Friday, August 31, 2012

Polk-ing Around the 100 Mark

Saddle Creek Nature Park, Lakeland, Polk County, Florida

 A few years ago Florida's birders were challenged to try to identify 100 species in each of the state's 67 counties.  Very few birders have reached that goal, and I am not one of them ... but I'm still working on it!  I have spent a grand total of two mornings in Polk County but still managed 90 species, so I felt confident that one more good push would hit the century mark.  And so the Red Van Gang (minus 1) left Gainesville at 4:30 yesterday morning headed for Polk County and Saddle Creek Nature Park.  As soon as we pulled into the park we saw a Limpkin, a great start to our day list, and then a bit down the road we saw a Barn Swallow, the first new county species for the day.  "This is gonna be easy," I thought.  Not exactly ...

First, I noticed that my fancy writes-in-the-rain-and-over-grease pen was missing.  I went back to look for it, found it, but missed the day's only shorebird, a Spotted Sandpiper, a bird I do not have in Polk.  Grrr.  Then there was a misadventure with the car (Are those my keys on the seat ... inside the locked car?).  Thank God for AAA and Rapid Rescue!  OK, on to the trail.  Very quickly we saw a beautiful Ovenbird and a mixed flock of some of the usual woodland species.  Emphasis on usual - I already had nearly all of them.  But then a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (right) moved just above me.  Great bird. Maybe this will be easy.  Painfully slowly we added a few more ticks to our day list, the best being a gorgeous male Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Three hours later we realized that the trail was not a loop.  What?  A three hour walk back?  Heck no, it took about 20 minutes, proving that birders - or at least those in the Red Van Gang - stand still for about 8-9 minutes for every 1 minute of walking.  Not exactly aerobic, is it?

By now it was 1:00 so we decided to stop for lunch and count up our haul: six new species.  Dang.  If this were a bank robbery I would have had to apply for a loan on the way out.  We decided to drive along some county roads looking for a field with shorebirds (nope), or some Bluebirds or maybe an Eastern Kingbird hanging out on a wire (nope), or even a calling Bobwhite (nope).  Finally at one spot we saw hundreds of swallows.  We hopped out of the car and searched the flock carefully for something different.  Eventually, our efforts paid off with clean white forehead and squared tail of a Cliff Swallow, #97.

It was getting to be time to head back to Alachua County, but on an impulse we pulled off at Colt Creek State Park.  Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.  Just inside the park we heard a Pine Warbler (below).  While looking at it we heard a Brown-headed Nuthatch who flew in to see us (I love those little guys!).  Right beyond was a juvenile Eastern Towhee,  and over there ... look ... a Summer Tanager ... #102!  So we worked for about 8 hours for 7 new species, and then found 5 more in about 15 minutes. 

In the end, the day was chaotic, exciting, hot and sweaty, productive and more fun than I could possibly put into words.  I love birding!
Pine Warbler

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Can You Hear the Birds Hernando?

Glossy Ibis and Sandhill Crane at Grove Road
The Red Van Gang gathered at 5:30 AM on Wednesday morning for a day of birding in Hernando County.  It’s been almost four and a half years since I last birded there, but recent posts to Birdbrains piqued my curiosity.  Our first stop was to be Grove Road, but we were distracted by swallows flying over a field on SR 50 just west of there.  We saw plenty of Purple Martins and Barn Swallows and a few suspicious looking swallows with squared-off tails, but never really got definitive looks. 

A U-turn at the next intersection got us back on track to Grove Road. The sun was to our back affording us great views of the shorebirds and waders that were feeding in the ponds just north of the water treatment facility.  In a matter of seconds the four of us were ticking off new county species: Black-necked Stilt; both dowitchers; both yellowlegs; Semipalmated, Least, Pectoral and Stilt Sandpipers; Semipalmated Plovers, and Killdeer.  There were plenty of waders around and a few Mottled Ducks in the distance. 

The next stop was at the Chassahowitzka WMA walking trail off CR 550 just east of US 19.  The skies were threatening rain, so our stay was brief but productive.  A Cooper’s Hawk was perched in a tall pine just west of the parking lot, many Prairie Warblers flew about both sides of the trail, and the brush near the restroom produced a Brown Thrasher and White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireos.  We took the left turn at the restroom and then the first right.  We soon found a Great-crested Flycatcher, a Prothonotary Warbler and a Hooded Warbler.

Trying to stay ahead of the rain, we next drove out to Pine Island.  Along the road we saw a couple of Eastern Kingbirds and a Common Ground Dove on the way out.  There were few shorebirds at the park, but a Forster’s Tern added one new county lifer.  Otherwise there were a few Willets, one Ruddy Turnstone and one Least Sandpiper.  There were also a small number of Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns and a lone Belted Kingfisher.

