Monday, March 23, 2015

Third Thursday, Part 2

Part of the Third Thursday crowd stretched along La Chua Trail

Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland.
As I read my last blog, two thoughts struck me.  First, I did an okay job of summarizing what happened. I organized this thing, we went here, we saw that, we ate at this or that place.  Good time had by all.  Blah, blah, blah!  Second, I did a lousy job of expressing what I experienced throughout the seven months.  There were anxious moments, nervous moments, frustrating moments, silly moments and and just plain fun moments.  Make that hours of fun!

Let me clarify something that I glossed over in my previous blog.  My intent was NOT merely to plug in a mid-week birding experience here and there.  Rather, I wanted to build something that would be both a birding AND a social experience.  I really like the birders in Gainesville, and the retired birders in the area are such great people.  Yet, unless I did a weekend field trip, I rarely saw them.  And aside from one or two Audubon-sponsored social events, I never saw them in a non-birding context.  I wanted to fix that.

A bubbling spring feeding the Suwannee River at SRSP
The mid-week birding idea is not a new one.  Alachua Audubon did it years ago with organized field trips, and a group in Tallahassee is doing it now.  The latter group is very flexible in that they can decide where they are going to bird on the morning of the event.  I wanted to take a little from each and see what would happen.  As I said, I wanted to have both a birding experience and a social one.  Meet for breakfast and then go birding.  Or go birding and then go have lunch together.  Let the group decide where to go each month and suggest restaurants for the meal.  I wanted to organize, but not make all of the decisions.

Some of it worked out better than others.  I picked out more of the birding destinations than I wanted, but not all.  Others in the group suggested restaurants, but I ended up making the call.  I guess that was to be expected, and I'm fine with it.  In fact, I think the whole experience was fantastic, and I'm eagerly looking forward to repeating it next year.  Why?  Judge for yourself.  Here are some of those moments I mentioned above:

Sweetwater Sheetflow Project

Looking pretty on the prairie
•What if I organized an event and no one showed up?  My first fear was that the whole project would die for lack of interest.  Those early fears began to ease after the first trip was announced and the lunch reservations started coming in.  Fifteen for lunch?  Okay, 15 is a good start.  Then about 25 people showed up on the morning of the first Third Thursday trip.  Relief!  Validation!  Yay!!

•Minutes after I met Jim and Lil O'Donnell, I was chatting away with them like we were old friends.  Were they really that nice and easy to get along with?  Well, actually, yes.  They're great people.  But we also share another connection that came to light when we discovered our joint connection to northeastern Pennsylvania where I was born and raised. What a pleasure to talk about home with people who have been there.

•My birding life flashed before my eyes as I watched my Leica Televid scope topple over and smack into the gravel at Circle B Bar Reserve.  Silently, I uttered one blistering cuss after another at myself.  How could I be so careless?  And then relief when I saw that the optics were just fine.  A piece of the plastic was a bit out of alignment, but no serious damage done.  Thank you, God!
The Withlacoochee as it joins the Suwannee at SRSP

•I laughed out loud as I listened to Lee Yoder and Bill Pennewell toss playful insults back and forth at each other during lunch at Peach Valley in Gainesville.  They reminded me so much of my brothers, especially of my oldest brother who teased me unmercifully - but always in a way that let me know it was in fun and never hurtful.  The same was true for Lee and Bill - all in good fun and no harm intended or done.  They were just funny, and I soaked it up.

•I had no idea where to eat in Lakeland.  I was completely at a loss.  Up stepped Howard Adams with a link to TripAdvisor that forever changed my way of searching for somewhere to eat.

•The frustration leading up to the January trip was getting a little intense.  The destination was still an active construction zone, and we were told that all participants had to wear safety vests.  They had 10 we could use.  We had 37 birders coming.  Even my math skills were sufficient to suggest we might have a problem brewing.  Then Debra Segal stepped up and got a bunch.  Next Bubba Scales at Wild Birds Unlimited chipped in a few more.  Soon other people wrote to me offering us the use of their extra vests, and others who weren't planning to attend sent me theirs just to help out.  Birders are just good people!  And then the night before the event the construction company backed off and said no vests were needed.  I thought some bad words.  The next morning as the group gathered in a Winn-Dixie parking lot, I was greeted by Charlene Leonard who had baked some orange muffins for me to say thanks.  All was good again.
Alachua Sink on Paynes Prairie

•The first bird on the La Chua trip was a Barn Owl in her nest.  So as not to disturb her, we backed off and used my scope to try to peak into the nest.  We were rewarded with a clear view of a beautiful bird.  Slowly, we got everyone a moment with my scope and all participants saw her.  As the last person walked away, I decided to take one more look for myself.  Suddenly I was calling to everyone.  "Holy Lord above!! There's a baby in there!  No ... there are two of 'em!!  Get back here!!"  People scrambled back and those who were closest got to see at least one of the cutest little owlets I've ever seen.  Momma soon pushed them down and away from view, but I felt really blessed and sent a quick prayer skyward in thanks.

