that trail and the boardwalk. I decided to retrace my steps and head back toward the Scrub Trail, but instead of go back toward the dam, I headed back in towards McKinnon’s Way. On the way, I stopped at the emergency boat ramp and had a sit-down for a few minutes. While there, a very pretty butterfly landed close by. To me, it looks like a Monarch, except it was much more red than any Monarch I’ve seen, which are typically orange. [Edited to add: this is, in fact, a Viceroy. It is considered a Müllerian mimic of the Monarch.]

Viceroy butterfly

The morning ended with the most exciting part of my outing, which I unfortunately was unable to capture on camera. As I was sitting, I saw a large elongated shape coming out of the water near the edge of the creek (there’s no bank to speak of, really). My instinct was it was a gator, so I started to jump up to run back up the ramp away from the water, but I realized it was a manatee! It raised its head up onto the side of the creek and mouthed at some vegetation. By the time I regained my composure, it had turned and submerged back into the creek. I was disappointed I didn’t get to take a photograph, but thrilled to see a manatee up close. With that, it was getting really oppressive (despite the breeze that had picked up), so I walked back out to head home.

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