Sunday, April 23, 2017

Woohoo! It's April

Finally, April is here and the first real signs of Spring migration, 2017, came with it.   Don't you love spring?

I started the month birding at yet another new place.  Thanks to Deena Mickelson, a small group gained access to the Rosemary Hill Observatory near Trenton in Levy County.  She invited the three members of the Alachua Audubon Society's Field Trip Committee to look at the property as a possible field trip site for the 2017-2018 schedule.  I had hoped to see my first migrant warblers of the year there, but it was not to be.  We had a terrific morning, watched a couple of Great Horned Owls fly around the property, and saw a good collection of birds, but none of them were particularly cooperative about posing for the camera. And there were no migrant warblers.  Deena was nice enough to share this photo of  (left to right) Rex Rowan, me, and Barbara Shea near one of the two observatories.

Rex, me, and Barbara near the observatory.  Photo by Deena Mickelson.
To tell the truth, I mark the real beginning of spring migration each year with one eagerly anticipated event - the arrival of the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the year at my backyard feeders.  This year I waited a long time.  The hummers were about two weeks later than what I've had in the past, but finally, on April 4, there it was!


There she is ... my first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the year.  Let migration begin!
The next day (April 5) I made the trek over to Cedar Key, drooling all of the way.  Surely today would bring the first batch of migrating warblers!  It started slow.  I took a photo of some White Ibises because I liked the deep red of their bills and faces.  That's a sign of breeding plumage and spring!  So, where are the warblers?

White Ibises trolling for bugs in a yard in Cedar Key.
Okay, it was starting off really poorly -

Brown-headed Cowbird.  Hey, there was nothing else to photograph!
My first stop of the morning was at the Episcopal Church.  For many years, their parking lot has been graced by the presence of a couple of gorgeous mulberry trees.  During every spring, migrating tanagers, orioles, and warblers joined the wintering Gray Catbirds in gorging themselves on the luscious fruit.  But some time since last spring the church leaders decided to prune the trees, drastically reducing the amount of fruit they could produce.  Then Hurricane Hermine came through and did additional damage.  So this year there was little fruit and almost no migrants in the parking lot.  A great birding hotspot has gone cold.

Next I drove along the road to the airport.  The small beaches had a few nice sights.  All winter long, our Willets are a pale, drab gray.  In spring, their plumage takes on some interesting patterns.

Willet finding a small snack.
Typically, our Sanderlings are also pale and gray.  Then they start getting good looking!

Sanderlings at Cedar Key
Cedar Key suffered another bout with Mother Nature this year, and the result was not good for birders.  For example, the docks on the way to the airport were always a haven for hundreds shorebirds seeking safe ground at high tide.  Hurricane Hermine came through and wiped out nearly all of these docks leaving only scattered posts and some debris.  Gulls and terns are using the remnants, but the shorebirds have largely disappeared.

Royal Terns on posts where there used to be a dock.
One things has remained the same.  The Brown Pelicans still find resting places near the public beach.

Brown Pelican near the public beach and tour boat docks in Cedar Key.
So, this trip to Cedar Key produced zero migrating warblers.  Will this warbler drought never end?

Not to worry ... the drought came to an end just two days later when one of the Ewing brothers found a Swainson's Warbler right there in Gainesville at the Loblolly Environmental Center!  We can go many years without seeing a Swainson's in Alachua County, so this was a great find.  I didn't get there until early the next morning, and I had myself convinced that the bird would be long gone.  But hope is the life blood of birders, so a friend and I found ourselves walking the Loblolly boardwalk early the next morning looking for the marker left for us to show where the bird had been a day earlier.

Part of the boardwalk at Loblolly Environmental Center.
Almost as soon as we arrived, we saw a Prairie Warbler, the first migrating warbler of spring for me.  Here's a photo.  It's not perfectly clear, but it was a break though bird.

Prairie Warbler at Loblolly
Eventually we got to the right spot, and there was the bird.  After so much work and waiting, this one was fairly easy!

