UK 2019 Day 1: Stonehenge, White Horse

Posted June 15, 2019

May 9, 2019

My wife and I, after a couple of years of saving and a lot of planning, made a trip to Bristol, England to stay with friends for a couple of weeks. They took vacation (“holiday”) too, and we spent a lovely, if hard paced time, around southwestern England and Wales.

Staying at their flat and having them drive us around (2000 miles!) saved us money, allowing us to make this trip of a lifetime. Thank you Ruth and Darren, we can’t say enough about your generosity and kindness.

After flying to Gatwick, and feeling only a little bit jet-lagged, we stopped at Stonehenge [map] on our way to Bristol. It was almost surreal after reading and seeing so much about this ancient site, to actually be there. Buses take groups of visitors to the site from the nearby visitor center every few minutes. Even though one can no longer walk among the stones, the footpath allows for close views, and one can walk around the ditch that encloses the site on all sides.

stonehenge01
Face to face with an icon of history. Stonehenge at last!

The weather was cold, windy, and rainy – a proper English welcome – but the awe and delight at being there did not dampen our spirits. It’s hard to put into words, but the site is impressive yet somehow appropriately scaled. One can tell it took a monumental effort to move these stones in place, but somehow it seems easy to imagine humans building and using the site.

stonehenge04
The stones at Stonehenge are weathered and lichen covered. There is evidence of some vandalism, going back hundreds of years. That the site remains so intact after over 4000 years is a testament to the toughness of the stone and the skill with which is was created. 

Although it is severely weathered and aged, one can still marvel at the skill evident in crafting these giant stones and the engineering that went into the design. The lintel stones don’t just lie on top of the uprights, but are fitted using a mortise and tenon design.

stonehenge03
The top of an upright sarsen stone showing a tenon that would have fitted into a mortise hole in a lintel stone.

This trip was primarily for seeing the England our friends live in. While I had some bird outings planned, almost every bird I would see even incidentally would be a life bird for me. Three of the five resident corvid species were evident at Stonehenge: Rooks, Eurasian Jackdaws, and Carrion Crows.

rooks01
Rooks have distinctive bills and facial skin, but are otherwise similar to most corvid (crow) species – conspicuous, gregarious, and intelligent.

I was also pleasantly surprised as a boldly patterned black and white bird landing right among the feet of a group of Japanese tourists. The White Wagtail is fairly common in Britain (I saw them in many places on this trip), but was a delight to see. This particular bird is probably used to handouts or getting food that people drop while marveling at Stonehenge.

white-wagtail01
Each subspecies of White Wagtail have distinct patterns. The UK subspecies is called White-faced. Locally, the bird is often called the Pied Wagtail (as in piebald or bi-colored).

As we rounded the henge and faced into the wind and rain, it did become a bit uncomfortable, so we made our way to where the bus would take us back to the visitor center. There are additional historical exhibits there and (of course) a gift shop. But it was all very respectful of this ancient site. We saw a few barrows in the surrounding fields and nearby fields of bright yellow rapeseed.

stonehenge05
Farewell, Stonehenge.

We then drove through the countryside, in and out of rain showers, to Westbury – about mid way to Bristol – to see another large landmark. The Westbury White Horse [map].

white-horse04
This large cliff-side carving dates from the 1600s. Several monuments of this type are known throughout Britain, at least one from late Bronze Age. We first went to the top of the cliff to see it from that vantage point. From above, I watched a Eurasian Hobby (a falcon) hunting below and a Skylark try to fly against the wind. The wind howling up the cliff face was biting and incessant, but the views were spectacular!

white-horse01
The horse from the cliff top.
white-horse02
The view from beside the horse looking down on the countryside.

The horse is easily visible from the valley floor for miles. At one lower vantage-point I did get my first Great Tits and European Robin, but the horse was the star of the show, for sure.

white-horse03
I don’t know who was living in the valley at the time, but imagine coming through for the first time or after some time away, and seeing this!

