Falling Over: Part II

December 13, 2017

A week after my MINWR adventure, I once again headed out at the proverbial crack of dawn with Camille – this time for points south. Among the “rare but regular” visitors to central and south Florida are usually one or two Brants. These are nominally northern geese that, along with Snow and Ross’, manage to make their way “too far” south in winter. Having missed one of this year’s Snow Geese at MINWR a few weeks ago, I was keen on getting a look at this Brant.

The mapped location was in St. Lucie County, which is fairly close, but a county I had not previously birded [map]. It turns out that the bird was seen relatively close to the nuclear power plant! Camille and I made some jokes about coming upon a 100 meter tall goose in the lagoon. The role of nuclear power as part of future energy concerns is a serious topic, both state and nation-wide, but I have no specific  reason to worry about this power plant.

Technically, this part of the Indian River Lagoon is known as Herman Bay. You can see one of the nuclear reactor structures in the background.

Just south of the bay the lagoon opens up quite close to the roadway, and it was here that we came upon our first target bird of the day, loosely hanging out with some Red-breasted Mergansers. I hadn’t seen a Brant since living in Massachusetts, and it was Camille’s first ever!

The relative lack of white around the throat could indicate this is the pale-bellied, or Atlantic sub-species, but young birds can sometimes be confusing.
This goose made a couple of close passes to us, obviously curious about us.
Here is our Brant hanging out with some mergansers. None of these birds seemed to be feeding much.

Red-breasted Mergansers are regular winter residents in Florida, but I alway enjoy seeing them, with their punk rock head feathers and bright orange bills.

A female merganser, just after a brief dive.

After looking around a bit for sparrows and winter warblers, it was time to move along to our next destination and target.

Neotropic Cormorants are a regular visitor to south Florida, but at least one bird has been calling Wakodahatchee Wetlands Park [map] home for the past several years. I looked for this bird in June, to no avail, so I was keen to get a look at it.

As far as urban parks go, Wakodahatchee is a real gem, and despite the huge number of visitors, the park is an important rookery for Double-crested Cormorants, Wood Storks, and several heron and egret species. Most of the nests were empty at this point in the Fall, though some noisy cormorant fledglings were testing out their flying abilities.

A Double-crested Cormorant fledgling had made it across the water from its little island, but seemed unsure about making it back. Note the open bill and expanded gular pouch.

The cormorants were fluttering their throats with bills agape, trying to stay cool in the unseasonable heat (it was in the upper 80s). It’s amazing to me how different cormorants can look depending on their bill position.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks (another neotropic bird species that is found more and more regularly in Florida) also live around the park year-round. We saw several groups of them, including one mother duck with a retinue of “teenage” ducklings, resting in some shade.

Momma duck, taking a much needed rest.
One of several immature Black-bellied Whistling Ducks hanging out very near the boardwalk. Soon this bird will acquire the black feathers and pink bill of an adult bird.

We did finally manage to see the Neotropic Cormorant! Where are the photos, you ask? I have none. For the most part my balky camera had behaved enough for some reasonable photos (as I hope you can see, above). But the distant shots of the Neotropic Cormorant seemed too much for it. Camille and I took some long long binocular looks and compared the bird’s bill, tail, gular pouch, and relative proportions to the many Double-crested Cormorants to nail down a positive identification. This marked my first ever look at this species, so I was excited!

Another newcomer to the Florida bird scene is the Gray-headed (or Purple-headed) Swamphen. These robust and aggressive relatives of the gallinules have been rapidly expanding northward from south Florida in recent years. It’s unclear exactly how the species began its infiltration, but it is a common resident in an ever increasing number of areas.

Gray-headed Swamphens have larger, heavier bills than gallinules.
Long toes help swamphens walk on floating vegetation and with grasping submerged roots to feed on. They are omnivores, eating insects and crustaceans, as well as lizards and even small birds.

Wakodahatchee is also well known for its large and photogenic population of feral iguanas. Some large (over 1.5 meters long) specimens were in evidence that day. If you have ever considered having an iguana as a pet, please bear in mind at how large and long-lived these animals are, and don’t commit to caring for one without all the facts. If you do have one and can no longer care for it, please PLEASE, do NOT release them into the wild. Please contact an iguana/reptile rescue organization. Feral animals cause major disruptions to native ecosystems by using up resources (food, habitat, shelter) that many of our local animal friends depend on, often out-competing them. This isn’t the feral animals’ fault, and a solution to the problem is complex and will take some time.

This adult iguana was almost two meters (six feet) long!
Prehistoric handsomeness.

Toward the end of our walk, we managed to come upon a few loose flocks of warblers and gnatcatchers, but the best was flushing out an Orange-crowned Warbler for Camille’s second lifer of the day!

We made a couple of additional stops on our way back north, including Ocean Ridge and John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, both in Palm Beach County, where we had some usual fall birds, including some Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

Immature Lesser Black-backed Gull, showing black bill and pinkish feet.
Adult gull with bright yellow bill and feet. Those, plus the gull’s size and dark gray back, are diagnostic field marks for the Lesser Black-backed Gull.

