SCBWF 2018: Friday

[Note: With the loss of my PC, I’ll be authoring and uploading photos through my tablet. This means most of my upcoming posts may be brief and with fewer and/or smaller photos. Posting frequency may also be affected.]

February 6, 2018

The Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival is now past over a week and a half, and as its memory fades, I will try to get some more thoughts and photos down.

Shiloh Marsh

My first official field trip was the Mitchell Harris-led Shiloh’s Sharptails, Marsh Birds and More. For as long as I’ve been bird watching, I still struggle with sparrow identification, so any opportunity to find them with as an accomplished birder as Mitchell Harris, has got to be taken!

We started our hike through the Shiloh Marsh, a salt marsh area that marks the northern end of the Indian River Lagoon and the border between Brevard and Volusia Counties.

As with most festival trips these days, I was birding with my friend Camille. In was also joined with my friends Sarah and Bella for their first festival trip.

We set out through the salt marsh before dawn, so I left my camera in the vehicle. The going through the tangle of dead marsh grass and other vegetation made it a tough slog out to where we were most likely to see either Nelson’s Sparrows or Saltmarsh Sparrows. Hurricane Irene’s effects killed back a large amount of the vegetation, so we had to hike out quite a distance to suitable habitat. But it was worth it. After scaring up some Marsh and Sedge Wrens, we finally managed to get at least one Nelson’s and a few Saltmarsh Sparrows to quickly pop up and look around before dashing back in the thick grasses. It was a breezy morning, so the birds were reluctant to stay out in the open for long, but most of us got at least a few decent looks at these birds.

We then hiked back to the dike road that separates the marsh from the lagoon, and walked another several miles, as the wind picked up but the sun warmed things up.

Looking out over Shiloh Marsh toward the lagoon side of Canaveral National Seashore.

At first the birding was a little slow – the wind was really keeping the marsh birds out of the open. Eventually some shorebirds were seen feeding down on the leeward (downwind) sides of the dike road, including both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.

The larger, middle three birds are Greater Yellowlegs, the small bird on the right is a Lesser Yellowlegs. Besides the size difference (not always evident if both species aren’t near each other), see the difference in bill length in proportion to the head. The Greater Yellowlegs’ bills also look slightly upturned.


We also managed to see some Least Sandpipers and a Long-billed Dowitcher along the same stretch of mud and sand. Eventually, as we hiked the dike road back, more waders started congregating in the marsh, including some very color-saturated Roseate Spoonbills.

A congregation of “typical” waders: Roseate Spoonbills, Snowy Egrets, and White and Glossy Ibises. After living in Florida for 15 years, it’s easy to forget how exotic these species are to out of state visitors, especially from more northern climes.

After finally making it back to the vehicle (Mitchell and most of the other birders had gone ahead to get to scheduled workshops and other events), we headed over to Festival HQ at Eastern Florida State College, in Titusville [map].

When all was said and done for the Shiloh Sparrows trip, we got about 65 species, including a couple of lifers!

Chain of Lakes Park

After some classroom presentations, including a surprisingly informative talk on photography while birding, the four of us (me, Camille, Sarah, and Bella) met up and headed over to Chain of Lakes Park, just behind the EFSC campus.

We saw a decent array of species, including a nesting Great Horned Owl on an Osprey platform. An owl raised chicks there last year as well, so this may be the same owl. It peered over the edge of the nest at us a few times.

The ponds in the park had a smattering of ducks, including Lesser and Greater Scaups, and a rather large assemblage of Fish Crows. One female Painted Bunting added a little more variety to our hike as we wound down to get home for the evening.

Here are our eBird lists for the day.

Shiloh Marsh:

Chain of Lakes Park:

A successful if tiring day, but that’s the way it is on SCBWF days!

SCBWF 2018: Thursday

January 30, 2018

[Note: With the loss of my PC, I’ll be authoring and uploading photos through my tablet. This means most of my upcoming posts may be brief and with fewer and/or smaller photos]

Another Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival is in the proverbial rear view mirror, as the region turns to Spring.

I scaled back my activities this year, but the two main field trips were new for me. They also had the bonus of being led by Mitchell Harris, one of the most proficient birders in the area.

But first, on Thursday, Camille and I did an “unofficial” field trip to the T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area. In our quest for ducks and perhaps a Snail Kite, we ran into one of the largest gatherings of shorebirds I’ve seen in recent years. Besides the ones recorded in our lists, there were thousands of shorebirds in flocks too distant to identify. There were also hundreds of Glossy Ibises and many herons and egrets.

Open freshwater marsh with areas of open water and small grassy islets with yellow flowers and taller tussocks. Palmettos in the distance, with a pale blue sky with a translucent altocumulus cloud layer.
The broad expanses of T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area provide habitat for more than just waterfowl. Many types of animals depend on the marsh for feeding and breeding.

Here are a few photos from that trip.

A Red-shouldered Hawk sitting on a small stump, facing to its right, with a background of twigs and branches from low bushes.
This Red-shouldered Hawk is a northern visitor, as you can tell from its darker, more saturated colors. Compare it with the pale, local form in the photo below.
A pale
Local Red-shouldered Hawks tend be be pale and less saturated, with a much grayer look than their northern counterparts.
A Snow Egret walking away from the camera, in the right half of the photograph. The bottom of one of its bright yellow feet is displayed as it walked through mud and shallow water.
A Snowy Egret, showing one of its “golden slippers”, which it is believed to use to help stir up prey in shallow water.

