Sunday, December 30, 2012

Razor's Edge

Nanday Parakeets
Yes, birders are crazy.  And we love it!  No normal person would have an 11 hour stretch like this, and be absolutely thrilled.

I got up at 3:30 this morning to learn that it was 36 degrees outside.  Great.  I hopped in the infamous Red Van by 4:15 and picked up two of my birding buddies.  By 4:45 we were on I-75 heading south toward Anna Maria Island.  We had one stop along the way (sausage biscuits at McDonalds) and reached Bradenton with no problems.  As we drove along Manatee Avenue West, we passed Wendy's and something caught our eyes.  Were they Nanday Parakeets?  We did a quick u-turn, did another one, and pulled into Wendy's.  Yep, they were my first Nandays since the ABA made honest birds out of them.  Without any further interruptions we reached the City Pier at about 8:15 and hopped out of the car.

I hopped right back in.  Dang!  It was cold and the wind was howling!  The heat in the car on the ride down had led me to shed the hat, the gloves, the scarf and the jacket.  Now, back on went the hat, the gloves, the scarf and the jacket and I added a headband that wrapped around my ears.  I was still cold ... but that wouldn't stop us!

For my non-birding friends, I need to explain something.  Our target bird for the day was the Razorbill.  Simply put, this bird has no business being in the Gulf of Mexico.  Heck, it has no business being in the Atlantic off the Florida coast.  They belong in the NORTH North Atlantic.  Yet, here they are.  None of us had ever seen one, so there we were with temperature in the thirties and the the wind screaming at us, all for a few minutes' look at a bird.

Within seconds I yelled, "Is that it?" and pointed directly at ... a Common Loon.  Dang.  We went out to the end of the pier and camped out.  We waited and waited (and froze) to no avail.  We saw one bird at a distance that might have been a Razorbill, but we couldn't be sure.

After a while we decided to move to the Rod and Reel Pier.  By this time I couldn't feel my finger tips, my cheeks hurt, and and my toes were being assaulted by bees.  And then it was all forgotten.  "There! Razorbill!" One flew right past us and disappeared up the beach.  Definitely a Razorbill, but too fleeting.

"There! Another one! And it landed."  We scrambled to the end of the pier and got the scopes on it.  Soon a second one joined it, this one even closer.  It swam around no more than thirty feet off the pier affording us great looks for many minutes ... long enough that the cold became noticeable again.

We jumped back in the car, looked at our photos, decided that we had what we needed, and started back home.  Well, sort of ... Such a great bird deserved some celebration, but it was Sunday morning.  The traditional life-bird celebration wasn't in order, so we stopped for brunch at Peach's in Bradenton.  It was terrific.

We got back on the road, put our heads down and charged.  I was back home watching football by 3:00.  Seven hours on the road, freezing temperatures, howling winds, and two lifers.  What a fantastic day!

Are you talking to me?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ani-one Want To Go Birding?

Groove-billed Ani
One of the great things about retirement is the fact that I can indulge myself in impulse-birding.  Yesterday was a perfect example.  I had errands to run yesterday morning, so I had no plans to bird.  However, on the way to the first task I made a sharp left and ended up at Paynes Prairie.  What the heck?  Why not?  The errands would still be there later in the day, but the birds may not.  Specifically, I couldn't count on the Groove-billed Ani to hang around forever.  I'd seen one in Alachua County in 2010, so I hadn't hurried out to find the bird when it showed up this year.  Still, it's a great bird, so, again, why not!

My tardiness got me to the prairie close to 9:30.  Along the trail I met four different groups of people, all with the same message.  They had seen the Ani, but each group had found it farther to the west than the previous group.  Also, each group told me they had seen the bird move even farther west as they left.  This was not a trail that I had often hiked in the past, and never much farther than below the Sweetwater Observation area along the Hawthorne Trail.  This time I had already walked beyond that area, past the old fence line, and over a small stream.  Finally, two young guys told me they had seen the bird fly south and pointed to a tall tree in the distance.  Fortunately, after the trail entered some deciduous woods it too turned south toward that tree.  I kept the tree in my sights and continued hiking.  Suddenly the trail turned into what can best be described as a mud bog.  I believe this is the area that is planned to become a water-treatment area with a series of ponds, marshes and boardwalks.  Now it's just mud.  I could go no farther, and still no Ani.  Frustrated, I stood there grumbling when I heard the Ani calling.  Quickly I used my phone to play the Ani call from the Sibley app.  After just a few seconds, the bird flew into a bush just in front of me.  I attached the phone to my scope, turned to the camera app, and got the photo that you see above.  It's not the best, but you can tell from the bill that it is an Ani, and the call was diagnostic. 

