2015-2016 Christmas Bird Count +

Last week I participated in the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The CBC is a series of bird counts done throughout “the Americas (as Audubon says)” that helps track trends of bird populations. You can read about the history of the CBC and how to help at Audubon’s CBC page [link].

I volunteered to help the “South Brevard” counting circle, and was put on a team with three others on a 20ft. outboard on the Indian River. Our captain was Fred Griffin. His wife, Suzanne Chesser and local artist Cathy Ferrell  and I spent several hours around the lagoon. Special thanks to Cathy for the use of her photos.

Our boat, with me and Suzanne aboard! (Photo © Cathy Ferrell)

We pushed off as the last of the morning sunshine vanished (taking a couple of large flocks of American White Pelicans with it) and the wind and clouds moved in.

Suzanne, Fred, and I during some relative calm. You can see how overcast it was for most of the morning. (Photo © Cathy Ferrell)

Suzanne had the “official” count form and was doing periodic estimates and updates, and I used eBird to record what I saw (and pointed out to the others). At the end of the count our numbers agreed pretty well – good job, Suzanne!

Fred did a great job piloting the boat and, despite some wicked chop at times, none of us had any real discomfort. Of course Both Fred and Suzanne are familiar with boats and I found out the Cathy was captain of her own boat – a larger “Cheoy Lee” sloop – and knows her way on the water as well. It was good to be in such capable hands.

Here we are heading into the wind! We took some hard bounces, but Captain Fred kept us alright! (Photo © Cathy Ferrell)

Most of the birds were tucked up under the leeward side of the islands in the lagoon, though we did have a large count of pelicans (both species) and cormorants.

Some egrets on the lee side of a spoil island (Photo © Cathy Ferrell)

We finished up in the afternoon, a little before the official “wrap-up” dinner at Marsh Landing Restaurant in Fellsmere.

Here is my eBird list for the CBC trip:

I did a quick jaunt over to the Fellsmere Grade Recreation Area and Stick Marsh before the dinner. The Stick Marsh was inundated (due to the excessive rains we’ve had this fall and winter), but I didn’t stay very long.

Loggerhead Shrike

Here’s are the lists for both the road to the Fellsmere Grade Recreational Area and the Stick Marsh:

Fellsmere Grade (road and Recreational Area):

Stick Marsh:

The dinner at Marsh Landing Restaurant was very nice, and it had the added bonus of giving me my first look at a Barn Owl. There is a nest box right outside the restaurant by the banquet room – so one look on tip-toes and there was my Barn Owl! I think 2 are usually there, and they’ve raised chicks, too.

My first birding excursion of the year, and I had a great time all-around. Another thank you to Captain Fred, Suzanne, and Cathy!

Stick Marsh/Goodwin Lake – August 31, 2014

Four weeks have passed since my prior visit to the Stick Marsh/Fellsmere Grade Recreation Area/T. M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area/etc. I returned there yesterday with two hopes. First, I wanted to get there early enough to have a better chance at identifying some rails (either visually or by voice). Second, I wanted to ascend the observation tower at “Goodwin Lake.”

You’ve heard what’s been said about the best laid plans.

I arrived later than I intended, and then helped some gentlemen that were stuck on the access road with a flat boat trailer tire. I rolled into the parking lot well after sun-up. I noticed right away that everything seemed much quieter than the last time. Most notably absent were the Common Gallinules. There were none to be seen nor heard anywhere near the boat ramp or nearby areas. The heron/ibis rookery was still a bit noisy, but there were not as many wading birds around either. Both species of vultures were present, but not in as great numbers as last time.

Also, instead of many pairs of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, there were mainly solitary ducks, each staking out a tree-top or stump. I recall seeing only two or three pairs the entire morning.

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Black-bellied Whistling Duck in territorial display. They stretch their necks out and down like this to warn off other ducks.

For this visit I walked along the artificial lake southward. To my left were the extensive marshy areas, and in there were Roseate Spoonbills, some ibises and various herons and egrets. Along the lake side of the path, in rows of trees growing out of the water, there were Anhingas, which were there last time, and cormorants.

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Double Crested Cormorant. Cormorant is derived from old French (via Latin) meaning “sea raven”. Sounds portentous!

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As the breeding and fledging season ends, birds are molting prior to autumn, which left a good deal of birds with unusual and missing plumage. Some birds had a patchwork of juvenile and adult plumage.

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This was the most this shy grackle would allow me to see of him. Note the black vest or jacket of adult feathers.

Many of the other blackbirds had missing tail feathers, which made for adventurous flights over the marsh as the birds tried to fly without the stability the tail helps provide.

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One of many tailless blackbirds.

I turned around about half-way along the lake’s length and walked back to the parking lot. Along the way there were Barn Swallows and at least one Caspian Tern. While unusual, this last species is not unprecedented in the area in late summer but is a first of the year bird for me.

A Yellow-crowned Night Heron also flew overhead, which was also a  first of the year for me.

My bicycle was in the back seat of the car, so I took that opportunity to ride it with my gear over to the observation tower overlooking Goodwin Lake. It’s almost 4.5 km (2.75 miles) from the parking lot to the observation tower, and it was already getting quite hot. The roadside was populated by vultures and Cattle Egrets, with an occasional shrike and mockingbird. I could hear Common Gallinules and other marsh birds in the thick vegetation, but nothing that let itself be seen.

As I approached the observation tower, I could see the nearby picnic area was too overgrown to make any use of. As I got off my bicycle I was disheartened to say the least.

Overgrowth, a bee hive and a large spider web (complete with resident spider) kept me from ascending the observation tower by Goodwin Lake.

