Do You See What I See?

Today was a pleasant day at Turkey Creek Sanctuary. The winter and year-long residents seem to be settling into their routines. The overall bird density was still low, but the number of species was greater than any point since the summer. 

Most importantly, after almost an entire year, I finally managed to get that elusive White-eyed Vireo photograph! I almost missed it and I had time to fire off one shot in the shadows of the underbrush before it dashed off. But my quest is at an end! 

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A photograph 11 months in the making!

Speaking of vireos, I had a somewhat mysterious encounter with one near the start of my walk. I managed to observe the bird for a good while (sorry no pics – too busy birdwatching 😉 ), and my visual assessment doesn’t quite match with anything in my Peterson guide. The bird was clearly a vireo by shape and size. It was an almost uniform gray with white wing-bars and white spectacles. The best fit is a Blue-headed Vireo; however, both my Peterson field guide and my Sibley guide indicate there should be some sense of yellow and/or greenish cast on the flanks and back. Here, some further explanation is needed.

During the late 1990s, the Solitary Vireo was “officially” split into 3 separate but closely related species, the Plumbeous Vireo of the intermountain west, Cassin’s Vireo of the Pacific coast and northwest, and the Blue-headed Vireo of eastern North America. Generally the three species form what Sibley refers to as a “cline” from east to west of decreasing contrast and color.

An illustration by Keith Hansen showing the plumage variation among “Solitary” Vireos.

I mention all this because as I was making careful observations of “my” vireo, I had the distinct impression that it was almost completely devoid of color and of fairly low contrast. Upon further review, it most closely resembles the plumage of a Plumbeous Vireo. I will note though, that Sibley says there is hybridization and overlap in all plumages and even voice. Where that leaves me with proper identification, I am unsure as this species has not been reliably recorded this far east.

As has been the case for most of the autumn, the most numerous and active birds in the Sanctuary are the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. If you haven’t had a chance to observe these birds, let me just say that they are the tiniest balls of energy you’ll see in a bird, surpassed only by some hummingbirds. Despite their often being within only feet of me, it’s nearly impossible to get a decent photograph. My attempts today did yeild a fairly unique image. It’s a bit blurry, but I find it fascinating. This was taken in the split second it takes one of these tiny birds to hop from one branch to another.

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Some other species that I observed today include the Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Cardinal, Gray Catbird, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Turkey Vulture, Palm Warbler, Tri-colored Heron, American Coot, Cattle Egret, and American Kestrel (the last four by the weir at the Melbourne-Tillman Canal).

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Hello, my monochromatic friend.

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Red-bellied Woodpecker enjoying a little breakfast.

Today was extra active for the Gopher Tortoises that live in the Sanctuary. Here are a couple of examples of coloration difference within the species.

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This dark green tortoise had a shell about 12” from front to back.

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This larger tortoise’s shell was about 18” long. Notice the reddish coloration.

One very noticeable absence from the time I was at the Sanctuary was a total lack of squirrels. The last several trips there the squirrels were everywhere. Dozens and dozens. Today, I heard one scolding call deep in the underbrush, and that was it. I suppose all the frenzy of activity before could have been the squirrels fattening up for the “winter” here, and now they’re just lazing about, waiting for spring. But it was darn strange from my perspective! 

Gnatcatcher, Gnatcatcher Catch Me A Gnat…

I spent another very quiet Sunday morning at Turkey Creek. I had hoped my hunch that the early part of the weekend was more “birdy” than it had been would extend into yesterday. That proved fruitless, but I did have a nice walk through the woods again, and added one species to my 2013 list.

The most active birds in the Sanctuary continue to be the Blue-grey Gnatcatchers. One large Live Oak had a virtual cloud of them, darting out and around while making their wheezy little call notes (scroll to the second sound recording). I remember my very first field guide, using comparative identification methods, describing Blue-grey Gnatcatchers as “miniature mockingbirds.” This is not a bad description, in some ways. They will even bob their tails in a similar fashion to some mockingbirds.

The Grey Catbrids have arrived in force for the winter. Whereas the individuals in the park last week seemed excessively shy, the ones I saw yesterday were much bolder. In fact, I managed to get a decent photo of one.

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The cat’s meow. Oh, and it’s perched on Beauty Berries!

The catbirds were particularly vocal. They (along with the Northern Cardinals) provided the only significant bird noise in the Sanctuary, making me yell “QUIET!” a couple of times because they were drowning out any other bird sounds. Of course that worked for all of about 2 seconds.

