[Note: With the loss of my PC, I’ll be authoring and uploading photos through my tablet. This means most of my upcoming posts may be brief and with fewer and/or smaller photos. Posting frequency may also be affected.]
February 6, 2018
The Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival is now past over a week and a half, and as its memory fades, I will try to get some more thoughts and photos down.
My first official field trip was the Mitchell Harris-led Shiloh’s Sharptails, Marsh Birds and More. For as long as I’ve been bird watching, I still struggle with sparrow identification, so any opportunity to find them with as an accomplished birder as Mitchell Harris, has got to be taken!
We started our hike through the Shiloh Marsh, a salt marsh area that marks the northern end of the Indian River Lagoon and the border between Brevard and Volusia Counties.
As with most festival trips these days, I was birding with my friend Camille. In was also joined with my friends Sarah and Bella for their first festival trip.
We set out through the salt marsh before dawn, so I left my camera in the vehicle. The going through the tangle of dead marsh grass and other vegetation made it a tough slog out to where we were most likely to see either Nelson’s Sparrows or Saltmarsh Sparrows. Hurricane Irene’s effects killed back a large amount of the vegetation, so we had to hike out quite a distance to suitable habitat. But it was worth it. After scaring up some Marsh and Sedge Wrens, we finally managed to get at least one Nelson’s and a few Saltmarsh Sparrows to quickly pop up and look around before dashing back in the thick grasses. It was a breezy morning, so the birds were reluctant to stay out in the open for long, but most of us got at least a few decent looks at these birds.
We then hiked back to the dike road that separates the marsh from the lagoon, and walked another several miles, as the wind picked up but the sun warmed things up.
At first the birding was a little slow – the wind was really keeping the marsh birds out of the open. Eventually some shorebirds were seen feeding down on the leeward (downwind) sides of the dike road, including both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.
We also managed to see some Least Sandpipers and a Long-billed Dowitcher along the same stretch of mud and sand. Eventually, as we hiked the dike road back, more waders started congregating in the marsh, including some very color-saturated Roseate Spoonbills.
After finally making it back to the vehicle (Mitchell and most of the other birders had gone ahead to get to scheduled workshops and other events), we headed over to Festival HQ at Eastern Florida State College, in Titusville [map].
When all was said and done for the Shiloh Sparrows trip, we got about 65 species, including a couple of lifers!
Chain of Lakes Park
After some classroom presentations, including a surprisingly informative talk on photography while birding, the four of us (me, Camille, Sarah, and Bella) met up and headed over to Chain of Lakes Park, just behind the EFSC campus.
We saw a decent array of species, including a nesting Great Horned Owl on an Osprey platform. An owl raised chicks there last year as well, so this may be the same owl. It peered over the edge of the nest at us a few times.
The ponds in the park had a smattering of ducks, including Lesser and Greater Scaups, and a rather large assemblage of Fish Crows. One female Painted Bunting added a little more variety to our hike as we wound down to get home for the evening.
With the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival upon us, I’ve run into a bit if a snag. My PC has suffered a catastrophic drive failure. This will put a crimp in my blogging plans (and my budget), but I hope to at least get some basic posts out there until I come up with a new work flow or machine (my PC is 7 years old and was getting stretched a bit as it is).
My second (and longest) field trip this year was the Central Florida Specialties trip, led by my friend Dave Goodwin. I’ve done this trip several times, though I skipped it last year. The trip includes stops in many different habitats in Osceola County.
It was one of the coldest mornings of the season as we began, before dawn, to find Red-cockaded Woodpeckers at Three Lakes WMA [map].
Although we arrived at our target area before sunrise, the woodpeckers were already active, flying low among the trees making their squeak-toy calls to one another. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are cooperative, family nesters. Previous years’ offspring help parents raise the current brood in a territory, helping with things like feeding and defense.
As the sun climbed higher and the temperature (slowly) with it, other birds of the pine flatwoods began to stir. We got a few Brown-headed Nuthatches, Eastern Bluebirds, and perhaps an Eastern Towhee call or two.
Our other target species for the day in the flatwoods was the Bachman’s Sparrow. Late January is still a little early for this species to begin singing for mates and territory, but we tried calling them out a few times, with no success. I did hear one very distant song as we were beginning to move out and back to our group’s bus, but that was all.