From this vantage-point we got back on the road and on to Bristol, where we unpacked and settled in for the next two weeks. I’ll post more of our trip through the weekend and next week.

 

Catching Up Is Hard To Do: Part 2

June 8, 2019

The title of this and the previous blog proved to be much more prophetic than I dreamed! It’s been a long hiatus, brought on by a conspiracy of circumstances. Let’s close out the previous year before we delve into some new and exciting adventures!

Toward the end of last year, as I was planning to meet with Annie and getting ready for another holiday season, I got an invitation from Mitchell Harris to help lead a team for the Cocoa Christmas Bird Count! This was exciting for me, and it felt good that someone with the birding caliber of Mitchell Harris wanted me to help out.

I assembled a team – Camille, Sarah, and Bella – and got my maps and lists organized. The dry run Camille and I did with Mitchell beforehand helped hone our plans and we were more than ready for the CBC day.

A shopping mall seen across a still pond.
The Cocoa CBC circle includes some build up areas, like the Merritt Square Mall, but park space is still often close by.

Our section of the CBC circle was mainly urban and high-density suburban, with a few parks. Getting the timing right for the birds we wanted to “get” was a little tricky, but we managed to work out a reasonable route with time enough to spend at high-probability sites like Rotary Park, Veteran’s Park, and a roadside rookery. The Merritt Island Rookery had so many hundreds of birds streaming in as the sun set, it was one part comical and one part awe inspiring. Bella was cracking herself up trying to call in the flocks upon flocks of species coming in, as I struggled to keep up the count on eBird!

A Savannah Sparrow perching among sparse Mangrove leaves.
I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to take photos, but I thought this Savannah Sparrow posed nicely!

I’ll post the checklists below. Feel free to map out where we went and how we did.

Rotary Park at Merritt Island (at dawn):
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50673168

Courtenay Pkwy including vacant lots:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50674223
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50674280
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50674354
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50674560

Merritt Square Mall:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50674624

Veterans’ Park:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50677314

Merritt Island Airport:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50678160

Merritt Island Causeway:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50678299

Crooked Mile Road:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50680287

Georgiana Cemetery:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50681013

Rotary Park at Merritt Island (afternoon):
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50683421

Osteen Park:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50683421

Waterway Park:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50686162

Kenzel Court:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50686421

Sawyer Avenue:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50687824

Abandoned Development, Tropical Trail:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50688634

Lewis Carroll Avenue:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50690381

Merritt Island Rookery:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S50691754

Our final count was 78 species for our section. The final circle count was 145 species. Not bad. It was an exhausting day, but we managed to work well together, help out with a long running (119 years!) bird census, and see parts of the county I’d not had an opportunity to visit.



Catching Up Is Hard To Do: Part 1

December 13, 2018

Hello friends! It’s been a while since my last post, so I’ll try to catch us up! Perhaps the most interesting happening (at least in my birding world) was the sighting of an American Flamingo in Brevard County in late October . The overall status of the American Flamingo in Florida is still being debated, but whatever fruits that argument bears doesn’t alter how rare a wild flamingo is for the Space Coast. But of course, that’s the real question, isn’t it? Where did this bird come from? It was non banded, but that’s hardly a foolproof indication of a wild bird. It’s possible it was stirred up from our southern neighbors by Hurricane Harvey and was taking an extended tour, or maybe someone had it as a “pet’ and “lost” it. There’s no way to know.

This severely cropped photo was the best shot I could get of the distant bird (it was seen much closer by others, but seemed to prefer to feed well away from the road to Playalinda in the afternoons it was with us).

An American Flamingo stands far away against a distant backdrop of mangrove trees in shallow water.
Not a lawn ornament.

In any case, it was a good reason to get out with Sarah and Bella Muro again and find this bird, as well as checking out part of the Buck Lake Conservation Area [map] with them. The birding was a little light, but we had a few good looks at the recently arrived Eastern Phoebes and a few warblers sprinkled in for good measure.