This adventure set us up for “official” trips over the next two days, with more “unofficial” stops along the way. This Festival was strange for me, not only due to my scaling back – which included not scheduling the pelagic boat trip for the first time in years – but also not seeing many of the friends I know from around the state, as many of them were on day-long trips every day.

Here is the eBird list for T.M. Goodwin plus a couple from a side excursion along Buffer Preserve Road, at the St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park.

T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area-Original Unit:

T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area-Broadmoor Unit:

St. Sebastian River Preserve SP-Northwest:

St. Sebastian River Preserve SP-Northeast:

Stay tuned for some photos and words from Shiloh Marsh, Canaveral National Seashore, and MINWR.

SCBWF 2017 Day 2: Central Florida Specialties

My second (and longest) field trip this year was the Central Florida Specialties trip, led by my friend Dave Goodwin. I’ve done this trip several times, though I skipped it last year. The trip includes stops in many different habitats in Osceola County.

It was one of the coldest mornings of the season as we began, before dawn, to find Red-cockaded Woodpeckers at Three Lakes WMA [map].

Sunrise over the pine flatwoods.

Although we arrived at our target area before sunrise, the woodpeckers were already active, flying low among the trees making their squeak-toy calls to one another. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are cooperative, family nesters. Previous years’ offspring help parents raise the current brood in a territory, helping with things like feeding and defense.

The white cheek-patch on this species is a “diagnostic” field-mark. No other small woodpecker in North America has this feature. The tiny red “cockade” feathers on the side of the head are nearly impossible to see in the field.
As the sun came up, it got easier to see the birds, and they were fairly unconcerned with our proximity.

As the sun climbed higher and the temperature (slowly) with it, other birds of the pine flatwoods began to stir. We got a few Brown-headed Nuthatches, Eastern Bluebirds, and perhaps an Eastern Towhee call or two.

Our other target species for the day in the flatwoods was the Bachman’s Sparrow. Late January is still a little early for this species to begin singing for mates and territory, but we tried calling them out a few times, with no success. I did hear one very distant song as we were beginning to move out and back to our group’s bus, but that was all.

Our next stop was at Lake Jackson [map]. We did not stay long. The wind was blowing from the north across the lake, creating a natural air conditioner. It was cold enough to start with, and that just made it almost impossible to stand and scope out the lake for birds. After just a few minutes, Dave got us back in the bus for the next stop, out of the wind!

Lake Jackson.

After a brief stop on Prairie Lake Road to call for Bachman’s Sparrows again (to no avail), we headed to a couple of stops on Lake Marian

At the marina [map] there were hundreds of Tree Swallows swarming around, providing a backdrop for some of the more dramatic species, like Limpkins, American White Pelicans, Bald Eagles, and even a pair of Bonaparte’s Gulls.

Limpkins were relatively abundant, not just at this stop, but throughout the festival.


The proportions of the American White Pelican, when swimming or on the ground, can seen quite awkward.
Once airborne, pelicans are surprisingly graceful birds.

At the boat ramp [map] on the lake, we had a pair of Baltimore Orioles feeding among Yellow-rumped Warblers and American Robins. The vegetation that provided both food and concealment for these smaller birds was also the day roost for at least one Black-crowned Night Heron.

A Black-crowned Night Heron hiding out.

After wrapping up at Lake Marian, we headed down Joe Overstreet Road to the Landing, on the shore of Lake Kissimmee [map]. As you head along the road, toward the lake, the habitat changes from upland and ranch agriculture to wetlands and lacustrine (that means “lake related”) landscapes.

Adult Red-headed Woodpeckers really stand out, even from a distance!

There is usually a family of Red-headed Woodpeckers near the start of the road, associated with some dead trees and farm buildings. We did not see them at first, but at least one adult came out to investigate some woodpecker calls we played.

Further along, we had a few raptors, including a Bald Eagle harassing an American Kestrel on some irrigation equipment. The lands on either side of the road are still owned by the Overstreet family and include cattle and sod farms.

Down by the water, the wind wasn’t as bad as earlier at Lake Jackson, but it was still a bit breezy. Some Wilson’s Snipes were slinking along nearby in the grass while Boat-tailed Grackles made a racket at the boat dock.

One of the nearby Wilson’s Snipes, probing the wet ground for insects. Note the large, invasive Apple Snail in the foreground. These are much larger than our native snails, but the Limpkins and Snail Kites seem to enjoy them.

A single distant Snail Kite was seen in one of the spotting scopes, and one Bald Eagle, too. There were a few wading and diving birds out on the water, but nothing in very large numbers except for a flock of Cattle Egrets that made its way through.

An Anhinga drying its wings among the lily pads.

From Joe Overstreet we briefly stopped by the Double C Bar ranch [map], where the last known non-migratory Florida Whooping Crane sometimes hangs out. It was not seen, and Dave Goodwin talked a bit about how the non-migratory flock was a failed experiment, with most of the birds succumbing to bobcats and other predators. The focus now is on the migratory flock that winters in the panhandle and flies to Wisconsin in the spring.

Our last stop of the day, at Lakefront Park on East Lake Tohopekaliga [map]. This place is known to have Snail Kites that pass close to the park and restaurant, and we hoped to get some good views. Unfortunately the weather got windier and colder, and a few of us got only one extremely distant view of a Snail Kite in one scope.


