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.

Fay Lake Wilderness Park

My birding adventure this Sunday was a damp one at Fay Lake Wilderness Park. It has been fairly rainy in this area through the week, and the park was still wet from the previous day’s showers. It was mostly overcast, too, which helped keep the temperature down and I didn’t need to squint much.

The park is pretty, with mostly wide paths (looks like they use a 4-wheeler to keep things clear) and a series of wooden overlooks around the lake perimeter.

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Fay Lake.

What struck me first upon entering the park trails was the almost unbelievable cacophany of tree frogs. When walking by a grove of palms when the frogs were calling, this has to be the loudest natural sound I’ve heard since the 17-year cicadas in Wheeling in 1999.

Like most of Brevard County’s parks, Northern Cardinals were just about everywhere. I like this shot of a singing female. In the bird world it’s rare for the females to sing, but for cardinals, both males and females sing regularly.

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Female Northern Cardinal singing. This shot looks way too much like a winter scene up north!

Another constant companion throughout the morning were these grasshoppers. Some friends over on the Gulf Coast call the large grasshoppers there “lubbers” and the ones out there I have seen can be over 4 inches long. A few of these approached that size, but most were about 2-3 inches in length. I’ve been calling them “mini-lubbers.” photo mini-lubber1.jpg
Mini-lubbers were everywhere.

There were plenty of butterflies and skippers, too. I counted at least 6 different species. This one obliged me by sitting still for a while so I could get a decent shot.

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Gulf Fritillary.

This about a close to a Turkey Vulture as I’ve ever been. Vultures get a bad rap for eating carrion and lurking about dead things, but they provide a crucial service in “recycling” dead animals.

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Turkey Vulture.

I got some good binocular views of an Eastern Towhee and a Red-shouldered Hawk, a brief glimpse of a White-eyed Vireo, and at least one Common Ground Dove. At one point a Little Blue Heron in mid-molt from white to blue flew overhead. It looked like it was marble.

I noticed that just about every square foot of the park showed some evidence of burning. The park sits just to the west of the interstate and adjoins the St. John’s National Wildlife Refuge, so regular burning is easier here than in many other parks.

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Scorch marks and new growth.

The area shown above was the sight of a little bit of action, too. Some grackles were trying to harrass an adult Cooper’s Hawk and managed to drive it away. As I was watching that (sorry, no pics!) I was lightly pelted from something above me. A squirrel was having a pine cone breakfast. photo squirrel.jpg

As I said, the park borders the St. John National Wildlife Refuge, and the border was marked by some barbed wire and signage. The barbed wire was not continuous, and the path systems of the two parks intersect and merge here and there. I found myself on the “wrong” side of the fencing a few times and had to back-track out. I could hear Bobwhite calls deep in the Refuge area, but was unable to see anything in my binoculars. The Refuge looked pretty, if a bit empty of visible animal life.

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St. John’s National Wildlife Refuge.

That was about it for the morning. The paths back toward my starting point were very wet at this point and the tree frogs were nearly deafening. I’d like to stop back to this park in the fall and definitely next spring before the hot weather sets in. Here’s a parting shot of one of the mini-lubbers.

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Mini-lubber says bye!