Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Goals and Wild Turkey

Circle B Bar Reserve, Lakeland, Florida
Sometimes I go birding just for the pleasure of being outside and seeing God’s most delightful creatures.  Other times I have a specific goal in mind.  Yesterday was all about goals.  I have to lead a field trip for Alachua Audubon in late November to Circle B Bar Reserve in Polk County.  I’ve only been there once, so I needed to do some scouting, but time was becoming an issue.  Between now and then I’ll be spending nine days driving to and from Texas and attending the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.  So Goal #1 was to scout the Reserve so that I could plan a good trip.  And then there was Hillsborough County.  I’ve been pecking away at that county, trying to get my life list to 100, with little luck.  So Goal #2 was to find six new species and finally reach that century mark. 

Wood Storks Soar in a Perfect Sky
The Red Van Gang left Gainesville at 5:00 AM and got to the park just after 8:00.  If you haven’t been there, I have two words for you: Why not?  It’s a gorgeous place and it’s a birding hotspot.  You like hardwood hammock?  Got it.  Ponds and marshes?  Lots of them.  Grassy sparrow fields?  That too.  Our first problem was trying to get out of the parking lot – too many birds hanging out in the canopy above us.  We had a little excitement when one flew over us and there was a flash of bright red.  The size and shape suggested Painted Bunting, but we were unable to relocate the bird.  Eventually we headed out along the Heron Hideout Trail, and there were the birds!  The place was alive with herons, egrets, Limpkins, Bald Eagles, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Northern Shovelers, Blue-winged Teal, Common and Purple Gallinules, Coots and Solitary Sandpipers, and so much more.  A Common Yellowthroat popped up here, but you couldn’t look for long because a  Marsh Wren popped up over there, just behind that Swamp Sparrow. But don’t forget to look up!  There were Wood Storks, Sandhill Cranes, Anhinga, Belted Kingfishers, Forster’s Terns, Herring Gulls, a Brown Pelican, Osprey and a Sharp-shinned Hawk.  But wait, look back down – there’s a Sora!  Also, I needed to check the top of the hill leading out to the Eagle Roost Trail.  We walked through a small grassy area and quickly located two Grasshopper Sparrows and a Savannah Sparrow.  It took a little patience, but eventually we got good looks at all three.

Solitary Sandpiper
After lunch we headed to Hillsborough River State Park, but they appeared to be fresh out of birds.  Other than a Muscovy Duck in a pond on the way to the park, I had no new ticks to add to my list. We traveled south on 301, eventually reaching I-75 with the intent to go one exit north and to Lettuce Lake.  We never got there.  On the east side of the northbound lane of the interstate, we saw a pond with a bunch of shorebirds.  We took the next exit (Fletcher Ave.), found the little road that runs parallel to the highway, and headed south.  We found the pond and there were Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and Stilt Sandpipers – and I was at 98.  We then turned around and headed back up the road.  We pulled over at one spot to look around and saw a Pileated Woodpecker – 99!  Just as I was about to turn away I looked to my left and saw Wild Turkey (the bird, not the drink).  That was #100.  I wanted to celebrate by raising a Wild Turkey to the heavens (the drink, not the bird)!

Both goals were accomplished and we were only a half hour late getting back.  That’s a good day’s work.

Grasshopper Sparrow
Wild Turkey ... The Bird, Not the Drink!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Easy Does It

Red-breasted Nuthatch.  Photo by John Killian.
We all have stories about what it took to get a bird we really wanted to see.  A few years ago I spent nine hours staring at a single tree where a Lazuli Bunting was known to hang out.  That day was the only one out of about two weeks that the bird didn't show.  Typical.  Another time I stood in absolutely freezing temperatures along Bottoms Road waiting until dark for a Short-eared Owl to emerge.  I couldn't feel my toes any more!  Finally most of my group gave up and started back to the cars.  I lingered with a few others and one of them played a Short-eared Owl call once.  The bird exploded out of the marsh right in front of me and flew directly over my head.   It had been there all along.  Lifer!

On the other hand, I got my life Greater White-fronted Goose while driving past a retention pond in front of a Home Depot.  Looked out my window, saw the bird, and kept driving.  And I got my life Scissor-tailed Flycatcher when the bird flew up to me while I was looking at another bird.

Photo by John Killian
Today was one of those easy days.  I had heard that a local birder, John Killian, had two Red-breasted Nuthatches visiting his feeders.   Now, John Killian and I have many things in common.  We both love the outdoors in general and birding in particular.  We both retired on the same day from the same school.  Together we spent about 80 years in teaching.  And to my good fortune, he is also a very gracious host.  He invited me to a stake out this morning on his patio.  I arrived at his house at about 8:32.  He was standing outside his door saying that the bird had been at the birdbath seven minutes earlier.  We moved to the patio, took our seats, and about ten minutes later I was expressing my appreciation as I was making my way out the door.  It was that easy.  The little guy perched on a broken limb right above us and John took the pictures above on the left.  It was my Alachua County lifer #278.  It doesn't get much easier.

