Do You See What I See?

Today was a pleasant day at Turkey Creek Sanctuary. The winter and year-long residents seem to be settling into their routines. The overall bird density was still low, but the number of species was greater than any point since the summer. 

Most importantly, after almost an entire year, I finally managed to get that elusive White-eyed Vireo photograph! I almost missed it and I had time to fire off one shot in the shadows of the underbrush before it dashed off. But my quest is at an end! 

photo white-eyed-vireo.jpg
A photograph 11 months in the making!

Speaking of vireos, I had a somewhat mysterious encounter with one near the start of my walk. I managed to observe the bird for a good while (sorry no pics – too busy birdwatching 😉 ), and my visual assessment doesn’t quite match with anything in my Peterson guide. The bird was clearly a vireo by shape and size. It was an almost uniform gray with white wing-bars and white spectacles. The best fit is a Blue-headed Vireo; however, both my Peterson field guide and my Sibley guide indicate there should be some sense of yellow and/or greenish cast on the flanks and back. Here, some further explanation is needed.

During the late 1990s, the Solitary Vireo was “officially” split into 3 separate but closely related species, the Plumbeous Vireo of the intermountain west, Cassin’s Vireo of the Pacific coast and northwest, and the Blue-headed Vireo of eastern North America. Generally the three species form what Sibley refers to as a “cline” from east to west of decreasing contrast and color.


An illustration by Keith Hansen showing the plumage variation among “Solitary” Vireos.

I mention all this because as I was making careful observations of “my” vireo, I had the distinct impression that it was almost completely devoid of color and of fairly low contrast. Upon further review, it most closely resembles the plumage of a Plumbeous Vireo. I will note though, that Sibley says there is hybridization and overlap in all plumages and even voice. Where that leaves me with proper identification, I am unsure as this species has not been reliably recorded this far east.

As has been the case for most of the autumn, the most numerous and active birds in the Sanctuary are the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. If you haven’t had a chance to observe these birds, let me just say that they are the tiniest balls of energy you’ll see in a bird, surpassed only by some hummingbirds. Despite their often being within only feet of me, it’s nearly impossible to get a decent photograph. My attempts today did yeild a fairly unique image. It’s a bit blurry, but I find it fascinating. This was taken in the split second it takes one of these tiny birds to hop from one branch to another.

photo blue-gray-gnatcatcher-leap.jpg
Geronimo!

Some other species that I observed today include the Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Cardinal, Gray Catbird, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Turkey Vulture, Palm Warbler, Tri-colored Heron, American Coot, Cattle Egret, and American Kestrel (the last four by the weir at the Melbourne-Tillman Canal).

photo black-and-white-warbler.jpg
Hello, my monochromatic friend.

photo red-bellied-woodpecker.jpg
Red-bellied Woodpecker enjoying a little breakfast.

Today was extra active for the Gopher Tortoises that live in the Sanctuary. Here are a couple of examples of coloration difference within the species.

photo 100_1611.jpg
This dark green tortoise had a shell about 12” from front to back.

photo gopher-tortoise.jpg
This larger tortoise’s shell was about 18” long. Notice the reddish coloration.

One very noticeable absence from the time I was at the Sanctuary was a total lack of squirrels. The last several trips there the squirrels were everywhere. Dozens and dozens. Today, I heard one scolding call deep in the underbrush, and that was it. I suppose all the frenzy of activity before could have been the squirrels fattening up for the “winter” here, and now they’re just lazing about, waiting for spring. But it was darn strange from my perspective! 

Short and Sweet.

Erna Nixon Park was at one time a green jewel in the middle of Melbourne’s suburban spread and light industrial areas near the airport. When I first moved to the Space Coast, I would often stop there before work each morning and walk the 1/2 mile or so boardwalk. If I was there before the joggers, I’d often have to dodge a few spiderwebs, but it usually made for a great start of the day. There were usually birds around, including Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, American Redstarts, Common Yellowthroats, Blue-headed Vireos, and many others. It’s listed as a hot spot on the Great Florida Birding Trail. 

