A Little Extra from September

September 20, 2018

Here are a couple of photos from my hike in Saint Sebastian River Preserve State Park, earlier this month.

Pine Lilies are native to Florida and the US southeast coast. You can find them in places with acidic, moist soils. They are heat tolerant, too. Very Florida. This species is “Threatened”.
I flushed a covey of Northern Bobwhites from the ground. The male and most of the females took off out of sight.  This remaining female flew into a nearby pine tree and tried to become invisible. When it became clear that the wildlife paparazzi (me) had found her, she lept into the air, flew over my head and landed somewhere in the wiregrass.


Back to Birding

September 4, 2018

September is a month of continued change. Early migrants and shorebirds are starting to arrive and stop over on their way south for wintering grounds. The weather is very slowly starting to cool off in Florida, making longer outings less uncomfortable.

This past weekend I used these opportunities to check out the early season action in St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park [map]. A Red-headed Woodpecker – a relative rarity for Brevard County – had been reported off and on in the park this summer, and I wanted to find it.

Proper fire management has helped minimize palmetto cover and give the native wiregrass and other herbaceous cover a chance to flourish.

Despite the late summer season, there were still Bachman’s Sparrows singing in the northwest and northeast sections of the park, and several small flocks were flushed out of the palmettos and wiregrass as I walked the Green Trail in the northwest quadrant.

Bachman’s Sparrows are often elusive after breeding season, but the birds were active and relatively easy to find.

Barn Swallows have been moving through the area for a couple of weeks now, and there were several large groups working various open areas and resting on wires. Quite a number were juveniles, of course.

A juvenile (left) and an adult (right) Barn Swallow, preening as they rest in the early morning light. 

As I hiked part of the Turkey Link Trail, I heard some calls that sounded very much like a Red-headed Woodpecker, some distance to the east. Eventually, I looped back to my car (at the visitors’ center) and drove along the dirt road a bit farther east, near the park service building. After walking about 100 meters north, I could not go any further due to standing water, but I heard some more of the same woodpecker calls not too far away. I decided some judicious audio recordings might help me definitively identify the bird. I played 3 or 4 Red-headed Woodpecker calls and immediately got a reply in some pine trees just about 50 meters away. Unfortunately, I could not locate the bird visually, and eventually the bird moved further into the park and to the east.

While on the Green Trail I encountered some of the area’s non-avian friends, like some understandably skittish deer and a very cooperative and beautiful Luna Moth species.

At least one of the deer stood still long enough for a photo! Everyone else was too fidgety and flighty, but I kind of like the blurred aesthetic.
A beautifully back-lit Luna Moth, about the span of my hand (over 10 cm or 4 in).

I was also surprised by a loose aggregation of Peregrine Falcons a couple of hundred meters overhead. I have seen falcons (Merlins) migrating south (along the beach) in relatively close proximity, but never the larger Peregrines.

After making my way back to the car, I drove over to the Yellow Trail at the Northeast Quadrant. The nearby canal had a few wading birds and even a small flock of Wild Turkeys.

A couple of Wild Turkeys on top of the canal berm.
A slightly bedraggled looking Green Heron, near the manatee viewing and fishing area.

I was anticipating a long walk along the Yellow Trail before seeing any Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, but I was pleasantly surprised by an overflight of two of the woodpeckers, only a few hundred meters from the trailhead. A few Brown-headed Nuthatches also popped by for a quick hello.

A Brown-headed Nuthatch pausing just long enough for a photo.

In the aftermath of both Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Irma in 2017, many of the longleaf pines in Florida have been getting further decimated by the Southern Pine Beetle. For example, at Turkey Creek Sanctuary as many if not more trees are being lost to the beetle than to Hurricane Irma. The beetles take advantage of weakened or diseased mature trees, so the affects of recent hurricanes have helped intensify the current infestation. I did not notice too much in the way of damage in the Northwest Quadrant, and most of the Northeast Quadrant seemed healthy until I ran into a couple of clusters of dead and dying pines on the Red-cockaded Woodpecker Link Trail. Luckily, there didn’t seem to be many affected trees (at least that were within my visual range).

Dead trees, no thanks to the Southern Pine Beetle.

As I made my way along the Red-cockaded Woodpecker Link Trail the weather, which had been slightly threatening all morning, started to worsen a little and some light rain began to fall. Besides some Pine Warblers and a few other birds, it became quiet as I made my way across a drainage feature around a cypress dome and finally back out onto the Green Trail. I misjudged the distance and wound up walking over 9 kilometers (over 5.5 miles)!

