Gearing Up For What’s Next!

It’s been time to take a breath and a pause, here at Lonely Birder Central. I just completed the Freshwater Systems core module for the Florida Master Naturalist Program. Part of that course were group projects that we presented on our last day of class (“graduation day”). There were some really spectacular presentations; we have everything from Freshwater Systems Jeopardy to video productions.

The group I was a member of did a signage proposal for the Moccasin Island Tract/Lake Winder. Readers of this blog will remember that the Moccasin Island Tract is part of the River Lakes Conservation Area in Brevard County, and site of several Lonely Birder adventures!

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Our project group: Brian Bowers, Jim Higham, Jolyn Rozzo, Lucy (not pictured), and me (also not pictured).
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Working our way through the Oak Hammock Trail (this is one of the drier sections).

Our group’s presentation is embedded below. It’s a little rough around the edges, and it remains to be seen if the St. Johns River Water Management District wants to use anything we’d produce. The point of the project, of course, was not to necessarily have anything accepted or officially approved, but to get out and experience Florida’s freshwater systems (lakes, rivers, springs, swamps, and marshes) and work together.

I can’t link to everyone’s presentation, but the videos produced by Curtis Whitwam and Peggy McGrath were well done. They are meant to be used at nature or environmental education centers. They are concise and informative. It’s amazing what a little GoPro will do.

Allison Arteaga made a watercoloring book that anyone can download and put together of various freshwater wetland animals and plants. Allison is (among other things) the Lagoon Restoration Specialist at the Brevard Zoo. I’ll try to link to the files when she gets them uploaded and ready.

Now that the module is over, it’s time to both consider my next move in the FMNP, and of course, to get back to some regular birding! Migrants and spring/summer residents are already starting to move through the state. In fact, Swallow-tailed Kites and Great Crested Flycatchers have been reported as far north as Daytona Beach and Lake County.

I’m ready and excited for the Spring. I have trips to south Florida planned for this month, and we have the Florida Ornithological Society’s Spring Meeting in April. I also hope to make it out to Ft. De Soto in April and there’s the Global Big Day in May.

I hope to see you here in these virtual pages!

Transitions, Part I: Moccasin Island Tract

October in Florida is a time of transition. Florida has two dominant seasons: the wet season, which runs from May to October, and the dry season, which runs from October to May. The division between the wet and dry seasons is usually fairly predictable and quick. Sometime within the second week of October the humid and rainy pattern of the summer ends and the air masses tend to be drier. That isn’t to say we still can’t have some days with rain, but generally that is the trend. We seem to have crossed over this past weekend into that dry season.

This month is also the peak month for bird migration through the central part of the state, and many of Florida’s winter residents are beginning to set up house and gather in places where food and shelter are plentiful.

My goal, initially, was to head to Viera and check out the Click Ponds to see if any waterfowl or shorebirds have begin to congregate, but the gate to the roadway to the ponds was closed, and it remained so all morning. I used that as an opportunity to head to the Moccasin Island Tract for an hour or so. Interested readers can check out my blog posts here and here for previous adventures to this conservation area.

On the way along the road toward the parking area a large white bird caught my eye, far off in one of the fields (I think much of the area is a sod farm). The shape didn’t look right for an egret, but it didn’t seem tall enough to be a Whooping Crane. While we do have Whoopers in central Florida, associated with the Deseret Ranch, it would be quite a “thing” if one were to turn up in Viera! I stopped the car and took out my binoculars and had a look. It was an American White Pelican, standing by itself on a patch of sod. There were no other pelicans anywhere that I could see. As I watched it preen a little and look around, I wondered if it was tired and just plopped itself down wherever it could as I’ve never seen a pelican either not flying or floating.

I arrived at the parking area with the sun still pretty low, but it was warming up fairly quickly. I was first greeted, as I usually am at this location, by the singing of Eastern Meadowlarks. The fields adjacent to the dirt road leading north from the parking area were still covered in standing water from all the rain we had in last few weeks, and I flushed a couple of Wilson’s Snipes as I walked along.

Most of the fence posts were occupied by Tri-colored Herons, who nervously watched me go past.

