[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.
Here are a few photos from that trip.
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.
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].
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I can’t believe it’s been 2 weeks since the 2017 Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival. I apologize for the delay, but here are some photos and experiences I’d like to share with you.
First of all, I scaled back a lot this year, primarily for budgetary reasons. Last year I had a packed schedule, with many night hikes and early mornings. I was completely exhausted and mentally spent. Since I had done a pelagic trip at the end of September of last year, I decided (after much hand-wringing) to forgo the offshore trip this year. This turned out to be a bit of a blessing, as I understand the Monday trip had to come inshore and essentially do a lagoon tour amid rough seas, wind, and frigid (for Florida) temperatures.
In any case, I did three day-time trips, one night-hike, and a few side-trips for rarities in the area.
That first trip was the Little Big Econ State Forest hike [map]. Now, you might be wondering what a “Little Big Econ” is. It’s a combination of the two rivers that flow near and through the state forest and the inclusive wildlife management area (the Little Econ actually joins the “Big” Econ southwest of the state forest). You can read about the Econlockhatchee River at this St. Johns River Water Management District page. We hiked in at the Barr Street trailhead.
Along with other familiar faces at the festival, it was nice to see Bert Alm there. I met Bert at a Florida Master Naturalist Program class almost two years ago. Bert and his wife have gotten quite involved in conservation and wildlife rehabilitation since moving to the area, and it’s always a pleasure to see him.
Like most typical black water rivers, the Econ (and Little Econ) are stained a dark brown from organics and have steep, sandy sides. In many ways the ecosystem here is similar to Turkey Creek (in Brevard County), which is a smaller black water river in a more built-up area.
We had the expected winter residents, like Red-bellied and Downy woodpeckers, Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and more. There is one nesting Bald Eagle pair (see above). At one bend in the river I was surprised to see a Limpkin along the bank. Limpkins eat Apple Snails (both the native and introduced varieties), which I did not think lived in rivers and creeks.
There was one surprise that cropped up when some of the trip co-leaders started “pishing” to call in some of the warblers and other small songbirds. Along with titmouses, gnatcatchers and kinglets, a Blackburnian Warbler came into view high up in a mostly bare tree. It only stayed in view for a couple of seconds, but was long enough to get a look at the yellow-orange and black facial markings, as well as the sides and wings. This is extremely early for this species to be in Florida. Blackburnians winter over mainly in northern South America and Central America. Without photographic proof, this sighting won’t be “official”, but that doesn’t take away from the exhilaration and puzzlement of seeing it, for me.
Throughout the morning, we kept hearing the cat-like calls of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (in fact, I think their call sounds more like a cat than Grey Catbird calls). It took a while, but one finally came in close and stayed for a photo-op.
We hiked a total of about 5 kilometers (3 miles) on part of the Florida Trail and back before leaving the park. Most of the group then stopped at C.S. Lee Park (a small park and boat ramp off SR-46) [map] on the way back to Titusville where we saw some wading birds, among others, in the adjacent wetlands and flood plain of the St. Johns River.
Since the day was only half over, it was decided to take a trip to the Space Coast Regional Airport [map] and find the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Mrs. Lonely Birder and I tried finding this bird before New Years, with no success.
This time the bird was out, catching large grasshoppers on the airports barbed-wired fence!
Bonus bird number one, and a life bird! Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are rare but regular visitors to central Florida; there’s at least one every winter. As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, many flycatcher species have site affinity – that is, they often return to the same places year after year. If this bird decides this makes a fine winter home, we may have several years to look forward to seeing this bird as an adult!
After hawking grasshoppers and other insects for a few minutes along the fence line, the bird flew off a distance onto some power lines, so we left and decided to try and see another reported rarity: a Long-tailed Duck seen near the Canaveral Locks, at the Rodney S. Ketcham Boat Ramp [map].
It took some patience, but the duck finally did emerge from behind some cement pilings and out toward the adjacent marina.
Bonus bird number two! I’ve seen this species once before, when a male was seen near Parrish Park, under the causeway bridge between Titusville and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a couple of years ago.
That ended the daytime activities for the festival. The Florida Ornithological Society didn’t have a booth this year, but I did run into a few members, including Gina and Adam Kent, at the exhibitor area. Most of the usual vendors, organizations, and tour operators were there, including the Florida Wildlife Hospital with their animal ambassadors (Bella, the American Kestrel and Copper, a Red Rat Snake).
