Snowed Over at T.M. Goodwin

December 30, 2017

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.

swamp-sparrow
A Swamp Sparrow checking us out.

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.

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A male Belted Kingfisher with a surprisingly neat crest.
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This male Red-bellied Woodpecker was a little ruffled looking. Birds will “poof out” and look a bit rounded as they fluff their feathers out for warmth on colder days. Even in Florida.

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).

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Overlooking some of the marsh and open water area.

There were several large flocks of (mostly) white wading birds which can look fairly homogenous from a distance.

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It was easy to see where the food concentrations were. 

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.

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Foraging flock of waders looking more diverse, on closer inspection. The wide variety of feeding styles and bill shapes and sizes show that there must be a wide array of food items available in these areas.

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.

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This is the second recent photograph of a Greater Yellowlegs with its eyes partially closed. I like these photos because it gives the impression that the birds are introspective and content.

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.

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Snow Geese are rare but regular visitors to central Florida. These two represented my life birds for the species.

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.

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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.

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Eastern Meadowlarks (and their Western cousins) are members of the blackbird family, or icterids, not “true” larks. But they sure sing sweetly.

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.

tm-goodwin-broadmoor
I’ll probably always have misgivings about hunting, but as a waterfowl management area, T.M. Goodwin is a beautiful place.

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.

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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.

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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.

horned-grebes
Two Horned Grebes on closest approach…the birds have been reliable here, but not much closer than this to the shore.

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.

T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area – Original Unit:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41383320

T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area – Broadmoor Unit:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41388308

St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park, Southeast:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41423583

Rocky Point Road, Malabar:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41388492

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.

You Can Count On Christmastime

December 25, 2017 (Merry Christmas)

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.

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The sun rises on (left to right) Dave, Brian, Camille, and Erik. Here we’re heading across some open areas in the Preserve toward the 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”).

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Balm Scrub Preserve has a diversity of land cover types and vegetation, including woods, scrub, grasses, and pasture, as well as ponds and streams.

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.

yellow-bellied-sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker peering down on our group with suspicious eyes. Erik had been playing calls to bring birds toward us.

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.

american-kestrel
An American Kestrel doing an Angry Bird impression.

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.

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Scissor-tailed Flycatcher with a long tail.
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One of the two Scissor-tailed Flycatchers with shorter tails. This could be a juvenile bird, or one that lost its tail feathers from molting or damage.

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.

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A Greater Yellowlegs contentedly feeding in the shallow parts of Moody Pond.

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.

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In my opinion, the Red-headed Woodpecker is as brilliant and striking as any tropical bird.
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In addition to the all-red head, you can see the diagnostic white wing patches on the black back.

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.

crested-caracara
The unmistakable silhouette of a Crested Caracara in twilight.

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):

Balm Scrub Preserve:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41148028

Colding Loop Road:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41148837

Carlton Lake Road, Wimauma (incidental):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41167348

Moody Pond:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41150051

Colding Loop Road (again):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41152156

Sweat Loop Road:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41153020

Big Bend Road and Balm Riverview Road, Riverview (incidentals):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41154194
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41155268

Balm Riverview Road:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41155996

Balm Road (incidental):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41156145

Huckleberry Lane/Sweat Loop Road Intersection:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41157252

Alderman Turner Road, Wimauma:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41157782

Colding Loop Road (again):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41157963

Balm Scrub Preserve (again):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41160971

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.

 

Falling Over: Part III

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.

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A young Red-shouldered Hawk was calmly looking about. Its presence may have been partially responsible for the relative lack of small birds along the fence-line.

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:

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The Valiant Air Command is a local warbird/military plane restoration group and museum with many vintage and historic aircraft on display, with some functional articles, like this B-25 “Mitchell” bomber, named “Killer B”.

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!

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Canvasback sighters! (Photo courtesy and ©Sarah Muro)

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.

 

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Mystery heron? Hybrid, or just an “odd duck”?

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.

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As the sun set, the “supermoon” was about to rise behind us, bracketing a beautiful and fulfilling day. (Photo courtesy and ©Sarah Muro)

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).

