Pine Island Jackpot

What a difference a few months make! After the disappointing fall migration in the area, I am turning my focus to the winter residents that have arrived (with more to come). I went to the Pine Island Conservation area thinking I’d mostly be seeing the winter resident ducks and other waterfowl. Instead, I had one of the biggest single-day (well, half day for me) species haul that I can remember, outside of the SCBWF. The list I posted yesterday will follow this entry.

It took a bit of work to see 30+ species of bird yesterday. Unlike Turkey Creek Sanctuary (on a good day) or Erna Nixon Park in its hey-day, Pine Island had a fairly low bird density, apart from a few gatherings of Killdeer and Black Vultures. I walked A LOT. The morning started out promising right out of the gate.

First, I had not noticed this on my first visit here. Through the morning haze the top part of NASA’s huge Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) was visible over the tree-tops. This means I was closer to the Kennedy Space Center than I realized! I am seriously mulling over this place as a launch-viewing opportunity, especially when human flights resume.

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NASA’s VAB looms in the distance.

After scaring off a noisy contingent of Killdeers, I saw some Yellow-rumped Warblers, some sparrows (later IDed as Song Sparrows), and a Downy Woodpecker.

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Just like a Hairy Woodpecker, only more portable!

The day’s first great photo-op went to these photogenic Black Vultures. The one on the right was a bit shy, and snuggled up and behind its companion as I went by. I don’t know if they are a mated pair, or an adult and immature.

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The family that scavenges together, stays together.

Farther along the path around the pond, there was activity on the ground, with more Song Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows foraging and then flitting off the path and diving over the embankment to my left as I got too close. This Savannah Sparrow stayed behind as some sort of picket.

photo savannah-sparow.jpg
“I’ve got my eye on you!”

There was also an Eastern Phoebe catching insects from a sallying perch in a palm tree. There were a few phoebes around the park, as well as an Eastern Wood-pewee.

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This phoebe was very shaded, but the relative lack of field-marks is evident (is that any oxymoron?).

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For comparison, here’s a better lit individual!

Out on the pond, quite a distance away, was a scaup, but I could not tell if it was a Lesser Scaup or a Greater Scaup. It was very wary, staying well away from me no matter where along the pond shore I was.

A few Double-crested Cormorants flew overhead, and I noticed some White Ibises along the shoreline.

A bit further down, I noticed another bird mixed in with the sparrows, showing more yellow than anything I’d seen to that point. There was a pair of Common Yellowthroats in the brush. The male took a moment to pose for me.

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Common Yellowthroat, ready for action!

There were a handful of Anhingas, drying their wings from a morning fishing expedition along the pond, and several egrets. I also flushed out an aggravated Great Blue Heron.

When I arrived at the north end of the pond, I turned left down a path. The north side of Pine Island borders the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (marked by a low wire fence). As I walked along this section, I distinctly heard the call of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I paused but was unable to see it, nor did it call again. The last time I’d seen or heard this bird was in the early 1990s in Massachusetts, so even just one call was thrilling to hear!

After another left, the path led south, parallel to the pond, but on the other side of some mangroves and other swampy vegetation. I noticed some rather large animal droppings, most of which had berries in them. There was also areas of the ground tore up and the soil turned over. It took a while for my brain to figure out what I was seeing, but my thoughts were interrupted by some large splishing in the wooded swamp to my right. I saw some brown animal legs, and though, “Oh, a deer!” and stopped and tried to peer into the underbrush to get a look as it passed by. I could hear walking, but nothing came into view. I stepped back onto the path and caught my breath.

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Wild pig, hogging the path. I kid. Sort of.

Wild pigs can be aggressive, so I was unsure what to do. I only managed this photo, because my presence was not welcome. She grunted at me a couple of times, then splashed back into the swamp. I took a few breaths and continued on the path, looking back into the swampy area to catch another look. I did this a few times, and each time, I heard a low grunting growl that sounded “big”. I realized that while the legs I saw were a light brown or tan, the female I saw was decidedly dark. There was a good chance I was being threatened by a male, so I stopped looking back and headed briskly down the trail.

