Do You See What I See?

Today was a pleasant day at Turkey Creek Sanctuary. The winter and year-long residents seem to be settling into their routines. The overall bird density was still low, but the number of species was greater than any point since the summer. 

Most importantly, after almost an entire year, I finally managed to get that elusive White-eyed Vireo photograph! I almost missed it and I had time to fire off one shot in the shadows of the underbrush before it dashed off. But my quest is at an end! 

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A photograph 11 months in the making!

Speaking of vireos, I had a somewhat mysterious encounter with one near the start of my walk. I managed to observe the bird for a good while (sorry no pics – too busy birdwatching 😉 ), and my visual assessment doesn’t quite match with anything in my Peterson guide. The bird was clearly a vireo by shape and size. It was an almost uniform gray with white wing-bars and white spectacles. The best fit is a Blue-headed Vireo; however, both my Peterson field guide and my Sibley guide indicate there should be some sense of yellow and/or greenish cast on the flanks and back. Here, some further explanation is needed.

During the late 1990s, the Solitary Vireo was “officially” split into 3 separate but closely related species, the Plumbeous Vireo of the intermountain west, Cassin’s Vireo of the Pacific coast and northwest, and the Blue-headed Vireo of eastern North America. Generally the three species form what Sibley refers to as a “cline” from east to west of decreasing contrast and color.

An illustration by Keith Hansen showing the plumage variation among “Solitary” Vireos.

I mention all this because as I was making careful observations of “my” vireo, I had the distinct impression that it was almost completely devoid of color and of fairly low contrast. Upon further review, it most closely resembles the plumage of a Plumbeous Vireo. I will note though, that Sibley says there is hybridization and overlap in all plumages and even voice. Where that leaves me with proper identification, I am unsure as this species has not been reliably recorded this far east.

As has been the case for most of the autumn, the most numerous and active birds in the Sanctuary are the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. If you haven’t had a chance to observe these birds, let me just say that they are the tiniest balls of energy you’ll see in a bird, surpassed only by some hummingbirds. Despite their often being within only feet of me, it’s nearly impossible to get a decent photograph. My attempts today did yeild a fairly unique image. It’s a bit blurry, but I find it fascinating. This was taken in the split second it takes one of these tiny birds to hop from one branch to another.

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Some other species that I observed today include the Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Cardinal, Gray Catbird, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Turkey Vulture, Palm Warbler, Tri-colored Heron, American Coot, Cattle Egret, and American Kestrel (the last four by the weir at the Melbourne-Tillman Canal).

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Hello, my monochromatic friend.

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Red-bellied Woodpecker enjoying a little breakfast.

Today was extra active for the Gopher Tortoises that live in the Sanctuary. Here are a couple of examples of coloration difference within the species.

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This dark green tortoise had a shell about 12” from front to back.

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This larger tortoise’s shell was about 18” long. Notice the reddish coloration.

One very noticeable absence from the time I was at the Sanctuary was a total lack of squirrels. The last several trips there the squirrels were everywhere. Dozens and dozens. Today, I heard one scolding call deep in the underbrush, and that was it. I suppose all the frenzy of activity before could have been the squirrels fattening up for the “winter” here, and now they’re just lazing about, waiting for spring. But it was darn strange from my perspective! 

Malabar Scrub / Turkey Creek Sanctuaries

One of the benefits of lonely birding is flexibility and last minute changes without having to negotiate or “vote” on anything. I originally planned on just heading straight to Turkey Creek Sanctuary, but at the last second (literally) I decided to head a little bit more up the road and head in to northwestern-most part of the Malabar Scrub Sanctuary, then over to the portion of Turkey Creek Sanctuary across the creek from the boardwalk. This proved to be a bit more difficult than I thought, as that portion of the parks is more primitive. It did yield up a Yellow-throated Warbler and some American Redstarts, though.