 

Falling Over: Part II

December 13, 2017

A week after my MINWR adventure, I once again headed out at the proverbial crack of dawn with Camille – this time for points south. Among the “rare but regular” visitors to central and south Florida are usually one or two Brants. These are nominally northern geese that, along with Snow and Ross’, manage to make their way “too far” south in winter. Having missed one of this year’s Snow Geese at MINWR a few weeks ago, I was keen on getting a look at this Brant.

The mapped location was in St. Lucie County, which is fairly close, but a county I had not previously birded [map]. It turns out that the bird was seen relatively close to the nuclear power plant! Camille and I made some jokes about coming upon a 100 meter tall goose in the lagoon. The role of nuclear power as part of future energy concerns is a serious topic, both state and nation-wide, but I have no specific  reason to worry about this power plant.

Hermans-Bay
Technically, this part of the Indian River Lagoon is known as Herman Bay. You can see one of the nuclear reactor structures in the background.

Just south of the bay the lagoon opens up quite close to the roadway, and it was here that we came upon our first target bird of the day, loosely hanging out with some Red-breasted Mergansers. I hadn’t seen a Brant since living in Massachusetts, and it was Camille’s first ever!

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The relative lack of white around the throat could indicate this is the pale-bellied, or Atlantic sub-species, but young birds can sometimes be confusing.
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This goose made a couple of close passes to us, obviously curious about us.
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Here is our Brant hanging out with some mergansers. None of these birds seemed to be feeding much.

Red-breasted Mergansers are regular winter residents in Florida, but I alway enjoy seeing them, with their punk rock head feathers and bright orange bills.

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A female merganser, just after a brief dive.

After looking around a bit for sparrows and winter warblers, it was time to move along to our next destination and target.

Neotropic Cormorants are a regular visitor to south Florida, but at least one bird has been calling Wakodahatchee Wetlands Park [map] home for the past several years. I looked for this bird in June, to no avail, so I was keen to get a look at it.

As far as urban parks go, Wakodahatchee is a real gem, and despite the huge number of visitors, the park is an important rookery for Double-crested Cormorants, Wood Storks, and several heron and egret species. Most of the nests were empty at this point in the Fall, though some noisy cormorant fledglings were testing out their flying abilities.

double-crested-cormorant3
A Double-crested Cormorant fledgling had made it across the water from its little island, but seemed unsure about making it back. Note the open bill and expanded gular pouch.

The cormorants were fluttering their throats with bills agape, trying to stay cool in the unseasonable heat (it was in the upper 80s). It’s amazing to me how different cormorants can look depending on their bill position.


Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (another neotropic bird species that is found more and more regularly in Florida) also live around the park year-round. We saw several groups of them, including one mother duck with a retinue of “teenage” ducklings, resting in some shade.

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Momma duck, taking a much needed rest.
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One of several immature Black-bellied Whistling Ducks hanging out very near the boardwalk. Soon this bird will acquire the black feathers and pink bill of an adult bird.

We did finally manage to see the Neotropic Cormorant! Where are the photos, you ask? I have none. For the most part my balky camera had behaved enough for some reasonable photos (as I hope you can see, above). But the distant shots of the Neotropic Cormorant seemed too much for it. Camille and I took some long long binocular looks and compared the bird’s bill, tail, gular pouch, and relative proportions to the many Double-crested Cormorants to nail down a positive identification. This marked my first ever look at this species, so I was excited!

Another newcomer to the Florida bird scene is the Gray-headed (or Purple-headed) Swamphen. These robust and aggressive relatives of the gallinules have been rapidly expanding northward from south Florida in recent years. It’s unclear exactly how the species began its infiltration, but it is a common resident in an ever increasing number of areas.

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Gray-headed Swamphens have larger, heavier bills than gallinules.
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Long toes help swamphens walk on floating vegetation and with grasping submerged roots to feed on. They are omnivores, eating insects and crustaceans, as well as lizards and even small birds.

