Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

SCBWF 2018: Friday

[Note: With the loss of my PC, I’ll be authoring and uploading photos through my tablet. This means most of my upcoming posts may be brief and with fewer and/or smaller photos. Posting frequency may also be affected.]

February 6, 2018

The Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival is now past over a week and a half, and as its memory fades, I will try to get some more thoughts and photos down.

Shiloh Marsh

My first official field trip was the Mitchell Harris-led Shiloh’s Sharptails, Marsh Birds and More. For as long as I’ve been bird watching, I still struggle with sparrow identification, so any opportunity to find them with as an accomplished birder as Mitchell Harris, has got to be taken!

We started our hike through the Shiloh Marsh, a salt marsh area that marks the northern end of the Indian River Lagoon and the border between Brevard and Volusia Counties.

As with most festival trips these days, I was birding with my friend Camille. In was also joined with my friends Sarah and Bella for their first festival trip.

We set out through the salt marsh before dawn, so I left my camera in the vehicle. The going through the tangle of dead marsh grass and other vegetation made it a tough slog out to where we were most likely to see either Nelson’s Sparrows or Saltmarsh Sparrows. Hurricane Irene’s effects killed back a large amount of the vegetation, so we had to hike out quite a distance to suitable habitat. But it was worth it. After scaring up some Marsh and Sedge Wrens, we finally managed to get at least one Nelson’s and a few Saltmarsh Sparrows to quickly pop up and look around before dashing back in the thick grasses. It was a breezy morning, so the birds were reluctant to stay out in the open for long, but most of us got at least a few decent looks at these birds.

We then hiked back to the dike road that separates the marsh from the lagoon, and walked another several miles, as the wind picked up but the sun warmed things up.

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Looking out over Shiloh Marsh toward the lagoon side of Canaveral National Seashore.

At first the birding was a little slow – the wind was really keeping the marsh birds out of the open. Eventually some shorebirds were seen feeding down on the leeward (downwind) sides of the dike road, including both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.

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The larger, middle three birds are Greater Yellowlegs, the small bird on the right is a Lesser Yellowlegs. Besides the size difference (not always evident if both species aren’t near each other), see the difference in bill length in proportion to the head. The Greater Yellowlegs’ bills also look slightly upturned.

 

We also managed to see some Least Sandpipers and a Long-billed Dowitcher along the same stretch of mud and sand. Eventually, as we hiked the dike road back, more waders started congregating in the marsh, including some very color-saturated Roseate Spoonbills.

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A congregation of “typical” waders: Roseate Spoonbills, Snowy Egrets, and White and Glossy Ibises. After living in Florida for 15 years, it’s easy to forget how exotic these species are to out of state visitors, especially from more northern climes.

After finally making it back to the vehicle (Mitchell and most of the other birders had gone ahead to get to scheduled workshops and other events), we headed over to Festival HQ at Eastern Florida State College, in Titusville [map].

When all was said and done for the Shiloh Sparrows trip, we got about 65 species, including a couple of lifers!

Chain of Lakes Park

After some classroom presentations, including a surprisingly informative talk on photography while birding, the four of us (me, Camille, Sarah, and Bella) met up and headed over to Chain of Lakes Park, just behind the EFSC campus.

We saw a decent array of species, including a nesting Great Horned Owl on an Osprey platform. An owl raised chicks there last year as well, so this may be the same owl. It peered over the edge of the nest at us a few times.

The ponds in the park had a smattering of ducks, including Lesser and Greater Scaups, and a rather large assemblage of Fish Crows. One female Painted Bunting added a little more variety to our hike as we wound down to get home for the evening.

Here are our eBird lists for the day.

Shiloh Marsh:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S42249283

Chain of Lakes Park:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S42257226

A successful if tiring day, but that’s the way it is on SCBWF days!

Falling Over: Part III

December 21, 2017
[My apologies for the delay in wrapping up my adventures from earlier this month. It’s been a hectic and busy time, as you might imagine]

I’ll wrap up my end-of Autumn posts (as we reach the end of astronomical or “official” autumn) my MINWR adventure with Sarah and Bella Muro. A day after chasing a Brant and Neotropic Cormorant, I met with the Muros late in the morning and we formulated a plan to try and maximize the chances of getting Bella some life birds, namely sparrows and ducks.

We headed to Space Coast Regional Airport [map] first, since there are often various sparrows seen there, as well as the occasional Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. While it was probably early for the flycatcher, it was fun to ride along the perimeter road (imaginatively called Perimeter Road) around the airport, then up Tico road (imaginatively named for TItusville/COcoa – the previous name of the airport).

The fence around the airport was strangely devoid of its usual Loggerhead Shrikes, but there were a few American Kestrels and other birds of prey.

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A young Red-shouldered Hawk was calmly looking about. Its presence may have been partially responsible for the relative lack of small birds along the fence-line.

