Saturday, February 20, 2016

Bracketed by Owls at Circle B

Circle B Bar Reserve

Great Horned Owl, the first bird of the day.
I don't claim to have had a lot of really good ideas, but there is one that I claim.  Soon after I retired, I decided to start a once-a-month outing for other retired birders.  I also decided to follow the birding with lunch at various restaurants.  My goal was to combine some serious birding with a social occasion.    We have now been meeting for about a year and a half, and I couldn't be happier with the results.  Not only have the monthly field trips become fairly popular, but I've made friends with some terrific people along the way. This past week was a prime example of why I've come to look forward to the Third Thursday of the month.

We gathered at 6:30 on a cool morning and carpooled to Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland, about two and a half hours away.  Sally Larson joined the usual Red Van Gang members, Jerry Pruitt took three more with him, and Alachua Audubon president Anne Casella rode with Celeste Shitama.  I always appreciate those who step up and offer to drive and take others with them.  It makes the logistics of a trip so much easier to manage.

Before we even reached the parking lot, we had our first great bird of the day.  We saw a group of birders and photographers staring up into a tree and learned there was a Great Horned Owl nest up there.  Not wanting to disturb the birds, we stayed only a minute.   We saw no adults, but one of the babies was nice enough to peek out at us long enough for us to take a photograph.

Roseate Spoonbill.  I missed this one.
When we got to the parking lot we were greeted by two more of our group who had driven to the park on their own.  Jim and Lillian O'Donnell have become good friends in the last year, largely due to these field trips.  Their northeast Pennsylvania roots don't hurt either!  Jim immediately told me that a Barred Owl was supposed to be roosting along the trail we were taking.  That would be another great bird if we could find it.

First we searched around the education building.  I had heard there was a Painted Bunting in the area, but we failed to find it.  The park was busier that day than I have ever seen it, with the visitor-filled tram running constantly.  Perhaps all of that activity scared the bird away.

We headed out toward the wetland area and walked the narrow path along the berm.  There were birds everywhere we looked.  Early on we saw Limpkin, Bald Eagle, and a nice mix of the usual waders.  We watched an aerial display by a flock of Tree Swallows, and part of the group saw a Roseate Spoonbill that I missed.  One of the group found a Purple Gallinule and a second one wandered into view as we watched the first.

Purple Gallinule
One of the things I like about Circle B is that the habitat invites a great mix of species.  The wetland attracts all of the usual water birds, but the trail is well lined with trees and shrubs that serve as home to a very different set of birds.  So looking one direction produced Green Herons, Snowy Egrets and American Coots, while looking up gave us Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, White-eyed Vireos and a Prairie Warbler.  About midway along the path we saw a lone Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, the only duck species of the day.  That was a surprise, and continued what for me has been the "Year Without Ducks."

The lack of ducks didn't dampen the day at all.  We picked up a Purple Martin among the Tree Swallows.  We watched a Forster's Tern diving for food and a Royal Tern posing like a model for our cameras.  We watched a Gray Catbird dancing on the leaves at the edge of a culvert and a Green Heron with duckweed on his forehead and bill.

Royal Tern
On previous field trips, we always turned right at the end of the long berm and continued through a hardwood hammock back to the parking lot.  Last Thursday we decided to turn left instead.  The morning was nearly finished, so I opted for the shorter loop.  Also, a couple of years ago I found some good sparrows in the grass along the southern edge of the property.  I had no such luck this time.  The sparrows might have been there, but the entire field was cordoned off to protect a tortoise-breeding area.

Eventually we got back to the crossroad where the Barred Owl had been reported.  We had looked earlier, but didn't find it.  This time we got lucky.  Another birder was standing under one tree staring up.  He pointed and said "Barred Owl."  There it was, the 51st and last bird of the day, providing the closing bracket that had opened with a Great Horned Owl chick.

After leaving the Reserve we made our way to Palace Pizza on US 98 in the Publix shopping area.  Eleven of us chowed down on a variety of pizza slices, salads, garlic knots and some raspberry cookies.  I ate way too much and enjoyed every single bite.  I enjoyed the conversation even more which continued during the drive home.  I think we laughed and chatted for the entire 130 miles.

Like I said, I may not have a lot of great ideas, but our Third Thursday Retirees' birding group is definitely one of my better ones.

Snowy Egret

Baby Alligator completely covered with duckweed.

Anhinga drying itself off after diving for its breakfast.

Royal Tern with an interesting hairdo.

Green Heron.  I think this is one of our most beautiful birds.