At two different points along my walk through the park, I spotted a raccoon in a tree. I’ve seen a lot of racoons this year, compared to the past few.

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Raccoon 20 feet over the creek.

Near one of the creek overlooks on the Hammock Loop, I spent a few minutes watching the fish and turtles swim in the sunlight. One large Florida Softshell Turtle came by, so I got its photograph while it was still under water.

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Florida Softshell Turtle.

At the weir, I saw one verifiable Palm Warbler (I heard a great many more) as well as a Spotted Sandpiper, American Coot, Common Gallinule, Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Little Blue Heron, Tri-colored Heron and an unidentified white heron/egret of some kind (it flew off before I could be sure what it was).

On the way out along the western edge of the Sanctuary, I heard some finch-like scolding among the Northern Cardinals near the chain-link fence. I managed to get a couple of good observing minutes of some Indigo Buntings. The male had molted out of almost all his blue feathers – just a few flecks remaining among the brown. The two females were a very pretty warm brown color. They bickered and chased each other around some Sabal palms before flying off. This is the first time I’ve seen this species this year, and the unofficial 2103 species count is now 140.

Other species seen yesterday:

  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Blue Jay

This marks the first time this year that I haven’t seen or heard a White-eyed Vireo at Turkey Creek Sanctuary. That’s not to say they aren’t still in the park, but I neither saw nor heard any evidence of them.

Birds in the Hood

Migration season is heating up for sure at Turkey Creek Sanctuary. It wasn’t the best day for photographs, but I did get a few here and there. Right off the bat (it IS baseball playoff seaon after all), I saw 2 Cooper’s Hawks in the parking area. I don’t have any definitive proof, but I believe these are the same hawks I saw as juveniles a couple of months ago (the size and behaviors seem very similar). They now have their adult plumage. This one was persistently calling out to it’s companion.

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Surveying the domain.

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“Hey, sib! Look at this crazy human with the camera!”

Most of the way down the Sand Pine Trail I heard some commotion amongst the backdrop of Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals that were making the usual racket. In some of the thick brush I could hear some Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (which seem to have taken over as the Sanctuary mascot from the White-eyed Vireos), some blackbirds (not sure what species) and some more generic call notes. I caught partial glimpses of a warbler that I have not been able to ID. It was definitely yellow with black streaking on the breast and throat. However, it also had no clear wing bars, a mostly plain face and head, and maybe white outer tail edges. The two closest birds, based on my Peterson’s guide are either a Canada Warbler or a Yellow-rumped Warbler. But neither seems particularly satifying to me as an ID.

As I rounded the end of the trail towards the boardwalk, an Ovenbird (year’s first) popped out into the open for a few seconds, then dashed off.

The creek overlooks were fairly quiet, but as I neared the far end toward the Hammock Loop, I saw a couple of armadillos. Here’s a short video of one foraging by the boardwalk. Armadillos have very sharp claws and have no problem shoving their heads down into the soil to snap up various insects. My apologies for the loud camera zoom motor.

Armadillo.. nom nom nom

Along the Hammock Loop I again noticed some gnatcatchers in the understory. Experience has taught me (and my friend Laura Erickson reminded me this past winter) that where there is one species present, there is often another. Sure enough, I saw some larger movement and caught a male Hooded Warbler square in my binocs! I tried to snap a photograph, but he was too fidgety and flew off.

Somewhere along this stretch I did hear the morning’s single White-eyed Vireo, so I know they haven’t completely left the Sanctuary. I also heard quite a few Downy Woodpeckers today, and managed to sight a few (I’ve embedded a video of one further down).

I went by the canoe deck and out to McKinnon’s Way backwards from the way I normally go, and went out toward the weir and canal. As was the case 2 weeks ago, there were a lot of butterflies throughtout the Sanctuary today. Here’s a White Peacock that stopped long enough for a nice shot.

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Proud as a Peacock

Down at the weir were the usual suspects: a Little Blue Heron, an American Coot and a Spotted Sandpiper (in unspotted plumage). I did notice a Solitary Sandpiper there as well today. [Edit: I originally misidentified the Solitary Sandpiper as a Lesser Yellowlegs. Further research in my field and desk guides, as well as the Internet has clarified it for me.]

In the area near the Harris radio tower, I saw another Ovenbird near more Northern Cardinals, but most of the rest of the morning was quiet as the sun rode higher and the temperature climbed. On the way out of the Scrub Trail toward the Sanctuary exit I saw this Downy Woodpecker on the stem of a palm frond.

Downy Woodpecker leaving tiny holes in a palm frond.

