Monday, February 16, 2015

Bird a Day

Look closely - that red eye = White-faced Ibis
For as long as I can remember, I've enjoyed setting goals for myself and working toward accomplishing them.  I win some and lose some, but I always enjoy the effort.  So I was intrigued when I read about a challenge called "Bird a Day."  I don't know the entire history behind the challenge, but I heard about it through an email sent by south Florida birder Trey Mitchell.  The idea is to start on January 1 and add one bird each day that you've seen or heard during that day to your Bird a Day Year List.  Once you list a bird, you can't use it again in the same calendar year.  So you can see a Cardinal every day, but you can only use it once.  The goal is to see how far into the year you can go before you go through an entire day seeing or hearing only birds that you have already listed.

It sounded interesting to me, so I decided to give it a shot.  Now, I know I won't make it through the year - not even close.  Until 2014 I never had a year in my life with as many as 365 species - and the idea of getting them to fall just right so I had a unique one to add each day is absurd.  On the other hand, I've had as many as 20 species in my back yard on a weekend, so getting through a month would actually be pretty easy.  So I set a goal of 100 days ... that should certainly be possible, and if I make it that far I'll keep at it as long as I can.  I also decided to add a little wrinkle for January to make it more interesting.  I set a goal of using only birds that are winter residents of this area or migrants passing through during the first month of the year.  No Northern Cardinals or Mockingbirds, no Red-bellied or Downy Woodpeckers, no Turkey or Black Vultures, no Carolina Wrens or Chickadees, etc.  If I could do that, February would be easy and by then I'd be more than half way to the 100 mark.

Bullock's Oriole
The year started well.  I attended a field trip to the Sweetwater Sheetflow Project here in Gainesville and saw a locally rare White-faced Ibis.  I also saw a score or more of winter birds I could use -- but you can only use one a day.  And I wouldn't see those birds for several weeks.  The Sheetflow area is not yet open to the public, so all of those great birds would be out of sight and unusable.  By contrast, January 2 was a blur of activity culminating in taking my son to an airport about 90 miles away.  After the feast of January 1, this was a famine day.  I had no time to bird and saw very little - but I got lucky.  As I pulled off the Interstate near the airport I passed a retention pond holding a small flock of Ring-necked Ducks.  By the time I left the airport, it was dark.  Too close!

The next day was easier.  I visited a friend who had a Bullock's Oriole coming to his feeders.  Easy, rare and gorgeous - that's the best way to do it!  The rest of the week was also easy, if not quite so spectacular.  I picked off the Rusty Blackbirds that were making their annual visit to Magnolia Park just a couple of miles away.  A Black-and-white Warbler, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a Hooded Merganser were all quite cooperative and right where I needed them to be, so one week was in the books!

Swamp Sparrow
Here in Florida there are two large groups of "winter" birds - ducks and sparrows.  I had used two ducks during the first week, but no sparrows.  I set out to change that by visiting Hague Dairy, another great birding site just a few miles away.  That was a good call.  January 8 and 9 added Swamp and Vesper Sparrows.

Then on January 10 I joined other members of Alachua Audubon on our annual winter trip to St. Marks NWR.  Again, the frustrating aspect of this challenge reared its ugly head.  I had dozens of winter birds to choose from, but I could only use one.  And I couldn't even open an escrow account and bank a couple of good ones.  In the end I used a White-throated Sparrow. I had missed the species in 2014 and I hoped I would have more opportunities to see the ducks elsewhere later in the month.  I did not use a Chuck-wills-widow either because I know I can get one in June.  Still ... so many birds and I could only use one ... ARGH!

This Whooping Crane has spent the winter here.
The next couple of days were easy.  A House Wren landed in a bush a few feet from me.  A Song Sparrow perched up nicely back at Hague Dairy.  A Greater Scaup swam just off a beach in Dixie County.  A locally famous Whooping Crane posed for photographs on the University of Florida campus.

