Since my planned birding day near Plymouth didn’t work out, I took Darren’s advice and checked out the Slimbridge Wetland Centre (also referred to as “Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust”) in Gloucestershire [map]. There’s a lot going at this remarkable place, but for birders (particularly out-of-country ones!) it was a bit confusing. The first part, near the visitor center, is a series of exhibits showcasing birds from around the world, including local birds! And although these birds are ostensibly “clipped” to keep them from flying free, I observed on a few occasions these birds making short flights that could carry them out of their “enclosure” habitats. I’ll post my eBird link after the photos (presented without commentary beyond captions), but take some of the duck and geese species with a grain of salt. I tried to weed out the “captive” species, but there may be a few of the ambiguous sightings that got left in.
I’ve left off photos of some of the more exotic birds – like the Nene, a South American bird called a screamer (for good reason!), and some others that are clearly not UK or European birds. I may post them as bonus or extras in the future.
Here’s the somewhat confusing eBird list for the day. Ruth and Mrs. Lonely Birder came to pick me up after shopping in nearby Gloucester.
My first proper “birding day” was about 1/2 the day spent at a reservoir called Chew Valley Lake [map]. I had a chance to scout it out briefly on the way back from one of our previous day’s adventures, and it looked promising.
Chew Valley Lake is named as a premiere birding spot in several places online, and it did not disappoint. The species diversity was high and added a sizable amount to my life list, as you might imagine.
The lake fills part of Chew Valley, forming a reservoir that provides much of the drinking water for Bristol and nearby locales.
The morning started off cold, with temperatures around 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.5 Celsius), but the sun warmed things up nicely as the day progressed. I walked along the dam first, but there was no public access around the west side of the lake from there.
There are well defined trails and paths around the lake and adjacent woodland, some with boardwalks, and a couple of wildlife blinds to make access to some of the shier birds a little easier. Unfortunately, this did not keep the Tufted Ducks from being skittish. I was unable to get any photographs even though I had targeted this species before leaving for the trip.
Although the Tufted Ducks may have been skittish, other water birds were not. I saw several Great Crested Grebes, a few Common Shelducks, and several dozen Eurasian Coots. There were also plenty of Mallards, Canada Geese, and a pair of Mute Swans.
The southern eastern and southern edges of the lake have areas of thick reeds and some scrub vegetation. There areas had active and vocal birds, like Reed Warblers, Eurasian Wrens, and Reed Buntings.
The Eurasian Wrens have a loud song, for their size. The song is very reminiscent of a Song Sparrow here in North America, so it was confusing at times to orient my ears to what kind of bird I should be looking at.
Similarly, the Eurasian Blackcaps and European Robins have some sounds in common and have thrush-like calls, which was confusing as there were typically Eurasian Blackbirds nearby.
Eurasian coots were scattered out all over the lake close to the shore. I wondered if they form large rafts during the winter, like American coots do. Eurasian Coots are smaller and a bit more streamlined.
Near one of the wildlife blinds, I heard a prolonged and rollicking song in the understory, and spent many minutes trying to get eyes on the bird. I managed a sound recording to use later for identification, but soon after the bird finally did pop into view. Many of the various warblers that live in these habitats are similar looking, and as they are all new to me, I thought having that recording along with my visual would help me nail it down.
According to descriptions of Melodious Warbler songs, “my” bird fit the bill (haha). It is said to have a prolonged song with many doublets and repeated phrases, similar to a Northern Mockingbird. Its song also has elements that sound like House Sparrows. To my ear, this is what I heard and recorded. I duly noted the (rare) bird on my eBird app and continued on.
I reached the end of the trail on the east side of the lake, where the woods abutted some agricultural land. I spooked a large raptor that I couldn’t identify, and then watched as a Eurasian Treecreeper worked its way up a few trees. All the while, more wrens, blackcaps, blackbirds, and robins were singing. I doubled back along the east side of the lake on a more wooded path running parallel to the way I came, which kept me out of the sun. Even 18 degrees Celsius (65 Fahrenheit) can feel hot after a few hours of hiking.
I made my way back around to the north side of the lake. My intention was to relocate the Tufted Ducks and perhaps catch a Common Merganser or two near the dam. I did manage to flush out a couple of Common Sandpipers and Shelducks as I approached the spillway.
A few finch-like birds were singing and flying among the small trees alongside it. It took some sleuthing and confirming later that evening, but managed to identify both as immature males, one a Eurasian Linnet and the other a Black Redstart.
By this point I was nearing the end of my morning and ready to meet up with my wife and Ruth who had been visiting shops and sites back in Bristol. By the trail head near the dam, I waited at a higher, wooded spot and watched a few European Goldfinches dart in and out of the trees, nearby.
I walked a total of about 9 km (about 5.5 miles) and had nearly run out of water as my ride showed up and we rode back to Bristol. My species count was 37, and you can see my eBird list below.
Astute readers will see that my eBird list has only 36 species. After arriving back home in the States, I received an email from an eBird reviewer in the UK, asking about my Melodious Warbler identification. I had posted my sound recording as supporting material. He said my recording was a Reed Warbler and would I please change my list. I have done so, but solely on the idea that a local birder would/should know more and have more experience with the birds I saw and heard. But I’ll link to the sound file below, and if any experienced UK birders can confirm or question the current identification as a Reed Warbler, I’d love to hear from you.