Wakodahatchee is also well known for its large and photogenic population of feral iguanas. Some large (over 1.5 meters long) specimens were in evidence that day. If you have ever considered having an iguana as a pet, please bear in mind at how large and long-lived these animals are, and don’t commit to caring for one without all the facts. If you do have one and can no longer care for it, please PLEASE, do NOT release them into the wild. Please contact an iguana/reptile rescue organization. Feral animals cause major disruptions to native ecosystems by using up resources (food, habitat, shelter) that many of our local animal friends depend on, often out-competing them. This isn’t the feral animals’ fault, and a solution to the problem is complex and will take some time.

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This adult iguana was almost two meters (six feet) long!
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Prehistoric handsomeness.

Toward the end of our walk, we managed to come upon a few loose flocks of warblers and gnatcatchers, but the best was flushing out an Orange-crowned Warbler for Camille’s second lifer of the day!

We made a couple of additional stops on our way back north, including Ocean Ridge and John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, both in Palm Beach County, where we had some usual fall birds, including some Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

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Immature Lesser Black-backed Gull, showing black bill and pinkish feet.
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Adult gull with bright yellow bill and feet. Those, plus the gull’s size and dark gray back, are diagnostic field marks for the Lesser Black-backed Gull.

Here are our eBird lists for the day:

South Ocean Drive/Herman Bay (St. Lucie County)
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40855643

Wakodahatchee Wetlands
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40860421

Ocean Ridge area
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40863738

John D. MacArthur Beach State Park
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40866411

It was a fun and wonderful day trip, with a lifer (or two) to make it even better. But the weekend adventure wasn’t over yet. Stand by for Part III, where I take the Muros back to MINWR for some late year ducks…

Falling Over: Part I

December 9. 2017

Hello everyone, welcome to the last weeks of Fall. While it’s been quiet on the blog, there’s been some action going on here in central Florida during the past couple of weeks. Two weeks ago I made a trip with Camille to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge to see what ducks might have come in over Thanksgiving. We drove both Black Point Wildlife Drive [map] and out to Canaveral National Seashore [map]. We had heard reports of Ruddy Ducks and Buffleheads along the road out to the Seashore, and with the cold weather to our north, we knew quite a few ducks had come in.

Black Point did have ducks: hundreds of American Wigeons and Blue-winged Teals! There were lesser amounts of Northern Shovelers,  Hooded Mergansers, and even a few Gadwalls.

hooded-merganser
A male Hooded Merganser. You can see the sawtoothed edge on his bill, useful for catching fish.

We stopped at a few areas hoping for sparrows, but aside from a few distant teasers, we didn’t see any on Black Point.

We managed to catch a few dozen Ruddy Ducks (amazingly, my first of the year) along the road toward the National Seashore (Vista 5, if anyone was wondering [map]).

ruddy-ducks
One of several rafts of Ruddy Ducks.

We made our way to the parking areas for the National Seashore, hoping for a glimpse of the Clay-colored Sparrows reported there a week or so before. We didn’t have any luck there, but we did get a responsive and inquisitive Chipping Sparrow!

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This Chipping Sparrow was eager to check us out!
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The characteristic rusty cap and black eyeline.

I have to confess to playing the calls of both the Clay-colored and Chipping Sparrows in hopes of seeing one. I don’t often play calls, but judicious use of them can help find birds that might otherwise be hidden. Given the time of year and habitat, I felt it was justified. Your mileage may vary, as they say.

Beyond that, there wasn’t much to see at the beaches themselves. The wind was mainly offshore and the seas calm, so any hopes to see scoters or other oceanic birds were not to be fulfilled.

For those so inclined, here are our complete eBird lists for the day.

Black Point Wildlife Drive:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40745460

Canaveral National Seashore pay station area:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40745564

Canaveral National Seashore – Vista #2
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40745950

Canaveral National Seashore – Vista #5
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40746258

Canaveral National Seashore – Lot 7
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40746895

Canaveral National Seashore – Lot 2
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40747478

More substantial adventures await in Part II: another road trip with Camille and then  MINWR with the Muros!

 

White-crowning Achievement

Just a week after exploring parts of Alachua County during the Florida Ornithological Society’s Fall meeting, I headed toward Florida’s Gulf Coast to meet my friend Dave Goodwin to do some more birding, this time in and around Pasco and Hernando Counties. Mrs. Lonely Birder was attending a sea turtle necropsy workshop, giving me a good opportunity to spend the day looking for birds. My primary goal was to get some wintering sparrows, and perhaps even a lifer or two.

