Spring Fall Outs 2017

Since my last entry we’ve had one small and one larger “fall out” of migrating birds here along the Space Coast. A fall out happens when birds encounter a weather event that forces them from flight to stop and seek shelter or food – or both – for a time before resuming their paths. Flying takes a tremendous amount of energy. Over a long period of time, many birds have developed methods to save that energy in flight. Neotropical migrants, like warblers, use approaching winds and weather fronts to time their overnight flights. For much of this spring there have been unusually strong southerly winds along the entire peninsula of Florida, allowing many migrants to fly very long distances with a tail-wind, often bypassing the state altogether. That has made for another fairly quiet migration, for the most part.

At the beginning of April, a cold front did sweep across the state, and some early migrants were forced down into area hotspots. At Lori Wilson Park, that generated some excitement as a rare Black-whiskered Vireo stopped for a couple of weeks. This is likely the same bird that also stopped there last year, so it remembered the park as a safe haven and place to refuel.

Like many recurring and rare visitors, this bird had a favorite hang-out in the park. In this case a mature Gumbo Limbo tree, producing berries that vireos seem to love.

The season’s first Red-eyed Vireos were also present, as well as familiar faces that hadn’t found their favorable winds quite yet. Prairie and Yellow-rumped Warblers were still there, as well as the park’s large contingent of Gray Catbirds.

Catbirds generally prefer to skulk in the underbrush, but this bird had come out in the open to get some water.

A complication this spring for any migrants that do need to stop and “top-up their tanks” is the lack of rainfall since the end of winter. Many places around the state are in drought and fire hazard warnings were up for much of the first part of April. The conditions only got worse as the month has worn on. The marsh habitat of Black Point Wildlife Drive on Merritt Island caught fire last week and about 5,000 acres burned. Fire is a natural and necessary force in shaping central Florida’s natural landscape, but only in area adapted for it. The area around Black Point is a wetlands habitat, dominated by mangroves. A hot burn there stands to do damage, even to the soil. It’s early days yet to know how much damage may have been done. The fire is suspected to be human induced, though the origin might never be truly known. If you smoke, please properly extinguish whatever you’re smoking and don’t light up when in areas prone to fire (which in recent days is just about anywhere outside).

Fire at Black Point. (Photo courtesy USFWS)
Photo courtesy of USFWS.

After the small fall out at the start of April, conditions returned to strong, southerly winds again, even through the Spring meeting of the Florida Ornithological Society. The FOS meeting was in Ruskin this year, near Tampa. I’ll have a little to say about that coming up in another blog entry.

Finally, this weekend we had another front come through. Though not as strong as the one a couple of weeks ago, there were more birds in the sky as we’ve reached peak migration time for many species. The results were dramatic. Over at Fort De Soto park (just days after I left the area after the FOS meeting), dozens of tanagers and grosbeaks descended on the park, though the warbler numbers were low.

Closer to home, Turkey Creek Sanctuary finally saw its largest number of migrant warblers of the season. Over two days this week I went out before work to see what made pit stops there.

Tuesday morning had large numbers of Black-and white Warblers on the move. This species winters in Florida, Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America. It breed throughout much of the eastern US and Canada. There were also Black-throated Blue Warblers, American Redstarts, and Blackpoll Warblers throughout Turkey Creek Sanctuary. Small numbers of Cape May and Worm-eating Warblers were also there, and at least one Black-throated Green Warbler – a long anticipated life bird for me!

Finally! I’ve been hoping for this bird for a while. 
The extensive black throat feathers identify this Black-throated Green Warbler as a male.

Many of the birds were moving west, out of the sanctuary and into the adjacent neighborhood. I think this might be because of the limited food supplies in the park itself. The native and ornamental trees in the neighborhood might be irrigated, thus producing more fruit and attracting more insects.

The following morning saw much the same mix, except the predominate bird was the Blackpoll Warbler. I saw at least 3 dozen, mostly males, throughout the entire southern part of the Sanctuary (the northern area – specifically the Sand Pine and Turkey Oak trails – remain closed as trees and debris are being cleared, due to last Fall’s hurricane Matthew.

Here are three eBird lists from Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. I included Monday’s list for a comparison to what happened after the fall out conditions.

Monday 4/24/2017: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36227122
Tuesday 4/25/2017: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36254038
Wednesday 4/26/2017: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36281378

Food supplies in the sanctuary are still low, but these birds are finding enough for at least a brief stopover.

I expect things will taper off again as the winds are already turning more southerly. There are still a few weeks to go for migration, so hopefully there will be more chances for birds to make stops along the Space Coast. Many of these species won’t be seen here again until October.

I know this entry is a little light in the photographs, but such is the way with small, fast moving targets. I was excited that my Black-throated Green Warbler was as accommodating as he was!

Unlimited Ducks!