[Here's an aside for you non-birders.  The Whooping Crane pictured here appears to be wearing some colorful jewelry.  In fact, they are banding rings that identify this specific individual.  They are placed on the bird prior to its release into the wild and the color and placement are unique to this bird.  I submitted the data to a banding website and learned about his unique and fascinating life story.  If you're interested, you can read about it here: ]

The third week started with another of those "feast" days when I led a field trip into the Sheetflow area.  This time I counted a secretive American Bittern and turned down a bunch of great ducks.  Two days later I had another famine and had to count a Baltimore Oriole that visits my feeders.  I was thinking of my feeder birds as my emergency stash, and this was the first time I had to dip in.  The rest of the week was a blur of trips to Hague Dairy chasing an apparently invisible Lark Sparrow.  I struck out a couple of times, but finally saw it while adding American Pipit and Savannah Sparrow to the list as well as an Orange-crowned Warbler seen in a yard in Alachua.  The week ended with a trip to Merritt Island and a beautiful Northern Pintail.

The last ten days proved that using only winter species was indeed a challenge for me.  I saw several good species in or near the town of Alachua - Cedar Waxwing, American Robin, Blue-headed Vireo and Ring-billed Gull.  I added a White Pelican on a miserably cold day at Alligator Lake in Columbia County.  And I got lucky with a Lincoln's Sparrow on La Chua Trail on Paynes Prairie.  A small but ferocious Sharp-shinned Hawk finished off the fourth week.

Lousy day - lousy photo of White Pelicans
The patriarch of the Flying Wallendas once said that the most dangerous part of walking the tight rope was the last few steps because that was when the hardest part of the task was over, safety was in sight, and the concentration wavered.  I've always remembered those words, and they almost bit me in the butt on this challenge.  On the 29th I had a terrific bird - an Eastern Whip-poor-will, and with only two days left in the month I thought I was home free.  And then for two days I went birding and saw NOTHING new.  Instead, I had to rely on that emergency stash of winter birds coming to my feeders.  A Gray Catbird and the ubiquitous Palm Warbler closed out the month.  Perhaps I had staggered across the line using low-hanging fruit, but January was done and I had ticked off 31 winter species.

As I write this, I'm still in the competition after 47 days.  I've added some pretty cool birds to my Bird a Day list, but I've used a few 12-month resident birds along the way.  That, however, is a story best saved for next month.

Full disclosure:  All of these photos were taken during January, but not all on the day I actually counted the species.  I just like the pictures!

January 31 - A month of winter birds was successfully concluded when this Palm Warbler visited my feeders.

January 30:  This Gray Catbird consumes huge quantities of suet every day at my feeders.

One of my favorite birds - the elegant Northern Pintail.

This Black Scoter was a nice Dixie County surprise.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Taylor-Made for Birding (Econfina River State Park)

Bob's Gone Birding in Taylor County

The Boat Launch at Econfina River State Park
My series of blogs on out-of-the-way state parks has had me pouring over maps looking for a park I'd never visited.  By a lucky coincidence, I am also taking part in a "Twelve Day Big Year" in Taylor County.  That combination led me to Econfina River State Park.  Not only had I never visited the park, but I can't ever recall reading a birding report that originated there.  So the Red Van Gang set out early on a 36 degree Wednesday morning to make the trip from Gainesville to the western edge of Taylor County.

I followed route 14 south all the way to the southern tip of the county, just a couple of miles from the Gulf.  There was a small parking lot, a few picnic tables, and a boat-launch area.  It was gorgeous!  A Northern Flicker called from across the river, and another called from the parking lot.  A Red-bellied Woodpecker darted about as did a bunch of Yellow-rumped Warblers.  It was a nice beginning to the day.

Hermit Thrush
Our goal was to walk the blue trail, a 2.6 mile round trip that begins at the northwest corner of the parking lot.  There is a relatively straight portion of the trail that eventually reached a loop, like a big ring at the end of a rope.  It's advertised as the best birding in the park, and it started well.  We were surrounded by a mixed flock that included Black-and-white Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Tufted Titmouse, and Carolina Wren.  They were joined by a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Gray Catbird and a Hermit Thrush.  A little farther down the path we reached a depression that held a couple of inches of gently moving water.  We crossed it without any thought ... probably a mistake.

We reached the loop and decided to walk counterclockwise.  Almost immediately we saw another flock with several of the same species and a few new ones.  An Eastern Towhee sang to us from one side of the path while a Blue-headed Vireo danced around the other side.  Farther along we found a Pine Warbler with its dry, raspy call. 

