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.

red-shouldered-hawk
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:

b-25
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!

bella-canvasback-sighted
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.

 

odd-heron
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.

pumphouse-road-sunset
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 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!

chipping-sparrow1
This Chipping Sparrow was eager to check us out!
chipping-sparrow2
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!

 

MINWR/Canaveral II

On Saturday, I went out with Camille to Canaveral National Seashore again, in hopes of getting more pelagic (oceanic/marine) birds, but the combination of weather and circumstance that had hundreds of scoters, gannets, and other off-shore birds coming south along the beach was gone, and very few birds could be seen.

We did make good use of the day to do Blackpoint Wildlife Drive, which was closed when we attempted it last weekend. It seems the ducks are finally arriving, though most of them stayed well away from the roadway.

I made pretty good use of an entry-level spotting scope that was generously given to me over the summer.  With it we were able to identify far-off Canvasbacks, Redheads, and Northern Pintails.

blue-winged-teals
Blue-winged Teals. Some of the huge clouds of incoming ducks we saw all morning were probably teals, although I am sure some were wigeons.

Here’s a gallery of some of the other sights in and around MINWR:

 

We ended the adventure with a sighting of 3 Buffleheads. They appeared to be either 1st winter males or females, but it was a nice bonus!

Here a a couple of checklists from the day:

Blackpoint Wildlife Drive:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S26034771

Playalinda Beach:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S26034778

It was nice to see the duck activity increase, and hopefully we’ll have the usual numbers of scaups, Ring-necked Ducks and Northern Pintails keeping us company until spring!

MINWR/Canaveral Day

Sunday was an epic day-trip around much of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and part of Canaveral National Seashore. It was overcast and windy with intermittent showers, but the birding was worth it. I’ve highlighted a few of the stops here, but you can link to all the hotspots and bird lists at the end of the post, via eBird, for everything seen.

On Playalinda Beach, there were huge flocks of Northern Gannets and Brown Pelicans, as well as various terns, scoters, and shore birds.

One small group of White-winged Scoters flew quickly by, as well as more distant, large flocks of likely Black Scoters. There was at least one predatory jaeger (unknown species) and what seemed to be a shearwater of some sort, far offshore.

One Sanderling, well up from the surf, caught my eye. It seemed to be resting, but it kept peeking its eyes out, watching.

sanderling
Many shorebirds and waders will stand on one leg, even to the point of hopping away when disturbed before finally putting both legs down.

After watching for a while, I noticed it was swiveling gently, back and forth. Like a weather vane, the bird was turning to align with the wind, perhaps to keep from getting blown over while it rested on one leg.

There was a mixed group of terns, which included Royal, Forster’s, Sandwich, and at least one Common.

motley-crue
Mixed flock of terns (with bonus shorebirds behind).

A few Black-bellied Plovers were working the beach. These birds’ winter plumage is much less dramatic than their breeding plumage, but the way this species moves and stands usually makes it quite easy to pick out in any case (to me they look almost delicate and timid at times).

 

At the end of Shiloh Road, at the extreme northern end of the Indian River Lagoon, there were hundreds of American Coots.  In fact if you include the many rafts of coots along the canal, there was easily over a thousand! There were a few scattered Northern Shovelers, but not much else in the way of duck species. In fact, so far this fall, it seems the ducks have been slow to arrive. There have been no reports of Northern Pintails yet, and just a smattering of Redheads and Ruddy Ducks.

Most of Peacocks Pocket is closed for hunting until February, and a search for reported Nelson’s and Saltmarsh Sparrows along the first part of the road didn’t come up with much.

Blackpoint Drive was unexpectedly closed, perhaps due to one of the massive downpours that were blowing in and out of the area.

Bio Lab Road, however, proved more fruitful, if a bit hard on the nose. From time to time, due to algal blooms and other phenomena, the lagoon will really, really, smell. The wind coming off the water and right into the car (with open windows for birding, of course) was nearly overwhelming at times. It didn’t seem to bother the many Dunlins and Least and Western Sandpipers who were foraging among the stench filled foam at the water’s edge.

Here are all the stops and eBird lists for the day, which include the first of season Ruddy Duck at Vista #8, and first-in-forever White-winged Scoters at Playalinda Beach.

Canaveral National Seashore Paystation Area (map):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S25953179

Playalinda Beach (map):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S25953309

Canaveral National Seashore, Vista #8 (map):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S25953139

Canaveral National Seashore, Vista #6 (map):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S25953098

Merritt Island NWR, Shiloh Road (map):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S25953066

Parrish Park (map):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S25952994

Merritt Island NWR, Peacocks Pocket (map):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S25953559

Merritt Island NWR, Bio Lab Road (map):
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S25952975

It was a really good day, despite the closure of Peacocks Pocket and Blackpoint Drive. I had never been to Playalinda Beach before, and it was a real treat. If you want a fairly good idea of what the beaches of the Space Coast would be like in their “natural” state, have a visit – but tread lightly. Beach habitats are especially sensitive to human disturbance.