A lot of Blue Jays were present, and this juvenile went through a whole gamut of imitation calls. First, it tried to scare me off with a Red-shouldered Hawk call. Then it started in with what sounded like a vireo or warbler. When that got old, it started with grackle-like clicks and “chucks”. Then it sounded like a giant Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (which was interesting because there were actual gnatcatchers in the vicinity at that point. Then it just let loose with some honest-to-goodness Blue Jay calls before flying off.

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The Talented Mr. Blue Jay.

I worked my way to the creek itself, on the opposite side from the boardwalk, but aside from some Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, it was fairly quiet (except for insect noise, lots and lots of insect noise). I backtracked and then went down some other paths, seeing some Northern Cardinals and more Yellow-throated Warblers. The warblers were always single individuals; I did not see any more than one at a time. By the time I came to the kayak launch area, the sun had come out from the earlier morning fog, and there were butterflies just about everywhere. This beautiful specimen landed on the mud by the launch ramp presumably to drink up some moisture and minerals.

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Large Eastern Black Swallowtail taking a breather…or maybe a mudder…

Eventually I worked my way to the boardwalk and did a loop, with a diversion out toward the weir and Scrub Trail. The gnatcatchers were here in force, as well as more cardinals. At one point they all scattered when an Osprey soared overhead.

At the weir there were a number of different heron species. I saw several Little Blue Herons, a Green Heron,a Tri-colored Heron, a Snowy Egret and Great Egret. There were a couple of Anhingas swimming after fish, and a pair of American Coots foraging nearby as well.

There were some more Yellow-throated Warblers, and a Black-and-white Warbler as well. On the way toward McKinnon’s Way I heard a very resonant drumming. This Pileated Woodpecker was at first hammering on a utility pole (which was really carrying the sound. It sounded like a motorcycle), then hopped onto a palm tree.

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Pilated Woodpecker, a.k.a. Mr. Jack Hammer

After getting back on the boardwalk, I saw another Pileated Woodpecker foraging on some logs off the side and below the boardwalk.

Pileated Woodpecker.

Further along the boardwalk I did finally see some Northern Parulas (I had heard them earlier). On the way toward the exit, there were more Yellow-throated Warblers, as well as a White-eyed Vireo. The vireo even flew right over my head, but I was unable, again, to get any photograph of it. Trying to get a decent photograph of a White-eyed Vireo is becoming a quest at this point.

With the noticeably cooler weather, there were a lot more families and groups coming into the Sanctuary, and it was near noon. I headed out and for home.

Something I’d noticed earlier this year, was a cell tower that was cleverly disguised as a large conifer. Here’s the effort:

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C is for Conifer, over 500 kinds.

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Palm Bay now has a metal Sequoia?

I don’t know what the birds think of it, but it does manage to blend in fairly well, all things considered.

It was a very quiet morning at Turkey Creek Sanctuary. Here are a few of the things I saw today.

  • Centrosema virginiarum (wild pea)
  • Cicada
  • Bumblebee
  • A very worn Black Swallowtail butterfly
  • Mini-lubber!
  • A very shiny skink of some kind
  • Little Blue Heron

Also saw some Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, Northern Cardinals, a Brown Thrasher, Green Herons (adult and immature), and an American Coot. Heard, but did not see a couple of White-eyed Vireos.

[Edited to add: also there was a (un)Spotted Sandpiper near the weir and canal where the herons were, Common Ground Doves near the Harris broadcast tower, and Blue Jays here and there.]

Scrubbing it Up in Malabar

I spent the morning in the central part of the Malabar Scrub Sanctuary. My post from April 14th discusses how much of the sanctuary was overgrown too much for the Florida Scrub Jay. The central part, however, is being managed to keep the habitat more amenable to the jays and other scrub-adapted wildlife.

The Malabar Scrub Santuary was set up in the early to mid 1990s, using a failed housing development from the 1980s.

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Malabar Woods Blvd. You can’t have a more exclusive address

Here are a few photographs of what post-burn scrub habitat looks like from ground level. I am not sure exactly when this was burned, but probably some time this year. Vegetation grows back very quickly; these plants are adapted to fire. photo scrub2.jpg
Burn-managed scrub.

