Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

Red-shouldered Hawk

Eastern Phoebe
About ten years ago I drove to Lust Road near Zellwood to search for a lifer - a Swainson's Hawk that had been reported in the area.  What followed was a great day of birding that included finding the hawk, visiting a kingbird roost and watching Barn Owls set out for their nightly hunt.  But the terrific day had a dark side as well.  Lust Road had a gate across it blocking all traffic.  And while we searched for the hawk, veteran birders told me stories of what it used to be like before the area had been damaged by chemicals that killed massive numbers of birds and other wildlife.  The most frequent phrase I heard was, "This used to be one of the best birding spots in the state."

Hit the fast forward button about nine and a half years.  I was working with the Alachua Audubon field trip committee planning this year's outings.  I thought of Emeralda Marsh, a place I've visited a few times and really enjoyed.  But I knew that access was limited, so I placed a call to the office of the St. Johns River Water Management District.  I learned that a trip to the marsh within the time frame we wanted was impossible.  As I was about to hang up the woman said, "Have you thought about the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive?"  I knew nothing about it so she said, "You should try it; it's filled with birds."  I decided to take a chance, put it on the schedule, and lead the trip myself.  But I was worried.  When a non-birder says a place is "filled with birds" it could mean anything, right?

The place is filled with birds.

American Bittern
Last Sunday I decided to scout the area since my field trip is just a couple of weeks away.  The Red Van Gang arrived just after 7:00.  At first we had some trouble getting through the gate.  Oh, it was open ... but there were so many birds flying around Lust Road that it took forever to actually reach the gates!  Mourning Doves, Common Ground-Doves, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Common Grackles were present in huge numbers, and some raptors were sorting through them looking for a good breakfast.  A Red-shouldered Hawk patrolled the road, an American Kestrel perched atop a pole behind a building waiting to attack, a Sharp-shinned Hawk dove into a group of doves, and a Merlin settled into a tree top with a meal in its talons.  And one bird rocketed past us, giving us a quick glimpse of something that made me think "Falcon!"  It was really quite a show.

Later, the three of us compared notes on what we saw of that falcon.  After consulting field guides and range maps, we realized it had to be a Peregrine Falcon.  

The canal along the road was also very active.  Anhingas, Great Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons, and Great Egrets were common.  A Belted Kingfisher noisily announced his presence.  Pied-billed Grebes swam with Common Gallinules, completely ignoring me.  An American Bittern hunted on the far edge, freezing in position and lulling his prey into a false sense of security.

Glossy Ibis
We examined several groups of Glossy Ibises but found no White-faced Ibises among them.  A chittering call behind us turned out to be a Marsh Wren who didn't like our presence.  And we may have been among the largest collection of Eastern Phoebes I've ever seen.

Farther down the road we ran into a a group of birders that included Jim Eager, Susan Daughtrey and Paul Huber.  We found a Black-crowned Night-Heron, a White-eyed Vireo, a couple of Swamp Sparrows, and a Tricolored Heron.  Meanwhile, a Northern Harrier coasted just above the marsh looking for food. 

At the pump house, Jim told me to be on the lookout for a Black Skimmer that had been seen in the area.  Almost on cue, the Skimmer flew over the little pond behind the pump house and headed out over the lake.  Jim also told me about three other birds of interest.  He  said White-crowned Sparrows had been seen in the area as had a Peregrine Falcon.  And he noted that a pond nearby had some Fulvous Whistling-Ducks.  At the time, I didn't realize that the raptor we had seen earlier was probably the Peregrine.  We searched for the sparrows, but I didn't find any.  When we left the pump house, Jim took the more eastern route while I drove along the lake.  Jim relocated the Whistling-Ducks and posted a great photo of them online (below).

The lakeside route proved to be a little less productive than I hoped, but perhaps as more ducks fly in, the area will pick up a bit.  However, there were several Ospreys and Red-shouldered Hawks that didn't mind posing for photos. 

