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.


Waiting in the Wings

It’s that strange in-between time again. The nominally “dry” season in Florida is nearing an end, and the trees are blooming. The ducks have mostly left, along with the American Robins. But the Blue-headed Vireos, along with Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers are hanging about. Some of the winter “rare-but-regulars” like the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher haven’t gone yet.

The Blue-headed Vireo’s song sounds like a sweet, “Be seein’ you! See you later!” which is apt for this time of year.


Since this photo was taken a couple of weeks ago at the Viera Wetlands, the Ring-necked Ducks have mostly left.

But within a few weeks, the migrants will be heading north, stopping in Florida to rest and refuel, as many will still have thousands of kilometers to go to get to their breeding grounds. The local winter residents will make a similar journey and we’ll be saying “good-bye” to them until fall.

A Yellow-Rumped Warbler, finding tiny insects and mites on Spanish Moss.

During this quiet time, I’ve been out to the Viera Wetlands, Pine Island Conservation Area, Turkey Creek Sanctuary, Spruce Creek Park, and Fay Lake Wilderness Park. They all seem to be holding their breath. To me it seems like the winter residents have been holding on longer this year. This may be because, despite the record-warm winter in the U.S. (particularly the southeast), there have been strong storm systems moving through, some dumping quite a bit of snow.

This male Common Yellowthroat, at Spruce Creek, hasn’t quite got his full “domino” (black facial feathers) yet.

However birds sense weather, it seems they “know” to hang back and wait sometimes. It’s tempting to think this is an ancient and fail-safe wisdom animals share, but the truth is weather is a major hurdle that migrating birds have to face, twice each year. Many do not make the journey due to winds or extreme temperatures. If a food source fails to appear for them during a “fallout” or a rest, or is covered in too-deep snow, they may actually starve. But nature has given birds some innate abilities to read their environment and make the best choices they can. The ability to fly gives them an edge, too. If food is scarce, they can move on – as long as they have the energy to spare.

Many shorebirds, like this Greater Yellowlegs, have a long trek ahead to their Arctic tundra breeding grounds. This bird was taking maximum advantage of the warm Florida days to fatten up for the journey.

Of course, as smaller birds start to make their way, predators will follow. Raptors time their migrations to coincide with their prey, who have conveniently put on plenty of fat (i.e., energy and calories).

A Merlin, scoping out her targets at the Viera Wetlands. She’ll be leaving Florida as well, following food and fortune  perhaps as far as the Arctic Circle to breed. 


Other raptors, like this Cooper’s Hawk, stay in Florida all year, taking advantage of the various prey that make their way here.

Readers of this and other Florida birding blogs may already know, but the past several years have been disturbingly “slow” for migration, particularly through the east-central part of the state. Many bird populations have been in a documented decline since the 1960s (or before), and Florida has seen immense residential and commercial development since that time. Even with protected habitat like our city, county, state and national parks, the continued fragmentation and elimination of key habitats are taking their toll.


What can you do to help (both in Florida, or in your own location)? Support conservation initiatives and land protection plans. Even if residential or commercial development seems inevitable, there are ways that are less harmful that the typical “bulldoze and pave”methods. Developments can be designed to work more with the environment than in spite of it. These methods may cost a bit more to implement up front, but the long-term savings and value in a better looking and healthier community are worth it. Support politicians and legislation that protect our air and water. Business can coexist with these laws, and have done so for decades. Unbridled growth may reap a lot of cash in the short term, but we all pay for it in the long run with expensive clean-ups and degraded, less livable spaces.

Falling into Migration

When word came over the FLORIDABIRDS-L mailing list that a Canada Warbler was seen in Turkey Creek Sanctuary, it was clear that the first migrants have arrived in the area. When a rare bird alert goes out like that, it’s exciting enough, but to be at the local park I am most familiar with was even better.

I headed to the Sanctuary on Sunday with modest goals. I wasn’t expecting to see a Canada Warbler, but I figured some increased activity might bode well for the historically heavier migration month of October. As followers of this blog might remember, the past couple of years have been really bad as far as birding during migration.