Looking back on the crossing we worked around.
We covered about three quarters of the loop when we encountered a problem.  A gap in the path was filled with a foot or more of water.  A thin branch looked like it might be used as a bridge, but only for hobbits or elves.  We could turn around and take the long way back, but not these intrepid explorers!  We searched the area and found where we could gain the other side by crossing three more shallow areas.  A couple of inches of water here, a couple of inches of mud there, and we were across.  Hah!  Nothing can stop us!

We were rewarded almost immediately with a secretive Marsh Wren who allowed us a quick glance before it dove for cover.  A Little Blue Heron and a Great Egret also flew out of a nearby channel.

Soon we completed the loop and turned toward the parking lot.  Suddenly we stopped dead in our tracks.  That couple of inches of moving water we had crossed two hours earlier was now much more formidable.  There would be no getting around this one.  There also would be no going back.  Nope, the trickle of water had become a stream deep enough to reach just below my knees, and it separated us from the parking lot.  We had to cross it.  We sat on the ground, stripped off our shoes and socks, rolled up our pants legs and waded into the water.  There is no way for me to describe this adequately, so I'll just say it.  The water was VERY COLD!!!!  I got to the other side, used my scarf to dry my feet, and put my socks and shoes back on as quickly as I could.  We hastened back to the parking lot where I realized that I had forgotten my thermos of coffee.  Grrrr!

Lesser Yellowlegs
We had a quick lunch in the picnic area and then drove to our second destination, Hickory Mound. This is really a great place, and if you haven't been there, you need to get there.  Essentially, it's a square driving trail that winds its way among salt water marshes, shallow ponds, deeper pools, and channels leading to the Gulf.  Based on the season, waders, shorebirds, gulls, terns and ducks can be found everywhere you look.  Quickly we saw a nice group of shorebirds that included Dunlin, Western and Least Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers and what I'm convinced were both Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers.  I studied the dowitchers for a long time - long enough that I missed a Virginia Rail seen by the others.  We watched Northern Harriers and Belted Kingfishers hunt the marshes for a late lunch.  And we slowly drove past Laughing, Ring-billed and Herring Gulls that resented our incursion into their resting area on a narrow piece of the road.  Along Coker Road we added a Common Yellowthroat and a Bufflehead to the day's haul.  This was terrific birding!

An Osprey at Hickory Mound
On the other hand, we were way behind schedule!  So we turned from Hickory Mound and headed toward the coastal beaches along CR 361.  Along the way we stopped at a farm pond where a flock of White Ibises were feeding on the opposite side.  A Killdeer flew over my head and into the field beyond.  An Eastern Phoebe perched quietly on a rock as if sunning himself on a lazy afternoon.   

Eventually we reached Adams Beach where we saw a Brown Pelican and a Ruddy Turnstone on an oyster bar just off shore.  Next was tiny Dekle Beach where a quick drive along Front Street added European Starling and Eurasian Collared-Dove, birds often associated with more urban environments.  And then with the sun sinking toward the horizon, we pulled into Keaton Beach, a charming community with a small public beach and a big fishing pier.  Here we found the day's only House Finch, the 72nd and final new bird of the day.

We had just a bit of daylight left - enough to let us head into Hagens Cove to watch the sun set in a blaze of orange.  It was a spectacular way to wrap up a great day of birding.  We then ended the day with an excellent fried shrimp dinner at Roy's in Steinhatchee.

I love the birding life!

Sunset at Hagens Cove

Common Yellowthroat along Coker Road

The Osprey posed for a long time.

Savannah Sparrow at Hickory Mound

Friday, January 23, 2015

Meeting Jay-Z ... Well, really, it was JZ

Female (l) and male Northern Shovelers with an American Coot (r)

This Ring-billed Gull watched me dip on the duck!
Suppose I offered you this scenario ...

You make a three hour drive, stake out a location, get a lifer, have some dinner somewhere, maybe bird some in a National Wildlife Refuge, and drive home.

OR ...

You make a three hour drive, stake out a location, miss the lifer, decide to go birding in a National Wildlife Refuge, meet a really famous person in the birding world whose work you have read quite a bit, spend some delightful time chatting and birding with said person, and leave with a terrific story to tell other birders.

Normally, I'd pick a lifer over almost anything, but a recent encounter has changed my mind.  Let me tell you about it.