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Herons sometimes strike the goofiest of poses, thanks in part to their long and flexible necks. Standing on one foot only added to this bird’s charm.

Further in the flooded fields were congregations of Great Egrets and both White and Glossy Ibises. Occasionally two or three ibises would take off and fly in a big circle around the fields and then land back with the group.

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Herons and egrets are usually silent, except for alarm calls when startled or otherwise flushed out. When they are in groups like this, they have a surprisingly varied set of vocalizations.

I didn’t walk far up that particular path, since I wanted to explore along the drainage canal and road to the west of the parking area. As I walked back, a small flock of Bobolinks flew past. These had been reported over a week ago on the BRDBRAIN e-mail list, but I figured they were gone, so that was a pleasant surprise.

As I approached the parking area, I could hear American Crows and a Red-shouldered Hawk nearby. There were Belted Kingfishers chasing each other around as well. Some Red-shouldered Hawks in Florida are of a paler form that I don’t usually see until winter. This one may have just gotten its adult feathers.

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This bird seemed inexperienced and a little clumsy, despte the adult plumage.

Along the path to the west, my presence stirred up some Northern Cardinals and some scolding notes that later turned out to be House Wrens. None of that ruffled the feathers (actually or metaphorically) of this Loggerhead Shrike.

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Shrike populations are declining in many areas around east central Florida as we pave over more of their preferred habitat. It’s good to see them holding their own in conservation areas like this and Stick Marsh.

Along with the quite agitated House Wrens was this handsome Common Yellowthroat that popped out to check me out for a few seconds before disappearing back into the dense brush.

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“Peek-a-boo! I see you! Now go away!”

Whenever I’m birding I try to stay in the habit of looking up now and again to see what might be there. This is particularly useful in catching raptors or other soaring birds that might be circling on thermals high overhead. This time I was surprised by a relatively large flock of Roseate Spoonbills. Normally I only see one or two at a time, so I felt this was a real treat.

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Roseate Spoonbills doing the Missing Man Formation.

No birding trip in east central Florida would be complete without those tiny bundles of energy, the Blue-grey Gnatcatchers. This is one of several that was scolding me along with the House Wrens and Northern Cardinals.

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Ever-present and always fun to watch!

I soon found my path blocked by a submerged section of the path with no way around it. Forced to turn back, I flushed some Common Ground Doves from the brush edges and watched some Blue Jays harass the Red-shouldered Hawk.

Before getting in the car to head to the wetlands, I watched a pair of American Crows walk through the parking area and saw an Eastern Phoebe perform some impressive acrobatics in pursuit of food. At the top of a palm tree stood this Great Blue Heron, a fitting end to the first part of my day.

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Looking far more serious and determined than its smaller cousin at the start of this post, this Great Blue Heron had a commanding view of the landscape.

Here’s the complete species list, including those from the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera, which you’ll get to see in part 2.

  • American White Pelican
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Mourning Dove
  • Common Grackle
  • Tree Swallow
  • Purple Martin
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Great Blue Heron
  • American Crow
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Bobolink
  • Wilson’s Snipe
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Great Egret
  • White Ibis
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Roseate Spoonbill
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • House Wren
  • Northern Cardinal
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Grey Catbird
  • Common Ground Dove
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Blue Jay
  • Green Heron
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Osprey
  • Anhinga
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • American Coot
  • Common Gallinule
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Snowy Egret
  • American Kestrel
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Wood Stork

Click here for Part II: Viera Wetlands

Walk It Off

This past Sunday I decided to do my birding at the Moccasin Island Tract at the River Lakes Conservation area. In all my past visits here, I’ve headed south from the parking area and walked about a mile or so before turning back. I’ve generally avoided the northern trail because it leads to a hunting area in the Upper St. Johns Marsh WMA. But since (according to the post at the trailhead) no hunting is in season this time of year, I decided to head north.

Much of the Moccasin Tract is owned by the St. Johns River Water Management District and leased by the Duda cattle ranch, and they manage the conservation land jointly. (By the way, the Duda company also develops and manages Viera, FL.)

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A Duda cow watches, not impressed.