Osprey with Lunch
Back on the main road we found Blue-winged Teal on a roadside pond and a Wilson's Snipe flying overhead.  One stop produced a Gray Catbird and a House Wren in the shrubs and a few Savannah Sparrows in the grass.  One bird might have been a Song Sparrow, but I never got close enough to be sure. 

We ended the day at a Beef O'Brady's in Tangerine.  I was taught that if you can't say anything nice about someone or something, don't say anything at all.  Instead, I'll mention that there is a terrific, multiple award-winning novel for adolescents called Tangerine by Edward Bloor set in a fictionalized version of this town.  It was a compelling read, and I highly recommend it rather than the aforementioned restaurant. 

Overall, we had 48 species for the morning and I added eight to my Orange County life list.  I'm really looking forward to bringing a field trip back here in a few weeks.  When I post something on Facebook to advertise the trip, there's one thing I'm confident in saying.

It is filled with birds.

Jim Eager's photo of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks.  Yes, I'm jealous.

Bald Eagle

A Palm Warbler flashing its white outer tail feathers.

Another look at a Glossy Ibis


Savannah Sparrow

Blue-winged Teal

This Palm Warbler just needed a good stretch!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Warblers in the Mist

A common winter sight in my yard: five Yellow-rumped Warblers gathering around a birdbath.

Twice each year, birders here in Florida have the chance to scour the local forests in the hope of seeing a few migrating warblers.  It can be a frustrating experience.  Many warblers tend to use the top of the canopy, making it difficult to see them through many layers of leaves and branches.  And those little things are never still!  They seem to move constantly!  You see a warbler, raise your binoculars to your eyes, and the bird has moved.  You search the surrounding area and spot a flash of yellow, but it moves before you can look for a single field mark.  It's really exciting when you finally get a good look at one of these beauties, but it doesn't happen often enough.  In the end, a ten warlber day is a really good one.

And then there are those days when the warblers come to you.  You see, like all birds, warblers need water.  They really enjoy a good bath and a playful splashing in the pool.  If you're lucky enough to have a shallow puddle with some dripping or misting water, the warblers just might pay you a visit.  When they do, you can watch them at leisure and see things that are rarely seen in the field.  So here are a baker's dozen of warblers enjoying the cool water on a hot day.

•A twelve-month resident of north central Florida, the Yellow-throated Warbler is always a joy to see in the woods.  But it's an extra pleasure to watch one take a dip right in front of you and hang around for a few minutes.
Yellow-throated Warbler

•Okay, it's confession time.  I frequently sing in the shower.  I was emboldened to fess up by this Pine Warbler who shares my joy at hitting a good note while enjoying a soaking. 
Pine Warbler

•Common Yellowthroats are present here all year and inhabit brushy, marshy areas.  So what would draw this male to a little puddle in the middle of a suburban area with not a single marsh in sight?  I don't know the answer, I just know that it was quite a pleasure to see him.
Common Yellowthroat

•This Worm-eating Warbler splashed around for a long time, thoroughly soaking himself.  In my opinion, he went way beyond bathing -- he was playing.
Worm-eating Warbler

 •The Hooded Warbler can be a really secretive bird, more often heard than seen.   So it was a pleasure to see this guy visit the pool. 
Hooded Warbler

•So, how often have you seen the orange feathers on the head of the Orange-crowned Warbler?  I had never seen them until this bird flashed a spot of orange while bathing. 
Orange-crowned Warbler

•Look at the triangles of black dots on the underside of the Black-and-White Warbler's tail.  That's actually a pretty definitive field mark for the species.  However, it's typically seen only from below.  This little lady is just showing off!
Black-and-White Warbler

•I went four years without seeing a Magnolia Warbler, and this year I saw five.  Go figure.
Magnolia Warbler

•This photo speaks for itself.  The Blackburnian Warbler is one of the brilliant jewels of the birding world.
Blackburnian Warbler

•I think that around here we see more "Yellowstarts" (females and young birds) than male Redstarts in breeding plumage.  So when one hangs around the pool, it's a great treat.
American Redstart

•One of my absolute favorite warblers is the Black-throated Blue.  Seeing a male in the forest can be a challenge, and I never seem to be able to watch one for more than a few seconds at a time.  But this guy stayed for several minutes.  What a thrill!
Black-throated Blue Warbler

•After hanging around all summer, Northern Parulas are typically gone by late October.  Their return is a harbinger of summer.
Northern Parula

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Birds Playing in Pools

In a short time, these American Robins knocked almost all of the water out of the pool.