Our next stop was at Lake Jackson [map]. We did not stay long. The wind was blowing from the north across the lake, creating a natural air conditioner. It was cold enough to start with, and that just made it almost impossible to stand and scope out the lake for birds. After just a few minutes, Dave got us back in the bus for the next stop, out of the wind!
After a brief stop on Prairie Lake Road to call for Bachman’s Sparrows again (to no avail), we headed to a couple of stops on Lake Marian
At the marina [map] there were hundreds of Tree Swallows swarming around, providing a backdrop for some of the more dramatic species, like Limpkins, American White Pelicans, Bald Eagles, and even a pair of Bonaparte’s Gulls.
At the boat ramp [map] on the lake, we had a pair of Baltimore Orioles feeding among Yellow-rumped Warblers and American Robins. The vegetation that provided both food and concealment for these smaller birds was also the day roost for at least one Black-crowned Night Heron.
After wrapping up at Lake Marian, we headed down Joe Overstreet Road to the Landing, on the shore of Lake Kissimmee [map]. As you head along the road, toward the lake, the habitat changes from upland and ranch agriculture to wetlands and lacustrine (that means “lake related”) landscapes.
There is usually a family of Red-headed Woodpeckers near the start of the road, associated with some dead trees and farm buildings. We did not see them at first, but at least one adult came out to investigate some woodpecker calls we played.
Further along, we had a few raptors, including a Bald Eagle harassing an American Kestrel on some irrigation equipment. The lands on either side of the road are still owned by the Overstreet family and include cattle and sod farms.
Down by the water, the wind wasn’t as bad as earlier at Lake Jackson, but it was still a bit breezy. Some Wilson’s Snipes were slinking along nearby in the grass while Boat-tailed Grackles made a racket at the boat dock.
A single distant Snail Kite was seen in one of the spotting scopes, and one Bald Eagle, too. There were a few wading and diving birds out on the water, but nothing in very large numbers except for a flock of Cattle Egrets that made its way through.
From Joe Overstreet we briefly stopped by the Double C Bar ranch [map], where the last known non-migratory Florida Whooping Crane sometimes hangs out. It was not seen, and Dave Goodwin talked a bit about how the non-migratory flock was a failed experiment, with most of the birds succumbing to bobcats and other predators. The focus now is on the migratory flock that winters in the panhandle and flies to Wisconsin in the spring.
Our last stop of the day, at Lakefront Park on East Lake Tohopekaliga [map]. This place is known to have Snail Kites that pass close to the park and restaurant, and we hoped to get some good views. Unfortunately the weather got windier and colder, and a few of us got only one extremely distant view of a Snail Kite in one scope.
That was about it for the trip. We headed back to Festival HQ after a long but fun day around central Florida. We didn’t get all our “hoped for” birds, but honestly, that’s only a small disappointment for me. We have to remember the birds are not there for us; we have the privilege to go and seek them out, but it has to be on their terms as much as possible. Conservation and education should take precedence over consumption and exploitation.
I can’t believe it’s been 2 weeks since the 2017 Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival. I apologize for the delay, but here are some photos and experiences I’d like to share with you.
First of all, I scaled back a lot this year, primarily for budgetary reasons. Last year I had a packed schedule, with many night hikes and early mornings. I was completely exhausted and mentally spent. Since I had done a pelagic trip at the end of September of last year, I decided (after much hand-wringing) to forgo the offshore trip this year. This turned out to be a bit of a blessing, as I understand the Monday trip had to come inshore and essentially do a lagoon tour amid rough seas, wind, and frigid (for Florida) temperatures.
In any case, I did three day-time trips, one night-hike, and a few side-trips for rarities in the area.
That first trip was the Little Big Econ State Forest hike [map]. Now, you might be wondering what a “Little Big Econ” is. It’s a combination of the two rivers that flow near and through the state forest and the inclusive wildlife management area (the Little Econ actually joins the “Big” Econ southwest of the state forest). You can read about the Econlockhatchee River at this St. Johns River Water Management District page. We hiked in at the Barr Street trailhead.
Along with other familiar faces at the festival, it was nice to see Bert Alm there. I met Bert at a Florida Master Naturalist Program class almost two years ago. Bert and his wife have gotten quite involved in conservation and wildlife rehabilitation since moving to the area, and it’s always a pleasure to see him.
