White-crowning Achievement

Just a week after exploring parts of Alachua County during the Florida Ornithological Society’s Fall meeting, I headed toward Florida’s Gulf Coast to meet my friend Dave Goodwin to do some more birding, this time in and around Pasco and Hernando Counties. Mrs. Lonely Birder was attending a sea turtle necropsy workshop, giving me a good opportunity to spend the day looking for birds. My primary goal was to get some wintering sparrows, and perhaps even a lifer or two.

I birded Pasco County for last year’s Christmas Bird Count. As I’ve previously noted, large parts of the county are rural and agricultural, which makes for some pastoral landscapes.

Auton Road at dawn.

Sunrise found us along Auton Road [map], looking for sparrows. Along with numerous Palm Warblers, we flushed up some Savannah Sparrows and eventually a couple of Vesper Sparrows.

Not too far down the road, we came upon Bill Pranty and Meagan Campbell, who were also looking for sparrows. Many birders (myself included) are not confident when trying to identify sparrows in the field. We rely on the help of accomplished bird watchers like Bill and Dave to help point out the field marks and other characteristics to ID sparrows. Bill was helping Megan, who was hoping to get several sparrows for her life list.

Meanwhile, we came across a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks. From their dark, saturated colors, we could tell these birds are “northern” hawks, as our typical Florida Red-shouldered Hawks are much paler.

This adult Red-Shouldered Hawk (and its companion) likely wintering over in Florida. 

Eventually we managed to bring out a few Grasshopper Sparrows, as well as male and female Northern Harriers. A nearby pond provided our first look at a Ring-necked Duck among the coots, gallinules, and ibises.

A few more groups of birders came by and we made a loose aggregation, making our way back along Auton Road. At this point either Bill or Dave decided to play the calls and song of the White-crowned Sparrow, which are notorious for coming out when this is done. Sure enough, after a minute or so several birds came out, aggressively calling back. A new life bird for me!

A White-crowned Sparrow, its tail slightly raised and wings pulled down in a territorial display.
According to Bill Pranty, the pale lores and other characteristics mark this bird as the Gambel’s subspecies.

We had at two subspecies or groups of White-crowned Sparrow – Gambel’s, with pale lores (the area in front of the eyes) – and Eastern Taiga, which have black lores.

I was also excited to find out that with the addition of this species, Megan had added four birds to her life list.

Dave and I made our way out to a few more spots in Pasco County and into Hernando County, looking for Yellow-headed Blackbirds and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. While looking (unsuccessfully) for the flycatcher, we had a nice mixed flock move through the road-side trees, including Eastern Bluebirds, Palm, Pine, and Prairie Warblers, and even a late-season Yellow-throated Vireo.

Lockhart Road, in Hernando County.

We had still been shadowing Bill and Megan (and running into the other birders from earlier in the morning), but parted ways with them and hit a few more spots around the area.

We ended the day at Kapok Park [map], in Pinellas County. This park had been a poorly kept mobile home park, which was a major point-source of pollution for Tampa Bay. About a decade ago, the city of Clearwater bought out the park and transformed it into a beautiful park, including walking/jogging trails and boardwalks over Alligator Creek.

Cypress trees along a pond in Kapok Park.
A Live Oak with Spanish Moss overhanging Alligator Creek.

The bird activity had slowed a bit, but we did see some Common Gallinules and a few Anhingas. It was fitting that the weekend before Thanksgiving I got a good look at this species, sometimes known as a “Water Turkey”, as it swam under the elevated boardwalk in the late-afternoon light.

The broad tail and body do resemble a turkey, while swimming. The long neck gives this bird its other nickname, “snakebird”, especially when it is the only part of the bird above water.

The final bird of our day was a surprise light-morph Short-tailed Hawk that got a resident Red-shouldered Hawk in a bit of a snit, chasing the first raptor off with a series of furious screams.

Dave dropped me off, and as I waited for Mrs. Lonely Birder to finish her workshop, I heard the unmistakable shrieks of parrots overhead. There is a small colony of Monk Parakeets on the grounds of Eckerd College [map], and I watched them get ready to settle in for the night, while some gulls and a few other birds made their way by.

Here are the eBird lists for the day (including incidentals) for curious minds:

Auton/Singletary Roads:

Lockhart Road:

Cortez Blvd (incidental):

Bayport Park:

Kapok Park:

Avenue of States Drive (near Eckerd College):

As usual, it was a pleasure to bird with Dave out in his neck of the woods. With the added bonus of a life bird, it was really nice day and a good way to lead into the “official” holiday season.

Christmas Passed

Here we are, right between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Since the middle of December many regions are once again in the throes of the “CBC” – the Christmas Bird Count. This Audubon sponsored endeavor is one way that bird population trends are tracked, long term, across the continent. Count season starts before Christmas and ends just after the New Year.

Last count season, I took part in the CBC in my home county. This time around, I helped my friend David Goodwin and his team with the east Pasco County count, the day after Christmas.

