Saturday, September 29, 2012

Dip, Dip, LIFER!

This is so typical of birding:  Three days of birding, two of them frustrating and the third … LIFER!  That’s why I’m always late coming back from a birding trip.  I know that the bird of the day is just around the next corner, so I round that corner. Nothing.  But there’s another corner.  The bird of the day might be there.  So I keep going.  And going.  Sometimes there is nothing to be found, but once in a while …

Boardwalk at Chastain Seay, Worthington Springs
I didn’t have a lot of time to bird on Thursday morning, so the Big Red Van headed to Chastain-Seay in Worthington Springs (Union County).  This is a small park that can be a real gem under the right conditions.  We arrived to find that portions of the park were flooded.  The Santa Fe River is still very high.  The fishing pier was inaccessible and the picnic area is under water.  Its only occupants were a Wood Stork and a Belted Kingfisher, both of whom flew away before we could get the camera out.   The rest of the morning was spent searching for warblers that, aside from a few Redstarts and a Tennessee, just weren’t there.  Dip.

Red-headed Woodpecker, one of God's gems

Friday morning we decided to explore San Felasco State Park near Progress Park in Alachua.  Early on we had some success including a probable Swainson’s Thrush, but the bird refused to be photographed.  The next half hour or so produced only a Pied-billed Grebe on the lake and little else.  Then we started seeing White-eyed Vireos and Red-headed Woodpeckers (left). 

Then we saw another birder walking toward us with the report of a Black-billed Cuckoo up the trail a bit.  We hustled out there as quickly as we could and found a groups of our friends searching the area.  The bird had been found a bit earlier by Debra Segal and identified by Mike Manetz.  We searched for hours to relocate it to no avail.  Dip.

Camps Canal near Paynes Prairie
On Saturday morning I decided to make the walk out Cone’s Dike on Paynes Prairie.  Earlier in the week, Mike Manetz had found two Alder Flycatchers that seemed to be hanging around.   I headed out very early in a heavy fog.  Fortunately I ran into Mike on the trail, and he showed me the spot where the birds have been seen.  I camped out in that spot for well over two hours. Mike stayed with me for about 45 minutes and then headed farther up the trail.  I saw Common Yellowthroats, Northern Waterthrushes, and a Gray Catbird, but little else.  Then I saw my first Eastern Phoebe of the season, and while looking at it I noticed a smaller flycatcher.  It flew to another tree where I got a good look; definitely an Empid with a narrow eye ring and a whitish belly and breast.  Then it disappeared.  I waited and waited and then Mike came back down the trail.  We decided to play a tape of an Alder song.  Immediately one flew to us and perched in the open above the trail.  Then a second one flew in and the two played tag for a while, giving us great looks at both.  Mike said they were the two he had seen and heard earlier in the week.  LIFER.

The moral?  Keep rounding that next corner, keep waiting the extra five minutes, keep chasing that hard-to-find bird.  Persistence pays off.

Our best bird photo from Chastain Seay.  What's your guess?

Monday, September 24, 2012

What Do I Look Like Now?

Bolen Bluff Trail is a beautiful spot just south of Gainesville along US 441.  It's a nice walk in the woods at any time of the year, and it can provide a warbler bonanza during migration.  There have been some terrific birds reported there recently -- while I was elsewhere, of course - so three of us went there yesterday morning hoping for a few good birds.  

Summer Tanager
One of the birding lessons I learned early on was to take nothing for granted and look at every bird.  That paid off for us yesterday when we checked out a Cardinal.  Hey wait, that's not a Cardinal!  It was a gorgeous male Summer Tanager (left).   I love Summer Tanagers!  They are such a vibrant red, and they will come in to investigate a spishing birder.  Eventually we saw three males and one female.  

American Redstart
A bit later we found the first of numerous American Redstarts.  All of them were either female or young male "yellowstarts" (right).  Slowly we added more warblers to our day list.  Among them were Chestnut-sided, Tennessee, Yellow-throated, Black-and-White, Yellow, Hooded, and Palm Warblers and some Northern Parulas.  There were no Yellow-rumps, but that Palm Warbler felt like a harbinger of fall.  I have always associated Palm Warblers with winter in Gainesville, so seeing my first Palm of the season made me feel like migration season is nearing an end.  I hope not; I'm just getting started!