Like most typical black water rivers, the Econ (and Little Econ) are stained a dark brown from organics and have steep, sandy sides. In many ways the ecosystem here is similar to Turkey Creek (in Brevard County), which is a smaller black water river in a more built-up area.
We had the expected winter residents, like Red-bellied and Downy woodpeckers, Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and more. There is one nesting Bald Eagle pair (see above). At one bend in the river I was surprised to see a Limpkin along the bank. Limpkins eat Apple Snails (both the native and introduced varieties), which I did not think lived in rivers and creeks.
There was one surprise that cropped up when some of the trip co-leaders started “pishing” to call in some of the warblers and other small songbirds. Along with titmouses, gnatcatchers and kinglets, a Blackburnian Warbler came into view high up in a mostly bare tree. It only stayed in view for a couple of seconds, but was long enough to get a look at the yellow-orange and black facial markings, as well as the sides and wings. This is extremely early for this species to be in Florida. Blackburnians winter over mainly in northern South America and Central America. Without photographic proof, this sighting won’t be “official”, but that doesn’t take away from the exhilaration and puzzlement of seeing it, for me.
Throughout the morning, we kept hearing the cat-like calls of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (in fact, I think their call sounds more like a cat than Grey Catbird calls). It took a while, but one finally came in close and stayed for a photo-op.
We hiked a total of about 5 kilometers (3 miles) on part of the Florida Trail and back before leaving the park. Most of the group then stopped at C.S. Lee Park (a small park and boat ramp off SR-46) [map] on the way back to Titusville where we saw some wading birds, among others, in the adjacent wetlands and flood plain of the St. Johns River.
Since the day was only half over, it was decided to take a trip to the Space Coast Regional Airport [map] and find the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Mrs. Lonely Birder and I tried finding this bird before New Years, with no success.
This time the bird was out, catching large grasshoppers on the airports barbed-wired fence!
Bonus bird number one, and a life bird! Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are rare but regular visitors to central Florida; there’s at least one every winter. As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, many flycatcher species have site affinity – that is, they often return to the same places year after year. If this bird decides this makes a fine winter home, we may have several years to look forward to seeing this bird as an adult!
After hawking grasshoppers and other insects for a few minutes along the fence line, the bird flew off a distance onto some power lines, so we left and decided to try and see another reported rarity: a Long-tailed Duck seen near the Canaveral Locks, at the Rodney S. Ketcham Boat Ramp [map].
It took some patience, but the duck finally did emerge from behind some cement pilings and out toward the adjacent marina.
Bonus bird number two! I’ve seen this species once before, when a male was seen near Parrish Park, under the causeway bridge between Titusville and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a couple of years ago.
That ended the daytime activities for the festival. The Florida Ornithological Society didn’t have a booth this year, but I did run into a few members, including Gina and Adam Kent, at the exhibitor area. Most of the usual vendors, organizations, and tour operators were there, including the Florida Wildlife Hospital with their animal ambassadors (Bella, the American Kestrel and Copper, a Red Rat Snake).
That just left a night hike with the Enchanted Forest Sanctuary. This was the only night hike I did, and it has always been fun and educational. There were two main changes this year, though. One is that the sanctuary no longer calls owls in. I was mildly disappointed, but there is growing uncertainty as to the ethics of calling for birds in general, with some parks and organizations eliminating the practice. Whatever the specific reasons for not calling owls, the hike was still great fun. The second change was a result of the main Southern Flying Squirrel nest getting blown down during Hurricane Matthew in October. The squirrels relocated to other nests, so they were not easily enticed to the feeder for viewing through a night vision camera.
It was a busy and fulfilling day (and evening), with one life bird and exploring a new place (Little Big Econ).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Nice, just past full, Moon over the inlet.
Tranquil sailboat at dawn.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The 2016 Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival is over, and it’s time to face the post festival let-down and adjust back to “real life.” I also came down with a severe cold (luckily after the festival!). My apologies for the delay in getting this blog post up.
I had a packed schedule this year. Since I’d had so much fun on the night hikes last year and the year before, I signed up for one each night of the festival. This was great, in theory, but in practice it meant being sleep-deprived for much of the festival. This was Camille’s first festival, so she basically mirrored my schedule.
