Am I Blue?

Last weekend I made the trek over to the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive [map]. I haven’t birded much outside Brevard County this spring. This was my first visit to the lake since last Fall. With temperatures rising into Summer, birdwatching outings like this are generally easier on the body, even in the car with the AC turned off.

The area between the entrance gate to the North Shore Restoration Area and the Wildlife Drive proper is referred to as the “Gate Area” and even has its own eBird hotspot. I usually forget this and all my eBird reports get lumped into the Wildlife Drive hotspot. I am probably not unique in this. In any case, in the Gate Area it is typical to find both Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks. Sure enough within 30 seconds of driving in, there they were.

indigo-bunting-1
A male Indigo Bunting in partial sun, backlit. Notice how his blue plumage is dark and unsaturated.
indigo-bunting-2
This is the same bird as above, but in full sun.

Seeing these birds early in the morning with passing low clouds made for interesting changes, as illustrated in the two photographs above. While most colors on a bird, like red, yellow or green (and even black or white) result from light reflecting off pigments in the feathers, birds that are blue look that way for a different reason. Instead of a “simple” reflection off pigments, blue colors come about because of a particular way that light reflects through a feather’s 3D structure. Red and green light interfere and cancel themselves out inside the feather, while blue light gets amplified before coming back out. The result is that brilliant blue you see. But that also means that when there’s less light, due to backlighting or clouds, the light coming into and out of the feathers lowers the color blue levels. This is even obvious in more “common” birds, like Blue Jays. On really overcast days I joke and call them “Grayish Jays”. OK, not the pinnacle of humor, but hey. Here’s a link to a Smithsonian Magazine article that explains it if you want to know more.

blue-grosbeak
This Blue Grosbeak isn’t quite in full breeding or adult plumage – he had quite a bit of brownish gray streaked throughout. That heavy bill (gros is French for big) and brown wingbars are diagnostic field marks for this bird.

The Wildlife Drive can also be counted on for swallows, especially Barn Swallows and Purple Martins. Often less common swallows, like Northern Rough-winged, Bank, or Cliff Swallows can be found. The martin babies are fledged but still depending on parents for much of their food.

purple-martin-couple
I have to chuckle at this photo. It looks like this Purple Martin couple had an argument and aren’t speaking. In fact, they had just been cozied up to each other but their fledgling brood swooped past, looking for a meal. They are about to divide and conquer. This won’t last long. Martin parents are pretty strict in getting their babies to fend for themselves.

Florida has continued in a mostly dry pattern but we’ve had some showers and storms lately. The wetland areas around the Lake weren’t dry; almost anywhere there was sufficient water there were Common Gallinules, many with chicks of various ages.

common-gallinule
This female gallinule had chicks nearby (I could hear them squeaking), but they stayed wisely hidden in the adjacent weeds.

Black-necked Stilts were present as well. Although I didn’t see any chicks, I did see a few of the birds engaging in faux injury displays and diversionary flights. This indicates to me that there were probably some chicks around but mostly out of sight.
black-necked-stilt

These birds, as well as the numerous Boat-tailed Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds were reason enough to smile and enjoy the morning. I even had a quick look at an Eastern Towhee.

eastern-towhee
This towhee was singing his heart out. This specific location usually has a towhee in spring, but I can’t be sure it’s the same bird.

The weather was unseasonably hot and as the morning wore on the number of active birds diminished. I did see a pair of Orchard Orioles and caught brief glimpses of Least Bitterns and Fulvous Whistling-Ducks as I made my way along the eighteen-or-so kilometer (eleven-or-so mile) drive.

While it’s not unusual to see a Swallow-tailed Kite or two in the skies by the lake, Mississippi Kites are a bit less common. It was nice then to see one quickly glide across the skies as more buntings and grosbeaks sang along the road toward the exit.

mississippi-kite
Seeing kites in flight is similar to watching ballet. There is beauty, grace, agility, strength, and speed. In a flash, this Mississippi Kite was gone from view.

As I neared the end, I saw some vehicles had quickly pulled off the side of the road to the west of the sod fields. One couple was walking rapidly to the side of the road with a scope – a sure sign of seeing something remarkable. Initially I thought about stopping and heading over to ask what they were tracking. Here’s the thing about birding in Florida: sometimes out-of-state birders will nearly run each other down to get a good view of a Limpkin or a pale-form Red-shouldered Hawk – birds that are rare and exciting for them but not quite so for the locals. For this reason, I did not immediately pull over myself to see what was causing the commotion. I carefully drove around the next corner which looked across to the area they – and by now others – were checking out. On some large brush piles I saw an afore-mentioned pale-form (or “Florida Form”) Red-shouldered Hawk hunting lizards on the ground. Satisfied that I had seen what the commotion was, I completed the drive before heading for home. I was especially happy with my blue feathered friends I saw that morning.