Early on in the walk I saw what I thought were owl pellets (I even photographed them) but upon closer inspection I think they were some sort of scat (if you don’t know what that means, go ask your parents).

I ended up having a modest morning of it, all told. The most exciting bird encounters were a Wood Thrush (FOY) which I initially mistook for a Brown Thrasher and several warbler species. While none of the warblers were as rare as a Canada Warbler, they were a good indication that the migration is under way.

The most numerous warblers were by far the American Redstarts. There was a mix of what seemed to be immature and mature males. It’s possible some were females, but all had some amount of black or duskiness about them.

photo am-redstart.jpg
Ready for launch! American Redstarts are hyperactive, even for warblers.

While there have been Blue-grey Gnatcatchers in the Sanctuary all year, there was a definite increase in numbers and activity.

photo bgg.jpg
Blue-grey Gnatcatcher contemplating its next move.

At the end of the Floodplain Trail I got a very brief glimpse of a Worm-eating Warbler, then watched as three species of woodpecker bickered and chased each other around some trees. There was a Pileated Woodpecker really knocking things around and it eventually ousted a pair of Downy Woodpeckers and at least one Red-bellied Woodpecker. I assumed it was a youngster, it was so clumsy and spastic.

photo pileated.jpg
I think this Pileated Woodpecker sort of looks like Kramer from Seinfeld.

I ran into two area birders, both active on FLORIDABIRDS-L, and they were both hoping to catch a Canada Warbler. Mark Eden was on his way out and had seen a lot of activity by the Canoe Deck (activity which had sadly abated by the time I got there) and Jim Armstrong, whom I walked with for a time before we went our separate ways. Normally I tend to shy away from sharing my experiences while birding, even when perhaps I shouldn’t (hence my blog title). But this weekend it seemed natural to want to collaborate, and I hope Mark and Jim got something out of our mutual encounters as well.

The species list for the morning:

  • Yellow-throated Warbler
  • Wood Thrush (FOY)
  • Common Ground Dove
  • Prairie Warbler
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Carolina Wren
  • Northern Parula
  • American Redstart
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Blue Jay
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Worm-eating Warbler (FOY)
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Palm Warbler
  • Fish Crow

Since yesterday I’ve seen more cautiously encouraging reports out of Turkey Creek Sanctuary, so here’s to hoping for a good Fall Migration.

It’s Alive!

I had a much more exciting morning at Turkey Creek Sanctuary than I anticipated yesterday (Sunday). Having bemoaned the lack of bird activity in my last post, it seems the birds had to prove me wrong. Which is fine by me!

After a nice “good morning!” song from this Carolina Wren near the main trail-head, I headed off through the relatively new Turkey Oak Trail.

photo carolina-wren.jpg
Nothing could be finer than a Thryothorus ludovicianus in the morning…

I was immediately surrounded by warbler call notes and fluttering activity. Blackpoll Warblers were everywhere. Some were quite curious about me and would momentarily perch just feet away and cock their little heads at me before zooming off.

photo black-poll-male.jpg
Puffball – er, I mean Blackpoll Warbler.

One female was a little more defensive and wary, following me along the path and looking at me as if to say, “I’ve got my eye on you.”

photo blackpoll-female.jpg
Several ounces of latent hostility.

I know from experience that some warbler species come in pairs. Usually when there are Blackpoll Warblers there are American Redstarts. Sure enough, there were many of those as well, in all stages of plumage. Pretty much anywhere in the sanctuary I went, there were American Redstarts nearby Blackpoll Warblers. The only exception was one spot near the end of the Turkey Oak Trail where instead of redstarts, the Blackpolls were mingling with Black-throated Blue Warblers. I find American Redstarts somewhat difficult to photograph with my current equpiment. They seen to almost never sit still, and the leap out of frame just as i get my finger on the shutter button.

photo american-redstart.jpg
This little guy stopped long enough for me to get this shot.