That just left a night hike with the Enchanted Forest Sanctuary. This was the only night hike I did, and it has always been fun and educational. There were two main changes this year, though. One is that the sanctuary no longer calls owls in. I was mildly disappointed, but there is growing uncertainty as to the ethics of calling for birds in general, with some parks and organizations eliminating the practice. Whatever the specific reasons for not calling owls, the hike was still great fun. The second change was a result of the main Southern Flying Squirrel nest getting blown down during Hurricane Matthew in October. The squirrels relocated to other nests, so they were not easily enticed to the feeder for viewing through a night vision camera.
It was a busy and fulfilling day (and evening), with one life bird and exploring a new place (Little Big Econ).
The 18th Annual Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival ended as it usually does with an all day pelagic tour on the Atlantic Ocean, east of Ponce Inlet. After a day of calm and sunny weather, another cold front whisked through the Space Coast and threats of gale force winds and high seas left the trip in doubt. The captain of the boat, The Pastime Princess, determined that if we stayed relatively close to shore, we’d be spared most of the high seas and some of the wind. It was decided that we’d head north, parallel to the coast, and see what we could see. It was just too treacherous out on the water much further out.
This change in plan meant that many of the birds we might see – shearwaters, skuas, etc. – would be blown out to sea. But in return we ended up with a few surprises we might otherwise have missed.
Each year we are hopeful that we might see Northern Right Whales, since the waters off north Florida are part of their calving area. We had some hints of them last year, but nothing definite. This year, we definitely had whales, but it turns out one of them at least was a Humpback Whale! The others were likely a species of beaked whale. We had numerous spouts and even some flukes shown when the whales dove.
The wind was brutal, so I tried to stay on the side of the boat most protected, which was sometimes a challenge as the captain turned the boat to get closer to either a whale or a group of birds. If what we were looking at was into the wind or on the windward side, it was tough to keep the binoculars or camera still. The seas, surprisingly, were not that rough close to shore. We only had a few incidents where the boat pitched enough to have to really hold on.
Our goal was to find some shrimp boats. The shrimp boats have thousands of following birds waiting for the nets to be brought up so they can grab what they can. We came upon several boats in the course of the day.
To entice the birds away to an “easy meal”, one of our boat’s mates would ladle chum – in this case a mixture of popcorn, fish and fish oil – over the back of the boat. As you can imagine, the chum smells horrible, so it’s best to be careful near the stern while someone’s chumming.
While the view our the front of the boat looked like this:
The view at the stern of the boat looked more like this:
Besides the numerous gulls, we saw thousands of Northern Gannets in the course of the day. It takes 4 years for gannets to achieve adult plumage, and we saw all 4 stages in about equal numbers. Gannets dive straight down into the water to grab fish, their streamlined bodies ideally suited to the task. They are also graceful flyers, with long wings allowing them to glide great distances to find food with minimal effort.
Brown Pelicans also followed our boat and took advantage of our chum. Normally these pelicans dive for fish (unlike their cousins, the American White Pelicans, who sit at the surface and scoop up fish). I learned that unlike the gannets and other diving birds, which dive straight in, Brown Pelicans turn their bodies and head at the last second before striking the surface, minimizing the shock to their necks. This may be an adaptation to compensate for their large heads and bills in proportion to their bodies.
Gulls have adapted to be opportunistic predators and scavengers. They rush in to grab whatever they can as soon as possible. This is why gulls are often present in large numbers at garbage dumps. Sometimes they bite off more than they can chew (metaphorically – most birds cannot chew).
Whenever there are gulls feeding, you’re sure to find jaegers. Jaegers are swift-flying predatory seabirds that chase other birds to get them to either drop or regurgitate their food. We had jaegers (both Parasitic and Pomarine species) throughout the day, though I personally only identified a handful of Parasitic Jaegers. I had a hard enough time trying to get my binoculars on these birds, never mind my camera, so kudos to those that got some great jaeger shots this trip!
Eventually we turned out of the wind and headed back to the inlet and to port. Another fun pelagic trip in the books, and I am really looking forward to doing it all over again!
The species list might look a bit thin to some, but I’m glad for each and every species and individual bird we saw this year.
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Great Black-backed Gull
In all, I had a lovely time at the festival this year. I met some new people, learned new things and most importantly saw a variety and number of birds I’ll be thinking and talking about all year.
