MINWR: Peacocks Pocket // Blackpoint Drive // Pumphouse Road

With the uneven migration season nearing its end, I had an additional impetus to get myself back to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINWR) when it was reported that a Curlew Sandpiper was seen there last week. I was hoping it would hang around another day or so, and on Sunday I made my way over the causeway and into MINWR. On the way in I saw some small birds mobbing a Red-tailed Hawk on a utility pole, and some Northern Mockingbirds chasing a Fish Crow. Exciting times!

Since many of the reports stated early morning viewing was very difficult, I decided to try both the Peacocks Pocket drive (which I had not done before) and then Blackpoint before circling back to Pumphouse Road.

Peacocks Pocket is a small bay-like feature of the Indian River Lagoon, near where it joins with Banana Creek (not the Banana River Lagoon). It has some popularity as a fishing spot, and there were several groups out fishing there. Here’s a map:

Due to the sun angle, I started down the eastern end of Peacocks Pocket and looped to the west. The sections of road in and out of Peacocks Pocket are relatively wide. If you needed to pull a bit to the side to let another vehicle pass, it’s pretty easy. The rest of the road is actually pretty narrow with very few turnouts, especially compared to Blackpoint, as an example. Luckily, I was early enough that I encountered few vehicles, and those I did see, I had plenty of time to find either a turnout or ride a slightly wider berm to get by.

peacocks-pocket-ov
“But what has it got in its pocketses, eh?”

I had heard from Camille that there were nesting Black-necked Stilts along this drive, and I did see stiilts along most of its length, but they did not appear to be nesting. I don’t know the incubation period for stilts, but it was wholly possible they had finished nesting and were dispersed. If that was the case, I expected to see chicks, but at first I just saw adults.

stilt1
Sometimes bird names are completely pragmatic.

There was the usual assemblage of herons and egrets, many of them just getting into their morning routines. One Great Blue Heron was standing, facing the sun, in an odd pose I have only seen one other time (and never quite this extreme). I know I haven’t seen photos of it before in my general searches and browsing.

gbh-pose
No, this Great Blue Heron wasn’t trying to sell watches. Many birds need to wake up their metabolism when they get up in the morning. You often see vultures spread with their backs to the sun. This must work for the heron, though it does look a bit funny, if we anthropomorphize.

I noticed quite a few small sandpipers in the mud and shallow water. I had heard a Killdeer or two nearby, so when I first focused on some of the browner birds, I thought I was looking at a few more; however, a closer look showed only a single breast-band and much smaller bill. These were Semipalmated Plovers, and I was quite happy to see these. I have limited shorebird identification prowess, and this is the first certain identification I have of this species (that’s a long-winded way of saying it was a lifer!). Curiously, upon closer inspection of the other small birds, I saw the yellow legs of Least Sandpipers, but then the black legs and stoutish bills of Semipalmated Sandpipers! Lifer number two (I never did resolve if the slightly larger “peep” from the Orlando Wetlands earlier in the year was a Semipalmated or a Western Sandpiper). I watched the birds running about for food and chasing each other around. They let out a collective series of avian epithets when an adult Bald Eagle flew by and landed in some taller vegetation.

Aside from more egrets and stilts, the blackbirds were vigorously defending their terrtories and nests for each other and the occasional large bird (I saw both Ospreys and vultures being harrased out of the area). Both the Boat-tailed Grackles and the Red-winged Blackbirds were busy keeping threats away and singing, some quite close to the car.

red-winged-bb
Male Red-winged Blackbird.

A pair of Loggerhead Shrikes really ruffled the feathers of an Osprey as they chased it so hard it almost dropped into the water! I saw it land on a small tree farther up the trail, where is stayed until I passed it several minutes later.

ruffled-osprey
An aggravated Osprey after almost being forced into the water by a pair of hostile shrikes.

Farther up the road I heard some very loud Black-necked Stilt calls, and seeing 2 adults on the road in front of me stopped and slowly got out to take a photo. Right as I closed the car door, the birds went crazy, calling loudly and one of them doing a sort of wounded-flutter just above the road, legs dangling. I realized that there must be either a nest of chicks nearby, given the faux display (similar to what a Killdeer might do on the ground, feigning injury to draw away a predator).

stilt-with-chicks
“Keep up, kids!”

There were four stilt chicks, walking the road. The parents got really worked up and after taking a few photos, I backed off and returned to car, apologizing and letting them be on their way. It’s very possible that many of the “dispersed” stilts I saw earlier had chicks nearby, but due to their coloring, size, and distance, I didn’t notice them.

sitlt-chicks
Cuteness overload!

