How Do You Prepare for Spring? Scrub!

The Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary is a small but important conservation property here in Brevard County [map]. As their brochure says:

The Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary was originally part of a larger span of high, dry scrubby habitat. Whenever possible, the EEL Program acquires land to help connect existing natural areas. However, as landscapes are developed with buildings and roadways, natural habitats become fragmented (broken up and isolated). Because scrub is favored for development, the Cruickshank Sanctuary has become an “island” in the midst of a developed landscape.

You can learn more about Brevard County’s EEL ( Environmentally Endangered Lands) Program by visiting their website.

As a scrub habitat adjacent to residential development, near the Indian River Lagoon, a diversity of species is to be expected, and that’s what I saw, including a heron fly-over. There were some Tree Swallows near the entrance, and a smattering of American Robins (small groups of robins were also seen, here and there, throughout the morning).

As with the Northern Mockingbirds around the county (and the state), the thrashers are singing in preparation of mating and reestablishing their territories. A sure sign of spring.

One of several Brown Thrashers I saw throughout the morning. Note the rich, russet brown of the back and wings.

Male and female Eastern Towhees were scrambling around in the underbrush, scratching for insects in the leaves and other debris. The birds were calling out to each other a lot, with their “chewINK” calls, but very little singing by the males. The males were more bold and inquisitive when I approached a few times, popping out into the open to check out what I was doing, and sometimes scolding me.

“Hey! Get off of my scrub!”
Before the mid 1990s, Eastern and Spotted Towhees were considered a single species, “Rufous-sided Towhee”. Here, you can see why that was an apt name.

The Sanctuary is a great home for various woodpeckers, including the elsewhere-rare Northern Flicker. I heard it mentioned during the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival that Northern Flicker numbers are declining, with the exact cause not yet known (though habitat loss and development pressure are always likely candidates). In addition to several flickers, I also saw Downy, Pileated, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. A Red-headed Woodpecker was reported earlier in the week, but I did not find that bird during my visit.

Even in bad light, you can see the yellow feather shafts that gave this species it’s former name “Yellow-shafted Flicker” before it was merged with the “Red-shafted” variety into the Northern Flicker. A reminder that genetics aren’t always as ordered and simple as we think.

Of course the star “attractions” of the Sanctuary are the Florida Scrub-Jays.

As usual, one of two birds will perch up on higher branches to act as look-outs for the rest of the family group as they forage and fly around their territories.

Many of the jays are banded, as researchers use these birds (and other scrub-jays on other properties) to research and conserve this endangered species. Naturally inquisitive and bold, this long-running research has also made the birds acclimated to human presence, making them approachable and easily photographed.

Long-time readers of my blog have seen some of the photos of Florida Scrub-Jays perched on my head. The birds look for people to hand them food (usually peanuts), as researchers had trained them to make it easier to band and examine the birds, and returning visitors used that “trick” to get close and personal with the jays.

Much of that has stopped, and with education and signage, the birds seem to expect handout less, and not a single bird landed on my head this time.

This bird was warily watching a pair of Ospreys build a nest nearby. 

There was an Osprey pair building a nest, carefully placing large twigs and branches, one by one. Although Ospreys are fish eating raptors, small birds and other animals are always careful to watch for anything hawk or eagle-like in their skies.

There had been a largely complete nest here last year, but winds (likely from Hurricane Matthew) knocked it down. 

After placing some branches another Osprey couple approached. There was a brief fight over the nest site, with the building couple chasing the others away.

Meanwhile, the scrub-jays looked on and continued on their business. There were other raptors around, including a Red-shouldered and a Red-tailed Hawk, but they did not seem interested in the jays.

Another sentinel.

I also scared up a flock of mixed sparrows into some scrub, where they lingered for a few minutes, allowing me to get some reasonable looks at them. There were Savannah, Field, and Chipping Sparrows, as well as two rare Clay-colored Sparrows.

