Friday, November 21, 2014

Bob's Gone Birding at Big Shoals State Park

Bob's Gone Birding at Big Shoals State Park
I don't believe that I've ever read a birding report from Big Shoals State Park.  I'm sure there have been some, but it occurred to me that this might be an under-birded site worth exploring.  After all, the state park website describes miles of trails, some ponds and an observation tower on the banks of the Suwannee.  It has to be birdy, doesn't it?

First, let me give you an overall impression.  The park is divided into three sections.  Big Shoals and Little Shoals are state park lands that form a kind of parentheses around a wildlife management area.  The two sections are connected by the wide and paved Woodpecker Trail that stretches for over three miles from the lower Little Shoals parking lot to the parking lot at the Big Shoals picnic area.  The lower portion has miles of winding trails and bike paths.  The upper portion has trails for hiking, biking and riding horses.  There are picnic areas and restrooms in both sections, but the bathrooms are considerably better at Big Shoals.  The entire park is bordered on the east by the Suwannee River featuring (when the depth is right) the only Class III White Water rapids in the state.

The Big Red Van arrived just after 8:00 AM.  We picked up a park map at the honor pay station and immediately set out on the Woodpecker Trail.  I have to admit that I was very surprised at the habitat here.  On one side of the trail was a forest of tall pines with a palmetto understory.  The other side was a mixed hardwood forest with a dense, bushy understory.  I'm used to birding in both habitats, but not both at once.  Weird.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
The Woodpecker Trail was aptly named.  We found Red-bellied, Downy and Pileated Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.  On the pine side there were Brown-headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers.  On the opposite side were Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Black-and-White Warbler and a Tufted Titmouse.  Eastern Bluebirds and Palm Warblers darted from side to side while a flock of American Robins flew over us.  So this part of the trail was very birdy.

One of our goals was to find the observation tower mentioned on the park map, so we headed off on a side trail.  At first we had no luck, so we kept walking, slowly circling a large tract.  We picked up a few species along the way including Eastern Phoebe, Carlina Wren and Yellow-throated Warbler, but the tower wasn't where I expected it to be.  We kept walking.  Then we came upon a "tower" that looked more like a glorified hunting platform.  And it looked out on ... well ,,, not much.  The land immediately in front of the tower was cleared of everything but grass.  Beyond the grass was a stand of pines.  That was it.  The better view was to the rear where the trail wound its way through the woods.  The walk back was uneventful.  Still, we added House Wren and Hermit Thrush to our day list.  When we got back to the parking lot and ate our lunches in the picnic pavilion. 

The Observation Tower
The Big Shoals side proved to be very different in more than one way.  The picnic area was open, not under a roof, and it included a Bat House!  The restrooms were bigger, had running water, and had showers.  The main hiking trail was a narrow, winding ribbon of a trail that cut its way through a scrub and palmetto forest along the river (to the east) to the rapids.  Several swampy ponds dotted the western edge of the path

And there were no birds.

Well, there were a few ... a flock of Turkey Vultures collected in one area, a Barred Owl called in the distance, and a Red-shouldered Hawk screamed overhead without actually letting itself be seen.  At one spot we found three White-eyed Vireos.  And on the way back we found the day's biggest surprise, a single Tennessee Warbler that must have been the rear guard of this year's migration.  But that was it.  After a really nice start, I only tallied 27 species for the day, and not a single Northern Cardinal among them.  But the variety of habitats, the swampy areas, and the river's edge all should be packed with birds, and the miles of trails should make them accessible.  Perhaps the early November date and the windy weather that marked the afternoon just kept the birds hunkered down and hidden.  But according to my phone app, I accumulated over 19,000 steps covering almost nine miles of trails, and I got 27 species.  On the other hand, I really liked the park.  There were some really beautiful areas.  Perhaps a trip back there during the spring or fall migration period will be more productive.  I'll let you know.

The Suwannee at Big Shoals

House Wren

The Big Shoals Trail

Hermit Thrush

The View from the Observation Tower

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Bob's Gone Birding at Suwannee River State Park

Bob's Gone Birding at Suwannee River State Park

The historic Suwannee River
Some time ago I had the idea of writing a series of blogs on my favorite state parks in Florida.  I started with Fort Cooper and promptly got sidetracked by ... well ... birding.  But the idea has been bouncing around in the back of my head ever since.  Now I think it's time to get back to it.  I'd like to feature one state park a month, and I'll try to mix some of the more popular sites with some that are off the beaten track.  I hope you enjoy the series.  And if you have a favorite state park that you think is a great birding destination, please add a comment to that effect at the bottom of this blog.