The tower was overgrown, and bees had taken up residence under the first step. If that wasn’t reason enough to forgo any ascent up the tower, a Corn Spider (or Black-and-yellow Argiope) had woven a 5 foot by 2 foot oval web across the first stairwell. There was little choice but to cycle my way back. The heat was really building, and the morning about over. It took a lot out of me to get back to the car, but luckily I had packed some reserve water to drink in case my CamelBak ran dry (it did).

My species list includes:

  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Cattle Egret
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Limpkin (♫)
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Black-bellied Whistling Duck
  • Anhinga
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Least Sandpiper
  • Osprey
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Roseate Spoonbill
  • Great Egret
  • White Ibis
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Green Heron
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Barn Swallow
  • Yellow-crowned Night Heron (FOY)
  • Caspian Tern (FOY)
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Common Gallinule (♫)

I am more curious now than ever about what the field trip to this area are like during the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.

Where Did I Go?

I had a fun and interesting time this Sunday in Fellsmere. I had heard from a co-worker that there was some good wildlife viewing where he had ridden his bicycle, west of the St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park. I’m not particularly familiar with that area, but I know the “Stick Marsh” is often mentioned in that area, and there’s usually a field trip out that way during the Florida Birding and Wildlife Festival. In any case, trying to find “Stick Marsh” on Google Maps just showed an erstwhile bait and tackle shop where there’s a boat ramp. I’ve also seen it referred to as “Blue Cypress Lake.”

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Part of the Stick Marsh at dawn.

In any case, off the “main” road, one traverses a couple of miles on an dirt road with occasional metal catwalk overlooks of some marsh vegetation along some drainage canals. Unfortunately, any “parking” areas near these overlooks have stern signage saying “NO PARKING HERE.”

I got to the parking area, which had a lot of truck and boat trailer parking, but a few “normal” parking areas too. “Heres the Stick Marsh” I said to myself and was promptly greeted by a bunch of vultures, welcoming me to…wait, what?

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A couple of locals formed a welcoming committee.

There were also signs for “Blue Cypress Lake” and “Three Forks Conservation Area”…

I was pleasantly surprised at the large number of Limpkins around the boat ramp and the adjacent waters. They were quite conspicuous, both visually and vocally. Incidentally, this is the first visual ID of Limpkins I’ve had this year. I’ve heard them before now, the first time at the Birding Festival’s Marl Bed Flats field trip.

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One of many Limpkins.

In the smaller overflow ponds there were numerous Common Gallinules, both adults and juveniles. The chicks were about as big as the adults, but still quite gray in color and without the prominent red forehead shields.

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Hey baby, what’s up?

Shrikes were also common. I saw about half a dozen individuals, most catching lizards in the tree tops and whacking them on branches or utility wires before eating them. 

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Superficially similar to mockingbirds, shrikes are far more sleek and lethal.

The trees across from the boat ramp were full of both Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures. While waiting for the morning to warm up and for thermals to develop, many of the the vultures had their wings spread, back to the sun, warming up and getting ready to start their day.

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Sun worshippers.

Within five minutes of that photo being taken, the vulture began to take to the sky en masse. Within a couple of minutes they had already formed 2 large circling groups, or “kettles” as they soared higher on rising thermals.

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Morning commute for vultures.

The only duck species I encountered were numerous mated pairs of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. I’d tell you how I knew they were mated pairs, but this is generally a family friendly blog ;-). Unlike many ducks, Black-bellieds like to perch up on trees and stumps. Many pairs were high on the tops of palm trees near the water’s edge. This pair was a bit closer to the surface of the pond, maybe about 10 to 15 feet up. I wonder when their chicks normally fledge, because I saw no baby or juvenile-appearing ducks, only adult pairs (and some singles).

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Black-bellied whistling duck pair.

There were large alligators as well. I estimated that two of the bigger ones I saw were definitely over 10 feet long. The gallinules and Limpkins squawked out their alarm calls whenever one cruised by.

I skulked around some of the narrow penisulas between Blue Cypress Lake and the adjacent pond, where I saw this Osprey, which had just landed a fish, and several Spotted Sandpipers, as well as Red-bellied Woodpeckers. I flushed even more Limpkins and Common Gallinules as well.

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Breakfast, interrupted…

From there I crossed over some drainage canals into an area marked as the T. M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area. This is a series of levees and flooded areas, laid out in long grids.

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Not a lot of waterfowl to manage today.

My goal was to reach what was marked on the trailhead map as Lake Goodwin, but my water began to run out, it was getting very hot and humid, and I was being assaulted by really big horse flies! On my way out and back through this area, I saw Red-winged Blackbirds, more Common Gallinules, a couple of distant Common Yellowthroats, and even a few Swallow-tailed Kites!

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In keeping with my confusion over the name of where I was, Common Yellowthroats’ songs can be written as, “Which is it, which is it, which is it? Which?”

Despite some early confusion, it ended up being a nice 1/2 day excursion. Here’s the species list in approximate order of first identification:

  • Turkey Vulture
  • Black Vulture
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Cattle Egret
  • Snowy Egret
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • White Ibis
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Limpkin
  • Common Gallinule
  • Green Heron
  • Tri-colored Heron
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Spotted Sandpiper
  • Osprey
  • Black-bellied Whistling Duck
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Anhinga
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Great Egret
  • Carolina Wren (♫)
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Swallow-tailed Kite
  • Mourning Dove
  • Northern Mockingbird

There were some tantalizing clues that some rails were lurking in some of the marsh vegetation, but I could never be sure the calls I was hearing were not Common Gallinules. I tried comparing what I was hearing to some recordings I had on my iBird Pro app, but it just confused me more. I hope to get out even earlier next time out to this place in hopes of catching some more definitive proof.