Thursday, January 31, 2013

That "Merritts" a Second Look!

Reddish Egret
I love Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, especially in winter.  I love shorebirds, waders and ducks, and there aren't too many places where you can get such up-close looks at them.  Merritt Island is one of those places.  On Tuesday I spent much of the day driving along Blackpoint Drive and Biolab Road.  For me it was like spending an entire day sipping on a fine wine or nibbling on my favorite desserts.  It doesn't get much better than leisurely birding with beautiful, cooperative birds.

We arrived at the Refuge just after 8:00, entering from the north along Route 3.  I had read an item about a Red-breasted Nuthatch on the east side of the road in a stand of pines, and I wanted to add that tick on my Brevard County list.  We started by walking along one trail a short way into the woods.  Quickly we found some Pine Warblers and a variety of woodpeckers including Downy, Red-bellied and Pileated.  We were also lucky enough to be standing where the morning light perfectly lit up two Northern Flickers as they played Follow the Leader in and out of the trees.  The flashes of golden yellow from the under side of the wings was breathtaking.  I felt like I had been granted a rare privilege in that brief moment of color and flight.  There were no nuthatches, so we stayed only a little while longer, picking up Savannah and Chipping Sparrows, White-eyed Vireo, and Gray Catbird before we left.  We also heard but didn't see an Eastern Towhee.

Peregrine Falcon
We continued south for about a quarter mile and tried again for the nuthatch.  This time we found a Red-breasted Nuthatch on the east side of the road in a pine just above our heads.  [If you're going to look for it, we were about 250 yards north of the large, round white structure that looks like a huge golf ball.]  Directly across the road we also picked up Carolina and House Wrens.

Next we decided to drive along Biolab Road.  The number of birds here was lower than I've seen before, but we still had a great opportunity to watch a Reddish Egret hunt for food along the beach (above left).  Unfortunately, the light was in front of us and getting good pictures, especially on an iPhone, was problematic.  We also found some Caspian and Royal Terns,  several Tricolored Herons, and a nice variety of shorebirds.

Next it was on to Blackpoint Drive.  But before we could get there we caught sight of a Peregrine Falcon on a dead tree.  We stopped, hauled out the scopes and cameras and snapped away.  This was the best look at a Peregrine that I've ever had, so I hope you don't mind seeing an extra photo or two above and near the bottom of the page.  What a gorgeous bird!

Northern Pintail
Blackpoint Drive did not disappoint us.  Though we didn't find either the Eurasian Wigeon or the Cinnamon Teal that have been previously reported, we still had great looks at a nice variety of ducks.
  We had both Greater and Lesser Scaup, or at least I think so based on head shape, size and color and on the bill size.  Scaup are a tough call for me, but I've been studying and feel like I'm beginning to make sense of it all.  There were also lots of Northern Pintail (like the one on the left), American Wigeon (below right), Northern Shovelers, and Blue-winged Teal.  There was a large group of American Avocets who were gathered in a long, straight line like they were waiting for a bus.  And then there were the Roseate Spoonbills.  I tried hard to get a decent photo of one.  My best effort is at the very bottom of this page.

Next we decided to take a chance at finding the Brown Booby that has been seen recently at Jetty Park.  We headed south and reached the park in the late afternoon.  The light was perfect, the weather was perfect, and the bird was ... well ... not to be seen.  We stayed until nearly sunset and had nice looks at a Great Black-backed Gull, several curious Bonaparte Gulls, a Black Scoter and many Northern Gannets.  We watched in awe as a fishing boat passed lazily along the horizon with a cloud of birds swirling around the ship like a dance both ancient and carefully choreographed.  Wonderful!   It was a terrific way to end the day.  We headed back to Gainesville with over 70 species for the day and many photos that were worth a second look.  I hope you like them.  There are four more below.

