SCBWF January 26, 2014: Marl Bed Flats, Lake Jesup

As a general rule, anywhere that you have water, you increase your chances of seeing a great diversity of birds. The wetlands near Lake Jesup are no exceptions. The Marl Bed Flats area is surrounded by some more upland and hammock type areas as well, which made for a spectacular day of birding. Corey and Laura were co-leaders for this trip as well, and it was great to have them along.

Across the flats towards some reeds and more open water, we got a great view of some shorebirds and waders. We flushed out a few Wilson’s Snipes, which is always fun.

The big event was the appearance of an American Pipit foraging in the mud. I tried to stalk close enough to get a descent photograph, but in the end that just made it fly away (after everyone else was moving on, thank goodness).

As with the short walk along the Little Big Econ on the previous day, our walks though some of the wooded areas where we expected a bonanza of songbirds yielded very little bird activity.

We tried to flush out some sparrows through some of the brushy fields between the flats and the highway. The majority of the sparrows were no doubt Savannah Sparrows, but Tom, our trip leader, was sure he saw evidence of Grasshopper Sparrows in the mix. But sparrows’ natural camoflage and small size made it almost impossible to verify it.

We then took a quick drive over to Lake Jesup Park to see what sort of warbler activity we might catch. First, we checked out some birds at the boat ramp. The usual waders and other wetland birds were present, including a pair of Mottled Ducks, lots of Anhingas and varioius Egrets. Further out on the water we saw some Bonaparte’s Gulls, too.

The very first thing to happen, though, was that we flushed out a pair of Great Horned Owls from the Live Oaks. This led to very loud protestations from a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks.

We did encounted a nice little mixed flock of songbirds at the edge of the park, which netted us some various warblers and other small birds.

My trip list (47):

  • Fish Crow
  • Bald Eagle
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Mourning Dove
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Cattle Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Killdeer
  • Snowy Egret
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Tree Swallow
  • Wilson’s Snipe
  • Least Sandpiper
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • Lesser Yellowlegs
  • American Pipit
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Glossy Ibis
  • White Ibis
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Gray Catbird
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Mottled Duck
  • Forster’s Tern
  • Bonaparte’s Gull
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Anhinga
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Palm Warbler
  • Prairie Warbler
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Yellow-throated Warbler

I apologize for the lack of photographs for this trip, but trying to get eyeballs on the various birds we did see, and trying to track down sparrows was just not compatible with picture taking. The only shot I did get off was this one of a Great Egret by the boat ramp. You can see some of the breeding plumes coming in on the tail. Spring is just around the corner for Florida!

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Isn’t this Egret Great?

SCBWF January 25, 2014: Red-cockaded Woodpeckers & More

Saturday morning was the earliest start to field trips for the entire festival, for me. We had to be sure to be ready to catch the endangered Red-cockaded woodpeckers as they woke up for the day.

Last year, we attempted to catch this species at the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area for the Central Florida Specialties trip, but were largely unsuccessful. For this particular trip this year, we were led by Maria Zondervan and Duff Swan, who are part of the ongoing management of this species in the Hal Scott Regional Preserve and Park. They had a game plan for maximizing our ability to see these birds, and proved to be excellent trip guides for us (our third leader had other issues).

The downside of stalking (or in this case, staking out) a bird that can be as shy as a Red-cockaded Woodpecker (or “RCW” as our guides refer to them) is that you have to stay a certain distance back. This meant no photographs for my camera, tough my 8×42 Carson bins were certainly up to the task.

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Typical pine flatwoods habitat. You can see some evidence for understory burning at the base of the trunks.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers live in family groups and are cooperative breeders. Younger birds will help their parents raise successive broods until they get their own mates and territories. As the birds wake up in their individual roosts, they’ll call out to each other to make sure everyone’s awake before they start the day.

Maria had us split into 3 groups, each staking out a different nest tree. This kept the number of people near each tree low so the birds wouldn’t feel intimidated. It was a chilly and cloudy day, and our bird, a second year female, was very reluctant to get up. Her parents called out and even flew over toward her nest hole to get her going, but like a stereotypical teenager, she was having none of it. Finally, after more woodpeckers called out and an incursion from a neighboring family group got her up and out of the nest.