The weather was quite variable and temperamental all week, and due to a much wetter than average fall and winter, many of the sites had standing water or deep mud that would have otherwise been dry. That made for some fun challenges in getting around the trip sites, but we managed.
I’ll summarize each day/trip here with a few photographs. I had my camera with me most of the time, but with my focus on FOY and life birds, and with some days being rainy and windy, photography was not a great priority for me.
Lake Monroe is one of the many lakes that makes up the St. Johns River system. As such, it is similar in many ways to Lake Jesup and its surroundings. There are hardwood hammocks adjacent to some wet meadows and mudflats, leading to wetlands along the lake’s edge. The wet grassy meadow is grazed by cattle (much like the Marl Bed Flats) which can make for some hazardous going. [MAP]
Most of our trip was along the Brickyard Slough Tract – a sort of side extension of the St. Johns River – and the ranchlands adjacent to some wetlands and some wooded tracts. In the comparatively drier “upland” grassy areas we saw and heard my FOY Sedge Wrens and had some great fly-bys of Pileated Woodpeckers.
Unfortunately, recent rains (and a wet fall and winter) made much of our going very muddy and difficult to walk through. Our ultimate goal was to make it to Bench Ranch Park, but the going was so difficult that we had to turn back the way we came (no easy feat in itself), and get driven out via park service trucks. Camille almost lost a rubber boot, and one of our trip leaders lost both his shoes twice to the muck.
Other notable bird sightings included a dark morph Red-tailed Hawk, something I’ve never seen before, a pair of Northern Harriers, and a couple of American Kestrels. Chip Clouse, another trip leader, provided the base eBird list for us, linked below.
The evening trip for Day 1 was a bus ride/walk along Hatbill Road [map] with Mitchell Harris. The night was a little cool, and we had a cold day previously, but Mitchell was hopeful the owls would be active and responsive to us. He birds the area frequently and has an intimate knowledge of the owl (and other crepuscular/nocturnal birds) species.
At the start of the trip, just after sundown, we played some rail calls near a marsh along the St. Johns River at Hatbill Park. We got some clear replies to both King Rail and Virginia Rail calls! The Virginia Rail calls were a lifer ID for me, but this would be put in a different context later in the week.
We had some good call-backs from the Eastern Screech Owl calls he played, but no response at all from the Barred or Great Horned Owls he knows to be there. We were about to finish the trip, at our last stop, when we finally got a Eastern Screech Owl to come out and let us spotlight it. This is the first time I’ve actually seen a screech owl in the wild. All my previous IDs are voice only! Camille, a fellow owl-phile, was excited as well, and we did a celebratory fist-bump. That one sighting made the whole trip worth it!
The second day of field trips started off cool again, and off-an-on rain showers made the birding a challenge. I’d been urged by my friend Sean Reynolds for years to visit the Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area [map], so I made it a priority to do both Tosohatchee trips this year. The park is spectacularly beautiful!
We followed a powerline cut at sunrise, and we got out a few times to see the birds waking up. We were treated to an extended look at a King Rail at the edge of some brushy wetlands, and a great look at a Barred Owl perched in the open after sunrise. We stopped at a bend in the St. Johns River where a small flock of wintering warblers were feeding. We then made our way into the WMA and the various habitats it maintains.
Birding in the rain is difficult and limiting. I didn’t dare have my camera out for most of the time, and keeping my binoculars clear was distracting. Fortunately, many of the birds obliged by being very visible, even to the unaided eyes. We had great looks at Bald Eagles, Purple Gallinules, various woodpecker species, and Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers near Lake Charlie (see photo, above).
We generated momentum throughout the day and managed a decent list, despite the weather, and got some good looks at a few of the birds not afraid to brave the intermittent downpours and wind gusts. But there weren’t many large flocks of winter residents hanging around.
The second night-hike of the festival was at Fox Lake Park [map]. I had done this trip last year, and it had been so much fun, I was very keen to try again. On the whole, the trip was quite fun, and we managed to call in a Barred Owl pair and get some good looks at them. My main complaints would be that some of the trip leaders got to talking and gossiping to the point that they were not interpreting the trail or paying close attention to the group behind them. Xavier (whom was a trip leader last year, as well) did manage to give us some good information on the park and its management practices, though.