The Bayport fishing pier didn’t produce much, but still proved to be worth the time.  We got the day’s best view of a Spotted Sandpiper and also enjoyed the sight of a couple of Manatees surfacing just off shore.  The Spotted was identified due to its erratic flight style and then scoped at a distance.  That’s when the skies opened, so we decided it was a good time for lunch.

After lunch, and after a discussion of our options for the day, we decided to make another visit to Grove Road to see if there was anything new.   I’m glad we did.  Many of the same shorebirds were there but there were several more Stilt Sandpipers (pictured below left).  (We had to take pictures through the fence, the birds were not close, and it was raining, so we didn’t get a lot of usable photos.)  A Green Heron flew overhead and a Solitary Sandpiper worked the near edge of a pond on the extreme north end of the property.  We saw numerous swallows including Barn and Northern Rough-winged as well as Purple Martins, but once again identifying the one or two mystery swallows that we saw was problematic.  While watching the swallows we saw about a dozen Blue-winged Teal fly in.  Call me crazy, but I love the sight of ducks in flight and especially Blue-winged Teal.  I felt blessed to be standing there.
Stilt Sandpiper, Grove Road, Hernando County

It was getting late, we decided to leave Grove Road and take a leisurely drive through the northeast section of the county on the way back to I-75.  Along the way we picked up a few more county lifers such as Loggerhead Shrike and Red-headed Woodpecker.  We made an impulse-stop at the Chinsegut Nature Center.  This seems like a very nice spot and the ranger there was very helpful.  We watched the well-stocked feeders for a while then walked a little bit of the trails.  We saw a mixed flock of Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, Northern Parulas, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, but no migrating warblers. 

That wrapped up a wonderful day in Hernando County.  We tallied 80 species for the day including 24 county lifers for me.  It doesn’t get much better than good birding in the company of good friends.

By the way, apologies to all for the lame ABBA reference in the title.  You had to be there …


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

That's How Ya Do It, Son

I've spent two days chasing shorebirds and finding very little, but I still have a few items to share today.

Yesterday I wandered around Gilchrist County in a largely unsuccessful attempt to find shorebirds.  I encountered a grand total of five - one Killdeer that was heard but not seen and four Solitary Sandpipers in a small pond.  That's it.  Still, it was a beautiful morning to be out birding and I did add a Tree Swallow to my Gilchrist County list.

Since I didn't see many shorebirds, I decided to spend some time studying them using a link that was sent to me a few days ago.  The link led me to a three-part article by Cameron Cox entitled "North American Peeps - A Different Look at an Old Problem" on  The three parts comprise a terrific article that makes a lot of sense with excellent photos that illustrate each of the author's points.  The first part focuses on Least Sandpipers.  The second centers on Semipalmated and Westerns while the final part deals with Baird's and White-rumped.  If you're interested in shorebirds and haven't read the articles, you need to do it.  Here's the link:

Paynes Prairie, One of my favorite places on earth!
Paynes Prairie can be breath taking in its beauty and a little daunting on a very hot, humid day.  I hiked the 1.5 miles to the observation platform this morning, again looking for shorebirds.  There were none.  Still, I had a really cool experience.  I stood on the platform watching two gators (pictured below).  One was a bull, maybe 12 feet long, massive and powerful.  The other was much smaller, perhaps the big guy's little boy.  Suddenly the big guy lifted himself out of the water, filled his lungs, and let loose with a powerful, menacing growl.  It was a sound out of prehistoric times; deep, guttural, thundering and challenging. "Hoooooah."  Then the little guy did the same, and though his growl was not as powerful as dad's, it still said, "This is my area and if you come in here, I'll have you for my dinner!"  Dad repeated his growl like rumbling thunder in advance of a storm.   His boy followed suit and then came a chorus of growls from about six more gators all around the platform.  The bull gator then turned to his young'un, gave him a brief glance as if to say, "That's how you do it, son," and swam away.


Here's how you do it, son ...

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Upon Further Review!

The referee stepped away from the screen and turned on his mic.  "Upon further review, that Royal Tern that you ignored at Cedar Key last week was actually a Caspian Tern.  Bob will be required to adjust his county year list accordingly and must graciously accept the scorn of his fellow birders.  Dummy!  Don't be so careless!"

If you read my Cedar Key blog from last week, you'll know I was there to study shorebirds.  So when someone called out "Royal Tern," I glanced in that direction, saw the bird, made a mental note to check my Levy county year list, and went back to my scope which was trained on some peeps.  A few days later, I got an email from one of the Red Van Gang.  "That Royal Tern we saw was really a Caspian.  I was looking through the photos and there's no doubt."  I opened the pics (below) and yep, Caspian: stout bill with black near the tip and streaked forehead.

The moral to the story?  See what you're looking at, study what you see, and then make the call. 