On a side note, I received the photos below from a fellow "Red Van Gangster."  She has a hose that leaks in a bunch of spots and is wound into a live oak in her back yard.  The birds love it.  One of the drips has left a small hole in the ground. Earlier today a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker belly flopped into the hole, stuck his head under the dripping water, and played for about five minutes.  I thought you would like to see the pictures.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
"There's nothing like a dip in the pool on a warm day in Florida!"

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Mead, Leu and Christmas in October

Wood Ducks
There are times when I have to stop, take a deep breath, and thank God for where I am and what I’m doing.  Yesterday was one of those days.  I spent it birding in the Orlando area at Mead Gardens, Leu Gardens, and the Orlando Wetlands Park in the little town of Christmas.  The weather was perfect, the company was great (as always, we laughed like fools), the people we met were so nice, and the birding was very good.  You can’t ask for more.

Anyway, the Big Red Van left Alachua County at 5:30 and reached Mead Gardens at 8:00 AM.  Within moments, we had a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and a Gray Catbird, and we hadn’t yet left the parking lot!  We worked our way down to the pond where we found the Wood Ducks pictured above.  I know God was playing with a box of 64 Crayolas when he created Wood Ducks and was thinking, “Let’s just get a little crazy here.”

Green Heron
We were fortunate to meet up with the local folks doing the morning Bird Walk, and they helped us find a few really good birds including a male Black-throated Blue Warbler, a Black-and-white Warbler, and an American Redstart.  One of our group chipped in with a young male Black-throated Green Warbler.  Eventually we ended the morning with an Indigo Bunting and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird giving us 33 species for Mead Gardens.

After lunch we headed into Leu Gardens.  It’s a gorgeous place, but the admission price of $7.46 per person was a bit steep – especially with Mead being free and just a mile or two away – and I read that the price is going up to $10 soon.  I’m afraid I would have to scratch it off my birding hot-spots list if I were a local.  Couldn’t afford it.  Still, the place was really beautiful and for mid-day birding we had some success.  The observation platform at the lake gave us a great look at a Green Heron (right) and a soaring Red-tailed Hawk.  Then as we were about to leave, we hit one little area near the Citrus Grove that had a Brown Thrasher, a Tennessee Warbler, and a Magnolia Warbler.  That’s not a bad way to end a walk!

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks
Next we headed east to Christmas, Florida, and the Orlando Wetlands Park.  It was late in the day when we arrived so we knew we couldn’t do the entire Birding Trail.  Instead, we walked one edge of the Cypress Marsh and a piece of the Birding Trail.  Among the species we found were the Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks pictured at left and a few Purple Gallinules (below). 

The Orlando Wetlands Park is one of my favorite places, so I’m bummed that it’s closed from November 15 through the end of January for duck hunting.  I hope the ducks avoid the human predators, and I’ll be back in February to do some duck watching. 

Purple Gallinule
Orlando Wetlands Park, Christmas, Florida

Thursday, October 11, 2012

County Listing in Highlands and Hardee

Cypress Swamp Trail at Highlands Hammock State Park
I really enjoy county listing trips because they involve dark-to-dark birding and exploring places I rarely get to see.  Tuesday’s day-long adventure in Okeechobee County was terrific; very productive and filled with great vistas from the Kissimmee Prairie to Lake Okeechobee.  Wednesday’s birding had a slightly different goal.  Rather than accumulating as many species as possible in one county, my goal was to move my county life total above 50 in both Highlands and Hardee counties.  The plan was to hit Highlands Hammock State Park early in the morning, and Paynes Creek State Park in late afternoon and early evening.

Eastern Phoebe
Highlands Hammock State Park is gorgeous.  The Cypress Swamp boardwalk takes you through an ancient swamp with tall cypress trees and a prehistoric feel to the air.  The walk out to the dam along the bike trail north of the county road is through a mixed forest along well-maintained paths.  And the dam itself is in a lovely spot that was also very birdy.  If I lived closer to Sebring, I’d be in this park as frequently as possible.   Our morning included an Eastern Phoebe, a Swainson’s Thrush, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a Chestnut-sided Warbler, a couple of Black-throated Blue Warblers, some Ovenbirds, and numerous Black-and-white and Yellow-throated Warblers.  But the bird of the day was at the eastern end of the dam where we found a stunning Blue-winged Warbler.   The tally for the morning included 15 new county ticks.  This brought me to 59 species for Highlands.

Ovenbird Hiding in the Vines
After lunch we headed up to the Bowling Green area and Paynes Creek State Park.  Just one step out of the car was all it took to score two county ticks: Indigo Bunting and Northern Cardinal.  The latter was actually significant in that Hardee County had been the only one of Florida’s 67 counties in which I had not seen a Cardinal.  So this bird completed the cycle and became my third all-county species (joining Mourning Dove and Northern Mockingbird).  We walked the Peace River Trail and then the short Monument Trail.  Late afternoon birding has never been very productive for me.  We saw the typical woodland species, but few of the migrant warblers we had hoped for.  Finally we stopped at the intersection where the trail turns toward the suspension bridge.  A nice little mixed flock produced Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers, a Brown Thrasher, a nice Northern Parula, a House Wren and an Ovenbird.  Nothing spectacular?  True, but a county lister celebrates every new tick, and each of these birds was new to the county for me.  The “slow” birding of the afternoon resulted in 19 new species for my county life list bringing me up to 64.