Barred Owl, the last bird of the day.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Getting Back to Marion County ... And to Blogging

Lake Kerr

Swamp Sparrow on Black Sink Prairie
There are occasions when time slips by too quickly.  You intend to do something soon, and you don't get to it for a long, long time.  Sometimes there are too many other priorities; sometimes it's just neglect.  Like all of us, I've had a little bit of each, and two examples come to mind.  Last November I published one of these blogs and had loads of ideas for the next essay.  I never got to them.  Who knew that retirement could be so busy?  And years ago - 7? 8? - I visited Black Sink Prairie in Marion County.  It was during a driving rainstorm and I kept saying to myself, "I've gotta get back here soon, maybe in winter when there could be ducks on these ponds."  Didn't happen.  Fortunately, I was able to fix the latter last Thursday, and that gave me the impetus to fix the former lapse as well.

The Big Red Van headed out a little later than usual, and traffic was annoyingly heavy.  Nonetheless, we reached NE 175th Street before the early February air began to warm.  A roadside pond produced a couple of Hooded Mergansers, an Eastern Phoebe and both Great and Little Blue Herons.  It was a good start to what would be a productive day.

I mean no disrespect to the city fathers of Marion County, but I soon ran into something that was really odd.  I wanted to turn south on NE 35th Ave. Rd.  The name's a bit redundant, but finding it should have been easy enough.  I expected to find it nestled between 34th and 36th, or at least a higher number and a lower number.  Not so.  I passed 32nd and then 37th.  No 35th.  I went back ... no 35th, and so I went on.  I passed 47th, 48th and 49th and then found 35th just before 52nd.  Go figure.

Black Sink Prairie
Very quickly I realized why I wanted to come back to this little dirt road.  Both sides are peppered with ponds and stretches of prairie.  One stop produced a nice little mix of birds including a curious Common Yellowthroat, a bunch of frantic Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a Northern Cardinal that was singing proudly from the top of a willow.  A little farther along the road we found a Tufted Titmouse, a noisy House Wren, and a secretive White-eyed Vireo.  Meanwhile, a Northern Harrier glided by looking for a snack.  

Next, a flooded field produced the day's biggest surprise.  I scoped the pond ticking off some Coots, a couple of ducks that I believe were Mottled, a Pied-billed Grebe, and then passed over something that I assumed was a Wilson's Snipe.  But that ID didn't sit well with me.  There were no stripes along the bird's back, the bill looked too long, and the bird looked grayer than I expected.  Also, it walked with a hunch-backed appearance.  I asked my companions to check out the bird, and they agreed that it was a dowitcher, probably a Long-billed Dowitcher, and my only county lifer of the day.

Yellow-rumped Warbler taking flight
We continued through the prairie adding to a growing list of day birds.  There was a Bald Eagle, all of the expected waders including a beautiful Green Heron, Ring-necked and Ruddy Ducks, and some Lesser Scaup.   There were Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks; Chipping, Savannah and Swamp Sparrows, and what seemed to be hundreds of Tree Swallows.

In planning the day, I had hoped to investigate a second road that seemed to run along the western side of the prairie.  That didn't turn out so well.  The road, NE 21st Ave. Rd., was bordered on one side by a railroad track that was on ground that was built up to be higher than the road.  On the other was a series of homes, but no view of the prairie.  Disturbingly, most of the homes prominently displayed "No Trespassing" signs that threatened to KILL violators.  Not prosecute -- KILL.  I'm sorry, but that's not funny and not appropriate.

Florida Scrub-Jay
Anyway, we drove into Fort McCoy, grabbed sandwiches at a Subway, and ate them in the adjoining park.  Then we continued east over CR 316, crossing the Ocklawaha River.  About a quarter mile later we pulled over to look for Scrub-Jays.  As soon as we got out of the van, we saw a Loggerhead Shrike on the wires, my first of the year.  Soon the Scrub-Jays popped up followed by a red-eyed Eastern Towhee.  I love watching Florida Scrub-Jays.  They're smart, curious, active, and gorgeous.  Unfortunately, I've struck out on finding them in the Cedar Key Scrub Reserve for the last two years.  I'm really happy they're easier to find in Ocala.

Our next stop was in the Ocala National Forest at the intersections of FR 88 and CR 314 where we hoped to find a Bachman's Sparrow and a Red-cockaded Woodpecker.  Despite trudging through wire grass and blackberry bushes, we had very little luck.  We saw a few Pine Warblers, Red-headed and Pileated Woodpeckers, but no Red-cockaded.  One bird that I thought might be a Bachman's Sparrow dove from the top of a palmetto bush into the deep grass and disappeared.  It was dark and sparrow-like, and the habitat was correct, but I never saw or heard the bird again.

We tried to find a hiking trail near Salt Springs than led toward Salt Springs Run, but the one we found went in the opposite direction and was birdless.  We abandoned it quickly and decided to go up to the boat launch area on Lake Kerr.  There we capped off the birding day with a Ring-billed Gull, a Boat-tailed Grackle and, finally, two Horned Grebes, the 52nd and last species of the day.  Overall, it was a terrific way to spend a Thursday, and a good reason to get back to blogging.

We missed on the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, but found this Pileated Woodpecker instead.

The view upwards from the floor of the Ocala National Forest

Eastern Towhee - The red eye suggests that this is a migrant.

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!