Choices We Make

It’s always an interesting balancing-act for me to decide where to go birding. I like to vary my experiences, but the (very) amateur scientist in me likes to see the changes in the same location over time and under varied circumstances. In the end, I wind up visiting the same places many times each year, sprinkled with the odd foray into somewhere new (or at least less visited by me). As this weekend approached, the decision seemed to come down to either Lori Wilson Park or Turkey Creek Sanctuary. Camille and I actually talked about it a bit, wondering if either one might prove more fruitful than the other. It remained up in the air until late Saturday when I decided that Lori Wilson Park would be a good place to start. If things were too quiet there, there would still be time enough try something else. At that time I was thinking Turkey Creek again.

I met up with Camille and it turns out that, yes, Lori Wilson Park was very quiet. Phyllis Mansfield was there, talking with 2 men who were staking out the small water feature (optimistically referred to as “the pond”) with it’s dripping hose. This is actually a good bird attractant, but this time there were only some Mourning Doves and House Sparrows in the vicinity.

mourning-dove
Lovey-dovey Mourning Dove walks in for a closer look at us.

On the boardwalk loop, the park was dominated by white butterflies. There were dozens of them all over. I caught a couple of very brief glimpses of two Ovenbirds, and we heard and saw several Common Yellowthroats. Of course the Northern Cardinals were ever-present, and as we got back to the entrance/exit a bit later, we did see some Common Grackles, a single American Redstart, and a Gray Catbird near the pond.

catbird
Proving, again that birds are functionally illiterate, this Gray Catbird is still hanging around Florida.

On the way out we flushed a couple of Palm Warblers and watched some Northern Mockingbirds go about their day. There were some Brown Pelicans flying overhead as we decided what to do next. With Lori Wilson Park so quiet, the prospects for Turkey Creek Sanctuary seemed bleak. I thought maybe trying something new might spruce the morning up a bit and we could head to the Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary. As a scrub preserve there was bound to be some Eastern Towhees (which for Camille would be a life bird) and who knows what else. At least the Florida Scrub Jays would be a pretty sure bet.

Here’s the list of birds seen and heard at Lori Wilson Park, including the parking area:

  • Northern Mockingbird
  • House Sparrow
  • Common Grackle
  • European Starling
  • Mourning Dove
  • Fish Crow
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Blue Jay
  • Ovenbird
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Brown Pelican
  • American Redstart
  • Gray Catbird
  • Palm Warbler

We arrived at Cruickshank about 20 minutes later and walked to the trailhead. The southern part of the sanctuary had been burned fairly recently, but it was growing in nicely. We quickly had our first birds of the day: some very inquisitive Florida Scrub Jays! I know in the past that visitors often would (sometimes at the encouragement of the sanctuary’s caretakers) feed the jays peanuts. They would land on people and even eat out of their hands. This is strongly discouraged now, but as these birds still seem want to land on people, I have to wonder if people aren’t still feeding them on the sly. I know that as recently as a couple of years ago the caretakers were still feeding them by hand. While it makes for great public relations (and fun photos!), the long term impact of this on the jays’ behavior isn’t clear.

scrub-jay-camille
This isn’t what is generally meant by a “feathered headdress,” but you have to admit it’s pretty striking!
scrub-jay-christopher
At least it’s not a Blue Jay (go Red Sox!)

When not being fed peanuts (or stealing snacks from visitors’ pockets), these jays are omnivorous, feeding on berries, nuts (like acorns) and insects. I’ve seen them run down ants and catch bees in mid-air. After it became apparent we had nothing to offer them, the jays took to the ground, grabbing bugs and seeds in the dirt.

scrub-jay-ground
Like most of the Florida Scrub Jays in the sanctuary, this bird has a band for identification and tracking.

There were several fledglings calling and making short flights through the scrub. I’ve not seen scrub jay fledglings before and it was fun watching them try to navigate their world while family members looked on. These youngsters stayed very low in the vegetation and made only tentative attempts at crossing larger, open spaces.

scrub-jay-fledgling
A young Florida Scrub Jay taking a break during flight training. In a few weeks it’ll be winging its way like a pro.

As we progressed further in the sanctuary, we could hear Eastern Towhees calling to each other in the dense scrub. As we walked the 1-mile hiking trail I was hopeful we’d see some and add the bird to Camille’s steadily growing life list. This is when we had our first surprise of the morning. A Northern Bobwhite was out in the sunshine by the edge of the wider dirt path, singing while in his best breeding plumage. We heard a few of them throughout the sanctuary, but only this one stayed out long enough to get a good look at. This was a life bird for Camille, and one that I had not anticipated.

bobwhite
This Northern Bobwhite was loudly and proudly calling his name out at the edge of the trail. We didn’t get much closer than this, though, before he scurried into the brush.

As we made our way along the trail, we finally did track down a singing male Eastern Towhee, while many others called nearby. Some swallows overfly us, too and I was confused because at first I thought they late-lingering Tree Swallows. In the end, I think they were Bank Swallows but I never quite got a good enough look at their throats to be sure. There were a few Barn Swallows as well (another Camille life bird), and at least one Purple Martin. One lone Sandhill Crane also flew overhead at one point, and there were several Anhingas soaring nearby.

As we approached some large, dead, oak trees, some very raucous calls started coming from one. A Pileated Woodpecker had landed next to a large, oval hole. Then, we had our second surprise of the day!

pileated-babies
Papa woodpecker feeding his two babies. There was a female nearby as well. These two stretched their necks out so far I don’t know how they didn’t fall out!

In addition to the Pileated Woodpeckers, two other species of woodpecker were present. Red-bellied Woodpeckers are fairly ubiquitous, but this one was foraging more like a chickadee. Just before the next photo was taken, it was swinging upside down under that tangle of seed pods.

red-bellied-woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpeckers tend to be more versatile than other woodpecker species, even perching on wires on occasion.

We also had one of an apparent pair of Northern Flickers stop in a nearby tree. We could hear them clear across the sanctuary for a while before one finally came close enough to get a decent binocular view of. Flickers were always very common in my back (and front) yard as a child, and were a staple find in my early biding years. They are less common around my usual birding spots now, so it’s always a pleasure to hear or see them.

After that, we headed toward the parking area, stopping to watch the Scrub Jay fledglings again and have some more birds land on our heads. Florida Scrub Jays are scrappy little birds, and I am glad we’ve set aside some sanctuaries for them. My hope is that we come up with a better development and land-use strategy in central Florida to manage our scrub habitats and let the population roam and expand.

scrub-jay-closer
Unofficial Florida State Bird.

The total species list for the Cruickshank Sanctuary:

  • Florida Scrub Jay
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Northern Bobwhite
  • Blue Jay
  • Chimney Swift
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • European Starling
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Purple Martin
  • Anhinga
  • Fish Crow
  • Sandhill Crane
  • White Ibis
  • Barn Swallow
  • Great Egret
  • Wood Duck
  • Northern Flicker (FOY)
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Roseate Spoonbill

It turned out to be a pretty good choice, going to the Cruickshank Sanctuary. There are other less explored parks in the area I’m keen to visit. The normal migration season is beginning to wind down now. There will still be some birds moving through the rest of the month, but then the Space Coast and nearby areas will get into its usual summer regime. I’ve got some hopeful adventures planned for the summer. Let’s see how they pan out.

water-lily
Water Lily in bloom.

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