Lesser Scaup
The goal was a Long-tailed Duck that had been hanging out around Parrish Park near the entrance to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.  I had already dipped once on this species during a tremendous rainstorm near Portland, Oregon, and I wanted to see it!  So the Red Van Gang (The RVG) made the long trek from Gainesville early on a Wednesday morning.  While a Ring-billed Gull watched us, we made a diligent search of the waters near the park.  There were plenty of scaup, but the  Long-tailed Duck wasn't there.  So we were faced with a choice.  Should we continue the stakeout in order to give us the best chance of getting a life bird, or should we head into the refuge to bird along Blackpoint Drive and Biolab Road?  After a brief discussion we decided on the latter choice and resolved to return to Parrish Park later in the afternoon for a second shot at the bird that was formerly known as an Oldsquaw.

American Coot
I love looking at ducks.  I think they are among God's most beautiful creatures.  And in the winter, Merritt Island can be a duck-watcher's paradise.  I've been there when the number of ducks was in the thousands for each of a dozen or more species.  This day was not like that, but it still offered plenty to see.  We started along Blackpoint Drive and soon encountered nearly all of the expected waders.  White and Glossy Ibises were abundant, but I couldn't find a White-faced all day.  Wood Storks; Snowy Egrets; Great, and Little Blue and Tricolored Herons seemed to be present wherever the eye turned.

But I was eager to see ducks ... so eager that I almost missed something I'm glad I saw.  American Coots are present here in Florida in huge numbers.  It isn't unusual to see thousands on a walk around a lake, so I tend to overlook them.  But one Coot was close at hand, and its red frontal shield was more prominent than on any other Coot I've ever seen.  I thought it was gorgeous, and I was lucky enough to get the shot on the left.

Roseate Spoonbill
We made one stop to look at some American Avocets and to watch several Reddish Egrets hunting nearby.  There were also a few Blue-winged Teals and Northern Shovelers in the area.  Then another birder told me to look through the bush right in front of me.  There stood a Roseate Spoonbill, just a few feet away.  How can you look at that bird and not smile in delight?  Not possible!

Another stop held some White Pelicans, Pied-billed Grebes and Hooded Mergansers.  What a contrast in size!  Some Yellow-rumped Warblers and at least one Common Yellowthroat danced around in the bushes along the road while a flock of Tree Swallows put on an impressive display of aerial skills.

A bit farther along the road we found the pool where the Northern Pintails like to hang out.  Once again they were present in decent numbers.  I think the Northern Pintail is an elegant looking bird.  The brown, white and gray are displayed with clean lines, artistically aligned with a graceful swirl.  I found myself taking dozens of photos because I just couldn't stop!

Northern Pintail
Finally we found ourselves at one pool studying some American Wigeons and Green-winged Teals.  Another birder pointed out to us a bird that he thought was a Eurasian Wigeon.  We got our scopes on it and studied.  We weren't convinced.  Then as we stood there another car drove up.  One of the RVG members whispered, "That's Julie Zickefoose!"  Now, for you non-birders (Hi Judy!!), Julie Zickefoose is a well known birding author, artist, blogger and speaker.  We knew she was in town to give the keynote speech that very night at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.  I'm a big fan.  I read her blogs, I subscribe to her family's magazine (Birdwatcher's Digest), and I even went on a field trip she led in Texas a few years ago.  I found her to be engaging and approachable, so I gathered some courage and walked over to her.

"Aren't you Julie Zickefoose?" I asked.  She turned to me with a huge smile, said she was, and she started chatting with us.  I told her about the mystery bird, and she came right over to my scope and checked it out.  At first glance she thought it could indeed be a Eurasian -- we saw only cinnamon in the head, with no hint of green -- but she also readily admitted she could be wrong.  I sputtered out a few thanks for taking a look, and she actually thanked us for getting her on the bird!  What a thrill!  Then as we stood there, another car drove up.  I watched one of the RVG exchange a few words with the driver before the car drove off.  The conversation ended with my friend looking a little startled and at a loss for words.  When I walked over, I was told "That lady asked what we were looking at.  I said a possible Eurasian Wigeon.  She said, 'What, just one?' and drove off."  We started laughing and did so again and again throughout the rest of the day.

