White-crowning Achievement

Just a week after exploring parts of Alachua County during the Florida Ornithological Society’s Fall meeting, I headed toward Florida’s Gulf Coast to meet my friend Dave Goodwin to do some more birding, this time in and around Pasco and Hernando Counties. Mrs. Lonely Birder was attending a sea turtle necropsy workshop, giving me a good opportunity to spend the day looking for birds. My primary goal was to get some wintering sparrows, and perhaps even a lifer or two.

I birded Pasco County for last year’s Christmas Bird Count. As I’ve previously noted, large parts of the county are rural and agricultural, which makes for some pastoral landscapes.

Auton Road at dawn.

Sunrise found us along Auton Road [map], looking for sparrows. Along with numerous Palm Warblers, we flushed up some Savannah Sparrows and eventually a couple of Vesper Sparrows.

Not too far down the road, we came upon Bill Pranty and Meagan Campbell, who were also looking for sparrows. Many birders (myself included) are not confident when trying to identify sparrows in the field. We rely on the help of accomplished bird watchers like Bill and Dave to help point out the field marks and other characteristics to ID sparrows. Bill was helping Megan, who was hoping to get several sparrows for her life list.

Meanwhile, we came across a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks. From their dark, saturated colors, we could tell these birds are “northern” hawks, as our typical Florida Red-shouldered Hawks are much paler.

This adult Red-Shouldered Hawk (and its companion) likely wintering over in Florida. 

Eventually we managed to bring out a few Grasshopper Sparrows, as well as male and female Northern Harriers. A nearby pond provided our first look at a Ring-necked Duck among the coots, gallinules, and ibises.

A few more groups of birders came by and we made a loose aggregation, making our way back along Auton Road. At this point either Bill or Dave decided to play the calls and song of the White-crowned Sparrow, which are notorious for coming out when this is done. Sure enough, after a minute or so several birds came out, aggressively calling back. A new life bird for me!

A White-crowned Sparrow, its tail slightly raised and wings pulled down in a territorial display.
According to Bill Pranty, the pale lores and other characteristics mark this bird as the Gambel’s subspecies.

We had at two subspecies or groups of White-crowned Sparrow – Gambel’s, with pale lores (the area in front of the eyes) – and Eastern Taiga, which have black lores.

I was also excited to find out that with the addition of this species, Megan had added four birds to her life list.

Dave and I made our way out to a few more spots in Pasco County and into Hernando County, looking for Yellow-headed Blackbirds and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. While looking (unsuccessfully) for the flycatcher, we had a nice mixed flock move through the road-side trees, including Eastern Bluebirds, Palm, Pine, and Prairie Warblers, and even a late-season Yellow-throated Vireo.

Lockhart Road, in Hernando County.

We had still been shadowing Bill and Megan (and running into the other birders from earlier in the morning), but parted ways with them and hit a few more spots around the area.

We ended the day at Kapok Park [map], in Pinellas County. This park had been a poorly kept mobile home park, which was a major point-source of pollution for Tampa Bay. About a decade ago, the city of Clearwater bought out the park and transformed it into a beautiful park, including walking/jogging trails and boardwalks over Alligator Creek.

Cypress trees along a pond in Kapok Park.
A Live Oak with Spanish Moss overhanging Alligator Creek.

The bird activity had slowed a bit, but we did see some Common Gallinules and a few Anhingas. It was fitting that the weekend before Thanksgiving I got a good look at this species, sometimes known as a “Water Turkey”, as it swam under the elevated boardwalk in the late-afternoon light.

The broad tail and body do resemble a turkey, while swimming. The long neck gives this bird its other nickname, “snakebird”, especially when it is the only part of the bird above water.

The final bird of our day was a surprise light-morph Short-tailed Hawk that got a resident Red-shouldered Hawk in a bit of a snit, chasing the first raptor off with a series of furious screams.

Dave dropped me off, and as I waited for Mrs. Lonely Birder to finish her workshop, I heard the unmistakable shrieks of parrots overhead. There is a small colony of Monk Parakeets on the grounds of Eckerd College [map], and I watched them get ready to settle in for the night, while some gulls and a few other birds made their way by.

Here are the eBird lists for the day (including incidentals) for curious minds:

Auton/Singletary Roads:

Lockhart Road:

Cortez Blvd (incidental):

Bayport Park:

Kapok Park:

Avenue of States Drive (near Eckerd College):

As usual, it was a pleasure to bird with Dave out in his neck of the woods. With the added bonus of a life bird, it was really nice day and a good way to lead into the “official” holiday season.

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