Swainson's Warbler at Loblolly Environmental Center.
After seeing the Swainson's we continued along the boardwalk and added Black-and-White, Palm and Yellow-throated Warblers to the day's list.  And just before the end of the boardwalk we founf two American Redstarts.  Migration was on!

Meanwhile, back at the drip pool, I got this photo of a Gray Catbird that I really like.  How can plain gray look so beautiful?

The Gray Catbird is one of the last wintering birds to leave Florida.
On April 11, I had the opportunity to take my friend Rex Rowan out to rural Gilchrist County to visit Bell Ridge Wildlife and Environmental Area.  I wrote about this site a few weeks ago when I did a solo trek around its three-mile loop in search of Bachman's Warblers.  I loved the place then, but I also knew it would be right in Rex's wheel house.  This is his kind of place.  I was not wrong.  We had a great time and Rex repeatedly found something to admire in the scenery as well as in the birds.

Bell Ridge WEA.  This part of the loop borders a local farm.
The wild flowers were just starting to bloom.  I don't know what kind of flower this is, but I like it.  If you know what it is, leave a comment at the end of this blog.

I love that color.
Bell Ridge is home to a large population of red-headed Woodpeckers like this one below.


Along the way, we found my first Summer Tanager of the year.  This is a spectacular sight in a green forest!

Summer Tanager's are decked out in a vibrant red that is unlike any other.
But at Bell Ridge the star of the show is the Bachman's Sparrows.  We heard several, but for the most part they stayed hidden from us.  Finally one emerged from hiding just a few feet away and began signing.  For perhaps five minutes, it flew from bush to bush, always perching up where he could be seen.  Each time he resumed singing.  It was thrilling, reminding me once again why I'm a birder.

Bachman's Sparrow at Bell Ridge WEA.
Three days later (April 14) I was back in Cedar Key.  By that time, there were reports of neotropical migrants popping up from all over the area, so I was hopeful. Almost as soon as I arrived, I found an Eastern Kingbird.  This was a good omen.

Eastern Kingbird in Cedar Key.  
Things were quiet until I got to the museum grounds.  That's when it got better.  I never see a Yellow-throated Warbler without getting excited.  This one looked great, but kept hidden deep in a tree.  I was lucky to get this shot.


Then the day took a big leap forward.  One tree over from the Yellow-throated was a male Cape May Warbler.  They're one of my favorite warblers, and always a cause for celebration.  Just look at him!

Cape May Warbler at the museum in Cedar Key.
Then, in the next tree - Worm-eating Warbler, another highly prized migrant!  Here's a fun fact - Worm-eating Warblers live on a diet of insects and spiders.  They don't eat worms.

Look at those head stripes on the Worm-eating Warbler!
So, could it be four for four?  Three trees in a row had produced a great migrant.  Would the fourth produce another?  Well, no ... I actually had to walk about fifty yards to find another, but I can't complain.  The first half of April wrapped up with a wonderful look at an Orchard Oriole (below).  Migration is in full swing now, and in about two weeks I'll post another blog to keep you up to date.

Orchard Oriole at the museum on Cedar Key.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Getting Through March

Bell Ridge Wildlife and Environmental Area
There are plenty of times in life when you know you just need to get through one thing because something better is going to be on the other side.  For a birder here in northern Florida, that would apply to March.  April and the promise of spring migration are just ahead, but first you have to get through March.  As you'll see, I had some good luck ... and some not so good luck ... but I staggered through it.