In order to get started on time, I had to leave my house before 3am for the 2+ hour drive to our meeting place at a Denny’s by the interstate, just outside St. Leo. From there we hit several spots in our designated part of the count circle (for an explanation of the CBC and count circles, visit the Audubon CBC webpage).

We started before dawn at the Tyndall Road Marsh [map] to catch birds most active at or before dawn. Much of the day required that we drive on McKendree Road – an unpaved stretch with washboard ridges and potholes – and other rural streets to get to our various hot spots.

This is a typical road in east Pasco County.

As a group, we found 107 species for the day (I personally identified 99). Some of the good “gets” for the count were American Woodcock (seen by Dave Goodwin before dawn), American Pipits, a couple of Red-headed Woodpeckers, and a Merlin.


The closest and longest look I’ve had of a Red-headed Woodpecker!


If you look closely, you’ll see 5 American Pipits in this shot. They blend in very well on the ground where they forage for insects.

The parts of Pasco County we birded are all quite rural, making for some lovely scenes, and we were only downwind of some of the more fragrant aspects a couple of times.

This cow pasture has an obligatory watering hole and an attendant cattle egret, behind the cow. Note the remnant of a cypress dome on the left.
Florida isn’t all palm trees and thrill rides. I leave it up to you if that’s a good or bad thing.

At Wesley Chapel District Park [map], Erik Haney got a pair of Ovenbirds to respond to a recorded call of that species, but they remained very well hidden. We managed to scare up a Carolina Wren or two, and on the way out, a singing Blue-headed Vireo briefly got us back, scanning the woods to see it.

Carolina Wrens share the same habitat as Ovenbirds, but are often a little less secretive.

In general, the concentration of wading birds was low throughout the day. The only large numbers were from a distant rookery before dawn, as they dispersed. There were just two wading birds at Wesley Chapel District Park. A Great Egret and a Glossy Ibis were quietly feeding in a small wetland area.

A Glossy Ibis, looking a bit less than glossy, over the winter.
A really great Great Egret!

The goal of any count is to see as many birds of as many species as possible. To achieve this birders, of course, use skill, patience, and optics. But there is an even greater urge than usual to “pish” at birds to get them to come out into the open or to use recordings. It is much easier in these days of smartphones to get high quality recordings of almost any bird to draw it out. And it’s not just the recording of the target bird. Some birders use the distress calls of other birds (the Tufted Titmouse is a favorite among eastern birders) or even predator calls, such as screech owls. There’s an always ongoing debate as to how much of this is necessary or causing stress/harm to the birds. It’s generally accepted that the least one uses these measures the better, but it can be hard when doing something like a CBC or a paid field-trip.

Hermit Thrushes were among the birds pulled into clear view due to the persistent playing of an Eastern Screech Owl recording.

Our group made a lot of use of titmouse and screech owl recordings to lure birds out. We relied on it much more than I am comfortable with, but probably did no permanent harm to the birds in the areas in which we used them.

Eastern Bluebirds are normally birds of open or semi-open country, but our recordings lured more than a few into more wooded areas to see what the hubbub was about.

We ended the day with a walk through an old field, looking for sparrows in the brush and weeds and then circling back to McKendree road for a final look for ducks and shorebirds at pond we had scoped out earlier in the day. Throughout most of the day, Dave Goodwin had been commenting on us not having seen a Northern Harrier. By sundown, we still hadn’t seen one. But as I made one last scan in the fading light, I caught one in my binoculars skimming low over the fields. I found it fitting that I found the bird that way. On my first field trip with Dave at the Space Coast festival, our group was heading home in the tour bus, going over our day’s list. The only hoped for or expected bird we didn’t have was a Northern Harrier. Just after Dave commented on how nice it would be to have that bird before we arrived back at the festival HQ, I looked out the window and there was a Northern Harrier, about to fly over the road. “You mean, like that one?” I said to him. It was a cool moment.

For the so-inclined, here are all the eBird lists for our stops. If you poke around eBird, you’ll see Erik’s lists too, which differ slightly from mine. This isn’t for lack of trust or disagreement, it’s that sometimes we were looking in slightly different areas and saw different birds.

Tyndall Road Marsh: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S33203139
McKendree Road: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S33205152
Wesley Chapel District Park: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S33206770
Mariners Harbour Drive: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S33210038
Wesley Chapel-Overpass Road: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S33207398
Tyndall Road: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S33209070
Tyndall Road Curved Woods: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S33210011
Kenton Road: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S33210738
Old Pasco Road Sparrow Field: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S33212110
Hadlock Drive: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S33212564
Gray Catbird Loop: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S33242919
Wesley Chapel School complex: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S33242790
Bridgewater Development: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S33242525
McKendree Road, across from pond: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S33242994

I would have liked to stay for the end of the day count up from all the teams in the CBC circle, but I had a 2+ hour drive ahead of me. So I said my good-byes and headed home. Birding with Dave is always fun and informative. CBC days are long. You have to drive, walk, talk and share with people for hours, and sometimes the birds are less than cooperative. Birders, as a general rule, get along pretty well. After all, we’re united by this passion for birds. But having Dave head up a team is special, and all four of us did pretty well, and had fun doing it.