[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.
[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]
Another Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival is in the proverbial rear view mirror, as the region turns to Spring.
I scaled back my activities this year, but the two main field trips were new for me. They also had the bonus of being led by Mitchell Harris, one of the most proficient birders in the area.
But first, on Thursday, Camille and I did an “unofficial” field trip to the T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area. In our quest for ducks and perhaps a Snail Kite, we ran into one of the largest gatherings of shorebirds I’ve seen in recent years. Besides the ones recorded in our lists, there were thousands of shorebirds in flocks too distant to identify. There were also hundreds of Glossy Ibises and many herons and egrets.
Here are a few photos from that trip.
This adventure set us up for “official” trips over the next two days, with more “unofficial” stops along the way. This Festival was strange for me, not only due to my scaling back – which included not scheduling the pelagic boat trip for the first time in years – but also not seeing many of the friends I know from around the state, as many of them were on day-long trips every day.
Here is the eBird list for T.M. Goodwin plus a couple from a side excursion along Buffer Preserve Road, at the St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park.
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).
Hey there, readers! I squeezed in one last grand adventure for 2017 this week with a visit to the T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area [map] this past Thursday, with my friends Sarah and Bella. They have not had the opportunity to drive into the area, which is only open to vehicle traffic on Thursdays.
As a waterfowl management area, one would assume to find ducks in abundance. With so many ducks being seen earlier in the Fall at Merritt Island, and even more phenomenal numbers from the Alafia Banks Christmas Bird Count, you’d be forgiven if you’d assume there would be ducks galore! But you know what is said about assuming, right?
In fact, we had just two identifiable ducks (a male and a female Hooded Merganser) and distant looks at “probably Mottled Ducks, maybe”, and that was it! But it was a wonderfully birdy day, nonetheless! The morning air was a little crisp, but when the sun finally came out, it warmed nicely into a gorgeous day.
Along the “original” or southern unit, we very quickly got life birds for both Sarah and Bella: Swamp Sparrows! These birds are common enough, if you know where to look, but like most “LBJs” (Little Brown Jobs) can be frustratingly difficult to ID if you don’t get a good look. With a little patience, we coaxed a few into the open, but I hope this shot establishes how, even when out on a perch, these birds can manage to blend in.
Along with regular visits from Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers, we had some good looks at Belted Kingfishers, like a male who what just tried to catch breakfast and a slightly chilly looking Red-bellied Woodpecker.
We drove out to the observation tower that overlooks “Lake Goodwin”, but the tower has fallen again into disrepair and had a small apiary sitting on the bottom step. We decided to walk along the road south of the tower where we had seen some flocks of white egret species and Glossy Ibises flying around (the roads south and west of the tower are closed to vehicular traffic). We had to be careful, though, because the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (which manages the area) is doing some work in some of the marsh areas, with heavy equipment. Large dump trucks were speeding in and out of the area along the publicly accessible roads (so if you venture out to the area, be mindful).
There were several large flocks of (mostly) white wading birds which can look fairly homogenous from a distance.
On closer inspection, we could see that besides the obvious pink of the Roseate Spoonbills, there were American White Pelicans, immature Little Blue Herons, and Glossy Ibises among the Great and Snowy Egrets and White Ibises.
Both species of yellowlegs were also present, along with possibly the most Killdeers I’ve ever seen in one place. We also had some good looks at Least Sandpipers, another life bird species for both Sarah and Bella.
While scanning around for more shorebirds and perhaps some ducks hiding among the waders, Bella let out a small gasp and started to get excited about a couple of birds flying toward us. I swung my binoculars up to see something unexpected: two Snow Geese! And not only two, but one of each color morph: blue and white. They flew in a circle before settling down some distance away with some egrets and herons, behind a screen of vegetation.
These birds were lifers for all three of us, and as rarities, we wanted to get good looks at them, and try to document the sighting with photographs. The distance and vegetation made that a little challenging, but here are the best ones I pulled from my camera.
