Malabar Scrub / Turkey Creek Sanctuaries

One of the benefits of lonely birding is flexibility and last minute changes without having to negotiate or “vote” on anything. I originally planned on just heading straight to Turkey Creek Sanctuary, but at the last second (literally) I decided to head a little bit more up the road and head in to northwestern-most part of the Malabar Scrub Sanctuary, then over to the portion of Turkey Creek Sanctuary across the creek from the boardwalk. This proved to be a bit more difficult than I thought, as that portion of the parks is more primitive. It did yield up a Yellow-throated Warbler and some American Redstarts, though.

A lot of Blue Jays were present, and this juvenile went through a whole gamut of imitation calls. First, it tried to scare me off with a Red-shouldered Hawk call. Then it started in with what sounded like a vireo or warbler. When that got old, it started with grackle-like clicks and “chucks”. Then it sounded like a giant Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (which was interesting because there were actual gnatcatchers in the vicinity at that point. Then it just let loose with some honest-to-goodness Blue Jay calls before flying off.

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The Talented Mr. Blue Jay.

I worked my way to the creek itself, on the opposite side from the boardwalk, but aside from some Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, it was fairly quiet (except for insect noise, lots and lots of insect noise). I backtracked and then went down some other paths, seeing some Northern Cardinals and more Yellow-throated Warblers. The warblers were always single individuals; I did not see any more than one at a time. By the time I came to the kayak launch area, the sun had come out from the earlier morning fog, and there were butterflies just about everywhere. This beautiful specimen landed on the mud by the launch ramp presumably to drink up some moisture and minerals.

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Large Eastern Black Swallowtail taking a breather…or maybe a mudder…

Eventually I worked my way to the boardwalk and did a loop, with a diversion out toward the weir and Scrub Trail. The gnatcatchers were here in force, as well as more cardinals. At one point they all scattered when an Osprey soared overhead.

At the weir there were a number of different heron species. I saw several Little Blue Herons, a Green Heron,a Tri-colored Heron, a Snowy Egret and Great Egret. There were a couple of Anhingas swimming after fish, and a pair of American Coots foraging nearby as well.

There were some more Yellow-throated Warblers, and a Black-and-white Warbler as well. On the way toward McKinnon’s Way I heard a very resonant drumming. This Pileated Woodpecker was at first hammering on a utility pole (which was really carrying the sound. It sounded like a motorcycle), then hopped onto a palm tree.

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Pilated Woodpecker, a.k.a. Mr. Jack Hammer

After getting back on the boardwalk, I saw another Pileated Woodpecker foraging on some logs off the side and below the boardwalk.

Pileated Woodpecker.

Further along the boardwalk I did finally see some Northern Parulas (I had heard them earlier). On the way toward the exit, there were more Yellow-throated Warblers, as well as a White-eyed Vireo. The vireo even flew right over my head, but I was unable, again, to get any photograph of it. Trying to get a decent photograph of a White-eyed Vireo is becoming a quest at this point.

With the noticeably cooler weather, there were a lot more families and groups coming into the Sanctuary, and it was near noon. I headed out and for home.

Something I’d noticed earlier this year, was a cell tower that was cleverly disguised as a large conifer. Here’s the effort:

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C is for Conifer, over 500 kinds.

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Palm Bay now has a metal Sequoia?

I don’t know what the birds think of it, but it does manage to blend in fairly well, all things considered.

Turkey Creek Heats Up As Things Cool Down

It seems now that September is here and some slightly cooler morning weather has arrived, that things are picking up in Turkey Creek Sanctuary. Notable and active birds seen today inlcuded:

  • American Redstart
  • Blue-grey Gnatcatcher
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Swainson’s Warbler (new for me!)
  • Northern Parula
  • Blue Jay
  • Caronlina Wren
  • Northern Cardinal (was there a doubt?)
  • Downy Woodpecker

Voice-only IDs included Hairy Woodpecker (more monotone and deeper version of the Downy’s calls), White-eyed Vireo (again!), Pileated Woodpecker. There was also a Belted Kingfisher that flew overhead at one point. The day was not very good for soaring, though. I saw no hawks or vultures in the air over the park at all.