•And when my oldest brother passed away near the end of February, it was hitting the birding trail with this same group that helped me out.  Talking with Rick Drummond and Santiago Salazar on the drive to Suwannee River State Park; getting teased by John Hintermister for my complete lack of knowledge about trees; hearing Mercedes Panqueva and Santiago talk about their homelands of Columbia and Ecuador; tearing into a terrific meal at All Decked Out in Live Oak and thinking, "Life is good" - all of these things helped me stop cursing the stars and start thanking God for the many wonderful things and people that fill my life.

So this has been an extraordinary experience.  I think I took far more from it than I put into it.  The April trip is coming up soon, and I can't wait to see what's going to happen.

That's me on the left.  My theory is to lead from behind.

"Are you lookin' at me?  Are YOU looking at ME?"

"Hey dude, can ya do this?"

"Giddy up, horse!  I ain't got all day!"

"I do love frog legs for dinner.  Don't you?"

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Third Thursday, Part 1

A small part of the inaugural Third Thursday
As I approached my retirement from 41 years in teaching, I often joked that I was retiring to become a full-time birder.  I'm trying very hard to meet that goal.  But one of the obstacles was a complete lack of organized birding activities during the traditional work week.  My idea was to do something about that.

I'm a member of the Alachua Audubon Society, one of the most active and (in my view) best Audubon chapters in the state.  From September through the end of May we sponsor about 45 birding field trips, all on either a Saturday or Sunday.  During nearly every weekend over a nine-month stretch, I have one or two field trips I can attend and share the birding experience with a lot of really great people I've come to think of as friends.  But during the week?  Nothing.  My friends and I were on our own. So about a year ago I approached the Alachua Audubon officers about sponsoring a mid-week birding field trip once each month.  I also suggested combining the field trip with a social activity - lunch at a restaurant.  The result has been a series of terrific days that have come to be known as Third Thursday.

Yellow Rat Snake at Bolen Bluff
We started in September with a walk around Bolen Bluff in Gainesville.  The crowd was enormous; too big, in fact.  We split into groups, took opposite directions on the trail, and agreed to meet back in the parking lot three and a half hours later.  Initially, the birding was slow, but a waterthrush here, an owl there and (eventually) a few warblers resulted in a really nice day.  A Yellow Rat Snake (right) also added to the excitement.  Afterward, about 15 of us descended upon Blue Highway in Micanopy for some of the best pizza I've had since leaving Pennsylvania almost 30 years ago.  It was an encouraging start, but could it be sustained?

The October Third Thursday visited San Felasco Hammock State Park in Alachua, known locally as Progress Park.  This time the group was smaller, as I had expected.  I had originally pictured this as an activity for retired birders.  Our initial group had attracted a number of retirees as well as several college students and a few people playing hooky from work for a day.  The October group was all retirees.  The pace was a bit slower, but the birding was really good.  For a quiet day, we tallied 35 species then found our way to Conestoga's in "Beautiful, downtown Alachua" for a fantastic lunch.

Black-crowned Night-Heron at La Chua Trail
November's trip was a gem.  We walked out the La Chua Trail at Paynes Prairie State Preserve, one of my favorite spots on earth.  Essentially, I forgot I had a camera with me as I scurried this way and that to see a Barn Owl, a White-crowned Sparrow, a Common Yellowthroat, a Black-crowned Night-Heron (left), a Swamp Sparrow, a Bald Eagle, a Green Heron, a Wood Stork, a Ruddy Duck, a Northern Harrier, a Purple Gallinule, an American Bittern, a Vermilion Flycatcher or any of the 40 species we saw.  The group was bigger this time, and stretched out along the trail quite a bit.  That made a large group feel smaller, but kept me busy trying to touch base with everyone.  Truthfully ... I loved it.  So much fun!

Then it was time for lunch and we swarmed into Peach Valley in Gainesville.  I had called ahead to warn them that a group of 14 was on its way.  Who would have thought that a second group, also of 14, was just a few blocks away?  They beat us there and got our tables, and we were relegated to the patio on a very cold day.  Problem?  Not for this group.  No one complained, the restaurant manager brought out some area heaters, we plowed into a wonderful lunch, and I was introduced to the delights of apple fritters.  We told stories, laughed ourselves silly, and generally had a terrific time.  How can you not love this group?

