Catching Up Is Hard To Do: Part 2

June 8, 2019

The title of this and the previous blog proved to be much more prophetic than I dreamed! It’s been a long hiatus, brought on by a conspiracy of circumstances. Let’s close out the previous year before we delve into some new and exciting adventures!

Toward the end of last year, as I was planning to meet with Annie and getting ready for another holiday season, I got an invitation from Mitchell Harris to help lead a team for the Cocoa Christmas Bird Count! This was exciting for me, and it felt good that someone with the birding caliber of Mitchell Harris wanted me to help out.

I assembled a team – Camille, Sarah, and Bella – and got my maps and lists organized. The dry run Camille and I did with Mitchell beforehand helped hone our plans and we were more than ready for the CBC day.

A shopping mall seen across a still pond.
The Cocoa CBC circle includes some build up areas, like the Merritt Square Mall, but park space is still often close by.

Our section of the CBC circle was mainly urban and high-density suburban, with a few parks. Getting the timing right for the birds we wanted to “get” was a little tricky, but we managed to work out a reasonable route with time enough to spend at high-probability sites like Rotary Park, Veteran’s Park, and a roadside rookery. The Merritt Island Rookery had so many hundreds of birds streaming in as the sun set, it was one part comical and one part awe inspiring. Bella was cracking herself up trying to call in the flocks upon flocks of species coming in, as I struggled to keep up the count on eBird!

A Savannah Sparrow perching among sparse Mangrove leaves.
I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to take photos, but I thought this Savannah Sparrow posed nicely!

I’ll post the checklists below. Feel free to map out where we went and how we did.

Rotary Park at Merritt Island (at dawn):

Courtenay Pkwy including vacant lots:

Merritt Square Mall:

Veterans’ Park:

Merritt Island Airport:

Merritt Island Causeway:

Crooked Mile Road:

Georgiana Cemetery:

Rotary Park at Merritt Island (afternoon):

Osteen Park:

Waterway Park:

Kenzel Court:

Sawyer Avenue:

Abandoned Development, Tropical Trail:

Lewis Carroll Avenue:

Merritt Island Rookery:

Our final count was 78 species for our section. The final circle count was 145 species. Not bad. It was an exhausting day, but we managed to work well together, help out with a long running (119 years!) bird census, and see parts of the county I’d not had an opportunity to visit.

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.

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”).

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 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.

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.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher with a long tail.

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.

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.

In my opinion, the Red-headed Woodpecker is as brilliant and striking as any tropical bird.

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.

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:

Colding Loop Road:

Carlton Lake Road, Wimauma (incidental):

Moody Pond:

Colding Loop Road (again):

Sweat Loop Road:

Big Bend Road and Balm Riverview Road, Riverview (incidentals):

Balm Riverview Road:

Balm Road (incidental):

Huckleberry Lane/Sweat Loop Road Intersection:

Alderman Turner Road, Wimauma:

Colding Loop Road (again):

Balm Scrub Preserve (again):

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.


Christmas Passed

Here we are, right between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Since the middle of December many regions are once again in the throes of the “CBC” – the Christmas Bird Count. This Audubon sponsored endeavor is one way that bird population trends are tracked, long term, across the continent. Count season starts before Christmas and ends just after the New Year.

Last count season, I took part in the CBC in my home county. This time around, I helped my friend David Goodwin and his team with the east Pasco County count, the day after Christmas.

In order to get started on time, I had to leave my house before 3am for the 2+ hour drive to our meeting place at a Denny’s by the interstate, just outside St. Leo. From there we hit several spots in our designated part of the count circle (for an explanation of the CBC and count circles, visit the Audubon CBC webpage).

We started before dawn at the Tyndall Road Marsh [map] to catch birds most active at or before dawn. Much of the day required that we drive on McKendree Road – an unpaved stretch with washboard ridges and potholes – and other rural streets to get to our various hot spots.

This is a typical road in east Pasco County.

As a group, we found 107 species for the day (I personally identified 99). Some of the good “gets” for the count were American Woodcock (seen by Dave Goodwin before dawn), American Pipits, a couple of Red-headed Woodpeckers, and a Merlin.


The closest and longest look I’ve had of a Red-headed Woodpecker!


If you look closely, you’ll see 5 American Pipits in this shot. They blend in very well on the ground where they forage for insects.

The parts of Pasco County we birded are all quite rural, making for some lovely scenes, and we were only downwind of some of the more fragrant aspects a couple of times.

This cow pasture has an obligatory watering hole and an attendant cattle egret, behind the cow. Note the remnant of a cypress dome on the left.

Florida isn’t all palm trees and thrill rides. I leave it up to you if that’s a good or bad thing.

At Wesley Chapel District Park [map], Erik Haney got a pair of Ovenbirds to respond to a recorded call of that species, but they remained very well hidden. We managed to scare up a Carolina Wren or two, and on the way out, a singing Blue-headed Vireo briefly got us back, scanning the woods to see it.

Carolina Wrens share the same habitat as Ovenbirds, but are often a little less secretive.

In general, the concentration of wading birds was low throughout the day. The only large numbers were from a distant rookery before dawn, as they dispersed. There were just two wading birds at Wesley Chapel District Park. A Great Egret and a Glossy Ibis were quietly feeding in a small wetland area.

A Glossy Ibis, looking a bit less than glossy, over the winter.

A really great Great Egret!