Boat-tailed Grackles defying the wind.
Not a Snail Kite.

That was about it for the trip. We headed back to Festival HQ after a long but fun day around central Florida. We didn’t get all our “hoped for” birds, but honestly, that’s only a small disappointment for me. We have to remember the birds are not there for us; we have the privilege to go and seek them out, but it has to be on their terms as much as possible. Conservation and education should take precedence over consumption and exploitation.

SCBWF 2016 Field Trips! Days 4-6

Picking up from days 1-3, here are the remaining SCBWF 2016 field trips I had this year. The weather continued to be cold and windy, though the rain moved out for the second half of the festival. Now that I’ve gotten over my cold and sorted through the past couple of weeks, here are the rest of my field trip experiences.

DAY 4:
Zellwood/Lake Apopka

This is the second year in a row that I’ve done the Lake Apopka trip for the festival [map]. This year was similar to last year in several respects. Firstly, we had Gian Basili leading us, again. He’s been working on the North Shore Restoration Project for the St. Johns River Water Management District for years, and he has an intimate knowledge of the lake and its history. Secondly, the weather was terrible again, for birding, this year. Although we didn’t have the apocalyptic morning conditions from last year (rain squalls and thunder), we did have a cold and quite windy day, which kept many of the birds hunkered down or otherwise out of sight.

Much of the birding was done from inside the bus, along the Wildlife Drive. We did get out occasionally, but not nearly as much as last year. I was at the rear of the bus, in the middle of the final, bench seat, which made some observations challenging. Camille was at the front of the bus, and I am glad to say she had a good experience, since she was able to get tips and converse with Gian and with Nancy McAllister, the co-leader.

Nancy is doing a “Mom’s Big Year,” and will be blogging her travels. Please have a look in from time to time to see her adventures!

While the same trip for the previous two days garnered over 90 different bird species, the wind kept our trip total to a lower (but still respectable, to me) total of 71 species.

Highlights included a couple of Fulvous Whistling-Duck flocks, some nice looks at Northern Harriers, and a single Yellow Warbler – a rarity – responding to some recorded calls played by David Hartgrove.

After the Wildlife Drive, we drove over into Lake County (The Wildlife Drive is in Orange County) to some other properties managed by the SJRWMD, including the abandoned pole barn to look for Barn Owls, and areas near the Apopka-Beauclair Lock and Dam. We ended the trip on a wonderful note. A young birder named Noah had been fighting sleep all afternoon, and had apparently nodded off by the window on the bus. As we were driving out way out past a small pond, he woke up and immediately announced, “Wilson’s Snipe!” We all scrambled for a look and there were no less than a dozen Wilson’s Snipes (I personally only saw seven of them) around the edges of the pond. If he had opened his eyes just a couple of seconds later, we would never have seen them. Great job, Noah!

eBird list (Wildlife Drive):

eBird list (Ranch Rd./Clay Section):

Sams House Owl Prowl

The fourth and final night-hike of the festival was the much anticipated Sams House Owl Prowl [map]. For some reason this trip was not offered last year, but two years ago was a highlight of my festival experience. I knew there would undoubtedly be changes, but I was hopeful for another good hike. This year, they had an owl rehabilitator, Susan Boorse, show us a couple of her “owl ambassadors” and talk about her experiences as wildlife rehabilitator and share her knowledge of owls. It was an educational and enlightening experience, and a good addition to this particular trip. A group of students doing some sort of special “semester” for a month were also present, and the trip leaders had an insect expert on hand, too. Unfortunately, the weather was cold and windy (a theme for a good chunk of this festival). We did hear the resident Barred Owl pair call, in the distance, a couple of times before we started hiking, but after that, I believe it was just too windy.

Once the hike started, the trip seemed to unravel. Instead of stopping to do any interpretation or talk about the owls and the night-time ecology of the area, we silently walked a short loop trail. The line of us stopped a few times, but I never knew why. I heard nothing from the trip leaders, and as we emerged from the woods, half the group walked in one direction, toward a fire-pit and the other back through some darkened outdoor exhibits. I went with this second group, and we stopped and milled around for a few minutes before one of the trip leaders emerged and had us walk to the fire-pit for s’mores. The insect expert had some UV traps set up but, due to the weather, had nothing to show us. Instead of talking to us about insects in general, or pointing out what they do on cold, windy nights, he packed up to leave without a word. If I hadn’t stopped him to mention regrets about the weather, he would have disappeared from the proceedings without a trace!

Camille and I stayed and spoke with a couple of the students for a few minutes, and I did toast a marshmallow. The students were excited for their Florida adventure and were keen on science and nature – which was really good to hear and see. Unfortunately, the “owl prowl” proved to be a bust. Not because we saw no owls, but because there was virtually no leadership or structure to the hike, and almost non-existent communication. I hope, if they offer this trip again next year, they manage to run it more like it was two years ago. It was the only real disappointment of the festival, for me.

DAY 5:
Waterfowl 101

We braved another frigid (for Florida) and windy morning for the Waterfowl 101 field trip and workshop. The initial intent was to have about an hour or so of waterfowl description and identification tips, followed by a drive along Blackpoint Wildlife Drive [map] at Merritt Island to put some of that new knowledge into practice. While certain waterfowl, like Wood Ducks, Northern Shovelers, and Pintails, are easy to identify in the field (especially the males), other species can be trickier, and many of the females look very similar. I was hoping to get a little more help in duck identification. The weather had other plans. Since it was so cold and windy, it was decided we’d drive Blackpoint first, getting some of the tips and advice en route, then have the proper lecture at the end.