The two days included seven spots on the Great Florida Birding Trail, 89 species (including 12 warblers), 80 county listing life ticks and three county lists moved above 50.  Can you tell that I love this stuff?

Peace River at Paynes Creek State Park

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


Crested Caracara
It’s day one of a two-day swing through Okeechobee, Highlands, and Hardee Counties.  Today was all Okeechobee starting at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park and ending at Okie-Tantie.  For the day we tallied 74 species, and I brought my county life list from 33 to 80.

Kissimmee Prairie is a lovely park if you like the prairie habitat, and I do.  We had already started the day well with a Crested Caracara (left) on the way to the park.  Once we arrived, the first tree we saw proved to be full of birds, including between six and eight Northern Bobwhites and a Gray Catbird among several other species.  Eventually we made our way to the campground that was southeast of the headquarters building.  First we saw four Wild Turkeys strolling around the area.  Then we encountered a mixed flock that included a male Black-throated Blue Warbler, a few American Redstarts, a Pine Warbler, several Palm Warblers, and White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireos.  Then I noticed something feeding on the ground near a picnic table.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  It was a Clay-colored Sparrow (below, right)!  My day was already made, and it was only 10:30.  Other birds of note in the park during the morning were Greater Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Loggerhead Shrike, Eastern Phoebe, Common Yellowthroat, and Prairie Warbler.

Clay-colored Sparrow
The Great Florida Birding Trail pamphlet contains two driving loops worth exploring in Okeechobee, and we did a decent job of covering all but US 98, which was too heavily traveled to allow safe roadside birding.  However, we spent a considerable amount of time on CR 724 and SR 68, as well as US 441 into the town.  We had two very fortunate stops.  One was at a big mud puddle on 68.  It had Western and Least Sandpipers, 3-4 Lesser Yellowlegs, and two Mottled Ducks.  Another stop was at the Publix on 441 in Okeechobee.  That was worthy of note because we found a lone Cliff Swallow among a flock of Barn Swallows swarming above the highway.

Snail Kite

After lunch we pulled into the park on the lake where 441 meets SR 78.  Among the birds we added here were Limpkin, Caspian and Royal Terns, Purple Gallinule, American Coot, and a really good looking Snail Kite (left).  Finally, we went on to Okie-Tantie where the only new bird was a Cooper’s Hawk that was enjoying a dinner of freshly killed Blue Jay (below, left).

Tomorrow we’ll be on the road early so that we can reach Highlands Hammock State Park just after sunrise.  We hope to spend the first half of the day there before driving over to Paynes Creek near Bowling Green in Hardee County for a bit of late afternoon birding and then the long haul back to Gainesville.  I’ll let you know on Thursday how we do.

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park
Cooper's Hawk

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Gettin' Lucky at Alligator Lake

Alligator Lake
Bob Wallace recently speculated that with the rain that is passing through Florida right now, we might get some warblers stopping in North Florida during the next few days.  So we decided to head up to Alligator Lake in Columbia County this morning.  The woods around the lake should be a great warbler trap and it looked like the rain may stay just to the south of the park.  So maybe migrating birds would stop before reaching the storm?

We reached the park just after 8:00 and headed south toward the wooded trails.  That's when I had additional proof that it's better to be lucky than good.  I had to return to the car to get some rain gear, and in the process walked right under a resting Chuck-will's-widow.  It burst into flight just above my head, testing the health of my heart.  I was able to get a decent look at it in flight - no white patches in the tail, no "wrist bands" in the wings,  but definitely a nightjar, so in all probability it was a Chuck.

This Carolina Chickadee Was Very Curious About Us.
Eventually we decided to take the road less traveled.  The few times that I've birded this section of the park I've stayed on the Eagle Trail - about a mile long and close to the parking lot.  This time we decided to follow the Possum Trot Trail - about three miles skirting the edges of the park.  It was a good decision.  After crossing the footbridge we quickly encountered two feeding flocks, one just beyond the bridge and the other at the "T" that sends the trail along the edge of the canal.  We were excited to see a Tennessee, then a Redstart, then a Pine, and then an Ovenbird.  Moving on a little we were buzzed by a Magnolia, a Yellow-throated, a Black-and-White, and then ...

What's that?  Look!  Distinct eye line, white eyebrow, brown cap, plain underneath, olive brown above ... It was a Swainson's Warbler!!  I hadn't seen one of them in years, so this was a real treat.  The little guy gave us great looks for two or three minutes.  When we finally left that spot, the day was already guaranteed to be a great one.

We finished the walk with a couple of good finds including a Tricolored Heron (below, left) wading in a small stream, a Northern Waterthrush exploring a small swamp, and what we believe is an Acadian Flycatcher that was the only bird of the day that actually kept still!

Overall, it was a great day, I picked up 5 county lifers, and did I mention there was a Swainson's Warbler?? 

Tricolored Heron
Acadian Flycatcher, I think ...