Peregrine Falcon
American Wigeon
Roseate Spoonbill
Brown Pelican at Jetty Park

Friday, January 25, 2013

Pasco Flycatchers

A Least Flycatcher that was kind enough to vocalize.
I love the internet.  I love being able to check my email and see photos of birds from all over the state, nation and world.  I love learning of a great find in Dade an hour or less after it has been found.  I love knowing that if I should ever find a rare species, I can pull my phone out of my pocket and post my find to Brdbrains, Birding Florida (on Facebook) and Facebook Birders.  Instantly, word of my find would reach birders all over the world.  I'm old enough to realize that this is just plain over-the-top cool.  My son takes these things for granted, but dang ... it really is incredible.  All of this is to say that my recent trip to Pasco County would not have happened without the multiple posts from local birders who have recently seen terrific birds and let the rest of us know exactly where to go to see them. 

Vermilion Flycatcher
The Red Van Gang left Gainesville at about 5:00 AM on Wednesday morning and (after stopping for breakfast) arrived at Clear Lake at 7:40.  By 7:55 we had our first target bird.  The previously reported Least Flycatcher showed up above the pavilion and flitted back and forth for a few minutes.  We got quick, clear but brief looks at the bird before it dove into a tree and disappeared.  The only photos any of us got was of either a partially obstructed view or a view from the back (above left).  Fortunately we also heard the bird call several times so we were confident that we were seeing the right bird.  It was a lifer for two of us and a state bird for the other.  We celebrated for a bit and then headed out for the second stop to look for a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, a Vermilion Flycatcher and Western Kingbird.

When we first reached Storch Lane we met a very personable young boy waiting for his school bus.  He told us that he had seen "that bird that has the tail that is real long and splits apart."  Bingo!  He also told us we could walk down the lane a bit, but not to go past the gate.  What a nice young man!  Soon his parents emerged from the house and told us we could walk down even further.  Within a few minutes we found the Vermilion (above right).  It was flying about the field on the left, perching long enough for us to get a few shots.  The we waited and waited for any sign of our other target birds.  Eventually I offered to walk back to SR-52 and scan the front fields along the road.  As soon as I got all the way out, my phone rang.  The Western Kingbird had made an appearance.  I got back there as quickly as I could, set up my scope and phone, and ... no bird.  But then the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher made an appearance and I got one quick photo (below left).  I was ready to celebrate again!  We had three of the four and I was very happy.  But before I could give out with a single "Huzzah!" one of our group saw the Western Kingbird on a small stick poking up from the ground in a back field.  I got my scope on it just before it took off. 

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
With all four target birds already in the bag we headed out to McKendree and Tyndall Roads checking each of the ponds along the way.  We added Belted Kingfisher, Hooded Merganser, Mottled Duck, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and a variety of waders.  Finally we drove out to Enterprise Road and then up and down Auton and Singletary Roads.  However, we had no luck in relocating the shorebirds or sparrows mentioned in previous posts.  We did encounter a small flock of Chipping Sparrows on Singletary, but we found no White-crowned Sparrows anywhere.

Our time was limited so we had to call it a day and head back to Gainesville.  Nonetheless, in about five hours of birding we collected all four of the target flycatchers, and I added 12 county birds to my Pasco list, all thanks to the Pasco birders who were kind enough to post their birding activities in the eastern portion of their county where I had never birded before.  Isn't the internet wonderful?!

Greater Yellowlegs and Hooded Merganser
Another look at the Vermilion Flycatcher

Monday, January 21, 2013

Putting a New Spin(dalis) on a Baseball Analogy

Bananaquit at Bill Baggs State Park
I used to coach some youth baseball.  One of the things I told my kids was that if they made an out seven out of ten times, they would make the Hall of Fame.  Making an out twice in every three at bats would place you among the immortals of the game.  So failure isn't always bad, right?

Of course, I'm referring to my trip last week to Miami to chase three potential life birds (Bananaquit, Western Spindalis, and La Sagra's Flycatcher).  The Big Red Van left Gainesville at about 4:30 AM and arrived at Bill Baggs State Park on Key Biscayne at about 11:00  As I pulled up to the gate I was greeted by one of the most pleasant and helpful park rangers I've ever met.  Mariel Abreu told me where to look for the Bananaquit, at what times it had been present in the past, how to get to the other park on Virginia Key, and where those other birds were being seen.  Can you ask for anything else?  I don't think so. 

