Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Ruff April!

During the third week in April, a couple of things conspired to keep me close to home, but that doesn't mean I had nothing to look at.  I've always said that you can do some really good birding by looking out your window at some feeders or some dripping water.  That seemed to be the theme for the week as I didn't get to make any special trips.  But what's not to love about this gorgeous Black-and-white Warbler contemplating a dip in a nice puddle?

Look up in that tree.  It's a White-winged Dove!

Back at the puddle, a Northern Cardinal is sure enjoying a refreshing dip.

April is that wonderful time when summer residents are arriving, migrants are passing through, and some winter residents are still hanging around.  This American Goldfinch was waiting for his spectacular breeding plumage to come in before heading north.  I'd say he's looking mighty good!

Of course it's easy to look spectacular when you're all decked out in your gold and black breeding finery, but some of us think charcoal gray is wonderfully sleek and elegant.  This Gray Catbird is ready to travel to his home, perhaps in upstate New York or somewhere in southern Canada.

Finally, on April 20, I welcomed the chance to make my way toward Cedar Key with about 18 others in my Third Thursday crew.  We started out at Shell Mound where we had two delightful surprises awaiting us.  When we first arrived I told the group that we should try for Clapper Rail.  "Watch the tall grass along the boardwalk really carefully," I said. "Maybe we'll get lucky and see a Clapper sneak past us."  I took out my phone and played a rail song ... and got an immediate answer from directly behind me.  There was a Clapper Rail - not sneaking by - but right out in the open, blithely ignoring us while hunting in the short grass near the water's edge.  He posed for us for five or six minutes while we chatted, oohed, and ahhed just twenty or thirty feet away.

So while we were standing there watching the Clapper, I guess we aroused the curiosity of at least one other traveler.  Suddenly someone in the group called out for us to be still and look on the railing to our left.  There, nestled among us, was a Barn Swallow, perhaps newly arrived from a long migratory journey and looking for a place to rest.  It sat there for a minute or two, flew off a short distance when we began to move again, but came back to the same spot to rest for a few more minutes.  My friend Jerry Pruitt got this photo, which I think is priceless and I use it here with Jerry's permission.

Barn Swallow at Shell Mound.  Photo by Jerry Pruitt.

Jerry is a great guy, and very humble, so I'll do a bit of bragging for him.  He is a hell of a photographer.  Shots like the one above are nothing unusual for him.  In fact, I have another example of his work below, again used with his permission.  We saw this Gray Kingbird on a wire in Cedar Key.  I took a bunch of photos of this same bird, and none of mine turned out well.  But Jerry got this one:

Gray Kingbird in Cedar Key.  Photo by Jerry Pruitt

We had a great day kicking around Cedar Key.  At the cemetery we found this beautiful Great Crested Flycatcher.

But the best stop of the day was at the museum.  There we found Cape May, Blackpoll, and Worm-eating Warblers as well as the star of the day - this gorgeous Red-breasted Nuthatch.  It was only the second time I've seen one this far south.  It scrambled from branch to branch just above our heads for a good long while.  Its constant movement made it a challenge to get everyone on it, but it was well worth the effort.  For many in the group it was a life bird - a reason for celebration for all of us.

Meanwhile, back in Gainesville, Matt Bruce and Rex Rowan were kayaking on Newnan's Lake, looking for something unusual.  Did they ever find it!  The recent drought has been severe.  About the only benefit to the increasingly shallow water of the lake is that in past droughts it has attracted several rarities.  This year would prove the rule.  In the southeast corner of the lake, where Prairie Creek flows into it, they found a mixed flock of shorebirds.  Among them was a striking bird that was darker than the rest.  It was a Ruff!  This is a seriously rare bird for central Florida.  I've only seen one other and its plumage was pale and almost featureless.  Not so with this bird!  Fortunately, it stayed in that spot for the better part of a week.  The location was ideal for us landlubbers.  The fishing pier at nearby Powers Park afforded a great spot from which to observe the bird.  A scope was needed to get a really satisfying view, but the bird could be picked out of the crowd of other shorebirds with a good set of binoculars.  I got to Powers in the early afternoon of the 24th, and a group of other birders was already there.  I have a great scope, so I checked out the bird and then stood aside while some local grad students from the University of Florida picked up their lifer.  The distance was too great for me to get a usable photo, but the generosity of others filled the void.  The photo below was provided by local nature photographer Glenn Price and is used here with his permission.

