On The Move!

April 23, 2017

It’s past the middle of April, and that means MIGRATION for us here in Lonely Birder Central. Waves of migrants have made their way north, despite the wintry weather holding on for a good part of the USA.

At the start of April, Camille and I took a car trip to Stormwater Treatment Area 5/6 (STA 5/6) in Hendry County. Neither of us had birded that area of Florida yet, and it seemed a good idea to get over there before the really hot weather sets in.

STA 5/6 is quite reminiscent of the North Shore Restoration Area and the Wildlife Drive at Lake Apopka. There are large cells of open or semi-open water with vegetated levees and berms, providing diverse habitats.

Stormwater runoff passes through various “STA”s on the way into the Everglades and adjacent hydrological systems.

Various water and wading birds ruled the day, although several dozen Northern Rough-winged Swallows was a nice surprise. In addition to the expected Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, there were some “hangers on” Northern Shovelers and Blue-winged Teals. Black-necked Stilts seemed poised for nesting, and other shorebirds were making good use of the muddy edges to the treatment cells.

Black-necked Stilts can forage in deeper water than other shorebirds and waders of similar body size due to their long legs (submerged in this photo).

A bold Loggerhead Shrike took a liking to Ken Spilios’ vehicle!

I don’t think that’s what “Bird On” means, does it?

We also got a nice look at a Crested Caracara, which let us loiter around its chosen post for quite some time. It’s likely it was serving as a lookout for a mate somewhere in the vicinity. While we watched it, we saw Peregrine Falcons and Snail Kites nearby, too.

The Crested Caracara has such presence, it is easy to see why it is the national bird of Mexico (though arguably, the Golden Eagle appears on Mexico’s flag).

As a last minute treat as we wound our day down, Camille and I went with trip leader Margaret England one last time to find a reported Tropical Kingbird, and met with success! It was a wonderful excursion with over 60 species identified.

Here are the eBird lists for STA5/6 (one stationary at the parking lot, the other once we got underway):

It was a good adventure, and it added a couple of counties to my Florida birding lists (Hendry and Glades).

Closer to home, there have been a few weather systems bringing moderate fall-outs here and there, and I was lucky enough to catch some migrant action at Turkey Creek Sanctuary over the last couple of weeks.

I’m happy with this distant shot of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak – my first ever taken in the Sanctuary.

Upon arriving at Turkey Creek on one of the days, I bumped into Bill Haddad and we stuck together for a good chunk of the morning. It was among the more impressive days at the park in recent memory with a good variety of warblers activity, including a sizable number of Prairie and Black-and-White Warblers.

I had to dodge raindrops and foliage to get this shot of one of a couple of dozen Black-and-White Warblers. This species is a winter resident, but many move through the state during migration.

As the winter resident Blue-headed Vireos depart, the Red-eyed Vireos are heading through on their way north as well (White-eyed Vireos are year-round residents here).

A Red-eyed Vireo playing “peekaboo”, high in the canopy. I heard this bird singing long before I saw it.

During a rain shower on one of the mornings, I finally managed to get a photograph I’ve been trying to get for a long time: a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher singing! Their song is so soft and easily overlooked that it took me years to even recognize it for what it was.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are nominally resident all year, but their activity ramps up (along with most birds) as spring heats up and the mating and nesting seasons begin.

April 11th was the best migrant day at Turkey Creek in some time, with over sixteen warbler species recorded, some in large numbers. I had my first-of-year Black-throated Green, Bay-breasted and Magnolia Warblers, as well as rare Canada Warblers and a Summer Tanager!

Here are the two successive Turkey Creek Sanctuary eBird lists:


Coming next, a few photos from a day-trip to Fort De Soto Park!

Migrant Days

They say patience is a virtue, so you may understand that many of us birders along the Space Coast have felt seriously virtuous this Spring. It was long overdue for something more serious to happen, along with the fall-outs at the end of April (see previous blog entries).

The last few weeks have seen some of the best birding around parts of the Space Coast in years, though in perhaps a different manner than one might expect. While it’s true that not all warblers migrate at the same time, it’s more typical for several species to come through an area at a time. For example, years past it was normal for Blackpoll Warbler and American Redstarts to come through Turkey Creek Sanctuary around the same time each year.

This time, we seem to have gotten specific warbler days, with dozens (and in one case I’ve heard, hundreds) of one species to fall out for a couple of days, to be replaced by another after that species moved out.

It started with a “Black-and-White Warbler Day”, in which dozens of that species were moving through most of the park.

A Winter resident in Florida, the Black-and-White Warblers were fueling up on tiny insects in preparation for migration and breeding.

The very next day was a “Blackpoll Warbler Day”. The Black-and-White Warblers were still numerous, but the Blackpolls outnumbered them almost 3-to-1.

A Blackpoll male, showing his distinctive black cap (or “poll”) and characteristic orange legs and feet.

Of course, other birds were also present, though in smaller numbers. There have been steady trickles of Worm-eating, Cape May and Black-throated Blue Warblers all through these fall-outs.

After a dip in activity, another weather system moved through and we had two “American Redstart Days”, where many dozen of these quite active birds were flying all through the area parks.

Many redstarts were first-year males, just starting to get black feathers, and displaying their flashy tails, even while grabbing a drink of water.