Here’s the complete eBird list for my day:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37209748

To my dismay, I found a way to be blue myself the next morning. It turns out that on those very same brush piles a Fork-tailed Flycatcher was seen. This is another rare bird for Florida; one that had been seen the previous week in Clewiston (near Lake Okeechobee) but I was unable to make that long drive at the time. To add insult to injury, it turns out I had likely driven by a White-faced Ibis earlier in the drive. White-faced Ibises are also rare in peninsular Florida, though a more common visitor than a Fork-tailed Flycatcher. I had seen a White-faced Ibis at Lake Apopka several years ago, but passing by two Florida rarities in one afternoon was a little disappointing.

Reports of both birds are still coming in, including this past weekend but I just didn’t have the motivation to make the two-hour drive out there again (plus the weather was much more uncooperative). We’ve had several days of much needed rain but this makes birding, even from one’s car, difficult.

The lessons I learned is this: trust your gut and if there’s any smidgen of doubt, pull over! Even it if had “only” been the Red-shouldered Hawk instead of the flycatcher, it would have been a nice view, a special moment with other birders, and a chance to welcome visitors to a favorite hot-spot. What else could matter as much as that?

Fun with Anis

At Lake Apopka this morning, we had this fun little interaction between the two Groove-billed Anis that have been seen there all week.

what-is-that1
“Oh yeah, what you got there?”

 

what-is-that2
“Uh…wait. I don’t think I like this…”
 
what-is-that3
“What? This thing is GREAT!”           “…keep that thing away from me…”
The bird with the spider tried to give it to the other one several times, even chasing it a bit up the branch!
Oh, and Groove-billed Ani? Lifer!

Better late than never: Lake Apopka and Belleview Kites

Things have been a little hectic at Lonely Birder Central, but I hope to be back on track soon. After a lovely sojourn to Lake Apopka and then Belleview two weeks ago, I travelled to Lakeland, Florida for the first time to see the various swans that have been a part of the city for years. Stay tuned, and I’ll have something up as soon as I can.

Meanwhile, here are a few photos and comments from last weekend. First, from the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive.

red-shouldered-hawk
Immature Red-shouldered Hawk
purple-martin
Young Purple Martin
osprey
Osprey, panting due to the heat
little-blue-heron
An immature Little Blue Heron, just starting to get adult plumage
least-bittern
Least Bittern

There was also a large congregation of Mississippi Kites in Belleview (near Ocala). There’s been a mild infestation of large grasshoppers in parts of central Florida, and the kites have been taking great advantage of it. Here are just a few photos, one showing the lone Swallow-tailed Kite (which usually predominates in central Florida).

mississippi-kite-01
One of several dozen Mississippi Kites that descended upon a residential subdivision. This one is carrying a grasshopper in its right talons.
mississippi-kite-02
Two Mississippi Kites scanning the ground below for grasshopper targets.
swallow-tailed-kite
It’s hard to make out, but this Swallow-tailed Kite is holding a large grasshopper in its left talon.

Nice Wild Drive

On a recent visit to Lake Apopka, it was “splash and dash” showers all morning. The sun was still just low enough for this rainbow, which seemed to hug the ground.

low-rainbow

Just as in Merritt Island, ducks are coming in for the winter all across Florida, though they seem to be late in coming to the big parks and refuges. I have seen reports of larger numbers of scaups in neighborhood and commercial development ponds.

hooded-merganser
Female Hooded Merganser.

The first Great Blue Heron of the day had speared a large catfish, but seemed to be having trouble figuring out how to eat it.

gbh-with-catfish
Breakfast!

As is typical of central Florida in winter, there were large numbers of Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Palm Warblers will usually allow you to get somewhat closer to them, especially if there are many of them in the same place. They always seem curious and will stop to watch as I fumble with my binoculars or camera.

palm-warbler

Recently a rare Brown Booby (well, rare for inland central Florida) had been seen around the old pumphouse. I did catch one distant look at a bird that looked suspiciously like a booby, but it was just too far away to be sure. There were Eastern Phoebes, ibises, Ospreys, and (of course) more Palm Warblers around.

another-palm-warbler
Here you can see the yellow under-tail coverts and white tail spots that are good field-marks when the birds are actively flitting around.