I birded Pasco County for last year’s Christmas Bird Count. As I’ve previously noted, large parts of the county are rural and agricultural, which makes for some pastoral landscapes.

cow-field
Auton Road at dawn.

Sunrise found us along Auton Road [map], looking for sparrows. Along with numerous Palm Warblers, we flushed up some Savannah Sparrows and eventually a couple of Vesper Sparrows.

Not too far down the road, we came upon Bill Pranty and Meagan Campbell, who were also looking for sparrows. Many birders (myself included) are not confident when trying to identify sparrows in the field. We rely on the help of accomplished bird watchers like Bill and Dave to help point out the field marks and other characteristics to ID sparrows. Bill was helping Megan, who was hoping to get several sparrows for her life list.

Meanwhile, we came across a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks. From their dark, saturated colors, we could tell these birds are “northern” hawks, as our typical Florida Red-shouldered Hawks are much paler.

red-shouldered-hawk1
This adult Red-Shouldered Hawk (and its companion) likely wintering over in Florida. 

Eventually we managed to bring out a few Grasshopper Sparrows, as well as male and female Northern Harriers. A nearby pond provided our first look at a Ring-necked Duck among the coots, gallinules, and ibises.

A few more groups of birders came by and we made a loose aggregation, making our way back along Auton Road. At this point either Bill or Dave decided to play the calls and song of the White-crowned Sparrow, which are notorious for coming out when this is done. Sure enough, after a minute or so several birds came out, aggressively calling back. A new life bird for me!

white-crowned-sparrow1
A White-crowned Sparrow, its tail slightly raised and wings pulled down in a territorial display.
white-crowned-sparrow2
According to Bill Pranty, the pale lores and other characteristics mark this bird as the Gambel’s subspecies.

We had at two subspecies or groups of White-crowned Sparrow – Gambel’s, with pale lores (the area in front of the eyes) – and Eastern Taiga, which have black lores.

I was also excited to find out that with the addition of this species, Megan had added four birds to her life list.

Dave and I made our way out to a few more spots in Pasco County and into Hernando County, looking for Yellow-headed Blackbirds and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. While looking (unsuccessfully) for the flycatcher, we had a nice mixed flock move through the road-side trees, including Eastern Bluebirds, Palm, Pine, and Prairie Warblers, and even a late-season Yellow-throated Vireo.

lockhart-road
Lockhart Road, in Hernando County.

We had still been shadowing Bill and Megan (and running into the other birders from earlier in the morning), but parted ways with them and hit a few more spots around the area.

We ended the day at Kapok Park [map], in Pinellas County. This park had been a poorly kept mobile home park, which was a major point-source of pollution for Tampa Bay. About a decade ago, the city of Clearwater bought out the park and transformed it into a beautiful park, including walking/jogging trails and boardwalks over Alligator Creek.

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Cypress trees along a pond in Kapok Park.
kapok-park2
A Live Oak with Spanish Moss overhanging Alligator Creek.

The bird activity had slowed a bit, but we did see some Common Gallinules and a few Anhingas. It was fitting that the weekend before Thanksgiving I got a good look at this species, sometimes known as a “Water Turkey”, as it swam under the elevated boardwalk in the late-afternoon light.

anhinga-underwater
The broad tail and body do resemble a turkey, while swimming. The long neck gives this bird its other nickname, “snakebird”, especially when it is the only part of the bird above water.

The final bird of our day was a surprise light-morph Short-tailed Hawk that got a resident Red-shouldered Hawk in a bit of a snit, chasing the first raptor off with a series of furious screams.

Dave dropped me off, and as I waited for Mrs. Lonely Birder to finish her workshop, I heard the unmistakable shrieks of parrots overhead. There is a small colony of Monk Parakeets on the grounds of Eckerd College [map], and I watched them get ready to settle in for the night, while some gulls and a few other birds made their way by.