Ruff at Newnan's Lake.  Photo by Glenn Price.

A day later the Facebook page dedicated to Florida birding got lit up with word of a fallout in the Fort DeSoto area.  It was already getting late in the morning, so a four and a half hour trip south to get there wasn't in the cards.  However, if there were birds dropping in at Fort DeSoto, maybe they were moving into Cedar Key as well.  We piled into the Big Red Van and ninety minutes later we were looking at some terrific birds.  I drove directly to the museum grounds, thinking that it had been a hotspot a week earlier, so why not start there?  It was a good call, but it started slowly.  At first, the only birds we saw were a couple of Indigo Buntings playing in a birdbath and grazing along the ground.  This one still hadn't reached the fantastic electric blue of the breeding plumage, but he was getting there.

However, within seconds even the Buntings were gone.  Nothing was moving at all.  Then I looked to my right, at eye level about 15 yards away.  There sat a Barred Owl, very much awake and active at noon!  It paid me no attention while I snapped multiple photos, and only left the area when it realized there was nothing to hunt.

Once the owl left, the other birds came out to eat and play.  Among them was my "first of the year" Swainson's Thrush.  In fact, we saw about a half dozen of them scattered around Cedar Key that day.  This one wasn't camera shy at all.

After leaving the museum grounds, we decided to walk around a nearby neighborhood that has been productive in the past.  This time it produced another real beauty, a female Scarlet Tanager!  Here she is.

The bird world is filled with wonders, not the least of which is the differences between male and female of the same species.  Generally, the male is the prettier, needing every bit of his good looks to attract a female in the hopes of starting a family.  Prettier is one thing, completely different if quite another.  The male and female Red-winged Blackbirds don't look at all alike.  And the Scarlet Tanager is another example.  While the female is the lovely yellow and olive pictured above, the male is quite different:

That scarlet and black is breathtaking!  We saw this handsome guy near the Episcopal Church on Fifth Street.

Not to be outdone by his Scarlet cousins, this male Summer Tanager made an appearance early in the afternoon.

We also had a little luck at the cemetery.  John Hintermister and Pat Burns helped me see a Blue Grosbeak, but it escaped before I could grab my camera.  We returned the favor by getting them on a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  It played hide and seek among the leaves, so this is the best photo I could get.

April was proving to be a bountiful month, and it held one last treasure waiting to be discovered.  On the 26th I led my monthly bird walk at Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville.  I've shared dozens of photos from there in the past, but this day held one very special bird.  Near the end of the walk we found a small flock of Bobolinks.  It was a long distance for a photo, but it turned out fairly well.

So April drew to a close.  It was a wonderful month, filled with colorful migrants and a couple of local rarities.  For the month, I only had 83 species in Alachua County, but a total of 132 overall.  My year totals were getting a little more respectable.  My county total had reached 141, and my state total stood at 197, both decent numbers for someone not chasing a big year.  

In closing, here's a bonus photo for you butterfly lovers.  While standing on the pier watching the Ruff, a Red Admiral landed right next to my shoe and spread its wings displaying its stunning good looks for all the world to see.  The world continued to stare at the Ruff, but I stepped back, took my camera out, and snapped the photo below.

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 Bronson 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 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 shorebirds seeking safe ground at high tide.  Hurricane Hermine 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 thing 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 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 breakthrough 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 found 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 Sparrows.  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 Tanagers 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 Sparrow.  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 singing.  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 in 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!!