Malabar Scrub Sanctuary: March 2, 2014

I apologize for the delay in getting this post up, but here’s a summary of my last birding excursion, this past Sunday.

My last visit to the Malabar Scrub Sanctuary was memorable, in part, because of how close I got to some Florida Scrub Jays. To be honest, my main goal was to see some of these birds again.

The sanctuary itself is divided into two main parts, an eastern and western section, with the Cameron Preserve in the middle. This forms a more or less contiguous open space ranging from low scrub to mature second-growth forest.

I started the morning in the western section, nearby the Turkey Creek Sanctuary. This part of the park is mainly forested with a semi-closed canopy. Northern Parulas were numerous and vocal. Almost everywhere I saw or heard Northern Parulas, Yellow-rumped Warblers were nearby. The males are molting into their breeding plumage and are looking quite sharp! The warblers tended to move through the trees just ahead of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.

The Northern Cardinals are ramping up their activity as well. Most years, the cardinals in this area only show a slight decrease in activity through the winter. Some years I have even seen fledgling birds in late January, meaning at least some of these birds are nesting and breeding through the winter. This year, however, the cardinals have been more laid back and quiet through most of the winter. Things are changing now, though, and soon I expect these handsome birds will be singing and chirping their way to distraction, as always.

At one point, I heard a distinctive bird-like chatter up in the trees and looked up at some tall pines, trying to find what was making the sound. I heard a similar response about 100 feet away in another treetop, but could not see anything. The first noise came from a tree with a nest in it, though I could not tell if the nest was occupied. The nest was 2-3 feet wide and make of sticks. I’ve embedded this video below, mostly for the sound recording. If anyone knows what this is, please let me know.

Mysterious chattering call. Does anyone know what this is?

I heard several small groups of American Goldfinches at various places, and the constant calls of the Carolina Wren at times challenged the cardinals for predominance. In both sections of the sanctuary I heard White-eyed Vireos singing their odd, semi-mimicked songs, but the one I did see was too quick to grab a photograph (if you follow this blog, you’d know it took almost a year for me to actually photograph one of these birds, despite hearing them almost the entire spring and summer).

After completing one of the loop trails through that part of the sanctuary, I drove to the eastern portion, where I saw the scrub jays last year. They did not disappoint. After one “false alarm” by this Northern Mockingbird, I was visited by a couple of jays, who let me get quite close and seem to be people watching as much as I was birdwatching.

photo n-mockingbird.jpg
Perhaps I was being silently mocked?

Florida Scrub Jays are intensely curious birds, and also quite social (like most corvids). One pair hung around the tree I was near, trying to catch a glimpse of a bird that was noisily rustling in the brush along the trail. One of the two let me get within a few feet of it (the rustling turns out to have been Eastern Towhees foraging in the leaf-litter).

photo s-jay.jpg
When I said, “I don’t have any snacks for you,” this bird actually did turn up its nose.

Further along the trail this bird followed me and let me get closer and even take a short video. The video starts when the jay notices a large wasp flying around. The loud sound at the end is the camera’s zoom mechanism.

Florida Scrub Jay goes after a wasp (not in frame).

When it flew off and ran around, it was chasing the wasp, which it then summarily caught, dismembered and ate after scurrying into the brush. I managed some photographs after the meal was complete, but I love the picture shown here because it shows off the beautiful blue plumage on this handsome bird.

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Florida Scrub Jay after just eating a large wasp.

After a few more minutes, the jays got bored with me and flew off (I heard several other individuals in the vicinity).

During the wildlife festival in January, a group of us were talking about various state birds, and it was mentioned that Florida’s state bird is the Northern Mockingbird. I offhandedly said I voted for the Swallow-tailed Kite, but Laura Erickson immediately piped up and said, “I think it should be the Florida Scrub Jay.” And she’s right.

