Catching Up Is Hard To Do: Part 1

December 13, 2018

Hello friends! It’s been a while since my last post, so I’ll try to catch us up! Perhaps the most interesting happening (at least in my birding world) was the sighting of an American Flamingo in Brevard County in late October . The overall status of the American Flamingo in Florida is still being debated, but whatever fruits that argument bears doesn’t alter how rare a wild flamingo is for the Space Coast. But of course, that’s the real question, isn’t it? Where did this bird come from? It was non banded, but that’s hardly a foolproof indication of a wild bird. It’s possible it was stirred up from our southern neighbors by Hurricane Harvey and was taking an extended tour, or maybe someone had it as a “pet’ and “lost” it. There’s no way to know.

This severely cropped photo was the best shot I could get of the distant bird (it was seen much closer by others, but seemed to prefer to feed well away from the road to Playalinda in the afternoons it was with us).

An American Flamingo stands far away against a distant backdrop of mangrove trees in shallow water.
Not a lawn ornament.

In any case, it was a good reason to get out with Sarah and Bella Muro again and find this bird, as well as checking out part of the Buck Lake Conservation Area [map] with them. The birding was a little light, but we had a few good looks at the recently arrived Eastern Phoebes and a few warblers sprinkled in for good measure.

An Eastern Phoebe perched on a branch surrounded by spare foliage.
Eastern Phoebes started arriving in October and will be our guests until Spring.

Here’s our Buck Lake eBird list (I’ll spare you the Merritt Island lists – the American Flamingo was the star of that show):
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S49694824

There was little time to rest before the Fall Florida Ornithological Society (FOS) meeting in Davie, FL the first weekend in November. I’d been looking forward to the weekend for months.

The sessions and keynotes were good, and it is always great to catch up with birding friends I haven’t seen in a while. I didn’t take too many photos, but the field trips were pretty good. Dave Goodwin, Jim Eager, Charlie Fisher, and I went out on our own on Saturday to Evergreen Cemetery in Fort Lauderdale [map]. We were hoping for some late migrants, but those were few and far between.

Wide shot of a cemetery with a large tree on the right side. There are a few Muscovy ducks wandering among the graves.
Evergreen Cemetery has some mature trees and is an important green space in the middle of urban south Florida.

You can see our eBird list below:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S49640385

From there we went to Markham Park [map], which borders the Everglades. We were hoping for Spot-breasted Orioles, but after getting distracted at the canal overlooking the Everglades, we spent most of our time there, scanning the grasses for Grey-headed Swamphens and Purple Gallinules. We got a distant but long look at a White-tailed Kite, too.

The golden and green grasses of the Everglades, with some patches of open water, stretch out to the horizon under mostly overcast skies. Powerlines cross the foreground between the horizon and top of the photo.
The vast expanse of the Everglades never ceases to impress, even with the closeness of the power lines and a major highway (off to the left).

The next day, I went to the soon-to-open Fran Reich Preserve [map], in Palm Beach County. It borders the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. They are separated by a canal and levee system, preventing any meaningful ecological continuity, however. Primarily scrub and open habitat, the main draw was the hope of some early wintering sparrows. It took some careful stalking, but eventually we managed to flush some Lincoln’s Sparrows, of which I got a good look at one!

Perhaps the bigger stars of the show were the non-avian friends we came across! First was a magnificent Green Lynx Spider, staking out her claim on a goldenrod plant (Solidago stricta, according to botanophiles).

A Green Lynx Spider sits, head pointing down, on a yellow flowering plant. A person's lower leg and athletic shoe are slightly out of focus in the background.
Lynx spiders are good at insect control and seldom bite people. She probably has spent her whole life on this one plant.

The biggest oohs and aahs, particularly from the students we had along with us, were directed at a praying mantis. It was comfortable enough with being handled, that it even stopped to groom it’s legs, relatively unperturbed by all the humans crowding around.

praying-mantis-cleaning
Some of the students speculated that this was a female praying mantis, given it’s slightly distended abdomen, possibly indicating eggs developing inside.

The remainder of the FOS meeting was informative and entertaining, but it was good to get back home after a weekend away.

Later in November, I finally got to meet up with my friend Annie Otto and hike and bird one of her favorite places, Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTMNERR, or “Guana”) [map]. It was a beautiful day, if a bit windy (although the trees protected us from the brunt of the gusts).

Wooded trail in the foreground curving to the left with some mixed deciduous and coniferous trees in the middle and background.
The climate and land cover at Guana is just sufficiently different from east-central Florida to make for a good change of scenery.

The bird of the day had to be the Yellow-rumped Warblers, which had arrived with succeeding cold front in the previous weeks. Dozens of them would seemingly fall out of the sky into the trees, along with Ruby-crowned Kinglets, some Eastern Phoebes and even some late season migrants, like Blackburnian, Black-throated Blue, and Cape May Warblers.

Annie is the manager of the Tomoka Marsh Aquatic Preserve, and was fun to talk to about the area and some of her personal history as a conservationist and outdoors enthusiast.

Here’s our e-bird list:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S49867781

Just before my adventure with Annie, I did get an e-mail from Mitchell Harris, and that will be the focus of the start of Part 2!

 

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.

male-wood-duck
Male Wood Duck, warily taking to the water
female-wood-duck
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.

brown-headed-cowbird
A Male Brown-headed Cowbird, foraging along the roadside at Canaveral National Seashore.
least-bittern
Least Bittern at Black Point Drive. Note the red lores, indicative of breeding plumage.
northern-flicker
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.

swallow-tailed-kite
One of about a dozen Swallow-tailed Kites. This one’s tail is still relatively short, likely an indication it is a youngster.
ultra-light.jpg
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.

20180126101444.JPG
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.

20180126111428.JPG
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.

20180126114242.JPG
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.

red-shouldered-hawk
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:

b-25
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!

bella-canvasback-sighted
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.

 

odd-heron
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.

pumphouse-road-sunset
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.

hooded-merganser
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]).

ruddy-ducks
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!

chipping-sparrow1
This Chipping Sparrow was eager to check us out!
chipping-sparrow2
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.

alder-flycatcher1
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.
alder-flycatcher2
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.