Along this section, there were some Grey Catbirds and Northern Cardinals, but not much else visible. I assumed the path would eventually join up at the south end of the pond and I could get back to where i started. Unfortunately, the path ultimately broke right, away from where I needed to go, so I had to hike the whole length back.

Just before getting to the end of the path again, I saw another flycatcher. I have not yet been able to identify it. The main field mark I noted was a distinctly yellowish throat and breast. I did not see any strong head markings, and I was unable to tell if it had wing-bars or not. It was about the size of a phoebe (perhaps a bit larger). If any of my blog readers would like to suggest candidate birds, they are most welcome to offer them. There were some Palm Warblers along this path, too.

When I got back out to the pond, I decided to circle around to the east side and around. As I looked across the pond, I saw something a bit peculiar.

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Mokele-mbembe, is that you?

What manner of monster was this? Seconds later the beast’s head appeared.

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Oh, what great teeth you have!

This was the largest of 5 adult alligators I saw. This one was at least about 8 feet long. Some of them were basking along the pond’s shore and were not very pleased with my disruption of their morning. Luckily, they all chose to break for the water, making a tremendous splash each time.

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It was careful to keep facing toward me as I walked past.

As I approached the southern end of the pond, there were more Killdeers, some Cattle Egrets, a Great Blue Heron and, on the water, some Pied-billed Grebes. I love grebes. In Massachusetts, where I started birding as a teenager, a old traditional name for Pied-billed Grebes was “Water Witch” because of the ability of these birds to slowly submerge while swimming upright, then “disappearing” without a ripple only to reappear some distance away in the same manner. Early and, unfortunately, superstitious settlers thought it was by dark magic, and that these birds might in fact be witches disguising themselves as birds.

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Which is witch and who is who?

As nuts as this sounds, recall that the Great Auk was thought to be a witch as well (though its demise was a much due to exploitation as a food source).

There were more herons at the southern most end of the pond. This pair of cousins paused in their foraging to pose for this lovely shot.

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Tri-colored Heron and Snowy Egret, sychronized staring.

At this point it became clear that the path along this side of the pond did NOT connect around to the other side, so I had to hike my way all the way back around to get to my car. At first I was fairly aggravated, as my feet and ankles were very sore (and ant-bit from earlier). But there wasn’t much I could do about it, so I held my head up and started back. I saw a Red-shouldered Hawk and more Anhingas, among other birds. Back on the western side of the pond were more Savannah Sparrows and Palm Warblers.

I took one more look across the pond to the VAB, this time in full sun (with heat ripples). My feet were tired, and it was about an hour beyond when I expected to be finished, but it was a banner day with 33 definitive species identifications! Just think of how it will be when the waterfowl and other winter residents arrive.

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VABulous parting shot.

Here’s the complete list of birds (taken from yesterday’s quick post):

Winter residents FTW! (not in order seen)

  1. Black Vulture
  2. Boat-tailed Grackle
  3. Palm Warbler
  4. Song Sparrow
  5. Savannah Sparrow
  6. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  7. Killdeer
  8. Osprey
  9. Downy Woodpecker
  10. Great Blue Heron
  11. Common Gallinule
  12. Belted Kingfisher
  13. Common Yellowthroat
  14. Anhinga
  15. Double-crested Cormorant
  16. White Ibis
  17. Great Egret
  18. American Kestrel
  19. Turkey Vulture
  20. Eastern Phoebe
  21. Northern Cardinal
  22. Grey Catbird
  23. Common Ground Dove
  24. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  25. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  26. American Coot
  27. Pied-billed Grebe
  28. Snowy Egret
  29. Tri-colored Heron
  30. Cattle Egret
  31. Red-shouldered Hawk
  32. Tree Swallow
  33. Eastern Wood-pewee

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