The first birds I heard were the ever present Eastern Meadowlarks and some American Crows (not Fish Crows!) in the distance. The crows only briefly appeared close enough for me to see once, otherwise they were content to stay well to my west. The meadowlarks were singing on prominent perches like fence posts and wires.

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As Ann Wilson says, “Sing, child, sing!”

Further along the trail, I saw a fawn poke out of some brush onto the path briefly before ducking back in. A couple of minutes later, it came out again, but this time turned toward me and started walking in my direction! There were no adult deer anywhere to be seen, and I stood still as it came closer. It eventually got to within 7 or 8 meters of me before stopping.

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A curious fawn.

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I didn’t want to fawn all over it, scaring it away.

Finally when it was just a few meters away, an adult (Mom, I suspect) came out of the brush and was not pleased her baby was so close. She made a snorting sound before bounding across the trail and over the barbed-wire fence, stopping to look back.

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Mom nervously looks on.

Finally after another squeaky snort, the fawn found a low spot along the barbed-wire and leaped across, and mother and baby bounded off into the brush and trees to the east.

The northern trail is about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) long, and I thought I stopped about half-way. Later when I consulted an online map, I realized I walked almost to the end of the trail near Lake Winder. That made my total walking distance over 8 kilometers (5 miles)! If I had known I was that close to the end of the trail and the lake, I would have gone the extra distance, but in the end, I wound up pretty sore.

I stopped at a couple of points on the trail where there were copses of trees. A pair of Downy Woodpeckers were tapping around some palm trees in one area, and another larger grove of Live Oaks was sheltering some Northern Mockingbirds, Northern Cardinals and at least one Carolina Wren.  

There were many Cattle Egrets, as you might expect on a cattle ranch. In addition, I saw or heard a couple of dozen other species typical of eastern central Florida.

  1. Wood Stork
  2. Mourning Dove
  3. Cattle Egret
  4. Great Blue Heron
  5. Black-bellied Whistling Duck
  6. Common Ground Dove
  7. Great Egret
  8. Eastern Meadowlark
  9. Boat-tailed Grackle
  10. Common Grackle
  11. Red-winged Blackbird
  12. Pileated Woodpecker (♫)
  13. Northern Cardinal
  14. Carolina Wren
  15. Northern Parula (♫)
  16. Downy Woodpecker
  17. Red-shouldered Hawk
  18. Northern Mockingbird
  19. Northern Bobwhite (♫)
  20. Black Vulture
  21. Turkey Vulture
  22. Tri-colored Heron
  23. Snowy Egret
  24. Glossy Ibis
  25. Black-necked Stilt
  26. Mottled Duck
  27. Little Blue Heron
  28. White Ibis

It ended up being a long walk, but it wasn’t as hot as last week. Despite the sore legs and feet, it was a fine morning.

Return to Moccasin Island (and Viera Wetlands)

It’s about 10 months since I last visited the Moccasin Island Tract, so I thought it was a good place to resume my post-festival birdwatching. It also gave me another opportunity to check out the “Dan Click ponds” adjacent to the Viera Wetlands property.

By far the most numerous bird species on the ponds were Green-winged Teals. There were also many Blue-winged Teals, and a smattering of dowitchers, American Avocets, White Pelicans, and some other shore birds and gulls.

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Green-winged Teals (with some Blue-winged Teals nearby).

Both yesterday and a previous “drive by” of the ponds were curious to me in that the “first” pond (the southernmost one) was devoid of any visible bird life, while the “second” pond seemed almost overcrowded (especially when I drove by them a couple of weeks ago).

The Click ponds are a great place to see wintering shorebirds and ducks, but since I hadn’t made time to stop there this winter, I know I missed some rarer sightings.

The drive to the Moccasin Island Tract is on a 3 mile dirt road along ranch land and through some wooded areas. This afforded some diverse species to see in a short time-frame.

First, over the roadway and some adjacent fields a trio of immature Bald Eagles were playing and squabbling in the air. They even knocked each other out of the sky a couple of times.

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“Hey! No fair knocking me down! MOM!”