It was hard to let go any chance of seeing the geese closer up, but they stayed down in the vegetation and eventually we decided to make our way back toward the car. Meanwhile, Sarah got a good look at her fourth lifer species of the day (and three in just minutes) with a small flock of Black-bellied Plovers. A stubborn Eastern Meadowlark would not turn to face us, but even without the bright yellow front and bold “V” mark, these birds are handsome and striking.
As we drove out to the main road again, we continued on to the “Broadmoor” or northern unit of the management area. This part has larger areas of open water, but still no ducks. There were some large assemblages of American Coots, as expected, and some additional raptors (including a nice little Sharp-shinned Hawk).
We looped around the Broadmoor Unit stopping at a couple of places, hoping again for ducks (to no avail) but got to admire more of the beautiful landscape.
On the way back through the original unit, on the way out, we got a quick look at a Grey-headed (a.k.a. Purple) Swamphen, another life bird for the Muros, and a county bird for me!
A Red-shouldered Hawk let us watch it eat lunch, too. If you’re a little faint of heart, you might want to scroll past these next images. I did feel bad for the poor Garter Snake, but if you’ve seen The Lion King or Madagascar, you know the drill.
We also managed to encounter this frightening apparatus, used by the state to keep some of the waterways navigable for management (I’m guessing). This contraption appears to be a small boat with a pilot house on top and some jerry-rigged mounted whirl of menacing blades. It was slinging mud and roots into the air. Behind it, large groups of egrets were gathered, looking for whatever prey items (or parts thereof) it was stirring up. Sarah dubbed it… The Disturber.
Our next move was to try and visit the southeastern portion of St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park [map], one of the two quadrants in Indian River County. Whether time of day, time or year, or just luck of the draw, it was extremely quiet along the Tree Frog Trail, with most of the action being along the road leading to the trailhead, with Killdeers and European Starlings (a dozen or so each).
From there we ended our day with a walk along part of Rocky Point Road, in Malabar. There are a series of boat/fishing piers along the waterfront in the Indian River Lagoon that often host large groups of pelicans, cormorants, and various shorebirds. It’s been the only place so far this Fall and Winter that I’ve had reliable looks at Horned Grebes. It took some searching in the late afternoon light to finally get two grebes between the piers and one of the spoil islands in the lagoon.
By the way, those Horned Grebes were also life birds for Sarah and Bella. If you’ve been keeping count, that’s a six-lifer day for Bella and a five-lifer day for Sarah! Here are the eBird lists for the day, in case you’re interested in more.
A nice way to end the year, I think. Ducks have been around, and more seem to have flown in with a shot of cooler weather this weekend – including T.M. Goodwin! Wintering shorebirds have been giving a good showing, too. This should bode well for some of the upcoming field trips for the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival next month. Stay tuned.
It’s the middle of Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season again! It’s been over a century since Frank Chapman proposed counting birds on Christmas instead of killing them, as had been done for generations (thanks, Frank!). Administered by the National Audubon Society, the CBC is an important pseudo-census of birds in the western hemisphere (primarily centered on North America).
The counts go from mid-December to early January every year. Please have a look at Audubon’s CBC site and see if there’s a count you can still help with. Please contact the compiler for the circle and don’t just “show up” as these are ostensibly planned out a bit in advance, and it’s only courteous to ask first.
Last year I met up with my friend Dave Goodwin and tromped around East Pasco County. This year he enlisted my help with his team’s portion of the Alafia Banks counting circle in Hillsborough County, last Sunday. I brought Camille along for her first CBC (plus, it meant I didn’t have to drive – sorry Camille…).
Our team included Dave, his friend and mentee Erik Haney, Brian Ahern, Camille, and (I hope obviously) me. Brian had to leave us in the afternoon for other commitments, but the rest of us had a full day of hiking, driving, and birding.
We started before dawn at the Balm Scrub Preserve [map] for a nearly 7.5 kilometer (over 4.5 miles) hike. We hoped to get some owls and perhaps Eastern Whippoorwills, though they eluded us. Hearing coyotes baying in the distance was eerie and thrilling, though.