On the way to the park we had asked each other who among us was going to be responsible for identifying all of the female warblers in drab fall plumage that we were planning to see.  But the real ID problem of the day had nothing to do with warblers.  Lighting tricks, shadows, and wishful thinking all conspired to keep us guessing about the flycatcher pictured below.  

Acadian Flycathcer
Acadian Flycatcher

One look seemed to indicate pale underparts, but another view suggested a yellow wash.  One view showed obvious wingbars, but our first look didn't show any.  Eventually we decided that what was in front of us was exactly what should have been in front of us, an Acadian Flycatcher and not one of the locally less frequently seen members of the Empidonax family.

Red-bellied Woodpecker feeding her young.

On our way back toward the parking lot we were treated to a wonderful sight.  We watched a momma Red-bellied Woodpecker feed her baby.  She drilled away at the tree seeking yummy bugs, then fed them directly into the open mouth of the baby (left).  That's one of the sights that makes birding such a rewarding pursuit.  Every now and then you get to watch something so great that you feel like you've been granted a special privilege to just be there.

Can you tell that I love this stuff?

Finally, several of you have had nice things to say about the photos of the various parks that I've written about.  As you can tell from the pictures below, Bolen Bluff really is a gorgeous walk in the woods.

Bolen Bluff Trail
But Mr. Ranger, I know the birds are back there!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

It's All About the Bill

Snail Kite, Alligator Lake
My first field guide, even before I became a birder, was from the American Bird Conservancy.  In it the birds are arranged by bill shape, and the text focused on why birds' bills are shaped differently.  I learned about pointed bills that help probe for insects, conical bills that help crush seeds, and hooked bills that help rip into things.  Ever since, I've learned to look at bills critically and to learn from them.  So look at the very specialized bill of a Snail Kite (left).  My non-birding family and friends may not know that the Snail Kite has a very specialized diet that includes Apple Snails.  That bill is ideal for hooking onto the snail's shell and extracting the meat for a tasty meal. 

Alligator Lake at the "High School Boat Ramp"
I've seen very few Snail Kites, so I was excited to hear that there was one in nearby Columbia County.  I drove up there this morning between cloud bursts of a rainstorm.  Along the way we pulled off at a flooded field just south of Lake City.  It was on the east side of US 441 at the junction with CR 242A.  There were at least 200 Blue-winged Teal and over 20 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks on the water as well as some Common Gallinules and Pied-billed Grebes.  About 30 Wild Turkeys walked along the banks of the pond and in the adjoining fields.  There were also about a half dozen Lesser Yellowlegs.  Add a nice little collection of waders, crows and grackles, and we had a very birdy stop.  But the threatening storm clouds indicated that we needed to go after the Snail Kite right away.

The Snail Kite had been reported to be at the boat ramp near the high school.  In my opinion, that's one of the prettiest spots at Alligator Lake (above, right).  The bird was not present when we first arrived, but I did see three Limpkins and was thrilled to hear their rather raucous call.  It soon started to rain, so I sat in the car determined to wait it out.  In a few moments, another birder drove up and asked if I had seen the kite.  I was about to say no when the bird flew in and landed on a pipe just beyond the fishing pier (below).  We got killer looks and some great photos of a bird that is quite rare for this area. Then the skies opened and the downpour began, so we headed for home.

Snail Kite

Sending Them Home Early!

Tom's Cookin' Brats.
It was another successful road trip with the Gators last weekend.  My buddy Tom and I made the trip up from Gainesville on Friday.  At dinner a couple of very friendly Vols gave us some suggestions about where to tailgate and how early to get there.  Their advice was perfect.  So after a quiet morning spent with Tom's friends, we headed into Knoxville.  We got a spot to tailgate in a lot on 22nd and White for $20.  I've seen prices much higher than that in Gainesville, so no complaints.  We set up some of our gear and then settled in to listen to some pregame talk.  I used the TuneIn Radio app on my iPhone to get WRUF in Gainesville and then plugged the phone into our radio.  It worked perfectly so we were treated to some Gator pregame.  We also chatted with a number of Vols fans who told us the plan was to storm the field after their Vols beat the Gators.  Florida had won seven in a row in the series, but I guess they were feeling very confident.  After Tom cooked up some brats (left) we headed toward the stadium.