We watched the birds start their day as other residents became more active. The Eastern Bluebirds were more cooperative and photogenic. We even watched a mated pair harass and chase away a Red-bellied Woodpecker that tried to commandeer their nest hole.

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This Eastern Bluebird’s mood was as cloudy as the weather after having his home invaded.

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“Take a picture, it’ll last longer!” Umm… ok then…

We saw a lot of evidence of feral pigs (which are a real problem across most of the southeastern USA, not just Florida). They tear up sections of ground, ripping up roots and soil. It can take years for some areas to recover.

After the “RCWs” dispersed a bit for their daily foraging and inter-family bickering, we successfully stalked a Bachman’s Sparrow (it flew right past my head, so I got a very decent look at it), and had many opportunities to see other various woodpecker species, and the adorable Brown-headed Nuthatches.

My species list for this trip (15):

  • Red-cockaded Woodpecker
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • American Robin
  • Bachman’s Sparrow
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Brown-headed Nuthatch
  • Prairie Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Great Blue Heron

We ended the morning with a quick walk by part of the Little Big Econlockhatchee River, but bird activity was essentially nil. My personal belief is that one of our trip leaders was trying to rely too much on “pishing” and playing a Screech Owl call as the group walked along. Pishing and the use of calls can be effective, if used judiciously. I don’t know what was going through this man’s mind to think that a continuous play of a Screech Owl and incessant pishing would in any way enhance our ability to see the birds.

SCBWF January 24, 2014: Hearing Black Rails at St. Johns National Wildlife Refuge

I’ve already posted some photographs from the Black Rail field trip last week, but I wanted to blog about it in more detail.

In order to maximize our chances at identifying Black Rails, the trip was set to begin just before dusk and last through sunset. This, plus the open space and cold air aloft (it had warmed a bit on the ground through the afternoon) set up a the conditions for the brilliant sun pillar many of us photographed. Here’s another shot of it, in case you missed it.

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Sun pillar.

We took a hayride out to the area we would most likely encounter the rails. This was my first hayride since I was a teen.

My experience with this field trip brought up an interesting point. As far as “official” birding goes – that is marking whether or not you’ve “got” a particular bird or not for a list – it is perfectly legitimate to count birds that are identified by voice only.

When I first started birding and getting familiar with bird songs and calls, I kept separate lists. One for birds I definitely ID’ed by eye and one for those I only ID’ed by voice. In my mind’s eye, though, I only wanted to “officially” count birds I had seen. “Ear only” birds were meant to be temporary or curiosities.

I’ve come to learn that many birders do not separate their “eye” and “ear” identifications, and there is sound logic behind this.

For some secretive birds, like rails, you might never see one, but the birds’ calls and settings are so specific that the voice alone positively identifies it. As far as groups like the ABA are concerned, any method by which you can definitively identify the bird counts. Naturally, we’d all LOVE to see every bird we hear or encounter, but that’s not always possible nor necessary to “count” it for a list (whether it’s a day list, a Big Year, a life list, etc.).

Having said that, I also realize that some birders, especially those with a lot of experience and very long life lists like to challenge themselves and start making their criteria for “getting” a bird more and more challenging.

That gets to the heart of the matter for me. No matter how you choose to count your birds, the most important thing, I believe, is to have fun and be challenged. After all, why else are we out there in freezing temperatures for hours on end just to catch a glimpse or a call? I spent over 12 hours on a boat, 40 miles out to sea, just to catch a glimpse of a shearwater or a jaeger. Maybe even the momentary flash of a phalarope head against the dark sea. And even seeing just ONE of those would be worth it to me.

We did hear the Black Rails call at sunset. It was perhaps made all the more sweet in that the first call was heard before our trip leader played a call on his smart phone. Those brief squeaky calls together with a brilliant sunset made everything worth it.

Here is my species list (16 – short and sweet):

  • Northern Harrier
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Tree Swallow
  • American Robin
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Snowy Egret
  • Black Rail
  • Glossy Ibis
  • White Ibis
  • Anhinga
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Gray Catbird

Please note that my lists might differ from the shared eBird lists as my personal criteria for ID tends to be more on the strict side, and I may not have seen every bird that the entire group reported.