On Thursday, March 16, and again on the following Saturday, I led field trips that could be described as decidedly mixed.  Both featured terrific people and the fun associated with great conversation and camaraderie; neither had an abundance of birds.  The Thursday trip was to Little Orange Creek Preserve, the same place that Rex and I scouted a couple of weeks earlier.  This time the temperature was in the middle thirties, cold indeed for Florida.  Only five people showed up, but they were a cheerful gang, and we laughed and chatted for at least three hours.  Here's a photo of some of the group:
Braving the cold: Jerry, Judy, Tina and Sally.  Emily was somewhere behind me.
The cold and the wind kept the bird population hunkered down, but one intrepid vocalist picked a high perch and sang out for the world to hear his sweet song:

Brown Thrasher at Little Orange Creek.
On Saturday I led the Bolen Bluff field trip for Alachua Audubon.  It got off to a rocky start when the ranger neglected to open the gate.  Forty-seven minutes and a polite phone call later, we finally got into the parking lot.  Bird-wise the trip went downhill from there.  It was still cold, there were no migrants in sight, and even the local residents were unwilling to show themselves.  Eventually we got all the way to the observation deck on the prairie where we saw a Red-tailed Hawk in the distance.  A few vultures flew over and two Bald Eagles made an appearance, but not much more.  I only got one photograph of a bird, the American Robin pictured below.  It was the last Robin I saw before they all headed north for the spring and summer.

The last American Robin of winter.
"Hey, Bob, you said this was a bird walk, right?  Where are the birds?"
My run of pleasant days spent with few birds continued on the 19th.  I drove out to Worthington Springs, a small, rural community in nearby Union County.  Chastain-Seay Park sits on the border between Alachua and Union counties, and I've always loved spending time there.  Unfortunately, a major storm a few years ago destroyed most of the boardwalks and made the others somewhat dangerous to use.  As a result, I haven't visited the park in over a year.  So I was thrilled to find all of the boardwalks repaired and perfectly safe.

One of the boardwalks at Chastain-Seay Park
Four hours flew by while I walked every path and boardwalk I could find.  I was nearly alone in the park (one couple enjoying themselves in the back seat of a car in the woods notwithstanding), so I could soak up the lush spring greenery, the smells of new foliage, the singing of Cardinals and Wrens, and the gurgling of the river below.  I only had about 20 species including five woodpeckers, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  I'll be back there again soon.

This Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at Chastain-Seay Park wouldn't hold still long enough for a clear photo.
A day later I spent some time at San Felasco Hammock State Park (Progress Park entrance) in Alachua.  I was pressed for time, but wanted to check out what once was an active sparrow field.  Maybe it was just too late in the season, but I found nothing except some Eastern Bluebirds and this Eastern Phoebe.

An Eastern Phoebe checking me out.  Maybe it thought I might attract some flies?
On March 21 I decided I was ready for something new.  I drove out to Gilchrist County and the new Bell Ridge W. E. A.  Ron Robinson told me about the place and assured me that I'd like it.  As always, Ron was right.  As you can see from the photo at the top of today's blog, Bell Ridge is dominated by Longleaf Pines, scattered palmettos, and tall wire grass that whispers with the breeze.  Currently, the loop trail is just over three miles long, but additional side trails are in the works.  The day was bright and crisp and the sounds of raucous Red-headed Woodpeckers filled the air.

Red-headed Woodpecker at Bell Ridge.  Not a great photo, but a spectacularly beautiful bird.
 Blue Jays darted from tree to tree, Pine Warblers busied themselves looking for food, and Eastern Towhees sang out seemingly from every palmetto or thicket.

The Eastern Towhee used to be called the Rufus-sided Towhee.  I like the old name.
I quickly tallied nearly all of the expected species associated with a pine forest except for nuthatches.  As far as I know, none have been found in the park so far.  However, the true objective for the day was to find a Bachman's Sparrow.  Well, that was easy.  I found them in about a half dozen places, and they popped up and posed for me over and over again.  I'm not sure it gets any better than a cool, brilliantly clear day and a spectacular view of a singing Bachman's Sparrow.

Bachman's Sparrow at Bell Ridge
Two days later it was my turn to lead the weekly bird walk at Sweetwater Wetlands.  I really enjoy these trips because they often include people who have never visited a wetland area and people who are not birders or just starting out.  It gives me the chance to see the world through fresh eyes.  This particular week I had a really large crowd of 28 people.  Thankfully, Kim, one of the rangers in the park, was an enormous help, taking a large chunk of the group with her for much of the morning.

