Slow Roasting

Summer is the slow season for birding, in most of Florida. As the Springtime migration ends, the local breeders raise their broods and then the region sort of hangs there for a while, in the heat and humidity, pausing for the Fall. With the high humidity and temperatures, as well as other non-birding obligations, there’s not much going on here at Lonely Birder Central. But not nothing. At one of the neighborhood ponds in Palm Bay’s Sandy Pines subdivision, there have been occasional Wood Ducks and even a Killdeer nest with hatchlings.

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Male Wood Duck, warily taking to the water
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Female Wood Duck resting in the grass.

I made a quick trip to Canaveral National Seashore [map] and Black Point Drive [map] at MIWR with Camille in July. Despite the heat, we managed to get just about 30 species one morning, including some Brown-headed Cowbirds, Northern Flickers, and Least Bitterns.

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A Male Brown-headed Cowbird, foraging along the roadside at Canaveral National Seashore.
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Least Bittern at Black Point Drive. Note the red lores, indicative of breeding plumage.
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A Northern Flicker with a slightly tattered tail. This bird (along with most others) will undergo a feather molt before Fall, replacing most feathers.

Other interesting sightings so far this Summer include a Peregine Falcon in my own neighborhood, some Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at Turkey Creek Sancturary.

Here are some selected eBird lists for the day:
Canaveral National Seashore: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S46913525
Black Point Wildlife Drive: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S46915388

I had a fun excursion with my friends Sarah and Bella, with Sarah’s father and Bella’s sister. We drove down to the Moccasin Island Tract [map] and walked to the Bald Eagle’s nest (which was unoccupied), and got some good looks at Eastern Meadowlarks, a couple of Loggerhead Shrikes and some Black-necked Stilts that were nesting in the still-flooded grass, north of the parking area.

black-necked-stilt
Some distance from the parking area, some Black-necked Stilts had nested in the grass. Heavy spring rains had left prolonged areas of standing water with concealing vegetation, which these birds prefer to nest in.

As we made our way back to the car, we had an overflight of about a dozen or so Swallow-tailed Kites – the most I’ve ever seen at once in that area. They were sharing the airspace with a very different bird. Just one of many hazards our birds have to navigate every day.

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One of about a dozen Swallow-tailed Kites. This one’s tail is still relatively short, likely an indication it is a youngster.
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Ultralight aircraft over Moccasin Island Tract.

We ended that adventure with a nice visit at the Viera Wetlands parking area by a Crested Caracara.

Visit our eBird list to see a couple of Bella’s photos and a complete accounting of our species there:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S47045453

There’s been one small change to the blog. If you look at the top of the right-hand sidebar, you’ll see a button that says, “Buy me a coffee”. This is a link to my Ko-fi page, which allows you to send me a few dollars (the equivalent of coffee you probably pay too much for) if you like what I’m doing here with the blog, or whenever you find a particular post you connect with.

I’m not looking to make a lot of money, just some extra cash to defray the cost of gas or food, or a festival registration fee, etc., when I go on a birding adventure. Thanks for reading what I have to say and looking at my photos, whether you donate or not.

Stay cool, everyone!

 

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.

 

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.

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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!