SCBWF January 24, 2014: Charles H. Bronson State Forest

The morning of Friday the 24th was windy and freezing. Luckily the field trip consisted of mostly driving in a van from hot-spot to hot-spot through the relatively new Charles H. Bronson State Forest.

We did see a fair amount of bird species; however, many were somewhat distant or obscured by vegetation.

Among the more interesting sightings were simultaneous views of eastern and western type Palm Warblers together. Based on what Corey told me later in the festival, western Palm Warblers are paler and browner, overall than their more yellow eastern cousins. This would seem to indicate that the majority of the Palm Warblers I have seen this winter are, in fact, western birds.

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Eastern (left) vs. western (right) Palm Warbler (the eastern bird was photographed at the state forest, the western bird at the Marl Bed Flats later in the festival).

The parts of the state forest we drove and walked through were devoted, in large part, to ranching rather than forests, with lots of wet meadow areas and drainage ditches. This made for a rich combination of upland and wetland species in close proximity.

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This image was posted before, but here it is in context. Immature White Ibis and Tri-colored Heron photobombed by a Killdeer.

We flushed at least one Wilson’s Snipe and had some good views of Wood Storks and various egrets and herons. When things warmed up a bit more, we had some raptors over head, including a Bald Eagle and some vultures.

Songbirds were scarce for the most part (it was cold and windy), but along one wooded segment of a path we hit a mixed flock of warblers and other small birds and managed to see a Black-and-white Warbler, a Tufted Titmouse and some Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, among others.

The ponds and ditches also gave up Least Sandpipers, Dunlins and other shorebirds. Nearby we had a good amount of Eastern Meadowlarks, sweetly singing.

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Eastern Meadowlark.

We finished up the trip after heading to the St. Johns River. Among the Greater Yellowlegs and other shore birds we saw some Bald Eagles and a few sparrows. There were cattle to our north, not far from a native burial mound (which, for some reason I didn’t think to take a picture of).

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St. Johns River plain looking (and feeling!) a little tundra-like.

This is my species list for the field trip (33):

  • Wild Turkey
  • American Robin
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • American Kestrel
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Wood Stork
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • White Ibis
  • Great Egret
  • Lesser Yellowlegs
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Dunlin
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Wilson’s Snipe
  • Killdeer
  • Palm Warbler
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Cattle Egret
  • Song Sparrow
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Coopers Hawk
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Bald Eagle
  • Least Sandpiper
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • Long-billed Dowitcher
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet

After driving out from the state forest, I explored a little around the Christmas,FL area and attempted to drive to the Orlando Wetlands Park. Unfortunately, that park is closed until February 1st. I also located the entrance to the Tosahatchee Wildnerness area, but did not park or go in (I just wanted to see where it was in relation to the main road). I headed back to EFSC to prepare for the evening’s Black Rail trip.

SCBWF January 23, 2014: Birding with Laura Erickson

My first field trip for the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival was a leisurely walk at the Blue Heron Wetlands Park in Titusville. This park is part of the city’s water treatment and reclamation efforts. It is similar to the Ritch Grissom Wetlands at Viera in that regard.

It was nice to see Laura again, freshly (or pehaps not so) back from her Conservation Big Year. The other co-leader for this trip was Corey Finger from the 10,000 birds blog. Corey is an engaging fellow and an accomplished birder as well.

I rode along with a nice couple from Palm Bay, who have been around the country and the world, birding and enjoying their retirements.

It was a cold morning, and this was evident in the flock of low flying Tree Swallows over the water. The temperature near the surface of the water would be warmer than the air. This not only would help the birds stay warm, but would be the most likely place for any insects the birds prey on to be active and available.

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Tree Swallow in flight over a reclamation pond.

American Coots and Common Gallinules were present in high numbers. We had hoped to see a Purple Gallinule, but one never appeared for us.

Another species that was quite numerous was the American Robin. Winter is the only time these birds are in central Florida, but when they are here, the flocks are quite large. We saw hundreds fly over during the course of the morning. Occasionally a few would perch in the trees nearby, but these birds are a bit more shy than the front lawn varieties I remember as a child in Massachusetts.