We managed to scare up a Vesper Sparrow on the far end of Tico road, but the look was brief, so we pulled off the road to “chase” it down the fence line. In birding terms, chasing doesn’t usually mean actually running after the bird in sight. It means making a concerted effort to find where the bird may have flushed or flown to, using observation and smart conjecture, based on known species or genus behaviors and the available options. In a larger sense, chasing can mean driving or travelling long distances to attempt to see a specific bird species, but perhaps that sort of chasing deserves its own post.

While trying to get another look at the sparrow, we happened on a mixed group of birds, including a couple of American Goldfinches, a Blue-headed Vireo and some warblers. And this bird, from the Valiant Air Command:

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The Valiant Air Command is a local warbird/military plane restoration group and museum with many vintage and historic aircraft on display, with some functional articles, like this B-25 “Mitchell” bomber, named “Killer B”.

In the end, we identified the sparrow as a Vesper, by process of elimination based on field marks and habitat.

Our next stop was Black Point Drive [map], where we finally did get some more ducks, including American Wigeons, Blue-winged Teals, and even some Northern Pintails. Through most of the afternoon, my poor, fickle camera made photographs quite difficult, so I apologize for the relative lack of photos.

We then went into the Cape Canaveral National Seashore [map]. The road toward Playalinda Beach has several pull-offs (called Vistas) that look out over ponds and wetlands. It was along these Vistas that up to 10 species of ducks were reported during the previous week.

The Ruddy Ducks from my adventure with Camille were still there, joined by many Redheads and American Wigeons. But the species we were most interested in seeing were Canvasbacks, which had also been reported there.

It took some serious staring: the larger rafts of ducks were at the edge of comfortable binocular range. I did finally get a chance “fly by” of my binocular field by a female Canvasback, but she landed in the midst of the other ducks before Sarah or Bella could positively identify her. We continued to scrutinize the group until finally, two male Canvasbacks swam out from the edge of the group and turned enough for us to see their unique head profiles. Sorry, no duck photos, but Sarah got this shot off for the moment of Bella’s latest life bird!

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Canvasback sighters! (Photo courtesy and ©Sarah Muro)

With the light beginning to fade, we went part way along Bio Lab Road [map], where Bella spotted this slightly odd looking heron. At first glance it appears to be a Little Blue Heron transitioning to adult plumage, but to all three of us it’s size and proportions seemed to be off, and it’s plumage was more muted gray than blue. We may never really know, which is one reason why birding is fun and engaging to me.

 

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Mystery heron? Hybrid, or just an “odd duck”?

We ended the day at Pumphouse Road [map], hoping for sparrows in the last light. Sarah did manage to catch a glimpse of a very late season (and perhaps rare winter resident) Yellow Warbler in the mangroves.

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As the sun set, the “supermoon” was about to rise behind us, bracketing a beautiful and fulfilling day. (Photo courtesy and ©Sarah Muro)

That evening the year’s only “supermoon” – when the full moon coincides with the Moon’s perigee, or closest point in its orbit around Earth – rose on the way back toward home.

The final cap on the day was a meteor streaking along the sky as I dropped Sarah and Bella off at their home.

What does a self-professed “lonely birder” get out of all this, a busy weekend birding with others? It’s always a pleasure to share a love and passion for birds and conservation with anyone, especially friends. Opportunities to recharge and reset will come. Besides, I also got a hefty serving of some delicious chili from Sarah’s husband, to take home. Sharing food is one of the most powerful and important gestures people can make, so thank you, Chris, for the lovely meal (ok, 3 meals, really).

 

Falling Over: Part I

December 9. 2017

Hello everyone, welcome to the last weeks of Fall. While it’s been quiet on the blog, there’s been some action going on here in central Florida during the past couple of weeks. Two weeks ago I made a trip with Camille to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge to see what ducks might have come in over Thanksgiving. We drove both Black Point Wildlife Drive [map] and out to Canaveral National Seashore [map]. We had heard reports of Ruddy Ducks and Buffleheads along the road out to the Seashore, and with the cold weather to our north, we knew quite a few ducks had come in.

Black Point did have ducks: hundreds of American Wigeons and Blue-winged Teals! There were lesser amounts of Northern Shovelers,  Hooded Mergansers, and even a few Gadwalls.

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A male Hooded Merganser. You can see the sawtoothed edge on his bill, useful for catching fish.

We stopped at a few areas hoping for sparrows, but aside from a few distant teasers, we didn’t see any on Black Point.

We managed to catch a few dozen Ruddy Ducks (amazingly, my first of the year) along the road toward the National Seashore (Vista 5, if anyone was wondering [map]).

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One of several rafts of Ruddy Ducks.

We made our way to the parking areas for the National Seashore, hoping for a glimpse of the Clay-colored Sparrows reported there a week or so before. We didn’t have any luck there, but we did get a responsive and inquisitive Chipping Sparrow!