The Black-throated Blues were almost as numerous as the redstarts, but tended to stay lower in the canopy and among the Sabal palms.

Further along the way, I got a good look at a yellow warbler but was having an issue getting a good ID. I manged some photos that showed the facial markings pretty well, and decided to check at home with my Warbler’s Guide to pin down what it was. As it turns out, the Warbler’s Guide led me to conclude it was perhaps a Hooded Warbler – either a female or a male that had yet to molt into its bold head pattern. In the end, I posted the photo to Facebook and asked some of my friends what they thought. Corey Finger immediately IDed it as a Prairie Warbler. Upon another look I can see the distinctive “mustache” facial pattern. So not a FOY bird, but cool none-the-less.

photo prairie.jpg
Prairie Warbler.

The Turkey Oak Trail was uncharacteristically productive for me, as I also cataloged my first of the year (FOY) Scarlet Tanager, heard a Blue-headed Vireo, and a very secretive Ovenbird.

There were also several noisy Great-crested Flycatchers that were more-or-less moving in the same direction as me. They stayed pretty high up in the canopy, but came close enough to harrass me a few times, but never got in a good position for a photo-op.

By the time I got to the boardwalk, I was feeling pretty good. The boardwalk itself was a little quieter, but I did get a quick look at an Indigo Bunting male as well as more Black-throated Blues and American Redstarts.

I scared up a couple of Solitary Sandpipers as I got off the boardwalk on the path toward the jogging trail (I guess they weren’t so “solitary” if they were a pair?).

The biggest question, though, is what kind of thrush did I see as I made my way to the emergency boat ramp? I got a very clear look and I can say it was either a Gray-cheeked Thrush or a Bicknell’s Thrush. These two species are almost impossible to distinguish in the field. There is an accepted but challenged difference in their songs, but neither this bird, nor the one I saw further down the jogging path later, did any singing.

photo thrush.jpg
The only shot of the thrush I was able to get. Anyone see anything diagnostic?

At the weir and canal there were some Spotted Sandpipers, a few Green Herons, Cattle Egrets and a Common Gallinule.

That was about it as I walked back toward the picnic area and saw a few more Black-throated Blue Warblers and heard a few bickering Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.

Here’s the total species list for the outing yesterday morning:

  1. Blackpoll Warbler (FOY)
  2. American Redstart
  3. Black-throated Blue Warbler
  4. Black-and-white Warbler
  5. Northern Parula
  6. Prairie Warbler
  7. Ovenbird
  8. Scarlet Tanager (FOY)
  9. Great-crested Flycatcher
  10. Downy Woodpecker
  11. Red-bellied Woodpecker (♫)
  12. Fish Crow
  13. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  14. Blue-headed Vireo (♫)
  15. Spotted Sandpiper
  16. Green Heron
  17. Cattle Egret
  18. Common Gallinule
  19. Northern Cardinal
  20. Carolina Wren
  21. Common Grackle
  22. White Ibis
  23. Black Vulture
  24. Turkey Vulture
  25. Blue Jay (♫)
  26. Northern Mockingbird
  27. Indigo Bunting
  28. Solitary Sandpiper
  29. Mystery thrush

It was good to see the old place looking more “birdy” this spring. I am wondering if the migration was a bit delayed, given the brutal winter most of eastern North America had this year, but we’ll see.

Missed the Mark

Well, it’s May and the promise of a migrant filled April has come and gone. I’ve heard some tricklings from the panhandle and Gulf coast areas that they’ve had some good days, but here on the Space Coast it’s been a bust migration again (at least from my point of view). I realize some of this is my own limitations. I only get out once a week for any focused birding. However, even with that restriction I’ve had much more success in years past than this spring. Coming after such a quiet and disappointing fall migration, it’s a bit disheartening.

If I can manage some trips north this year, I look forward to seeing some of the birds that passed over my area this spring, and it’s usually a good thing to travel. We’ll see what the summer brings.