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

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