Everything is slowly getting back to “normal” here in Florida, and particularly on the Space Coast, where we managed to get through Hurricane Irma without a major catastrophe. Power has been restored to almost everyone in the area, thanks to the hard-working linemen and linewomen from around the country.
The area parks, sanctuaries, and conservation lands are going to have a bit longer of a time getting squared away. Most of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is still closed, and smaller parks, like Turkey Creek Sanctuary are closed as debris is removed and water levels recede.
Out at Lake Apopka the storm damaged infrastructure so severely, there’s no timetable for it to reopen yet. Assessments are still being made there, and at many other public lands. Everyone will need to be patient and work around what’s available as the main part of migration nears.
But some places managed to get through the onslaught relatively unscathed. Orlando Wetlands Park got through the storm with minimal damage and was open within days. I met up with Camille and we headed over to Christmas, Florida for some late-summer birding.
While some early migrants have been through the area since the end of August, most of central Florida is still in between the end of breeding and fledging season and the start of migration. The hurricanes in the region (both Irma and Jose now, and Maria later in the week) have not made for favorable winds to help move birds out from the north, but that will change as Fall begins.
The morning started off comfortable, but the weather would quickly turn oppressive before the end of the morning. We kept our hike short, only doing the main “birding” loop and not the far reaches of the park.
There were several Red-shouldered Hawks perched, looking for breakfast. All appeared to have adult plumage, but some were missing tail feathers. This is indicative of molting, and in fact many of the other birds in the park were missing all or some of their tails.
By now, most of the Common and Purple Gallinules have raised their broods and the surviving youngsters are getting their adult plumage as well.
Of course there are always late breeders, and there were still a few Common Gallinule pairs that had small chicks, but they were few and far between.
There were not many songbirds present, though several Prairie Warblers (a resident breeder) in fall plumage flew past us a few times, and both Red-eyed and White-eyed Vireos were actively feeding in the woody edges near the park entrance and nature center.
All in all it wasn’t too bad of a morning, for mid-September in central Florida. As a bonus, we saw a small flycatcher on the road just outside the park entrance. There seems to have been an influx of Empidonax flycatchers through the state over the last few weeks. I’ve certainly seen more of this genus this year than previous. This particular bird did not vocalize, though it did seem to perk up at a recorded call of a Willow Flycatcher. Unfortunately, that is not enough to identify this bird beyond its genus.
It was a real treat that this park was open and relatively clear of debris after such a wide-ranging and destructive storm. And of course, just a few years ago this park was closed over the fall and first part of winter. Now it’s open to the public year-round, so it should have a lot to offer as migration gets under way.
[Note: Our friends in the Caribbean, including the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have been and are being devastated by both Hurricane Irma and Maria. Please donate if you can. Here’s the link to Charity Navigator so you can find somewhere to donate that feels right for you: https://www.charitynavigator.org/]
The major bird “events” that many people look forward to in Florida are the Spring and Fall songbird migrations. In the Fall, hundreds of northern species funnel south through the state either to stay for the winter or on their way to Central and South America. The process is reversed in Spring when these species pass north on the way toward their breeding grounds.
There’s another migration that happens, though. In November, ducks by the thousands begin to arrive on the coasts, lakes, ponds, lagoons, and estuaries. Unlike most songbirds, whose drive to migrate is dictated primarily by length of day, many ducks and other waterfowl migrate when the food supply or weather dictates. If a winter is comparatively mild and food is abundant, these birds may not arrive in Florida until later in the winter, if at all.
One thing to count on, no matter when the ducks arrive, is that there’s almost always a vagrant, rare or unusual species that pops up here and there in central Florida.
For example, there has been a Common Goldeneye at a small retention pond in Melbourne for the past couple of weeks. This particular bird has been hanging out with a flock of Hooded Mergansers. Common Goldeneyes normally winter as far south as the Gulf Coast and the Carolina Coast (though they are increasingly found in northern Florida).