Northern Shovelers are among the more distinctive looking ducks.

As well as various duck species, including many dozens of Northern Pintails and the most Redheads I’ve seen in one place, we also had some good looks at American Avocets and some resting Long-billed Dowitchers. In fact, Murray Gardler had quite few good pointers for dowitcher identification that I’ll be sure to use from now on!

Further on, after exiting Blackpoint, we went on to an area along the main road to look at a large assemblage of American Wigeons. In past years, wigeons tended to congregate near the exit-end of Blackpoint, staying far away from the vista points, just within my binoculars’ range. This time they were much closer, though the screening vegetation made it hard to get long looks.

A group of American Wigeons. These birds constantly call to each other with cute “peeps,” making for a noisy chatter as hundreds talk at once.

We scanned as many areas along the road with openings in the vegetation to see if any Eurasian Wigeons were present. Murray said that it’s not unusual for some small percentage of Eurasian varieties to be present, so with so many wigeons, it was statistically likely some were there. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any.

At that point we were given the option to stay for the lecture session originally planned for the morning, or to go on. It was still very wind and a bit cool, so Camille and I decided to end the trip.

eBird list (Blackpoint Wildlife Drive):

Shiloh Marsh Road (unofficial)

After lunch, it was time for an unofficial side trip to Shiloh Marsh Road [map]. I was hopeful of catching either Nelson’s Sparrows or Saltmarsh Sparrows, both of which are often recorded along the road.

There was a good variety of what are sometimes referred to as “the usual suspects,” egrets, herons, ibises, coots, etc., but no sparrows. A nice group of herons and Roseate Spoonbills were along Coot Creek, and near the end of the marsh, where Turnbull Creek empties into the Indian River Lagoon, there were some Forster’s Terns, American White Pelicans, and some Belted Kingfishers.

eBird list:

Chain of Lakes Park (unofficial)

Lastly, before the end of the day, Camille and I did a quick run through Chain of Lakes Park [map], just behind the Festival headquarters. There, I saw my first Canada Geese in Florida, as well as a nice variety of other birds (see the eBird list).

A female Belted Kingfisher, seen from an observation tower at Chain of Lakes Park.

eBird list:

It was a decent end to the final official day of the festival. At this point most of the vendors and presenters had packed up and many people were headed home. The off-shore boat trip (formerly known as the Pelagic Birding Trip) is always the day after the official festival, and with no night-hike scheduled, it was good to get some good rest before what is usually my favorite trip of the festival.

DAY 6:
Offshore Birding Boat Trip

This trip was highly anticipated by me and many others. Last year, due to gale-force winds off-shore, the boat trip stayed close to shore, and we had thousands of birds (mostly Northern Gannets) and several whales! This, combined with past complaints of “hours of boredom punctuated by a flurry of blurry binocular views” prompted a change in the program. Instead of a twelve-hour trip out to the Gulf Stream and back, we had a half-day tour up and down the Volusia County coast [map].

I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I look forward to those twelve-hours each year, and I have had fun every time – no matter what we actually did. But I understand the change and saw it as an experiment to see what works and what doesn’t.

The results were satisfactory, if not lackluster. The morning was cold but beautiful. Here are some shots as we headed toward Ponce Inlet.

The seas were very calm and there was a bit wind. The temperatures remained cool, so it did get a little chilly when exposed to the combined breeze and boat movement.

This year we seemed to come upon a very large number of Brown Pelicans, many of them immature. They were following shrimp boats along with flocks of gulls. Although we looked for some rarities, like Iceland or Glaucous Gulls, we saw mainly Laughing and Herring Gulls, with a few Ring-billed Gulls.

One of several shrimp boats we encountered. Most of the birds behind the boat are pelicans, while gulls line the rigging.

We had Laurilee Thompson, owner of Dixie Crossroads restaurant and founder of the Festival on board with us, which was fascinating. She knows all the ins-and-outs of shrimp boat operation, and gave us an in-depth explanation, in real-time, of how the boats pull in a a catch and what the birds look for.

The birds have learned the shrimpers’ routine and methods of catching shrimp, so are always near the right place, anticipating their meal.

As is usual for the boat trips, the crew chums the water behind the boat with a mixture of fish parts, fish oil, and popcorn. This is to attract as many birds as possible, who follow the boat, making identification and photographs easier. It also increases the odds of seeing something rare, and also luring is predators, like jaegers, in to steal food from the gulls, pelicans, and gannets.

Birds fill the sky!
Brown Pelican youngsters, settling along the chum line.

I finally did get some good looks at both Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers on this trip. The birds obliged by resting on the water a few times, which made for good binocular views. We saw a few larger pod of dolphins, but no whales this time. On the way back into the inlet, I finally got a glimpse of one of the rare, but usual, Purple Sandpipers than visit the jetty during the winter.

Too soon (for my tastes) we came back to the dock, but I had a lot of fun. I love these trips, and now my appetite is whet for some of the truly pelagic trips the Marine Science Center runs through summer and fall. They go out to the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream and historically have seen a good variety of birds.

eBird list:

Spruce Creek Park (unofficial)

Since it was still afternoon, and it was close by on the way home, Camille and I stopped off at Spruce Creek Park [map] for a quick look for some Clapper Rails and whatever else might be enjoying the day.