Here are our eBird lists for the day:

South Ocean Drive/Herman Bay (St. Lucie County)

Wakodahatchee Wetlands

Ocean Ridge area

John D. MacArthur Beach State Park

It was a fun and wonderful day trip, with a lifer (or two) to make it even better. But the weekend adventure wasn’t over yet. Stand by for Part III, where I take the Muros back to MINWR for some late year ducks…

Clandestine Birding!

June 19, 2017

I had the opportunity to bird some parts of south Florida on two different days this past week. Mrs. Lonely birder booked some travel to Cuba and since she didn’t want her family to worry (especially given the upcoming travel announcement from the executive office), asked me not to let anyone know she was out of the country until her return. I had some fun playing Cloak-and-dagger, hiding my eBird lists and not letting anyone else know where I was, either (I’m easily amused).

My first stop was the Yamato Scrub Natural Area on Tuesday morning to see the Least Grebe that had been reported this month. It took a lot of patience (thanks for that advice, Dave Goodwin), I had success! This species has only been recorded in Florida a few times.

It took a while, but eventually this Least Grebe (and they are small) swam out of the reeds.
The bird was out and visible for about 5 minutes before vanishing into the reeds again.

Here’s my full eBird list for the visit:
Another rare bird had been seen not too far away and I took the opportunity to locate it as well. Reports of a Tropical Mockingbird started coming into the Brdbrain e-mail list, and later confirmations started coming in via eBird a couple of weeks ago. This is a pretty big deal, as there have been no official state records of this bird until now.

The bird was associating with (and reportedly engaging in nest-building activities!) a Northern Mockingbird at some beach parking in Lake Worth. Sure enough, that’s what I found.

This bird was grabbing either berries or insects from the trees and harassing Fish Crows.
Tropical Mockingbirds lack wingbars and have white tail markings restricted to the lower part of the tail.
Like all birds, this one is functionally illiterate, so knows it is always where it belongs.

The bird diversity was a lot lower here, and even the beach seemed devoid of much in the way of wildlife (there’s a large pier with a restaurant on it). The most numerous species were European Starlings and Rock Pigeons, but here’s the eBird list:


When it came time to drive to Ft. Lauderdale to pick up my wife on Saturday, I stopped at Wakodahatchee Wetlands to find a rare but regular visitor there: a Neotropic Cormorant. I was ultimately unsuccessful in locating that bird, but it was fun to see all the chicks and fledglings on the various small island rookeries. There were many Wood Stork chicks, as well as various egrets and herons tending young of all ages.

Many of the Wood Stork youngsters were about ready to fledge.
I think these are Great Egret chicks, given their size and bill color.

There were cormorants around, including several on nests. One nest had at least one small chick, which would poke its head out every once in awhile as a parent protected it from both the sun and the rain (there was a large thunderstorm nearby that held off for the duration of my visit).

Yes, that orange blob just below and left of center is a Double-crested Cormorant chick.
I still get almost mesmerized by the turquoise eyes of cormorants.

I walked the boardwalk twice, hoping the Neotropic Cormorant would come in to roost or feed, but it was not to be. I did have a couple of nice encounters, though. First, an adult Purple Gallinule walked out from under the boardwalk where I was standing, letting me watch it forage for a couple of minutes.

Purple Gallinules are less common than their “Common” cousins, and may be getting displaced by the Grey-headed (or Purple) Swamphen – a recently established feral/escapee species.

Then some quick movements caught my eye a bit further down the boardwalk, and I saw a small, black shape darting among the water plants. A single Purple Gallinule chick was running around. I don’t know if the adult I had just seen was a parent or not, but this is the first time I’ve seen a Purple Gallinule chick at this young of an age.

Gallinule chicks are born precocious, meaning they are alert and mobile within hours of hatching.

As I was photographing the gallinule chick, I heard a Red-wing Blackbird call from nearby. I turned around to see this guy right behind me on the boardwalk railing. He was missing a leg. Sometimes birds (especially shorebirds) will tuck a leg up and keep it concealed, even when hopping about, but this bird was actually missing his leg (when he flew off I saw the remaining stub). But he seemed otherwise quite healthy and was unperturbed by my presence.

This male Red-winged Blackbird was singing and displaying right next to me. He was missing a leg, evident as he flew away a short time later.

I circled around the rest of the boardwalk, and looked one more time for the Neotropic Cormorant, but to no success. The sky darkened some more and rather than risk getting caught in the open during a Florida thunderstorm, I headed for the exit.

Here’s the complete list for Wakodahatchee Wetlands:

Overall, it was a nice couple of days worth of birding in south Florida. It’s always fun documenting rare or new species for an area, as well as seeing familiar faces in different places. Once my wife was home safe and sound I unhid my eBird lists (a dubious endeavor, as it turns out), mission complete!