I had forgotten how much longer higher latitude days are in Spring. Even before the March Equinox arrives, the long twilights running up to dawn and lingering after sunset make for extended daylight. I was up early on our third day to checkout the local park.
Redcatch Park [map] is just a quick walk away from our flat (I’ve always wanted to say that! A flat!) amid proper football fields, a community center, a community garden, some tennis courts, and a playground. It’s a lovely patch of open space with copses of trees here and there, with nearby houses and gardens (what we’d call back yards, sort of, here in the USA).
As I walked to the park, Bristol’s urban dawn chorus was in full swing, with wood-pigeons, robins, blackbirds, chiffchaffs, and tits all singing and calling. I was happy to encounter most of these species in my walk through the park.
It didn’t take long after I arrived for people to start entering the park to walk or play with their dogs. Most were on leashes, and those that were not seemed to ignore the birds and the birds, no doubt used to the canine interruptions, gave the canines a slightly wide berth but generally went about their business.
As the sun grew stronger and the temperature rose up from 4 Celsius (40 degrees Fahrenheit) more of the smaller birds became active, including Great, Blue, and Long-tailed Tits, and House Sparrows. Robins were already singing their beautiful thrush-like songs. Common Chaffinches started singing from treetops, the males’ rosy-chestnut plumage brilliant in the sun.
I got some looks at birds I couldn’t immediately identify, but determined later to be Black Redstarts (a bird in the same taxonomic family as the European Robin). There were also Eurasian Jays, Common Starlings, and Carrion Crows flying or walking about the park.
It seemed to me most of the birds were foraging – probably for nestlings or fledglings – or defending territory. This makes sense, given the time of year. The only courtship behavior I saw was between two Common Wood-Pigeons.
I made my exit and walked back to the flat to get ready for the day’s further adventures in and around Bristol.
I went back to the flat to meet with the others for our next day around Bristol. This time our focus was at the harbor and in particular to see an important piece of maritime and engineering history: The SS Great Britain.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of this ship. It was the first large ocean liner and the first to be powered by a propeller (or ‘screw’) as opposed to paddles, as had been the case before. This ship performed many functions over the years after it’s luxury cruising days were over. Perhaps one of its most important was to help lay the first transatlantic telegraph cables.
Designed by engineering genius (and by many accounts, jerk boss) I. K. Brunel, the ship is a linchpin in the design history of maritime transportation and the turning point for how ocean travel would progress from that point. You can read about her history at the official SS Great Britain website.
The ship, abandoned and scuttled on the Falkland Islands was recovered, towed back to Bristol, and restored and rebuilt more or less to its days as an ocean liner. Important original pieces of the ship – including hull plates, rivets, railings, and masts – are cataloged and stored in the adjacent museum.
A clever bit of engineering makes the ship seem to float in water up to its waterline, but this is an illusion. Several centimeters of water is sandwiched between two layers of glass plate. This boundary is actually part of the preservation method for the ship’s hull.
On the outside, the ship’s detail are exquisitely recreated, including the stern decorations, and even the English coat of arms with unicorn and lion. “God And My Right” had been the English monarch’s motto since probably the 12th century. It signified the King (or Queen’s) divine right to govern.
Above decks, the ship is colorful has several access points to the cabins and stateroom below. I didn’t get any photos belowdecks, though. I think I was too busy experiencing the ship and kind of forgot about my camera! Sorry!
Great Britain is a long ship, and quite narrow in its cross-section. This was done on purpose to reduce drag and increase efficiency of the propeller drive.
Inside the dry dock, the environment is controlled to stem corrosion of the mostly original iron hull plating. In addition to “natural” rust and corrosion, there are a series of holes along the hull that were made to sink the ship in the 1930s.
The ship was eventually returned to Bristol in 1970 for conservation and restoration. The dry dock dehumidifier chamber is a marvel itself, both functional below and aesthetic above.
The ship was eventually converted to use sails as well, and a winch system was developed to raise and lower the propeller, rudder, and part of the shaft out of the water. That assembly is in the museum building were it is slowly losing a battle against corrosion (the air is not optimal for either the iron fittings or the wooden rudder).
The ship and museum are a definite “don’t miss” if you ever come to Bristol or SW England. The exhibits were top notch, and the ship itself is so accessible and present. It seems right at home in Bristol Harbour.
After lunch and a quick drive to the nearby Clifton section of the city to view the Avon Gorge and the suspension bridge that Brunel designed in the 1830s (but wasn’t completed until over 30 years later, with some changes).
The gorge is beautiful, with dramatic cliffs and forested hillsides. There is evidence of old landslides, and the cars and roads below are dwarfed in scale.
The area atop the cliffs has a large green-space and people were sitting and laying in the relatively warm sunlight. Birds were happily mingling with the people, mostly Eurasian Jackdaws. A few of the more shy Eurasian Magpies stayed closer to the trees.
A short drive and a walk away is the Clifton Observatory [map]. This building houses a camera obscura that renders a 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape onto a central viewing table.
Beneath the observatory is a long stairway down part of a cave system that opens up on the side of the cliff, about mid-way. A balcony has been constructed to give brave souls an amazing view of the bridge and gorge.
After the observatory and cave we drove around Bristol a little and then made our way back to the flat and settled in for the evening, ready for more adventures.
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.
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!
I’ll post the checklists below. Feel free to map out where we went and how we did.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.