The marshes and waters of Spruce Creek Park.

We did hear quite a few rails, though they stayed well concealed. Otherwise, we had a mix of egrets, a good showing of Hooded Mergansers, and a pair of Bald Eagles. A Sharp-shinned Hawk surprised us near the parking area as it chased some American Robins through the woods.

eBird list:

It was then time to get home, with another SCBWF gone. Adjusting to a normal schedule has taken a bit of time, and getting sick didn’t help matters there (although I am truly grateful I didn’t get sick during the festival itself). It’s a bit amusing to me that getting back to work and all that entails has meant better sleep. I am going to think twice (at least!) before scheduling so many night hikes in a row.

In the end, though, it was a success and good fun. I renewed old birding partnerships and friendships and made some new ones. I learn new things each year, even on trips I’ve take before. I am already looking forward to next year’s festival!

SCBWF 2016 Field Trips! Days 1 – 3

The 2016 Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival is over, and it’s time to face the post festival let-down and adjust back to “real life.” I also came down with a severe cold (luckily after the festival!). My apologies for the delay in getting this blog post up.

I had a packed schedule this year. Since I’d had so much fun on the night hikes last year and the year before, I signed up for one each night of the festival. This was great, in theory, but in practice it meant being sleep-deprived for much of the festival. This was Camille’s first festival, so she basically mirrored my schedule.

The weather was quite variable and temperamental all week, and due to a much wetter than average fall and winter, many of the sites had standing water or deep mud that would have otherwise been dry. That made for some fun challenges in getting around the trip sites, but we managed.

I’ll summarize each day/trip here with a few photographs. I had my camera with me most of the time, but with my focus on FOY and life birds, and with some days being rainy and windy, photography was not a great priority for me.

DAY 1:
Lake Monroe

Lake Monroe is one of the many lakes that makes up the St. Johns River system. As such, it is similar in many ways to Lake Jesup and its surroundings. There are hardwood hammocks adjacent to some wet meadows and mudflats, leading to wetlands along the lake’s edge. The wet grassy meadow is grazed by cattle (much like the Marl Bed Flats) which can make for some hazardous going. [MAP]

Could you steer us to the birds?

Most of our trip was along the Brickyard Slough Tract – a sort of side extension of the St. Johns River – and the ranchlands adjacent to some wetlands and some wooded tracts. In the comparatively drier “upland” grassy areas we saw and heard my FOY Sedge Wrens and had some great fly-bys of Pileated Woodpeckers.

Much of the typical habitat we slogged through.

Unfortunately, recent rains (and a wet fall and winter) made much of our going very muddy and difficult to walk through. Our ultimate goal was to make it to Bench Ranch Park, but the going was so difficult that we had to turn back the way we came (no easy feat in itself), and get driven out via park service trucks. Camille almost lost a rubber boot, and one of our trip leaders lost both his shoes twice to the muck.

Other notable bird sightings included a dark morph Red-tailed Hawk, something I’ve never seen before, a pair of Northern Harriers, and a couple of American Kestrels. Chip Clouse, another trip leader, provided the base eBird list for us, linked below.

eBird list:

Hatbill Road Owls

The evening trip for Day 1 was a bus ride/walk along Hatbill Road [map] with Mitchell Harris. The night was a little cool, and we had a cold day previously, but Mitchell was hopeful the owls would be active and responsive to us. He birds the area frequently and has an intimate knowledge of the owl (and other crepuscular/nocturnal birds) species.

At the start of the trip, just after sundown, we played some rail calls near a marsh along the St. Johns River at Hatbill Park. We got some clear replies to both King Rail and Virginia Rail calls! The Virginia Rail calls were a lifer ID for me, but this would be put in a different context later in the week.

We had some good call-backs from the Eastern Screech Owl calls he played, but no response at all from the Barred or Great Horned Owls he knows to be there. We were about to finish the trip, at our last stop,  when we finally got a Eastern Screech Owl to come out and let us spotlight it. This is the first time I’ve actually seen a screech owl in the wild. All my previous IDs are voice only! Camille, a fellow owl-phile, was excited as well, and we did a celebratory fist-bump. That one sighting made the whole trip worth it!

eBird list:

DAY 2:
Tosohatchee I

The second day of field trips started off cool again, and off-an-on rain showers made the birding a challenge. I’d been urged by my friend Sean Reynolds for years to visit the Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area [map], so I made it a priority to do both Tosohatchee trips this year. The park is spectacularly beautiful!

Lake Charlie reflections.

We followed a powerline cut at sunrise, and we got out a few times to see the birds waking up. We were treated to an extended look at a King Rail at the edge of some brushy wetlands, and a great look at a Barred Owl perched in the open after sunrise. We stopped at a bend in the St. Johns River where a small flock of wintering warblers were feeding. We then made our way into the WMA and the various habitats it maintains.

Birding in the rain is difficult and limiting. I didn’t dare have my camera out for most of the time, and keeping my binoculars clear was distracting. Fortunately, many of the birds obliged by being very visible, even to the unaided eyes. We had great looks at Bald Eagles, Purple Gallinules, various woodpecker species, and Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers near Lake Charlie (see photo, above).

A male (note the red cap) Yellow-bellied Sapsucker having breakfast at Tosohatchee WMA.

We generated momentum throughout the day and managed a decent list, despite the weather, and got some good looks at a few of the birds not afraid to brave the intermittent downpours and wind gusts. But there weren’t many large flocks of winter residents hanging around.