An Eastern Phoebe perched on a branch surrounded by spare foliage.
Eastern Phoebes started arriving in October and will be our guests until Spring.

Here’s our Buck Lake eBird list (I’ll spare you the Merritt Island lists – the American Flamingo was the star of that show):
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S49694824

There was little time to rest before the Fall Florida Ornithological Society (FOS) meeting in Davie, FL the first weekend in November. I’d been looking forward to the weekend for months.

The sessions and keynotes were good, and it is always great to catch up with birding friends I haven’t seen in a while. I didn’t take too many photos, but the field trips were pretty good. Dave Goodwin, Jim Eager, Charlie Fisher, and I went out on our own on Saturday to Evergreen Cemetery in Fort Lauderdale [map]. We were hoping for some late migrants, but those were few and far between.

Wide shot of a cemetery with a large tree on the right side. There are a few Muscovy ducks wandering among the graves.
Evergreen Cemetery has some mature trees and is an important green space in the middle of urban south Florida.

You can see our eBird list below:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S49640385

From there we went to Markham Park [map], which borders the Everglades. We were hoping for Spot-breasted Orioles, but after getting distracted at the canal overlooking the Everglades, we spent most of our time there, scanning the grasses for Grey-headed Swamphens and Purple Gallinules. We got a distant but long look at a White-tailed Kite, too.

The golden and green grasses of the Everglades, with some patches of open water, stretch out to the horizon under mostly overcast skies. Powerlines cross the foreground between the horizon and top of the photo.
The vast expanse of the Everglades never ceases to impress, even with the closeness of the power lines and a major highway (off to the left).

The next day, I went to the soon-to-open Fran Reich Preserve [map], in Palm Beach County. It borders the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. They are separated by a canal and levee system, preventing any meaningful ecological continuity, however. Primarily scrub and open habitat, the main draw was the hope of some early wintering sparrows. It took some careful stalking, but eventually we managed to flush some Lincoln’s Sparrows, of which I got a good look at one!

Perhaps the bigger stars of the show were the non-avian friends we came across! First was a magnificent Green Lynx Spider, staking out her claim on a goldenrod plant (Solidago stricta, according to botanophiles).

A Green Lynx Spider sits, head pointing down, on a yellow flowering plant. A person's lower leg and athletic shoe are slightly out of focus in the background.
Lynx spiders are good at insect control and seldom bite people. She probably has spent her whole life on this one plant.

The biggest oohs and aahs, particularly from the students we had along with us, were directed at a praying mantis. It was comfortable enough with being handled, that it even stopped to groom it’s legs, relatively unperturbed by all the humans crowding around.

praying-mantis-cleaning
Some of the students speculated that this was a female praying mantis, given it’s slightly distended abdomen, possibly indicating eggs developing inside.

The remainder of the FOS meeting was informative and entertaining, but it was good to get back home after a weekend away.

Later in November, I finally got to meet up with my friend Annie Otto and hike and bird one of her favorite places, Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTMNERR, or “Guana”) [map]. It was a beautiful day, if a bit windy (although the trees protected us from the brunt of the gusts).

Wooded trail in the foreground curving to the left with some mixed deciduous and coniferous trees in the middle and background.
The climate and land cover at Guana is just sufficiently different from east-central Florida to make for a good change of scenery.

The bird of the day had to be the Yellow-rumped Warblers, which had arrived with succeeding cold front in the previous weeks. Dozens of them would seemingly fall out of the sky into the trees, along with Ruby-crowned Kinglets, some Eastern Phoebes and even some late season migrants, like Blackburnian, Black-throated Blue, and Cape May Warblers.

Annie is the manager of the Tomoka Marsh Aquatic Preserve, and was fun to talk to about the area and some of her personal history as a conservationist and outdoors enthusiast.

Here’s our e-bird list:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S49867781

Just before my adventure with Annie, I did get an e-mail from Mitchell Harris, and that will be the focus of the start of Part 2!