A few days earlier, another rare but regular visiting duck species was seen at Orlando Wetlands Park. Buffleheads are small diving ducks, usually seen in saltwater bays or along the coast in winter (though they do breed near northern lakes). These Buffleheads (either females or immature males) were swimming and diving with Hooded Mergansers, Lesser Scaups and a Ring-necked Duck. The typical winter range for Buffleheads just extends into extreme northern Florida.
The two duck species above are among the more often seen, since their historical winter ranges are not that far away.
Other rarer, but regular waterfowl visitors to Florida include Snow Geese, Ross’ Geese, Mute Swans, and Long-tailed Ducks (the latter usually along the coast or in coastal lagoons). Over-wintering ducks and other waterfowl aren’t always that picky on where they stay, either. It often pays off to drive by suburban and urban retention ponds. Keep your eyes open!
I had a very nice outing at Orlando Wetlands Park [map] yesterday. The park has normally been closed from November to February, which meant missing the bulk of the ducks that arrive there in the fall. I’ve been anticipating getting back to the park before the real heat of summer sets in.
There is some good news, though. This past year, the City of Orlando bought the hunting rights from the former land-owners and from now on, the park will be open all year! This will be good news for the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in the years ahead, as the park normally opened the week immediately after the festival ended.
It had been several weeks since I’ve not birded by myself (some adventures not recounted here), and Camille has been wanting to check out the park now that it reopened, so we once again paired up for the day.
The morning was surprisingly cool, with some light fog. Some birds were still catching the first rays of sun to help warm up for the day.
We were hoping to catch the Vermilion Flycatcher that had been reported all winter. If you recall from last year, an adult male Vermilion has been visiting the park for several years. This past fall, however, an immature male came in and has been regularly, but intermittently, spotted. We had no luck relocating either bird, but it’s possible one or both have left the area now that spring has arrived.
There was also not much in the way of duck diversity. By far the species of duck with the highest numbers was the Blue-winged Teal. They were mingling with American Coots, the males calling with high-pitched squeaks while the females quacked.
The first group of ducks we saw had a single male Green-winged Teal swimming with them. Although both species are called “teals,” I learned from the Waterfowl 101 field trip at the festival that they are actually not closely related. Genetically and structurally, Blue-winged Teals are more closely related to shovelers, while Green-winged Teals are related to Mallards. In truth, the genetic relationships of teals (like most ducks) is complicated and not well understood.
As we continued our search for the Vermilion Flycatcher, we met Richard Hattaway, who was taking photos. We walked together for a while, sharing some advice, experiences, and tips.
Both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs were present, and at times in close proximity, which allowed for some good direct comparisons (they did not get quite close enough for a mutual photo-op). Although similar in appearance, size and slight morphological (fancy term for “shape”) differences allow each species to exploit slightly different habitats and prey.
Tree Swallows were widespread throughout the park, though not in any large vortexes. At any given time, smaller groups would rest on cypress trees before heading off at once, while other groups landed to take their turn to rest.
Breeding season in well under way for heron species. Some of the chicks are large enough now that both parents are out getting food for them. This bird was carefully walking the berm road, too busy keeping an eye on us to be hunting for food.
We said good-bye to Richard at this point, having no luck with the Vermilion Flycatcher (we checked two locations the birds were known to perch and hunt from).
At long intervals along the berm roads, just at the water’s edge, were large purple flowers. I noticed them the last two times I visited the park. Camille says they are an iris of some sort. I’m still not that familiar with plants (thought I am learning), so I leave it up to my readers to identify. If you know what this flower is, please feel free to leave a comment.
Just prior to leaving the open acres of berm roads and wetland cells for the wooded “hiking trail,” we caught sight of another rare bird visitor to the area. People had been reporting a Short-tailed Hawk associating with Black Vultures. We kept an eye to the sky for the entire morning, in case we caught glimpse of it as well. The bird was “kiting” with a group of circling vultures, occasionally dipping down out of sight. Birds kite or are kiting when they use airflow over their wings to stay aloft while not moving in relation to the ground or water beneath them. This typically requires a steady and stiff breeze. Kiting differs from hovering, which is when a bird uses rapid wingbeats to stay aloft (like a kingfisher ready to dive for fish, or a hummingbird at a flower).