As much of the nation went into a deep freeze last week, the cold air brought with it those promised ducks to Florida. As I mentioned in my last blog post, ducks and other waterfowl only tend to migrate south when the weather or food supply dictate. When ponds and lakes freeze over, these birds cannot forage and have to move to warmer places.

The ducks came in to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in massive amounts last weekend. Thousands of birds settled into their usual digs along Black Point Wildlife Drive [map], along with a growing contingent of shorebirds and gulls and terns.

The first most noticeable difference along Black Point was the relative abundance of Wilson’s Snipes, feeding in the open. Snipes are usually fairly cryptic and will suddenly take to the air in an erratic zig-zag flight pattern only when approached very closely, often startling whomever is walking by. They rely on their camouflaged plumage to stay hidden. This was the largest single grouping of Wilson’s Snipes I’ve seen – almost 40 birds.

Normally secretive Wilson’s Snipes feeding in the open with Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.
Snipe’s bills are similar in size and shape to those of dowitchers, and their feeding methods and posture seemed much alike. This bird was resting in the margin of some tall marsh grass.

Ducks started appearing farther along the drive. First, Hooded Mergansers in small groups, quickly diving and scouting for prey. When food is abundant, these birds are in almost constant motion and only fully on the surface for a few seconds at a time.


A Male Hooded Merganser in an alert posture (crest up).

Blue-winged Teals had already arrived in numbers earlier in the Fall, but they have been joined by Northern Shovelers and Northern Pintails.

This male (left) and female (right) Blue-winged Teal pair have likely been at MINWR for weeks.
Bottoms up! Even without breeding plumage, you can see how pintail ducks got their name.
A wider shot showing Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails, and American Coots together. Large areas of the ponds on the west side of the road (north of Cruickshank) were like this.

A large flock of Redheads were just within binocular range, as well as smaller pockets of Gadwalls, Ring-necked Ducks, and even an overflight of Black Scoters. Overhead and in spotting scope range (for those that had them) were many hundreds of more ducks, too distant or backlit to identify.

Of course, winter means American Coot time. Coots gather in huge rafts over the winter, using a “safety in numbers” survival strategy from predators, such as Bald Eagles. Sometimes other birds use the coots as cover, some blending in better than others. The largest rafts of coots were actually along Playalinda Beach Road (402) in some mangrove-screened ponds [map]. Google Maps erroneously calls this Max Brewster Memorial Parkway.

A pair of Redheads trying to fit in.

The main event the past few years along this stretch has been the large and vocal numbers of American Wigeons. Whether it’s the added privacy of the mangrove hedge or something about the ecology of the area, the wigeons have staked it out.


The few gaps in the mangroves allowed for some photos. The green feathers on the male American Wigeons are spectacular when they catch the sunlight.
Many American Wigeons (and coots, of course). There might be a grebe or two in there, as well.
The wigeons were a bit skittish. It seemed like they took to the sky at the slightest approach through the mangroves. The large flocks would break up and circle in smaller groups like this before settling down again.

Hopefully the ducks will stay over longer this winter than they have. The Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival begins in just over a month, and the impressive array of ducks at MINWR would be a great treat for field-trip attendees!


On the Road at MINWR

Some photos from this past weekend’s adventure to MINWR (Both Bio Lab Road and Black Point Drive). I had never been on Bio Lab Road before, but it looks to be a good place for shorebirds and waders, much like a lot of Black Point Drive.

While both locations didn’t offer the best photographic opportunities, the birding was good, and I did finally to manage to get my first Spotted Sandpipers of the year.

There was a duck on Bio Lab Road that was hard to ID at first, but was also maimed, with his right wing partially missing. I had to do some digging and questioning (thank you Brdbrains!) to positively identify him, but it seems this is a Ring-necked Duck drake that had been injured in the early spring and has been cruising around all summer. I was glad he seemed healthy and I am sure he’ll be happy to see his kin in the fall.

Bio Lab Road:

  • Wood Stork
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Anhinga
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Snowy Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Tricolored Heron
  • Cattle Egret
  • Green Heron
  • White Ibis
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Osprey
  • Common Gallinule
  • Black-necked Stilt
  • Semipalmated Plover
  • Killdeer
  • Spotted Sandpiper
  • Least Sandpiper
  • Laughing Gull
  • Mourning Dove
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Northern Flicker
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Blue Jay
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Boat-tailed Grackle

Black Point Drive:

  • Ring-necked Duck
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Wood Stork
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Anhinga
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Snowy Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Tricolored Heron
  • Reddish Egret
  • White Ibis
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Osprey
  • Common Gallinule
  • American Coot
  • Black-necked Stilt
  • Killdeer
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • Willet
  • Laughing Gull
  • Least Tern
  • Caspian Tern
  • Mourning Dove
  • Northern Flicker
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Boat-tailed Grackle

As the summer is moving on, some of the early shorebird migration is getting started, and even some larger numbers of gulls and terns are starting to gather. Some of the lists at Fort DeSoto over on the Gulf coast are already getting impressive (at least from these meager Atlantic birding grounds!).