Blue-winged Teal
Eventually we left with Ms. Zickefoose still studying the bird.  I turned and said, "She may not be one of the Beatles of the birding world, but she's at least Fleetwood Mac."  That wasn't greeted with much enthusiasm.  We decided to bump her up farther -- the Beach Boys?  The Stones?  Hard to say, but she's a rock star in our world and we partied ... ah ... birded with her.

We decided to lunch at the Visitor's Center, so that was our next stop.  We spent money in the gift shop, watched a Painted Bunting and some Red-winged Blackbirds at the feeders, admired a Great Blue Heron and enjoyed our lunch at one of the picnic tables.

Our next destination was Biolab Road, a narrow, unpaved drive along the water's edge.  This is usually really good for shorebirds, but the tide was high and the time of year not ideal for numbers and variety.  Still we got some good looks at Black-bellied Plovers, a Killdeer, a Least Sandpiper, numerous Short-billed Dowitchers, both Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, and a few Dunlin.  One spot held a nice group of Black Skimmers and Caspian Terns.

Great Black-backed Gull
The sun was now moving with determination toward the western horizon, so we decided to leave the refuge and return to Parrish Park for another shot at the Long-tailed Duck.  Once again, we struck out.  Had we missed it while we were knocking about the refuge?  Did it matter in light of our encounter with Julie Zickefoose?  Someone told us it hadn't been seen all day, but we didn't need to hear that in order to feel better.  But the birding gods left us with one parting gift -- a gorgeous Great Black-backed Gull on a light post.  It posed long enough for me to take a few hurried photos and then flew off.

In all, it was a terrific day.  We tallied about 50 species including nine ducks.  After studying several field guides, we decided that our mystery bird was probably a Eurasian x American Wigeon Hybrid, but I'm no expert so don't take my word for it.  And of course the day was crowned by the meeting with Julie Zickefoose.  She may not be as famous as the original Jay-Z, but she's our JZ, and did I mention I'm a big fan?

You know you wanted another look at a Northern Pintail!

A bonus look at a Northern Shoveler

Caspian Terns and a Black Skimmer

American Avocet

Reddish Egret

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Duck and Chuck

Early on a January morning at St. Marks NWR

 You might think that the title of this post refers to last year's offense at the University of Florida - the quarterback trying to duck under the on-rushing defense and then chucking the ball out there, somewhere, hoping to find the right colored jersey.  But in this case, it perfectly sums up a great day of birding at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  The Red Van Gang made its annual pilgrimage to St. Marks for the Alachua Audubon field trip led by John Hintermister.  For me, this is always one of the highlights of the year.  I love looking at ducks, and there are few places any better in Florida to see a nice variety and in good numbers.

I love this shot of a Common Yellowthroat.
The gang gathered at 4:30 AM with temperatures in the mid-30s and a clear, starry sky.  We drove northwest through High Springs and Fort White, towns I often only see in the dark, before reaching Perry and a tasty breakfast at a Huddle House.  We eventually reached St. Marks just before the official 8:00 AM starting time, so we made a brief scouting trip down to Lighthouse Pond.  Many of the ponds we passed were empty, but a Common Yellowthroat posed nicely beside the road.  I was driving, so I didn't try to get a shot, but later I found the photo at left on my camera.  I didn't take it.  Wish I did.

The field trip itself started with a walk around the area adjoining the parking lot.  Almost immediately we encountered a swarm of Yellow-rumped Warblers followed by a nice mixed flock.  A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker joined the crowd, followed by a Blue-headed Vireo, a Black-and-White Warbler, and a few Brown-headed Nuthatches.  Phil Laipis caught a glimpse of a Golden-crowned Kinglet, but I missed it. I resolved to get back to the area later in the day and try for the kinglet again, but that goal went the way of so many other resolutions I've made.

American Wigeon
This year John opted not to join Don Morrow's tram tour of the eastern pools.  I think the cold temperatures and stiff winds had something to do with it.  Instead we made a quick stop at the double bridges before moving to the boat launch spot at Stoney Bayou 1.  I hopped out, saw only a few American Coots, and raised my camera.  Only it wasn't my camera.  After swapping cameras with one of the gang, I looked around and found very little to photograph.  Slow day so far.

Next we moved on to Headquarters Pond where the day got a lot better in a hurry.  The pond was teeming with life.  About 40 Black-crowned Night-Herons lined one side.  A Sora patrolled the edge nearest the road.  Some gorgeous American Wigeons (right) swam among dozens of Coots and Ring-necked Ducks.  A few Redheads (bottom) joined the crowd adding another splash of color to the mix.