Bird activity further long the road was sparse, and as I made my way toward the other end of the road, I started to encounter more vehicles coming the other way, most of them with fishing gear visible. At this point the road widened and I came back out of the main road, just west of Blackpoint.

Blackpoint Wildlife Drive was quite devoid of birds, as it typical for this time of year. Except for the odd, small groupings of American Coots and Common Gallinules, there was nothing until I happened upon this Reddish Egret, dancing around to get its meal. This is the same spot I’ve seen a Reddish Egret during the winter, but I have no way of knowing if this is the same bird or not.

dancing-egret
“Ho! Ho! and up she rises. Ho! Ho! and up she rises. Ho! Ho! and up she rises, Early in the morning!”

A bit further along the drive were a scattering of sandpipers and plovers, mainly Willets and Killdeer, with perhaps some other peeps mixed in, but nothing really close by to get a good look at, until this Glossy Ibis.

glossy-ibis
“Yes?? Can I help you?”

By this point it had reached late enough in the morning for the lighting to improve along Pumphouse Road and the potential for the Curlew Sandpiper, and whatever else might be close enough to grab with my binoculars.

The comments from the Brdbrain e-mail list indicated that views of the bird in question were just over a quarter of a mile down the road. As I stepped over the chain barrier onto the road I noticed a couple of birders ahead of me, both with scopes. I was clinging to a tenuous hope that maybe one of them would let me have a glance in their scope if they came across anything interesting.

shrike
Loggerhead Shrike watching me as I entered the Pumphouse Road Loop.

The first two men were decidedly cool and almost clinical, so I didn’t feel very comfortable asking for a look in their optics. They scanned a flock of mostly Semipalmated Sandpipers, looking for the Curlew Sandpiper to no avail. Another man walked in and began setting up his scope. I think I recognized him from the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival; he ran the Diceandra Scrub Sanctuary trip, I believe. He was quite friendly, and I thought he might be more friendly regarding the use of his optics.

Let me pause here for a short paragraph. It’s not that I feel entitled to others’ optics, it’s just that even a somewhat decent spotting scope is seriously out of my budget, and is likely to be for some time. Unfortunately, for any good looks at shorebirds or if something interesting is happening across a lake, it’s really tough with 8 power binoculars. It’s even tough with 10 power, to be honest. So the best hope that we scopeless folks have is to depend on the kindness of strangers (or any friends that are lucky enough to have procured a scope!).

All three men generally agreed that the mudflats and shallow water we were looking over had dried considerably since they’d last been there a couple of days before, and that the birds were therefore farther out and harder to discern.

I walked further up the road, scanning the two main groups of shorebirds just in case I caught a hint of reddish head and breast that might indicate the Curlew Sandpiper’s presence. Meanwhile, I got some good binocular looks at some of the smaller plovers and sandpipers that were venturing closer to the road.

There were also some Willets, Greater Yellowlegs, quite a few Dunlins, Killdeers and even a single Piping Plover in the area. I walked back to where the men had been scanning with their scopes, but they had all departed while a few more people with scopes were coming in. I milled around and talked a bit with them about the Curlew Sandpiper and what other birds were present. I asked one couple if they saw anything of interest, would it be ok to have a look in their scopes. They said yes, they’d be happy to share, so I watched the nearer birds for a while. They finally had the scopes on some birds of interest (no Curlew Sandpiper, though) and I had a look at some American Avocets, more Reddish Egrets, a Black-bellied Plover and, a first for me, a Stilt Sandpiper.

By then it was getting hot and it was past lunchtime, so I headed out. On the way, I passed some more egrets.

I took brief look overhead on my way the car and saw a mix of vultures, Wood Storks, and American White Pelicans soaring on an early afternoon thermal. The pelicans had brown primary feathers, so I believe they were juveniles. With that, it was time to head home.

Here is a list of the 53 species I identified, roughly in the order in which I saw them:

  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Fish Crow
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Snowy Egret
  • Black Skimmer
  • Black Vulture
  • Bald Eagle
  • Great Egret
  • White Ibis
  • Mourning Dove
  • Roseate Spoonbill
  • Killdeer
  • Least Sandpiper
  • Black-necked Stilt
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Tricolored Heron
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Semipalmated Plover
  • Caspian Tern
  • Osprey
  • Laughing Gull
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Greater Scaup
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Mottled Duck
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Anhinga
  • Least Tern
  • Reddish Egret
  • Green Heron
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • American Coot
  • Common Gallinule
  • Northern Flicker
  • Willet
  • Semipalmated Sandpiper
  • Black-bellied Plover
  • Dunlin
  • Wilson’s Plover
  • Stilt Sandpiper
  • Piping Plover
  • Sanderling
  • American Avocet
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Wood Stork
  • American White Pelican
  • Cattle Egret

It turned out to be a pretty good day, even without a Curlew Sandpiper. It turns out that no one saw it at all that day or since. Such is the way with migrants. I can’t complain, though. I saw a good mix of beautiful birds, talked with some nice people, and enjoyed a great morning out.