Of late, though, it’s become very much changed. Even during the spring and fall migrations, bird-life has been very sparse and spotty. This year, I did see some hummers and warblers (as well as the ubiquitous Blue Jays, Carolina Wrens and Northern Cardinals0, but overall it has been quieter than Turkey Creek Sanctuary was this fall. Whether this is a symptom of the park, the neighborhood or the birds themselves, I don’t know. 

I decided to take an hour or so to walk the boardwalk this morning and see what the winter resident situation was. True to form, it was eerily quiet in the park. The most noticible noise was from the various aircraft taking off and landing at the airport, the commercial contruction down the road adjacent to the airport, and the traffic along the main road. And yet it still seemed to spooky.

I saw no birds at all, and only heard a single Blue-grey Gnatcatcher for most of the boardwalk. I took the loop “backwards” today – that is, I ended up passing the various “vista” points along the walk in reverse numbered order. As I paused near “Vista I” I did finally catch some movement in the brush below, and saw a small grouping of warlbers. While I did get some very good binocular views, I was unable to get the camera to take any decent photographs through the dense brush. Here’s the list:

  • Worm-eating Warbler (a first!)
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler (with decidedly un-yellow rumps. All the other field marks match up, though, so I might have to chalk that up to a trick of the light)
  • Palm Warbler

So, not a totally unproductive walk, as far as birding goes. It started spooky and sad, but ended up pretty sweet. At least there was some action. I think it might be a little odd to see a Worm-eating warbler here this time of year, but there are always stragglers after the main migration (or migration is much more spread out and running later now?). It was the bird I got the best look at, and it’s always exciting to see a new “lifer.” At least I’m still an inexperienced enough birder to have many of those opportunities left.

Gnatcatcher, Gnatcatcher Catch Me A Gnat…

I spent another very quiet Sunday morning at Turkey Creek. I had hoped my hunch that the early part of the weekend was more “birdy” than it had been would extend into yesterday. That proved fruitless, but I did have a nice walk through the woods again, and added one species to my 2013 list.

The most active birds in the Sanctuary continue to be the Blue-grey Gnatcatchers. One large Live Oak had a virtual cloud of them, darting out and around while making their wheezy little call notes (scroll to the second sound recording). I remember my very first field guide, using comparative identification methods, describing Blue-grey Gnatcatchers as “miniature mockingbirds.” This is not a bad description, in some ways. They will even bob their tails in a similar fashion to some mockingbirds.

The Grey Catbrids have arrived in force for the winter. Whereas the individuals in the park last week seemed excessively shy, the ones I saw yesterday were much bolder. In fact, I managed to get a decent photo of one.

photo catbird.jpg
The cat’s meow. Oh, and it’s perched on Beauty Berries!

The catbirds were particularly vocal. They (along with the Northern Cardinals) provided the only significant bird noise in the Sanctuary, making me yell “QUIET!” a couple of times because they were drowning out any other bird sounds. Of course that worked for all of about 2 seconds.

At two different points along my walk through the park, I spotted a raccoon in a tree. I’ve seen a lot of racoons this year, compared to the past few.

photo coon.jpg
Raccoon 20 feet over the creek.

Near one of the creek overlooks on the Hammock Loop, I spent a few minutes watching the fish and turtles swim in the sunlight. One large Florida Softshell Turtle came by, so I got its photograph while it was still under water.

photo soft-shelled-turtle.jpg
Florida Softshell Turtle.

At the weir, I saw one verifiable Palm Warbler (I heard a great many more) as well as a Spotted Sandpiper, American Coot, Common Gallinule, Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Little Blue Heron, Tri-colored Heron and an unidentified white heron/egret of some kind (it flew off before I could be sure what it was).

On the way out along the western edge of the Sanctuary, I heard some finch-like scolding among the Northern Cardinals near the chain-link fence. I managed to get a couple of good observing minutes of some Indigo Buntings. The male had molted out of almost all his blue feathers – just a few flecks remaining among the brown. The two females were a very pretty warm brown color. They bickered and chased each other around some Sabal palms before flying off. This is the first time I’ve seen this species this year, and the unofficial 2103 species count is now 140.