St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park is a nice gem at the southern end of Brevard County and northern end of Indian River county. It is bisected by Interstate 95, running north-south, and the channelized Saint Sebastian River (essentially a canal), running east-west. I find myself wondering if a set of elevated wildlife corridors spanning these features could benefit the park and local environment. Such corridors have been widely successful in many places here in the U.S. and around the world. Something to think about.

Here are my eBird lists for those so inclined.

Northwest Quadrant, partial Green Trail/Turkey Link Trail:

Northwest Quadrant, partial Green Trail (east of previous):

Northeast Quadrant, partial Buffer Preserve Road section:

Northeast Quadrant, partial Yellow Trail/Red-cockaded Woodpecker Link Trail:


Snowed Over at T.M. Goodwin

December 30, 2017

Hey there, readers! I squeezed in one last grand adventure for 2017 this week with a visit to the T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area [map] this past Thursday, with my friends Sarah and Bella. They have not had the opportunity to drive into the area, which is only open to vehicle traffic on Thursdays.

As a waterfowl management area, one would assume to find ducks in abundance. With so many ducks being seen earlier in the Fall at Merritt Island, and even more phenomenal numbers from the Alafia Banks Christmas Bird Count, you’d be forgiven if you’d assume there would be ducks galore! But you know what is said about assuming, right?

In fact, we had just two identifiable ducks (a male and a female Hooded Merganser) and distant looks at “probably Mottled Ducks, maybe”, and that was it! But it was a wonderfully birdy day, nonetheless! The morning air was a little crisp, but when the sun finally came out, it warmed nicely into a gorgeous day.

Along the “original” or southern unit, we very quickly got life birds for both Sarah and Bella: Swamp Sparrows! These birds are common enough, if you know where to look, but like most “LBJs” (Little Brown Jobs) can be frustratingly difficult to ID if you don’t get a good look. With a little patience, we coaxed a few into the open, but I hope this shot establishes how, even when out on a perch, these birds can manage to blend in.

A Swamp Sparrow checking us out.

Along with regular visits from Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers, we had some good looks at Belted Kingfishers, like a male who what just tried to catch breakfast and a slightly chilly looking Red-bellied Woodpecker.

A male Belted Kingfisher with a surprisingly neat crest.
This male Red-bellied Woodpecker was a little ruffled looking. Birds will “poof out” and look a bit rounded as they fluff their feathers out for warmth on colder days. Even in Florida.

We drove out to the observation tower that overlooks “Lake Goodwin”, but the tower has fallen again into disrepair and had a small apiary sitting on the bottom step. We decided to walk along the road south of the tower where we had seen some flocks of white egret species and Glossy Ibises flying around (the roads south and west of the tower are closed to vehicular traffic). We had to be careful, though, because the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (which manages the area) is doing some work in some of the marsh areas, with heavy equipment. Large dump trucks were speeding in and out of the area along the publicly accessible roads (so if you venture out to the area, be mindful).

Overlooking some of the marsh and open water area.

There were several large flocks of (mostly) white wading birds which can look fairly homogenous from a distance.

It was easy to see where the food concentrations were. 

On closer inspection, we could see that besides the obvious pink of the Roseate Spoonbills, there were American White Pelicans, immature Little Blue Herons, and Glossy Ibises among the Great and Snowy Egrets and White Ibises.

Foraging flock of waders looking more diverse, on closer inspection. The wide variety of feeding styles and bill shapes and sizes show that there must be a wide array of food items available in these areas.

Both species of yellowlegs were also present, along with possibly the most Killdeers I’ve ever seen in one place. We also had some good looks at Least Sandpipers, another life bird species for both Sarah and Bella.

This is the second recent photograph of a Greater Yellowlegs with its eyes partially closed. I like these photos because it gives the impression that the birds are introspective and content.

While scanning around for more shorebirds and perhaps some ducks hiding among the waders, Bella let out a small gasp and started to get excited about a couple of birds flying toward us. I swung my binoculars up to see something unexpected: two Snow Geese! And not only two, but one of each color morph: blue and white. They flew in a circle before settling down some distance away with some egrets and herons, behind a screen of vegetation.

Snow Geese are rare but regular visitors to central Florida. These two represented my life birds for the species.

These birds were lifers for all three of us, and as rarities, we wanted to get good looks at them, and try to document the sighting with photographs. The distance and vegetation made that a little challenging, but here are the best ones I pulled from my camera.