As you can see from the list above, warbler activity is on the rise as we get closer to the fall migration. 

Today, I tried shifting my birding to Saturday monring (instead of Sunday). As expected, there were a lot more people in the sanctuary than I am used to. As I was on my way to the new Turkey Oak Trail, a woman came down the path and asked me if I knew how to tell the difference between a King Snake (non-venemous) and a Coral Snake (venemous). Various incomplete versions of the rhyme designed to help tell the difference went through my head, which was no help at all. In any case, whatever snake she saw was no longer present, so we both walked and talked along the entirety of the trail. 

Thus ended my first Saturday morning birding adventure of the year.

Youth Day!

Sunday was another quiet morning at both Turkey Creek Sanctuary and Erna Nixon Park. What activity there was revolved around juvenile Northern Cardinals (making the usual racket) and some Northern Parulas and Blue-grey Gnatcatchers high in the canopy (at least at Turkey Creek; almost nothing was to be had at Erna Nixon). Still, it was a pleasant enough morning and not too hot since it was mostly overcast. Toward the end of my Turkey Creek hike it started to rain rather steadily, but the rain hadn’t affected Erna Nixon Park when I drove there later in the morning.

After returning home, at some point during the early afternoon, my wife excitedly drew my attention to the antics of a bird on the wire between our house and the utility pole. It was a fledgling Northern Mockingbird leaping off the wires and making short almost flycatcher like sorties before landing back on the wire. We watched it for a few minutes and then noticed another fledgling along the power lines running along the right-of-way behind our house. And then ANOTHER. Then I noticed a fly-catcher along the same wire. It was a bit tougher to identify, but I finally figured out it was a juvenile Great-crested Flycatcher. It seemed a bit more adept at flying, so likely was past fledgling stage.

Looks like the day belonged to the youngsters.

[Edited to add: I’ll have a few photos from the parks later this week (more flowers, bugs and trees), and I’ll see how my only shot of one of the youngsters turned out.]

Summer at Turkey Creek

I was feeling well enough yesterday to head out to Turkey Creek Sanctuary, despite the oppressive humidity and only 3 hours of sleep! Now that summer is in full force, my expectations tend to be low in terms of my birding, but just having a hike in the woods is a good treat. Of course, things never quite turn out how one expects and I ended up having a pretty good outing.

I started out heading toward the Scrub Trail area first, which immediately paid off. I could hear raptors calling in the area. From the sounds of the calls (which sounded like overworked squeak toys), I believed them to be immature Red-shouldered Hawks. There were two of them and at first glance as they quickly flew off toward the Scrub Trail and Harris radio tower area, I thought I could confirm my suspicions of their species; however, first one, and then the other obliged me by perching in the trees right overhead. Closer inspection showed them to be juvenile Cooper’s Hawks.

The first of 2 juvenile Cooper’s Hawks (possibly a female).

The second juvenile Cooper’s Hawk (smaller, likely male). I barely captured its awkward landing onto the branch.

These two characters provided a constant backdrop of sound and comical aerial displays for the whole morning wherever I was in the sanctuary. As they called out and flew circles around the immediate area, I happened to notice this Northern Parula sitting very very still, occasionally glancing nervously up at them. After the hawks passed by and were out of sight, it became more active and several more voiced their tiny displeasure at my presence. I suspect a nest was nearby, and the whole clan chipped and chirped at me along the path as I went.

Northern Parula nervously scanning the skies.

I walked from there to the dam overlook (technically a weir) and spillway, where the Melbourne-Tillman Canal empties into Turkey Creek. Although the weir and the “tuff boom” flotation barriers end up catching quite a bit of trash, the area upstream does provide habitat for wading birds and other species that appreciate the slow moving water. There were a few Green Herons and a Tri-colored Heron working the area, as well as a solitary American Coot. I also spied a tiny baby alligator. [Edit 10-28-2013: Not a tiny alligator, but a Florida Softshell Turtle. They have very flexible necks, and can hold their heads up in a way that doesn’t expose their shells.]

Tricolored Heron.

American Coot. Love the red eye.