Great View
Last week I had really lousy seats at Texas A&M, but still had a great time.  This week I had a much better view (right).  Once again, the first half was closer than I would like, but the second half was marvelous.  Big plays and the right defensive adjustments put the Vols in a hole and seemed to shake up their quarterback.  The Tennessee fans started leaving early in the fourth quarter, and the stands were almost devoid of Vols by the time the game ended and we were singing the Gator fight song (below).

I've only attended two true Gator road games, and I'm 2-0!  Don't you think the Gators ought to take me to all future games ... at their expense, of course!!

The Vols Went Home Early

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Veery Birdy Day

San Felasco (Millhopper) Moonshine Trail at the First Bridge
I'm back in Gainesville following my terrific trip to Texas. You can't get much better than eight lifers, five days with my son, and a Gator victory over Texas A&M.  I was too busy yesterday to get outside, so I was happy to head off to San Felasco (Millhopper Road entrance) this morning and walk the Moonshine Creek Trail on the south side of the road.  I didn't find as many warbler species as I had hoped, but it was a great day nonetheless.

Almost the first bird to pop up was a very noisy - and not very shy - Acadian Flycatcher.  I've had too many days when I could hear the little critter but could never lay eyes on him.  Today he couldn't be more obvious as he flew across the trail ahead of us repeatedly while chipping away.  I think "Peet!" can be loosely translated as "Look at me!"

Veery at San Felasco Millhopper
Soon after the Acadian left us we saw the first Veery of the day.  There would be many more to come (left).  It seemed that a Veery lurked in every tree and bush, and even minimal pishing brought one or two curious birds to check us out.  I've never seen so many of them in one day.  Ovenbirds (at bottom, left) were also plentiful as were the ubiquitous Red-eyed and White-eyed Vireos.

But I was looking for warblers and having no luck at all.  Of course there were Northern Parulas at every turn, but for a while I thought they and the Ovenbirds were the only warblers I would see all day.  Eventually we took the turn onto the Creek Sink Trail.  About 10 yards along the way we saw a Black-and-white Warbler and, while we were watching it, up popped a beautiful Worm-eating Warbler (below, right).  Later on we added an American Redstart and a Yellow-throated Warbler.   Unfortunately, the trail was flooded so we returned to our original path.

Worm-eating Warbler
It was only six warbler species for the day, but I'm not complaining.  Any day that combines an Acadian, a Veery, an Ovenbird, and a Worm-eating Warbler is a good day in the field.  Throw in a few good laughs with friends and it's a great morning.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Welcome to the SEC

Change of topic today: I had no chance to do any birding because I spent the whole day with my son and Gator football.  If you’re looking for birds, you should probably stop reading here and come back in a few days.

Tailgating with the Gator Alumni
I joined the Austin Gator Club at about 7:00 AM for the long ride over to College Station.  The nearly 300 Gator fans gathered there were cautiously optimistic about the game, but very excited to see Gator football so close to home.  We left the parking lot a bit late but got to College Station in plenty of time to join the UF Alumni Association tailgate party.  It was catered by Buppy’s and was fantastic.  I ate way too much barbecue then spent the rest of the pregame time wandering around the campus, looking unsuccessfully for some shade, and meeting several groups of Robbie’s friends.  Along the way I was warmly greeted by many Aggie fans who were genuinely excited about being part of the SEC and welcoming us to their town and campus.  I was feeling terrific!

Then I got to my seat.  When I sat, the view directly in front of me was of the side of a set of bleachers (left).  When I stood and turned to my left, I could tell that there was a football field, but much of the game itself was basically a rumor (right).  So I watched most of the game on the scoreboard.  During the first half I didn’t think the Gators could win because only the clock seemed capable of stopping the Aggie offense.  During the second half it appeared that the Gator coaching staff made all of the right adjustments and kept the Aggie quarterback from breaking out of the pocket.  Great, gutsy win for the Gators.