One of the Chipping Sparrows, with the distinctive rusty cap and black eye-line.

Clay-colored Sparrows are rare visitors to Florida. They breed in the north-central United States and south-central Canada and winter in Mexico. According to published information, they like to stick to scrub and brush along field edges, even in winter, so finding it in a scrub sanctuary, surrounded by residential development made this species a nice find.

Clay-colored Sparrows have a bold cheek pattern and darker grey collar, on an unstreaked breast, which help identify them.

Most of these sparrows will soon be departing for their breeding grounds, well north of here. Their presence, along with the Osprey nest-building and increased singing and displaying of resident species indicates that we’re on Spring’s doorstep.

For those who like to follow along with eBird, here’s the “official” list.

I haven’t been posting links to my eBird lists lately, but I think there’s some value to making that information more easily available, so I’ll start doing it again more regularly.

After wrapping up my hike at the sanctuary, I did a quick stop by Riverwalk Family Park, but it was mostly quiet there, so I headed for home.

Where Am I in the Pecking Order?

As central Florida begins to settle into a summer pattern, I thought it would be a good weekend to stay more local and see what was happening both at the Helen and Alan Cruickshank and Turkey Creek Sanctuaries this past Sunday.

As expected, it was a quiet morning at both places, but it is breeding season for most of the resident birds. That means fledglings!

There were at least a couple of Purple Martin families flying high above the Cruickshank Sanctuary, with many of the fledged birds taking food from adults while on the wing. Purple Martin calls can sometimes sound almost like a Star Wars blaster effect or a metallic twang, and these sounds filled the air for the whole time I was there.

Also fledging are the Florida Scrub Jay chicks. Almost immediately upon stepping into the sanctuary, I had inquisitive youngsters fly up to take a close look at me.

This immature Florida Scrub Jay is a little older than a fledgling, but is yet to molt into his adult plumage.

Some of the younger fledglings were having trouble flying long distances, so stuck close to the lower scrub, while the older and more bold youngsters tried to keep up with the adults (who were feeling quite feisty!)

An adult Florida Scrub Jay acting as a lookout.

At one point an adult landed on my head. This isn’t unusual at this sanctuary. In the past, scientists and hikers alike fed these birds peanuts, which took advantage of this species bold and gregarious tendencies. It was found that in the long run this was not helpful for the long-term rehabilitation of the species (especially if the birds were ever relocated to colonize new habitats in the future), so the practice was officially discontinued. Unfortunately, many visitors continue to feed these birds, and some of them have come to expect the hand-out. In the case of this particular bird, it began pecking me on the head!

This bird pecked at the phone right after this shot.

After I pulled my hat back far enough to get the bird off of me, it landed on the ground and then looked up at me, confused, as if it had done nothing wrong.


“What the heck is YOUR problem?”

There were some non-avian friends about the place, too, including a nice collection of Eastern Cottontails, some Green Anoles and other lizards, and frogs, singing in the trees.


A pair of Wood Ducks were sitting up in some of the dead trees. I suspect they may have a nest nearby, though they either already had a brood of chicks or the female has yet to lay eggs (or it may be both; Wood Ducks may have 2 broods per season). Wood Ducks nest in cavities that may be over 50 feet off the ground! When the young hatch, they jump to the ground just a day or so later, surviving a harrowing fall and running off to join their mother, usually to the relative safety of a pond or stream.



A Wood Duck pair, high above. The nest up and to their right is an Osprey aerie.

Overall, it was a pleasant morning and I left this sanctuary before the heat of the day. You can see the complete list of birds I identified below.

eBird list for the Helen & Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary:

I then drove south to the Turkey Creek Sanctuary to get a look at how it was faring, post-migration. It was relatively quiet, though the woods were full of Carolina Wrens and Northern Cardinals singing and calling. It started to get a little warm as the day progressed, but there was a reasonable amount of bird activity spread throughout the portions of the sanctuary I visited (I did not walk most of the boardwalk).