It was hard to let go any chance of seeing the geese closer up, but they stayed down in the vegetation and eventually we decided to make our way back toward the car. Meanwhile, Sarah got a good look at her fourth lifer species of the day (and three in just minutes) with a small flock of Black-bellied Plovers. A stubborn Eastern Meadowlark  would not turn to face us, but even without the bright yellow front and bold “V” mark, these birds are handsome and striking.

Eastern Meadowlarks (and their Western cousins) are members of the blackbird family, or icterids, not “true” larks. But they sure sing sweetly.

As we drove out to the main road again, we continued on to the “Broadmoor” or northern unit of the management area. This part has larger areas of open water, but still no ducks. There were some large assemblages of American Coots, as expected, and some additional raptors (including a nice little Sharp-shinned Hawk).

We looped around the Broadmoor Unit stopping at a couple of places, hoping again for ducks (to no avail) but got to admire more of the beautiful landscape.

I’ll probably always have misgivings about hunting, but as a waterfowl management area, T.M. Goodwin is a beautiful place.

On the way back through the original unit, on the way out, we got a quick look at a Grey-headed (a.k.a. Purple) Swamphen, another life bird for the Muros, and a county bird for me!

A Red-shouldered Hawk let us watch it eat lunch, too. If you’re a little faint of heart, you might want to scroll past these next images. I did feel bad for the poor Garter Snake, but if you’ve seen The Lion King or Madagascar, you know the drill.


We also managed to encounter this frightening apparatus, used by the state to keep some of the waterways navigable for management (I’m guessing). This contraption appears to be a small boat with a pilot house on top and some jerry-rigged mounted whirl of menacing blades. It was slinging mud and roots into the air. Behind it, large groups of egrets were gathered, looking for whatever prey items (or parts thereof) it was stirring up. Sarah dubbed it… The Disturber.



The Disturber!

Our next move was to try and visit the southeastern portion of St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park [map], one of the two quadrants in Indian River County. Whether time of day, time or year, or just luck of the draw, it was extremely quiet along the Tree Frog Trail, with most of the action being along the road leading to the trailhead, with Killdeers and European Starlings (a dozen or so each).

From there we ended our day with a walk along part of Rocky Point Road, in Malabar. There are a series of boat/fishing piers along the waterfront in the Indian River Lagoon that often host large groups of pelicans, cormorants, and various shorebirds. It’s been the only place so far this Fall and Winter that I’ve had reliable looks at Horned Grebes.  It took some searching in the late afternoon light to finally get two grebes between the piers and one of the spoil islands in the lagoon.

Two Horned Grebes on closest approach…the birds have been reliable here, but not much closer than this to the shore.

By the way, those Horned Grebes were also life birds for Sarah and Bella. If you’ve been keeping count, that’s a six-lifer day for Bella and a five-lifer day for Sarah! Here are the eBird lists for the day, in case you’re interested in more.

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

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

St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park, Southeast:

Rocky Point Road, Malabar:

A nice way to end the year, I think. Ducks have been around, and more seem to have flown in with a shot of cooler weather this weekend – including T.M. Goodwin! Wintering shorebirds have been giving a good showing, too. This should bode well for some of the upcoming field trips for the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival next month. Stay tuned.

A Rare Day at St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park

The transition into Spring continues, here in Florida. The wild weather roller-coaster some of my northern friends have been experiencing is more of a gentle ride here. Even so, summer-like (for Florida) temperatures have been happening, and the effect on Spring migration is being debated by birders and ornithologists. With the meteorological see-saw this winter, the departure of some winter residents seems delayed, at least in comparison to last year. There are still American Robins and Tree Swallows in the skies and trees; Hooded Mergansers are still swimming in the retention ponds, diving for who knows what.

In that spirit, I trundled myself down to St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park to try and find the “trifecta” of pine flatwoods birds: Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Bachman’s Sparrows, and Brown-headed Nuthatches. Two of the three are endangered, but while relatively common in the southeast US, the Brown-headed Nuthatch does face habitat pressure in Florida, especially south of the Panhandle.

The park is divided into four sections: east-west by Interstate 95 and north-south by the C-54 canal (which drains the land west of the park and flows into the St. Sebastian River). The Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are generally found in the northeast section, which is home to a small breeding colony. These paths are named and marked as the “Yellow Trail” on the park maps. I hiked a loop from the easternmost parking area, north along the “Red-cockaded Woodpecker Link”, around to the west, then south toward the horse camp and back across to where I started.

Although it took a while to hike in to the heart of the NE preserve, I was serenaded by many male Bachman’s Sparrows along the way. Pine Warblers also had a strong presence in the park, flitting from tree to tree, even as a stiff breeze began to blow as the Sun climbed.