Here are the eBird lists for the day (including incidentals) for curious minds:

Auton/Singletary Roads:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40569964

Lockhart Road:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40569964

Cortez Blvd (incidental):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40572120

Bayport Park:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40574418

Kapok Park:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40577724

Avenue of States Drive (near Eckerd College):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40579553

As usual, it was a pleasure to bird with Dave out in his neck of the woods. With the added bonus of a life bird, it was really nice day and a good way to lead into the “official” holiday season.

FOS Fall 2017 Field Trips

From the Florida Ornithological Society’s Fall meeting in Alachua County:

Parrots Plus in South Florida

October 21, 2017

Camille and I headed to Miami last Sunday to see what parrot species we could get. Using Bill Pranty’s “A Birder’s Guide to Florida”, we hoped to beef up our life lists with some “easy” to get exotic birds.

On our way, we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to visit Evergreen Cemetery in Ft. Lauderdale [map]. This cemetery is a lovely spot for migrants and the occasional vagrant or exotic. This is where many birders flocked to see the Variegated Flycatcher a couple of years ago.

evergreen-cemetery
Evergreen Cemetery is a beautiful green space and a known migrant trap. As an aside, Leslie Nielsen is buried here.

The place was hopping with warblers, including American Redstarts, Black-and-White, Bay-breasted, Cape May, and Black-throated Blue Warblers.

black-and-white-warbler
Black-and-White Warbler hanging out on an oak tree.

When there are small birds concentrated in an area, you can bet small raptors aren’t far away. This Cooper’s Hawk was trying to hide from mobbing Blue Jays.

 

coopers-hawk
A young Cooper’s Hawk learned a lesson in patience and camoflage after getting chased around by angry Blue Jays.

A small Peregrine Falcon was also cruising over and around the cemetery, as well as a couple of American Kestrels.

Here’s the complete eBird list from the morning at Evergreen Cemetery:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39933959

From Ft. Lauderdale we headed to South Miami to find exotic parrot species and track down White-crowned Pigeons. These pigeons are always showing up on eBird alerts and in e-mailing list reports, but each trip either of us has made to south Florida has come up with no White-crowned Pigeons. I’ll save you the suspense: We didn’t see any on this trip either.

But we did get some parrots! At the Baptist Hospital [map], we had almost given up on seeing any birds at all, besides the numerous Muscovy Ducks.

muscovy-duck-with-chicks
There were Muscovy Ducks with chicks of all ages around the ponds at the hospital. These two chicks were part of a group of 8 or so siblings and their mother (standing protectively here).

But on our second look around, a large flock of loud Mitred Parakeets flew into a tree in the parking lot. Several minutes later, another large flock flew into a second tree. These parrots are extremely loud, and at times they synchronized their calls into a raucous, rollicking cacophony.

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Mitred Parakeet on an exposed branch. Most of the birds stayed hidden (and cool) in the denser foliage.
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Mitred Parakeet watching the watchers.

On the opposite side of the larger pond some more Mitred Parakeets flew in, joining a pair of smaller parrots, which turned out to be Yellow-chevroned Parakeets.

mitred-parakeet-2
“Peekaboo!”
yellow-chevroned-parakeet1
A pair of Yellow-chevroned Parakeets.
yellow-chevroned-parakeet2
An acrobatic Yellow-chevroned Parakeet eating its lunch.

A few other feathered friends were around, including a small flock of Egyptian Geese. They were a bit flighty (no pun intended), but one bird was bolder and even struck some poses for us.

eygptian-goose2
Egyptian Goose, posing.
eygptian-goose
Here’s his “good side”.

There were some domestic waterfowl, as well. I was hoping for a Greylag Goose, and this bird was the closest I could find.

feral-goose
The extensive white is evidence of domestication in this bird’s lineage.

Here’s the eBird list for the Baptist Hosptial Area, including the neighborhood to its north (where we found no White-crowned Pigeons):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39939715

From the hospital area, we went in to a few of the area neighborhoods, which are known to host warblers as well as established exotics, like Spot-breasted Orioles and Red-whiskered Bulbuls.