I did another loop from the boardwalk to the Sand Pine Trail, but there wasn’t much to see, so I headed out and for home.

Despite the ambiguous warbler ID at that start, I was pleased with this outing. October is shaping up to be quite nice, I think.

It was a very quiet morning at Turkey Creek Sanctuary. Here are a few of the things I saw today.

  • Centrosema virginiarum (wild pea)
  • Cicada
  • Bumblebee
  • A very worn Black Swallowtail butterfly
  • Mini-lubber!
  • A very shiny skink of some kind
  • Little Blue Heron

Also saw some Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, Northern Cardinals, a Brown Thrasher, Green Herons (adult and immature), and an American Coot. Heard, but did not see a couple of White-eyed Vireos.

[Edited to add: also there was a (un)Spotted Sandpiper near the weir and canal where the herons were, Common Ground Doves near the Harris broadcast tower, and Blue Jays here and there.]

Summer at Turkey Creek

I was feeling well enough yesterday to head out to Turkey Creek Sanctuary, despite the oppressive humidity and only 3 hours of sleep! Now that summer is in full force, my expectations tend to be low in terms of my birding, but just having a hike in the woods is a good treat. Of course, things never quite turn out how one expects and I ended up having a pretty good outing.

I started out heading toward the Scrub Trail area first, which immediately paid off. I could hear raptors calling in the area. From the sounds of the calls (which sounded like overworked squeak toys), I believed them to be immature Red-shouldered Hawks. There were two of them and at first glance as they quickly flew off toward the Scrub Trail and Harris radio tower area, I thought I could confirm my suspicions of their species; however, first one, and then the other obliged me by perching in the trees right overhead. Closer inspection showed them to be juvenile Cooper’s Hawks.

The first of 2 juvenile Cooper’s Hawks (possibly a female).

The second juvenile Cooper’s Hawk (smaller, likely male). I barely captured its awkward landing onto the branch.

These two characters provided a constant backdrop of sound and comical aerial displays for the whole morning wherever I was in the sanctuary. As they called out and flew circles around the immediate area, I happened to notice this Northern Parula sitting very very still, occasionally glancing nervously up at them. After the hawks passed by and were out of sight, it became more active and several more voiced their tiny displeasure at my presence. I suspect a nest was nearby, and the whole clan chipped and chirped at me along the path as I went.

Northern Parula nervously scanning the skies.

I walked from there to the dam overlook (technically a weir) and spillway, where the Melbourne-Tillman Canal empties into Turkey Creek. Although the weir and the “tuff boom” flotation barriers end up catching quite a bit of trash, the area upstream does provide habitat for wading birds and other species that appreciate the slow moving water. There were a few Green Herons and a Tri-colored Heron working the area, as well as a solitary American Coot. I also spied a tiny baby alligator. [Edit 10-28-2013: Not a tiny alligator, but a Florida Softshell Turtle. They have very flexible necks, and can hold their heads up in a way that doesn’t expose their shells.]

Tricolored Heron.

American Coot. Love the red eye.

Not a tiny alligator, but a Florida Softshell Turtle.

I watched the birds there for a few minutes, but that part of the sanctuary area is not shaded, and it was already getting oppressive. I headed back down the trail and toward the boardwalk to head up to the Sand Pine Ridge Trail while the lighting was still good and the sun not so high. Aside from a couple of Carolina Wrens and two Fox Squirrels (no pics), it was already fairly quiet. I did hear one or two White-eyed Vireos, too. As I started to head west along the trail, I noticed a new trail sign, “Turkey Oak Trail” and decided to check it out. As the sign on the other end of the trail suggests, this trail is fairly primitive. In part, it crosses through the upland part of the sanctuary that saw the most damage and tree-fall from the hurricanes in 2004. If I remember correctly, hurricane Jeanne did the most damage here. In some parts of this area over 70% of the canopy was removed from fallen trees or stripped branches. The remaining trees are still leaning.

Leaning trees from 2004 hurricane damage.

Some parts of this new trail are in some denser vegetation, though, with some evidence of fire. Quite a few logs that had laid on the path have sections cut out, which provided this nice looking mushroom a place to live.

This mushroom is a fun guy (fungi).

There were quite a few Blue-grey Gnatcatchers in this part of the sanctuary too. Two things about gnatcatchers that I really came to appreciate yesterday: they are tiny and they never stop moving. One managed to sit still just long enough for me to snap this photograph.

Mighty mite!