 

Headed Back Down South

September 28, 2018

The month of September is waning, and the best chance for songbird migration is ramping up. During this continuing lull (it has still been HOT), it seemed like a good opportunity to scamper to Miami and try to get a few species that are endemic or established there that we generally can’t find elsewhere.

I met up with Camille and we set out before sunrise to get to our targets. We were hoping for two species, both that have become sort of  “nemesis birds” for both of us: the Mangrove Cuckoo and White-crowned Pigeon.

Our first destination was Black Point Park and Marina [map], where some Mangrove Cuckoos had been seen recently. This species is notoriously secretive, and though this time of year isn’t necessarily the best time, having a recent sighting in an accessible hotspot made it irresistible to attempt.

a row of fishing and pleasure boats in a marina on calm water with a blue sky.
It was a clear and beautiful morning at the marina.

Unfortunately for our information regarding the birds’ location was a bit sketchy, and being unfamiliar with the area, we wandered a bit before finding the right spot. That meant the morning had worn on quite a bit. While we did see other birds, we never got so much as a hint of Mangrove Cuckoos.

A Loggerhead Shrike sits perched, facing left, among the leaves of a mangrove tree.
Not a cuckoo, but it’s always nice to see Loggerhead Shrikes.

In our wanderings around the marina, we took a paved path, closed to vehicles, that paralleled a canal. There were several heron and egret species, including several young Yellow-crowned Night Herons, like the one below. Like their cousins, the Black-crowned Night Herons, this species’ young are brown and streaked, which helps keep them camoflagued in the grasses and other vegetation near their nests. These birds were fledged, and will soon molt into their gray and black adult plumage.

An immature Yellow-crowned Night Heron stands, facing right, on top of a wooden post (only the very top of which is in view) with an out-of-focus background of green leaves.
Yellow-crowned Night Herons are less stocky than the Black-crowned, with a yellowish or orange eye, instead of red.

Our first migrant of the day was a lone American Redstart in some trees near a small bridge, by a flood control structure. The same area had a huge amount of Black Vultures both on the ground and swirling above in a large kettle, probably due in part to the row of nearby dumpsters.

An adult male American Restart, perched in a mangrove tree, facing left. It is partly obscured by branches.
American Redstarts should become more numerous across the region in the coming weeks.

By the time we found the (likely) actual spot the cuckoos had been seen, the morning had well worn on, and it was getting hot. We hung around for a few minutes but to no avail.

We broke for lunch before making our way to the Baptist Hospital of Miami [map] and cruised around its grounds for any parrots – there were none – before heading into the Kendall area neighborhoods to find White-crowned Pigeons.

Predictably, bird activity was low in the heat of the day, but we did get a few pockets of birds as we worked westward through and past some parks and ball fields. We finally ended up at Indian Hammocks Park [map].

As we drove through the entrance and into the park, a female Scarlet Tanager flew into a tree on the right side of the car, and some small birds could be seen and heard in the tree tops. Camille pulled us over and we got out and scanned the vicinity, taking note of some Blue-grey Gnatcatchers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. After a few more minutes, Camille drove to park the car while I stayed to investigate (this turned out to be somewhat unfortunate, as I left my camera in the car).

I tracked down a Yellow-throated Warbler and some more gnatcatchers before checking out the family of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, further from the entry road. Some movement high in a tree, under some dense canopy caught my eye: a White-crowned Pigeon! Happily, it stuck around (and another joined it in the same tree) until Camille made it back from the parking lot. This species has given us both fits over the past few years. It’s not uncommon, and any eBird search for it results in hotspots and personal spots peppered all across the Miami area with sightings, but until then the bird had eluded us.

After some high-fives, a couple of lifer dances, and a quick look at a Baltimore Oriole, we made our way further west to see if we could find the Zenaida Dove (and some shorebirds) reported over the previous week in some agricultural fields (known as the “West Kendall Agricultural Area” [map]).

Zenaida Doves are Caribbean endemics; they are rare vagrants to south Florida (though their similarity to Mourning Doves might cause some to have been missed in suburban settings). The bird hadn’t been reported for a couple of days, but it was worth our while to check it out. The only shorebirds in attendance were a great many Killdeer and several Least Sandpipers probing some muddy puddles for whatever morsels they could find.