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This Chipping Sparrow was eager to check us out!

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The characteristic rusty cap and black eyeline.

I have to confess to playing the calls of both the Clay-colored and Chipping Sparrows in hopes of seeing one. I don’t often play calls, but judicious use of them can help find birds that might otherwise be hidden. Given the time of year and habitat, I felt it was justified. Your mileage may vary, as they say.

Beyond that, there wasn’t much to see at the beaches themselves. The wind was mainly offshore and the seas calm, so any hopes to see scoters or other oceanic birds were not to be fulfilled.

For those so inclined, here are our complete eBird lists for the day.

Black Point Wildlife Drive:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40745460

Canaveral National Seashore pay station area:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40745564

Canaveral National Seashore – Vista #2
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40745950

Canaveral National Seashore – Vista #5
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40746258

Canaveral National Seashore – Lot 7
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40746895

Canaveral National Seashore – Lot 2
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40747478

More substantial adventures await in Part II: another road trip with Camille and then  MINWR with the Muros!

 

Migration Preamble at MINWR

August 27, 2017

It’s been an Empidonax-filled late summer here in central Florida, with reports of the little flycatchers coming in about every day so far in the last week or so. I saw two Acadian Flycatchers near where I work and have seen several unidentified “Empids” in my travels around Lake and Sumter, and Brevard Counties.

On Sunday, I met up with Camille to check out flycatcher and warbler activity reported at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge’s (MINWR) Pine and Oak Hammock Trails [map].

Yes. Warblers. It turns out that the first vanguard of migrant warblers has already been moving through the state, and we managed to get a nice mixed flock or two along the Pine Hammock trail (the Oak Hammock Trail was closed). We had a couple of dozen (!) American Redstarts, and a good showing of Worm-eating Warblers along with Black-and-whites and Northern Parulas. We did not catch the reported Prothonotary or Cerulean warblers that have been reported, however.

But the star of the day was an Alder Flycatcher (a life bird for me). This species was first reported by Mitchell Harris earlier in the week, and we managed to find the bird on the way out of the trail (well, Camille spotted it and called me back on the trail to her location). At first the bird was quite still and silent (in migration, it is nearly impossible to separate the Empids if they do not vocalize. The visible proportions and field marks overlap too broadly). After watching it fly-catch a few times and change perches, it finally called out a few times, and even answered some limited recordings (yes, I used a recording). The lighting was bad, but I fired off a couple of shots.

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Without vocalization, this bird could almost as easily be a Willow Flycatcher (the most similar) or even any other Empid or an Eastern-wood Pewee. Luckily for us, it did call a few times.

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Here’s a good view of the orange/yellow underside of the bill that is common to most Empids and Wood-pewees.

For those of you interested, here’s the entire eBird list for the trail:
https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S38847183

We finished up the morning by cruising the open part of Peacocks Pocket [map] and East Gator Creek [map].

Peacocks Pocket:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S38848022

East Gator Creek:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S38848439

It was a nice little migration preview, but we’ll have to see how the autumn plays out and if any of this seemingly early movement means anything significant.

 

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.

black-whiskered-vireo

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.

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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).

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Fire at Black Point. (Photo courtesy USFWS)

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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!

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Finally! I’ve been hoping for this bird for a while. 

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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!

Unlimited Ducks!

As much of the nation went into a deep freeze last week, the cold air brought with it those promised ducks to Florida. As I mentioned in my last blog post, ducks and other waterfowl only tend to migrate south when the weather or food supply dictate. When ponds and lakes freeze over, these birds cannot forage and have to move to warmer places.

The ducks came in to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in massive amounts last weekend. Thousands of birds settled into their usual digs along Black Point Wildlife Drive [map], along with a growing contingent of shorebirds and gulls and terns.

The first most noticeable difference along Black Point was the relative abundance of Wilson’s Snipes, feeding in the open. Snipes are usually fairly cryptic and will suddenly take to the air in an erratic zig-zag flight pattern only when approached very closely, often startling whomever is walking by. They rely on their camouflaged plumage to stay hidden. This was the largest single grouping of Wilson’s Snipes I’ve seen – almost 40 birds.

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Normally secretive Wilson’s Snipes feeding in the open with Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.

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Snipe’s bills are similar in size and shape to those of dowitchers, and their feeding methods and posture seemed much alike. This bird was resting in the margin of some tall marsh grass.

Ducks started appearing farther along the drive. First, Hooded Mergansers in small groups, quickly diving and scouting for prey. When food is abundant, these birds are in almost constant motion and only fully on the surface for a few seconds at a time.

 

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A Male Hooded Merganser in an alert posture (crest up).

Blue-winged Teals had already arrived in numbers earlier in the Fall, but they have been joined by Northern Shovelers and Northern Pintails.

