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, 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 racoon 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 has 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 s 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'm 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 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 an 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!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

A Mixed Bag

Ring-necked Ducks (and a Bufflehead) at ISWQIP

The latter half of Florida was a mixed bag for me.  I had better luck outside Alachua County than inside its birders.  The variety of species I saw was low, but I got some great looks at birds I don't see really often.  Also, I got to see at least one spot that I'd never seen before - and that's really unusual this close to home.

I have mentioned in previous blogs that when I retired from teaching I started a birding/social group for other retired folks who are looking for some group birding opportunities.  We meet once a month on the third Thursday.  We bird early and then many of us go to lunch together in order to extend the social element.  I love the group and enjoy each outing with them, but there is a downside.  I have to plan each month's outing including the birding destination and the lunch stop afterward.  So I was thrilled when Debbie Segal arranged for us to visit a new site in nearby Columbia County.  The Ichetucknee Springs Water Quality Improvement Project (ISWQIP) is a new water treatment facility that uses nature's own filters to clean water before it trickles down into the aquifer below.  It does so by spreading water over nine pools filled with a variety of vegetation covering about 120 acres.  Of course, such a facility will attract plenty of birds making it an ideal birding destination.  It was a perfect day for birding, and there were plenty of birds to be seen.  One nearly dry pool held hundreds of shorebirds including the largest collection of Lesser Yellowlegs (below) I've ever seen.

Another pool held a huge number of ducks.  Most were Ring-necked Ducks, but there were others as well.  I saw about 20 Green-winged Teals, a few Buffleheads, and some Lesser Scaup.  Another spot had Blue-winged Teals, Hooded Mergansers, and Northern Shovelers.  A few of our group saw a Common Goldeneye, but I missed it.  While searching for it I got a distant look at a Gadwall.  I love looking at ducks, so this site was a real bonanza for me.  Here's a look at three of the Lesser Scaup.

Part of my group is in the photo below.  I think we were studying shorebirds at the time.  The little flecks in the picture is a swarm of midges that swirled around us during a piece of the morning.  Fortunately they don't bite as much as some other Florida pests, but they make great food for the flock of Tree Swallows that dashed around us.  For the day the group had about 40 species, topped off with a terrific look at a Merlin that was hanging around the eastern edge of the property.  We ended the day with a delicious lunch at Conestoga in Alachua.  Dixie, our waitress, got 34 people seated, got our orders taken, and had our food out in record time - and it was fantastic.  Many of the group told me we had to plan another birding event in the area so we could return to Conestoga for lunch really soon.

The Third Thursday crowd.  Click on the photo to get the full version and look for the midges.
A few days later on a Saturday morning, I had a wonderful opportunity to help lead a "Family Bird Walk" at Depot Park, Gainesville's newest family-friendly recreational facility.  Emily Schwartz organized the event on behalf of the Alachua Audubon Society (AAS).  We had about 14 children, almost as many parents, and four AAS volunteers.  We loaned binoculars to all participants, and the children got a worksheet listing the birds, plants, and natural features they should be looking for during the morning.  We had so much fun watching American Robins dashing around the skies, Killdeer feeding along a stream, and an American Kestrel posing on a wire just above us.  It was fun getting the kids to see the ring on the bill of the Ring-billed Gulls (next photo), and I had to scratch my head before answering some of the questions. [Why isn't a Pied-billed Grebe a duck?]  I got a lot of great photos, but nearly all of them have children in them, so I can't publish them here.  For the morning we found 25 species of birds and all of the plants and natural features on the checklist.  The blustery, overcast skies had no impact on our spirits, and I had so much fun, so thanks Emily and AAS for inviting me along!