Suwannee River State Park is a gem of a place.  Set at the confluence of the Suwannee and Withlacoochee Rivers, the park covers parts of three counties.  There are three trails I like to bird, and I can generally cover them in a long morning.  Throw in a few items of historic significance and you get a park that is worth the journey.


A multi-county Belted Kingfisher
Typically I like to start out walking up the Suwannee, passing the boat launch and entering the Suwannee River Trail.  I stay on it until just after it turns away from the river and merges into the Lime Sink Trail.  At that point I turn right and head back along a stream to return to a spot near the boat ramp.  My second loop starts downriver past the old Confederate earthworks to the overlook.  Here you can stand on an observation platform and glance up and down the Suwannee, across the river to Madison and Hamilton counties, or up the Withlacoochee.  I once had a Belted Kingfisher fly from the Suwannee side to Madison County and later had the same bird land in Hamilton County - a rare triple for county listers.  After some time on the platform, I turn around and head away from the river until the path joins the old stagecoach road which leads back to the entrance road and the parking lot.  The Sandhills Trail leads out to the old cemetery and then finishes the loop back at the parking lot.  None of the trails are long, most of the walking is easy, and the birding can be very good. I like to end the morning with a picnic lunch under the trees along the river.  I should also mention that the park is very clean as are the restrooms.

Eastern Towhee on the Sandhills Trail
During October I spent two mornings at SRSP.  On a Thursday early in the month the denizens of the Big Red Birding Van pretty much had the park to ourselves.  We started birdng in the picnic area where we found Downy and Pileated Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Wren, Yellow Warbler and Northern Parula.  On that day we headed downriver first and were rewarded with Hooded and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Ovenbird and American Redstart.  A Catbird flew from Suwannee to Madison County while a Belted Kingfisher (above) took the opposite route before returning to Madison.  At the end of the loop we stopped to use the restrooms and stumbled upon a Bay-breasted Warbler moving slowly from tree to tree.

We took the Sandhills Trail next and walked out to the old cemetery.  The park is on the site of the 19th century town of Columbus which was serviced by steamboats and the stagecoach line.  The cemetery has graves that date back to the mid-nineteenth century.  Unlike the other trails which feature a mostly hardwood forest with some scattered pines, this one runs through a pine and palmetto tract, and the species here are very different than those that can be found just a hundred yards away.  Brown-headed Nuthatches, Eastern Towhees, Pine Warblers, and a variety of woodpeckers are quickly found on a short, easy-to-walk path.

Back at the parking lot, we decided to turn upriver, taking the Suwannee River Trail.  It was getting to be near noon and bird activity was low.  Still, we added Black-and-White and Yellow-throated Warblers, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Northern Flicker and Summer Tanager to the day's list.

Pine Warbler
The second trip to SRSP took the form of a Sunday field trip that I led for the Alachua Audubon Society.  Fate was on our side.  We arrived at the park a few minutes before the gates opened.  We pulled off the road to wait and decided to bird among the trees at the gate.  There we found a Black-throated Green Warbler, my only one of that species this fall.  Once we reached the parking lot we found a Black-and-White and the first of three Bay-breasted Warblers we saw that day.  We started upriver this time and located most of the birds I had seen two weeks earlier including the Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  We also saw a Tennessee Warbler.  On the lower trail we relocated the Hooded Warbler and Ovenbird and added a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker to my park list.  Then we had a little luck along the stagecoach road on both sides of the entrance road.  First was a Blackburnian Warbler and moments later a gorgeous Magnolia Warbler.  Along the Sandhills Trail we relocated the typical pine forest birds (Brown-headed Nuthatch, Eastern Towhee, Pine Warbler) and added Prairie and Palm Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Eastern Bluebird.

Overall, my two-day haul tallied over 45 species including 16 warblers and five woodpeckers.  I really like Suwannee River State Park.  If you find yourself with a chance to stop there, I promise you will discover another jewel in the Florida State Park System.