White-crowned Sparrow
I hauled myself out of the mud and headed back on the trail.  I got all the way back to the area just west of the horse barn when I saw a lot of movement in the vegetation on both sides of me.  In about ten minutes I added three sparrows to my day list: White-throated, White-crowned and Field. It was a nice end to the day.  Two of the White-crowned Sparrows are pictured at right and below, left. 

Today was very different.  I had planned to go to Progress Park looking for sparrows.  I found one Song Sparrow who refused to be photographed, perhaps because the of the American Kestrel hanging out in the area (bottom, right).  Nothing else showed itself and I ended up with under 10 species for two hours of walking around in what once had been a sparrow-rich field.

Maybe I ought to stick to impulse-birding?

Immature White-crowned Sparrow
American Kestrel

Monday, December 17, 2012

Gainesville CBC 2012

Painted Bunting Playing Peek-a-boo
Yesterday was the Alachua Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count.  This is something I look forward to all year long, and it’s finished all too quickly.  You can call me crazy (many have!) but this is a great way to spend a day.

I’m part of Group 3 within our team and my area is, well, actually it defies a simple description.  Think of shopping and dining areas, apartment complexes, and a veterinary teaching facility and you begin to get the idea.  Then there is a section of woods that was taken over by invasive plants.  The invasive plants were killed off leaving a barren-looking wasteland that is just beginning to make a comeback.  Finally there are some woods that look very nice but also host a number of homeless “campers”.  It’s not an idyllic territory to be sure, but it has to be done … and it produced a 70-species day for me!  

 Here are a few vignettes from the day:

** I met my friend Rex at 4:00 AM and by 4:15 we were owling along Lime Rock Road, west of Gainesville ending in the driveway of my former principal.  During the hour we counted six Great Horned Owls, five Barred Owls and three Eastern Screech Owls.  By 5:30 we were at IHOP for breakfast and a meeting with the rest of Team 7.  We ate, we laughed, told a few ridiculous stories, and headed out for the main event.

** We had just dipped on a site where we found a Whip-poor-will last year, and a second site that usually produces a nice mixed flock was disappointing.   I stood there feeling disgruntled when another of my group called out, “Painted Bunting!”  I ran to the spot and there was a gorgeous male.  I’ve seen female Painted Buntings in this county before, but never a male, so this was wonderful!  Getting a photo was tough, but one of got the picture at the top of today’s blog.

Lesser Scaup in an Apartment Complex Retention Pond
**Later in the day we rode through an apartment complex planning to check out the retention ponds.  We were hoping for a Muscovy.  How’s that for low expectations?  We pulled up to the largest pond and were stunned to find 124 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks!  While we were gawking at them, one lone Lesser Scaup floated by.  I whipped out my iPhone, attached it to my scope, and took the photo on the right. 

**We had a lead on a male Summer Tanager that has been hanging around our only old-Gainesville neighborhood.  We parked on the street and started working the area.  No luck.  Along the way I noticed a neighborhood nature walk with a Hermit Thrush calling away.  I took that as a good omen, so I headed off, following the winding path until it reached a dead end.  And there was a lovely female Summer Tanager.  That’s not the one I was expecting, but I was thrilled to find it.  By the way, later in the day I returned to the neighborhood and found the male!

**Behind a group of restaurants is a few retention ponds and a couple of dead trees.  On top of one snag was one of my favorite birds, the Red-headed Woodpecker pictured below.

**Our day always ends with a pizza-and-beer Count Supper.  John Martin puts on terrific slide show, that displays photos of each species, data for that species from all previous counts, and a running count of this year’s totals as each of the 11 team captains call out their numbers.  Nearly a hundred birders watch the display and “participate” with comments, explanations, memories of past counts and cheers when we beat an old total.  By the end of the tally, we could all see that our results had been terrific.  We listed 162 species for the day (I think that is a record high for us), Team 7 had 110 (our best total ever), and my group had 70.   The day was capped by the county’s first-ever record of SIX Black Scoters!

Of course, the Scoters were gone this morning when I went looking for them, but that’s birding.  You can’t win ‘em all.

Red-headed Woodpecker
He's worth a second look!