Loud and boisterous, Blue Jays can be the pool bullies.
A few years ago I wrote a blog about attracting birds to your yard by using water.  To this day, it remains one of my most popular posts.  I think that's because we love seeing birds just outside our windows, and we really love seeing birds playing in water.  I know I do, and for several reasons.  First, it's fun!  Birds playing in pools of water are about as cute as anything in nature.  They're funny, and I can watch them for hours - leaving all of the world's cares behind.  Second, they're right in front of me!  There's no warbler neck from staring up into the canopy.  And they're right outside the window; I don't have to go anywhere to see them.  And finally, and this is an important one for serious birders, the birds can be studied for a long time with an unobstructed view.  This often results in seeing things that are rarely seen in the field.  I first realized this by accident.  My birding partner and I like to practice using our cameras by sitting outside quietly, waiting for birds to come to a birdbath or drip pool, and snapping away.  The photos revealed little things that are hard to see in the field like the red in the eye of a Red-eyed Vireo or the orange in the crown of an Orange-crowned Warbler. 

With all of that said, the truth is that the photos of birds playing in pools are just fun to look at.  So I've decided to do a blog series that is really an excuse for publishing some wonderful photos with very little commentary from me.  I'll do about one of them a month until I run out of photos.  I hope you enjoy them.  This month I'm focusing on the typical backyard birds any of us might see in and around our yards.

Some birds prefer to play in a mist of water rather than get into the pool.  This Carolina Wren got really close to the nozzle and soaked up the cooling mist on a hot day.  Look at the beads of water all over his little body.

Other birds prefer to wallow in the pool, spending a long time in a leisurely bath.  Northern Cardinals are among the most prominent birds in eastern backyards, and they love the water.

Normally, Brown Thrashers look fearsome and severe, but this one is just cute!  Living up to his name, he thrashed around in the little puddle until he was a complete ball of fuzz. 

The buffy colored feathers on the sides of the Tufted Titmouse below suggest that this is a mature bird.  Mature or not, it looks like he enjoys a good soaking.

Carolina Chickadees really like the water.  Occasionally they take a shower in a fine mist.  And this little one apparently enjoys singing in the shower -- but then again, don't we all?

Other Chickadees prefer a good dip in the pool.  And why not?  It gets really hot in Florida.

I think this was couples day at the spa.

I think it was "Boys' Swim" time at the pool when this was taken.  The belly of a male Cardinal can be seen in the upper left hand corner, hanging out with this handsome looking male House Finch.  Do you think they were comparing shades of red?

I think the Northern Parula is a beautiful bird, but when seen in the field, they are always moving in and out of the foliage above me.  As a result, it's rare to get an opportunity to appreciate just how striking they are. 

"Hey, aren't you gonna take my picture, too?"  This Red-eyed Vireo seemed to mug it up for the camera while taking an extended shower.

Come back in a few weeks for another dozen photos of birds playing in the pool.  Next month: Warblers!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Anaconda to Spokane: Last Days in the Northwest

Georgetown Lake near Anaconda, Montana

The final two days of my trip are easily summarized.  I had heard that Great Gray Owls could be found at Georgetown Lake near Anaconda, Montana.  I was in Missoula, so the lake was about an hour away.  But that night I had to be in Spokane, Washington, about 300 miles to the west of the lake.  That meant that with birding miles added in, I would have about a 500 mile drive.  Still, Great Gray Owl was really high on my wish list, so I headed east on I-90 and south on MT 1.  I think I crossed Flint Creek a dozen times along the way, passing through a series of tiny towns and reaching the lake while the morning was still young.

