Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Little of This and a Little of That

Glossy Ibis (left) and White Ibis
The last five days have been filled with some very successful birding - a bit of it planned, a bit of it unplanned, and all of it successful in one way or another.

It started on Friday morning at Paynes Prairie.  As the gates opened at 8:00, I immediately headed out La Chua Trail.  I hoped to find the White-faced Ibis that had recently been reported to be hanging out near the observation deck.  It's been a couple of winters since I've seen one in Florida, and it's liable to be a couple more.  I did find two gorgeous Glossys which I tried hard to turn into White-faced Ibises, but both had dark eyes.  There were also a few White Ibises in breeding plumage.  Look at the red face and bill of the White Ibis in the photo on the left.  Beautiful!  The Glossy's colors are rich and equally impressive.  A close up of one of the Glossy Ibises is below, right.

Glossy Ibis
However, the real purpose for being at Paynes Prairie was to meet with Tod Eggenberger, a birder from Minnesota who was vacationing in Florida and hoping to add Groove-billed Ani to his life list.  I had met him through Facebook Birders and offered to show him where on the prairie the bird was hiding.  Tod arrived in Gainesville at about 10:30 and we reached the spot shortly thereafter.  The bird was not cooperative.  We carefully searched the blackberry bushes and patiently scanned the tree and bush tops.  No luck.  If nothing else, birding teaches one patience.  An hour later we were still searching.  Then I heard a faint call from the east end of the field.  We walked back that way and in a few moments the Ani popped up to the top of a bush no more than twenty yards away, giving us a clear, unobstructed, and brief view.  Success!  Tod's next goal was a Clapper Rail at Cedar Key.  I suggested an intermediate stop where I had seen a couple of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, also a lifer for him (I think). I read later that he was successful with both the Whistling-Ducks and the Clapper Rail.  Congratulations, Tod!!

Western Tanager
On Saturday I had a much more limited objective.  There had been reports of a Western Tanager at a feeder in the front yard of a house near Gainesville.  I set out in a rain storm and soon was parked in a spot from which I had a clear view of the feeders.  After a short while the rain let up and the feeder was inundated by American Goldfinches.  And then there it was, a spectacular male (left).  I had seen a female once before in a yard in Tallahassee.  There's just no comparison.  The male is stunning!

After it flew off, I sat there congratulating myself and then glanced back at the feeder.  What's this?  A female Painted Bunting!  The cameras had already been put away, and the bird flew off after only a moment, but it felt like I had received a really cool bonus.  Seriously, who expects a Western Tanager and a Painted Bunting at the same feeder in a small yard in Florida within a few moments of each other?

Nothing remarkable happened during Sunday's birding and I didn't even get out into the field on Monday, so there was nothing to report.  Then earlier today I spent a very cold morning trying unsuccessfully to get a good photo of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  Now I blame this on Alachua County birder Bob Wallace.  He convinced me to add a "Birds Photographed in Florida" category to my County Listing website <www.flcountylisting.com>.  Once I added the category I just had to get serious about taking pictures.  The problem, of course, is that I don't have a decent camera.   This blog had always relied on others for decent photos.  All I have is an iPhone 4S and a great Leica APO Televid 65mm spotting scope. Still, I had reached 99 species on my list and was determined to get #100.   So there I was this morning freezing my backside off with my phone attached to the scope and trained on a feeder some 100 feet away.  The bird showed up numerous times ... on different feeders or on the backside of the target feeder ... but I couldn't get a decent shot.  Finally, I got one usable picture.  It isn't the best (below left), but it's good enough for me to use as my 100th tick on my photo list.

So all of that time and patience paid off in another, less obvious manner.  On the way back to Gainesville I had to stop at the post office in Alachua.  While I stood in the parking lot, a White-winged Dove flew into a tree just above my eye level and no more than 10 yards away.  It stayed still as I got out the scope and phone, attached the eye ring to the phone and the phone to the scope, and then posed for the photo below, right.   A few seconds later it flew away.  If I had been any earlier or later, I wouldn't have gotten the shot.  Sometimes luck is better than expertise!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
White-winged Dove, #101

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Birds and Bees among the Birds?

