Will It Go ‘Round In Circles?

Another year and we’ve about circled around again. It’s fitting that I end the year at the same place I ended last year: at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge’s (MINWR) Blackpoint Drive. This year I saw some of the same cast of players as last year, but hopefully with a keener eye and with some surprises on the way.

The main stars this time were the Roseate Spoonbills. At several points along the drive, several cars were pulled over and everyone was out taking pictures of relatively large flocks of spoonbills. I was fortunate to catch a good look at this pair, pictured below. I’ve not seen an immature Roseate Spoonbill until now.

spoonbills-young-old
An immature Roseate Spoonbill (left) and an adult (right) with a White Ibis in the foreground.

The spoonbills were aggressively feeding with a group of mixed herons and ibises, along with smaller interlopers like Hooded Mergansers and Boat-tailed Grackles.

As I made my way around Blackpoint Drive, the most obvious birds just about everywhere were the American Coots. It must not take much to make a coot happy. They are generally present in large numbers, especially during the winter. Unlike Common Gallinules, American Coots seem to thrive equally in brackish or fresh water. Overwintering ducks often raft with them, I imagine for protection (safety in numbers).

coots-n-things
Going incognito: Look closely and you’ll see Lesser Scaups and Pied-billed Grebes in with the American Coots. I think there’s even a RIng-necked Duck back there somewhere.

I was surprised to learn this past year that Reddish Egrets are actually fairly rare and of conservation concern in Florida. I’ve only seen them at MINWR and at Fay Lake Wilderness Park. I was able to make a short video clip of one feeding, using it’s characteristic “drunken” dance strategy.

“What will we do with a drunken egret? What will we do with a drunken egret? What will we do with a drunken egret? Early in the morning!”

MINWR is a good place to find Northern Pintails, too. Pintails are dabblers; they tip back-end up to reach their food and then briefly upright themselves before tipping back down again. Dabblers will often synchronize their tip-ups, looking like some mad duck Esther Williams wannabes.. This would seem to be counter to an effective predator look-out system, since there is significant time where their heads are all underwater, but it seems to work.

pintail-male
Male Northern Pintail after coming upright. This one has either recently lost or has not yet grown in his long “pintail” for which the species gets its common name.

Both species of scaups were present, though as usual the Lesser Scaups far outnumbered the Greater Scaups. There are a couple of good pointers for telling the two apart, especially if they are both present near each other. I’ll have that as an upcoming post, after the New Year holiday.

g-scaup
Oh, great, a scaup! He is Greater than any other scaup I’ve seen!

Scaups are diving ducks. Like grebes, they will often quickly submerge when they feel threatened and resurface quite a distance from where they first went under water. This can cause some consternation when trying to focus on them in a viewfinder and suddenly they have vanished and you have to remember to put the camera down and wait for it to resurface.

invisible-scaup
This is not a photo of an American Coot. OK, well, it IS a photo of an American Coot, but it’s SUPPOSED to show a Greater Scaup.

Blackpoint Drive is definitely a “waders and rafters” sort of experience for many visitors. There might be the occasional hawk or eagle, and in the shallower sections there can be sandpipers and other shorebirds. But even with my 8x40s the shorebirds can be hard to distinguish. I did bump into a couple that had a nice digiscope out and that was useful in identifying some gulls, terns and sandpipers. There were hundreds of Dunlins, but also a few yellowlegs (both Greater and Lesser species) and some Black-bellied Plovers. Black-bellied Plovers seem so gentle and almost fragile in their winter plumage. They walk very delicately, compared to the frantic running and dashing of the yellowlegs, and the purposeful striding of the Willets.

Just as last year, flights of American White Pelicans soared overhead. I am always awed and impressed with these huge birds. They are ponderous, yet graceful and majestic, yet slightly goofy.

pelican

On the other side of MINWR from Blackpoint Drive’s entrance, just a short drive away,  is the short Scrub Ridge Trail. This trail loops through a small section of upland scrub vegetation adjacent to the marshes and ponds and provides some habitat for Florida Scrub Jays. There had been an e-mail alert the previous day about a Groove-billed Ani sighting near the parking area, so I was hopeful, especially after missing the ani pair that had been seen at Lake Apopka. Unfortunately, I did not see the ani, but I did encounter a family of Florida Scrub Jays. These jays were much more skittish and more prone to hide than the ones I’ve seen at the Malabar Scrub Sanctuary.

scrubjay
This jay acted as a sentinel for the others who would dash out into the grass or shrubs for a few seconds before launching up and over the tops of the bushes and out of sight.

Along the Scrub Ridge Trail the most numerous birds were the Tree Swallows, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Palm Warblers. I heard a few Eastern Towhees, and one female Northern Harrier raced past, scattering coots in a nearby pond. After completing the trail loop, it was time to head home.

Here’s the complete species list, roughly in order of confirmed identification:

  • Great Egret
  • White Ibis
  • Roseate Spoonbill
  • Snowy Egret
  • Glossy Ibis
  • American Coot
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Reddish Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Wood Stork
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Fish Crow
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Northern Pintail
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Lesser Scaup
  • Northern Shoveler
  • Ring-necked Duck
  • Caspian Tern
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Herring Gull
  • Dunlin
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • American White Pelican
  • Willet
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • Lesser Yellowlegs
  • Black-belled Plover
  • Anhinga
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Black Vulture
  • Osprey
  • Merlin
  • American Wigeon
  • Eastern Towhee (♫)
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Florida Scrub Jay
  • Palm Warbler
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Tree Swallow
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Downy Woodpecker

That likely ends by birding excursions for the year. It was fun to come full-circle to MINWR,  and the adventures will continue, with the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in January, and a short trip to see my friend Laura for Superb Owl Sunday!

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