Later in the week, Tom Ledford and others reported hundreds of Common Yellowthroats (a year-round resident in Florida, though the population changes as birds fly in and through from South America) along the coastal areas. There were still quite a few at the Maritime Hammock Sanctuary this week.

Some off-the-beaten-path birding was in the offing, too. Having heard reports of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in the residential areas near Turkey Creek, Camille and I took a quick look into an area north of the park in hopes of seeing it. We struck out on the cuckoo, but wound up seeing a small mixed flock of warblers that included Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, and Yellow-throated Warblers.

All this activity culminated in a surprise sighting for me this week.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been part of a Kirtland’s Warbler survey, using eBird to try and get a better handle on the migratory habits and travels of this species. Just a couple of decades ago, the Kirtland’s Warbler was on the brink of extinction as its breeding grounds were disappearing. With a better understanding of what is needed to manage it (fire, as it turns out), the population is rebounding. The entire population of this bird winters in the Bahamas, and we know where the birds should travel to get to their breeding grounds (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario), but they are almost never seen en route.

So far, the suggested survey points have not shown any Kirtland’s Warblers, and as the end of the survey period is approaching, I was resigned to the fact that I’d not be seeing this bird this year (or probably at all).

While birding the Maritime Hammock Sanctuary, I so happened to turn to face some scrub vegetation near a pond while searching for a Great Crested Flycatcher I heard nearby, when out popped a Kirtland’s Warbler! It stayed well in the open for several seconds, even bobbing its tail several times (a trait the species shares with just a few other North American warblers). My photos, however, are not so grand. I was so shocked to see the bird that I watched it in stunned silence in binoculars before it occurred to me to take a photo.

Maybe just enough to see the gray face and white eye-ring?
Gray back with black streaks are a species fieldmark.

I tried using the survey audio to call the bird back, but to no avail. As I’ve said, it is extremely rare to see this species in migration. I felt honored and privileged to get just a few precious seconds with this bird.

As a final note, I also finally got my Yellow-billed Cuckoo for the county this Spring. I’ve been sort of chasing this species for the last few weeks, with sightings reported just hours after a leaving a park.

Sitting high in a tree, this Yellow-billed Cuckoo was also calling out, which is the first clear vocalization from this species I’ve heard since my early birding days in Massachusetts.

Here are the various eBird lists, since April, documenting the Spring migration as it nears its end.

Micco Scrub Sanctuary (May 1, 2017):

Turkey Creek Sanctuary (May 2, 2017):

Turkey Creek Sanctuary (May 3, 2017):

Turkey Creek Sanctuary (May 4, 2017):

Turkey Creek Sanctuary (May 5, 2017):

Pumphouse north of Port Malabar Road (May 5, 2017):

Lori Wilson park (May 6, 2017):

Maritime Hammock Sanctuary (May 8, 2017):
[not including Kirtland’s Warbler on survey list]

There are sure to be a few more migrants coming through the rest of the month, but the bulk of the season is over. Strong southerly winds for much of the Spring probably caused most of the Hooded and Prothonotary Warblers (among others) to overshoot our area. And you know, that’s fine. The birds take advantage of any energy saving method to get them to their breeding ground in peak condition. If that means they overfly the parks around my home, I’m glad they made the safe journey. It’ll try to catch up with them in the Fall.


Spring Fall Outs 2017

Since my last entry we’ve had one small and one larger “fall out” of migrating birds here along the Space Coast. A fall out happens when birds encounter a weather event that forces them from flight to stop and seek shelter or food – or both – for a time before resuming their paths. Flying takes a tremendous amount of energy. Over a long period of time, many birds have developed methods to save that energy in flight. Neotropical migrants, like warblers, use approaching winds and weather fronts to time their overnight flights. For much of this spring there have been unusually strong southerly winds along the entire peninsula of Florida, allowing many migrants to fly very long distances with a tail-wind, often bypassing the state altogether. That has made for another fairly quiet migration, for the most part.

At the beginning of April, a cold front did sweep across the state, and some early migrants were forced down into area hotspots. At Lori Wilson Park, that generated some excitement as a rare Black-whiskered Vireo stopped for a couple of weeks. This is likely the same bird that also stopped there last year, so it remembered the park as a safe haven and place to refuel.

Like many recurring and rare visitors, this bird had a favorite hang-out in the park. In this case a mature Gumbo Limbo tree, producing berries that vireos seem to love.

The season’s first Red-eyed Vireos were also present, as well as familiar faces that hadn’t found their favorable winds quite yet. Prairie and Yellow-rumped Warblers were still there, as well as the park’s large contingent of Gray Catbirds.

Catbirds generally prefer to skulk in the underbrush, but this bird had come out in the open to get some water.

A complication this spring for any migrants that do need to stop and “top-up their tanks” is the lack of rainfall since the end of winter. Many places around the state are in drought and fire hazard warnings were up for much of the first part of April. The conditions only got worse as the month has worn on. The marsh habitat of Black Point Wildlife Drive on Merritt Island caught fire last week and about 5,000 acres burned. Fire is a natural and necessary force in shaping central Florida’s natural landscape, but only in area adapted for it. The area around Black Point is a wetlands habitat, dominated by mangroves. A hot burn there stands to do damage, even to the soil. It’s early days yet to know how much damage may have been done. The fire is suspected to be human induced, though the origin might never be truly known. If you smoke, please properly extinguish whatever you’re smoking and don’t light up when in areas prone to fire (which in recent days is just about anywhere outside).