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Holy Turdus migratorius, Batman!

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were plentiful as well. I learned that the population of these ducks is increasing in Florida, even as those of the Mottled Duck and Mallard decline. There is no consensus on why it is happening yet.

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When asked why their cousin Mottled Ducks and Mallards were leaving the state, these birds ducked the answer…

At another point along the water, we heard what at first sounded like a Limpkin, but turned out after closer inspection to be a Sora, which we caught glimpses of through the reeds. This was a lifer for me, and I spotted it first, which was satisfying.

We saw other birds as well. Among the dozens of Palm and Yellow-rumped (affectionately referred to as “butter butts”) warblers, we saw a Prairie Warbler and a few Common Yellowthroats.

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A Prairie Warbler Companion.

As the morning warmed up, the Tree Swallows followed their prey source higher in the air, and we saw some vultures, hawks and a Bald Eagle starting their day, searching for thermals.

My species list for this field trip:

  • American Robin
  • Palm Warbler
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Common Gallinule
  • American Coot
  • Tree Swallow
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Anhinga
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Black-bellied Whistling Duck
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Sora [lifer]
  • Osprey
  • Mourning Dove
  • Bald Eagle
  • Double Crested Cormorant
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Prairie Warbler
  • Snowy Egret
  • White Ibis
  • Killdeer
  • Green Heron
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Wood Stork
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow (one among the Tree Swallows)

After the trip, I had lunch with Laura and Corey at Dixie Crossroads, a local restaurant and major Festival supporter. Although some of the people and places Laura and Corey know and talked about were at times over my head, the conversation reaffirmed my belief that the “everyman” or “everywoman” can make major contributions to birding and ornithology.

Some pseudo-random sampling of photographs taken during the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival this year. 

  • Painted Bunting at Merritt Island National Wildlife Sanctuary Visitor’s Center
  • Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at Blue Heron Wetlands, Titusville
  • Palm Warbler at Marl Bed Flats, Lake Jesup
  • Hooded Mergansers at Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera
  • Immature White Ibis and Tri-colored Heron, photobombed by a Killdeer at Charles H. Bronson State Forest.
  • Mute Swan, Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera.

One week to go!

In just one week I’ll be attending various sessions and field trips at the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival.

If anyone reading this is attending (or planning, though a lot of slots might be taken by now), here’s where I’ll be.

My schedule of events, beginning on next Thursday:

Thursday, January 23rd:

08:00 am – 11:30 am:  Birding with Laura Erickson
03:00 pm – 04:00 pm:  Annual Journey of the Swallow-tailed Kite*
06:30 pm – 08:30 pm:  Evening Owl Prowl at Sam’s House

Friday, January 24th:

06:45 am – 11:30 am:  Turkey Creek Tract – C. H. Bronson State Forest
                                    (This is not Turkey Creek Sanctuary)
04:00 pm – 07:00 pm:  Black Rails at the St. Johns NWR

Saturday, January 25th:

05:15 am – 11:00 am:  Red-cockaded Woodpeckers & More
12:30 pm – 02:30 pm:  Laura’s Conservation Big Year (Laura Erickson)*

Sunday, January 26th:

06:00 am – 12:00 pm:  Marl Bed Flats – Lake Jesup Conservation Area

Monday, January 27th:

06:30 am – 06:00 pm:  Pelagic Birding Boat Trip
[make-up/weather day is Tuesday, January 28th.]

* denotes classroom presentation

I’m getting excited! But dang, I am going to be getting up EARLY….

Shiny New Year

2014 is surely still new enough not to have gotten much tarnish yet, right?

So far I’ve had a couple of abortive attempts to head to Jacksonville and see the Snowy Owl that’s been at Little Talbot State Park for the past few weeks. I may get to head there on Friday, but I am not sure yet. I know every day I don’t go risks the owl departing, so that’s a bit frustrating.

Otherwise, I’ve casually seen about a dozen species so far for my 2014 species count (yes, I am doing “that” again).

The Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival is coming up in a couple of weeks, and I am getting excited! If anyone’s interested I’ll have a brief itinerary of my field trips and classroom sessions just because I’m feeling all social and share-y. 🙂