Part of a large flock of birders.

eBird list:

Fox Lake Night Hike

The second night-hike of the festival was at Fox Lake Park [map]. I had done this trip last year, and it had been so much fun, I was very keen to try again. On the whole, the trip was quite fun, and we managed to call in a Barred Owl pair and get some good looks at them. My main complaints would be that some of the trip leaders got to talking and gossiping to the point that they were not interpreting the trail or paying close attention to the group behind them. Xavier (whom was a trip leader last year, as well) did manage to give us some good information on the park and its management practices, though.

DAY 3:
Tosohatchee II

The start of the second Tosohatchee trip followed along the powerlines again and down to the St. Johns River. We stopped along the same stretch as the previous day’s trip, listening again for rails and watching as the birds woke up. We heard some King Rails again, and even had some quick views of Marsh Wrens. The biggest excitement for me was my very first look at a Virginia Rail. Although hearing one on the Hatbill Road trip was great, seeing one was a highlight of my entire birding experiences. It’s strikingly orange bill and gray head were beautiful!

We also stopped at the St. Johns river, again. This time, however, we walked along the river to get some better looks at some shorebirds and other activity not visible from the end of the road. One of the park employees who was assisting us got really carried away and excited over hearing some Eastern Meadowlarks (which had been heard the previous morning as well), leading her to keep walking further and further along the river edge, trying to get a look. That sort of energy and happiness is part of what makes birding for some of us so rewarding.

A Great Egret braving the chilly rain at the river’s edge.

The weather was windier and the threat of heavy rain shadowed us throughout the day, but we managed to miss most of the bad weather as the day wore on. We hiked through some pine flatwoods, catching some warblers and even American Goldfinches, here and there.

Drizzly hike through pine flatwoods.

Angel, one of our trip leaders (and his wife, Mariel), tried several times to call out a Bachman’s Sparrow after we heard some tell-tale high pitched call notes. Unfortunately, the flatwoods in this part of the WMA were probably too overgrown to attract these birds. Although managed fire does a lot to keep these habitats better suited for most wildlife in central Florida, it’s hard to keep the Saw Palmettos and other brushy plants from quickly out-competing the wire grasses and other cover Bachman’s Sparrows prefer.

Slightly overgrown pine flatwoods.

While birds are, of course, the highlight of these trips for most of us, the festival is meant to highlight wildlife, in general. When we encounter our non-avian friends it is always fun and often educational. Mariel managed to find this little toad on our way along the path.

An Oak Toad. This guy is nearly full-grown! I had no idea such a small toad existed in Florida.

We emerged at the edge of the woods, back near the powerline cut, and got our first look at some Eastern Bluebirds and a nice flock of Pine Warblers. From there we slogged through some very wet conditions in a cedar dome swamp. The water overtopped my hiking boots, making for a very squishy hike, thereafter.

The rains also started to move in, but we still managed to get some reasonable looks at some more birds, ending the day happy, if a little wet.

eBird list:

Parrish Park (unofficial):

After arriving back at the Eastern Florida State College campus, Camille and I decided to drop by Parrish Park and see if the Long-tailed Duck was there. It had been seen now and again in the weeks leading up to the festival, and some eBird lists had it showing up recently.

Two large groups of resting Black Skimmers and a large number of Ring-billed Gulls made up the majority of birds at the park.

One of the two flocks of Black Skimmers, having a rest out of the wind.
A Ring-billed Gull, walking in the parking area. Note the bright red eye-ring and gape area behind the bill.

One ubiquitous bird in our area that is found near beaches and parking-lots is the Boat-tailed Grackle. I’ve featured them a few times in this blog, but I tend to gloss over them because they are so pervasive. Here are a couple of shots as they braved the high winds. Unlike Common Grackles, where the males and females are quite similar in appearance, Boat-tailed Grackles show much more sexual dimorphism. This is a fancy term meaning the two nominal sexes look different from each other. In this species, the females tend to be a rich brown with darker wings and tails, while the males are larger and an iridescent black.


eBird list:

Enchanted Forest Sanctuary at Night

The third night-hike this year was at the Enchanted Forest Sanctuary. It wasn’t as cold this night as previous ones, making for a more comfortable walk in the woods. Like previous years, this trip was educational and fun. We saw various animal tracks, spotlighted hundreds of spider eyes with our individual flashlilghts, and even got both night-vision and spotlighted views of a Southern Flying Squirrel.

We called in owls, and managed to get really close to an Eastern Screech Owl that even called as we watched. The trip leaders used red lights to spotlight the wildlife here, which differed from both the Hatbill Road and Fox Lake trips, which both used standard, white flashlights. There is a differeing of philosophy when dealing with nocturnal wildlife, and owls in particular. Some people, including experts such as Mitchell Harris, contend that the bright white lights do little to disturb the owls and as long as we keep a reasonable distance (not specified), there should be no ill effects. At EFS, they use red lights. For many animals (most notably, people), red lights result in little loss of low-light vision because it affects the light-sensitive rods in the retina the least. Whether or not this is true for owls, I don’t know. As I’ll mention again later, some people don’t spotlight wildlife at all.

In any case, the night went well and seeing another owl up close was a real treat.

That wraps up the first half of my field trips for SCBWF 2016. I’ll summarize the rest, including the much anticipated off-shore (formerly know as pelagic) trip in my next post!