Many Northern Parula chicks have fledged, and were begging for food high in the canopy as their parents gleaned food for them, and at the weir there were some first year Common Gallinules and one transitioning Little Blue Heron.

This immature Little Blue Heron has gotten most of its adult primary feathers.

eBird list for Turkey Creek Sanctuary:

The biggest surprise was a Gray Catbird out by the turn-around by the boat ramp and end of the jogging trail. It’s not the first time I’ve seen one in the area in the summer, but it is unusual. I may have heard a second one, but I can’t be certain. That’s one of many reasons to love birding: you never know what to expect and surprises are always possible.


Choices We Make

It’s always an interesting balancing-act for me to decide where to go birding. I like to vary my experiences, but the (very) amateur scientist in me likes to see the changes in the same location over time and under varied circumstances. In the end, I wind up visiting the same places many times each year, sprinkled with the odd foray into somewhere new (or at least less visited by me). As this weekend approached, the decision seemed to come down to either Lori Wilson Park or Turkey Creek Sanctuary. Camille and I actually talked about it a bit, wondering if either one might prove more fruitful than the other. It remained up in the air until late Saturday when I decided that Lori Wilson Park would be a good place to start. If things were too quiet there, there would still be time enough try something else. At that time I was thinking Turkey Creek again.

I met up with Camille and it turns out that, yes, Lori Wilson Park was very quiet. Phyllis Mansfield was there, talking with 2 men who were staking out the small water feature (optimistically referred to as “the pond”) with it’s dripping hose. This is actually a good bird attractant, but this time there were only some Mourning Doves and House Sparrows in the vicinity.

Lovey-dovey Mourning Dove walks in for a closer look at us.

On the boardwalk loop, the park was dominated by white butterflies. There were dozens of them all over. I caught a couple of very brief glimpses of two Ovenbirds, and we heard and saw several Common Yellowthroats. Of course the Northern Cardinals were ever-present, and as we got back to the entrance/exit a bit later, we did see some Common Grackles, a single American Redstart, and a Gray Catbird near the pond.

Proving, again that birds are functionally illiterate, this Gray Catbird is still hanging around Florida.

On the way out we flushed a couple of Palm Warblers and watched some Northern Mockingbirds go about their day. There were some Brown Pelicans flying overhead as we decided what to do next. With Lori Wilson Park so quiet, the prospects for Turkey Creek Sanctuary seemed bleak. I thought maybe trying something new might spruce the morning up a bit and we could head to the Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary. As a scrub preserve there was bound to be some Eastern Towhees (which for Camille would be a life bird) and who knows what else. At least the Florida Scrub Jays would be a pretty sure bet.

Here’s the list of birds seen and heard at Lori Wilson Park, including the parking area:

  • Northern Mockingbird
  • House Sparrow
  • Common Grackle
  • European Starling
  • Mourning Dove
  • Fish Crow
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Blue Jay
  • Ovenbird
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Brown Pelican
  • American Redstart
  • Gray Catbird
  • Palm Warbler

We arrived at Cruickshank about 20 minutes later and walked to the trailhead. The southern part of the sanctuary had been burned fairly recently, but it was growing in nicely. We quickly had our first birds of the day: some very inquisitive Florida Scrub Jays! I know in the past that visitors often would (sometimes at the encouragement of the sanctuary’s caretakers) feed the jays peanuts. They would land on people and even eat out of their hands. This is strongly discouraged now, but as these birds still seem want to land on people, I have to wonder if people aren’t still feeding them on the sly. I know that as recently as a couple of years ago the caretakers were still feeding them by hand. While it makes for great public relations (and fun photos!), the long term impact of this on the jays’ behavior isn’t clear.

This isn’t what is generally meant by a “feathered headdress,” but you have to admit it’s pretty striking!
At least it’s not a Blue Jay (go Red Sox!)