You’ll notice the lower part of the tree trunks are charred, but there’s no evidence of buring in the upper part. Management fires, like the natural fire they mimic, are fast moving and low to the ground. The taller trees here are relics of pre-management days. Left to its own devices, a scrub habitat would tend to be devoid of any taller trees. You can see that the burns have caused many of these taller tress to die, though. photo scrub1.jpg
Lack of shade is par for the course in scrub country.

There were some Blue-grey Gnatcatchers calling in their wheezy-complaining way along the paths off the paved boulevard, but as I walked down the defunct street, I noticed something ahead that excited me a bit. I couldn’t be sure until I got closer, but yes! Florida Scrub Jays! One was acting as a look-out on top of a dead sapling while another foraged on the ground. The foraging jay actually came within 2 feet of me and was very curious. I know that many people tend to feed them (which is illegal), so I don’t know if this jay is habituated to hand-outs or if this was just a normal level of curiousity seen in the species.

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The blue coloration was very varible, depending on the sun angle. This shot shows it to best effect.

photo jay-close.jpg Hello neighbor!

I walked along some of the paths that led into the more forested parts of the sanctuary. I saw a White-eyed Vireo, but wasn’t able to get a photo (again!!), but was hearing what sounded like an Eastern Towhee. I know that the White-eyed Vireos in this area love to mimic towhees, so I was skeptical. It took some careful and lonely stalking, but sure enough, there was male Eastern Towhee singing in the shade of a tree. The race of Eastern Towhee here in Florida has white eyes (rather than the red eyes of northern bretheren) and a slightly less musical and slurring voice.

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Eastern Towhee singing his heart out.

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Pause for breath.

At this point the sun was really beating down and I started to head back out. I saw a few more jays and another towhee. I noticed on my way back out to the scrub habitat a six-lined racerunner and creepy flies (like I’ve seen at Turkey Creek Sanctuary).

The only other resident I saw before exiting the sanctuary was this small Gopher Tortoise. It was about the size of a small bagel, but I don’t know how old that would make it, but I expect pretty young in turtle-years.

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Looks like the kids play outside in this neighborhood.

Both the Florida Scrub Jays and the Eastern Towhees are firsts for this year, bringing my 2013 total to 132 species.

Lazy Day

Yesterday’s excursion to Turkey Creek was particularly uneventful but for the continued prevalence of White-eyed Vireos throughout the sanctuary. I did get some good binocular views, but no photos.

This seems to be a banner year for the species in the sanctuary, and it was interesting to hear all the variants of its songs. A lot of the song segements were reminiscent of other birds. I could hear Eastern Towhee, Great Crested Flycatcher, and even Blue Jay sounds in the vireo songs. I don’t know if this is a coincidence or that White-eyed Vireos have developed mimicry as part of their mating or territorial strategies. I will have to investigate.

[Edited to add: A quick Internet search on White-eyed Vireo mimicry does show that they are known for this. On site has some fairly extensive sonograms and recordings, too. In some cases apparently they mimic up to a dozen species’ calls! I did not know this. How fun!]

Of the photographs I did take, I took a couple of this magnificent spiny orb-weaver and its web. I don’t know the exact species.

Spiny orb-weaver (sp. ?) in its beautiful web.

Close up of the spiny orb-weaver (underside).

Other than that, I caught a few glimpses of Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, heard a few Northern Parulas, and of course, the Northern Cardinals were everywhere (though a bit more quiet than usual). I think I may need to shift my start times to before 7am if I am going to see anything interesting. It was already quite warm by 10:00, which quiets the bird activity tremendously.

Mid-May at Turkey Creek

I went out to Turkey Creek this morning with the threat of rain looming ahead, but the morning seemed nice enough. The birding was a bit flat most of the morning, but I had a nice outing.

