Migrant Days

They say patience is a virtue, so you may understand that many of us birders along the Space Coast have felt seriously virtuous this Spring. It was long overdue for something more serious to happen, along with the fall-outs at the end of April (see previous blog entries).

The last few weeks have seen some of the best birding around parts of the Space Coast in years, though in perhaps a different manner than one might expect. While it’s true that not all warblers migrate at the same time, it’s more typical for several species to come through an area at a time. For example, years past it was normal for Blackpoll Warbler and American Redstarts to come through Turkey Creek Sanctuary around the same time each year.

This time, we seem to have gotten specific warbler days, with dozens (and in one case I’ve heard, hundreds) of one species to fall out for a couple of days, to be replaced by another after that species moved out.

It started with a “Black-and-White Warbler Day”, in which dozens of that species were moving through most of the park.

A Winter resident in Florida, the Black-and-White Warblers were fueling up on tiny insects in preparation for migration and breeding.

The very next day was a “Blackpoll Warbler Day”. The Black-and-White Warblers were still numerous, but the Blackpolls outnumbered them almost 3-to-1.

A Blackpoll male, showing his distinctive black cap (or “poll”) and characteristic orange legs and feet.

Of course, other birds were also present, though in smaller numbers. There have been steady trickles of Worm-eating, Cape May and Black-throated Blue Warblers all through these fall-outs.

After a dip in activity, another weather system moved through and we had two “American Redstart Days”, where many dozen of these quite active birds were flying all through the area parks.

Many redstarts were first-year males, just starting to get black feathers, and displaying their flashy tails, even while grabbing a drink of water.

Later in the week, Tom Ledford and others reported hundreds of Common Yellowthroats (a year-round resident in Florida, though the population changes as birds fly in and through from South America) along the coastal areas. There were still quite a few at the Maritime Hammock Sanctuary this week.

Some off-the-beaten-path birding was in the offing, too. Having heard reports of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in the residential areas near Turkey Creek, Camille and I took a quick look into an area north of the park in hopes of seeing it. We struck out on the cuckoo, but wound up seeing a small mixed flock of warblers that included Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, and Yellow-throated Warblers.

All this activity culminated in a surprise sighting for me this week.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been part of a Kirtland’s Warbler survey, using eBird to try and get a better handle on the migratory habits and travels of this species. Just a couple of decades ago, the Kirtland’s Warbler was on the brink of extinction as its breeding grounds were disappearing. With a better understanding of what is needed to manage it (fire, as it turns out), the population is rebounding. The entire population of this bird winters in the Bahamas, and we know where the birds should travel to get to their breeding grounds (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario), but they are almost never seen en route.

So far, the suggested survey points have not shown any Kirtland’s Warblers, and as the end of the survey period is approaching, I was resigned to the fact that I’d not be seeing this bird this year (or probably at all).

While birding the Maritime Hammock Sanctuary, I so happened to turn to face some scrub vegetation near a pond while searching for a Great Crested Flycatcher I heard nearby, when out popped a Kirtland’s Warbler! It stayed well in the open for several seconds, even bobbing its tail several times (a trait the species shares with just a few other North American warblers). My photos, however, are not so grand. I was so shocked to see the bird that I watched it in stunned silence in binoculars before it occurred to me to take a photo.

Maybe just enough to see the gray face and white eye-ring?
Gray back with black streaks are a species fieldmark.

I tried using the survey audio to call the bird back, but to no avail. As I’ve said, it is extremely rare to see this species in migration. I felt honored and privileged to get just a few precious seconds with this bird.

As a final note, I also finally got my Yellow-billed Cuckoo for the county this Spring. I’ve been sort of chasing this species for the last few weeks, with sightings reported just hours after a leaving a park.

Sitting high in a tree, this Yellow-billed Cuckoo was also calling out, which is the first clear vocalization from this species I’ve heard since my early birding days in Massachusetts.

Here are the various eBird lists, since April, documenting the Spring migration as it nears its end.

Micco Scrub Sanctuary (May 1, 2017):

Turkey Creek Sanctuary (May 2, 2017):

Turkey Creek Sanctuary (May 3, 2017):

Turkey Creek Sanctuary (May 4, 2017):

Turkey Creek Sanctuary (May 5, 2017):

Pumphouse north of Port Malabar Road (May 5, 2017):

Lori Wilson park (May 6, 2017):

Maritime Hammock Sanctuary (May 8, 2017):
[not including Kirtland’s Warbler on survey list]

There are sure to be a few more migrants coming through the rest of the month, but the bulk of the season is over. Strong southerly winds for much of the Spring probably caused most of the Hooded and Prothonotary Warblers (among others) to overshoot our area. And you know, that’s fine. The birds take advantage of any energy saving method to get them to their breeding ground in peak condition. If that means they overfly the parks around my home, I’m glad they made the safe journey. It’ll try to catch up with them in the Fall.