Sometimes this is the best view you get…

St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park is large enough that managed burns are done on various parcels every few years. That has resulted in a very healthy pine flatwoods habitat, as evidenced by the prevalence of wiregrass, instead of Saw Palmetto along the ground.

Some palmettos are alright in a pine flatwoods, but many residents (Bachman’s Sparrows in particular) prefer wiregrass.

There were also pockets of Brown-headed Nuthatches, but these birds are almost constantly in motion. Coupled with the rising wind, photo opportunities were non-existent.

I was happy to have gotten 2 of the “big 3” to that point, but really wanted to get some decent photographs. As I walked along the “Red-cockaded Woodpecker Link” trail, I came across the various nesting trees, so marked with a white stripe.

RCW nest tree.
Although some of the “stucco” front has come off, this is a functional nest box, likely in use.

Sure enough, nearby were at least one pair of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers (RCWs, as they are often called by birders). The birds have a distinctive call note, which they use to stay in almost constant contact and  I heard them long before I saw them.

RCWs will often fly to the base of a tree, then work their way up, looking for insects.
Like all woodpeckers, RCWs use their stiff tail feathers to help prop them up against the trunks of trees.
This bird was near the top of a tree, ready to fly out and across to the base of another.

In addition to the RCWs, the park had numerous Red-bellied Woodpeckers, a few Downy Woodpeckers and, what is becoming increasingly rare, a Hairy Woodpecker. The reasons for the Hairy Woodpeckers’ decline isn’t exactly known. Although almost identical in markings to the Down Woodpecker, the Hairy is about the size of the Red-bellied. It’s possible Red-bellied Woodpeckers (as well as European Starlings and House Sparrows) are out-competing Hairy Woodpeckers for nest sites, but there could be other factors, too.

A Downy Woodpecker about to take flight.

As I passed the 1/2 way point in my hike, I came upon a large flock of mixed warblers on the ground a few meters ahead of me. The flock consisted of Pine Warblers and Palm Warblers, either catching aquatic insects in the water at the side of the path, or taking sips of water. As I was bringing my binoculars up to my face, a flash of yellow caught my eye to the right. At first I thought I had glimpsed a very yellow Pine Warbler, but when I got the bird in my binoculars I saw it did not look like a Pine Warbler.

Mentally, I started noting location, shape, and movement, then field marks from the head down. The thought process went something like this:
“Just at or above eye-level in some palm scrub near some hardwoods.”
“Bright yellow front.”
“Yellow on face with some black/dark near eye.”
“Dark gray or black necklace mark, more defined in the center of the chest”
“Bird has turned sideways to me.”
“Faint light eye-ring.”
“Gray upper parts, no wing-bars.”
“White under-tail coverts.”
Then the bird flew out of my field of view and I was unable to relocate it.

This combination of field marks and behavior point to a Canada Warbler. That was a life bird for me (I’ve had unconfirmed personal sightings before, but this time I got a really good look to feel comfortable claiming the ID), and a rare find in Florida, especially this early in the Spring! I believe the bird was either a female, though it could have been a male that hasn’t molted yet or a very worn bird.

After that encounter as the heat of the day built (it was unseasonably warm), the birds had quieted down a bit. I did see a few distant glimpses of Eastern Bluebirds, had the occasional hawk overhead, and heard several more Bachman’s Sparrows.

I had unsuccessfully tried to get some photos of perfectly posed Eastern Phoebes, just to have them dart off as I depressed the shutter. Finally, near the trailhead as I was exiting the trail, I managed to get quite close to a phoebe that was enjoying a bit of lunch.

Who doesn’t love live grasshopper for lunch?
Down the hatch!
All gone!

Here’s the eBird list for the NE Preserve:

This was the longest hike I’ve done in a while – over 9.5km (almost 6 miles) – so I expected to be dealing with a bit of soreness. Thankfully, so far, just my feet have suffered from some tightness and a little chafing. St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park is a great place for some species not easily found in Brevard County, so it’s well worth a visit. I suggest planning a hike or a birding adventure before the heat of summer, and get an early start. The park officially opens at 8:00am (though you might find the gate open a wee bit early sometimes). There are trails at the other three quadrants of the park, too, but each one could easily fill up a day of walking.

It was a good day. I saw four rare or endangered birds (one of which I never expected to see) and got to unwind before another work week. It won’t be long now until the songbird migration makes it way through Florida. Stay tuned for more adventures.