Quiet Time

I went to Turkey Creek Sanctuary today and spent a silent walk through most of it. Besides various groups of birds flying or soaring overhead (vutures, crows and some smaller sparrows and/or warblers), I only saw 6 individual birds inside the Sanctuary, and 6 individuals upstream from the weir on the canal. That’s a pretty low bird density and count for about 3 hours.

Here’s the official list (including the overhead flyers I could positively identify):

  1. Ovenbird (1)
  2. Ruby-crowned Kinglet (1)
  3. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (2)
  4. Turkey Vulture
  5. Black Vulture
  6. Fish Crow
  7. Northern Cardinal (2)
  8. Little Blue Heron (1)
  9. Cattle Egret (1)
  10. Pied-billed Grebe (1)
  11. Common Gallinule (3)

It was particulary noteworthy to me that I neither heard nor saw any Gray Catbirds at all. The Gopher Tortoises were out again en force, and I managed to catch a glimpse of one squirrel and one snake (a Black Racer, I believe). 

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone. Depending on my Christmas situation there may be a Christmas Count post upcoming, but I make no guarantees.

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! 

Birds in the Hood

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

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Surveying the domain.

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

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

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

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


Armadillo.. nom nom nom

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

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

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

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Proud as a Peacock

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

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


Downy Woodpecker leaving tiny holes in a palm frond.

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

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

Summer at Turkey Creek

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

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


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


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

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


Northern Parula nervously scanning the skies.

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


Tricolored Heron.


American Coot. Love the red eye.


Not a tiny alligator, but a Florida Softshell Turtle.

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


Leaning trees from 2004 hurricane damage.

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


This mushroom is a fun guy (fungi).

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


Mighty mite!

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


Viceroy butterfly

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

I went to Erna Nixon Park this morning to see what was happening there. At the first “Vista” stop along the boardwalk, there’s an overlook of some reedy vegetation and some grasses, adjacent to a pond that there is no path to get at. In that area I had the most success today. There were several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (males and females, a lot of bickering), what sounded like House Wrens, and at least one Common Yellowthroat (which came quite close, but I was unable to capture on camera). Further along the boardwalk I did see a single male Northern Parula, and along the fire-path along the northern edge of the property was a nice little gathering of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. The usual Northern Cardinals, Mourning Doves and Fish Crows were also in evidence. I did get a nice shot of a snake (not sure what species). Also heard some Carolina Wrens, but they stayed well out of sight.

Went With The Wind!

Continuing my adventures from Part 1, after walking McKinnon’s Way, I came out by a pumphouse just down from the Scrub Trail. The wind was doing some pretty funky things! These Mourning Doves were hanging onto this wire for dear life! But as you can see, sometimes the gusts seemed very localized. The bird on the left is really getting it, while the one on the right seems fairly unperturbed by the gust:

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Hang on there, little fella!

From there, I headed to the scrub trail, along the jogging path.

I caught a very inexperienced looking Red-shouldered Hawk over a small clearing on the other side of some thick brush. It seemed to have a fair bit of white fluffy feathers near its tail, so I assume it was a juvenile (though the rest of the plumage was adult, and I have never seen that much puffy proliferation of feathers). It was odd, but it moved on after scattering whatever birds were present and sending the throngs of cardinals into a frenzy of chipping notes.

By this point, the wind was so bad, I figured my observing was over with for the day, but I heard more persistent “per-chick-oo-chick” calls from the White-eyed Vireos. While on one of the walks with Laura Erickson at the birding festival, she mentioned that if you see a warbler or vireo, scan around, because there are probably more birds hanging around.

She was right!

A benefit of birding alone is perseverance. When the group wants to move along, you can stay and wait it out. I could hear the vireo right in front of me, but I could NOT find it for the longest time. But in my scanning for it (both with the unaided eye, and with my binoculars), I caught a flash of yellow and black. It wasn’t enough to ID, but I stuck with it. After several minutes, not only did I catch another White-eyed Vireo, I got a glimpse of a male Prairie Warbler, a first for this year.

There was also some dusky looking small birds with faint streaking that I could not ID, and some very irritated sounding Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers.

From there it was off to the Scrub Trail, but the wind was really roaring by then, and apart from some vultures having a grand time of it, wheeling through the sky, it was time to go. Here are a couple of shots of the Scrub Trail.

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Not a bad morning, especially considering the weather.

I also learned that getting snaps of birds is REALLY hard with the branches swaying like a drunken construction crane. Hopefully I’ll get some shots next time when things are calmer.