Fire at Black Point. (Photo courtesy USFWS)
Photo courtesy of USFWS.

After the small fall out at the start of April, conditions returned to strong, southerly winds again, even through the Spring meeting of the Florida Ornithological Society. The FOS meeting was in Ruskin this year, near Tampa. I’ll have a little to say about that coming up in another blog entry.

Finally, this weekend we had another front come through. Though not as strong as the one a couple of weeks ago, there were more birds in the sky as we’ve reached peak migration time for many species. The results were dramatic. Over at Fort De Soto park (just days after I left the area after the FOS meeting), dozens of tanagers and grosbeaks descended on the park, though the warbler numbers were low.

Closer to home, Turkey Creek Sanctuary finally saw its largest number of migrant warblers of the season. Over two days this week I went out before work to see what made pit stops there.

Tuesday morning had large numbers of Black-and white Warblers on the move. This species winters in Florida, Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America. It breed throughout much of the eastern US and Canada. There were also Black-throated Blue Warblers, American Redstarts, and Blackpoll Warblers throughout Turkey Creek Sanctuary. Small numbers of Cape May and Worm-eating Warblers were also there, and at least one Black-throated Green Warbler – a long anticipated life bird for me!

Finally! I’ve been hoping for this bird for a while. 
The extensive black throat feathers identify this Black-throated Green Warbler as a male.

Many of the birds were moving west, out of the sanctuary and into the adjacent neighborhood. I think this might be because of the limited food supplies in the park itself. The native and ornamental trees in the neighborhood might be irrigated, thus producing more fruit and attracting more insects.

The following morning saw much the same mix, except the predominate bird was the Blackpoll Warbler. I saw at least 3 dozen, mostly males, throughout the entire southern part of the Sanctuary (the northern area – specifically the Sand Pine and Turkey Oak trails – remain closed as trees and debris are being cleared, due to last Fall’s hurricane Matthew.

Here are three eBird lists from Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. I included Monday’s list for a comparison to what happened after the fall out conditions.

Monday 4/24/2017: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36227122
Tuesday 4/25/2017: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36254038
Wednesday 4/26/2017: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36281378

Food supplies in the sanctuary are still low, but these birds are finding enough for at least a brief stopover.

I expect things will taper off again as the winds are already turning more southerly. There are still a few weeks to go for migration, so hopefully there will be more chances for birds to make stops along the Space Coast. Many of these species won’t be seen here again until October.

I know this entry is a little light in the photographs, but such is the way with small, fast moving targets. I was excited that my Black-throated Green Warbler was as accommodating as he was!


Turkey Creek Sanctuary was closed most of last week, after Hurricane Matthew did some minor damage and left lots of debris along the boardwalk and trails. I walked the perimeter of the park before work one morning and got to play a little hide-and-seek with a male Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Other highlights included a Merlin, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, and a Red-shouldered Hawk. I also had my first Gray Catbirds of the season and some other surprises and expected comforts.

eBird List: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S31989975

Where Am I in the Pecking Order?

As central Florida begins to settle into a summer pattern, I thought it would be a good weekend to stay more local and see what was happening both at the Helen and Alan Cruickshank and Turkey Creek Sanctuaries this past Sunday.

As expected, it was a quiet morning at both places, but it is breeding season for most of the resident birds. That means fledglings!

There were at least a couple of Purple Martin families flying high above the Cruickshank Sanctuary, with many of the fledged birds taking food from adults while on the wing. Purple Martin calls can sometimes sound almost like a Star Wars blaster effect or a metallic twang, and these sounds filled the air for the whole time I was there.

Also fledging are the Florida Scrub Jay chicks. Almost immediately upon stepping into the sanctuary, I had inquisitive youngsters fly up to take a close look at me.

This immature Florida Scrub Jay is a little older than a fledgling, but is yet to molt into his adult plumage.

Some of the younger fledglings were having trouble flying long distances, so stuck close to the lower scrub, while the older and more bold youngsters tried to keep up with the adults (who were feeling quite feisty!)

An adult Florida Scrub Jay acting as a lookout.

At one point an adult landed on my head. This isn’t unusual at this sanctuary. In the past, scientists and hikers alike fed these birds peanuts, which took advantage of this species bold and gregarious tendencies. It was found that in the long run this was not helpful for the long-term rehabilitation of the species (especially if the birds were ever relocated to colonize new habitats in the future), so the practice was officially discontinued. Unfortunately, many visitors continue to feed these birds, and some of them have come to expect the hand-out. In the case of this particular bird, it began pecking me on the head!

This bird pecked at the phone right after this shot.

After I pulled my hat back far enough to get the bird off of me, it landed on the ground and then looked up at me, confused, as if it had done nothing wrong.


“What the heck is YOUR problem?”

There were some non-avian friends about the place, too, including a nice collection of Eastern Cottontails, some Green Anoles and other lizards, and frogs, singing in the trees.