Not a tiny alligator, but a Florida Softshell Turtle.

I watched the birds there for a few minutes, but that part of the sanctuary area is not shaded, and it was already getting oppressive. I headed back down the trail and toward the boardwalk to head up to the Sand Pine Ridge Trail while the lighting was still good and the sun not so high. Aside from a couple of Carolina Wrens and two Fox Squirrels (no pics), it was already fairly quiet. I did hear one or two White-eyed Vireos, too. As I started to head west along the trail, I noticed a new trail sign, “Turkey Oak Trail” and decided to check it out. As the sign on the other end of the trail suggests, this trail is fairly primitive. In part, it crosses through the upland part of the sanctuary that saw the most damage and tree-fall from the hurricanes in 2004. If I remember correctly, hurricane Jeanne did the most damage here. In some parts of this area over 70% of the canopy was removed from fallen trees or stripped branches. The remaining trees are still leaning.

Leaning trees from 2004 hurricane damage.

Some parts of this new trail are in some denser vegetation, though, with some evidence of fire. Quite a few logs that had laid on the path have sections cut out, which provided this nice looking mushroom a place to live.

This mushroom is a fun guy (fungi).

There were quite a few Blue-grey Gnatcatchers in this part of the sanctuary too. Two things about gnatcatchers that I really came to appreciate yesterday: they are tiny and they never stop moving. One managed to sit still just long enough for me to snap this photograph.

Mighty mite!

This Turkey Oak Trail basically runs north of and parallels the Sand Pine Ridge Trail, so I came out very close to the start of that trail and the boardwalk. I decided to retrace my steps and head back toward the Scrub Trail, but instead of go back toward the dam, I headed back in towards McKinnon’s Way. On the way, I stopped at the emergency boat ramp and had a sit-down for a few minutes. While there, a very pretty butterfly landed close by. To me, it looks like a Monarch, except it was much more red than any Monarch I’ve seen, which are typically orange. [Edited to add: this is, in fact, a Viceroy. It is considered a Müllerian mimic of the Monarch.]

Viceroy butterfly

The morning ended with the most exciting part of my outing, which I unfortunately was unable to capture on camera. As I was sitting, I saw a large elongated shape coming out of the water near the edge of the creek (there’s no bank to speak of, really). My instinct was it was a gator, so I started to jump up to run back up the ramp away from the water, but I realized it was a manatee! It raised its head up onto the side of the creek and mouthed at some vegetation. By the time I regained my composure, it had turned and submerged back into the creek. I was disappointed I didn’t get to take a photograph, but thrilled to see a manatee up close. With that, it was getting really oppressive (despite the breeze that had picked up), so I walked back out to head home.

Warbler Jackpot

I had a strange outing today at Turkey Creek Sanctuary. I was really in an escapist mood, and I hoped a combination of the weather (gloomy, showers  had just passed) and it being Sunday morning (a lot of folks at church in the morning) would mean I was unlikely to bump into too many people on the trails. Ultimately this wasn’t meant to be, but I rolled with it.

To start off, on the Sand Pine Ridge Trail, I saw this osprey tending to its catch.

Catch of the day!

I got a couple more shots before I basically scared it away, fish in tow. While this was happening, I heard a White-eyed Vireo in the nearby brush and got a few good glimpses.

At the base of the tree the osprey was in, I saw a Black-and-white Warbler scaling up and down the trunk. He let me get fairly close and I was struck by how its movements a mix of those of a chickadee and a woodpecker.

This made me think of the 1960s Batman show when Batman and Robin scale the buildings in an obviously tilted camera shot. No celebrity cameos here, though.

Black-and-white Warbler striking an epic pose.

Further down the trail, I caught a glimpse of a female American Redstart and what ultimately turned out to be a female Blackpoll Warbler (a first!). I also got great binocular views of a Prairie Warbler and a Northern Parula before more redstarts and Blackpolls flew in. I took a few throw-away shots of what I realized were female Black-throated Blue Warblers (first this year).