This wooded section of the park [trail map] is a palm-dominated hardwood hammock with a fairly open understory. We heard Northern Parulas singing all around, and encountered Blue-headed Vireos, Tufted Titmouses, Black-and-white Warblers, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. This section of the park is comparatively primitive, but the trails are flat, open, and well-marked, with a few wooden foot bridges to cross the wetter areas.
As we got deeper into the woods, more hardwoods (like oaks and maples) mixed with the palms, with Resurrection Ferns, vigorous airplant growth, Spanish Moss, and other epiphytes.
The end of the trail we emerged from connected back to the berm road about a mile from the parking area (via another wooded trail). After a full morning of walking, this last stretch became formidable, and by the end my feet and hips were really feeling the strain. In total we walked about 4 miles, but it felt like more! I think I must have gotten considerably out of shape over the winter.
By the end of the walk, we identified 67 species with one rarity (the Short-tailed Hawk).
Here are some photos from this past weekend’s Orlando Wetlands Park adventure (map). It was a nice day, with slightly broken overcast skies, which cut down on the glare.
A first-year male Vermilion Flycatcher and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher had been reported there last week. If you recall my blog from earlier this year, an adult male Vermilion Flycatcher has spent most of the last few winters there. It’s interesting to me that another of that species has shown up. There has been no sign of the bird from this past winter, yet.
One of several Black-bellied Whistling Duck families.
Juvenile male Vermilion Flycatcher
One of my best looks at a Yellow-billed Cuckoo
There was no sign of the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (and it hasn’t been listed on eBird or the mailing lists for over a week now), but plenty of other birds were around, as well as some non-avian friends. There were a few Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks with chicks. Being a relatively new arrival to the area, I’m wondering if these ducks are figuring out they can breed year-round or at least stick around longer in Florida. I suppose time will tell.
An American Alligator trying to catch some sun
Wading Tricolored Heron
Handsome Turkey Vulture
A cute River Otter
There was an impressively large aggregation of Blue-winged Teals, but no other duck species that I noticed (besides the Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks). More should be arriving soon.
Other birds of note include Purple Martins (quite late in the year for them), Royal Terns (unusual this far inland), and a Solitary Sandpiper (hanging out with some Lesser Yellowlegs).
I bucked the Lonely Birder trend again this past weekend by heading out to the Orlando Wetlands Park with my friend Camille. She is such an enthusiastic new birder, it’s great to head out with her and see whatever we can. This trip was focused on two things:
Thing 1: Neither of us had been to Orlando Wetlands Park before. It is closed seasonally from November through all of January which includes the usual dates for the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.
Thing 2: A male Vermilion Flycatcher was reported there this winter (and apparently the past several winters), a rare and desirable bird for this area. It’s getting late in the “wintering” season in central Florida, so it’s likely he’ll head north soon. This weekend was a good opportunity to see him.
We arrived during a light rain shower, and (along with several other birders, including a group of photographers) used some small shelters near the parking area to wait out the rain and watch what birds were in the nearby trees and brush. We could hear a lot of “chipping” notes which turned out to be a large number of Yellow-rumped Warblers. Interspersed with them were some American Goldfinches, and I could hear at least two White-eyed Vireos. There was one Yellow-throated Warbler (one of several life birds for Camille).
There’s an education center nearby, and we went there to find a park map, and apparently interrupted a photography workshop lead by Reinhard Geisler, who tried to whisk us out, until we told him we just wanted a map. He grabbed one for us and quickly shut the door!
As we passed some large blue plastic tubs, ostensibly for a plant experiment, we saw some more Yellow-rumped Warblers, as well as Blue-headed Vireos, and some Carolina, House and Marsh Wrens in the brush nearby. I thought I caught a glimpse of an Ovenbird, but not enough to really be sure. I also caught a quick look at a Ruby Crowned Kinglet.