This Turkey Oak Trail basically runs north of and parallels the Sand Pine Ridge Trail, so I came out very close to the start of that trail and the boardwalk. I decided to retrace my steps and head back toward the Scrub Trail, but instead of go back toward the dam, I headed back in towards McKinnon’s Way. On the way, I stopped at the emergency boat ramp and had a sit-down for a few minutes. While there, a very pretty butterfly landed close by. To me, it looks like a Monarch, except it was much more red than any Monarch I’ve seen, which are typically orange. [Edited to add: this is, in fact, a Viceroy. It is considered a Müllerian mimic of the Monarch.]

Viceroy butterfly

The morning ended with the most exciting part of my outing, which I unfortunately was unable to capture on camera. As I was sitting, I saw a large elongated shape coming out of the water near the edge of the creek (there’s no bank to speak of, really). My instinct was it was a gator, so I started to jump up to run back up the ramp away from the water, but I realized it was a manatee! It raised its head up onto the side of the creek and mouthed at some vegetation. By the time I regained my composure, it had turned and submerged back into the creek. I was disappointed I didn’t get to take a photograph, but thrilled to see a manatee up close. With that, it was getting really oppressive (despite the breeze that had picked up), so I walked back out to head home.

Viera Wetlands/Moccasin Island, Part I: Crazy About Caracaras!

Today I went to the Viera Wetlands and the neighboring Moccasin Island Tract (part of the River Lakes Conservation Area) with my friend Cedric. This picture of him was taken at our second stop, which you can see in Part 2.
imageHere’s the handsome guy

Cedric is not a ‘birder’; per se, but he’s a smart guy and loves to learn new things. He actually invited me to go birding today, which was a pleasant surprise.

Our first stop was the Viera Wetlands. A conservation area born out of the area’s wastewater management, for years now the Wetlands have been a haven for birds throughout the year, but in particular for birds that tend to favor marshlands and their surroundings. I’ll spare you the details, just visit this page to learn more.

Here are some highlights of the Wetlands portion of our outing.

Right off we saw some Red-winged Blackbirds chasing each other around in territorial displays and in hope of mating. Here’s one resting on a sign near the area in which we parked.
Pay attention to this Red-winged Blackbird
Pied-billed Grebe

There were several Pied-billed Grebes throughout the various ponds (“cells”), some alone, some in pairs.

At this point, a Crested Caracara surprised me and went past, too fast to get a shot. I love these guys, and it’s always a pleasure to see them in numbers. And in numbers they are! There were at least 1/2 a dozen individuals by my best estimate. But I couldn’t manage any photographs (but got great binoc views!).

American Coot (foreground) and Common Gallinule

As is typical through the Winter and early Spring, coots and gallinules were quite plentiful in most cells. I did not see any Purple Gallinules today. I don’t know why they were not there, but I’ll try to find that out.

White Ibis in flight

I’m proud of the above photograph. White Ibises are common enough, even in residential neighborhoods, but it’s really neat to see them in a more “natural” type habitat. This was my first attempt at a motion shot with my new camera.

More Crested Caracaras went by at this point, doing their level best to dodge my camera.

We came across some Glossy Ibises and a couple of unidentified shorebirds (perhaps a snipe?) and sparrows (what some birders affectionately called “LBJs” for “”Little Brown Jobs.” Savannah Sparrows seemed plentiful along most of the path edges throughout the morning.

Savannah Sparrow

This Tricolored Heron was one of several heron and egret species present throughout the Wetlands. We saw Green, Little Blue and Great Blue Herons. There were Great and Cattle egrets too. Many of these were in full breeding regalia, which was quite impressive. Also, below is a shot of a more immature Great Blue Heron that was stalking about the place.

Tricolored Heron with breeding plumes
Immature Great Blue Heron

This next picture is of one of a number of warblers seen along the path edges. Based on behavior and plumage indications, I want to say this is a Palm Warbler beginning to get it’s breeding plumage, but I am not sure. If anyone reading this blog can positively identify this bird, would you please let me know?

Perhaps a Palm Warbler?

As we rounded the paths to head back to the car, Cedric pointed out some Sandhill Cranes rather close to us. To my surprise was the cutest thing EVER! LOOK!

Sandhill Crane parent and baby!
Sandhill Crane family

So awesome!

This handsome fellow swam by, too

OMG, alligator!

On the final walk out to the car, I finally got a shot of a Crested Caracara. These guys had been swooping around all morning. This one has a rather nasty bit of fish remains in his beak. But hey, scavenging is essential to any healthy ecosystem (even a human created one like this).


With that, we headed out to the Moccasin Island Tract and some upland habitat adventures. Oh. And cows.

Part II to come.