We got to the spot and learned that the Bananaquit had been seen earlier in the morning but not since then.  There were also a large number of birders walking the path and peering into the bushes.  Mariel had said that the bird had shown up late in the afternoon, so I decided to leave and chase the birds on Virginia Key.  First up was the La Sagra's on Sewage Plant Road.  As I got out of the car, I thought I heard the bird, but that was as close as I got.  We walked the length of the road, pished and pleaded, but the bird was a no-show.  However, despite the rain we did get a nice look at a dark Short-tailed Hawk.  Next it was on to the Bike Park and the chase for the Spindalis.  Using the map that Lynn Atherton had sent out, we walked all over the trails in the southeast part of the park.  Again we pished and pleaded to no avail.  So far, my batting average wasn't looking very good.

Broad-winged Hawk
It was getting late in the afternoon so I drove back to Bill Baggs.  This time we were alone on the path.  Mariel had said to make sure we should look on both sides of the path and beyond the pink ribbon that had served as the marker for where the Bananaquit had been seen.  We worked our way down the path, checking both sides for the flowers the bird was most likely to feed upon.  And there it was.  The Bananaquit is a gorgeous little bird, and I was blessed to be able to watch it for over 20 minutes getting killer looks over and over.  That kind of pleasure and joy is why I bird!  It was getting late, so after a fabulous pizza at Sir Pizza in Key Biscayne, I made my way to the hotel, checked in, and followed the Gator basketball game on my computer. 

On Friday morning we headed back to Virginia Key and tried again for the La Sagra's ... and failed.  I found the open field where some others have seen the bird and worked all around it, but there was no bird to be seen.  On to the Bike Park!  On the way there I pulled off the road to look at a Broad-winged Hawk.

After reading about the Spindalis's habits and habitat, we decided to work the strip between the beginner trail and the edge of the park opposite the water treatment facility.  After just a few minutes we encountered a feeding flock that included Gray Catbirds, Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers, Painted Buntings, and an Ovenbird.  And there among them was the Spindalis!  We got a quick but definitive look at the bird.  It was another lifer and some other very good birds!

In the parking lot I checked my county list and discovered that I was very close to 100 county birds.  I only had a few hours left before I had to leave, so after lunch (The Old Heidelberg Cafe ... fantastic!) I went back to Bill Baggs in the hopes of finding something new.  A Sanderling and a Lesser Black-backed Gull got me to 98, but that's where it ended.  I couldn't wait any longer and hope to reach Gainesville while I was still awake (the preferred mode of consciousness for drivers). 

I got home around 10:00 PM feeling very satisfied.  I was two for three and a .667 batting average.  Is there a birding Hall of Fame? 

Lesser Black-backed Gull
Painted Bunting

Saturday, January 19, 2013

To Blog or Not To ... What? There's a Bird?

Northern Shoveler
I'm really enjoying writing this blog.  The problem is, I love birding more.  When there is birding to be done, the blog takes a back seat or even rides in the trunk.  That's what happened this week.  Lots of birding and some other cool stuff too, so I'm finally getting back to the blog after a brief hiatus.  I hope some of you have stayed with me.

So, last weekend was fun.  I spent Saturday at St. Marks with the Alachua Audubon Society and our trip leader, John Hintermister.  I love this trip and try to go every year.  It's out the door by 4:30 AM, stop in Perry for breakfast at the Huddle House, and reach the park by 7:45.  We always start by birding the area around the gift shop and the education center.  This year that proved to me a great idea as we found a mixed flock that included a Brown Creeper, some American Goldfinches, a Brown-headed Nuthatch and a Golden-crowned Kinglet.  Then we joined the bus and car caravan for the tour through Stoney Bayou.  I love looking at ducks and usually this area is filled with them.  This year the numbers were way down, but what we saw still included a nice variety.  We had Redheads, Canvasbacks, Buffleheads, Ruddy Ducks, Northern Shovelers, American Wigeons, Ring-necked Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers and Lesser Scaup.