Two Least Sandpipers, probing their bills in dirty water as they wade through water a couple of inches deep.
Some birds are quite flexible in finding food. These Least Sandpipers were feeding in a dirty puddle in very disturbed sand and dirt near a small airport, adjacent to some agricultural land.

There were a few Mourning Doves present, but as we walked over to the farthest “puddle” in the immediate area, a slightly redder dove, with white in its wings, was flushed up and quickly flew to the west – a Zenaida Dove! I was able to follow it a ways in my binoculars, getting a very good look. Unfortunately, Camille’s attention had been elsewhere and she never got a good look. We scanned for a while longer, and even after a Killdeer-filled ride further into the agricultural land and back, the dove was never relocated.

From there, it was off to the last stop of the day: the “Tamarac Exotic Duck Pond” in Palm Beach County [map].

For some reason, most of the ducks, geese, and swans found on this urban pond are countable on eBird, though not for ABA lists. It fairly obvious these birds were introduced, but they are still beautiful and were a treat for the end of the day. Here are a few of the birds we saw.

A male Mandarin Duck, on the water swimming, facing right.
There was one male Mandarin Duck that seemed to be paired up with a female Wood Duck (who was largely ignoring the male Wood Duck).

A Red-crested Pochard swims alongside a Redhead on the water, both facing left. The pochard is in the foreground.
A Red-crested Pochard (foreground) with a more mundane Redhead (background) it was seemingly paired up with.

A White-cheeked pintail, facing left, swims on the water in full sun.
White-cheeked Pintail

A Ruddy Shelduck, standing in grass with some tree roots behind it. The bird is facing right.
A Ruddy Shelduck on the bank of an urban water retention pond. It was hanging out with some Egyptian Geese.

With the sun starting to sink low, we decided to end the day and head home. Getting several lifers (including the ducks) made for an exciting day.

Here are the eBird lists for our adventure:

Black Point Marina and Park (2 lists):
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S48690065
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S48691763

Kendall-Baptist Hospital Area:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S48694878

K-Land Park:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S48695139

Kendall Indian Hammocks Park:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S48696682

West Kendall Agricultural Area:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S48698554

Tamarac Exotic Duck Pond:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S48702014

Hopefully this coming weekend will see some local areas “heat up” with migrants as the days cool down (again, hopefully)!

A Little Extra from September

September 20, 2018

Here are a couple of photos from my hike in Saint Sebastian River Preserve State Park, earlier this month.

pine-lilies
Pine Lilies are native to Florida and the US southeast coast. You can find them in places with acidic, moist soils. They are heat tolerant, too. Very Florida. This species is “Threatened”.

bobwhite
I flushed a covey of Northern Bobwhites from the ground. The male and most of the females took off out of sight.  This remaining female flew into a nearby pine tree and tried to become invisible. When it became clear that the wildlife paparazzi (me) had found her, she lept into the air, flew over my head and landed somewhere in the wiregrass.

 

Back to Birding

September 4, 2018

September is a month of continued change. Early migrants and shorebirds are starting to arrive and stop over on their way south for wintering grounds. The weather is very slowly starting to cool off in Florida, making longer outings less uncomfortable.

This past weekend I used these opportunities to check out the early season action in St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park [map]. A Red-headed Woodpecker – a relative rarity for Brevard County – had been reported off and on in the park this summer, and I wanted to find it.

st-sebastian0
Proper fire management has helped minimize palmetto cover and give the native wiregrass and other herbaceous cover a chance to flourish.

Despite the late summer season, there were still Bachman’s Sparrows singing in the northwest and northeast sections of the park, and several small flocks were flushed out of the palmettos and wiregrass as I walked the Green Trail in the northwest quadrant.

bachmans-sparrow
Bachman’s Sparrows are often elusive after breeding season, but the birds were active and relatively easy to find.