As we got out past that area near some open marshland, there were dozens of Tree Swallows all around us, and then looking farther out, a huge flock of many hundreds (perhaps even a thousand!) were swirling. Everywhere we went, all day, there were Tree Swallows.
We saw our first herons and egrets, as well as some American Coots, and further along, Common Gallinules. In a dead tree there was a pale adult Red-shouldered Hawk that we spotted quite a distance away. We saw several of that species through the day (of course, some may have been repeat individuals), all the pale “Florida form.”
More impressively, Camille was wondering if we’d see any Crested Caracaras, and shortly thereafter in a tree not far from that hawk, was an impressive caracara, alternating between grooming and watching us approach. Just about all of the Crested Caracaras I have seen in Florida have been banded at least once, but this one was not banded and quite majestic.
The park also has an impressive number of alligators. Every embankment we walked along had at least several, sometimes in close proximity. The largest I saw was over eight feet long, and there were some small 2-3 foot long ones as well. Many seemed to be snoozing or at least disinterested, but some were alert and intently watching us as we went by. At one point, near the end of the day, a woman we spoke with was saying how, even as a native Floridian, she sometimes gets a little nervous with so many alligators out and about.
Her comment made me realize that while I used to be a little intimidated and anxious at some of the larger alligators I would see, now I just harbor a great deal of respect and admiration. I’ve never felt threatened by an alligator. In fact, more often than not, even the larger ones will panic and head straight for the water in a startling splash if I accidentally seem to be getting too close.
Alligators weren’t the only non-avian species present. There were turtles sunning in most of the ponds and open wetlands and various butterflies. I did not notice any dragonflies, but it may be too early in the year to expect the adults to have emerged from the water yet.
We came across a three-foot long snake on one path that Camille almost stepped on. I looked up what species it was after getting home, and it was a yellow striped Rat Snake. Normally this species is nocturnal, and I thought maybe this individual had expended some energy before dawn and was waiting for the sun to warm it up so it could get about its business.
A major difference between this park and something smaller, like the Wetlands in Viera, is the density of bird activity. With so much room to spread out, there didn’t seem to be as much bickering and posturing among the wading birds. There were Limpkins around, but they only flew out in the open a few times. The herons were mainly standing alone, with only the usually grumpy Tricolored Herons making any regular fuss. It’s possible we caught the park on a quiet day, with things transitioning from Winter to Spring, but I’ll have to revisit a few times to know for sure.
As I mentioned above, one reason for coming to this particular park was to see the Vermillion Flycatcher. We had some vague idea of where it might be based on eBird reports and some e-mail list messages, but as the scale of the park became evident to us, we realized we needed specific help on where to find it. As we were walking down the aptly named “Alligator Alley” a couple of men approached our location and asked if we were trying to find the Vermillion Flycatcher. They then gave us very specific instructions on where to walk and what to look for.
So off we went, via their directions, across the park. We walked quite a long distance, well over a mile, until we came and area to that most closely matched their description. There were a few things wrong, however, with what we had read about where it would likely be and this location. There were no “small” cypress trees, for example, and the only cypress stand that might have been close to the two men’s description was apparently accessible from other trails, making it unlikely that we’d have to be out where we were to see it. As we searched for the flycatcher, we did see some Caspian Terns, a perched Osprey, and several Great Blue Herons in the cypress dome across the water. We decided to head out and either ask someone else, or just take our chances in another area of the park.
After we walked a way down the trail just a short way, we saw a photographer setting up a tripod and asked him if he knew how close we were to the flycatcher’s location. He told us we were no way near it, and in fact we had to cross almost the entire park to find it! We were a bit frustrated and amazed because of how specific the first set of directions had been, but this man had photographed the bird the previous day and was very confident in where we needed to go.
There were Red-winged Blackbirds in moderate numbers. Most were busy finding food and looking around. The majority of the males had their red shoulder patches (called epaulets) in eclipse, showing mainly the yellow border. The epaulets are exposed when the bird is looking for a mate or staking out his territory.