Brown-headed Nuthatch on the Sandhills Trail


A small spring bubbling into the Suwannee River


Columbus Cemetery with family plots dating to the mid-nineteenth century


An immature White Ibis feeds in one of the streams that run through the park



Sunday, August 31, 2014

Part 6: Hummingbirds

"Why did you decide to go to Arizona in July and August?"  I was asked that question over and over as I was preparing for my trip.  Why not wait until it got cooler?  My answer was always the same: Hummingbirds.  I wanted to see a large variety of hummingbirds and in large numbers.  All summer I see one species, the local Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  It's a beautiful bird, but it's all we have.  Each winter we hope for a stray something to show up in Alachua County.   Last year we were lucky and had a few individuals representing a few species.  They all looked pretty drab.  I wanted to see them in their colorful glory, so I planned this trip around several stops at known hummingbird sites.

I was very fortunate.  I saw hundreds of individual hummingbirds representing twelve species of which nine were lifers including some terrific rarities.

We are so lucky to have a few individuals who put up a bunch of hummingbird feeders, who keep them clean and stocked with fresh sugar water, and who open their yards to the public asking little more than a voluntary donation to the sugar fund.  Their names read like a hummingbird hall of fame class: Mary Jo Ballator (Ash Canyon B&B), Tom Beatty (Beatty Guest Ranch, Miller Canyon), Dave Jasper (Portal) and the Paton family (Patagonia).  Add to them the Nature Conservancy (both Paton House [with Tucson Audubon] and Ramsey Canyon Preserve) and the proprietors of the Santa Rita Lodge (Madera Canyon) and the birding world is blessed with an extraordinary collection of hummingbird traps.  Together, they make it possible for all birders to sit in relative comfort and watch these exquisite birds come into view to feed and play right before our eyes.  Imagine what it would be like if we had to go into the mountains and meadows in search of one species at a time!  Instead, the birds come to us.

To these people, to the Nature Conservancy and to Tucson Audobon I want to express my deepest gratitude.  You gave me an experience I will cherish forever.

Here are the twelve species I saw during my trip.  Some photos are better than others, but then again, I'm not a photographer.  I just love birds.


Plain-capped Starthroat

These photos were a pleasant surprise because I didn't know I had them.  I found them after I came back to Florida and began studying my images from the trip.  The first was taken in Portal at the Jasper/Rodrigues yard on Foothills Road.  I also saw a Plain-capped Starthroat at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, and didn't think I had a decent picture.  However, I found the second image below and it was better than I thought.   So it was a cause for celebration both to see this rare visitor from Mexico and to have some photos to share with you.





Lucifer Hummingbird

Another rarity seen on this trip was the Lucifer Hummingbird.  I was at the Ash Canyon B&B near Sierra Vista when a hummingbird flew in and all of the birders got very excited.  But owner Mary Jo Ballator cautioned us to watch out for a hybrid that was coming to her feeders.  She called it a "Costifer" because it was a Costa's x Lucifer.  Look at the straight bill in the photo below.

Costa's x Lucifer Hybrid
A second trip later that evening produced a real Lucifer Hummingbird.  Note the significant curve of the bill in contrast to that of the hybrid.  And take a moment to admire that beautiful purple gorget caught in good light in the second photo.

Note the curved bill and long tail of this Lucifer Hummingbird

I love that purple!

Violet-crowned Hummingbird

I saw Violet-crowned Hummingbirds in the Ramsey Canyon Preserve and again at the Paton House in Patagonia.  Sibley says Violet-crowned is "Rare and local, barely enters western North America from Mexico." As far as I'm concerned, I wish they were here all of the time.  I love the clean white lower parts, the violet in the head, and that wonderful red bill.  Here are the only three photos I was able to get.






















Broad-billed Hummingbird

All of the hummingbirds I saw in Arizona were beautiful.  But for me, the Broad-billed stands out above the rest.  In the right light, its gaudy colors flash in jewel-like brilliance.  They were everywhere I went, so I have LOTS of photos of Broad-billed Hummingbirds.  Here are a few of them.

Two at once!

This guy is still pretty young, but he's going to be spectacular!

Can you see how the Broad-billed Hummingbird got its name?


It's like a little kid went crazy with vibrantly-colored crayons!

Wow!

White-eared Hummingbird

This is another of the rare visitors from Mexico, and I only saw it at Tom Beatty's Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon near Sierra Vista.  This was the star of the day, and all of us nearly jumped out of our seats when it made its first appearance.  First the male came to a favorite perch in a tree right above one of the feeders.  Then he came down and feasted.  While we were excitedly buzzing away about him, a female showed up!  She is in the third photo below.


Is it safe down there?

What a striking bird!  He was the main attraction of an incredible day.


And she is lovely too!