The Florida Scrub Jay is completely endemic to the state. No other Florida bird is as emblematic of the struggle in Florida of wildlife and open space vs. development or of natural Florida vs. the tropical paradise we’re trying to force it to be. While it might lack appeal for citizens for whom the Scrub Jay is not found nearby, any benefit the species might get by elevating it to official status would be welcome, in my eyes.

I finished up the morning by walking to the end of the paved road before turning around and walking back out. One pleasant surprise there was a trio of Brown-headed Cowbirds on the powerline.

Once again, here is the species list from Sunday (including the drive to and from the sanctuary):

  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Fish Crow
  • Brown Pelican
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Florida Scrub Jay (FOY)
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Osprey
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Black Vulture
  • Brown-headed Cowbird (FOY)
  • Palm Warbler
  • Carolina Wren
  • Northern Parula
  • Blue Jay
  • Pileated Woodpecker (voice)
  • Tree Swallow
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • American Goldfinch (voice)

Scrubbing it Up in Malabar

I spent the morning in the central part of the Malabar Scrub Sanctuary. My post from April 14th discusses how much of the sanctuary was overgrown too much for the Florida Scrub Jay. The central part, however, is being managed to keep the habitat more amenable to the jays and other scrub-adapted wildlife.

The Malabar Scrub Santuary was set up in the early to mid 1990s, using a failed housing development from the 1980s.

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Malabar Woods Blvd. You can’t have a more exclusive address

Here are a few photographs of what post-burn scrub habitat looks like from ground level. I am not sure exactly when this was burned, but probably some time this year. Vegetation grows back very quickly; these plants are adapted to fire. photo scrub2.jpg
Burn-managed scrub.

You’ll notice the lower part of the tree trunks are charred, but there’s no evidence of buring in the upper part. Management fires, like the natural fire they mimic, are fast moving and low to the ground. The taller trees here are relics of pre-management days. Left to its own devices, a scrub habitat would tend to be devoid of any taller trees. You can see that the burns have caused many of these taller tress to die, though. photo scrub1.jpg
Lack of shade is par for the course in scrub country.

There were some Blue-grey Gnatcatchers calling in their wheezy-complaining way along the paths off the paved boulevard, but as I walked down the defunct street, I noticed something ahead that excited me a bit. I couldn’t be sure until I got closer, but yes! Florida Scrub Jays! One was acting as a look-out on top of a dead sapling while another foraged on the ground. The foraging jay actually came within 2 feet of me and was very curious. I know that many people tend to feed them (which is illegal), so I don’t know if this jay is habituated to hand-outs or if this was just a normal level of curiousity seen in the species.

photo jay-lookout1.jpg

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The blue coloration was very varible, depending on the sun angle. This shot shows it to best effect.

photo jay-close.jpg Hello neighbor!

I walked along some of the paths that led into the more forested parts of the sanctuary. I saw a White-eyed Vireo, but wasn’t able to get a photo (again!!), but was hearing what sounded like an Eastern Towhee. I know that the White-eyed Vireos in this area love to mimic towhees, so I was skeptical. It took some careful and lonely stalking, but sure enough, there was male Eastern Towhee singing in the shade of a tree. The race of Eastern Towhee here in Florida has white eyes (rather than the red eyes of northern bretheren) and a slightly less musical and slurring voice.

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Eastern Towhee singing his heart out.

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Pause for breath.

At this point the sun was really beating down and I started to head back out. I saw a few more jays and another towhee. I noticed on my way back out to the scrub habitat a six-lined racerunner and creepy flies (like I’ve seen at Turkey Creek Sanctuary).

The only other resident I saw before exiting the sanctuary was this small Gopher Tortoise. It was about the size of a small bagel, but I don’t know how old that would make it, but I expect pretty young in turtle-years.

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Looks like the kids play outside in this neighborhood.

Both the Florida Scrub Jays and the Eastern Towhees are firsts for this year, bringing my 2013 total to 132 species.