Now that my winter break is over, and I am back in sunny Florida, it’s time to pick up where we left off with the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.
On Sunday, the 25th, I had my only repeat field trip from last year (besides the pelagic trip). The trip leader this year was Corey Finger (co-owner of the 10,000 Birds blog). I stayed in touch with Corey mostly through Facebook after last year’s field trip, and I had hoped to be able to spend at least a lunch or something with him this year, but as hectic as these festivals are, we weren’t able to make that happen. Corey is, of course, a fine birder and excellent photographer.
Another difference between last year and this year is the amount of rain we had here in east central Florida. This made the Marl Bed Flats very muddy and meant we were situated much further away from the wetlands and thus less able to pick out interesting shorebirds or other action going on closer to the lake. Also, the increased water didn’t allow the thicker ground cover to grow that sparrows prefer, so we had very few sparrows this year compared to last.
We had some decent spotting scope views of some birds, but most stayed fairly well out of my camera’s effective range. This Red-tailed Hawk was close enough to get a photo, though.
By far the most numerous bird species that morning were the American Robins. Robins migrate into Florida from adjacent southern states, and set up in woods and scrub in enormous flocks. In winter, these robins are much more gregarious (hanging out together) and out of sight than in spring and summer, when they are a main-stay of many suburban yards. There was a constant stream of them flying overhead all morning. Our best estimate was over 2,000 birds.
We saw a handful of Savannah Sparrrows, but most of the small birds were Palm Warblers. Since most were of the “Western” or gray variety, it was often the tell-tale bobbing tail that gave away the identification of the bird.
We walked along some more wooded areas on our way out of the Flats and encountered some more upland birds, including Blue-headed Vireos, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet.
From the Flats, we drove around the lake to Lake Jesup Park to see what birds were hanging around. Last year we flushed a pair of Great Horned Owls from the nearby Live Oaks, and we heard reports that they were present, but we never saw one; however, a woman on the trip and myself both heard a distant day-calling Great Horned Owl, but we were unable to locate it.
Beyond the boat access inlet were Bonaparte’s Gulls and some herons. Bonaparte’s Gulls are small, hooded gulls in summer. In winter they have a distinctive “ear” patch. That patch, along with their size and proportions, are diagnostic identifiers. They swim more buoyantly than most gulls and are as graceful in the air as any tern.
After some searching about, we did get some Black-and-white Warblers and other warbler species. Corey and a few others saw a Prairie Warbler, but I was unable to verify the ID for myself.
Species list (eBird order – Thanks, Corey!):
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Common Ground Dove
Blue Headed Vireo
Carolina Wren (♫)
Eastern Meadowlark (♫)
On the way back to Titusville, I decided to try once again for the Long-tailed Duck near Parrish Park. The wind had died down considerably from previous days, and the sky was clear. I first searched along the north side of the bridge, and saw two birds swimming that looked very grebe-like.
My first Horned Grebes were swimming and diving together. Based on the size difference, I assume this is a mated pair. Horned Grebes look much different in summer than in winter, but are quite handsome birds either way.
An older gentleman approached me and asked if I was looking for the Long-tailed Duck. Of course, I was, and he told me a couple had pointed out to him that it was on the south side of the bridge, close in with a small group of scaups. And there it was, a 1st-year winter male Long-tailed Duck. This is a rare bird for Florida (though not exceedingly so), and after two days of looking, it was nice to finally see him. [Edit 2015 Feb 17: Some observers have identified this as a winter female, but based on the information I have, I’m sticking with the first year winter male ID unless someone has something else that’s more definitive.]
After watching both the grebes and the Long-tailed Duck for a while, I decided to do Blackpoint Wildlife Drive again now that the weather was calm. I was hoping more duck species would be out in numbers, and perhaps a few more shorebirds.
There were some wading birds a little more accessible than previous days, and there were more Northern Pintails in the open water, too. I heard that some Redheads and Ruddy Ducks were seen by some people, but I couldn’t find them. There were still some distant large mixed rafts of American Coots with Ring-necked Ducks, Blue-winged Teals and other ducks that could have been hiding these birds. The pintails and shovelers were more active and about, with several in flight at any give time.
As the sun began getting low, I stopped at the MINWR Visitors’ Center and did finally see a single female Painted Bunting at their feeder, and then it was time to go home and get some rest for the final adventure of the Festival: the pelagic boat trip.