SCBWF 2015 : January 24 : Zellwood & Lake Apopka

Day three of my Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival adventure was squally, rainy and cold (at least by Florida standards). We had a good string of seasonably warm and sunny days leading up to the festival, and the weather basically held until the 23rd, when the wind began to pick up. But the next morning was a bit problematic for our trip to Lake Apopka. We had a few stops along the lake’s restoration areas, but remained huddled near the bus, as a windbreak. These areas were once farmland that the St. Johns River Water Management District purchased to undo years of harm agricultural runoff and other environmental hazards had done to the lake.

As we were leaving the area of the pump house not far from Lust Road, the bus got stuck in some mud. We had been looking for a previously identified White-faced Ibis (unusual for central Florida), and had not been able to find it. As we waited for a person to come and use a nearby bulldozer to pull the bus out, we all scanned the grasses and willows again, and finally someone spotted it in their digiscope! It can be very hard to pick out a White-faced Ibis from a Glossy Ibis, especially in the winter, unless you can get a good look at its eye and lores. So it was fortunate we got stuck, otherwise we would have missed out on a rare bird.

I wasn’t able to take much in the way of photographs due to the weather and bad timing, which is unfortunate. Despite the howling winds, we still managed to see (as a group) over 80 species of birds. We were hoping to see the Groove-billed Anis and Vermillion Flycatchers that have been wintering over at the lake, but the wind likely kept them grounded and out of sight.

One of the few decent photographs I managed to take. I sometimes forget how exotic all this Spanish Moss must look like to people wholly unfamiliar with it. It’s really quite dramatic and ubiquitous here in Florida.

For me, personally, it was very gratifying to get my first verified Orange-crowned Warbler later in the day in a flooded area of young trees and brush near the North Shore Restoration Area.

Again, not so good for photographs, but we netted a great bunch of birds anyway.

Here’s my personal list of birds, in the order of the checklist provided on the field trip:

  • Black-bellied Whistling Duck
  • Gadwall (FOY)
  • American Wigeon
  • Mallard
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Green-winged Teal (FOY)
  • Ring-necked Duck
  • Lesser Scaup
  • Common Goldeneye *
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Wild Turkey
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Wood Stork
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Anhinga
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Cattle Egret
  • Green Heron
  • Black-crowned Night Heron
  • White Ibis
  • Glossy Ibis
  • White-faced Ibis *
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Osprey
  • Bald Eagle
  • Northern Harrier
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk (FOY)
  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • American Kestrel
  • Sora
  • Common Gallinule
  • American Coot
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Killdeer
  • Wilson’s Snipe
  • Laughing Gull
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Mourning Dove
  • Common Ground Dove
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Florida Scrub-Jay
  • American Crow
  • Fish Crow
  • Tree Swallow
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • American Robin
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • European Starling
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Orange-crowned Warbler
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Palm Warbler
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Common Grackle
  • Boat-tailed Grackle

After getting back to EFSC but before heading home, I once again tried to find the Long-tailed Duck near Parrish Park, but the winds were still really screaming (over 30mph) and there were very few birds out on the water.

SCBWF 2015 : January 22 : Diceandra Scrub Sanctuary, Chain of Lakes Park, Fox Lake Park at Night

The Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival kicked off on Wednesday, January 21st, but I didn’t have my first event until Thursday morning. There was a morning excursion to the Diceandra Scrub Sanctuary in Titusville. The main goal of this particular trip was to see the endangered Diceandra Mint (sometimes called the Titusville Mint) which is endemic to the sanctuary. Much of the focus of the trip was on scrub ecology and how it related to the plant’s presence there.

A flock of birders descend on Titusville.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate ecology and biology in general. I’m an environmental geographer and conservationist, but I was there for the birds. Many were singing, and we got some decent views of the Florida Scrub Jays that live on the property. Unlike the jays at either Malabar Scrub Sanctuary or at the Cruickshank Sanctuary, these jays were wary and kept their distance.

Florida Scrub Jay on the lookout
This jay was acting as a sentinel as it’s family members foraged below. The jays insisted on being between us and the sun, making photography a challenge for me.

Our trip leader was very interested in the mushrooms and other fungi we saw, and stopped to explain the various types. I was surprised by how many wild mushrooms are edible, We didn’t come across any overtly poisonous ones, though.

Here’s the list of species identified on the property.

  • Eastern Towhee
  • Blue Jay
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Carolina Wren {♫)
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Fish Crow
  • Florida Scrub Jay
  • Gray Catbird
  • Palm Warbler
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Black Vulture
  • Common Grackle
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • American Robin
  • Common Ground Dove
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Tufted Titmouse

After heading back to Festival HQ (at Eastern Florida State College – Titusville) for a quick lunch, I decided to take a walk to the park area behind campus. Chain of Lake Park consists of some artificial lakes (or large ponds, more accurately) with paths, boardwalks and footbridges around and through the park. On the adjacent fields between it and the EFSC campus were several dozen Killdeer and one medium flock of Ring-billed Gulls.

The variety of bird life was an unexpected pleasure for a suburban-type park. The ponds I walked around had Blue-winged Teals, Mottled Ducks, and even a Lesser Scaup. I flushed at least 3 Wilson’s Snipes from one side of the first pond I walked along.

This Lesser Scaup kept looking over his shoulder at me. It’s not paranoia if a birder really is taking photos of you, is it?