The Sand Pine Ridge Trail was quiet for most of the length. At the western end, some activity picked up with a couple of female American Redstarts flitting in the brush. As I stepped onto the boardwalk at that end, I could here some warblers calling ahead in the canopy. At the first creek overlook, I saw some adult Northern Parulas feeding their fledgling chicks. I tried to get some photographs, but the brush was too thick and they were moving too fast. It was really neat, though, to see the chicks in almost full adult plumage. 

A bit further down, a White-eyed Viero began calling, rather frantically. As I watched from the end of the boardwalk, I could see an argument brewing between the vireo and a pair of parulas. I don’t know what got everyone so worked up, but I didn’t realize such small birds could make that much noise!

After they calmed down, I traversed the rest of the boardwalk in comparative silence. I could here the ubiquitous Northern Cardinals off in the distance, and the insect noise was quite loud.

The creek was very pretty, especially as the water level is up a bit from my last visit.

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Turkey creek by Tree House

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One of the creek loops.

As I rounded one part of the boardwalk toward the canoe deck, I surprised a family of raccoons. Before they could all run off, I got a quick photo of one.

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Baby racoon watching mom and sibs trot off.

The paths near McKinnon’s Way and the jogging trail were quiet, but I caught some very brief glimpses of more American Redstarts. Near the Harris radio tower I came across a rather handsome Gopher Tortoise!

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“I *am* smiling!”

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For anyone wondering where these venerable creatures live, here’s a shot of a Gopher Tortoise hole I took a little later in my walk

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“Home sweet home.”

Click here if you want to see a shot with the inside a bit visible.

Near the Scrub Trail I came across a couple of interesting critters. First was this Six Lined Racerunner (actual name!) checking me out. I found out that these lizards can run 18 miles-per-hour! Not bad for animal under a foot long!

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Six Lined Racerunner, racing stripes standard.

Then there was this creepy fly. It’s hard to tell by the photograph, but it was about 3.5cm long (almost 1.5in). Apparently it (she?) was laying eggs in the sand. You can see her abdomen curled down and the tip stuck in the sand.

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Creepy fly. Not much else to say.

Squirrels were abundant, quietly gathering food. This one’s tail is a bit sparse, but he seemed happy enough.

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Got nuts?

I circled back to McKinnon’s Way, passing this prickly pear cactus.

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Yes, Florida does have cacti.

This lovely flowering bush was pretty.

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Colorful finale.

At this point, the few intermittent sprinkles gave way to more steady rain and some thunder, so I made my way out of the park to head home.

Warbler Jackpot

I had a strange outing today at Turkey Creek Sanctuary. I was really in an escapist mood, and I hoped a combination of the weather (gloomy, showers  had just passed) and it being Sunday morning (a lot of folks at church in the morning) would mean I was unlikely to bump into too many people on the trails. Ultimately this wasn’t meant to be, but I rolled with it.

To start off, on the Sand Pine Ridge Trail, I saw this osprey tending to its catch.

Catch of the day!

I got a couple more shots before I basically scared it away, fish in tow. While this was happening, I heard a White-eyed Vireo in the nearby brush and got a few good glimpses.

At the base of the tree the osprey was in, I saw a Black-and-white Warbler scaling up and down the trunk. He let me get fairly close and I was struck by how its movements a mix of those of a chickadee and a woodpecker.

This made me think of the 1960s Batman show when Batman and Robin scale the buildings in an obviously tilted camera shot. No celebrity cameos here, though.

Black-and-white Warbler striking an epic pose.

Further down the trail, I caught a glimpse of a female American Redstart and what ultimately turned out to be a female Blackpoll Warbler (a first!). I also got great binocular views of a Prairie Warbler and a Northern Parula before more redstarts and Blackpolls flew in. I took a few throw-away shots of what I realized were female Black-throated Blue Warblers (first this year).

At this point, as I neared the boardwalk, I ran into my first group of birders, all equipped with the equivalent of the Hubble Telescope for camera lenses. A couple even had lighting rigs that would make night-time shrimpers envious. I have to admit (and I am slightly embarrassed to) that I felt pretty inadequate in the camera department, so I missed what would have been a couple of great shots of a male Black-throated Blue. I was annoyed, though I had no right to be, that my lonely birding had been interrupted. I continued down the trail and along the creek overlooks. I calmed myself down and had a look down.