As the sun was preparing to rise, we heard several plaintive whistle calls around us. I at first speculated that they might be single-note Tufted Titmouse calls, but they didn’t have quite the right timbre. Brian Ahern realized eventually that they were actually the dawn calls of Hermit Thrushes. We soon heard accompanied “pip-pip” calls in association with the whistles, and eventually got some brief looks at the birds in low light.
The sunrise was beautiful and lit up large expanses of scrub, palmettos, and patches of woods.
We had some Bachman’s Sparrows call as we moved along, and other birds began to wake up, including House, Sedge, and Carolina Wrens, some warbler species, and overflights of American Robins and American Pipits.
The transitional areas and borders between the open scrub and the woods were good places for Ovenbirds, Pine, Palm, Black-and-White, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Near the start of Bullfrog Creek, we entered some denser woods with damp soil and several dead trees (often called “snags”).
Here, we had Pileated, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers flying and calling nearby. Some American Robins eventually flew in, as wells as some Common Grackles.
After leaving the Balm preserve, we spent a good chunk of the morning driving various roads, looking for Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Western Kingbirds, among the more expected roadside birds.
After Erik and I got a quick glimpse of a Western Kingbird on Colding Loop Road, we drove a little further and spotted what we thought was a pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. It turns out there were three! Two had somewhat short tails, while one had an almost full-length tail. These birds are beautiful and elegant.
We then stopped at Moody Pond [map], hoping for shorebirds and some ducks. There were several dozen Least Sandpipers (seen mostly in a spotting scope), and an overflight of some American White Pelicans, and a good mix of wading birds. Both species of yellowlegs were present, too.
We did another drive along Colding Loop and Sweat Loop Roads (yes, these are the actual names), stopping at one point to flush out a small group of Baltimore Orioles, and also catch brief glimpses of both Painted and Indigo Buntings.
After a somewhat sad drive through some new housing developments that were using up some previously good habitat for things like Grasshopper Sparrows and other upland birds, we made another pass along Sweat Loop Road (we visited those areas A LOT), this time stopping to get a mixed flock of Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, warblers, and Tufted Titmouses. There was even an adult Red-headed Woodpecker, which was considered by Dave and Erik to be an unexpected find! These photos are from the best looks I’ve had of this species.
We ended the day by driving back to the Balm Scrub Preserve, hoping to see or hear owls, nightjars, and maybe even catch a glimpse of an American Woodcock. As we drove in, we saw a raptor silhouetted on the top of a dirt pile, that got Dave so excited he could barely speak. At first I wasn’t sure what the big deal was, as I saw the characteristic shape of a Crested Caracara, as the bird flew a short distance to a tree. Dave finally managed to get out that this would be only the 4th county record of the bird – ever.
The bird flew off before we could get much closer views, and after nearly alighting on the ground in the adjacent pasture, flushed up another caracara! They each flew away in opposite directions and quickly out of sight.
The sky grew quickly darker, and we did hear some distant owls and a few other birds settling in for the night. Erik walked around one of the ponds and texted Dave that he had an Eastern Whippoorwill near him, visible in his flashlight beam. As Camille and I advanced to his location, we heard what I thought was Erik playing a whippoorwill recording to my right, but then I heard Erik calling my name to my left. He thought I was playing a recording. It turns out there were two Eastern Whippoorwills near his location. While we missed seeing the bird he had been watching, we did hear both birds quite distinctly, which added another lifer to Camille’s list.
On our way out of the preserve to get to the compilation dinner, we had one final surprise. We played the recording of an Eastern Screech Owl and had two owls call back and come close to our position by the gate. This capped an amazing and exhausting day of birding. As a team, we recorded 101 birds – I can claim 100, my first birding century day!
We wrapped up the count with the whole circle team at a local restaurant, as Charlie Fisher tallied the final list of birds for the Alafia Banks Circle.
Here are a list of my eBird entries for the day (including my single-bird incidental lists):
These counts are important to gauge the trends of bird populations at local, state, and national levels, and it’s always good to go out of my local area to birdwatch with friends. It was a long, long day, though, and I’m giving thought to staying for local CBCs next year. But that’s 12 months away. Who knows what adventures are in store between now and then.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone, no matter what or when you celebrate them. If I don’t squeeze in a final post before the end of the year, Happy New Year, too.