Caspian Tern, Cedar Key

Caspian Tern, Cedar Key

Thursday, August 9, 2012

So, Studying Actually Works?

I'll never be the birder that John Hintermister is, but I'm smart enough to follow in his footsteps ... at least when he practically draws a map.  Earlier this week John posted a description of his success in finding shorebirds in Columbia and Suwannee counties.  He even gave us specific descriptions as to where to go, so I did!  The Red Van left Gainesville just after 7:00 AM and got back just before 6:00 PM.  The intervening hours were packed with shorebirds!
Long-billed Dowitcher

We started out in Columbia just southwest of Lake City on Cypress Lake Road.  We quickly found a large complex of ponds and muddy areas that was filled with birds.  Among them were a Semipalmated Plover,  Long-billed Dowitchers (top left),  Semipalmated, Least, Spotted, and Pectoral (middle left) Sandpipers, and both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.  There were American Coots, Common Gallinules, Pied-billed Grebes and Anhingas sprinkled around the ponds  But the best sighting came just before we left.

Semipalmated (L) and Pectoral Sandpipers
It was a very small tern.  So small that I first guessed that it might be a Least Tern.  Once again, I proved that I shouldn't guess until I actually see what I'm looking at and study it. The top of the wings were dark, the top of the head was dark, and the tail only slightly notched.  We watched it in flight and while standing.  I'm convinced it was a Black Tern.  Unfortunately, the bird was too far away to get a usable photo. 

Next it was on to Birley Ave. and a solitary Solitary Sandpiper (bottom left).  It was the only bird in the water, but it was literally right in front of us.  He seemed to find us uninteresting, so we were largely ignored.  While watching it, we heard a singing Blue Grosbeak that I got the scope on.  I was surprised later in the day to learn that it was a county lifer. 

Next we were on to Suwannee County and Gum Slough on US 90.  There were loads of waders including some gorgeous Glossy Ibises.  We were also pleased to see a Black-bellied Whistling Duck fly in, the only county lifer at this stop.  Next we went to Suwannee River State Park and walked down the boat ramp to the water's edge.  I guess you can say that we actually were ... wait for it ... way down upon the Suwannee River!  Anyway, an approaching storm limited our stay and there were very few birds around. 

Solitary Sandpiper
We headed out of the park on CR 132.  In no time we found a pond that had Killdeer, and Least, Pectoral, Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers.  While we stood there, I heard a Bobwhite calling.  I walked off in that direction just in time to see it walk out of the field just a few feet in front of me, casually approach the road, and then fly across.  A nice look at a beautiful bird, and a county lifer too!

It was time to head back toward Gainesville, but I chose to use US 129 rather than the interstates so we could check out any ponds we might find.  Then just north of Live Oak we found a pond that added a few more birds to our county list for the day - Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers and both Yellowlegs.  By the way, the Westerns were belly deep in water and feeding just the way I described in an earlier post.  So, that studying thing actually works?  Who knew!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Getting Knotty

Semipalmated Sandpiper
As I've said before, I'm trying to learn as much about shorebirds this year as I can, so it was off to Cedar Key today for a few hours.  The first stop was Shell Mound where we had great looks at a nice little variety of birds.  We had three plovers including Semipalmated (left), Wilson's and Black-bellied.  We also saw Marbled Godwits, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, Willets, Western Sandpipers, and Dowitchers (probably Short-billed and, no, I'm not ready to tackle the Long/Short issue just yet).  While I was scanning, I saw a bird that was larger than a nearby Turnstone.  It as a soft gray with a straight bill that was longer than that of the nearby Sanderlings.  The legs looked light - not yellow ... greenish maybe?  And there was some indistinct mottled areas on the flanks.  It was time to trot out the field guide apps and page through Sibly, Peterson and Audubon.  After some thought, we decided we were looking at a nonbreeding Red Knot which was joined by a second one a little later.  We tried to get some pics, but a weak battery  meant we got one shot (right).  Unfortunately, the Knot would not give us a profile.
Nonbreeding Red Knot on the left

Later we found a large collection of peeps along Route 24 near Bridge 3 for those of you who know the area.  I thought this would be a great chance to study a variety of the little guys, but mostly it was a chance to search for anything different among LOTS of of Western Sandpipers.  Eventually I found one that was a little smaller, paler, and with a smaller bill.  I also thought that the legs were not black, more like a green, so my best guess was Semipalmated Sandpiper.  There were no Least Sandpipers at all.  One nice bonus was a few American Avocets, in my opinion one of the most gorgeous of all birds.

Overall, it was another great day of birding (yes, I know ... that was redundant) and I had a lot of opportunities to study shorebirds.  One bird who appeared to be studying me ... from less then 10 feet away ... is pictured below.  I took the picture with my iPhone.