American Bittern at St. Marks
We made a quick stop at the restrooms and were fortunate enough to be there when a Red-breasted Nuthatch showed up.  We all got great looks at what was a life bird for many.  Next we went down to the Lighthouse Pond and the Gulf shoreline.  There we saw more of the same and added Common Loons, Gadwalls, Mallards, Common Goldeneye, and nine or ten Razorbills (also a life bird for many of us).  Soon our group got word of the possibility that there were Cackling Geese up in Sneads.  We ended up splitting the group, but I didn't have the time to make that run and get back to Gainesville, so I stayed at St.Marks.  I stopped at the path that leads back to the helicopter pad expecting to search for sparrows, but I never got there.  I was distracted by a mixed flock of birds that included Black-and-white, Pine, Palm and Yellow-throated Warblers and a Marsh Wren.  Then on the way out I saw an American Bittern that was so close I couln't use my scope to see more than a small piece of it at a time.

Green-winged Teal (top) with Redheads
The birding day ended at Bottoms Road in the hope of finding a Short-eared Owl.  No luck.  I headed back to Gainesville, making a serious dent in the buffet at the Golden Corral in Perry along the way.

Mid-week birding included one fun morning where I circumnavigated Newnan's Lake looking at ducks (at a very great distance), White Pelicans, Bonaparte's Gulls, and House Wren (below, left) who scolded me wherever I went at Powers Park.  The middle of the week was also consumed by making some changes to my website on county listing in Florida.  I added a page and a Photo of the Week, and that led to lots of additional work as I added new numbers from birders around the state.

The week ended with a two-day trip to Miami, but this blog is already too long.  I'll write again tomorrow or Monday ... unless a really good bird comes along and then, well, Bob's Gone Birding!

Red-breasted Merganser

House Wren
Common Loon

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Tallahassee, Bells and Whistles

The Tallahassee Twofer

Costa's Hummingbird
 I've gotten behind on my blog by a bit, so today -- you lucky reader!! -- you get a ROGO (aka, Read One, Get One Free).

First, I made a trip to Tallahassee last Friday in hopes of seeing the Costa's Hummingbird.  Now this is a typical birder's trip.  Drive for 150 minutes, make two stops to see two stake-out birds, and drive back.  Actually, we started with breakfast at Cracker Barrel, but then we got down to business.  We reached the home at which the hummer has been seen, took up a position in the middle of the yard where we could see all four feeders, and tried to look non-threatening to a hummingbird.  During the first hour we had the pleasure of watching loads of Chipping Sparrows, Titmice, Chickadees, Ground Doves, Goldfinches, a Bluebird, and two Rufous Hummingbirds.  A Red-shouldered Hawk was hanging out in the area, and we were concerned that might reduce the bird activity, but generally the hawk was cautiously ignored.  And then there was the Costa's Hummingbird.  He just seemed to appear at the feeder closest to the house.  He hung around for about five minutes, alternately feeding and darting into the nearby vegetation.  Fortunately, one of us was able to get the photo on the left.

Red-necked Grebe
 Our second mission was to check the old Church's Chicken pond for the Red-necked Grebe.  We found it quickly.  We decided to walk around the pond and found it within a few minutes.  We also saw Northern Shovelers, Hooded Mergansers, and Ruddy Ducks.  As we continued walking we saw a bird flycatching from the top of a tree at the southern end of the lake.  We were able to get it in our scopes and were surprised to see that it was a Western Kingbird.  Unfortunately the photos turned out to be little more than silhouettes, so you can trust me or not as you see fit.  Anyway, it was a successful day with one lifer for me and either one or two for the others in the car.