Red-necked Grebes on a Family Outing
I began a counterclockwise circle of the lake and stopped at every picnic area and campground and turned in every side road I could find.  The birding was really good.  I tallied Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees, Osprey, Spotted Sandpiper, Killdeer, Bald Eagle, Ring-billed Gull, Mountain Bluebird and a sparrow I really tried to turn into something special but it was most likely a Chipping Sparrow.  I got really good looks at a lot of Red-necked Grebes including one family group.  I watched the two parents dive repeatedly, come up with food, and feed a couple of very hungry chicks.  I added Yellow Warblers along the east side, ending the morning with about 22 species, but no owls.  Georgetown Lake turned out to be a gorgeous site with some nice birding spots, but I dipped on my target bird.

I headed back north on Route 1 intending to have lunch in Philipsburg, but the little town was hosting some kind of antique car festival.  The streets were packed with revelers and the only restaurant I could find was filled to overflowing.  I continued up the road, eventually landing in Drummond at Parker's Family Restaurant which advertised 135 different types of burgers.  I waded through a binder with the burger descriptions, picked something with roasted red peppers, and ordered it.  It was fantastic!  I ate a huge meal, left a nice tip for the friendly waitress, and bought some soft-serve ice cream at a stand next door.  When it was gone, I climbed back in the car and drove to Spokane.  I had one day left on my trip, and I hoped to make it a good one.

Immature Dark-eyed Junco
My final destination for the trip was Mount Spokane State Park in Mead, about an hour's drive from my hotel.  I got there before 9:00 AM the next morning.  At the base of the mountain I birded the edge of a stream, hoping for MacGillivray's Warbler that is supposed to breed in the park.  I found Song and Chipping Sparrows and a Warbling Vireo, but no MacGillivray's.  Along one trail I saw a juvenile bird that stumped me for a bit.  I did my best to turn it into something different, I believe it's a Dark-eyed Junco.  Farther up the mountain I found a nice spot where I watched Red-breasted Nuthatches play in the pines.  There was one bird that I followed for a little while until I finally got a nice look at a Chestnut-backed Chickadee!  At a picnic area I walked over to a place where I had seen some downed trees and bare snags.  I hoped for some woodpeckers, but I found none.  Then a little motion caught my eye.  It was a wren crawling around the ground among some dead branches.  It had a tiny tail and an all-dark belly, just like our Winter Wren, but here it was something different - a Pacific Wren, and a lifer, the sixth and last of the trip.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Finally, I reached the summit.  I saw another Red-breasted Nuthatch, a few Black-capped Chickadees, a Gray Catbird, a couple of Common Ravens and a bird that confused me for a long time but that I suspect was a juvenile Chipping sparrow.  I visited a nice stone cabin built by the CCC, ate a picnic lunch from the back of the SUV and enjoyed a breath-taking view of the valley below.  With nothing left to do, I decided it was time to call it a trip and get back to the hotel to repack for the flight home.

There were a lot of obstacles and surprises on this trip.  On the other hand, many of them turned into good opportunities.  The fires in Glacier altered that entire experience, but led me to stop at Nine-pipes and find my life Clark's Grebe.  The need to purchase a one-day state park pass at Walmart dramatically delayed everything on the first day, but led me to be in the Fields Spring parking lot at the precise moment my life Red-naped Sapsucker came down to eye-level to feed.  I was frustrated at times, but in retrospect, it was actually a very successful trip.  To be sure, I missed a number of my target birds including MacGillivray's Warbler and Spotted Owl.  But I had 104 species including six lifers.  If I had known those numbers going into the trip, I would have gladly taken them.

More importantly, I saw some extraordinary places, met some terrific people, and came away with a rich appreciation for a part of our country I had never seen.  And that alone made the trip worth while.