There is even a pair of nesting Bald Eagles nearby. I could hear them making their squeaky and giggly calls from the EFSC campus. They appear to be building up their nest in anticipation of some eggs and chicks later in the spring.

Eagle in flight with a bundle of roots
At first I thought this Eagle was bringing food for its mate, but upon closer look, it appears to be a clump or roots or driftwood for nesting material.

The list of bird species at Chain of Lakes Park:

  • Killdeer
  • Cattle Egret
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Wilson’s Snipe
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Lesser Scaup
  • Bald Eagle
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Mottled Duck
  • Anhinga
  • American White Pelican
  • Fish Crow
  • Palm Warbler
  • Great Egret
  • American Robin
  • Eurasian Collared Dove
  • Black-and-white Warbler

Finally, on Thursday, I participated in a nocturnal nature hike at Fox Lake Park. I had such a good time last year at the Owl Prowl at Sams House at Pine Island Sanctuary that I immediately signed up for this field trip when I registered for the festival in November.

For this trip we were seated in a flat bed trailer (like what you might ride on in a hay-ride, minus the hay) and driven to a few places to try and call some owls.

First, the trip leader used a recorded Barred Owl call to attract an owl to our vicinity. It worked! A Barred Owl flew in only a few meters over out heads. They don’t seem very bothered by spotlights, so the trip leaders spotlit the bird while many of the people took photographs with their smart phones. I wasn’t expecting that any photos would come out, so I left my camera in the car. I really regret that, but I got some amazing unaided eye and binocular views of the owl. After a few minutes, it called out and got a response from another owl (probably its mate) and got to hear some pretty wild barking and whooping calls.

After they moved off into the distance, we went to the next location to try and call some Eastern Screech Owls. We did not get any responses; however, one of the Barred Owls (perhaps the same one as earlier) followed and watched us for a while. We tried another location, but the Barred Owl continued to join us. Owls are known to be pretty vicious with other owl species, so it’s likely the presence of the Barred Owl kept any Screech Owls from calling out or getting close to us.

It was a beautiful night in any case, and we did some star gazing along the way. Part of the park had been burned as part of a management effort to control the scrub vegetation, so a few places were a bit smoky, but that small annoyance was well worth putting up with for a great night hike.

After that, my first day at the festival wrapped up and I headed home to rest for the next morning.

SCBWF January 27, 2014: Pelagic Birding Trip

What event would make one get up at 4:00am, be ready to ship off at 6:30am and spend 12 plus hours on the open sea for just a handful of birds?

If you guessed the SCBWF Pelagic Birding Trip, you are a winner!

photo ponce-light-predawn.jpg
Ponce Inlet Light before dawn. This is the second tallest lighthouse in the USA.

Although we waited out some rain while at the dock, by the time we headed out, the skies were clearing. It was a gorgeous day, and the seas were very calm.

photo brown-pelican.jpg
Brown Pelican at dawn.

Unlike last year, where we had 6 ft. seas with a 6 second period (leaving a large portion of our contingent moaning for their lives in the cabin), this year we had nearly flat seas and I didn’t see a single person contribute to the chum slick at the back of the boat.

photo herring-gull.jpg
Herring Gull deciding if fish parts, oil and popcorn are totally worth it or not…

As glorious as the conditions were (the worse pitching we had was about 40 miles out when we had some 2-3 ft seas that pitched us around a bit for a few minutes), the birding was quite sparse once we got to the open sea. We had barely any followers at the stern either (unlike last year). To me it seemed that there was much less chumming of the water, but I can’t be certain of that. We had long periods of quiet cruising punctuated by minutes of excitement. I saw my first confirmed shearwaters (Audubon’s), whose appearance caused quite a stir, and some jaegers (Pomarine and Parasitic). In any case, the birds we did see before our approach back to Ponce Inlet, were worth the trip to me. I had a blast.

We saw about half a dozen sea turtles (not including the 4 rescued babies we had on board that we returned to some sargassum).

photo baby-turtle.jpg
Baby Loggerhead Sea Turtle.

We were visited by pods of both Atlantic Bottle-nosed Dolphins and Spotted Dolphins. Spotted Dolphins rode our bow wake at least a couple of times, and some of the mother dolphins even showed off their calves, which was a real treat.

My trip list (including the lagoon and inlet):

  • Brown Pelican
  • Ruddy Turnstone
  • Purple Sandpiper
  • Northern Gannet
  • Laughing Gull
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Herring Gull
  • Great Black-backed Gull
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull
  • Black Skimmer
  • Common Tern
  • Royal Tern
  • Bonaparte’s Gull
  • Common Loon
  • Audubon’s Shearwater
  • Pomarine Jaeger
  • Parasitic Jaeger
  • Black Scoter
  • Black-crowned Night Heron
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • American Oystercatcher
  • Osprey

We had hoped to see a Red Phalarope or maybe even a Razorbill, like last year, but we had no such luck. The action really picked up as we headed back in to the inlet. First, we saw many small groups of mixed-year Northern Gannets as we approached. Then, right near the jetty, we saw a feeding frenzy of gull, terns, gannets, and pelicans on schools of bait fish.

photo frenzy.jpg
Feeding frenzy at dusk.

It was a grand ending to a fun-filled and exhausting festival. Special thanks go to Laura Erickson, Corey Finger, Dave Goodwin and all the organizers, sponsors, trip leaders, and fellow briders for making everything so fun and successful.