We got back to Austin at about 10:00 PM, so it was a long but terrific day.  And I am very aware that I couldn’t have done this if I weren’t retired.  You may get tired of hearing me say this, but life is good.
Gators 20 - Aggies 17

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Mad Dogs and Welshmen

McKinney Falls SP, Austin, TX
I'm in Austin, Texas, visiting my son and getting a in bunch of birding while Robbie sleeps or works.  It's hot.  Yesterday I walked about 3.6 miles on two trails in a local park in 101 degrees.  Apparently only mad dogs and Welshmen don't come out of the noonday sun!

I arrived in Austin 11:57 ... but got off the plane at 12:52.  Not the start to the trip that I was hoping for.  The moving tunnel that closes over the hatch wouldn't move, so we hung out in the plane waiting for a repair.  The repair didn't work so we were moved to a new gate and finally escaped.  Well, Rob had to start work at 1:00, so after a quick visit I left him and eventually headed to McKinney Falls State Park.  I started out on a small trail of less than one mile and scored a life bird almost immediately when a very curious Black-crested Titmouse followed me around for a bit.  Cute little thing!  This trail turned out to be quite birdy.  A Green Heron flew along the river, and a shallow area yielded some shorebirds.  There were Killdeer, Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers and a lone Spotted Sandpiper.  I watched a Great Egret stab a small fish and wear it on his bill for a bit until he managed to gulp it down.  Meanwhile, an Eastern Kingbird did his little flycatching act just above the water.  The wooded areas yielded bunches of Cardinals, more Black-crested Titmice, a few Carolina Chickadees, a White-winged Dove and lots of Mourning Doves.

So, if the short trail was so good just imagine what I can pick up by walking the 2.8 mile Onion Creek Trail!! Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  And did I mention that it was hot?

Oh well, I left the park and picked up my son and we grabbed a burger ... scratch that ... we grabbed a REALLY good burger at a place called Hopdoddy (I think).  I had the Llano Poblano with Black Angus beef, perpperjack cheese, applewood bacon, poblano peppers and chipotle mayo.  Dang!  It makes me hungry all over again just to think of it.

Pederales Falls ... In the Dry Season
This morning I headed out early toward Johnson City and Pedernales Falls State Park.  I told the ranger at the office that I wanted to do some birding.  He said, "Go to the bird blind and skip the trails."  He was right.  The two birdblinds were wonderful.  Big glass windows, big fans and comfortable seating inside and lots of birds outside.  At first there were only Cardinals, but within a few moments I saw a huge wren with a heavily spotted upper breast and more lightly spotted belly and a barred tail ... Cactus Wren?  I didn't expect that in this park, but that's a tough bird to misidentify.  As I was watching that bird, a Western Scrub Jay flew in followed a few minutes later by a Greater Roadrunner.  This is awesome!!  Then there were two or three female Lesser Goldfinches and soon a spectacular male joined them.  Wow!  Next were a male and a female Ladder-backed Woodpecker.  I kept flipping back and forth between the two blinds, feeling sure that the best birds were at the other one ... but how could I top this?  Then a Bewick's Wren joined the fray and I had six lifers in a morning.  I can't remember the last time that happened.  What an awesome day.

A View from the Overlook at Pedernales Falls SP.
And let me add that the rangers at Pedernales were all friendly and helpful.  I really appreciated their help and kindness.

So it was back to Austin just in time to pick up Robbie and take him to work.  But my birding day was not done just yet ...

Late last night I checked in with Facebook Birders and Carlos Ross told me about a Least Grebe at Triangle Park in Austin.  I headed over there after a quick lunch.  Let me just say that Triangle Park was harder to find than the Least Grebe.  The park is a bit hidden among buildings and the address given by Google is incorrect.  But I found it after only five or six minutes of driving around the area.  The Grebe was right there where Carlos said it would be; not one minute of searching.  Seven life bird for the day and eight for the trip.  Incredible!

Part of the New Bird Blind at Pedernales Falls SP
There won't be much birding for the next two days.  Rob is off tomorrow so we'll be spending the whole day together.  Then on Saturday we head off to College Station for the Gators' game against Texas A&M (and a tailgate party hosted by the UF Alumni Association!). So the next birding trip will be Sunday.  My tentative plans are to head up to Balcones NWR.  I'll let you know how I do.