Spring Fall Outs 2017

Since my last entry we’ve had one small and one larger “fall out” of migrating birds here along the Space Coast. A fall out happens when birds encounter a weather event that forces them from flight to stop and seek shelter or food – or both – for a time before resuming their paths. Flying takes a tremendous amount of energy. Over a long period of time, many birds have developed methods to save that energy in flight. Neotropical migrants, like warblers, use approaching winds and weather fronts to time their overnight flights. For much of this spring there have been unusually strong southerly winds along the entire peninsula of Florida, allowing many migrants to fly very long distances with a tail-wind, often bypassing the state altogether. That has made for another fairly quiet migration, for the most part.

At the beginning of April, a cold front did sweep across the state, and some early migrants were forced down into area hotspots. At Lori Wilson Park, that generated some excitement as a rare Black-whiskered Vireo stopped for a couple of weeks. This is likely the same bird that also stopped there last year, so it remembered the park as a safe haven and place to refuel.

Like many recurring and rare visitors, this bird had a favorite hang-out in the park. In this case a mature Gumbo Limbo tree, producing berries that vireos seem to love.

The season’s first Red-eyed Vireos were also present, as well as familiar faces that hadn’t found their favorable winds quite yet. Prairie and Yellow-rumped Warblers were still there, as well as the park’s large contingent of Gray Catbirds.

Catbirds generally prefer to skulk in the underbrush, but this bird had come out in the open to get some water.

A complication this spring for any migrants that do need to stop and “top-up their tanks” is the lack of rainfall since the end of winter. Many places around the state are in drought and fire hazard warnings were up for much of the first part of April. The conditions only got worse as the month has worn on. The marsh habitat of Black Point Wildlife Drive on Merritt Island caught fire last week and about 5,000 acres burned. Fire is a natural and necessary force in shaping central Florida’s natural landscape, but only in area adapted for it. The area around Black Point is a wetlands habitat, dominated by mangroves. A hot burn there stands to do damage, even to the soil. It’s early days yet to know how much damage may have been done. The fire is suspected to be human induced, though the origin might never be truly known. If you smoke, please properly extinguish whatever you’re smoking and don’t light up when in areas prone to fire (which in recent days is just about anywhere outside).

Fire at Black Point. (Photo courtesy USFWS)
Photo courtesy of USFWS.

After the small fall out at the start of April, conditions returned to strong, southerly winds again, even through the Spring meeting of the Florida Ornithological Society. The FOS meeting was in Ruskin this year, near Tampa. I’ll have a little to say about that coming up in another blog entry.

Finally, this weekend we had another front come through. Though not as strong as the one a couple of weeks ago, there were more birds in the sky as we’ve reached peak migration time for many species. The results were dramatic. Over at Fort De Soto park (just days after I left the area after the FOS meeting), dozens of tanagers and grosbeaks descended on the park, though the warbler numbers were low.

Closer to home, Turkey Creek Sanctuary finally saw its largest number of migrant warblers of the season. Over two days this week I went out before work to see what made pit stops there.

Tuesday morning had large numbers of Black-and white Warblers on the move. This species winters in Florida, Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America. It breed throughout much of the eastern US and Canada. There were also Black-throated Blue Warblers, American Redstarts, and Blackpoll Warblers throughout Turkey Creek Sanctuary. Small numbers of Cape May and Worm-eating Warblers were also there, and at least one Black-throated Green Warbler – a long anticipated life bird for me!

Finally! I’ve been hoping for this bird for a while. 
The extensive black throat feathers identify this Black-throated Green Warbler as a male.

Many of the birds were moving west, out of the sanctuary and into the adjacent neighborhood. I think this might be because of the limited food supplies in the park itself. The native and ornamental trees in the neighborhood might be irrigated, thus producing more fruit and attracting more insects.

The following morning saw much the same mix, except the predominate bird was the Blackpoll Warbler. I saw at least 3 dozen, mostly males, throughout the entire southern part of the Sanctuary (the northern area – specifically the Sand Pine and Turkey Oak trails – remain closed as trees and debris are being cleared, due to last Fall’s hurricane Matthew.

Here are three eBird lists from Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. I included Monday’s list for a comparison to what happened after the fall out conditions.

Monday 4/24/2017: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36227122
Tuesday 4/25/2017: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36254038
Wednesday 4/26/2017: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36281378

Food supplies in the sanctuary are still low, but these birds are finding enough for at least a brief stopover.

I expect things will taper off again as the winds are already turning more southerly. There are still a few weeks to go for migration, so hopefully there will be more chances for birds to make stops along the Space Coast. Many of these species won’t be seen here again until October.

I know this entry is a little light in the photographs, but such is the way with small, fast moving targets. I was excited that my Black-throated Green Warbler was as accommodating as he was!

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.

Wishing for Migrants

Spring migrant season is nearly upon us, though the eBird and mailing-list reports are still dominated by winter residents here along the Space Coast. I hadn’t been to Lori Wilson Park in a while, so I put a quick plan together with Camille to have a look there and then Jetty Park (where I have not been until now).