Words that warm the heart:  "Mommy, I can see the ring in its bill!"
And then there was, "Why isn't the Pied-billed Grebe a duck?  It looks like a duck!"
A week later, AAS sponsored another wildly successful event, this time coordinated by Alan Shapiro.  It was a day-long Backyard Birding Tour in which participants got to tour a series of local yards that are designed to provide the best habitats and feeding practices for birds.  I started out in the first yard at 9:00 AM and finished in the last one at almost 3:00 PM.  I saw a wonderful mixture of formal suburban gardens, small urban yards, and tiny but bird-friendly patches just out the back door.  I saw expensive, commercially-produced bird feeders and inventive feeders made from discarded items.  The small price of admission was well worth it as I came away with several really good ideas.  While the large crowds kept many of the birds at bay, the stars of the day included a Western Tanager at one home, a couple of male Baltimore Orioles at another, and three Red-shouldered Hawks perched in pines above the feeders at a third.  Here are a few images from the day:

Ron Robinson (center near tree trunk) showed off his variety of self-made feeders and water features.
A Pine Warbler at a seed hopper with attached suet feeder from Wild Birds Unlimited
Chipping Sparrows enjoy a mixture of sunflower, safflower and millet.
Hmm, I wonder what food this Red-shouldered Hawk was looking for?

On the following Wednesday I led another bird walk, this time at Sweetwater Wetlands Park.  I volunteer at SWP once a month, and I think I have more fun than the other participants.  This month was really special because my group consisted almost entirely of retired teachers, several of them colleague from previous schools, and none of them veteran birders.  I was especially thrilled to have Wiley Dixon join this month's walk.  Wiley was my principal at both Fort Clarke and several years later at Gainesville High School.  He and Donna Kidwell were the best principals and leaders during my 41 year career.  They brought out the best in me, and I'm grateful for the opportunities they gave me.

My Sweetwater group on February 22.  That's Wiley in the red cap.
In my opinion, Sweetwater is one of the best birding destinations in all of Florida for both beginning and expert birders.  It provides up-close looks at birds and other wildlife in a beautiful setting.  You can study common wetland species while searching for the rarities that seem to show up there with surprising regularity.  At one point a Sora (below) walked right below our feet, oblivious if the excited conversation and clicking cameras right above it

A few feet away on the other side of the boardwalk, an American Bittern (below) stood frozen in place, blending in with the surrounding vegetation and waiting for breakfast to swim by.

At the same time, a Limpkin landed on the railing almost right next to me.  He seemed to be asking what all the fuss was about.

Meanwhile, Blue-winged Teals went about their business:

Blue-winged Teal, male (left) and female

On the following Monday I got the chance to head over to the Gulf Coast and Cedar Key.  I had hoped to find some shorebirds to study at Shell Mound, but that was not to be.  Aside from a couple of Willets, a few American Oystercatchers (below) and some very distant Black-bellied Plovers, there wasn't much around.

I had a little better luck out toward the airport.  A couple of the docks that were swept away by Hurricane Hermine are being rebuilt, and I saw evidence that others will be rebuilt soon.  On the remnants of one dock were several Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns and one Herring Gull.

Royal Tern
Herring Gull
A Great Egret prepares for takeoff at Shell Mound near Cedar Key in Levy County.  
Of course, you don't really need to travel at all to see some beautiful birds.  Put out a few feeders and get some dripping water going in your own back yard, and the birds will come to you.  During the latter half of February local yards are graced by the presence of our resident birds, our winter visitors, and some who are just passing through.  Here are some highlights:

American Robin, a sign of spring when I was a boy in Pennsylvania, now a winter visitor in Florida.
Carolina Chickadee, a regular at feeders throughout the south.
Brown Thrashers can look angry at times, but in the water they're just plain cute.
So February ended, and I only had 82 birds on my county list for the month, but that include enough new species to get my county total to 119 for the year.  During my travels I added another 36 species for a state total of 118 for February and raising my 2017 Florida list to 160.  I'm certainly not going to break any records, but I'm off to a really good start to the year.  I can't wait to see what March holds.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Being Gull-able

Alachua Audubon Society studying gulls with Michael Brothers of the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet

On February 1, the denizens of the Big Red Van rode over to Cedar Key, one of my favorite places in Florida.  It's a quaint little fishing village that has survived both time and tide to become the ultimate contradiction - a sleepy tourist destination.  Perhaps it's the out-of-the-way location or the lack of land on which to build, but the town has remained small and quiet despite the obvious attractions of sun and sea.