A pair of Wood Ducks were sitting up in some of the dead trees. I suspect they may have a nest nearby, though they either already had a brood of chicks or the female has yet to lay eggs (or it may be both; Wood Ducks may have 2 broods per season). Wood Ducks nest in cavities that may be over 50 feet off the ground! When the young hatch, they jump to the ground just a day or so later, surviving a harrowing fall and running off to join their mother, usually to the relative safety of a pond or stream.



A Wood Duck pair, high above. The nest up and to their right is an Osprey aerie.

Overall, it was a pleasant morning and I left this sanctuary before the heat of the day. You can see the complete list of birds I identified below.

eBird list for the Helen & Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary:

I then drove south to the Turkey Creek Sanctuary to get a look at how it was faring, post-migration. It was relatively quiet, though the woods were full of Carolina Wrens and Northern Cardinals singing and calling. It started to get a little warm as the day progressed, but there was a reasonable amount of bird activity spread throughout the portions of the sanctuary I visited (I did not walk most of the boardwalk).

Many Northern Parula chicks have fledged, and were begging for food high in the canopy as their parents gleaned food for them, and at the weir there were some first year Common Gallinules and one transitioning Little Blue Heron.

This immature Little Blue Heron has gotten most of its adult primary feathers.

eBird list for Turkey Creek Sanctuary:

The biggest surprise was a Gray Catbird out by the turn-around by the boat ramp and end of the jogging trail. It’s not the first time I’ve seen one in the area in the summer, but it is unusual. I may have heard a second one, but I can’t be certain. That’s one of many reasons to love birding: you never know what to expect and surprises are always possible.


Turkey Creek Awakens!

Longer term readers of this blog know that Turkey Creek Sanctuary [map] had long been a mainstay of my weekly birding adventures. Of late, this beautiful part of the EEL family has been less than stellar, when it comes to watching birds. Migrations for the past two years have been exceedingly quiet and episodic. While visiting new places and teaching a newbie the “birding ropes”, it’s not been a priority location. This changed late last week after seeing the uptick in action and Lori Wilson Park (another quiet-of-late Space Coast migrant spot). I saw on the Brdbrain e-mail list that Bill Haddad had some decent species numbers at Turkey Creek, and was leading a Space Coast Audubon Society walk there on Saturday morning. We’d had a “good” shift in weather, and Bill was banking on seeing more migrant warbler (and other species). I decided to drop in on his walk and see what my birding fortunes would be.

I am glad I made the trip. While we didn’t have a “blockbuster” morning by any measure, it was nice to see some bonafide migrant species and enjoy a day that, while starting off a bit drizzly, wound up blue and beautiful. The only metaphorical “fly in the ointment” was the wind, which likely kept the numbers and species count down. But for Turkey Creek it was a nice change, and I got to walk the comfortable and familiar paths of my old stomping grounds.

We used the tried-and-true method of locating common and vocal resident species, such as Northern Cardinals and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers to find associated migrants.

The tail-end of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. All the birds we saw were so active, photography was not often a fruitful endeavor.

At the end of one overlook (I can’t remember if it was the “Tree House” overlook or not), a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk landed in some nearby (but obscuring) oak limbs to devour it’s lunch (a frog).

Best-focused and least graphic photo I have of the hawk having a fresh meal.

Of course, spring time is in full swing, and much of our canopy is closed in, which made locating the many Northern Parulas we heard a frustrating exercise. Even later on, with other warblers and vireos singing quite close by, we had to rely on the group’s combined birding-by-ear expertise to positively identify the birds.

Among the FOY birds for me this trip were Black-throated Blue, Worm-eating, and Cape May warblers.

Various airplants and bromeliads are still blooming, like this +2-foot diameters plant with the bright red inflorescence. I was tempted to ID it as a Cardinal Airplant, but the inflorescence looked different to me. If anyone knows the specific species, I’d be glad to know  – just leave a comment.

This may be the largest airplant I’ve seen, outside of the Everglades.
Brilliant red inflorescence.

We had some non-avian friends as well. A pretty orange butterfly landed on the path from McKinnon’s way to the jogging path. When it finally landed, it refused to open it’s wings (at least until after I left the vicinity – other’s ID’d it for us).

American Painted Lady butterfly, resting.

No trip to Turkey Creek Sanctuary is complete without a Gopher Tortoise sighting, of course. This one was just off the boardwalk on the way toward the park entrance.

Gopher Tortoise hanging out on the equivalent of its front porch.

By the end of the walk, only a few of the 10 of us remained (it was a taxing walk, with little reward at first), and we were treated to a couple of male Indigo Buntings in the sanctuary and public library parking lot.  At the very end just Bill and I were left as two Swallow-tailed Kites flew quickly past over us in the lot before the breeze quickly carried them away.







eBird list (doesn’t include the Prairie or possible Pine warblers Bill saw, but I missed):

This may bode for some good migrant activity through the week until the weather changes again, and I hope some birders have a chance to get out there and appreciate these birds as they make their way north, in some cases thousands of miles, to their breeding grounds.

Quick Check-in at Turkey Creek

It’s been quite a few weeks since I checked in at the Turkey Creek Sanctuary. Although I wasn’t expecting too much, it was nice to take in the familiar sights and sounds of the place.

I arrived just after sunrise and managed to do the majority of the jogging trail, the boardwalk and the Sand Pine Trail in about three hours.

The Sanctuary doing its best to look primeval.