Other species seen yesterday:

  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Blue Jay

This marks the first time this year that I haven’t seen or heard a White-eyed Vireo at Turkey Creek Sanctuary. That’s not to say they aren’t still in the park, but I neither saw nor heard any evidence of them.

Viera Wetlands/Moccasin Island, Part I: Crazy About Caracaras!

Today I went to the Viera Wetlands and the neighboring Moccasin Island Tract (part of the River Lakes Conservation Area) with my friend Cedric. This picture of him was taken at our second stop, which you can see in Part 2.
imageHere’s the handsome guy

Cedric is not a ‘birder’; per se, but he’s a smart guy and loves to learn new things. He actually invited me to go birding today, which was a pleasant surprise.

Our first stop was the Viera Wetlands. A conservation area born out of the area’s wastewater management, for years now the Wetlands have been a haven for birds throughout the year, but in particular for birds that tend to favor marshlands and their surroundings. I’ll spare you the details, just visit this page to learn more.

Here are some highlights of the Wetlands portion of our outing.

Right off we saw some Red-winged Blackbirds chasing each other around in territorial displays and in hope of mating. Here’s one resting on a sign near the area in which we parked.
image
Pay attention to this Red-winged Blackbird
image
Pied-billed Grebe

There were several Pied-billed Grebes throughout the various ponds (“cells”), some alone, some in pairs.

At this point, a Crested Caracara surprised me and went past, too fast to get a shot. I love these guys, and it’s always a pleasure to see them in numbers. And in numbers they are! There were at least 1/2 a dozen individuals by my best estimate. But I couldn’t manage any photographs (but got great binoc views!).

image
American Coot (foreground) and Common Gallinule

As is typical through the Winter and early Spring, coots and gallinules were quite plentiful in most cells. I did not see any Purple Gallinules today. I don’t know why they were not there, but I’ll try to find that out.

image
White Ibis in flight

I’m proud of the above photograph. White Ibises are common enough, even in residential neighborhoods, but it’s really neat to see them in a more “natural” type habitat. This was my first attempt at a motion shot with my new camera.

More Crested Caracaras went by at this point, doing their level best to dodge my camera.

We came across some Glossy Ibises and a couple of unidentified shorebirds (perhaps a snipe?) and sparrows (what some birders affectionately called “LBJs” for “”Little Brown Jobs.” Savannah Sparrows seemed plentiful along most of the path edges throughout the morning.

image
Savannah Sparrow

This Tricolored Heron was one of several heron and egret species present throughout the Wetlands. We saw Green, Little Blue and Great Blue Herons. There were Great and Cattle egrets too. Many of these were in full breeding regalia, which was quite impressive. Also, below is a shot of a more immature Great Blue Heron that was stalking about the place.

image
Tricolored Heron with breeding plumes
image
Immature Great Blue Heron

This next picture is of one of a number of warblers seen along the path edges. Based on behavior and plumage indications, I want to say this is a Palm Warbler beginning to get it’s breeding plumage, but I am not sure. If anyone reading this blog can positively identify this bird, would you please let me know?

image
Perhaps a Palm Warbler?

As we rounded the paths to head back to the car, Cedric pointed out some Sandhill Cranes rather close to us. To my surprise was the cutest thing EVER! LOOK!

image
Sandhill Crane parent and baby!
image
Sandhill Crane family

So awesome!

This handsome fellow swam by, too

image
OMG, alligator!

On the final walk out to the car, I finally got a shot of a Crested Caracara. These guys had been swooping around all morning. This one has a rather nasty bit of fish remains in his beak. But hey, scavenging is essential to any healthy ecosystem (even a human created one like this).

image

With that, we headed out to the Moccasin Island Tract and some upland habitat adventures. Oh. And cows.

Part II to come.

Viera Wetlands/Moccasin Island, Part I

Today I went to the Viera Wetlands and the neighboring Moccasin Island Tract (part of the River Lakes Conservation Area) with my friend Cedric. This picture of him was taken at our second stop, which you can see in Part 2.
imageHere’s the handsome guy

Cedric is not a ‘birder’; per se, but he’s a smart guy and loves to learn new things. He actually invited me to go birding today, which was a pleasant surprise.