Love among the Swallow-tailed Kites!
A few days ago I wrote about birding through southern Levy County.  On Thursday I went the other direction, driving into the northwest corner of Levy to the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge.  I had visited this refuge only once before, and that was for a quick drive-through.  This time I wanted to explore the property a bit more thoroughly.  So a couple of Alachua County birders set out early in the morning with the hope of finding a few good birds

Perhaps the best sight of the day came before we actually got into the park.  We were approaching the park from the north on CR 347, about 200 yards from the entrance to Headquarters Road, when we saw a Swallow-tailed Kite drifting over the pines.  It was the first of the year for me, so I pulled over to get a better look.  The Kite was soon joined by a second and they circled the area for a bit, but then one of them landed in a tall pine.  Now, I've never seen a perched Swallow-tailed Kite, so I wanted to get a photo.  As I set up my scope and turned on my iPhone, the second Kite appeared to land on the same branch.  I focused quickly and started snapping away.  It was only after I saw the first picture that I realized what I had.  The Kites were mating!

The River Trail at the Lower Suwannee NWR
We drove into the park and to the headquarters building where we met Ranger Larry Woodward who was both personable and helpful.  We told hm about the mating Kites and he recommended that we walk the River Trail before exploring the Nature Drive.  His recommendations proved to be spot on, and we went on to have a great morning with perfect birding weather.

The River Trail was both birdy and gorgeous.  There was a mixed feeding flock in the parking lot and another about 200 feet down the trail.  Tufted Titmice, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets were joined by three vireo species: Blue-headed, White-eyed and my first of the year Red-eyed.  Next we saw a stunning male Hooded Warbler whose colors were as bright and fresh as could be.  Moments later we caught sight of a Hermit Thrush, which is notable in that it was a county first for me ... after 211 other species!

Hermit Thrush
Eventually we reached the two short boardwalks.  One ran to the southwest to a viewing platform with a great view of the river.  About half-way to the platform we ran across a small flock of American Goldfinches ... county lifer #213.  The second boardwalk ran to the north where it joined a path that led back to the parking lot.  We found nothing new, but it was just beautiful.

Our next destination was the Lower Suwannee Nature Drive, beginning at the north entrance.  One of our objectives for the day was to find a Bachman's Sparrow. Ranger Woodward told us that parts of the park are managed specifically for Bachman's Sparrows, so on several occasions we checked likely spots, but the little critter continued to evade us.  Still, we encountered a few birdy areas and got some great looks at an immature Bald Eagle.  Then we saw a small pond with an observation deck.  We saw several Blue-winged Teals, Pied-billed Grebes, Common Gallinules (does anyone else still want to say Common Moorhen??), and a single Bufflehead.

A Willet feeding in the mud flats at Cedar Key
Soon we reached a spot that was six-tenths of a mile from the southern entrance to the Nature Drive.  There was a large "Prescribed Fire" sign along the road, and behind it a field of pines and palmettos.  We checked it out and there it was ... a lone Bachman's Sparrow, county lifer #214.

It was well after lunch, so we decided to drive into Cedar Key for some food.  We had a nice lunch and then continued birding along SR 24.  We saw a large flock of American White Pelicans, lots of Willets, a few American Avocets, and some White Ibises that had brilliant red face and bills, just in time for mating season.

So for the day we tallied 52 species including three county lifers.  We had great weather, saw some gorgeous new places, and we had a pretty good meal at Annie's.  Makes you feel lucky to be alive!

I've added a few extra pictures below.  I hope you like them.

Immature Bald Eagle
American Avocet

White Ibis

Saturday, March 16, 2013

County Listing in Southern Levy

Eastern Meadowlark
I'm tempted to say I love birding in Levy County.  The truth is, I have done almost all of my Levy County birding in Cedar Key, and nearly all of the 210 species I've seen in the county were either in the Cedar Key area, or they were seen going to or coming from there.  So I decided that I needed to spend some time getting to know the rest of the county.  It was a good decision.  Yesterday was one of those days in which the usual joys of birding were mixed with the distinct pleasure of a beautiful day spent in gorgeous settings.

We started off by heading south on US 41 and stopped at a field outside of Raleigh to check out a Red-tailed Hawk.  The hawk flew away after a minute, but an Eastern Meadowlark announced itself with its gorgeous song in the field right behind us.  In typical Meadowlark fashion, it perched up in the open and posed while I took the picture at left.

Brown-headed Nuthatch

 Next we turned west on CR 326 near Morriston.  As I drove, I saw a little pond just down a hill from the road.  I stopped to check it out, but there was nothing there.  On the other hand, the tree above the car was loaded with birds including  Black-and-White,  Yellow-throated, Pine, and Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Blue-headed Vireo, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and several Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees.  It was really fun being swarmed by birds!