Blue-throated Hummingbird

I saw the Blue-throated Hummingbird at the Southwestern Research Station in the Chiricahua Mountains.  I was really disappointed in the one photo I was able to take of it.  You can see the poor-quality shot below:

Too much shadow and not enough focus!
Fortunately I have a video of two Blue-throateds at the same feeder.  I had to learn how to take a screen shot, blow it up a little, and put it into iPhoto.  The result is this much better photo:

Note the fanned tail showing the large white spots of the bird on the right.  That's a characteristic pose of the species.


Magnificent Hummingbird

The Magnificent Hummingbird is big and gorgeous, but I found it hard to photograph.  It's so dark that it was tough to display the details that make this such a wonderful sight.  Fortunately, I saw them frequently.  I'm absurdly pleased with the first photo showing its gorget to its full advantage.

The white on the tail suggests this is a young male.

The male often appears all dark.
The female has the pale throat.


The Magnificent is much larger, but the Black-chinned has that stylish, rarely seen purple bib.


Anna's Hummingbird

I saw Anna's Hummingbirds only on the day I split between Beatty's Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon and the Ash Canyon B&B.  Who doesn't love the stunning red "Yosemite Sam Mustache" proudly displayed by the male?  On the other hand, the female is really quite lovely in her emerald, black and gray.

I got lucky with the light here.

A micro-second earlier the entire head flashed bright red.

I believe this is the female Anna's.

Black-chinned Hummingbird

The Black-chinned was the most abundant hummingbird at all of the feeders I visited.  They were easy to pick out due to their characteristic tail-pumping when hovering.  However, it was really hard to get their bi-colored gorget in a photo.  Typically it would look all black and the lovely purple bib would seem to disappear.  You can see it displayed in the photo in the section devoted to the Magnificent Hummingbird (above) and in the photo below.

Look!  His eye is closed!

This is another screen shot from a video.

Another Black-chinned Hummingbird whose purple bib wasn't showing

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

 At first glance, the Broad-tailed Hummingbird looks a little like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird we see here in the east all summer long.  In the first photo below you can see a little rufous area that turns into a wonderful rusty-red spot on the top of the outer tail feathers.  You can also see hints of rufous on the sides of the birds in some of the other photos below.  I was really lucky with my photos of this species - and they were everywhere.  Enjoy.

I loved seeing that rusty area in the tail.

That rosy-red gorget is so beautiful in the right light!

This picture is just too cute.

Nice posing -- you ought to be a model!


Mom!  He's sticking his tongue out at me!

Allen's Hummingbird

During the morning I spent at Beatty's Guest Ranch, I was lucky enough to hear Jon Dunn talk about the Rufous/Allen identification issues.  His mantra was "Look at the gorget.  If it isn't fully developed, forget about it."  Later, he also spoke about how examining the tail can help.  In these photos, there was no doubt - full gorget and green backs equal Allen's Hummingbird.

The white upper breast is so striking when surrounded by such vivid colors.

Here you can see the gorget flaring out like a waxed mustache.

Look at the gorget - orange in the light and green in the shade.



Rufous Hummingbird

On the other hand, a full gorget and a rufous back adds up to a Rufous Hummingbird - an incredibly beautiful sight.  Here are a few beauties.

That orange back is amazing!
Look at that tail.  We'll talk about it more below.


The Rufous Hummingbird that visited my Florida yard two years ago didn't look like this at all.

Allen's vs. Rufous Hummingbirds

And then there were those lovely little orange and green things that did not have complete gorgets.  Is there any way I can tell which species is which from these photos? If so, I haven't figured it out yet.


This bird looks like it's going to break out in orange all over the place. 


This bird's back seems to be a firmly established green. 

The Tail End

Look at these two tails and the one four photos up.  I know for sure that the one above is from a Rufous Hummingbird.  I can see a full gorget and a bright orange back.  But on the bird immediately below, I can't see its back at all.  Yet that tail looks just like the one above.  Am I safe in assuming this is a Rufous as well?  But then there is the tail of the bird on the left in the screen shot at the bottom.  It's very different, having a black band across the end of the tail and some white at the tips of the two outer tail feathers.  So I ran to the Peterson hummingbird guide and found ... that I can't tell a darn thing for sure.  Immatures and females of both species have that black band.  But then I stared at the white tips on the outer tail feathers.  It seems like the white is confined to only the outer two feathers (R4 and R5 to you guys who actually know this stuff).  If that's true (and it's hard to tell here) the lower photo may be an immature male Allen's.  And wouldn't that be cool if I actually figured that out?  But I'm not betting on it.