This is an adult Red-necked Grebe.
The view from the CCC cabin at the top of Mount Spokane.
Only a birder can know the excitement of seeing that brown back! It's my second-ever Chestnut-backed Chickadee,
This is an Aphrodite Fritillary, the first of its kind I've ever seen/
I think this is a Lorquin's Admiral, another butterfly I had never seen before.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Birding in the Footsteps of Sacajawea

The view toward the Salmon River Valley from the Lewis and Clark Birding Loop

While planning this trip, I seriously considered not making the drive to Salmon, Idaho, for one day's birding.  The drive was over five hours from Columbia Falls over the twisting curves of Chief Joseph Pass.  Would it be worth the effort to drive in late at night, bird the hills above Salmon the next day, and then make another drive over the pass to Missoula that same evening?  As it turned out, the answer was a resounding YES!  By far, this was the best birding day of the trip.

Willow Flycatcher
The Idaho Birding Trail Guidebook has a really impressive bird list for two driving loops near Salmon.  One is the Lemhi Backcountry Road Loop, and the other is called the Lewis and Clark Loop.  I knew I wouldn't have time to do both, so I did about half of each.  The loops take you through agricultural fields dotted with streams, marshes and brushy areas that are bird magnets.  I birded the area for about seven hours, stopping every time I saw interesting habitat, which was often.  And everywhere I stopped, I saw birds.

The first stop was a really active spot near the beginning of the route.  Tall brush lined the western side of the road, and a swampy area covered the east side.  Yellow Warblers seemed to be everywhere.  A couple of Black-capped Chickadees joined in the fun as well.  In the snags above me, a Downy Woodpecker worked its way up the trunk.  A Song Sparrow barked at me from the marshy side, a Kestrel darted past and a Common Nighthawk glided by a few moments later.  This was awesome!

Sage Thrasher
A little farther up the road I found Cliff and Bank Swallows, Rock Pigeons and Mourning Doves, and Red-winged Blackbirds.  There was a small branch of the Salmon River below me on the west side of the road.  Along it, the brush teemed with birds.  A persistent "fitzbew .... fitzbew" announced the presence of a Willow Flycatcher.  A gorgeous male Lazuli Bunting popped up a little bit down the road and Barn Swallows swooped above the fields.  Then I saw another bird on a fence rail.  I didn't recognize it at first, so I took a bunch of photos and pulled out my phone with its field guide app.  No doubt!  It was a Sage Thrasher and a life bird for me.

At another spot a California Quail sat in a dead tree and generally ignored me while I tried unsuccessfully to get a good angle for a photograph.  Meanwhile, a few Collared-Doves zipped past me followed a few seconds later by a Red-tailed Hawk.

Juvenile Bald Eagle
Just then a pickup truck coming in the opposite direction stopped.  The driver rolled down his window and asked, "You bird watching?"  I said yes and he said, "There's two Golden Eagles on the rocks just around that corner.  I thought you might want to take a look at them."  I certainly did!  I hopped in the car and quickly reached the place where two eagles perched above me, no more than 50 feet away.  As slowly as I could, I walked toward them, snapping photos along the way.  They certainly looked like Golden Eagles, but I wanted to see the golden hackles on the back of the neck.  Then one took flight.  I saw the tail pattern that suggested Golden ... but the rest?  It's a species I've only seen once (in Alaska) so I was on uncertain ground.  I circled the one that remained perched and took some more photos ... golden feathers on the wings, but I couldn't pick out any on the neck.  Then the bird called out.  Funny, I didn't know Goldens sound so much like Bald Eagles.  But the local guy was standing there, so sure of what he was saying, being really nice and enthusiastic about showing off a treasure to a visitor.  Then he added, "They're about a month early this year."  Yikes.  I said nothing and later I studied the field guide.  They were juvenile Bald Eagles.

