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:
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:
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.
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 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.
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:
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!
Now that my winter break is over, and I am back in sunny Florida, it’s time to pick up where we left off with the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.
On Sunday, the 25th, I had my only repeat field trip from last year (besides the pelagic trip). The trip leader this year was Corey Finger (co-owner of the 10,000 Birds blog). I stayed in touch with Corey mostly through Facebook after last year’s field trip, and I had hoped to be able to spend at least a lunch or something with him this year, but as hectic as these festivals are, we weren’t able to make that happen. Corey is, of course, a fine birder and excellent photographer.
Another difference between last year and this year is the amount of rain we had here in east central Florida. This made the Marl Bed Flats very muddy and meant we were situated much further away from the wetlands and thus less able to pick out interesting shorebirds or other action going on closer to the lake. Also, the increased water didn’t allow the thicker ground cover to grow that sparrows prefer, so we had very few sparrows this year compared to last.
We had some decent spotting scope views of some birds, but most stayed fairly well out of my camera’s effective range. This Red-tailed Hawk was close enough to get a photo, though.
By far the most numerous bird species that morning were the American Robins. Robins migrate into Florida from adjacent southern states, and set up in woods and scrub in enormous flocks. In winter, these robins are much more gregarious (hanging out together) and out of sight than in spring and summer, when they are a main-stay of many suburban yards. There was a constant stream of them flying overhead all morning. Our best estimate was over 2,000 birds.
We saw a handful of Savannah Sparrrows, but most of the small birds were Palm Warblers. Since most were of the “Western” or gray variety, it was often the tell-tale bobbing tail that gave away the identification of the bird.
We walked along some more wooded areas on our way out of the Flats and encountered some more upland birds, including Blue-headed Vireos, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet.
From the Flats, we drove around the lake to Lake Jesup Park to see what birds were hanging around. Last year we flushed a pair of Great Horned Owls from the nearby Live Oaks, and we heard reports that they were present, but we never saw one; however, a woman on the trip and myself both heard a distant day-calling Great Horned Owl, but we were unable to locate it.
Beyond the boat access inlet were Bonaparte’s Gulls and some herons. Bonaparte’s Gulls are small, hooded gulls in summer. In winter they have a distinctive “ear” patch. That patch, along with their size and proportions, are diagnostic identifiers. They swim more buoyantly than most gulls and are as graceful in the air as any tern.
After some searching about, we did get some Black-and-white Warblers and other warbler species. Corey and a few others saw a Prairie Warbler, but I was unable to verify the ID for myself.
Species list (eBird order – Thanks, Corey!):
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Common Ground Dove
Blue Headed Vireo
Carolina Wren (♫)
Eastern Meadowlark (♫)
On the way back to Titusville, I decided to try once again for the Long-tailed Duck near Parrish Park. The wind had died down considerably from previous days, and the sky was clear. I first searched along the north side of the bridge, and saw two birds swimming that looked very grebe-like.
My first Horned Grebes were swimming and diving together. Based on the size difference, I assume this is a mated pair. Horned Grebes look much different in summer than in winter, but are quite handsome birds either way.
An older gentleman approached me and asked if I was looking for the Long-tailed Duck. Of course, I was, and he told me a couple had pointed out to him that it was on the south side of the bridge, close in with a small group of scaups. And there it was, a 1st-year winter male Long-tailed Duck. This is a rare bird for Florida (though not exceedingly so), and after two days of looking, it was nice to finally see him. [Edit 2015 Feb 17: Some observers have identified this as a winter female, but based on the information I have, I’m sticking with the first year winter male ID unless someone has something else that’s more definitive.]
After watching both the grebes and the Long-tailed Duck for a while, I decided to do Blackpoint Wildlife Drive again now that the weather was calm. I was hoping more duck species would be out in numbers, and perhaps a few more shorebirds.
There were some wading birds a little more accessible than previous days, and there were more Northern Pintails in the open water, too. I heard that some Redheads and Ruddy Ducks were seen by some people, but I couldn’t find them. There were still some distant large mixed rafts of American Coots with Ring-necked Ducks, Blue-winged Teals and other ducks that could have been hiding these birds. The pintails and shovelers were more active and about, with several in flight at any give time.
As the sun began getting low, I stopped at the MINWR Visitors’ Center and did finally see a single female Painted Bunting at their feeder, and then it was time to go home and get some rest for the final adventure of the Festival: the pelagic boat trip.
My second day at the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival started at the Salt Lake Wildlife Management Area. The weather forecast called for increasing winds in the afternoon, but the morning started off calm enough. The weather was seasonable, which was a good change from the record cold for last year’s festival.