I also used this as an opportunity to count birds for my first “official” eBird checklist. I’ve been reluctant to make any checklists on eBird for a variety of reasons. For one, when there are larger numbers of individuals of a species, especially if they are encountered at various points though a hike, I don’t trust my count. I used to carry a notebook around and that might certainly help, but I find that I sometimes get too caught up in following a bird or watching what it’s doing, then I would forget to count the numbers. I realize that seems a bit lame, but I did make it a goal this year to start making an effort to use eBird.

I counted quite a number of Northern Cardinals, which is not surprising – this park is usually overrun with them. I tracked a few Northern Parulas both on the boardwalk and on McKinnon’s Way, and finally managed to get sight of one high in the canopy. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, at first, until I realized the bird had no tail feathers! Whether this was from parasites, molting, or an attack by a predator, I have no way of knowing, but he was singing and foraging like all was well, otherwise.

Tail-less Northern Parula.

There was little else to document, apart from some woodpeckers and Carolina Wrens scattered here and there. The highest concentration of birdlife was near the canal and weir. There were Blue Jays (one of which was imitating a Red-shouldered Hawk so well that it got a hawk to answer its calls from across the canal), Fish Crows, Mourning Doves, and White-eyed Vireos along the jogging path before the weir. At the canal itself there was an assemblage of birds just behind the floating barrier.

Two of four Mottled Duck juveniles (I think they are past the “chick” stage here) that were resting with 2 adults.

Along with Mottled Ducks and a few American Coots and Common Gallinules, there were two Green Herons and Two Killdeer probing the mud and vegetation. I was a little surprised not to see any other herons or egrets near the canal.

Green Heron.

Here is a link to the eBird checklist:


And the species list in the same order as the eBird checklist:

  • 6 Mottled Ducks
  • 2 Green Herons
  • 2 Black Vultures
  • 1 Turkey Vulture
  • 2 Red-shouldered Hawks
  • 3 Common Gallinules
  • 2 American Coots
  • 2 Killdeers
  • 1 Common Ground Dove
  • 3 Mourning Doves
  • 5 Chimney Swifts
  • 2 Red-bellied Woodpeckers
  • 2 Downy Woodpeckers
  • 3 Great Crested Flycatchers
  • 3 White-eyed Vireos
  • 4 Blue Jays
  • 3 Fish Crows
  • 5 Carolina Wrens
  • 6 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers
  • 5 Northern Parulas
  • A LOT of Northern Cardinals

I expect the situation at Turkey Creek will be fairly stable for the next month or so, with some of the breeding birds raising their young and some fledglings venturing out. Some of the early migration vanguard will start to arrive later in August, but until then things should remain quiet.

Winging Through Spring

With some better reports coming in from along some parts of the Space Coast, I thought it might be a good time to return to Turkey Creek Sanctuary. The better forecast for migrants is for later in the week, but the winds have been out of the south for the past few days, making for at least some marginally good conditions. I met up with Camille again and we set out along the Sand Pine Trail on our way to the boardwalk where there are generally reliable sightings.

Aside from the usual Northern Cardinals and Carolina Wrens singing up a storm, we did encounter a decent sized, mixed flock of Black-and-white Warblers and Blackpoll Warblers, mostly high in the pine trees. Since different warbler species often associate with each other, we gave this group a really good look to make sure we weren’t missing any other species before moving on down the trail. The flock more-or-less followed us along the trail, but we didn’t see much else. I could hear Chimney Swifts above us, but never got a good look, and there were Blue-gray Gnatcatchers nearby as well.

We got to the boardwalk to an area where Camille (who had run into Bill Haddad last week) had seen some warblers, and is known to be a pretty good hot-spot. At first we didn’t see to much, but then we heard some gnatcatchers (often a preamble to warbler or vireo activity). Sure enough, we wound up with a nice group of Blackpolls, Black-and-Whites, American Redstarts, and even a Black-throated Blue Warbler!

This Black-and-white Warbler was hanging around with some Blackpoll Warblers.

Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish the Blackpolls (especially the females) from some other species when the birds are in the canopy or in poor light (most of the birds we saw were very backlit). A key identifier for Blackpoll Warblers is their orange feet.

“He did tell you about the feet.”

Female Blackpoll Warblers lack the dashing black cap (or “blackpoll”) of the male, but they have a pretty olive-yellow tint and subtle streaking. Again, those orange feet are a good field mark to differentiate the females from other, similarly colored birds.

Prominent wing-bars are also a great field-mark for Blackpolls.

Most of these birds were engaged in three types of foraging: creeping, gleaning, and flycatching. Creeping is when birds walk along the bark of a tree trunk or limb, grabbing small invertebrates as they move along. When birds hop or walk from branch to branch or on twing, reaching up or across to grab food, that is gleaning. Flycatching, of course, is what just what it says: the bird will dash out from a perch to grab a flying insect from mid-air, often performing stunning aerial acrobatics to do so.

Along with our “monochromatic” friends (being mostly black and white), this flock of birds had a fair amount of American Redstarts among them. Redstarts are fun birds. The males are strikingly black and orange colored and they constantly flutter about, drooping their wings and fanning their tails. They will often drop off a branch and flit down, like a falling leaf, only to swoop back up and start again. The females are just as active as the males, though their colors are a little more muted (olive-brown and yellow).