 It was at this point that the Red Van Gang separated from the rest of the group for a while.  They were heading out for a long hike, and one of us was recovering from a bad cold and wasn't feeling up to the walk.  Instead, we drove down to the Lighthouse and started working our way around the pond.  It was loaded with birds and especially with female Northern Shovelers and some spectacular Canvasbacks.  But before we were there for more than a few minutes I got a phone call from John.  One of the group had spotted a Chuck-will's-widow in a tall pine behind the bathrooms near Headquarters Pond.  We piled back into the car and hurried to the site.  No one was still around, but John's directions had been precise.  There it was, sitting quietly across (not along) a branch apparently taking a nap.  We were able to get a few photos and even get some other folks on the bird.  What a terrific sight!   This is a bird that I've heard way more often than I've seen it, and even then it's been in the very dim light of early night just after twilight.

Eventually we drove back to Lighthouse Pond and returned to studying the Canvasbacks.  I thought the one pictured on the right was particularly handsome.  Farther along we encountered a few Northern Shovelers.  The females were out on parade, but the males were snuggled in the reeds with their heads tucked into their sides.  Offshore to our left, the Gulf was alive with Double-crested Cormorants, Redheads, Horned Grebes, Common Loons, Laughing Gulls, Red-breasted Mergansers, and an occasional small shorebird that zoomed by too quickly for me to identify.

At the end of the path is a gazebo that is a wonderful spot for a brief rest and some leisurely sea watching.  There was a family there speaking a language that I didn't recognize at all.  The man spoke a little English, and with words and gestures he asked me what I was seeing through my scope.  I mentioned a bird and indicated he should look for himself.  He did, and immediately called to his wife and daughter to look as well.  Just then one of the Gang saw a Reddish Egret, which I eagerly turned to examine with my bins.  When I turned around the family was happily looking out to sea with both of our scopes while the girl also tried to digiscope something using her iPhone.  It took a while before we could reclaim our property and move on.

Swamp Sparrow
On the way back toward the Lighthouse some movement caught my eye in the vegetation near the pond.  First a Sora and then a Clapper Rail came into view, both disappearing almost immediately.   Another motion to my left proved to be a Swamp Sparrow (left) who was not as shy as the rails.  It posed patiently while I snapped a half dozen shots.

After a picnic lunch and a quick look at Picnic Pond, we decided to inspect Mounds Pool 1 and 2 by walking along the dikes.  What we found was a distant mass of ducks including our first Northern Pintails and a few stunning drake Mallards.  They were too far away to get a decent photo, but I snapped a few anyway.

The afternoon was getting old, so it was time to rejoin the group.  We typically end the day at Bottoms Road, well to the west, in hopes of finding a Short-eared Owl.  This time John wanted to try Wakulla Beach.  About 15 of the original field trippers made that much shorter trek and staked out a likely area.  Unfortunately we struck out, but the talk and camaraderie made it worth the time and effort.

I hate to end this on a negative note, but I feel I owe this to birders everywhere.  If you are in Perry and need to eat dinner, don't go to Pouncey's.  I had the worst restaurant meal of my life there and I won't go back.  Our waitress was very nice, but the food was paradoxically cold and overcooked and the building and furniture were badly in need of repair and cleaning.  Save yourself the unpleasantness and use one of the fast food places or the Huddle House.

Alachua Audubon in the dying light at Wakulla Beach

A Canvasback looking good!

Ruddy Duck taking a bath.

Ring-necked Duck


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Bob's Gone Birding at Rainbow Springs State Park

Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon, Florida

Earlier this month I was doing some research on state parks and noticed that there was one fairly close to me that I had never visited.  Rainbow Springs State Park is in Dunnellon, just west of Ocala and less than 90 minutes away.  Grudgingly I had to admit I didn't know my local state parks as well as I thought I did.  So early one Wednesday morning, the big red van headed south to explore a new park.

Carolina Wren Enjoying the Decorative Lights
Thank you, God!

Rainbow Springs is one of the most beautiful spots in Florida.  The springs that feed Rainbow River produce over 400,000,000 gallons of pristine water every day.  There are no motorized boats to spoil its cleanliness and no pesticides along its course to poison its fish and plants.  The result is a crystal clear river that is as gorgeous today as it was a thousand years ago.   It truly is a gift from God, and thankfully we have done nothing to mess it up!