Go Gators!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Dancing at Caravelle Ranch WMA

I've had the good fortune to be part of a team that is trying to build a bird list for the Carvelle Ranch WMA near Rodman Dam in Putnam County.  Over the past three years, we've birded the property about 8 to 10 times.  It's been a good experience and I've added numerous species to my Putnam County list that are usually tough to get such as Bachman's Sparrow.  So I was really looking forward to yesterday's day at the park. A friend and I met two people from the Fish and Wildlife Commission and together we scoured the dove fields and swampy forests to see what might be around.

We started with the dove fields, hoping to find puddles with shorebirds.  We found some Least Sandpipers and Killdeer, but most of the puddles were just thick mud.  The walking was difficult at times, especially for one of our group who was wearing sandals that kept staying behind as she pulled her feet free of the mire.  Eventually she solved the problem with a pair of pink boots.  You shoulda been there to see it!

While there weren't many shorebirds, the surrounding vegetation produced some good looks at lots of Blue Grosbeaks, Eastern Bluebirds, and Bobolinks.  There were also a few Prairie Warblers and a single Eastern Kingbird.  Other sections of the field produced lots of Mourning Doves and Common Ground Doves and a few Loggerhead Shrikes.  At one end of the field there were about a dozen Wild Turkeys who took off at a serious trot after being disturbed by a half dozen deer.  One was an eight point buck and another had six.  Nice looking animals.

We were almost finished with the first field when we saw a bunch of swallows feeding in the adjacent section.  Once again I found myself patiently wading through a flock of Barn Swallows looking for something different.  Then we saw it: smaller, white throat, dark breast band ... a Bank Swallow!  I have to admit that I was thrilled.  First, I haven't seen many Bank Swallows, so that in itself was a treat, and it was a county lifer too.  But even more, for the second time in four days I had found the unusual swallow in flight among the more expected and numerous Barn Swallows.  Certainly I relied on my way-more-experienced friend who confirmed the sighting, but still it was a rush.  That's one of the many reasons why I love birding.  There's that moment of exultation when you see something new or when hours of effort finally pays off.  There are precious few such moments in life but birding provides a bunch of them.

Another field was bordered by a low area of mixed hardwood trees that seemed to have been swampy recently but was now dry.  Under the canopy we ran into a nice mixed flock that included a Yellow-throated Vireo and a Yellow-throated Warbler, two birds I can't see often enough.

Eventually we felt like we had found everything that the dove fields had to offer, so we decided to head for the forested area of the property.  Here the ground was flooded on both sides of the road so I expected to be swarmed by mosquitoes.   However, my trusty can of Deep Woods Off had just enough Deet left to keep me relatively safe.  We stopped at several spots along the road and played a Screech-Owl tape to bring in the birds.  At our first stop a Barred Owl seemed to take exception to the Screech-Owl and immediately began his "who cooks for you" chant.  While he was all riled up and flying around, few other birds chose to come out to see what was happening, so we moved on to another site.  I remarked that there should be a Cuckoo in that habitat - and I didn't have one on my Putnam list - so I played a Yellow-billed Cuckoo tape.  Sure enough, one answered and flew in after a few moments.  That was the second county lifer of the day.

We were heading for another site when we realized that the truck with our two FWC colleagues wasn't with us.  After a minute or two it showed up and the driver called us to come back to a spot along the road where there were two Water Moccasins performing a mating dance in the water just off the road.  I know nothing about snakes and don't feel particularly interested in them, but this was fascinating.  The two large snakes were lifting themselves straight out of the water and literally dancing together.  There was some swaying that looked liked something out of a synchronized swim at the Olympics.  Then they intertwined their bodies in some sort of braid and then slapped down to the water's surface only to rise up and repeat the whole dance.  I only had my iPhone with me and I didn't want to get too close and disturb their ritual, so the pictures below aren't the best.  But I hope you get a sense of how very cool the moment was.

Elsewhere in this blog I quoted Yogi Berra saying that "It isn't over until it's over."  That proved true of this trip too.  Hours later as I poured over my county list I noticed that I've never recorded a Putnam County Eastern Kingbird.  Hey!  I added three county lifers today.  Very Cool!  I think David Simpson calls that armchair birding.  Whatever ... I'll take the tick!

Water Moccasins Interwined
Water Moccasins Doing the Dance