Fast and furious, it’s hard to get a good shot of an American Redstart.

The overall effect of these three species moving through the canopy was one of almost dizzying chaos. It was hard to know where to center the eyes, binoculars, or camera. There was at least one Black-throated Blue Warbler among them, but it was hard to know if any more were in the melee of feathers.

It was fairly quiet further along the boardwalk and onto McKinnon’s Way. We would hear some high-pitched calls here and there, but it was difficult to see much in the canopy. I got a glimpse of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and we picked out a few more Blackpolls, but that was mostly it, until we got to the weir. First, I had a look at the “emergency” boat ramp. If you remember from last time at Turkey Creek, the high waters had likely removed the ramp’s deck (which was a bit rotted anyway). Repairs have been made, and there’s even a new platform at the base of the ramp.


As we came out of the woods, we saw some movement along the trail up ahead. There was an overturned Gopher Tortoise! I quickly walked up and turned it upright. It didn’t hiss all that much and walked on its way.

It was a real topsy-turvey day for this tortoise!

There was a larger tortoise further down the path, and Camille wondered if maybe they had a tussle or mating encounter that went awry (at least for the first turtle). I actually recognized the second tortoise from it’s shell markings and size, which was kind of cool.

This tortoise was much more grumpy and hissed a lot before lumbering on its way.

At the weir there were 2 spillways open, since the water was still somewhat low on the canal side. At first the area behind the orange float barrier seemed completely bird-free, but upon closer inspection there was a single Killdeer, one Green Heron, and then a lovely surprise. A pair of Solitary Sandpipers! This was another life bird for Camille, and a first of the year for me. I’ve actually encountered this species before, along the trail leading to McKinnon’s Way from the boardwalk. It was odd that they were so far into the wooded trail area, and i don’t know if this is the same pair or not.

One of two Solitary Sandpipers walking in the muck.

With the day wearing on and the heat climbing, it was about time to wrap things up. We walked back up the western side of the Sanctuary, past the Scrub Trail, to where there are sometimes Indigo Buntings or vireos, but it was really quiet. We had one more look at some Blackpoll Warblers before heading on toward the Picnic Pavilion and then out.

Overall, it wasn’t a bad day for birding, especially given there wasn’t any special fall-out event or anything. Clearly Blackpolls and redstarts dominated the Sanctuary this weekend. What we didn’t see in species variety was more than made up for in the numbers of warblers. Here’s the species list in no particular order:

  • Carolina Wren
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Blackpoll Warbler
  • Northern Parula (♫)
  • Chimney Swift
  • Downy Woodpecker (♫)
  • Blue Jay (♫)
  • Black-throated Blue Warbler
  • American Redstart
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Fish Crow
  • Green Heron
  • Killdeer
  • Solitary Sandpiper
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker (♫)
  • Gray Catbird

The weather forecast calls for potential fall-out inducing conditions early this week, but not so much for the coming weekend, so we’ll see how that pans out.

Quiet Times at Turkey Creek Sanctuary

I decided to go to Turkey Creek Sanctuary this weekend, as it had been a while since I last checked in. The area had some weather move through that made me hopeful some early migrants had made a pit stop overnight.

Hope springs eternal, as the saying goes. It turned out to be another eerily quiet morning for the majority of the sanctuary. There were pockets of Northern Cardinals and the winter residents are still hanging on, though their numbers are much lower. Any activity was in widely spaced pockets, with only a few individual birds.

Some typical Turkey Creek Sanctuary habitat.

Besides the cardinals, I encountered a couple of Gray Catbirds in the Saw Palmetto along the boardwalk loop and I could hear Northern Parulas up in the canopy. I also came upon small bands of Prairie Warblers both on the boardwalk loop and later, along the Sand Pine Trail.

I heard Yellow Warblers and Blue-headed Vireos together as I approached the canoe deck. It’s been a mild source of frustration for me that for a few years in a row, in the same general location, I can hear Yellow Warblers high in the canopy but have been unable to get any decent binocular views, to say nothing of photographs. Some patient watching did get me some good looks at the vireos singing and hopping below the canopy, though.

The Blue-headed Vireo’s song is a bright, “Cheerio! See you later!” (at least that’s how I hear it). True enough, this is the last view I had of it before it moved out of view.

I saw almost no birds at all along the creek overlook boardwalk (though there were quite a few Northern Parulas singing). I spooked an Osprey down by the boardwalk on the Flood Plain Trail, but otherwise there were no birds present there either. I met up with an out-of-state couple who were visiting the sanctuary for the day. They asked me if I had seen “anything good,” and I had to admit it was seriously quiet. They had heard that the sanctuary was a decent place for spring migrants. I explained that it was probably still a bit early for most of the migrants, but that also the sanctuary has been very quiet for a couple of years now, even during migration seasons. But, as I told them, you never know what you might see on any given day.

I had two surprises on the Sand Pine Trail which would later come to cause me some small embarrassment. First, somewhere near the mid-point of the trail I heard some distinct whistling notes close by. I knew the birds had to be very near, but I was not detecting any movement. I noted, in the back of my mind, that further up the trail I could hear something that sounded somewhat vireo-like as well, but I was trying to focus on the birds at hand (or at ear, I guess). Finally, after trouncing back and forth on the trail trying to get a good vantage point I saw movement and got a look at a brown warbler skulking in the mid-story, and then another nearby. Based on the facial pattern and overall shape (and later confirmed when I played the bird’s song) I identified the bird as my first of year (FOY) Swainson’s Warbler. How exciting! A spring migrant after all!  I took a few photographs that I thought would be pretty decent and clear enough to convince the (at times) über-skeptical e-mail lists that I had indeed seen Swainson’s Warblers. This would come back to haunt me.