Soon we got onto SR 121 and somewhere along there we pulled off to look for a Brown-headed Nuthatch.  We were successful after just a few a minutes, and we got some nice shots of one that was very cooperative.

Next it was on to Lake Rousseau, west of Inglis.  There is a small park with a boat ramp on the north side of the lake, and the county line moves through the center of the lake.  The park is small, but picturesque.  We saw American Coots, Blue-winged Teal, and Ring-necked Ducks on the water and Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, and other waders along the edges.

An Anhinga drying its wings.
We continued west on CR 40 through Inglis, heading toward the boat launch west of Yankeetown.  Impulsively, we pulled into a recreation area devoted to flying model airplanes.  We saw a few Greater Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks and the Anhinga pictured at left.   A second photo that shows the gorgeous blue patch around the eye is at the bottom.  I haven't noticed this before, so my guess is that it is associated with mating season.

When we reached the intersection with US 98, we saw a small restaurant on our left.  Above it the sign read "Breakfast Lunch Dinner".  There were so many cars in front of the place that its name was blocked from view.  That in itself was a pretty good recommendation, and I filed it away for later.

Soon we reached the boat launch park and found it to be another really pretty spot.  We watched Laughing and Ring-billed Gulls fly around us, a single Brown Pelican float by, and at least one tern I couldn't ID land on an oyster bar off to the north.  An American Oystercatcher flew from one spot to another, and a Willet fed along one bar directly west of us. 

Waccasassa Park
That brought us to lunch time and we decided to go to "Breakfast Lunch Dinner" back in Inglis.  Good decision again.  The place was still crowded, packed with good ol' boys, many of them wearing camouflage after a morning in the woods.  I had the Captain's Melt, a burger with swiss and grilled onions on buttered and toasted rye.  It was terrific!  The service was prompt and the waitress friendly.  The place is actually called Shrimp's Landing, and I'll definitely go back there the next time I'm in the area.

Next we headed north on 98 to Gulf Hammock where we took 326 west to a little place called Waccasassa Park.  We were three for three on gorgeous places.  This little park had a boat launch and dock and a few picnic tables.  Some locals were fishing along the banks and Red-winged Blackbirds, a Swamp Sparrow, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker darted in and out of the nearby reeds. 

It was getting late, so we turned toward home.  Still, we couldn't resist pulling off at a dirt road leading into the Goethe National Forest for one last look around.  The only bird that showed up was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  Obligingly, he stayed in one spot long enough for us to take a few pictures (below, right).

Overall, it was a gorgeous day with bright sunshine, temperatures that started in the 30s and ended in the 60s, and lots of birds.  We tallied about 60 species.  While none of them were new to the county, much of this part of the county was new to me, so it was time well spent!

Click on the pic and look at the blue!
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Video Grabs and Backyard Digiscoping

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Last week Rex Rowan sent me a link to a terrific blog by Drew Weber on using the iPhones video feature to create still shots of those pesky moving birds.  You can read his blog here.  Inspired, I hauled my scope out to San Felasco Hammock (Progress Park) in Alachua, determined to get some video clips to experiment with.  Unfortunately, it wasn't a very birdy day.  Still, I had some luck.  I got some distant Robins grazing in a field.  Then I saw a very cooperative Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  Finally, I found a skulking Ovenbird and was able to get some fleeting shots.  Later in the afternoon I started working on creating some still shots.

I'll just say this ... I have a lot to learn.  I tried like heck to upload an eight-second video of the Sapsucker to this blog, but it crashed repeatedly.  However, I was able to insert the video grab I created using the iPhone's screen-capture feature.  Getting the perfect shot was a little hit-and-miss, but I think I can learn to manipulate the video as I get additional practice.

Downy Woodpecker

One of the things I learned from this process is that I still need a lot of work with my basic photography - I gotta walk before I can run.  So the next day I headed out to the backyard with my scope, iPhone, lawn chair and a cup of coffee.  I spent the next hour or two taking pictures of the birds that visited my feeders.  The Downy Woodpecker pictured at right practically cleaned out all of the Bark Butter, so the Red-bellied Woodpecker pictured below had little to eat.  Instead, he moved on to one of the suet feeders.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

I got lucky with both of the woodpecker photos.  I had already trained the scope on the feeder since I heard the woodpeckers in the tree above it.  By the way, the clarity of the two pictures is due to having focused the scope without using my glasses.  I noticed that focusing while wearing my glasses led to out-of-focus pictures.  So now I take them off to focus and the result is often a very sharp image.  Hence the bars on the underside of the Downy's tail, and the red tint on the breast and belly of the Red-bellied were both very clear.  So if you wear glasses and are having trouble getting your pictures in focus, try taking the glasses off.  It works.