The goal of any count is to see as many birds of as many species as possible. To achieve this birders, of course, use skill, patience, and optics. But there is an even greater urge than usual to “pish” at birds to get them to come out into the open or to use recordings. It is much easier in these days of smartphones to get high quality recordings of almost any bird to draw it out. And it’s not just the recording of the target bird. Some birders use the distress calls of other birds (the Tufted Titmouse is a favorite among eastern birders) or even predator calls, such as screech owls. There’s an always ongoing debate as to how much of this is necessary or causing stress/harm to the birds. It’s generally accepted that the least one uses these measures the better, but it can be hard when doing something like a CBC or a paid field-trip.

Hermit Thrushes were among the birds pulled into clear view due to the persistent playing of an Eastern Screech Owl recording.

Our group made a lot of use of titmouse and screech owl recordings to lure birds out. We relied on it much more than I am comfortable with, but probably did no permanent harm to the birds in the areas in which we used them.

Eastern Bluebirds are normally birds of open or semi-open country, but our recordings lured more than a few into more wooded areas to see what the hubbub was about.

We ended the day with a walk through an old field, looking for sparrows in the brush and weeds and then circling back to McKendree road for a final look for ducks and shorebirds at pond we had scoped out earlier in the day. Throughout most of the day, Dave Goodwin had been commenting on us not having seen a Northern Harrier. By sundown, we still hadn’t seen one. But as I made one last scan in the fading light, I caught one in my binoculars skimming low over the fields. I found it fitting that I found the bird that way. On my first field trip with Dave at the Space Coast festival, our group was heading home in the tour bus, going over our day’s list. The only hoped for or expected bird we didn’t have was a Northern Harrier. Just after Dave commented on how nice it would be to have that bird before we arrived back at the festival HQ, I looked out the window and there was a Northern Harrier, about to fly over the road. “You mean, like that one?” I said to him. It was a cool moment.

For the so-inclined, here are all the eBird lists for our stops. If you poke around eBird, you’ll see Erik’s lists too, which differ slightly from mine. This isn’t for lack of trust or disagreement, it’s that sometimes we were looking in slightly different areas and saw different birds.

Tyndall Road Marsh:
McKendree Road:
Wesley Chapel District Park:
Mariners Harbour Drive:
Wesley Chapel-Overpass Road:
Tyndall Road:
Tyndall Road Curved Woods:
Kenton Road:
Old Pasco Road Sparrow Field:
Hadlock Drive:
Gray Catbird Loop:
Wesley Chapel School complex:
Bridgewater Development:
McKendree Road, across from pond:

I would have liked to stay for the end of the day count up from all the teams in the CBC circle, but I had a 2+ hour drive ahead of me. So I said my good-byes and headed home. Birding with Dave is always fun and informative. CBC days are long. You have to drive, walk, talk and share with people for hours, and sometimes the birds are less than cooperative. Birders, as a general rule, get along pretty well. After all, we’re united by this passion for birds. But having Dave head up a team is special, and all four of us did pretty well, and had fun doing it.

2015-2016 Christmas Bird Count +

Last week I participated in the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The CBC is a series of bird counts done throughout “the Americas (as Audubon says)” that helps track trends of bird populations. You can read about the history of the CBC and how to help at Audubon’s CBC page [link].

I volunteered to help the “South Brevard” counting circle, and was put on a team with three others on a 20ft. outboard on the Indian River. Our captain was Fred Griffin. His wife, Suzanne Chesser and local artist Cathy Ferrell  and I spent several hours around the lagoon. Special thanks to Cathy for the use of her photos.

Our boat, with me and Suzanne aboard! (Photo © Cathy Ferrell)

We pushed off as the last of the morning sunshine vanished (taking a couple of large flocks of American White Pelicans with it) and the wind and clouds moved in.

Suzanne, Fred, and I during some relative calm. You can see how overcast it was for most of the morning. (Photo © Cathy Ferrell)

Suzanne had the “official” count form and was doing periodic estimates and updates, and I used eBird to record what I saw (and pointed out to the others). At the end of the count our numbers agreed pretty well – good job, Suzanne!

Fred did a great job piloting the boat and, despite some wicked chop at times, none of us had any real discomfort. Of course Both Fred and Suzanne are familiar with boats and I found out the Cathy was captain of her own boat – a larger “Cheoy Lee” sloop – and knows her way on the water as well. It was good to be in such capable hands.

Here we are heading into the wind! We took some hard bounces, but Captain Fred kept us alright! (Photo © Cathy Ferrell)

Most of the birds were tucked up under the leeward side of the islands in the lagoon, though we did have a large count of pelicans (both species) and cormorants.

Some egrets on the lee side of a spoil island (Photo © Cathy Ferrell)

We finished up in the afternoon, a little before the official “wrap-up” dinner at Marsh Landing Restaurant in Fellsmere.

Here is my eBird list for the CBC trip:

I did a quick jaunt over to the Fellsmere Grade Recreation Area and Stick Marsh before the dinner. The Stick Marsh was inundated (due to the excessive rains we’ve had this fall and winter), but I didn’t stay very long.

Loggerhead Shrike

Here’s are the lists for both the road to the Fellsmere Grade Recreational Area and the Stick Marsh:

Fellsmere Grade (road and Recreational Area):

Stick Marsh:

The dinner at Marsh Landing Restaurant was very nice, and it had the added bonus of giving me my first look at a Barn Owl. There is a nest box right outside the restaurant by the banquet room – so one look on tip-toes and there was my Barn Owl! I think 2 are usually there, and they’ve raised chicks, too.

My first birding excursion of the year, and I had a great time all-around. Another thank you to Captain Fred, Suzanne, and Cathy!