Some smaller birds were flying along the trail, including Savannah Sparrows and Palm Warblers. Most of the Palm Warblers in central Florida during the winter time are of the gray “Western” variety, with limited yellow to their tail coverts and sides. One Palm Warbler was foraging along the reeds and other water plants near us, and it stood out because of how pale it was compared to other Palm Warblers I’ve seen this winter.
Just across the road along the shoreline of the pond I was slightly startled to see several very small birds wading within a few feet of me. At first I thought they were sparrows, but once my brain adjusted to what it was seeing, I realized they were very small sandpipers. Other than Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones, I’d never been that close to small shorebirds, and it turns out these were Least Sandpipers (I had to double check at home because Western Sandpipers are also small, but they have dark legs whereas Least Sandpipers have yellowish legs).
Anhingas were distributed fairly evenly around the park. I don’t know when the normal breeding season is for them, though I know they can breed any time of year in places. We encountered one Anhinga that seems to be a juvenile or an immature bird. Other Anhingas in the area (Viera, for example) have blue skin around the eyes and lores (area in front of the eyes) which indicates breeding adults, but this one does not have those markings.
A flock of American Wigeons took to the sky at one point, marking the largest group of ducks we’d seen all day. Aside from a few isolated Blue-winged Teals, and later a few Mottled Ducks at the end of the day, these were the only ducks we’d see.
As we continuted to follow the photographer’s directions, we eventually came upon some birders who had just seen the Vermillion Flycatcher and were happy to point out where to stand and what to look for. It turns out we were just around the corner from the spot when the first two men had us go in the complete opposite direction! I don’t know if they were being malicious or were confused themselves over where they had been that morning, but it was frustrating at first. But the walk, though hard on the feet, was not a waste, as we did get to experience areas of the beautiful park we’d likely have walked through anyway. We were warned that without a high powered scope or telephoto lens, we weren’t likely to see much more than a reddish dot or smudge, but we knew that going in. Any glimpse of the bird was worth it.
We stood at the spot and scanned the small cypress trees for several minutes and were just about second guessing ourselves when I finally caught a flash of red in my binoculars and saw my very first Vermillion Flycatcher! Soon, Camille had it in her sights as well, and we watched that little red smudge sally over the water and back to the same perch several times. I decided to take whatever image my camera could capture, even if just a red blob.
We watched him for a while longer before finally heading back down the trail, where we came across a woman setting up a spotting scope, looking toward the trees the flycatcher was in, from the opposite direction. We talked to her for a few minutes, and found out that she birds with the man running the photography workshop (Reinhard Geisler) and had seen the flycatcher from that vantage point some days earlier. She very quickly got it in her scope and let us have a look. In her scope one could see his face clearly, including the black eye-line.
We continued to walk back toward the education center and the parking area, stopping to look at a few more birds. As we did, the woman with the spotting scope walked by us and pointed out Tree Swallows perched in some small trees out in the water, relatively close to us. After seeing so many hundreds, if not thousands, of these birds flying all day, it was nice to see some sitting quietly.
We walked a little further on and saw another bird we had hoped to see there, but had eluded us all day: a Purple Gallinule. We’d both seen this species this year, but they’ve been comparatively rare lately and are such a neat bird, we really were wanting to get it on this trip.
Just as we were arriving back toward the parking lot, one of the large swirling masses of Tree Swallows was descending along the trees along the trail. There were two main components to the flock, and as the two flocks interacted, they started noisily calling out and descended further. Eventually hundreds landed in just a few trees at the edge of the road, causing the entire tree to sag and bend. This caused the birds to loudly launch off the trees en masse and take to sky in a frantic surge. They did this a few times before heading off a short distance.
Thus ended our day at Orlando Wetlands Park. It lived up to its hype, and we got lots of good birds, including a good handful of lifers for Camille. We didn’t leave the park until after 3:00, which was much much later than I anticipated, and even realized it was. Our feet and backs were sore, but it was an amazing adventure.
Here’s my complete species list in general order of first positive identification.