Two of the three groups stopped to watch the Forster's Terns.
December was consumed by a combination of the holidays and the Christmas Bird Count, so our Third Thursday group didn't meet again until January.  When we did, it was incredible.  We were allowed to tour the Sweetwater Sheetflow Project, a water treatment facility being built on the edge of Paynes Prairie.  Soon this fantastic park will be open to the public, but that hasn't happened yet.  Nonetheless, through the efforts of Debra Segal and Alice Rankeillor, we were granted the necessary access.  As soon as word got out, I was swarmed with emails from people wanting to join our group.  Eventually we had 37 people attend, and we broke into three groups.  That said, the place is so big that it felt empty.

But there were birds everywhere!  I love looking at ducks, so this was a good day.  There were Gadwall, Ruddy Ducks, Blue and Green-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, Lesser Scaup. Bufflehead, and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks.  There were White, Glossy and White-faced Ibises.  Eagles soared overhead causing American Coots and Common Gallinules to scurry for cover.  Killdeer and Least Sandpipers probed the mud while Forster's Terns patrolled the skies.  Snipe and Pipits darted by us while Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs ignored us as we walked along the berms above them.  Limpkins and Roseate Spoonbills added their own unique touches to the gorgeous vistas throughout the park.  The day ended with an excellent meal at Chuy's Mexican Restaurant.  I waddled out of there stuffed, but very content.

This Anhinga (at Circle B) is a gorgeous bird!
Our February trip took us far afield from our usual Gainesville haunts.  We traveled to Lakeland in Polk County to bird at Circle B Bar Preserve.  This is always a great birding destination, and this time was no exception.  We had a 40+ species day that included great looks at all of the expected waders and a few ducks as well.  But the day's biggest surprises came from two little warblers.  At almost the same time, I called out, "There's a Prairie Warbler!" while Howard Adams called, "Northern Parula!"  Two beautiful and unexpected warblers on a cold day in February topped off an excellent birding day.  We wrapped it up at Palace Pizza, one of the highest rated restaurants in Lakeland, according to "TripAdvisor" and the twelve of us who squeezed into three tables in their small dining area.  I must say, we did ourselves proud by polishing off a huge amount of excellent Italian fare.  This was the first time I had searched for a restaurant using "TripAdvisor".  It proved to be a really good strategy that I would use again a few weeks later.

After a birding trip to Peacock Springs State Park, "TripAdvisor" led me to a restaurant in Live Oak called "All Decked Out."  I loved it, and as it happened, it was really close to our next Third Thursday destination.  Sometimes, things just go right.

Barred Owl at Suwannee River State Park
Our March destination was Suwannee River State Park in Suwannee County.  We made the hour-long drive to the park and began walking upriver on the River Trail.  The birding was slow at first, but picked up considerably as we encountered two separate feeding flocks.  Mixed with the Yellow-rumped, Pine and Black-and-white Warblers were Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Blue-headed and White-eyed Vireos, and the usual Tufted Titmouse and Carolina Chickadee.  On the return trip along the creek, we saw an Orange-crowned Warbler,  three Hermit Thrushes and a very cooperative Barred Owl (right).  Later in the pine forest along the Sandhills Trail we encountered Brown-headed Nuthatch, Eastern Towhee, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a Yellow-throated Vireo and a single Bald Eagle passing overhead.  Finally we made our way to Live Oak and All Decked Out where I had my second superb piece of coconut cream pie in under two weeks. 

Our final Third Thursday for this birding year will come in April when we visit Cedar Key.  I hope we are swarmed over by a horde of migrant warblers, tanagers, and orioles.  I don't know where we'll eat yet, but it will be good, I'm sure.  I'm already thinking about next year's trips - which will we repeat and which will we replace with something new.  But most of all, I'm looking forward to renewing the camaraderie of a terrific group of people who have made this an exceptionally good experience.

Some of the Third Thursday Regulars at Suwannee River State Park

Green Heron at Circle B Bar Preserve in Lakeland, Polk County, Florida

Lunch at Peach Valley Restaurant with some of the Third Thursday crowd

A nesting Barn Owl at Paynes Prairie State Preserve.  There were two chicks in the nest as well.

American White Pelicans at Circle B Bar Preserve

Blue-winged Teal at Circle B Bar Preserve

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