Hello, gorgeous!

This Florida softshell turtle was fairly large. Maybe about 15” across (there was an even bigger one just barely visible through the murk). Further down the creek I caught this pair of Florida red-bellied turtles sunning themselves as the first rays broke through the overcast.

Sunbathers in a half-shell!

I was feeling better, until I ran up upon another pair of birders with Overcompensatingly Large equipment setups (ok, I am being a bit mean there, forgive me – it was just my state of mind at the time).

I saw this Carolina anole (a.k.a. green anole) displaying below the overlook I was standing on, and used him to center my mind again. He’s a beaut!

image“Can I help you?”

This time, I stuck it out and took a few shots of my own as we were in the midst of a mixed flock of Blackpolls, redstarts and Black-and-Whites.

Blackpoll Warbler, peeking out to say hey.

imageAmerican Redstart fanning his tail at me. Yes. He did.

I manged to mostly shoot between the thick brush along the boardwalk.

I went my separate way again, managning to get some more binocular and unaided-eye views of more Black-throated Blues (this was THE bird of the day) and some Black-and-Whites. There was a quick glimpse of a magnificent Pileated Woodpecker, too.

I then bumped into the first group of birders I had encountered earlier (plus more) and finally determined that I wasn’t going to miss any shots I might take of my own. My equipment is fine, thank you very much! Plus, I realized these birders had every right to be there, as I did. So together we watched the antics of more American Redstarts, Blackpolls, Black-and-Whites and yes, I finally got my Black-throated Blue Warbler shot!

Parting shot.

Then it was up and out, and another great day, in the end. Sometimes it’s easy being a lonely birder. Sometimes it isn’t. But in the end, it’s all about the birds.

Red and Redstart

This morning I went to the Malabar Scrub Sanctuary, which is a property adjacent to the Turkey Creek Sanctuary. In fact, the first place I stopped was technically in Turkey Creek, but on the opposite side of the creek than I normally visit.

Far side of the creek than I am usually on.

Apart from a lot of leaping fish in the creek (I think that happens more on overcast mornings, like today), there wasn’t too much going on. The trails are for mountain bikes, and I did see a few riders on the trail. I did get a good glimpse of a warbler, but positive ID was tough. A lot of these birds are in the midst of getting their breeding plumage, so there’s generally a wild mix of colors and patterns that most field guides just have to skip over. My best guess would be a Magnolia Warbler, based on the wing pattern and the emerging black about the throat.

I did hear a few White-eyed Vireos, but did not get any visuals (and of course, the hordes of Northern Cardinals were in evidence). White-eyed Vireos seem to be very plentiful this year.

Bike trail at Turkey Creek in the morning gloom.

With not much going on, I drove the short distance to one of the trailheads for the Malabar Scrub Sanctuary. The Sanctuary and surrounding property are great to have as conservation land, but it comes with a little bitterness. Originally, the Sanctuary was to help with the local Florida Scrub Jay populations; however, with the rise of the adjacent residential developments and population increase in and around Palm Bay, the necessary operations (i.e., FIRE) to keep the scrub in a state that the Jays would thrive in were halted. Much of the property has grown over and isn’t suitable for Florida Scrub Jay habitat. There is a good variety of habitat, though, including some gorgeous open grassland areas.

Some of the diverse landscape types in the Malabar Scrub Sanctuary.

One persistent Northern Cardinal did present himself well enough for some decent photographs.

I give cardinals a bit of rough time in this blog, but they are pretty.

Here he was listening to his mate, who was gathering nesting materials nearby. In all honesty, the red of male Northern Cardinals is stunning.

While setting up the shots of this guy, I was pleasantly surprised by a non-stop flutter of black and orange. An American Redstart! He was actively foraging with his mate. These birds do NOT sit still very often. Here’s the only decent shot I got of him. You can see a bit of the characteristic wing and tail drooping of the species. They flutter down and around like falling leaves, which is pretty neat.