At the King’s Creek Village [map] townhouse development, we had some success! The last time we visited this area, we saw a Red-whiskered Bulbul, but were unable to photograph it. This time, we were ready!

red-whiskered-bulbul2
One of several Red-whiskered Bulbuls in the neighborhood.
red-whiskered-bulbul1
Bulbuls are native to south Asia, but are doing well in suburban Miami.

Among the more common Palm Warblers and Northern Parulas, we also saw Cape May and Blackburnian Warblers, and one real rarity: A Nashville Warbler.

nashville-warbler-1
A rare Nashville Warbler feeding on an ornamental.
nashville-warbler-2
This Nashville Warbler’s bright yellow belly really stood out in the sunlight.

The complete eBird list for King’s Creek Village is here (with more good photos from Camille):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39942003

After King’s Creek Village, we made two more stops, hoping to get White-crowned Pigeons and more parrots. At Ocean Bank [map] (a very urban setting), there have been White-chevroned Parakeets roosting just outside the atrium. We did not see them, but we did see some Common Mynas with nesting materials in a billboard structure.

We then made our way to the Miller Drive parrot roost [map], hoping to get more parrot species as they came in for the night. Unfortunately there were not many parrots, though we were treated to a fly by of a flock Red-masked Parakeets as the sun set. While we were waiting to see what parrots would flock in, we saw more warblers and even some non-avian friends.

iguana2
Iguanas are a common introduced species in south Florida. In addition to some large specimens at Evergreen Cemetery, this one was hanging around the canal.

When it was clear there would be minimal roosting going on at this particular place, we made our way to Fuch’s Park [map], which is often an alternate roost site. But when we arrived there, it was dead quiet, with no parrots (and very few birds) present.

Here are the remaining eBird lists for the day:
Ocean Bank:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39943542

Miller Drive:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S3994528

The sun was setting by now, and it was time to head home. Day trips to south Florida are always long, but rewarding. We never got our White-crowned Pigeon (deemed a “common” bird by some), and I joke that it’s a cryptid, like Big Foot. But I’ll be back to get it, along with the elusive Mangrove Cuckoo. There are plenty of birding adventures to be had before then!

 

Sunday Doubleheader: Mead Botanical Gardens and Ais Trail Park

October 11, 2017

Fresh from the sea this past Saturday night, I prepared to meet Camille for a trip out to Mead Botanical Gardens in Orlando on Sunday, since we’d heard there was some migrant activity there. I was tired from the previous day’s adventure, but as migration season is short, the promise of warblers was too good to pass up.

I did take my glitchy camera along, just in case I was able to get off a few reasonable shots. Here are the best of what I was able to photograph.

chestnut-sided
Chestnut-sided Warbler. The yellow wing-bars and cap (not seen here) are diagnostic for this species.
magnolia
Fall-plumaged Magnolia Warbler, deep in the foliage.
swainsons-thrush
One of several Swainson’s Thrushes.

Don’t let the scarcity of photographs fool you into thinking the day was a bust. I identified 13 species of warbler that morning (Camille had 11)! Earlier in the week, some birders had 16 species in the park! That’s a pretty good variety. Here’s the complete eBird list (with some of Camille’s photos):

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39619140

After coming home, I got an e-mail from my friends Sarah and Bella who were hoping to try birding in a new location (for them). I suggested Ais Trail Park, in Palm bay, and met up with them in the late afternoon.

It was pretty quiet to start off, but we had some real teases. One was what appeared to be a Blackburnian male, still in bright breeding plumage. I saw the face and head, while Bella saw the large white wing patch. Between the two of us, we had a sighting, but we decided not to count it, since we didn’t each get a good clear look.

Then a warbler with an olive back, yellow underside and blue-gray head hopped up from the ground into some thick brush. I only saw it for the briefest second, The bird felt most like a Connecticut Warbler. It could have been a Nashville, but I wouldn’t have expected it to fly up from the ground onto a low branch before skulking away. I could not tell if the grey hood extended to the throat.

Neither bird was recovered despite some intensive searches.

But the best news of all was seeing a Peregrine Falcon fly over the park and then over Turkey Creek (near the lagoon) with great lighting. The ID was unmistakable, and this was Bella’s 200th ABA countable bird! Congratulations Bella!