Our first stop was the Viera Wetlands. A conservation area born out of the area’s wastewater management, for years now the Wetlands have been a haven for birds throughout the year, but in particular for birds that tend to favor marshlands and their surroundings. I’ll spare you the details, just visit this page to learn more.

Here are some highlights of the Wetlands portion of our outing.

Right off we saw some Red-winged Blackbirds chasing each other around in territorial displays and in hope of mating. Here’s one resting on a sign near the area in which we parked.
image
Pay attention to this Red-winged Blackbird
image
Pied-billed Grebe

There were several Pied-billed Grebes throughout the various ponds (“cells”), some alone, some in pairs.

At this point, a Crested Caracara surprised me and went past, too fast to get a shot. I love these guys, and it’s always a pleasure to see them in numbers. And in numbers they are! There were at least 1/2 a dozen individuals by my best estimate. But I couldn’t manage any photographs (but got great binoc views!).

image
American Coot (foreground) and Common Gallinule

As is typical through the Winter and early Spring, coots and gallinules were quite plentiful in most cells. I did not see any Purple Gallinules today. I don’t know why they were not there, but I’ll try to find that out.

image
White Ibis in flight

I’m proud of the above photograph. White Ibises are common enough, even in residential neighborhoods, but it’s really neat to see them in a more “natural” type habitat. This was my first attempt at a motion shot with my new camera.

More Crested Caracaras went by at this point, doing their level best to dodge my camera.

We came across some Glossy Ibises and a couple of unidentified shorebirds (perhaps a snipe?) and sparrows (what some birders affectionately called “LBJs” for “”Little Brown Jobs.” Savannah Sparrows seemed plentiful along most of the path edges throughout the morning.

image
Savannah Sparrow

This Tricolored Heron was one of several heron and egret species present throughout the Wetlands. We saw Green, Little Blue and Great Blue Herons. There were Great and Cattle egrets too. Many of these were in full breeding regalia, which was quite impressive. Also, below is a shot of a more immature Great Blue Heron that was stalking about the place.

image
Tricolored Heron with breeding plumes
image
Immature Great Blue Heron

This next picture is of one of a number of warblers seen along the path edges. Based on behavior and plumage indications, I want to say this is a Palm Warbler beginning to get it’s breeding plumage, but I am not sure. If anyone reading this blog can positively identify this bird, would you please let me know?

image
Perhaps a Palm Warbler?

As we rounded the paths to head back to the car, Cedric pointed out some Sandhill Cranes rather close to us. To my surprise was the cutest thing EVER! LOOK!

image
Sandhill Crane parent and baby!
image
Sandhill Crane family

So awesome!

This handsome fellow swam by, too

image
OMG, alligator!

On the final walk out to the car, I finally got a shot of a Crested Caracara. These guys had been swooping around all morning. This one has a rather nasty bit of fish remains in his beak. But hey, scavenging is essential to any healthy ecosystem (even a human created one like this).

image

With that, we headed out to the Moccasin Island Tract and some upland habitat adventures. Oh. And cows.

Part II to come.

March is Marching Past Me

What a crazy month, so far. Personal issues have prevented me from birding two weekends in a row now, and weekends are pretty much my only birding times right now, without taking vacation days.

[As an aside, does anyone know why I get these intermittent periods of phantom notifications on my tumblr dashboard? It’s very peculiar.]

At one point, at my parents house, I noticed a fair amount of Northern Cardinals, Northern Mockingbirds, Grey Catbirds, Palm Warblers, Common Grackles, and White Pelicans. Yes. Apparently, a decent contingent of 50 or more have been hanging around in one of the larger retention ponds in the large community my parents live in. I first noticed a flock of them the night before, flying over the house while my brother and I searched (unsuccessfully) for Comet PANSTARRS in the smoke-smeared twilight horizon. I’ve seen a LOT of White Pelicans this year.

Here’s my favorite White Pelican image, courtesy of  I Can Has Cheezburger (some years ago):

image

Introductory pelican is introducing.