Bell's and Whistles

Bell's Vireo (Photo by Jonathan Mays)

On Sunday I got word that a Bell's Vireo had been found at Paynes Prairie along the fence trail where the Ani had been found last month.  I hustled out there on Tuesday morning and arrived at about 8:25.  Two other local birders were also there, so the three of us spread out (as much as three people can).  I played a Bell's call note and the guy popped up in front of one of us almost immediately.  I got over to the spot, got my bins on him, looked for all of three or four seconds, and then he dove into the bushes and disappeared.  I had no photo, but I did have my favorite kind of bird: a county, state and lifer all in one.

I was determined to get a photo, so I stayed for another two and a half hours.  The bird made another very brief appearance at 10:30, all I got were pictures of a bush.  Fortunately, Jonathan Mays was kind enough to give me permission to post his photo, so that's the Bell's on the left.

Costa's Hummingbird
That dot in the middle is a Western Kingbird.  Really.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Birding in the Rain

Green Heron
Let's start with a geeky admission.  I'm a big Gene Kelly fan.  I loved his musicals and preferred his dance style over Fred Astaire because Kelly was just as creative but more athletic.  I especially liked "Singing in the Rain" - a terrific movie.  And so I was expecting Gene Kelly to show up at La Chua Trail on Paynes Prairie last Thursday with his dancing shoes, umbrella, and goofy grin and to break out into song and dance.  It would have fit the day (constant rain ranging from mist to steady) and the mood (I was having so much fun).

If you're familiar with the area you know that it's a relatively short walk from the parking lot to the old horse barn where the trail actually begins.  Yet it took us about 45 minutes to cover the ground because there were so many birds.  I was just beginning my 2013 county list, so every bird was important, and I wanted to see them all.  First we got stuck just inside the kiosk because we were surrounded by a mixed flock that included Yellow-throated and Black-and-White Warblers and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  Then we reached the point where the sidewalk turns toward the barn and, well, that was that.  White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows danced across the path spinning us around as we tried to follow them.  They were soon joined by a Gray Catbird and an Eastern Towhee.  I really tried to get some photos, but the little critters wouldn't hold still.

White-crowned Sparrowe
Next we walked the boardwalk and got nice looks at a Green Heron (above) and a Little Blue Heron (bottom, right).  The former is just beautiful, but it's easy to overlook the latter as there are so many around.  That's a mistake I'm learning not to make; they're really gorgeous birds and worth an appreciative look.  Click on the photo below and check out the purple hues on his head and the long feathering around his neck and back.  And during breeding season part of his bill will get powdery blue.  Gorgeous!

Also along the boardwalk we encountered another flock of White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows.  This group was more cooperative and I got the photo on the right.  They were also joined by a Vesper Sparrow

We saw Make Manetz on the trail and he pointed out a Sora in a nearby pond.  A bit later he located a Black-crowned Night-Heron (below).  Then he made a comment like, "Maybe we can find a Merlin along here."  Well Mike had already been birding for a while and had to leave.  Shortly thereafter, a Merlin flew right over us.  I didn't get a Merlin in 2012, so I was happy to start the new year with one on the "tick" side of the ledger.

Black-crowned Night-Heron
Farther along we encountered a momma hog with 12 little ones blocking the trail.  We tried stomping and clapping, but they generally ignored us.  On the other hand, the clapping sent an American Bittern into flight within a few feet of us.  I felt bad about disturbing it, but thankful for the clean look at a bird that is sometimes hard to see even when it's just 10 feet away.  Eventually the hogs sauntered away and we continued walking, picking up a Marsh Wren along the way.

Finally we reached the observation platform at the end of the trail and there was the target bird for the day, a female Vermilion Flycatcher.  She too was unwilling to be photographed despite our best efforts, but still it was a great sight.  A Wilson's Snipe rounded out the day's efforts - 44 species.

We headed back as the rain got even heavier.  I have to admit I was soaked to the skin - quite literally.  Only my socks stayed dry thanks to my new boots and the folks at L. L. Bean.  We stopped at a fast food joint to eat some chili and tally up the day's work.  The day ended with good talk, a few laughs, weak coffee, and yet another story of how (happily) whacky birders can be.

I love this stuff!

Little Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron giving me the evil eye!