When not being fed peanuts (or stealing snacks from visitors’ pockets), these jays are omnivorous, feeding on berries, nuts (like acorns) and insects. I’ve seen them run down ants and catch bees in mid-air. After it became apparent we had nothing to offer them, the jays took to the ground, grabbing bugs and seeds in the dirt.

Like most of the Florida Scrub Jays in the sanctuary, this bird has a band for identification and tracking.

There were several fledglings calling and making short flights through the scrub. I’ve not seen scrub jay fledglings before and it was fun watching them try to navigate their world while family members looked on. These youngsters stayed very low in the vegetation and made only tentative attempts at crossing larger, open spaces.

A young Florida Scrub Jay taking a break during flight training. In a few weeks it’ll be winging its way like a pro.

As we progressed further in the sanctuary, we could hear Eastern Towhees calling to each other in the dense scrub. As we walked the 1-mile hiking trail I was hopeful we’d see some and add the bird to Camille’s steadily growing life list. This is when we had our first surprise of the morning. A Northern Bobwhite was out in the sunshine by the edge of the wider dirt path, singing while in his best breeding plumage. We heard a few of them throughout the sanctuary, but only this one stayed out long enough to get a good look at. This was a life bird for Camille, and one that I had not anticipated.

This Northern Bobwhite was loudly and proudly calling his name out at the edge of the trail. We didn’t get much closer than this, though, before he scurried into the brush.

As we made our way along the trail, we finally did track down a singing male Eastern Towhee, while many others called nearby. Some swallows overfly us, too and I was confused because at first I thought they late-lingering Tree Swallows. In the end, I think they were Bank Swallows but I never quite got a good enough look at their throats to be sure. There were a few Barn Swallows as well (another Camille life bird), and at least one Purple Martin. One lone Sandhill Crane also flew overhead at one point, and there were several Anhingas soaring nearby.

As we approached some large, dead, oak trees, some very raucous calls started coming from one. A Pileated Woodpecker had landed next to a large, oval hole. Then, we had our second surprise of the day!

Papa woodpecker feeding his two babies. There was a female nearby as well. These two stretched their necks out so far I don’t know how they didn’t fall out!

In addition to the Pileated Woodpeckers, two other species of woodpecker were present. Red-bellied Woodpeckers are fairly ubiquitous, but this one was foraging more like a chickadee. Just before the next photo was taken, it was swinging upside down under that tangle of seed pods.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers tend to be more versatile than other woodpecker species, even perching on wires on occasion.

We also had one of an apparent pair of Northern Flickers stop in a nearby tree. We could hear them clear across the sanctuary for a while before one finally came close enough to get a decent binocular view of. Flickers were always very common in my back (and front) yard as a child, and were a staple find in my early biding years. They are less common around my usual birding spots now, so it’s always a pleasure to hear or see them.

After that, we headed toward the parking area, stopping to watch the Scrub Jay fledglings again and have some more birds land on our heads. Florida Scrub Jays are scrappy little birds, and I am glad we’ve set aside some sanctuaries for them. My hope is that we come up with a better development and land-use strategy in central Florida to manage our scrub habitats and let the population roam and expand.

Unofficial Florida State Bird.

The total species list for the Cruickshank Sanctuary:

  • Florida Scrub Jay
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Northern Bobwhite
  • Blue Jay
  • Chimney Swift
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • European Starling
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Purple Martin
  • Anhinga
  • Fish Crow
  • Sandhill Crane
  • White Ibis
  • Barn Swallow
  • Great Egret
  • Wood Duck
  • Northern Flicker (FOY)
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Roseate Spoonbill

It turned out to be a pretty good choice, going to the Cruickshank Sanctuary. There are other less explored parks in the area I’m keen to visit. The normal migration season is beginning to wind down now. There will still be some birds moving through the rest of the month, but then the Space Coast and nearby areas will get into its usual summer regime. I’ve got some hopeful adventures planned for the summer. Let’s see how they pan out.

Water Lily in bloom.