How Do You Prepare for Spring? Scrub!

The Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary is a small but important conservation property here in Brevard County [map]. As their brochure says:

The Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary was originally part of a larger span of high, dry scrubby habitat. Whenever possible, the EEL Program acquires land to help connect existing natural areas. However, as landscapes are developed with buildings and roadways, natural habitats become fragmented (broken up and isolated). Because scrub is favored for development, the Cruickshank Sanctuary has become an “island” in the midst of a developed landscape.

You can learn more about Brevard County’s EEL ( Environmentally Endangered Lands) Program by visiting their website.

As a scrub habitat adjacent to residential development, near the Indian River Lagoon, a diversity of species is to be expected, and that’s what I saw, including a heron fly-over. There were some Tree Swallows near the entrance, and a smattering of American Robins (small groups of robins were also seen, here and there, throughout the morning).

As with the Northern Mockingbirds around the county (and the state), the thrashers are singing in preparation of mating and reestablishing their territories. A sure sign of spring.

One of several Brown Thrashers I saw throughout the morning. Note the rich, russet brown of the back and wings.

Male and female Eastern Towhees were scrambling around in the underbrush, scratching for insects in the leaves and other debris. The birds were calling out to each other a lot, with their “chewINK” calls, but very little singing by the males. The males were more bold and inquisitive when I approached a few times, popping out into the open to check out what I was doing, and sometimes scolding me.

“Hey! Get off of my scrub!”
Before the mid 1990s, Eastern and Spotted Towhees were considered a single species, “Rufous-sided Towhee”. Here, you can see why that was an apt name.

The Sanctuary is a great home for various woodpeckers, including the elsewhere-rare Northern Flicker. I heard it mentioned during the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival that Northern Flicker numbers are declining, with the exact cause not yet known (though habitat loss and development pressure are always likely candidates). In addition to several flickers, I also saw Downy, Pileated, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. A Red-headed Woodpecker was reported earlier in the week, but I did not find that bird during my visit.

Even in bad light, you can see the yellow feather shafts that gave this species it’s former name “Yellow-shafted Flicker” before it was merged with the “Red-shafted” variety into the Northern Flicker. A reminder that genetics aren’t always as ordered and simple as we think.

Of course the star “attractions” of the Sanctuary are the Florida Scrub-Jays.

As usual, one of two birds will perch up on higher branches to act as look-outs for the rest of the family group as they forage and fly around their territories.

Many of the jays are banded, as researchers use these birds (and other scrub-jays on other properties) to research and conserve this endangered species. Naturally inquisitive and bold, this long-running research has also made the birds acclimated to human presence, making them approachable and easily photographed.

Long-time readers of my blog have seen some of the photos of Florida Scrub-Jays perched on my head. The birds look for people to hand them food (usually peanuts), as researchers had trained them to make it easier to band and examine the birds, and returning visitors used that “trick” to get close and personal with the jays.

Much of that has stopped, and with education and signage, the birds seem to expect handout less, and not a single bird landed on my head this time.

This bird was warily watching a pair of Ospreys build a nest nearby. 

There was an Osprey pair building a nest, carefully placing large twigs and branches, one by one. Although Ospreys are fish eating raptors, small birds and other animals are always careful to watch for anything hawk or eagle-like in their skies.

There had been a largely complete nest here last year, but winds (likely from Hurricane Matthew) knocked it down. 

After placing some branches another Osprey couple approached. There was a brief fight over the nest site, with the building couple chasing the others away.

Meanwhile, the scrub-jays looked on and continued on their business. There were other raptors around, including a Red-shouldered and a Red-tailed Hawk, but they did not seem interested in the jays.

Another sentinel.

I also scared up a flock of mixed sparrows into some scrub, where they lingered for a few minutes, allowing me to get some reasonable looks at them. There were Savannah, Field, and Chipping Sparrows, as well as two rare Clay-colored Sparrows.

One of the Chipping Sparrows, with the distinctive rusty cap and black eye-line.

Clay-colored Sparrows are rare visitors to Florida. They breed in the north-central United States and south-central Canada and winter in Mexico. According to published information, they like to stick to scrub and brush along field edges, even in winter, so finding it in a scrub sanctuary, surrounded by residential development made this species a nice find.

Clay-colored Sparrows have a bold cheek pattern and darker grey collar, on an unstreaked breast, which help identify them.

Most of these sparrows will soon be departing for their breeding grounds, well north of here. Their presence, along with the Osprey nest-building and increased singing and displaying of resident species indicates that we’re on Spring’s doorstep.

For those who like to follow along with eBird, here’s the “official” list.

I haven’t been posting links to my eBird lists lately, but I think there’s some value to making that information more easily available, so I’ll start doing it again more regularly.

After wrapping up my hike at the sanctuary, I did a quick stop by Riverwalk Family Park, but it was mostly quiet there, so I headed for home.

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