Nearby a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk was sitting very close to the roadway in some trees. Both the typical and  pale “Florida form” varieties were present throughout the morning.

red-shouldered-hawk
When this bird matures, into next year, it will have a red, finely-barred breast and rufous shoulders (hence the common name of the species).

American Bitterns have been back in the area for a while now, but I finally saw my first of the season (FOS) birds on the first pass through the wildlife drive. One was quite close to the car, much more interested in stalking prey than anything else.

american-bittern
American Bitterns will often hide in tall reeds and rely on their coloration and pattern to stay concealed. But it’s not uncommon to find them out in the open if they feel secure and hungry, as this bird clearly did.

There a quite a few larger alligators along the drainage canals that parallel the roads. Many were well over 2 meters (6.5 feet) long. They were taking advantage of the sun, between rain showers.

What was really great was seeing Fulvous Whistling ducks for more than 2 seconds! I have this bird on my life list from seeing a bird fly quickly over the car and out of sight one afternoon back in the spring. Since then, any birding adventure where these birds were alleged to be found, I came up empty. It took a second drive around to get them, but this time, I got some really good unaided-eye, binocular, and camera looks at them.

fulvous-whistling-ducks
The first group of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks was a bit distant, but their profiles and coloration were unmistakable.

The second group of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks were much closer and were mainly preoccupied with preening. I tried to get two of the duck to look up at the same time, but to no avail.

Here is a link to the eBird checklist:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S26049077

And for the less click-inclined (47 species):

  • Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
  • Fulvous Whistling-Duck
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Northern Shoveler
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Anhinga
  • American Bittern (FOS)
  • Least Bittern
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Snowy Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Tricolored Heron
  • Cattle Egret
  • Green Heron
  • Black-crowned Night-Heron
  • White Ibis
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Osprey
  • Northern Harrier
  • Bald Eagle
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Sora
  • Common Gallinule
  • American Coot
  • Wilson’s Snipe
  • Mourning Dove
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • American Kestrel
  • Merlin
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Fish Crow
  • House Wren
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • American Robin
  • Gray Catbird
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Palm Warbler
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Common Grackle
  • Boat-tailed Grackle

There are certainly “greener” ways to bird, but some areas are better birded from a car. I try to work harder to reduce my carbon footprint and other disturbances as a result. Also, many birds that are skittish when approached on foot don’t seem to give automobiles much concern.

 

 

Back to Lake Apopka!

After taking the previous week off from birding, I went back out to Lake Apopka with Camille, but instead of starting at the Wildlife Drive, we first attempted to drive up to the small ponds and marshes to the west of the lake. Last time here, we drove to the Apopka-Beauclair Canal Lock and Dam and saw there might be access along the canal to the ponds, but we did not stop there. This time we attempted to go in, but were stopped by a facility employee who told us the area was actually off limits. I found this to be odd, as the location is listed as an eBird hotspot. Before leaving we did see a few dozen Barn Swallows, along with some other birds.

Apopka-Beauclair Canal Lock species:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S24315914

  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Common Gallinule
  • Northern Flicker
  • Barn Swallow
  • Eastern Bluebird

Since access to the ponds proved to be fruitless that way, we parked at the Loop Trail entrance and walked part of the trail, eventually getting out near the canal, south of the locks. As we approached a bridge over the canals, a bright yellow bird caught my eye in some brushy vegetation. At first I thought it might be a Yellow-breasted Chat, but on closer inspection I saw that it was a tanager! In fact there were three tanagers – all female Summer Tanagers, to be specific. Their appearance caught me off guard, and at first there was some confusion as to what they were. But after checking the field guides and some online photographs, I was satisfied that these were Summer Tanagers. This species was a life bird for the both of us, so that was something to cheer about.

North Shore Trail species:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S24315919

  • Anhinga
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Snowy Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Tricolored Heron
  • Cattle Egret
  • Green Heron
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Osprey
  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Common Gallinule
  • Common Ground Dove
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Great Crested Flycatcher
  • Carolina Wren
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Summer Tanager (life!)
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Indigo Bunting
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Common Grackle
  • Boat-tailed Grackle

Instead of crossing the bridge to continue on the trail, I realized the only way back to the parking area was to walk up the east side of the canal. This meant not being right adjacent to the ponds, but there were good views of it nonetheless. Apart from more of the usual suspects (egrets, herons, blackbirds, Osprey), nothing much was happening. Eventually getting back to the car, we decided go to the Wildlife Drive.