Any day at Sweetwater is wonderful, but two funny things happened that made this one memorable.  Almost as soon as we reached the boardwalk we saw an American Bittern out in the open and just below our feet.  I told everyone how lucky we were to find them.  Bitterns can be very secretive and hard to see.  Getting a clean look at one is really a treat and kind of rare.  Just as I finished a young boy said, "There's another one right here."  I looked, and sure enough, there was a second.  I began to exclaim over having two when I was interrupted by a woman saying, "Isn't that one right there too?"  Yes, a third American Bittern was visible at the same time!  I shrugged, looked at the person next to me, and said, "Yeah, they're as common as Starlings."

One of three American Bitterns we could see at the same time at Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville
At the end of the walk I thanked everyone for coming and urged them all to come back again as the park seems to change from one day to the next.  One participant sadly commented that we hadn't seen a Purple Gallinule during the walk.  I nodded knowingly and said, "They're not here yet, but within a week or two and you should be able to find several."  The gang broke up and headed to the parking lot, but I wanted one more look at the closest pool.  I walked out onto the boardwalk and ...

Purple Gallinule at Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville.
As my buddy Rex pointed out, it was within a week or two, so I wasn't completely wrong!

So, birding can be a humbling experience at times.  No, change that.  Birding is often a humbling experience, and just when you think you know something, the birding gods whack you upside the head with a two by four.  Here's a case in point.  On March 30, I drove over to Cedar Key hoping for some cool shorebirds or early migrants.  As always, Cedar Key had birds everywhere, but mostly they were the same ones I'm used to seeing in the same places I'm used to seeing them.  For example, there is almost always a Willet feeding along the closest edge of the water at Shell Mound, and there it was again:

Willet at Shell Mound: The usual bird in the usual spot.
So when I saw a small bird dive into the marsh grass on the other side of the boardwalk, I assumed it would prove to be either a Marsh Wren or a Nelson's Sparrow.  I spished a bit, the bird cooperated and hopped into the open.  I snapped a photo of what I was sure was the expected Nelson's Sparrow.  Later that day I posted the photo to Facebook and a sharp-eyed Matt Hafner (one of the best birders I know) pointed out my error.  The bird was actually a Saltmarsh Sparrow, a bird I've only seen on Florida's Atlantic coast.  The differences between the two species are subtle but I should have seen the important field marks right away.  Thanks to Matt, I added a new bird to my Levy County list (#234!).

Saltmarsh Sparrow at Shell Mound near Cedar Key in Levy County
 The day and the month were capped off with a delightful little scene that I was privileged to witness.  I was birding along one edge of the cemetery grounds in Cedar Key when I saw a male Red-bellied Woodpecker land on a dead tree near what appeared to be a nest hole.  He drummed on the tree once, turned his head to look over his shoulder, and called out to the trees behind him.  Immediately, another Red-bellied answered.  Satisfied, the male crawled into the hole and disappeared.  A few minutes later, a female Red-bellied flew to the same spot and drilled lightly on the trunk.  Within a second or two, the male stuck his head out and looked at her.  Seeing that she was his mate, he took off into the trees, and she popped into the hole.  In my mind, it played out like this ...

He flew to the hole, tapped on it and called, "Honey, I'm going inside to check on the eggs!"

She answered, "Okay, I'll be right there!"

Soon she flew to the hole and gently tapped, "It's me, babe!"

He looked out and smiled, knowing that all was well, and flew off to take up the hunt for food.

How can you not feel blessed to witness such a touching scene involving these beautiful birds?

Red-bellied Woodpecker domestic bliss.  He took his place inside and waited for her.
Another March is in the books.  For the month I tallied 112 species with only 95 of them inside Alachua County.  For the year, I was up to 168 species in Florida with 128 of them in Alachua County.  But now it's on to April.  Bring on migration!!








Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What To Do in March?

We don't call him "Off-Road Rowan" for nothing.  

It's my opinion that March is the most boring month of the year in Florida.  Simply put, nothing much is happening.  Many of the winter visitors are leaving.  The sparrows and ducks become less numerous, and large flocks of Sandhill Cranes circle overhead before turning to the north for the summer.  On the other hand, migration hasn't really taken hold yet.  Sure there are the early arriving Northern Parulas looking for a safe place to breed and raise their young.  True, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds show up mid-month and the first Swallow-tailed Kites grace us with their aerial acrobatics, but the waves of warblers and other neotropical migrants are waiting for April when the birding activity will shift into a much higher gear.  But in March, we're playing a waiting game, so what's a birder to do?  Fortunately, I had a three-part solution that made the first half of the month more enjoyable.

You can watch birds like this Northern Cardinal by looking out your window!

The first part of my solution begins with a reminder that you can bird by looking out your own window.  I've been happily involved with Project FeederWatch (PFW) for over a decade.  This project in citizen science is sponsored by Cornell University.  It asks participants to watch their bird feeders periodically from late fall through early spring.  For two consecutive days you record whatever you see at your feeders, and you note the high and low temperatures and precipitation during the two days.  You estimate the amount of time you spend looking at the feeders.  Then you report the data to the PFW website.  There is no minimum or maximum amount of time you can spend during the two days watching and counting birds.  You can glance at the feeders when you get a chance, or you can use my approach.  I plant myself on my back porch with a cup of coffee and some birding magazines and kill off a bunch of hours in quiet pleasure.  The goal is to record and report the highest number of each species you see at one time at your feeders or water features.  Then you take five or more days off and repeat.  I love it!


The number of Brown Thrashers coming to my feeders increases every March

And while the rest of the birding world is boring, my feeders explode with activity during March.  The numbers of Chipping Sparrows and American Goldfinches swell from single birds to small flocks, devouring seed at an alarming rate!  They're fattening up before the long journey to their summer breeding grounds.  Local residents who don't regularly frequent feeders, also are preparing for breeding season, and the easy-to-get food of a feeder is too good to pass up.


This Yellow-rumped Warbler Is the most aggressive I've ever seen!

Watching feeders has also taught me something about the behavior of various species.  There are the grab-and-dash feeders like the Carolina Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse that grab a single seed and dash into the cover of a tree to crack it open and eat.  But the House Finch and American Goldfinch are patient, sitting at a single feeder perch for an extended amount of time until they get their fill.  Chipping Sparrows can feed on the ground in a large group in relative peace, but too many bodies in a small platform feeder brings out displays of temper.


I watched this Downy Woodpecker successfully fight off the aggressive Yellow-rumped Warbler

And this winter I had two oddities - at least for me.  First, I had an Eastern Phoebe spend the winter in my yard eating suet.  I've had Phoebes stop in my yard on occasion for years, but this one was here every day for months.  And rather than chasing insects all day, it sat on the top of a raccoon baffle and ate the suet crumbs that fell from the feeder above.  That was a new behavior for me, and I enjoyed watching it.  And then there was the Yellow-rumped Warbler pictured up above.  This bird selected two of my five suet feeders and decided that they were his domain.  He spent every day defending those two feeders against birds of every species, harassing them constantly until they got tired or intimidated and flew off.  Only the Brown Thrasher and the woodpeckers (like the Downy pictured directly above) resisted his aggression.  But Carolina Wrens, Gray Catbirds, Yellow-throated Warblers, and other Yellow-rumps scattered before his fury.

You might think I'm easily amused, but Project FeederWatch kept me very happy for a hunk of March.


And where there is water, you attract birds that don't typically eat at feeders, like this Blue Jay.