I walked further up the trail, and again heard the vireo song, but much closer. About 10 or 12 feet up in some of the smaller trees I saw two Red-eyed Vireos. One of them let me get some great binocular views before moving off a bit. The light and shadow through the trees made the photographs a bit tough, but I got some good shots, including this one.

Red-eyed Vireo

At this point I did not realize that my Swainson’s Warbler photographs did not properly write to my camera’s memory card. Later that afternoon I went to post to BRDBRAIN and FLORIDABIRDS-L that I had seen FOY/FOS Swainson’s Warblers, and only quickly looked at what photographs I had pulled form the card, I attached this vireo photograph! As you can imagine, I received some properly amused replies that I had actually seen a Red-eyed Vireo, not a Swainson’s Warbler. You can imagine my dismay as I checked and sure enough, in my excitement I had posted the wrong photo. I had not realized I had no Swainson’s Warbler pictures! I quickly posted another message to the e-mail lists explaining my error, but I am sure it’s already added to the body of lore I’ve managed to accumulate there (to examples: I once jumped the gun that a winter American Goldfinch was a Snow Bunting, and my hearing two Carolina Chickadees at Erna Nixon Park was roundly scoffed at by a couple of list members).

This isn’t the first time my camera (or the memory card) has failed me like this. Since my trip to Minnesota the camera hasn’t been right. Whether or not it was due to the cold, or just a coincidence, I seem to lose some pictures and the controls react more sluggishly than they used to.

I heard more Prairie Warblers on the Sand Pine Trail, but had my best photo opportunity interrupted by a loud, if well meaning family. I couldn’t stay too angry about it, since the kids were genuinely interested in nature and the wildlife they might see. They weren’t being obnoxious, and the parents were encouraging this in them. I also reminded myself that the bird photographs are icing on the cake. It’s great just to be out and see these magnificent creatures.

As a last minute decision, I went down to McKinnon’s Way and then over to the weir and canal, but there wasn’t much happening there either.

The boat ramp has yellow caution tape at the entrance to the path leading to it. I peered around it and saw that the decking had been removed. I don’t know if this was from the minor flooding a few months back or from the planks being removed for repair (the wood seemed to be a bit rotted from what I could tell). The creek level is down to normal now, and the lower and newer parts of the ramp’s deck seem fine, if a little more crooked.

Remnants of the “emergency” boat ramp.

At the canal and weir there was one Little Blue Heron and one Cattle Egret. The canal level was surprisingly low. We’ve had a relatively wet winter and early spring, but the past few weeks have seen some above normal temperatures with little rain. This must have been enough to drop the water level down quite a bit. Even the heavy showers from previous days must not have made much of an impression. Only one discharge was open on the weir, and there were turtles stacked up at the edge of the others, taking advantage of some prime basking real estate.

Turtles bask along the discharge openings of the weir at the Melboune-Tillman Canal and Turkey Creek.

The low discharge can be explained better by looking at the next two photographs, showing how low the canal level is.

I stirred up some more cardinals on my way back toward the sanctuary entrance, but saw little else in the way of bird life. I saw one Black Racer (a snake species), which quickly slid away from me before I could even get my camera up to take its picture, and of course the lizards are ever prevalent.

Here’s the total species list. Except for the Prairie Warblers, most of these were single or pairs of birds, widely spaced apart throughout the sanctuary.

  • Common Grackle
  • Mourning Dove
  • Eurasian Collared Dove
  • Osprey
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • European Starling
  • Carolina Wren
  • Northern Parula (♫)
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Gray Catbird
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Fish Crow
  • Prairie Warbler
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (♫)
  • Purple Martin
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Red-eyed Vireo
  • Swainson’s Warbler
  • Blue Jay
  • Yellow Warbler (♫)
  • Blue-headed Vireo
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Cattle Egret

The lack of bird life here and in many other parks is perplexing. Certainly the amount of insect and reptile life seems to be about the same, and the plants (apart from some more invasive species than a few years ago) seem healthy. There are still very large gar in the creek, and the manatees come upstream as they always have. But something is affecting the birds’ ability or willingness to stop and stay at many of the areas they used to frequent. Last year Shirley Hills told me that it was the quietest year to her recollection, and she had been birding Turkey Creek for decades. I really hope things pick up in April, as the main body of spring migrants make their way through. The birds have either found better places to stop or are vastly reduced in numbers. How much of that would be part of normal population fluctuations and how much from something we ought to be alarmed about isn’t something I am able to know as yet.

Springing Into Action at Turkey Creek Sanctuary

With Spring starting to get under way in Florida, I thought it was a good morning to check in on the Turkey Creek Sanctuary and see what was going on. Bird migration is still some weeks away, so I wasn’t expecting an influx of warblers or anything. The morning started off a little cool and foggy in spots. Here’s the view from the Sand Pine Trail as the Sun was burning off some mist.

