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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Geronimo!

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! 

Malabar Scrub / Turkey Creek Sanctuaries

One of the benefits of lonely birding is flexibility and last minute changes without having to negotiate or “vote” on anything. I originally planned on just heading straight to Turkey Creek Sanctuary, but at the last second (literally) I decided to head a little bit more up the road and head in to northwestern-most part of the Malabar Scrub Sanctuary, then over to the portion of Turkey Creek Sanctuary across the creek from the boardwalk. This proved to be a bit more difficult than I thought, as that portion of the parks is more primitive. It did yield up a Yellow-throated Warbler and some American Redstarts, though.

A lot of Blue Jays were present, and this juvenile went through a whole gamut of imitation calls. First, it tried to scare me off with a Red-shouldered Hawk call. Then it started in with what sounded like a vireo or warbler. When that got old, it started with grackle-like clicks and “chucks”. Then it sounded like a giant Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (which was interesting because there were actual gnatcatchers in the vicinity at that point. Then it just let loose with some honest-to-goodness Blue Jay calls before flying off.

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The Talented Mr. Blue Jay.

I worked my way to the creek itself, on the opposite side from the boardwalk, but aside from some Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, it was fairly quiet (except for insect noise, lots and lots of insect noise). I backtracked and then went down some other paths, seeing some Northern Cardinals and more Yellow-throated Warblers. The warblers were always single individuals; I did not see any more than one at a time. By the time I came to the kayak launch area, the sun had come out from the earlier morning fog, and there were butterflies just about everywhere. This beautiful specimen landed on the mud by the launch ramp presumably to drink up some moisture and minerals.

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Large Eastern Black Swallowtail taking a breather…or maybe a mudder…

Eventually I worked my way to the boardwalk and did a loop, with a diversion out toward the weir and Scrub Trail. The gnatcatchers were here in force, as well as more cardinals. At one point they all scattered when an Osprey soared overhead.

At the weir there were a number of different heron species. I saw several Little Blue Herons, a Green Heron,a Tri-colored Heron, a Snowy Egret and Great Egret. There were a couple of Anhingas swimming after fish, and a pair of American Coots foraging nearby as well.

There were some more Yellow-throated Warblers, and a Black-and-white Warbler as well. On the way toward McKinnon’s Way I heard a very resonant drumming. This Pileated Woodpecker was at first hammering on a utility pole (which was really carrying the sound. It sounded like a motorcycle), then hopped onto a palm tree.

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Pilated Woodpecker, a.k.a. Mr. Jack Hammer

After getting back on the boardwalk, I saw another Pileated Woodpecker foraging on some logs off the side and below the boardwalk.


Pileated Woodpecker.

Further along the boardwalk I did finally see some Northern Parulas (I had heard them earlier). On the way toward the exit, there were more Yellow-throated Warblers, as well as a White-eyed Vireo. The vireo even flew right over my head, but I was unable, again, to get any photograph of it. Trying to get a decent photograph of a White-eyed Vireo is becoming a quest at this point.

With the noticeably cooler weather, there were a lot more families and groups coming into the Sanctuary, and it was near noon. I headed out and for home.

Something I’d noticed earlier this year, was a cell tower that was cleverly disguised as a large conifer. Here’s the effort:

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C is for Conifer, over 500 kinds.

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Palm Bay now has a metal Sequoia?

I don’t know what the birds think of it, but it does manage to blend in fairly well, all things considered.

Turkey Creek Heats Up As Things Cool Down

It seems now that September is here and some slightly cooler morning weather has arrived, that things are picking up in Turkey Creek Sanctuary. Notable and active birds seen today inlcuded:

  • American Redstart
  • Blue-grey Gnatcatcher
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Swainson’s Warbler (new for me!)
  • Northern Parula
  • Blue Jay
  • Caronlina Wren
  • Northern Cardinal (was there a doubt?)
  • Downy Woodpecker

Voice-only IDs included Hairy Woodpecker (more monotone and deeper version of the Downy’s calls), White-eyed Vireo (again!), Pileated Woodpecker. There was also a Belted Kingfisher that flew overhead at one point. The day was not very good for soaring, though. I saw no hawks or vultures in the air over the park at all.

