SCBWF 2016 Field Trips! Days 4-6

Picking up from days 1-3, here are the remaining SCBWF 2016 field trips I had this year. The weather continued to be cold and windy, though the rain moved out for the second half of the festival. Now that I’ve gotten over my cold and sorted through the past couple of weeks, here are the rest of my field trip experiences.

DAY 4:
Zellwood/Lake Apopka

This is the second year in a row that I’ve done the Lake Apopka trip for the festival [map]. This year was similar to last year in several respects. Firstly, we had Gian Basili leading us, again. He’s been working on the North Shore Restoration Project for the St. Johns River Water Management District for years, and he has an intimate knowledge of the lake and its history. Secondly, the weather was terrible again, for birding, this year. Although we didn’t have the apocalyptic morning conditions from last year (rain squalls and thunder), we did have a cold and quite windy day, which kept many of the birds hunkered down or otherwise out of sight.

Much of the birding was done from inside the bus, along the Wildlife Drive. We did get out occasionally, but not nearly as much as last year. I was at the rear of the bus, in the middle of the final, bench seat, which made some observations challenging. Camille was at the front of the bus, and I am glad to say she had a good experience, since she was able to get tips and converse with Gian and with Nancy McAllister, the co-leader.

Nancy is doing a “Mom’s Big Year,” and will be blogging her travels. Please have a look in from time to time to see her adventures!

While the same trip for the previous two days garnered over 90 different bird species, the wind kept our trip total to a lower (but still respectable, to me) total of 71 species.

Highlights included a couple of Fulvous Whistling-Duck flocks, some nice looks at Northern Harriers, and a single Yellow Warbler – a rarity – responding to some recorded calls played by David Hartgrove.

After the Wildlife Drive, we drove over into Lake County (The Wildlife Drive is in Orange County) to some other properties managed by the SJRWMD, including the abandoned pole barn to look for Barn Owls, and areas near the Apopka-Beauclair Lock and Dam. We ended the trip on a wonderful note. A young birder named Noah had been fighting sleep all afternoon, and had apparently nodded off by the window on the bus. As we were driving out way out past a small pond, he woke up and immediately announced, “Wilson’s Snipe!” We all scrambled for a look and there were no less than a dozen Wilson’s Snipes (I personally only saw seven of them) around the edges of the pond. If he had opened his eyes just a couple of seconds later, we would never have seen them. Great job, Noah!

eBird list (Wildlife Drive):

eBird list (Ranch Rd./Clay Section):

Sams House Owl Prowl

The fourth and final night-hike of the festival was the much anticipated Sams House Owl Prowl [map]. For some reason this trip was not offered last year, but two years ago was a highlight of my festival experience. I knew there would undoubtedly be changes, but I was hopeful for another good hike. This year, they had an owl rehabilitator, Susan Boorse, show us a couple of her “owl ambassadors” and talk about her experiences as wildlife rehabilitator and share her knowledge of owls. It was an educational and enlightening experience, and a good addition to this particular trip. A group of students doing some sort of special “semester” for a month were also present, and the trip leaders had an insect expert on hand, too. Unfortunately, the weather was cold and windy (a theme for a good chunk of this festival). We did hear the resident Barred Owl pair call, in the distance, a couple of times before we started hiking, but after that, I believe it was just too windy.

Once the hike started, the trip seemed to unravel. Instead of stopping to do any interpretation or talk about the owls and the night-time ecology of the area, we silently walked a short loop trail. The line of us stopped a few times, but I never knew why. I heard nothing from the trip leaders, and as we emerged from the woods, half the group walked in one direction, toward a fire-pit and the other back through some darkened outdoor exhibits. I went with this second group, and we stopped and milled around for a few minutes before one of the trip leaders emerged and had us walk to the fire-pit for s’mores. The insect expert had some UV traps set up but, due to the weather, had nothing to show us. Instead of talking to us about insects in general, or pointing out what they do on cold, windy nights, he packed up to leave without a word. If I hadn’t stopped him to mention regrets about the weather, he would have disappeared from the proceedings without a trace!

Camille and I stayed and spoke with a couple of the students for a few minutes, and I did toast a marshmallow. The students were excited for their Florida adventure and were keen on science and nature – which was really good to hear and see. Unfortunately, the “owl prowl” proved to be a bust. Not because we saw no owls, but because there was virtually no leadership or structure to the hike, and almost non-existent communication. I hope, if they offer this trip again next year, they manage to run it more like it was two years ago. It was the only real disappointment of the festival, for me.

DAY 5:
Waterfowl 101

We braved another frigid (for Florida) and windy morning for the Waterfowl 101 field trip and workshop. The initial intent was to have about an hour or so of waterfowl description and identification tips, followed by a drive along Blackpoint Wildlife Drive [map] at Merritt Island to put some of that new knowledge into practice. While certain waterfowl, like Wood Ducks, Northern Shovelers, and Pintails, are easy to identify in the field (especially the males), other species can be trickier, and many of the females look very similar. I was hoping to get a little more help in duck identification. The weather had other plans. Since it was so cold and windy, it was decided we’d drive Blackpoint first, getting some of the tips and advice en route, then have the proper lecture at the end.

Northern Shovelers are among the more distinctive looking ducks.

As well as various duck species, including many dozens of Northern Pintails and the most Redheads I’ve seen in one place, we also had some good looks at American Avocets and some resting Long-billed Dowitchers. In fact, Murray Gardler had quite few good pointers for dowitcher identification that I’ll be sure to use from now on!