The second part of the solution that "saved" the early part of March was the opportunity to see a new park that I think has the potential to become a real treasure in the months ahead.  In January, Little Orange Creek Preserve near the town of Hawthorne opened its gates for the first time.  While the park is still in its infancy, and much has yet to be done to help it achieve its full potential, I think it's going to be a great birding hot spot, especially during fall migration.  The park straddles Little Orange Creek, and the current nature trail skirts its eastern edge.  So as you walk along the trail, on one side you have a creek and a series of marshes with its own water-related species.  Meanwhile, on your other side is some rolling hills with newly planted longleaf pine, some open meadows, and some mixed pine and deciduous woods.  The trail actually marks the boundary between very different habitats which have the potential to increase the bird diversity significantly.


In one of the marshes, this Little Blue Heron ignored us while feeding along Little Orange Creek

I visited the park with my good friend and birding mentor Rex Rowan.  I don't see Rex often enough, so the morning would have been fun even without birds.  However, we tallied about 42 species for the morning while we slogged our way through muddy marsh edges and scrambled over rolling hills.  On the watery side we saw Great and Little Blue Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets, Common Yellowthroats and Swamp Sparrows.  On the dry side we saw Hermit Thrush, Ovenbird, Yellow-throated and Black-and-White Warblers, and so on.

This House Wren was not amused by our presence and scolded us loudly until we left him alone.

The park was also great for woodpeckers.  While there we saw or heard Red-bellied, Downy and Pileated Woodpeckers as well as a couple of Northern Flickers.  In one spot we heard persistent drilling, but couldn't find the bird.  Then a woodpecker butt appeared and the Red-bellied Woodpecker pictured below backed out of a hole.  It looks like he was getting a nest ready for his future family!

Those two pointed tail feathers are really stiff, providing the woodpecker with a brace to keep himself steady while drilling.

Here's one shot of the picturesque Cantwell Trail at Little Orange Creek Preserve.  The creek is just over the edge of the trail on the left, and a mixed forest graces the right.



The final part of my solution to the March blahs was to visit Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville while I was NOT leading a field trip.  It seems that every time I've been there recently, I've been leading a group.  While I enjoy doing that a lot, going alone allows me to bird at my leisure and go where I want while not having to worry about anyone else.  I'm also free to take as many photos as I want.  I went there one very cold and breezy morning and had a wonderful time!  Okay, it was cold by Florida's standards - about 37 degrees - and not the cold I grew up with in northeastern Pennsylvania.  Still, it was cold enough.  Cold or not, Sweetwater never lets me down, and that day was no exception.

Tree Swallows feeding over Cell One at Sweetwater Wetlands Park

As soon as I arrived, I was greeted with the sight of dozens of Tree Swallows dashing and darting around Cell One.  I've been wanting to experiment with the Sports setting on my camera, and this was a great chance.  I adjusted the setting and pointed my camera at one spot where the swallows seemed to be focusing.  I pushed the button and let the camera fire away, rapidly taking a bunch of photos.  Eventually most of them got tossed out, but a few of the photos looked pretty good.  I love the electric blue on the backs of the Tree Swallows when they're lit up by the sun!

Meanwhile, an American Coot blithely went about its business, ignoring both me and the swallows:

I'm not sure if that's food or nesting material, probably the former, but this American Coot is looking good!

Just as I got to the boardwalk, I noticed this Palm Warbler hopping about just below my feet.  I enjoyed taking the extra time to watch it going about its morning routine.  Soon Palm Warblers will be leaving us, not to return until next winter.



Farther down the boardwalk I saw this Northern Shoveler (below).  He has been here all winter, and it's wonderful to see his fresh breeding plumage beginning to emerge.  Usually, male Northern Shovelers appear to have a deep green head.  But with the right light and some added water from dipping his head for food, this guy looks more purple than green.  It's not a great photo, but you can see the color on the back of his head.



And speaking of breeding plumage ... check out the color around the eye of this Anhinga.  Wow!  That turquoise is spectacular!



So, the solution to an otherwise boring March ... spending time watching my feeders, visiting a new place with an old friend, and visiting a great spot alone.  Put them together, and the first half of March was a lot of fun!