Will It Go ‘Round In Circles?

Another year and we’ve about circled around again. It’s fitting that I end the year at the same place I ended last year: at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge’s (MINWR) Blackpoint Drive. This year I saw some of the same cast of players as last year, but hopefully with a keener eye and with some surprises on the way.

The main stars this time were the Roseate Spoonbills. At several points along the drive, several cars were pulled over and everyone was out taking pictures of relatively large flocks of spoonbills. I was fortunate to catch a good look at this pair, pictured below. I’ve not seen an immature Roseate Spoonbill until now.

spoonbills-young-old
An immature Roseate Spoonbill (left) and an adult (right) with a White Ibis in the foreground.

The spoonbills were aggressively feeding with a group of mixed herons and ibises, along with smaller interlopers like Hooded Mergansers and Boat-tailed Grackles.

As I made my way around Blackpoint Drive, the most obvious birds just about everywhere were the American Coots. It must not take much to make a coot happy. They are generally present in large numbers, especially during the winter. Unlike Common Gallinules, American Coots seem to thrive equally in brackish or fresh water. Overwintering ducks often raft with them, I imagine for protection (safety in numbers).

coots-n-things
Going incognito: Look closely and you’ll see Lesser Scaups and Pied-billed Grebes in with the American Coots. I think there’s even a RIng-necked Duck back there somewhere.

I was surprised to learn this past year that Reddish Egrets are actually fairly rare and of conservation concern in Florida. I’ve only seen them at MINWR and at Fay Lake Wilderness Park. I was able to make a short video clip of one feeding, using it’s characteristic “drunken” dance strategy.

“What will we do with a drunken egret? What will we do with a drunken egret? What will we do with a drunken egret? Early in the morning!”

MINWR is a good place to find Northern Pintails, too. Pintails are dabblers; they tip back-end up to reach their food and then briefly upright themselves before tipping back down again. Dabblers will often synchronize their tip-ups, looking like some mad duck Esther Williams wannabes.. This would seem to be counter to an effective predator look-out system, since there is significant time where their heads are all underwater, but it seems to work.

pintail-male
Male Northern Pintail after coming upright. This one has either recently lost or has not yet grown in his long “pintail” for which the species gets its common name.

Both species of scaups were present, though as usual the Lesser Scaups far outnumbered the Greater Scaups. There are a couple of good pointers for telling the two apart, especially if they are both present near each other. I’ll have that as an upcoming post, after the New Year holiday.

g-scaup
Oh, great, a scaup! He is Greater than any other scaup I’ve seen!

Scaups are diving ducks. Like grebes, they will often quickly submerge when they feel threatened and resurface quite a distance from where they first went under water. This can cause some consternation when trying to focus on them in a viewfinder and suddenly they have vanished and you have to remember to put the camera down and wait for it to resurface.

invisible-scaup
This is not a photo of an American Coot. OK, well, it IS a photo of an American Coot, but it’s SUPPOSED to show a Greater Scaup.

Blackpoint Drive is definitely a “waders and rafters” sort of experience for many visitors. There might be the occasional hawk or eagle, and in the shallower sections there can be sandpipers and other shorebirds. But even with my 8x40s the shorebirds can be hard to distinguish. I did bump into a couple that had a nice digiscope out and that was useful in identifying some gulls, terns and sandpipers. There were hundreds of Dunlins, but also a few yellowlegs (both Greater and Lesser species) and some Black-bellied Plovers. Black-bellied Plovers seem so gentle and almost fragile in their winter plumage. They walk very delicately, compared to the frantic running and dashing of the yellowlegs, and the purposeful striding of the Willets.