In fact, while we were there it was evident that the park volunteers had done much to dress it up!  The park was prepared for the holiday season with lighted deer drinking from shallow streams, multi-colored lights decorating the paths and railings, and small, holiday-themed buildings promising lots of excitement during the evenings for families.

Great Egret in the Mist
But are there any birds in the park?  Turns out, there are!  In fact, we had a hard time getting out of the parking lot. A Carolina Wren sang just above the van.  American Robins darted in and out of one tree while a Northern Flicker called from another.  A Black-and-White Warbler scurried along a branch of yet another.  American Crows and Northern Cardinals dashed around the parking lot, seemingly enjoying a game of avian hide and seek.  A lone American Goldfinch was seen by one birder, but eluded me.

We made our way into the park where a Pileated Woodpecker circled the gift shop and snack bar, calling noisily all the way.  A Red-shouldered Hawk landed high atop a live oak and declared his presence for all to hear.  Below him, some Ruby-crowned Kinglets and more Carolina Wrens hopped about generally ignoring us and the hawk.  One wren (above) was very curious about what we were doing - or perhaps was just enjoying the Christmas lights - but it stayed close to us for a long time.

Gray Catbird
Next we decided to walk along the falls that feed into the river and out to the observation platforms.  The falls were constructed early in the twentieth century when the springs were "an attraction" and not under state control.  The water is pumped from the river to the top of the falls where is drops into shimmering pools and short streams until it reaches the river again.  Gray Catbirds (left), Yellow-rumped Warblers, and White-eyed Vireos joined in the fun, popping up along the trail for a quick peek at us.  One of the viewing areas bordered a small lagoon where American Coots, Common Gallinules and a Little Blue Heron seemed to be finding lots to eat.

The Falls Trail was gorgeous, but our goal was to walk a portion of the 3.5 mile Nature Trail which follows the river to the south.  Unfortunately, the river is generally hidden from view along this trail even though you are never very far from it.  There are one or two small openings, but that's it.  Nonetheless, the birding was very good.  We encountered a mixed flock that surrounded and entertained us.  Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, Blue-headed Vireo, Tufted Titmouse, Ovenbird, Hermit Thrush, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Pine Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Palm Warbler and Eastern Towhee all joined the melee.  I love birding in situations like this.  There was a bird everywhere I looked.  It seemed that every branch in every tree hosted at least one bird, often more.

Green Heron, the Only County Lifer of the Day
The trail left the cover of the canopy for a while to lead us along the edge of a field filled with something that looked like fennel, but I'm lousy at plants so I really don't know what it was.  A few birds flew among the sparse trees in the distance, but I never got a good look at them.  Then a House Wren started scolding us, and while I searched for it, a few Chipping Sparrows fluttered high in a nearby bush.

Now the trail took us back into the woods and finally to the edge of the river.  Here a Pied-billed Grebe and a Double-crested Cormorant swam and dove in the river.  A Belted Kingfisher patrolled the western bank, a Snowy Egret fed along our side, and a little farther south a Green Heron hunted in the reeds.

Rather than completing the loop, we decided to head back to the snack bar and have lunch.  I had a tasty cheeseburger from the concession stand prepared by a smiling park volunteer.  We ate while watching a Red-tailed Hawk soar overhead.  In the swimming area an Eastern Phoebe flew about, enjoying whatever treats he could find.

We were finished birding for the day, but it was difficult to leave the park.  Instead, we lingered for another half hour soaking up the perfect weather, and I even stretched out on the bench of a picnic table for a quick nap (at bottom).

I will return to Rainbow Springs State Park.  In fact, I'm excited about returning during spring and fall migration.  The birding should be terrific ... but the park is its own attraction.  If you've been there, you know what I mean.  If you haven't been there, you need to do yourself a favor. 

Bob's Gone Birding at Rainbow Springs State Park

While I was watching an Eastern Phoebe, these two were watching me.

A Cardinal munching on some berries.

This was too beautiful to leave out.  Enjoy it!

This Ovenbird didn't appreciate our presence in the woods

Bob's Gone Napping at Rain ... zzzzzzzzzzzz