Black-billed Magpie
Eventually I turned up the mountain, leaving the Lemhi Backcountry Road and heading toward the Continental Divide.  Near here, Lewis and Clark met the Lemhi Shoshone and a historical plaque marks the location.  We have all heard of Sacajawea, the Indian woman who acted as a guide and interpreter for the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition.  She was born near Salmon but taken hostage at about 12 by the Hidatsa.  She wound up in North Dakota where she was either purchased by a French trader or given to him to fulfill a gambling debt.  Eventually she was taken on by the Expedition and, as they crossed the Continental Divide, she recognized her homeland, reunited with her people and learned that her brother was now chief.  That reunion had a long-lasting and positive impact on the success of the mission.  And now, 210 years later, I was walking this same ground, seeing the same hills, and I like to imagine I was seeking the descendents of the same birds that witnessed that historic occasion.  Interestingly, one accepted interpretation of Sacajawea's name in the Hidatsa language is "Bird Woman."  And this birder felt a real connection to her and those events.

Brewer's Sparrow
As I drove higher, the terrain changed into a sagebrush habitat and the bird population seemed to thin out for a while.  Still, I saw a Northern Harrier hunting over the brush and some Vesper Sparrows in the dirt along the road's edge.  Higher up I entered an area of towering pines.  I stopped in one spot and was fortunate to find a Red Crossbill foraging in one tree, and a Clark's Nutcracker in another - two great birds!

That was when I saw approaching storm clouds and a light drizzle began to fall.  I looked at the time and realized I really needed to get on the road to Missoula where I was to spend the night.  It was already mid-afternoon, the drive ahead was just over three hours, and I had no desire to cross Chief Joseph Pass in the dark again.  I turned around and headed down the mountain.

On the way, I came to a very small park that I had barely noticed earlier.  The entire park was about the size of a school parking lot back home.  There was a parking area for maybe a half-dozen cars, a little circular courtyard, a picnic table, a tiny bathroom, a small changing room and two little pools.  The pools were just a bit bigger than a family-sized hot tub - and just as hot!  Fed by natural springs, hot water bubbled into the pools from below and ran out through an opening at the top and into a small stream nearby.  I stooped to feel the water when I heard a chip from just behind me.  A sparrow was perched there in the sagebrush.  I grabbed my camera, took one shot and then reached for my binoculars.  The bird was gone.  I had to get moving, so I forgot the incident until later when I looked at my photos.  It was a Brewer's Sparrow - the second life bird of the day!

Even in my hurry to get back to the highway, I still had time to see a few more birds - Mountain Bluebirds, Western Meadowlarks, Eastern Kingbirds, Chipping Sparrows and Canada Geese.  Finally I reached Salmon where I bought gas and stopped for just a moment to soak in this little town that was so charming and friendly.  I especially liked the fountain in the center of town (see the photo at the bottom).  It depicts a Grizzly standing in the Salmon River about to snag one of the tasty fish for his next meal.  That fountain and the surrounding flowers sum up my feelings for the town, the broader area, and the day I had had thus far.  It was wonderful, and I wished I had more time to stay there.  God willing, someday I'll go back.
Western Meadowlark

Perhaps it was karma, or the birding gods acknowledging my appreciation for a terrific day, but Salmon had one more surprise in store for me.  Just as I left town, I saw two small gray figures crossing the road ahead of me.  I swerved a little to miss them, and looked directly down on a Dusky Grouse!  I had searched all over three states for this species, failing miserably, and here were two of them standing in the middle of US 93.  I hit the brakes, did a u-turn and, feeling certain they would be gone, drove back to the spot.  They were still there, casually strolling across the road.  I snatched up my bins and got another look at my third lifer of the day!

It was a fitting end to a memorable birding day.  The drive to Missoula passed quickly, and the pass wasn't as daunting in the light of day as it had been the night before.  The next day was to be another long day behind the wheel, so I turned in early.  The day had ended, but its memories will stay with me forever.
Lazuli Bunting

Red Crossbill

Farms along the Lemhi Backcountry Road

Juvenile Bald Eagle (Darn It)

An Abandoned Farmhouse on the Lemhi Backcountry Road.

A Fountain in Downtown Salmon, Idaho