A Rare Day at St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park

The transition into Spring continues, here in Florida. The wild weather roller-coaster some of my northern friends have been experiencing is more of a gentle ride here. Even so, summer-like (for Florida) temperatures have been happening, and the effect on Spring migration is being debated by birders and ornithologists. With the meteorological see-saw this winter, the departure of some winter residents seems delayed, at least in comparison to last year. There are still American Robins and Tree Swallows in the skies and trees; Hooded Mergansers are still swimming in the retention ponds, diving for who knows what.

In that spirit, I trundled myself down to St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park to try and find the “trifecta” of pine flatwoods birds: Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Bachman’s Sparrows, and Brown-headed Nuthatches. Two of the three are endangered, but while relatively common in the southeast US, the Brown-headed Nuthatch does face habitat pressure in Florida, especially south of the Panhandle.

The park is divided into four sections: east-west by Interstate 95 and north-south by the C-54 canal (which drains the land west of the park and flows into the St. Sebastian River). The Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are generally found in the northeast section, which is home to a small breeding colony. These paths are named and marked as the “Yellow Trail” on the park maps. I hiked a loop from the easternmost parking area, north along the “Red-cockaded Woodpecker Link”, around to the west, then south toward the horse camp and back across to where I started.

Although it took a while to hike in to the heart of the NE preserve, I was serenaded by many male Bachman’s Sparrows along the way. Pine Warblers also had a strong presence in the park, flitting from tree to tree, even as a stiff breeze began to blow as the Sun climbed.

Sometimes this is the best view you get…

St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park is large enough that managed burns are done on various parcels every few years. That has resulted in a very healthy pine flatwoods habitat, as evidenced by the prevalence of wiregrass, instead of Saw Palmetto along the ground.

Some palmettos are alright in a pine flatwoods, but many residents (Bachman’s Sparrows in particular) prefer wiregrass.

There were also pockets of Brown-headed Nuthatches, but these birds are almost constantly in motion. Coupled with the rising wind, photo opportunities were non-existent.

I was happy to have gotten 2 of the “big 3” to that point, but really wanted to get some decent photographs. As I walked along the “Red-cockaded Woodpecker Link” trail, I came across the various nesting trees, so marked with a white stripe.

RCW nest tree.
Although some of the “stucco” front has come off, this is a functional nest box, likely in use.

Sure enough, nearby were at least one pair of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers (RCWs, as they are often called by birders). The birds have a distinctive call note, which they use to stay in almost constant contact and  I heard them long before I saw them.

RCWs will often fly to the base of a tree, then work their way up, looking for insects.
Like all woodpeckers, RCWs use their stiff tail feathers to help prop them up against the trunks of trees.
This bird was near the top of a tree, ready to fly out and across to the base of another.

In addition to the RCWs, the park had numerous Red-bellied Woodpeckers, a few Downy Woodpeckers and, what is becoming increasingly rare, a Hairy Woodpecker. The reasons for the Hairy Woodpeckers’ decline isn’t exactly known. Although almost identical in markings to the Down Woodpecker, the Hairy is about the size of the Red-bellied. It’s possible Red-bellied Woodpeckers (as well as European Starlings and House Sparrows) are out-competing Hairy Woodpeckers for nest sites, but there could be other factors, too.

A Downy Woodpecker about to take flight.

As I passed the 1/2 way point in my hike, I came upon a large flock of mixed warblers on the ground a few meters ahead of me. The flock consisted of Pine Warblers and Palm Warblers, either catching aquatic insects in the water at the side of the path, or taking sips of water. As I was bringing my binoculars up to my face, a flash of yellow caught my eye to the right. At first I thought I had glimpsed a very yellow Pine Warbler, but when I got the bird in my binoculars I saw it did not look like a Pine Warbler.

Mentally, I started noting location, shape, and movement, then field marks from the head down. The thought process went something like this:
“Just at or above eye-level in some palm scrub near some hardwoods.”
“Bright yellow front.”
“Yellow on face with some black/dark near eye.”
“Dark gray or black necklace mark, more defined in the center of the chest”
“Bird has turned sideways to me.”
“Faint light eye-ring.”
“Gray upper parts, no wing-bars.”
“White under-tail coverts.”
Then the bird flew out of my field of view and I was unable to relocate it.

This combination of field marks and behavior point to a Canada Warbler. That was a life bird for me (I’ve had unconfirmed personal sightings before, but this time I got a really good look to feel comfortable claiming the ID), and a rare find in Florida, especially this early in the Spring! I believe the bird was either a female, though it could have been a male that hasn’t molted yet or a very worn bird.

After that encounter as the heat of the day built (it was unseasonably warm), the birds had quieted down a bit. I did see a few distant glimpses of Eastern Bluebirds, had the occasional hawk overhead, and heard several more Bachman’s Sparrows.

I had unsuccessfully tried to get some photos of perfectly posed Eastern Phoebes, just to have them dart off as I depressed the shutter. Finally, near the trailhead as I was exiting the trail, I managed to get quite close to a phoebe that was enjoying a bit of lunch.

Who doesn’t love live grasshopper for lunch?
Down the hatch!
All gone!

Here’s the eBird list for the NE Preserve:

This was the longest hike I’ve done in a while – over 9.5km (almost 6 miles) – so I expected to be dealing with a bit of soreness. Thankfully, so far, just my feet have suffered from some tightness and a little chafing. St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park is a great place for some species not easily found in Brevard County, so it’s well worth a visit. I suggest planning a hike or a birding adventure before the heat of summer, and get an early start. The park officially opens at 8:00am (though you might find the gate open a wee bit early sometimes). There are trails at the other three quadrants of the park, too, but each one could easily fill up a day of walking.

It was a good day. I saw four rare or endangered birds (one of which I never expected to see) and got to unwind before another work week. It won’t be long now until the songbird migration makes it way through Florida. Stay tuned for more adventures.

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