There had been reports of a Bank Swallow hanging out with the Barn Swallows (much like the lone Tree Swallow from a few weeks ago). As we approached the area the swallows seem to favor, I scanned the wires. To my delight, there was the Bank Swallow!

Otherwise, as we drove the most notable species were the Anhingas (dozens), Cattle Egrets (several dozen) and Common Gallinules. Many of the gallinules had immatures with them – only a few had very small chicks, as the summer is wearing on.

At the area we saw the Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites last time, there were several Swallow-tailed Kites very high up and this Brown-headed Cowbird, but that was all.

There were a few Red-shouldered Hawks, including one young bird that posed on a utility pole for a while. Further along the drive as we approached the exit, a Cooper’s Hawk and an adult Red-shouldered Hawk had a disagreement over airspace, with the Cooper’s actually driving the Red-shouldered Hawk away.

Wildlife Drive species:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S24315925

  • Anhinga
  • Least Bittern
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Snowy Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Tricolored Heron
  • Cattle Egret
  • Green Heron
  • White Ibis
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Osprey
  • Swallow-tailed Kite
  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Common Gallinule
  • American Coot
  • Common Ground-dove
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Bank Swallow (FOY / long time)
  • Barn Swallow
  • Carolina Wren
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • European Starling
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Common Grackle
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Brown-headed Cowbird

Another satisfying trip to Lake Apopka. It’s going to be really great birding there in the fall when the shorebirds and waterfowl come in, and again in the spring. During the normally quiet summer this has been one of the few productive birding spots in Central Florida.

SCBWF 2015 : January 24 : Zellwood & Lake Apopka

Day three of my Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival adventure was squally, rainy and cold (at least by Florida standards). We had a good string of seasonably warm and sunny days leading up to the festival, and the weather basically held until the 23rd, when the wind began to pick up. But the next morning was a bit problematic for our trip to Lake Apopka. We had a few stops along the lake’s restoration areas, but remained huddled near the bus, as a windbreak. These areas were once farmland that the St. Johns River Water Management District purchased to undo years of harm agricultural runoff and other environmental hazards had done to the lake.

As we were leaving the area of the pump house not far from Lust Road, the bus got stuck in some mud. We had been looking for a previously identified White-faced Ibis (unusual for central Florida), and had not been able to find it. As we waited for a person to come and use a nearby bulldozer to pull the bus out, we all scanned the grasses and willows again, and finally someone spotted it in their digiscope! It can be very hard to pick out a White-faced Ibis from a Glossy Ibis, especially in the winter, unless you can get a good look at its eye and lores. So it was fortunate we got stuck, otherwise we would have missed out on a rare bird.

I wasn’t able to take much in the way of photographs due to the weather and bad timing, which is unfortunate. Despite the howling winds, we still managed to see (as a group) over 80 species of birds. We were hoping to see the Groove-billed Anis and Vermillion Flycatchers that have been wintering over at the lake, but the wind likely kept them grounded and out of sight.

spanish-moss
One of the few decent photographs I managed to take. I sometimes forget how exotic all this Spanish Moss must look like to people wholly unfamiliar with it. It’s really quite dramatic and ubiquitous here in Florida.

For me, personally, it was very gratifying to get my first verified Orange-crowned Warbler later in the day in a flooded area of young trees and brush near the North Shore Restoration Area.

Again, not so good for photographs, but we netted a great bunch of birds anyway.

Here’s my personal list of birds, in the order of the checklist provided on the field trip:

  • Black-bellied Whistling Duck
  • Gadwall (FOY)
  • American Wigeon
  • Mallard
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Green-winged Teal (FOY)
  • Ring-necked Duck
  • Lesser Scaup
  • Common Goldeneye *
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Wild Turkey
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Wood Stork
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Anhinga
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Cattle Egret
  • Green Heron
  • Black-crowned Night Heron
  • White Ibis
  • Glossy Ibis
  • White-faced Ibis *
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Osprey
  • Bald Eagle
  • Northern Harrier
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk (FOY)
  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • American Kestrel
  • Sora
  • Common Gallinule
  • American Coot
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Killdeer
  • Wilson’s Snipe
  • Laughing Gull
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Mourning Dove
  • Common Ground Dove
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Florida Scrub-Jay
  • American Crow
  • Fish Crow
  • Tree Swallow
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • American Robin
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • European Starling
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Orange-crowned Warbler
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Palm Warbler
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Common Grackle
  • Boat-tailed Grackle

After getting back to EFSC but before heading home, I once again tried to find the Long-tailed Duck near Parrish Park, but the winds were still really screaming (over 30mph) and there were very few birds out on the water.