Further on, after exiting Blackpoint, we went on to an area along the main road to look at a large assemblage of American Wigeons. In past years, wigeons tended to congregate near the exit-end of Blackpoint, staying far away from the vista points, just within my binoculars’ range. This time they were much closer, though the screening vegetation made it hard to get long looks.

A group of American Wigeons. These birds constantly call to each other with cute “peeps,” making for a noisy chatter as hundreds talk at once.

We scanned as many areas along the road with openings in the vegetation to see if any Eurasian Wigeons were present. Murray said that it’s not unusual for some small percentage of Eurasian varieties to be present, so with so many wigeons, it was statistically likely some were there. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any.

At that point we were given the option to stay for the lecture session originally planned for the morning, or to go on. It was still very wind and a bit cool, so Camille and I decided to end the trip.

eBird list (Blackpoint Wildlife Drive):

Shiloh Marsh Road (unofficial)

After lunch, it was time for an unofficial side trip to Shiloh Marsh Road [map]. I was hopeful of catching either Nelson’s Sparrows or Saltmarsh Sparrows, both of which are often recorded along the road.

There was a good variety of what are sometimes referred to as “the usual suspects,” egrets, herons, ibises, coots, etc., but no sparrows. A nice group of herons and Roseate Spoonbills were along Coot Creek, and near the end of the marsh, where Turnbull Creek empties into the Indian River Lagoon, there were some Forster’s Terns, American White Pelicans, and some Belted Kingfishers.

eBird list:

Chain of Lakes Park (unofficial)

Lastly, before the end of the day, Camille and I did a quick run through Chain of Lakes Park [map], just behind the Festival headquarters. There, I saw my first Canada Geese in Florida, as well as a nice variety of other birds (see the eBird list).

A female Belted Kingfisher, seen from an observation tower at Chain of Lakes Park.

eBird list:

It was a decent end to the final official day of the festival. At this point most of the vendors and presenters had packed up and many people were headed home. The off-shore boat trip (formerly known as the Pelagic Birding Trip) is always the day after the official festival, and with no night-hike scheduled, it was good to get some good rest before what is usually my favorite trip of the festival.

DAY 6:
Offshore Birding Boat Trip

This trip was highly anticipated by me and many others. Last year, due to gale-force winds off-shore, the boat trip stayed close to shore, and we had thousands of birds (mostly Northern Gannets) and several whales! This, combined with past complaints of “hours of boredom punctuated by a flurry of blurry binocular views” prompted a change in the program. Instead of a twelve-hour trip out to the Gulf Stream and back, we had a half-day tour up and down the Volusia County coast [map].

I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I look forward to those twelve-hours each year, and I have had fun every time – no matter what we actually did. But I understand the change and saw it as an experiment to see what works and what doesn’t.

The results were satisfactory, if not lackluster. The morning was cold but beautiful. Here are some shots as we headed toward Ponce Inlet.

The seas were very calm and there was a bit wind. The temperatures remained cool, so it did get a little chilly when exposed to the combined breeze and boat movement.

This year we seemed to come upon a very large number of Brown Pelicans, many of them immature. They were following shrimp boats along with flocks of gulls. Although we looked for some rarities, like Iceland or Glaucous Gulls, we saw mainly Laughing and Herring Gulls, with a few Ring-billed Gulls.

One of several shrimp boats we encountered. Most of the birds behind the boat are pelicans, while gulls line the rigging.

We had Laurilee Thompson, owner of Dixie Crossroads restaurant and founder of the Festival on board with us, which was fascinating. She knows all the ins-and-outs of shrimp boat operation, and gave us an in-depth explanation, in real-time, of how the boats pull in a a catch and what the birds look for.

The birds have learned the shrimpers’ routine and methods of catching shrimp, so are always near the right place, anticipating their meal.

As is usual for the boat trips, the crew chums the water behind the boat with a mixture of fish parts, fish oil, and popcorn. This is to attract as many birds as possible, who follow the boat, making identification and photographs easier. It also increases the odds of seeing something rare, and also luring is predators, like jaegers, in to steal food from the gulls, pelicans, and gannets.

Birds fill the sky!
Brown Pelican youngsters, settling along the chum line.

I finally did get some good looks at both Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers on this trip. The birds obliged by resting on the water a few times, which made for good binocular views. We saw a few larger pod of dolphins, but no whales this time. On the way back into the inlet, I finally got a glimpse of one of the rare, but usual, Purple Sandpipers than visit the jetty during the winter.

Too soon (for my tastes) we came back to the dock, but I had a lot of fun. I love these trips, and now my appetite is whet for some of the truly pelagic trips the Marine Science Center runs through summer and fall. They go out to the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream and historically have seen a good variety of birds.

eBird list:

Spruce Creek Park (unofficial)

Since it was still afternoon, and it was close by on the way home, Camille and I stopped off at Spruce Creek Park [map] for a quick look for some Clapper Rails and whatever else might be enjoying the day.

The marshes and waters of Spruce Creek Park.

We did hear quite a few rails, though they stayed well concealed. Otherwise, we had a mix of egrets, a good showing of Hooded Mergansers, and a pair of Bald Eagles. A Sharp-shinned Hawk surprised us near the parking area as it chased some American Robins through the woods.

eBird list:

It was then time to get home, with another SCBWF gone. Adjusting to a normal schedule has taken a bit of time, and getting sick didn’t help matters there (although I am truly grateful I didn’t get sick during the festival itself). It’s a bit amusing to me that getting back to work and all that entails has meant better sleep. I am going to think twice (at least!) before scheduling so many night hikes in a row.

In the end, though, it was a success and good fun. I renewed old birding partnerships and friendships and made some new ones. I learn new things each year, even on trips I’ve take before. I am already looking forward to next year’s festival!

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