As you can see from the list above, warbler activity is on the rise as we get closer to the fall migration. 

Today, I tried shifting my birding to Saturday monring (instead of Sunday). As expected, there were a lot more people in the sanctuary than I am used to. As I was on my way to the new Turkey Oak Trail, a woman came down the path and asked me if I knew how to tell the difference between a King Snake (non-venemous) and a Coral Snake (venemous). Various incomplete versions of the rhyme designed to help tell the difference went through my head, which was no help at all. In any case, whatever snake she saw was no longer present, so we both walked and talked along the entirety of the trail. 

Thus ended my first Saturday morning birding adventure of the year.

Warbler Jackpot

I had a strange outing today at Turkey Creek Sanctuary. I was really in an escapist mood, and I hoped a combination of the weather (gloomy, showers  had just passed) and it being Sunday morning (a lot of folks at church in the morning) would mean I was unlikely to bump into too many people on the trails. Ultimately this wasn’t meant to be, but I rolled with it.

To start off, on the Sand Pine Ridge Trail, I saw this osprey tending to its catch.

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Catch of the day!

I got a couple more shots before I basically scared it away, fish in tow. While this was happening, I heard a White-eyed Vireo in the nearby brush and got a few good glimpses.

At the base of the tree the osprey was in, I saw a Black-and-white Warbler scaling up and down the trunk. He let me get fairly close and I was struck by how its movements a mix of those of a chickadee and a woodpecker.

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This made me think of the 1960s Batman show when Batman and Robin scale the buildings in an obviously tilted camera shot. No celebrity cameos here, though.

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Black-and-white Warbler striking an epic pose.

Further down the trail, I caught a glimpse of a female American Redstart and what ultimately turned out to be a female Blackpoll Warbler (a first!). I also got great binocular views of a Prairie Warbler and a Northern Parula before more redstarts and Blackpolls flew in. I took a few throw-away shots of what I realized were female Black-throated Blue Warblers (first this year).

At this point, as I neared the boardwalk, I ran into my first group of birders, all equipped with the equivalent of the Hubble Telescope for camera lenses. A couple even had lighting rigs that would make night-time shrimpers envious. I have to admit (and I am slightly embarrassed to) that I felt pretty inadequate in the camera department, so I missed what would have been a couple of great shots of a male Black-throated Blue. I was annoyed, though I had no right to be, that my lonely birding had been interrupted. I continued down the trail and along the creek overlooks. I calmed myself down and had a look down.

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Hello, gorgeous!

This Florida softshell turtle was fairly large. Maybe about 15” across (there was an even bigger one just barely visible through the murk). Further down the creek I caught this pair of Florida red-bellied turtles sunning themselves as the first rays broke through the overcast.

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Sunbathers in a half-shell!

I was feeling better, until I ran up upon another pair of birders with Overcompensatingly Large equipment setups (ok, I am being a bit mean there, forgive me – it was just my state of mind at the time).

I saw this Carolina anole (a.k.a. green anole) displaying below the overlook I was standing on, and used him to center my mind again. He’s a beaut!

image“Can I help you?”

This time, I stuck it out and took a few shots of my own as we were in the midst of a mixed flock of Blackpolls, redstarts and Black-and-Whites.

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Blackpoll Warbler, peeking out to say hey.


imageAmerican Redstart fanning his tail at me. Yes. He did.

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I manged to mostly shoot between the thick brush along the boardwalk.

I went my separate way again, managning to get some more binocular and unaided-eye views of more Black-throated Blues (this was THE bird of the day) and some Black-and-Whites. There was a quick glimpse of a magnificent Pileated Woodpecker, too.

I then bumped into the first group of birders I had encountered earlier (plus more) and finally determined that I wasn’t going to miss any shots I might take of my own. My equipment is fine, thank you very much! Plus, I realized these birders had every right to be there, as I did. So together we watched the antics of more American Redstarts, Blackpolls, Black-and-Whites and yes, I finally got my Black-throated Blue Warbler shot!

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Parting shot.

Then it was up and out, and another great day, in the end. Sometimes it’s easy being a lonely birder. Sometimes it isn’t. But in the end, it’s all about the birds.