She’s got amazing locating skills, and her birding abilities are as good, if not better, than many more experienced birders I know. But she has been doing this since she was a child.

Here’s our relatively short, but totally worth it list:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39651513

What a great end to an epic weekend.

 

You Belong In A Boat Out At Sea

October 10, 2017

The much anticipated and alway fun pelagic birding trip, run by The Marine Science Center, disembarked from Port Canaveral on board the Canaveral Princess.

boat_canaveral_star
Promotional photo from https://orlandoprincess.com/

I love pelagic trips. Even during the long stretches with no birds in sight, I enjoy the waves and sun (and even the rain, when it’s not been too cold). This trip, we had great weather, and the seas were only moderately rough.

By far, the bird of the day was the Corey’s Shearwater. As a group, we saw over 200 of them (I recorded 77). We perhaps saw more Common Terns, but Shearwaters are obligate pelagic species – that means they are (barring severe weather events, like hurricanes) only found on the open ocean.

coreys-shearwater
A Corey’s Shearwater resting on the ocean’s’ surface. Note the nasal tube, or narnicorn, that some oceanic birds use to help remove salt from their systems.

The initial leg out of the port was very smooth, and it wasn’t until we started passing some of the off-shore buoys that we started to feel the 6-foot (2-meter) seas. Buoys also provide places for birds to roost and use as a look-out.

magnificent-frigatebird2
Magnificent Frigatebird taking advantage of the view.

The majority of the shearwaters we saw were Corey’s, we also did see the Great and Audubon’s species (I’ve seen all these shearwater species on my whale watch in New England, last summer.)

coreys-shearwater-takeoff
Shearwaters run on the water’s surface to get up to take-off speed.

Unlike most of the previous pelagic trips I have been on, we did not have many dolphins visiting us. Just one rode our bow wake as we left the port. We did see a couple of sea turtles, including a large Loggerhead Sea Turtle getting attacked by a Tiger Shark! The shark was unable to get a good angle on the turtle, and gave up as we drew closer. The turtle had it’s front flippers held straight up in the air to keep the shark from being able to grab or bite them. After a couple of minutes, the turtle dove out of view.

We also saw a Leatherback Sea Turtle. It was enormous and attended by several large Cobias and some remoras.

leatherback-sea-turtle
It’s hard to get a sense of scale, but this turtle was over 4 feet long, but still not full adult in size.

Before too long, I did run into some equipment problems. My current camera – a much loved Fujifilm Finepix S990W – has been having some glitches lately. The back-side buttons would activate without being pressed, or when pressed would cycle quickly through various options on their own. This escalated on Saturday, and the camera started changing settings and formats, as well as locking up entirely. I gave up fighting it, especially after taking a spill near the bow when trying to reach for the railing while protecting my camera. There wasn’t much reason to be holding on to a camera that wasn’t working.

The rest of the trip was fantastic. We came upon large flocks of terns, most of which were Common, but interspersed with Black and Sooty Terns. I saw what probably were some species of storm-petrel, but they were gone behind waves before I could really get a good look. Several Peregrine Falcons cruised by, over 30 km (50 miles) from land.

Here’s my complete eBird list for the trip. The “official” list for the trip, via Michael Brothers has a much higher count and some species I missed (and one species not recorded officially).

My eBird list for the entire trip, there and back again:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39610465

“Official” list, via e-mail from Michael Brothers:
Blue-winged Teal 56
Cory’s Shearwater 235
Great Shearwater 5
Brown Pelican 8
Brown Booby 3
Magnificent Frigatebird 6
Parasitic Jaeger 8
Pomarine Jaeger 1
Black Tern 111
Common Tern 419
Royal Tern 41
Sandwich Tern 16
Laughing Gull 9
Sabine’s Gull 1
Short-billed Dowitcher 3
Wilson’s Snipe 1
Red Phalarope 6
Red-necked Phalarope 21
Peregrine Falcon 4
Barn Swallow 1
Black-throated Blue Warbler 1
Warbler sp. 1

Despite the camera glitch and my fall on the deck, I had a spectacular time. I am already looking forward to next year, circumstances willing. I’ll post the few remaining photos that didn’t make the blog, soon.