At this point, as I neared the boardwalk, I ran into my first group of birders, all equipped with the equivalent of the Hubble Telescope for camera lenses. A couple even had lighting rigs that would make night-time shrimpers envious. I have to admit (and I am slightly embarrassed to) that I felt pretty inadequate in the camera department, so I missed what would have been a couple of great shots of a male Black-throated Blue. I was annoyed, though I had no right to be, that my lonely birding had been interrupted. I continued down the trail and along the creek overlooks. I calmed myself down and had a look down.

Hello, gorgeous!

This Florida softshell turtle was fairly large. Maybe about 15” across (there was an even bigger one just barely visible through the murk). Further down the creek I caught this pair of Florida red-bellied turtles sunning themselves as the first rays broke through the overcast.

Sunbathers in a half-shell!

I was feeling better, until I ran up upon another pair of birders with Overcompensatingly Large equipment setups (ok, I am being a bit mean there, forgive me – it was just my state of mind at the time).

I saw this Carolina anole (a.k.a. green anole) displaying below the overlook I was standing on, and used him to center my mind again. He’s a beaut!

image“Can I help you?”

This time, I stuck it out and took a few shots of my own as we were in the midst of a mixed flock of Blackpolls, redstarts and Black-and-Whites.

Blackpoll Warbler, peeking out to say hey.

imageAmerican Redstart fanning his tail at me. Yes. He did.

I manged to mostly shoot between the thick brush along the boardwalk.

I went my separate way again, managning to get some more binocular and unaided-eye views of more Black-throated Blues (this was THE bird of the day) and some Black-and-Whites. There was a quick glimpse of a magnificent Pileated Woodpecker, too.

I then bumped into the first group of birders I had encountered earlier (plus more) and finally determined that I wasn’t going to miss any shots I might take of my own. My equipment is fine, thank you very much! Plus, I realized these birders had every right to be there, as I did. So together we watched the antics of more American Redstarts, Blackpolls, Black-and-Whites and yes, I finally got my Black-throated Blue Warbler shot!

Parting shot.

Then it was up and out, and another great day, in the end. Sometimes it’s easy being a lonely birder. Sometimes it isn’t. But in the end, it’s all about the birds.

I went to Erna Nixon Park this morning to see what was happening there. At the first “Vista” stop along the boardwalk, there’s an overlook of some reedy vegetation and some grasses, adjacent to a pond that there is no path to get at. In that area I had the most success today. There were several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (males and females, a lot of bickering), what sounded like House Wrens, and at least one Common Yellowthroat (which came quite close, but I was unable to capture on camera). Further along the boardwalk I did see a single male Northern Parula, and along the fire-path along the northern edge of the property was a nice little gathering of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. The usual Northern Cardinals, Mourning Doves and Fish Crows were also in evidence. I did get a nice shot of a snake (not sure what species). Also heard some Carolina Wrens, but they stayed well out of sight.

Gone With the Wind!

It was a wild day at Turkey Creek Sanctuary today. The NWS had posted high wind warnings in anticipation of a gusty cold front about to pass through our area. I didn’t get very many bird pictures with my new camera. It was just too windy!

The morning started out breezy and ended up crazy! I managed to have a pretty good time of it, though. I managed to dodge the pelting palm fronds, and getting bushwhacked by some sort of sedgy grass things at one point was fun.

I also took out the new camera (see last post) and managed a few test shots. I don’t have an SD card yet (local shops were out of class 10 cards).

I did the Sand Pine Ridge Trail first, since that area would be harder to do once the winds picked up. I immediately got some nice views of a White-eyed Vireo, as well a the usual Northern Cardinals and a Downy Woodpecker. From there I went to the boardwalk loop.


Boadwalk section at Tukey Creek Sanctuary

I didn’t have much luck along the boardwalk, except for a pair of Northern Parulas (a male and a female) and by then the wind had already started to pick up. At the canoe deck I practiced with the camera and caught this cutie down below:


A soft-shelled turtle!

There’s a nice sandy trail off the canoe deck called “McKinnon’s Way” that is usually pretty fun.


Some transitional vegetation near McKinnon’s Way


Overlooking the creek from McKinnon’s Way. This is where some sort of sedge stuff tried to beat me up!

More of my adventure in part 2!