The start of the second Tosohatchee trip followed along the powerlines again and down to the St. Johns River. We stopped along the same stretch as the previous day’s trip, listening again for rails and watching as the birds woke up. We heard some King Rails again, and even had some quick views of Marsh Wrens. The biggest excitement for me was my very first look at a Virginia Rail. Although hearing one on the Hatbill Road trip was great, seeing one was a highlight of my entire birding experiences. It’s strikingly orange bill and gray head were beautiful!
We also stopped at the St. Johns river, again. This time, however, we walked along the river to get some better looks at some shorebirds and other activity not visible from the end of the road. One of the park employees who was assisting us got really carried away and excited over hearing some Eastern Meadowlarks (which had been heard the previous morning as well), leading her to keep walking further and further along the river edge, trying to get a look. That sort of energy and happiness is part of what makes birding for some of us so rewarding.
The weather was windier and the threat of heavy rain shadowed us throughout the day, but we managed to miss most of the bad weather as the day wore on. We hiked through some pine flatwoods, catching some warblers and even American Goldfinches, here and there.
Angel, one of our trip leaders (and his wife, Mariel), tried several times to call out a Bachman’s Sparrow after we heard some tell-tale high pitched call notes. Unfortunately, the flatwoods in this part of the WMA were probably too overgrown to attract these birds. Although managed fire does a lot to keep these habitats better suited for most wildlife in central Florida, it’s hard to keep the Saw Palmettos and other brushy plants from quickly out-competing the wire grasses and other cover Bachman’s Sparrows prefer.
While birds are, of course, the highlight of these trips for most of us, the festival is meant to highlight wildlife, in general. When we encounter our non-avian friends it is always fun and often educational. Mariel managed to find this little toad on our way along the path.
We emerged at the edge of the woods, back near the powerline cut, and got our first look at some Eastern Bluebirds and a nice flock of Pine Warblers. From there we slogged through some very wet conditions in a cedar dome swamp. The water overtopped my hiking boots, making for a very squishy hike, thereafter.
The rains also started to move in, but we still managed to get some reasonable looks at some more birds, ending the day happy, if a little wet.
After arriving back at the Eastern Florida State College campus, Camille and I decided to drop by Parrish Park and see if the Long-tailed Duck was there. It had been seen now and again in the weeks leading up to the festival, and some eBird lists had it showing up recently.
Two large groups of resting Black Skimmers and a large number of Ring-billed Gulls made up the majority of birds at the park.
One ubiquitous bird in our area that is found near beaches and parking-lots is the Boat-tailed Grackle. I’ve featured them a few times in this blog, but I tend to gloss over them because they are so pervasive. Here are a couple of shots as they braved the high winds. Unlike Common Grackles, where the males and females are quite similar in appearance, Boat-tailed Grackles show much more sexual dimorphism. This is a fancy term meaning the two nominal sexes look different from each other. In this species, the females tend to be a rich brown with darker wings and tails, while the males are larger and an iridescent black.
The third night-hike this year was at the Enchanted Forest Sanctuary. It wasn’t as cold this night as previous ones, making for a more comfortable walk in the woods. Like previous years, this trip was educational and fun. We saw various animal tracks, spotlighted hundreds of spider eyes with our individual flashlilghts, and even got both night-vision and spotlighted views of a Southern Flying Squirrel.
We called in owls, and managed to get really close to an Eastern Screech Owl that even called as we watched. The trip leaders used red lights to spotlight the wildlife here, which differed from both the Hatbill Road and Fox Lake trips, which both used standard, white flashlights. There is a differeing of philosophy when dealing with nocturnal wildlife, and owls in particular. Some people, including experts such as Mitchell Harris, contend that the bright white lights do little to disturb the owls and as long as we keep a reasonable distance (not specified), there should be no ill effects. At EFS, they use red lights. For many animals (most notably, people), red lights result in little loss of low-light vision because it affects the light-sensitive rods in the retina the least. Whether or not this is true for owls, I don’t know. As I’ll mention again later, some people don’t spotlight wildlife at all.
In any case, the night went well and seeing another owl up close was a real treat.
That wraps up the first half of my field trips for SCBWF 2016. I’ll summarize the rest, including the much anticipated off-shore (formerly know as pelagic) trip in my next post!