On this day, we had to deal with a heavy fog and very limited visibility.  Nonetheless, our first stop was at Shell Mound, just north of town and in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge.  It can be a great spot for shorebirds, waders, gulls and terns.  Unfortunately, the tide was low and the shorebirds were gathered in spots that were quite distant from us.  Still, we were lucky enough to spot a Horned Grebe, always a pleasant surprise in this area.

Our typical second stop was the road to the airport where for many years the docks along the street were home to large congregations of birds.  This allowed for close study and photography.  However, a hurricane a few months ago wiped out all of the docks, and they have yet to be replaced.  All I saw in that part of town was the Laughing Gull pictured above.

I'll happily admit that one of the highlights of birding in Cedar Key is the chance to visit a local restaurant.  This time we stopped in the Big Deck Raw Bar.  I had a Philly cheesesteak that was fantastic.  I topped it off with ice cream from the little shop under Steamers.  Delicious.  While I ate my ice cream, I enjoyed watching the Brown Pelican pictured below.

As you can tell, by that time the fog was gone, but the day ended with fewer than 50 species.  Still, a great meal, a Horned Grebe, and a few Marbled Godwits made the day a great one, so no complaints from me.

The next day I was fortunate enough to accept an invitation to Mike Manetz's house to see the Dark-eyed Junco that has been visiting his feeders.  Admittedly, the photo below is poor.  It was taken in really low light and from a little bit of a distance.  Still, I haven't seen a junco in Florida for about eight years, so I was happy to see him at all.  So pretend it's a clear shot and you're just a little tired or your glasses are dirty.

On February 7 I had the rare privilege of attending a lecture by Michael Brothers (below) of the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet.  Michael is perhaps the leading expert on gull identification in Florida and one of the top experts in North America.  His talk on that topic was incredible.  Often, experts who know everything on a topic have a hard time talking to people who know very little.  Michael is different.  He was born to teach, and he does so with wonderful enthusiasm, patience and clarity.  I took page after page of notes, and spent a bunch of time in the subsequent days comparing my notes and my field guides.  Now I was ready to take it to the field!

The following Saturday found the Red Van Gang kicking off the morning at Blue Spring State Park in Deland.  My goal was to walk out the Pine Island Trail a little way in hopes of finding some Florida Scrub-Jays.  At first, I thought it would be a futile attempt.  Very few birds showed themselves in the beautiful hardwood hammock at the beginning of the trail, and even fewer were seen in the open area once we emerged from the hammock.  Then an Eastern Towhee popped into view:

Suddenly there was a chorus of towhees singing from all around us.  It was pretty cool, but other than in the sky above us, the only other bird that we saw was a Palm Warbler:

Fortunately, we noted a spot where we thought we might have glimpsed and then heard a Scrub-Jay.  So on the way back we stopped there and waited patiently.  Soon an ever-curious Scrub-Jay wandered over to us to see just who it was that was disturbing his morning.  This lovely bird, one that only exists here in Florida, should be our state bird.  Look at the photo!  What's not to love:

Back at the center of the park, we killed some time by strolling along the boardwalk and watching the manatees swim in the crystal clear water of Blue Spring.  This one obliged me (below) by surfacing while my camera was ready.

Finally it was time for the whole purpose of the trip.  Following Michael Brothers's talk to us, we were going to meet him at Frank Rendon Park in Daytona Beach Shores where we would try to apply what we had learned earlier in the week.  The photo at the very top of today's blog depicts just a little more than half of the people who showed up to walk the beach with Michael and study the thousands of gulls that gather there late in the afternoon.  In fact, this is the largest gathering of gulls in North America, and it happens every afternoon in the winter!