Plenty of sand, pines and it’s a trail!

The first birds I heard after getting on the trail were Northern Cardinals and Carolina Wrens. These species are usually the staple of Turkey Creek Sanctuary, though as I’ve previously discussed, the cardinals have been down in numbers of late. There was a pretty strong contingent this particular morning, though. It amazes me how well hidden Northern Cardinals can be, given how brightly colored they are, but both the males and females tend to stay low in the brush, occasionally popping up into a pine tree. When one does venture into the open, even a far way off, it’s unmistakable.

Along the Space Coast we don’t get to see Northern Cardinals contrasting with fresh snowfall. Then again, we don’t get fresh snowfall either 😉

Throughout the sanctuary the Winter and year-round residents were active and vocal, as the longer days help gear them up for the Spring. A large number of the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were singing their soft, bubbly songs in between bouts of their nasal call-notes.

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in “full song.” This is probably the longest I’ve seen one hold still (a total of about 15 seconds!).

Commonly, other birds (like vireos or warblers) associate with gnatcatchers, so I paid close attention to any other movements in the canopy. I had heard Northern Parulas singing, so I knew they were around. The Northern Parulas that I saw were quite active and in either the canopy or the thick brush. There were males, already with their breeding colors, and females foraging.

Things were really hopping at the Sanctuary!

Deciduous trees in Florida do lose their leave every Autumn, though there’s no real period with bright red and gold colors like there is further north. By February they are beginning to leaf-out, and by the time the migrant songbirds start arriving in March, there’s plenty of canopy for them to hide in.

It’s easy being green. For a tree.

The understory and ground cover has been growing in as well. Ferns figure in fairly prominently in the habitats adjacent to Turkey Creek.  Away from dumpsters and trashcans, raccoons forage on the forest floor looking for bugs, nuts and anything else edible.

This raccoon was intently watching something for several minutes. After a while, it went back to digging in the ferns for food.

Racoons are perhaps an ultimate victim of human development. They are intelligent and highly adaptable, which has made them pests in some places, as they scavenge for food and find places to live that don’t always agree with human settlement. But that adaptability has made them survivors, (despite us infecting their population with rabies) and we should at least admire them for that while taking humane measures to keep them out of harms (peoples’) way.

Butterflies have been an almost constant all Winter where I’ve looked, and this day was no exception. The majority of the species I saw this time were the Zebra Longwings, which are Florida’s official state butterflies. Here, you can see where they get their name.

“Am I black with white stripes, or white with black stripes?”

I walked out to the canal and weir, and there was a small collection of herons nearby, as well as some Mottled Ducks. This drake was standing alone on the edge of the canal, his bright yellow bill and recently refreshed plumage should make him a striking figure and a good catch for the lady-ducks!

Mottled Ducks nest from February until Summer, and most are already paired up, but there’s still time for this guy to find a mate.

Back in the Sanctuary, as the morning progressed, more birds were foraging in the middle layers of the woods, including White-eyed Vireos and some warblers. Soon, more vireo species will be moving in, as the wintering Blue-headed Vireos move out. White-eyed Vireos are resident all year, though.

Most passerine birds have black eyes, and a few have red eyes. In Florida, two have white irises: the White-eyed Vireo, and the Eastern Towhee.

Black-and-white warblers are also Winter residents in Florida, and the time of year just before migration finds them gleaning bugs from tree bark as they prepare to fly north. They tend to be a little less shy, too. You can find them associating with vireos and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, as I did. I couldn’t remember what their song was like, and had intended to quietly play it on my phone, but had the volume up louder than I expected. This resulted in this bird flying down to eye level to scold me.

A displeased Black-and-white Warbler glared at me after giving me an earful for playing a bogus song.

Yellow-throated Warblers also hang around all year, and the Space Coast is near the southern limit of their breeding range. You can usually find some hanging around during the summer, but they generally stay out of sight. I often find them on the underside of palm fronds, like this, eating insects and spiders. It’s easier to see their brilliant yellow throats when they are up in the canopy.

This Yellow-throated Warbler couldn’t hang around long.

The Sanctuary was certainly coming alive with the longer days and hopes of warmer weather ahead. Only time will tell how this year’s migration will go, but the amount of activity among the resident birds was perhaps an encouraging sign that the ecosystem is healthy enough to support the migrants, should they stop by this year.

Here’s the list of identified species for the morning, mostly in order of first encounter:

  • Carolina Wren
  • Purple Martin
  • Gray Catbird
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Northern Parula
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Fish Crow
  • American Robin
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • White Ibis
  • Tree Swallow
  • Blue Jay
  • Cattle Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Green Heron
  • Mottled Duck
  • Anhinga
  • Common Gallinule
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Red-shouldered Hawk (♫)
  • Brown Thrasher
  • Yellow-throated Warbler
  • American Goldfinch
  • Mourning Dove

I finished the morning with a couple of satisfying things. One was finally confirming to myself that there are American Goldfinches in the Sanctuary (I’ve heard snippets of their calls now and again) by seeing a winter female (I believe). I also noticed some trail maintenance near the canal and Harris radio tower, making access to the weir a little easier. The trail leading from the canoe deck to McKinnon’s Way was also clearer, making access to that area of the park much easier. Much thanks goes to the volunteers for that!