December 21, 2017 [My apologies for the delay in wrapping up my adventures from earlier this month. It’s been a hectic and busy time, as you might imagine]
I’ll wrap up my end-of Autumn posts (as we reach the end of astronomical or “official” autumn) my MINWR adventure with Sarah and Bella Muro. A day after chasing a Brant and Neotropic Cormorant, I met with the Muros late in the morning and we formulated a plan to try and maximize the chances of getting Bella some life birds, namely sparrows and ducks.
We headed to Space Coast Regional Airport [map] first, since there are often various sparrows seen there, as well as the occasional Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. While it was probably early for the flycatcher, it was fun to ride along the perimeter road (imaginatively called Perimeter Road) around the airport, then up Tico road (imaginatively named for TItusville/COcoa – the previous name of the airport).
The fence around the airport was strangely devoid of its usual Loggerhead Shrikes, but there were a few American Kestrels and other birds of prey.
We managed to scare up a Vesper Sparrow on the far end of Tico road, but the look was brief, so we pulled off the road to “chase” it down the fence line. In birding terms, chasing doesn’t usually mean actually running after the bird in sight. It means making a concerted effort to find where the bird may have flushed or flown to, using observation and smart conjecture, based on known species or genus behaviors and the available options. In a larger sense, chasing can mean driving or travelling long distances to attempt to see a specific bird species, but perhaps that sort of chasing deserves its own post.
While trying to get another look at the sparrow, we happened on a mixed group of birds, including a couple of American Goldfinches, a Blue-headed Vireo and some warblers. And this bird, from the Valiant Air Command:
In the end, we identified the sparrow as a Vesper, by process of elimination based on field marks and habitat.
Our next stop was Black Point Drive [map], where we finally did get some more ducks, including American Wigeons, Blue-winged Teals, and even some Northern Pintails. Through most of the afternoon, my poor, fickle camera made photographs quite difficult, so I apologize for the relative lack of photos.
We then went into the Cape Canaveral National Seashore [map]. The road toward Playalinda Beach has several pull-offs (called Vistas) that look out over ponds and wetlands. It was along these Vistas that up to 10 species of ducks were reported during the previous week.
The Ruddy Ducks from my adventure with Camille were still there, joined by many Redheads and American Wigeons. But the species we were most interested in seeing were Canvasbacks, which had also been reported there.
It took some serious staring: the larger rafts of ducks were at the edge of comfortable binocular range. I did finally get a chance “fly by” of my binocular field by a female Canvasback, but she landed in the midst of the other ducks before Sarah or Bella could positively identify her. We continued to scrutinize the group until finally, two male Canvasbacks swam out from the edge of the group and turned enough for us to see their unique head profiles. Sorry, no duck photos, but Sarah got this shot off for the moment of Bella’s latest life bird!
With the light beginning to fade, we went part way along Bio Lab Road [map], where Bella spotted this slightly odd looking heron. At first glance it appears to be a Little Blue Heron transitioning to adult plumage, but to all three of us it’s size and proportions seemed to be off, and it’s plumage was more muted gray than blue. We may never really know, which is one reason why birding is fun and engaging to me.
We ended the day at Pumphouse Road [map], hoping for sparrows in the last light. Sarah did manage to catch a glimpse of a very late season (and perhaps rare winter resident) Yellow Warbler in the mangroves.
That evening the year’s only “supermoon” – when the full moon coincides with the Moon’s perigee, or closest point in its orbit around Earth – rose on the way back toward home.
The final cap on the day was a meteor streaking along the sky as I dropped Sarah and Bella off at their home.
What does a self-professed “lonely birder” get out of all this, a busy weekend birding with others? It’s always a pleasure to share a love and passion for birds and conservation with anyone, especially friends. Opportunities to recharge and reset will come. Besides, I also got a hefty serving of some delicious chili from Sarah’s husband, to take home. Sharing food is one of the most powerful and important gestures people can make, so thank you, Chris, for the lovely meal (ok, 3 meals, really).