Barn Swallows have been moving through the area for a couple of weeks now, and there were several large groups working various open areas and resting on wires. Quite a number were juveniles, of course.

swallows
A juvenile (left) and an adult (right) Barn Swallow, preening as they rest in the early morning light. 

As I hiked part of the Turkey Link Trail, I heard some calls that sounded very much like a Red-headed Woodpecker, some distance to the east. Eventually, I looped back to my car (at the visitors’ center) and drove along the dirt road a bit farther east, near the park service building. After walking about 100 meters north, I could not go any further due to standing water, but I heard some more of the same woodpecker calls not too far away. I decided some judicious audio recordings might help me definitively identify the bird. I played 3 or 4 Red-headed Woodpecker calls and immediately got a reply in some pine trees just about 50 meters away. Unfortunately, I could not locate the bird visually, and eventually the bird moved further into the park and to the east.

While on the Green Trail I encountered some of the area’s non-avian friends, like some understandably skittish deer and a very cooperative and beautiful Luna Moth species.

deer-blur
At least one of the deer stood still long enough for a photo! Everyone else was too fidgety and flighty, but I kind of like the blurred aesthetic.

luna-moth2
A beautifully back-lit Luna Moth, about the span of my hand (over 10 cm or 4 in).

I was also surprised by a loose aggregation of Peregrine Falcons a couple of hundred meters overhead. I have seen falcons (Merlins) migrating south (along the beach) in relatively close proximity, but never the larger Peregrines.

After making my way back to the car, I drove over to the Yellow Trail at the Northeast Quadrant. The nearby canal had a few wading birds and even a small flock of Wild Turkeys.

turkeys
A couple of Wild Turkeys on top of the canal berm.

green-heron
A slightly bedraggled looking Green Heron, near the manatee viewing and fishing area.

I was anticipating a long walk along the Yellow Trail before seeing any Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, but I was pleasantly surprised by an overflight of two of the woodpeckers, only a few hundred meters from the trailhead. A few Brown-headed Nuthatches also popped by for a quick hello.

nuthatch
A Brown-headed Nuthatch pausing just long enough for a photo.

In the aftermath of both Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Irma in 2017, many of the longleaf pines in Florida have been getting further decimated by the Southern Pine Beetle. For example, at Turkey Creek Sanctuary as many if not more trees are being lost to the beetle than to Hurricane Irma. The beetles take advantage of weakened or diseased mature trees, so the affects of recent hurricanes have helped intensify the current infestation. I did not notice too much in the way of damage in the Northwest Quadrant, and most of the Northeast Quadrant seemed healthy until I ran into a couple of clusters of dead and dying pines on the Red-cockaded Woodpecker Link Trail. Luckily, there didn’t seem to be many affected trees (at least that were within my visual range).

beetle-damage
Dead trees, no thanks to the Southern Pine Beetle.

As I made my way along the Red-cockaded Woodpecker Link Trail the weather, which had been slightly threatening all morning, started to worsen a little and some light rain began to fall. Besides some Pine Warblers and a few other birds, it became quiet as I made my way across a drainage feature around a cypress dome and finally back out onto the Green Trail. I misjudged the distance and wound up walking over 9 kilometers (over 5.5 miles)!

St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park is a nice gem at the southern end of Brevard County and northern end of Indian River county. It is bisected by Interstate 95, running north-south, and the channelized Saint Sebastian River (essentially a canal), running east-west. I find myself wondering if a set of elevated wildlife corridors spanning these features could benefit the park and local environment. Such corridors have been widely successful in many places here in the U.S. and around the world. Something to think about.

Here are my eBird lists for those so inclined.

Northwest Quadrant, partial Green Trail/Turkey Link Trail:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S48236358

Northwest Quadrant, partial Green Trail (east of previous):
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S48237400

Northeast Quadrant, partial Buffer Preserve Road section:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S48237656

Northeast Quadrant, partial Yellow Trail/Red-cockaded Woodpecker Link Trail:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S48241730