He stood still just long enough to get this.

Other than a few more ear-only catches (White-eyed Vireos) I got some good binocular views of a dark grey-ish bird with a faint black necklace of streaks that I can’t identify. I’ve seen them before, and cannot figure out what they are. The day was heating up, the sun came out and I headed out. I did get a quick glimpse (finally!) of a Carolina Wren in some thick palm scrub.

The trails at the Malabar Scrub Sanctuary are very well kept

Not the most prolific outing, but it was nice and I had fun – which is what birding is all about!

Went With The Wind!

Continuing my adventures from Part 1, after walking McKinnon’s Way, I came out by a pumphouse just down from the Scrub Trail. The wind was doing some pretty funky things! These Mourning Doves were hanging onto this wire for dear life! But as you can see, sometimes the gusts seemed very localized. The bird on the left is really getting it, while the one on the right seems fairly unperturbed by the gust:


Hang on there, little fella!

From there, I headed to the scrub trail, along the jogging path.

I caught a very inexperienced looking Red-shouldered Hawk over a small clearing on the other side of some thick brush. It seemed to have a fair bit of white fluffy feathers near its tail, so I assume it was a juvenile (though the rest of the plumage was adult, and I have never seen that much puffy proliferation of feathers). It was odd, but it moved on after scattering whatever birds were present and sending the throngs of cardinals into a frenzy of chipping notes.

By this point, the wind was so bad, I figured my observing was over with for the day, but I heard more persistent “per-chick-oo-chick” calls from the White-eyed Vireos. While on one of the walks with Laura Erickson at the birding festival, she mentioned that if you see a warbler or vireo, scan around, because there are probably more birds hanging around.

She was right!

A benefit of birding alone is perseverance. When the group wants to move along, you can stay and wait it out. I could hear the vireo right in front of me, but I could NOT find it for the longest time. But in my scanning for it (both with the unaided eye, and with my binoculars), I caught a flash of yellow and black. It wasn’t enough to ID, but I stuck with it. After several minutes, not only did I catch another White-eyed Vireo, I got a glimpse of a male Prairie Warbler, a first for this year.

There was also some dusky looking small birds with faint streaking that I could not ID, and some very irritated sounding Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers.

From there it was off to the Scrub Trail, but the wind was really roaring by then, and apart from some vultures having a grand time of it, wheeling through the sky, it was time to go. Here are a couple of shots of the Scrub Trail.


Not a bad morning, especially considering the weather.

I also learned that getting snaps of birds is REALLY hard with the branches swaying like a drunken construction crane. Hopefully I’ll get some shots next time when things are calmer.

Gone With the Wind!

It was a wild day at Turkey Creek Sanctuary today. The NWS had posted high wind warnings in anticipation of a gusty cold front about to pass through our area. I didn’t get very many bird pictures with my new camera. It was just too windy!

The morning started out breezy and ended up crazy! I managed to have a pretty good time of it, though. I managed to dodge the pelting palm fronds, and getting bushwhacked by some sort of sedgy grass things at one point was fun.

I also took out the new camera (see last post) and managed a few test shots. I don’t have an SD card yet (local shops were out of class 10 cards).

I did the Sand Pine Ridge Trail first, since that area would be harder to do once the winds picked up. I immediately got some nice views of a White-eyed Vireo, as well a the usual Northern Cardinals and a Downy Woodpecker. From there I went to the boardwalk loop.


Boadwalk section at Tukey Creek Sanctuary

I didn’t have much luck along the boardwalk, except for a pair of Northern Parulas (a male and a female) and by then the wind had already started to pick up. At the canoe deck I practiced with the camera and caught this cutie down below:


A soft-shelled turtle!

There’s a nice sandy trail off the canoe deck called “McKinnon’s Way” that is usually pretty fun.


Some transitional vegetation near McKinnon’s Way


Overlooking the creek from McKinnon’s Way. This is where some sort of sedge stuff tried to beat me up!

More of my adventure in part 2!