I wish we’d see some cool birds!

Lori Wilson Park is a small hammock near the beach along A1A in Cocoa Beach. The access road to the park and the adjacent beach is called “I Dream of Jeannie Lane,” since that’s where astronaut Captain (later Major) Nelson finds Jeannie’s bottle and rescues her, becoming her master in the 1960s TV series.

The park provides a nice little break from the tourist trap restaurants and entertainment and the well-used beaches. We came across a group of birders watching a Black-and-white Warbler at the start of the boardwalk. Phyllis Mansfield leads a birding walk there a couple of times a month, so I think that was her group. Phyllis is also fairly prolific on eBird and the FLORIDABIRD-L and BRDBRAIN listservs.

The group was about to move on, so Camille and I (in true Lonely Birder style) stayed and watched the bird forage in the dense foliage while a couple of Fish Crows hung around the small drip-pool that’s set up to attract birds. The sun angle was still fairly low and the bird was in some dense vegetation, but sometimes odd lighting makes for some interesting photographs.

“Listen to the wind blow, watch the sun rise. Run in the shadows…”

We then slowly made our way around the boardwalk, but it was very quiet. I did catch a very quick glimpse of an Ovenbird and there were Gray Catbirds in greater numbers. We also saw some Northern Cardinals, but for the most part the park had little bird activity and was eerily quiet at times. Once or twice I caught what sounded like a snippet of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher song and some American Goldfinch call notes.

This Gray Catbird was slinging dead leaves around, looking for food. It’ll need to fuel up, as this species is usually heading north around this time.

We went from the park to the nearby beach, but it was already well populated by people sunbathing, swimming, fishing, and surfing. We saw a small flock or two of Laughing Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls, but little else. We heard later on that one group reported large numbers of Black Skimmers at the beach, but I presume that was well before we got there.

This Laughing Gull has it’s summer clothes on!

We drove from Lori Wilson Park to Jetty Park, in Cape Canaveral. Jetty Park is one of the best public viewing areas for rocket launches from the Cape. It was usually overwhelmed during Space Shuttle launches, and even today, with no rocket launches it was crowded, primarily with people fishing. The rocks along the jetty were full of Brown Pelicans, Royal Terns, Ruddy Turnstones, and Sanderlings. Across the inlet we saw some Double-crested Cormorants, a Great Blue Heron and some unidentified flocks of gulls.

Royal Tern doing a rather nifty Sir Patrick Stewart impression.
An adult Brown Pelican resting on the jetty.

With so many people fishing along the jetty, it’s perhaps no surprise that the birds don’t always have a positive experience with the people. One immature pelican had a fishing lure stuck on its side. It did not appear to be causing the bird any major issues. It could still fly and swim without any obvious hindrance, but without a way to remove the hook, what may happen in the coming days is worrisome. I hope the poor bird can safely dislodge the lure. I’m hopeful the incident that caused this was not intentional, but either way it can be sad to see the price exacted by our species on others.

“What the heck is this thing?”

Coming back from the jetty, there as a Northern Mockingbird loudly singing from a concrete post in the parking lot. Mockingbirds are ubiquitous in Florida (as they are in many places), a testament to their adaptability and tolerance for disturbance. While many, if not most, bird species have been negatively impacted by human activity, some birds are well adapted to take advantage of human landscapes.

“But I don’t want any of that — I’d rather — I’d rather…just…sing!”

There’s a small section of hammock vegetation near the park with a walkway through it. There, we heard and saw more Gray Catbirds and a Palm Warbler or two. We were surprised by a flash of yellow and a bobbing tail, which at first I thought was a yellow “Eastern” Palm Warbler. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a Prairie Warbler (a FOY for me, and a lifer for Camille). It didn’t stick around long, soon getting lost in the thick tangles of branches.

Prairie Warbler taking a quick pause to look for bugs before moving on.

We drove from Jetty Park to the Canaveral Locks to see what was happening there. Aside from a young Herring Gull and several dozen Double-crested Cormorants on the opposite side of the locks, not much was going on bird-wise. We watched the locks open to let some small boats through. That caused a sea turtle and a manatee to come to the surface briefly and then we decided to call it a day.

Lonely Herring Gull is lonely.

The species list for the day for all three locations:

  • Fish Crow
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Mourning Dove
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Gray Catbird
  • Ovenbird
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Palm Warbler
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Laughing Gull
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • American Goldfinch (♫)
  • Brown Pelican
  • Ruddy Turnstone
  • Sanderling
  • Royal Tern
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Prairie Warbler
  • Herring Gull
  • Snowy Egret
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Osprey

Despite the warm weather (it was well into the 80s) it seems that the winter birds are still hanging on and we’ve not quite seen any large numbers of migrants. I’ve seen some NEXRAD (weather radar) images showing that mass movements of birds are starting, so it’s only a matter of time.