Now, I'm familiar with the adult plumage of the gulls I most often see - Laughing, Ring-billed and Herring.  The Laughing Gull in today's second photo from Cedar Key is well on the way to its adult plumage.  Soon its head will be all black and the white upper and lower "eye cups" will really jump out at you.  Now here's an adult Ring-billed Gull:

Note that beautiful, clean vertical black ring around the bird's yellow bill.  If only all gulls were named after - and prominently possessed - such obvious features!  But no.  Look at these two photos:

The bird in the lower photo is a Herring Gull.  (No, I don't know why it's named after a fish, and I've never seen a Herring Gull eat a herring.)  Now look at the brown bird in the center of the upper photo.  It too is a Herring Gull, only at least on the surface, it looks very little like the stunning white, gray, and black of the other bird.  The upper bird is a youngster in its first year, and its black bill and muddy brown features are the hallmarks of its age group.  Only the pink legs seem to survive into adulthood, while the rest of the bird turns white and gray and the bill becomes yellow with a red spot.  So Michael taught us also to look beyond the plumage at the size and shape.  The Herring Gull really has a different shape, more elongated through the body and a little front-heavy.  That was really helpful to hear and then see.

Here are two more birds to examine:

These two are Lesser Black-backed Gulls, a second year bird in the upper photo and an adult in the lower.  To me, the Herring Gulls look almost like a football that is under inflated on the back end while the Lesser Black-backed Gulls are smaller and rounder when seen in profile.  The dark gray of the adult can be picked out of a crowded beach pretty quickly.  But the brown of the younger bird can get lost among other brown gulls.  Fortunately, the size and shape really help, and even the brown of the second year Lesser Black-backed Gull is mixed with some deeper browns and grays making it darker than the other similar species.

Then there's this:

This one is a giant.  It's the Great Black-backed Gull.  I wish I had a good photo of a first or second cycle bird of this species for comparison, but I don't.  However, the key here is that this is one really big gull.  According to Sibley, they average 30" in length with a wingspan of about 65".  By comparison the Herring Gull, typically thought if as a really big gull, averages 25" in length and its wingspan is about 58".  Around here, this is the biggest gull on the beach, its sheer size making it a fairly easy ID.  Here's another look at the Great Black-backed Gull:

Just as an aside, we saw thousands of gulls that day, but very few terns.  Almost the only ones we saw were these two Royal Terns (below).  They landed near the gulls, but basically kept to themselves.

I spent that night in Daytona Beach Shores, and after a fantastic breakfast at the Best Western, I made the drive to Oviedo and the Lake Jesup Conservation Area, East Tract.  I hoped to spend a few hours birding the area and - if I were lucky - perhaps adding to my paltry Seminole County bird list.  Upon arrival, the first bird to greet us was this cute little Eastern Phoebe:

The trail wound its way through some of the most gorgeous forest you could hope to find.  Here's a shot of me trying to find a bird in the canopy.  I was unsuccessful.

The trail is peppered with wild orange trees and honeysuckle shrubs that perfumed the clear morning air.  The trail is well maintained and I enjoyed every minute in the park.  However,  on this day there were very few birds, and most of them were Yellow-rumped Warblers (below) or Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

I should also mention that the sky above seemed to be filled with Bald Eagles.  I think I saw at least six, but probably more as several of the sightings were of adults and, well, they all looked alike.

Meanwhile, my plan was to reach the observation tower and use it to find throngs of great birds on and around the lake.  Nice plan.  The lake is very low right now, so it was quite a distance from the tower.  Even scoping the lake was difficult as heat waves off the water distorted the view.  Still we found White Pelicans and Great Egrets easily enough.  And the pelicans proved to be a new county bird for me!  At least one Great Blue Heron flew across the water, and I thought I had a glimpse of a Tricolored Heron.  But the best looks that we had were of the many Common Yellowthroats (below) that surrounded us in the tall grass just in front of the tower.

So the first half of the month drew to a close.  My numbers were relatively low - 85 species for the first two weeks - but my experiences were wonderful.  The opportunity to study gulls with Michael Brothers was exceptional, and the walk around the property at Lake Jesup was beyond memorable.  I'm planning to return there in fall migration when I think those same woods will be teeming with warblers.  At least, that's the plan.