Just as last year, flights of American White Pelicans soared overhead. I am always awed and impressed with these huge birds. They are ponderous, yet graceful and majestic, yet slightly goofy.

pelican

On the other side of MINWR from Blackpoint Drive’s entrance, just a short drive away,  is the short Scrub Ridge Trail. This trail loops through a small section of upland scrub vegetation adjacent to the marshes and ponds and provides some habitat for Florida Scrub Jays. There had been an e-mail alert the previous day about a Groove-billed Ani sighting near the parking area, so I was hopeful, especially after missing the ani pair that had been seen at Lake Apopka. Unfortunately, I did not see the ani, but I did encounter a family of Florida Scrub Jays. These jays were much more skittish and more prone to hide than the ones I’ve seen at the Malabar Scrub Sanctuary.

scrubjay
This jay acted as a sentinel for the others who would dash out into the grass or shrubs for a few seconds before launching up and over the tops of the bushes and out of sight.

Along the Scrub Ridge Trail the most numerous birds were the Tree Swallows, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Palm Warblers. I heard a few Eastern Towhees, and one female Northern Harrier raced past, scattering coots in a nearby pond. After completing the trail loop, it was time to head home.

Here’s the complete species list, roughly in order of confirmed identification:

  • Great Egret
  • White Ibis
  • Roseate Spoonbill
  • Snowy Egret
  • Glossy Ibis
  • American Coot
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Reddish Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Wood Stork
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Fish Crow
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Northern Pintail
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Lesser Scaup
  • Northern Shoveler
  • Ring-necked Duck
  • Caspian Tern
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Herring Gull
  • Dunlin
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • American White Pelican
  • Willet
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • Lesser Yellowlegs
  • Black-belled Plover
  • Anhinga
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Black Vulture
  • Osprey
  • Merlin
  • American Wigeon
  • Eastern Towhee (♫)
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Florida Scrub Jay
  • Palm Warbler
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Tree Swallow
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Downy Woodpecker

That likely ends by birding excursions for the year. It was fun to come full-circle to MINWR,  and the adventures will continue, with the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in January, and a short trip to see my friend Laura for Superb Owl Sunday!

Pin The Tail On The Ducky

Today is (likely) the last birding adventure and blog update for 2013. I’ve done the final species audit and researched what unidentified birds I had notes on. 

I decided to make my last concerted birding effort at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Specifically, I drove the Black Point Drive loop. I have mixed feelings about Black Point. On the one hand, it is a very handy way to see birds. On the other, it’s about 40 minutes to an hour of slow driving, buring gasoline all the way, unless you turn off the engine for longer observing periods.

In any case, I drove the loop around 8:30am and managed to gain 5 new species for the 2013 count (* denotes new life-lister):

  1. Northern Pintail (they were there by the dozens!)* 
  2. Greater Scaup*
  3. Reddish Egret
  4. Bufflehead*
  5. Red-breasted Merganser*

photo pintails1.jpg
Northern Pintail males.

I was excited to see the Northern Pintails. They are very distictive and something I had hoped to see in an earlier trip to Pine Island. Of all the ducks I have seen, the pintails seemed to be the most synchronized in their foraging, so quite a few of my photographs show all the pintails with their heads underwater at the same time.

photo pintails2.jpg
Female and male Northern Pintails.

I don’t have very many good photographs, as the birds tended to stay far away, and the lighting was bad due to a very thick and low overcast. Most of what I took was for me to use later for verifying identification.

photo greater-yellowlegs.jpg
Greater Yellowlegs.

Here are some photographs of herons that came out looking pretty good, though. Interstingly (to me) I did not see a single Great Blue Heron this morning.

photo reddish-egret1.jpgphoto reddish-egret2.jpg
Two different Reddish Egrets.

photo tri-colored-heron.jpg
Tri-colored Heron lunging for food.

In addtion to the five birds listed above, I also saw the following:

  • Greater Black-backed Gull
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Willet (possibly the western subspecies)
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • White Pelican
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Black Vulture
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Green Heron
  • Snowy Egret
  • Glossy Ibis
  • White Ibis
  • Double Crested Cormorant
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Fish Crow
  • Osprey

There were large flocks of sandpipers as well (hundreds), but they were too far away to ID even by binoculars.

photo sandpipers.jpg
Mystery Sandpipers!

The White Pelicans were numerous both in the air and rafting quietly on the water. Their size always amazes me. As with their cousins, the Brown Pelicans, White Pelican are surprsingly graceful on the wing.

photo white-pelicans.jpg
White Pelicans soar above Merritt Island.

The (likely) final 2013 species count is 149. While it’s certainly possible I might see a new bird for this year some time tomorrow thus rounding off the count to 150, I’m not counting on it (no pun intended, ha ha).

Happy, healthy and birdy New Years to all of you. Thanks for sharing in my birding adventures this year. Things will heat up pretty quick for 2014 at the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival near the end of January.