Winging It In Lake County

Summer is generally over here in the northern hemisphere, and what a summer it’s been! I’ve ranged all over Central Florida, and it was fitting to end the season this past weekend at the Wings and Wildflower Festival in Leesburg, Florida, at the Venetian Gardens Park (map).

venetian-gardens

For most of September the wind patterns and weather have not been conducive to bird migration through central Florida. That finally ended with a low pressure system moving to our north, trailing a weather trough, and scary hurricane Joaquin far out over the Atlantic. The same confluence of factors that has devastated South Carolina with two feet of rain also ushered in the stalled migration through Florida. The end result was a bit unexpected. While weather radars clearly showed birds moving en masse, southward through the peninsula, it seems many of them just kept on going! I am sure some areas picked up some good migrants, and there’s time enough for another push or two before November. But perhaps the next best thing was also ushered in: cooler weather! It’s been a very warm and humid summer, with a lot of rain. This weekend was the first break of the summer heat, with highs in the low 80s and, perhaps more importantly, lower humidity!

I went on three morning field trips for this festival. On Friday, I visited the Ocala National Forest for the first time and hiked the Clearwater Lake Recreation Area (map) there with a small group. Our target species were Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Brown-headed nuthatches. Both were relatively easy to see, as they came to our location. The lighting wasn’t favorable for photos, but my binoculars were put to good use for great views as the birds foraged and chase each other around.

clearwater-lake-rec-area
It might be hard to see, but this views looks over 2 sand ridges. The first is in the foreground, then there is a low area (with the yellow vegetation) before the next rise, in the background.

There were quite a few Red-headed Woodpeckers as well, with a mixture of adult and juvenile birds chasing each other around throughout the area we hiked. I found the landscape to be refreshingly different. As a pine flatwoods community, it had many of the same features of similar habitats in Saint Sebastian River Preserve State Park or the Hal Scott Preserve, but with one major difference: topography. I’m not talking hills or valleys or anything like that. But a definite undulation of the ground with topographic rises and troughs. There was also a different understory, with much less palmetto and more wiregrass and low brush scrub. In fact, that wiregrass is highly favored by one other target species that we didn’t manage to see: Bachman’s Sparrow. Despite searching and even playing some calls to draw them out, we came up empty.

group-shot
Some of our group, including trip leaders Dave Goodwin (ball-cap) and Jim Eager (on the left).

Other than that, it was a wonderful morning. On our way back out of the trail, we saw two American Kestrels twisting and turning their way in pursuit of pray through the woods, calling out as they maneuvered around treetops.

Here is my eBird list for Clearwater Lake Recreation Area:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S25282868

  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Red-headed Woodpecker
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Red-cockaded Woodpecker
  • Pileated Woodpecker (♫)
  • American Kestrel
  • Blue Jay
  • American Crow
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Brown-headed Nuthatch
  • Carolina Wren
  • Pine Warbler
  • Northern Cardinal

Later on Friday was the Florida Ornithological Society’s business meeting (the Board Meeting). I had some time before it started to walk the Venetian Gardens Park. The park is a beautiful urban oasis, and with the comparatively cooler weather, not a bad way to spend an hour or so exploring.

Venetian Gardens species list:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S25282966

  • Anhinga
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Tricolored Heron
  • White Ibis
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Purple Gallinule
  • Limpkin
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Blue Jay
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Carolina Wren
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Yellow-throated Warbler
  • Boat-tailed Grackle

When the business meeting started, I sat in on it and got some insights into how the organization works and what their challenges are. There was a general gathering (or “Flock” as the FOS calls it) of members. We heard a presentation by none other than Rienhard Geisler on the Orlando Wetlands. Rienhard is an engaging speaker and takes some great photographs. His main point to us for bird photography (and birding in general) was that we should be patient. In some cases, he waited in the same spot for hours to get a good shot at a bird. It seems to pay off for him, too. You can see some of his work at the Friends of the Orlando Wetlands website.

On Saturday, my field trip was at the Green Mountain Scenic Overlook (map), led by Gallus Quigley. The morning started off great, with both a Northern Bobwhite and two Eastern Whip-poor-wills calling in the pre-dawn light. As the sun came up, we made our way to the overlook and watched some gnatcatchers, titmouses and warblers darting in and out of the trees from above.

green-mountain-overlook
From the overlook you can see where Lake Apopka sits (just in front of the farthest, hazy line of trees).

We then walked down a section of trail that will eventually link up with the Lake Apopka North Shore Loop Trail. Gnatcatchers were super abundant, along with other, mostly resident birds. The high point for me was seeing five Veerys foraging in some thickets. We also got brief glimpses of a Magnolia Warbler and a Blackburnian Warbler (a first of season bird, for me). The birds were generally fast moving or in heavy brush, making photography a challenge.

green-mountain-overlook-path
When Lake County finishes connecting this path to the Lake Apopka North Shore Trail Loop, it will be covered with crushed limestone to make a more accessible surface for walkers, wheelchairs and bicycles.

Here is the complete list of birds and link to the eBird checklist:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S25282772

  • Northern Bobwhite (♫)
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Osprey
  • Bald Eagle
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Mourning Dove
  • Eastern Whip-poor-will (♫)
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Merlin
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Blue Jay
  • American Crow
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Carolina Wren
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Veery
  • Gray Catbird
  • Brown Thrasher
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Ovenbird
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • American Redstart
  • Magnolia Warbler
  • Blackburnian Warbler
  • Prairie Warbler
  • Northern Cardinal

That afternoon, back at the Festival, the FOS had our scientific paper presentations, followed by a banquet. I opted out of that, since my budget for this festival was essentially zero. My parents live not too far away from the Festival site, so I had been staying there over night. I had dinner with them to end my second day.

Finally, on Sunday morning I headed over to Hidden Waters Preserve ( on the map it’s the small a lake west of Abrams Road) – an ongoing 90-acre restoration project. The plan is to bring some sandhill habitat to the area, which used to be a golf course back in the 1950s. The main focus of the trip was for wildflowers, and we didn’t really stop long at any one place for birds. I managed to sneak in a few looks at some stops, including the FOS Hermit Thrush calling at the bottom of the sinkhole by Alfred Lake.

On our way out, I saw a raptor with a prey item hanging from its talons. A closer look in binoculars showed it to be an adult Red-tailed Hawk. It then slowly let go of its lunch as it flew rapidly, just above the tree-line. I took the binoculars down just in time to see a large Bald Eagle swoop down and land where (out of my view) the hawk’s meal had landed. After about 30 seconds or so, the eagle rose up and then circled over our location. Apparently it either didn’t think too much of a Red-tailed Hawk’s choice of a meal, or was just chasing out a competitor.

Here is my species list for Hidden Waters:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S25297138

  • Blue-winged Teal (flying overhead)
  • Bald Eagle
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Mourning Dove
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Blue Jay
  • American Crow
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Carolina Wren
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Hermit Thrush (FOS)
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Palm Warbler
  • Northern Cardinal

I made one more stop at the Festival grounds at Venetian Gardens Park and sat in on an outdoor presentation about using native or Florida Friendly plants and best practices to maintain a lawn-free yard. I gleaned some useful information, but I am not yet sure how practical any of it is. After stopping back to my parents’ for lunch, I headed home. All in all it was an exciting weekend and has got me geared up for the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in January. Registration should be opening up for that later this month.

one-last-overlook
One last look from the Green Mountain Scenic Overlook.

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