There were quite a few Sandhill Cranes, too. Mostly in pairs (more on that later). These cranes are so habituated to humans in this area now that it’s possible to get amazingly close. Large birds like cranes can really reinforce the notion that we are in fact living with dinosaurs.

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Welcome to Quaternary Park!

The fence-line between the road and the ranch lands had Eastern Phoebes spaced at regular intervals. This would seem to indicate that Eastern Phoebes are territorial outside of the breeding season.

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Eastern Phoebe, king (or queen) of all it surveys…

Driving into the Moccasin Island Tract, I was greeted by this Turkey Vulture, doing its best to emulate and old western scene. The only thing missing was the cow skull laying on the ground.

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Over here’s we have The Last Chance Saloon, and Next To The Last Chance Saloon...”

I saw a few American Kestrels, including one right by the parking area. Its presence seemed to keep the robins away (though there were dozens further inside the tract to the south).

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American Kestrel.

Just like last year the Eastern Meadowlark was the bird of the day. They could be seen and heard singing everywhere. Their song is very beautiful and flute-like, though not as ethereal as some thrushes’ songs.

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Like orioles, meadowlarks are colorful relatives of blackbirds.

There is a Bald Eagle nest on the property, though I don’t know if it is where the three juvenile eagles I saw earlier were hatched and raised. One adult eagle was nearby, watching over the fields. I like to think it was the young eagles’ mom, basically enjoying some alone time while the kids roughhoused down the road.

On the way back out of the tract I saw this Loggerhead Shrike. Right after taking this photograph, it almost succeeded in catching a Yellow-rumped Warbler. Another reminder that these handsome birds are lethal carnivores.

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Loggerhead Shrikes are sometimes called Butcherbirds.

February is springtime in Florida, and many of the overwintering birds are starting to gather and head north. We’ve had rising pollen levels for weeks now, and buds are forming on the trees (in fact, the tree in our front yard is already starting to show leaves).

As I mentioned above, the Sandhill Cranes were seen all over the area, pairing up and starting their nesting behaviors. But perhaps the best evidence for Florida Spring yesterday was at the Ritch Grissom Wetlands. There were hundreds of herons and egrets along the pond and marsh edges, many of them showing breeding plumes and lancet feathers. Some were beginning territorial squabbles, too. It was fun watching the herons jostle each other and the numerous ibises and Wood Storks that were also trying stake out areas along the water’s edge.

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This Great Blue Heron is getting ready for Valentine’s Day.

The winter resident warblers are still here, though. Here you can see why Yellow-rumped Warblers have their common name, and are nick-named Butter Butts. The Yellow-rumps outnumbered the Palm Warblers, actually.

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Some warblers have the most descriptive names…

Some of the Pied-billed Grebes were showing their breeding plumage as well. In winter the dark bill stripe (making it “pied-billed”) is obscured and their plumage tends to be browner. Here you can see a grayer, more “pied-billed” grebe.

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Pied-billed does not mean these birds eat pastries.

A great aspect of the wetlands in Viera is how close you can sometimes get to the wildlife. I was able to take this photograph of a male Blue-winged Teal just after he and his mate came up from dabbling at the edge of the pond. I love how you can see the water beading up on his feathers as it runs off his bill.

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Facing off with a Blue-winged Teal.

A large mixed flock of gulls and terns was also enjoying the day. They’d alternate between rafting together on the pond and then rising up, diving for fish. The Common Terns were the most numerous, along with a few Forster’s Terns and Bonaparte’s Gulls.

Birds seen yesterday:

  • Sandhill Crane
  • Bald Eagle
  • Green-winged Teal
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • American Avocet
  • White Pelican
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Bonaparte’s Gull
  • Ring-necked Duck
  • American Coot
  • Common Gallinule
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Snowy Egret
  • Great Egret
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Northern Shoveler
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Wood Stork
  • Anhinga
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • American Robin
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Cattle Egret
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Black Vulture
  • White Ibis
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Common Tern
  • Forster’s Tern
  • Long-billed Dowitcher
  • Mute Swan
  • American Kestrel
  • Mourning Dove

All things considered, it was a lovely day in and around Viera. I expect the birding landscape will be rapidly changing over next few weeks as we head toward the spring migration in March.