Gray Catbird
All winter I've had a couple of Gray Catbirds hanging out in the yard.  They seem to be very fond of the suet I put out.  They also LOVE to take a good bath.  The bird pictured at right spent a little time checking out the surroundings before jumping into the bath for a good frolic.  Who knew gray and black could be so elegant looking?  And the rusty undertail coverts add just a splash of style.  The Catbird is another example of the beauty of nature captured in even the simplest of color palettes.

The most numerous bird at the feeders was the American Goldfinches.  They were everywhere, eating thistle and sunflower seeds in huge quantities.  I used three pounds of thistle in three days!  That's a bit expensive perhaps, but it's such a joy at this time of year to watch them turn into their brilliant yellow breeding plumage.  Two of them are pictured below on the left.

Finally, I really worked to get a picture of a Carolina Chickadee.  They're tough.  They come to the feeder, grab a seed, and more often than not, fly off to a tree limb to crack it open and eat.  It took some patience, but I finally photographed one just as he was about to take off (below, right).

I hope you like the photos.  If you have a smart phone and a scope, you can google the appropriate attachment to make the two work together.  They're not expensive, and it's so much fun!

American Goldfinch nearing breeding plumage.
Carolina Chickadee with some millet.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Back on the Trail

White-crowned Sparrows

After nearly three weeks of forced inactivity due to a bad back, I finally got back on the birding trail yesterday.  Three intrepid souls braved the chill (low 50s -- and I can hear my Pennsylvania family snickering at that) and the wind to walk along Sparrow Alley on Paynes Prairie.  In the end it would prove to be a slow but very enjoyable day.

Actually, the earliest signs were good.  We only got as far as where the Hawthorne Trail crosses in front of the entry gate before we had to stop to watch a flock of White-crowned Sparrows feeding about 40 feet from us.  I struggled to set up my scope (Note to self: Get scope ready before leaving parking lot), pull off my gloves, get out my phone with the digiscoping attachment, turn it on and open the camera app, put it on the scope, focus it, and ... I got a nice picture of leaves.  The birds took off as I was pushing the button.  Dang.  Fortunately, others in my group were faster and got a nice shot of them.

Osprey at the Nest
We entered the park and immediately spotted a pair of Ospreys building a nest on a power pole.  This time I had more luck with getting a picture.  It was really fun watching as one Osprey brought a stick to the nest and the other worked to put it in the perfect spot.  In the photo at right, you can just see the head of the builder while the building supply contractor poses for the camera.  The scene was repeated throughout the morning on three different nests near the trail.

A month or so ago I found a really birdy spot at the end of the entrance path just before it turns left into the old horse barn.  I was surprised and disappointed to see that there were no birds in the area today.  The grassy area just over the fence that had been filled with sparrows in January was gone, having been mowed to the ground recently.  So instead we were left with Cardinals and Mockingbirds.  Great birds, to be sure, but not what we were looking for.

Groove-billed Ani at Paynes Prairie
Soon we encountered two birders who had just arrived from State College, Pennsylvania (Go Nittany Lions!), one of whom was Alex Lamereaux who had once lived in Gainesville.  He asked where the Groove-billed Ani had been hanging out.  I gave him general directions and they headed off down the path.  A few minutes later we encountered them again, and this time they were pointing at a thick blackberry patch in the middle of the field below the Hawthorne Trail overlook.  Alex had seen the bird briefly, but it flew into the midst of the thicket and disappeared.  So what started as a walk became a stake out.  Eventually, I decided to go back to the trail and see if I could approach the thicket from the other side and possibly get a different look.  Bad idea.  While I was well away from the area, the bird showed itself, giving everyone great looks and the photo above, left.  I scrambled to reach the area, but the bird was gone.  Regretfully, we turned to leave, fighing through the blackberry bushes to get back to the path.  I took one last glance back, and there was the Ani, in the open, watching us leave.  It lasted only a moment, but it was enough to count for my year list.

The rest of the morning was quiet.  We watched two Song Sparrows feeding along the trail, Gray Catbirds and Eastern Towhees playing in the bushes, and a Merlin hunting for lunch.  That last item reminded us that it was indeed lunchtime, so we called it a day and headed home.  While our species count for the morning was low, it was a gorgeous morning and an even better feeling being back on the trail again.

Song Sparrow?  Tell me what you think.
My mom loved Robins, a sign of spring back home.