On the lake shore at the start of the day we had some good views of American Coots, Common Gallinules and a couple of Purple Gallinules. The Purple Gallinues were very active, running across the lilly pads and other vegetation like mad chickens with huge floppy feet. I’d managed to miss this bird species all of last year, so it felt nice to see them and watch their antics.
The winds did start to pick up, which likely affected our attempts to see any sparrows. We crossed into the Seminole Ranch Conservation area, where we did see a pair of Sandhill Cranes getting their nest started. As I’ve mentioned before, spring in Florida starts in February. Many resident birds are picking nest sites and gathering material. Some are already mating and will have eggs before too long. Some of the scrub vegetation have already begun to bud and leaf out, and more of that will happen in earnest before the end of February. There was also a female Bald Eagle sitting on a large nest, her head showing up bright white against the dark branches.
List of species seen at Salt Lake WMA (in order of the checklist):
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Barred Owl (♫)
White-eyed Vireo (♫)
Carolina Wren (♫)
Gray Catbird (♫)
Common Yellowthroat (♫)
Eastern Towhee (♫)
I’d like to take some space here to thank Kim and Billy Bump from Mississippi for sharing some conversation and birding knowledge with me. They were so friendly and sharing, which made the trip even more worthwhile. As a closet introvert, group outings use up a lot of my energy, but people like the Bumps help me recharge and stay positive.
I used the break between the Salt Lake WMA trip to go to Blackpoint Drive on the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINWR). I last visited there at the end of December when the ducks and shorebirds were still arriving for their winter quarters. The wind was starting to pick up and the first several viewing areas had almost no wildlife visible from the road. A bit further down on the left, a scattering of American Avocets were wading, belly deep, while sweeping their upturned bills through the water.
Beyond the areas the avocets were feeding in, on the right side of the road, larger groups of American Coots, various duck species and some other shorebirds were in higher numbers. The first group consisted of mostly coots and Northern Shovelers. The shovelers are usually in a wide array of plumage variations, depending on the age and gender of the duck.
The next group of ducks were quite a distance across the water, but seemed to consist of some Ring-necked Ducks and Northern Pintails, trying to blend into the massive numbers of American Coots. In this loosely congregated raft of birds there was a solitary male Northern Shoveler trying to blend in.
I exited Blackpoint Drive after passing a few more view points with distant ducks and shorebirds. Toward the exit is one area that usually has American Wigeons, and they were toward the far end. There had been reports of at least one American-Eurasian Wigeon hybrid, but even when a Northern Harrier flushed the birds out and closer to me, I could not see if any of those particular birds were hybrids. For viewing like this a spotting scope is probably the best tool of the trade, but any decent scope is well beyond my budget right now, but I was keenly aware of my 8×42’s limitations.
After a quick stop by the MINWR’s visitors’ center to see if any Painted Buntings were at the feeders (no, too windy), I stopped at Parrish Park to try to find the Long-tailed Duck that has been all the talk on the birding e-mail lists. The wind at this point was really gusting, and the only birds at the park were some grounded Ring-billed Gulls and Ruddy Turnstones, staying out of the wind behind concrete walls at the boat ramp.
I spent some time after that hanging around at the Festival HQ and met up with Dave Goodwin at the Florida Ornithological Union booth. Dave’s a great guy and leads the Central Florida Specialities trip each year, and he was telling me about how great of a trip it was this year. I’m going to join the FOU this year and try to make it to their meetings and get some different perspectives on birding and ornithology. It’ll be quite a step for a Lonely Birder like me, but I’m going to give it a go.
Nocturnal Nature Hike at Enchanted Forest Sanctuary
When I saw there were two nighttime hikes at this year’s festival, I was very excited. The previoius night’s adventure had me anticipating more good things, especially since the second night hike was at the Enchanted Forest Sanctuary (EFS). The trip leaders were quite knowledgeable on the parks ecology and nighttime activities. We spotted and identified several animal tracks, including mice, rabbits, armadillos, tortoises and perhaps even an coyote! I learned that if you hold your flashlight in the right place, nearest your center of vision, you get eyeshine back from anything that has a tapetum lucidum, including spiders! You can see spider eyes glinting from over 50 feet away. I had heard of spider eye-shine before, but never how to see it properly.
We only had a brief audio encounter with an Eastern Screech Owl, but the highlight was the brief glimpse, through a night-vision camera, of a Southern Flying Squirrel! They are small and very quick, and the trip leaders said that in many places there is a higher density and population of flying squirrels than Gray Squirrels.
I saw a few other instances of eyeshine in the trees and brush, but nothing we could identify. Still, it was a beautiful night and seeing EFS at night was a real treat and a fitting end to a long but pleasant day of birding and nature.