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This male (left) and female (right) Blue-winged Teal pair have likely been at MINWR for weeks.

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Bottoms up! Even without breeding plumage, you can see how pintail ducks got their name.

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A wider shot showing Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails, and American Coots together. Large areas of the ponds on the west side of the road (north of Cruickshank) were like this.

A large flock of Redheads were just within binocular range, as well as smaller pockets of Gadwalls, Ring-necked Ducks, and even an overflight of Black Scoters. Overhead and in spotting scope range (for those that had them) were many hundreds of more ducks, too distant or backlit to identify.

Of course, winter means American Coot time. Coots gather in huge rafts over the winter, using a “safety in numbers” survival strategy from predators, such as Bald Eagles. Sometimes other birds use the coots as cover, some blending in better than others. The largest rafts of coots were actually along Playalinda Beach Road (402) in some mangrove-screened ponds [map]. Google Maps erroneously calls this Max Brewster Memorial Parkway.

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A pair of Redheads trying to fit in.

The main event the past few years along this stretch has been the large and vocal numbers of American Wigeons. Whether it’s the added privacy of the mangrove hedge or something about the ecology of the area, the wigeons have staked it out.

 

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The few gaps in the mangroves allowed for some photos. The green feathers on the male American Wigeons are spectacular when they catch the sunlight.

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Many American Wigeons (and coots, of course). There might be a grebe or two in there, as well.

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The wigeons were a bit skittish. It seemed like they took to the sky at the slightest approach through the mangroves. The large flocks would break up and circle in smaller groups like this before settling down again.

Hopefully the ducks will stay over longer this winter than they have. The Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival begins in just over a month, and the impressive array of ducks at MINWR would be a great treat for field-trip attendees!

 

Black and White on Blackpoint Drive

This morning, I took a drive to the Blackpoint Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge [map]. It ended up being a pretty good birding day, all things considered. It was hot early, and the Spring migration is all but over. I saw or heard about 50 different species, but the three most interesting all have something in common. In their life-cycle, each one sports black and white plumage.

First, there had been reports of a Horned Grebe along the drive, which is unusual this time of year. Normally these birds might winter over (and many did this past Winter), but for one to be hanging around in May is a bit odd. Additionally, the bird was reported to be transitioning into breeding plumage. The normal breeding range for a Horned Grebe is the western half of Canada into southeastern Alaska. Here’s my photo of an apparently injured Horned Grebe from this past winter:

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Injured Horned Grebe taking refuge in the Refuge. Note the primarily black and white plumage.

These grebes, and the very similar Eared Grebe, look very different during the breeding season, losing their black and white feathers in exchange for warm browns and some wild, buffy-colored head tufts!

I did not get very good photographs of the bird today, so here’s one taken from the Wikipedia entry on the Horned Grebe:

640px-horned_grebe_28229_-_28podiceps_auritus29

By Connon Mah (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/liceses.by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

I speculate (with nothing more than circumstantial evidence) that this is the same, injured bird. It might not be, but it would be a bit improbable, in my opinion.

The next “black and white” bird I’d like to highlight from my adventure today, was a fairly accommodating Eastern Kingbird. This species has been a little harder to come by of late, at least when I’ve been out. We used to have one or two that would hang around the back yard some years ago, and I’d seem them in passing from time to time around town. The past few years it seems they’ve been more dispersed. In any case, this bird sat for a while in a nearby tree along the road and let me take a few photos before casually flying off.

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This Eastern Kingbird would have likely arrived recently from central or northern South America, where it was staying for the winter.

In addition to the striking black and white color scheme, male Eastern Kingbirds have a small patch of red (or sometimes yellow  or orange) feathers on the crown of their heads, which are almost never seen in the field, expect at close range when the bird is agitated or upset.

The final bird I’d like to focus on with black and white plumage, from today, is the Black-necked Stilt.

black-necked-stilt

Although a bit out of focus, you can see the striking black and white pattern on this Black-necked Stilt. Less than 1/2 of the bird’s right leg is showing.

Black-necked Stilts are beautiful birds, and their conspicuous, long, red legs are second only to flamingos in their relative length to their bodies. Here’s another photo I took last year, showing how long their legs are.

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A Black-necked Stilt showing off those amazing legs!

Those legs are likely an adaptation to allow stilts to wade in deeper water than other wading and shorebirds of it’s size, so it is not directly competing with them. This is sometimes referred to as “resource partitioning.”

Of course, I saw and heard other birds. If you’re interested, I’ve linked to my eBird checklist below:

eBird list for MINWR – Blackpoint Wildlife Drive:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S29835995

May is rapidly drawing to a close and the relative quiet of Florida’s Summer is almost here, but I expect I’ll have plenty more adventures throughout the next few months, including a trip or two to more temperate climes. Stay tuned!