Thursday, August 29, 2013

Searching for Warblers

Bolen Bluff Trail as it opens onto Paynes Prairie
The last few days have been busy ones.  I've been out searching for warblers.  After all, this is migration season and the warblers should be coming through.  Others have reported double-digit species counts, so surely I could do better than the single Prairie Warbler I saw at Cedar Key last week.

On Sunday I decided to walk the trail at Bolen Bluff.  This is a well-known fall warbler trap.  Located on the southern rim of Paynes Prairie, the trail runs along the bluff and eventually turns down to the basin itself.  It's a pretty walk and I've had some really great days there with warblers landing in waves, so I had high hopes.  Silly me.  The forest was quiet and the birds absent for nearly all of my walk.  I occasionally heard a Northern Cardinal's chip or a Carolina Wren's booming song, but that was it.  Eventually, I came across a mixed flock and saw a flash of yellow.  I chased after it for a bit and eventually found three Yellow Warblers and a Prairie Warbler.  Yeehaw!  I had doubled my Cedar Key warbler species count! I finished the trail - perhaps about three miles in all - and added two more Yellow Warblers to the day's count.  I've had better days in my back yard.

Northern Parula (Click on the photo to enlarge)
Meanwhile, the internet was all abuzz.  I read Janet Leavens's post about Central Winds Park in Seminole County.  She and others had reported a mixture of warblers including some really nice ones like Blackburnian and Black-throated Blue.  I had never been to Central Winds, but its voice was calling me.  So the Big Red Van headed out on the long drive early on Tuesday morning, and after a very filling IHOP breakfast, we got to the park just after 8:00 AM.

Central Winds is a lovely little park.  Looking at a map, you might think it is way too small to attract a lot of birds.  You would be wrong.  It's a beautiful little patch of green in the midst of urban sprawl on the southern edge of Lake Jessup.  Any birds crossing that lake would look down and see this one attractive bunch of trees and head right for it.  So the park is small enough to bird in a morning, but if the winds are right, there may be birds everywhere you look.

Yellow-throated Warbler
Being unfamiliar with the place, we wandered away from the van looking for a trail to follow.  Instead, we ended up following the birds.  Within 50 feet of the parking lot we encountered the day's first American Redstart, a Yellow-throated Warbler, and a Prothonotary Warbler with a bit of an eye line.  Coincidentally, the same bird was photographed and became the topic of some conversation among the state's birders.  From reading the posts, I learned that a small percentage of Prothonotary Warblers do indeed have a prominent eye line.

Eventually we found the trail and followed it along the rim of a large open field.  We chased a few birds to one corner of the field (near the bleachers) where we encountered another mixed flock.  A few Tufted Titmice and Carolina Wrens were accompanied by a Black-and-White Warbler, another Redstart, and a Prairie Warbler. 

I think Red-eyed Vireos are beautiful!
We saw that the trail was simply going back to the parking lot, so we reversed direction and started toward the lake.  Along the way we met a local birder, Dennis O'Neill, who proved to be very helpful and a really nice guy.  He told us where some of the better birds had been seen the previous day, so we headed in that direction.  A few Northern Parulas and more Prairie Warblers were all that we saw.  The trail ended near the banks of a small pond.  Here were White Ibises, a Little Blue Heron, a Tricolored Heron and a plastic Canada Goose.  There was also a Red-shouldered Hawk swooping and diving around in the skies above the pond.  We walked up the hill and finally came to a stand of oak trees.  There were more Parulas, more Prairies, another Redstart and another Yellow-throated.  It seemed we were finding several small pockets of birds, but they were all the same species.

Again we saw Dennis, and this time he told us of a Yellow Warbler he had just seen back by those bleachers.  We wandered over there and after a bit of work we found another mixed flock.  This time there were Redstarts, Parulas, a Prairie and, finally, a Yellow Warbler.

The Nature Trail at Central Winds Park in Seminole County
At that point I just wanted to sit for a while.  We found a bench and sat for a bit.  Good plan.  Soon another flock flew in and landed above my head!  For a few minutes we were surrounded by Red-eyed Vireos, Titmice, Wrens, Black-and-white and Yellow-throated Warblers, and yet another Redstart.  Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers joined in the gang as well.  It's fun being among so many birds, even when they are "the usual suspects."

We wanted to take one more shot at the area under the oaks near the butterfly garden, so we headed back there next.  We exited the trail emerging into the more open area under the trees to find a Red-shouldered Hawk sitting quietly on a low branch.  It kindly posed for several pictures, something I wish that warblers would learn to do.  We looked around for several minutes but the only new bird we saw was a Bald Eagle that circled over us a few times.

For the day we counted 36 species overall, with seven different warblers (and lots of some of them).  Certainly it wasn't a great birding day, but my numbers are heading in the right direction.  From one warbler (Cedar Key), to two (Bolen Bluff) and now seven ... could double digits be just around the next bend of the trail? 

Red-shouldered Hawk looking for lunch
Same Red-shouldered Hawk from the rear
Central Winds Park, Seminole County

Friday, August 23, 2013

Another Shorebird Season

Roseate Spoonbill
This summer has been a series of annoyances that have kept me out of the field.  Issues with my back topped off with a miserable head cold have resulted in too much time spent on my couch.  But everything seems to be getting resolved at the same time, so it was enormous pleasure that I headed out yesterday for only the third serious birding effort since my the end of June.

As I noted some time ago, I'm making a concerted effort to learn as much as I can about shorebirds.  Sometimes it seems that the little critters simply defy identification.  Two things work against me.  First, we tend to see most shorebirds only as they pass through Florida and so they are here infrequently and in a drab plumage.  That combined with my own lack of experience and knowledge is a bad combination.  All too often, my "identifications" are prefaced by, "I think that's a ... " However, a world-class birder once wrote that the difference between a beginner and an expert is 10,000 mistakes.  Based on that assessment, I made significant progress along the learning curve at Cedar Key yesterday.

Click on this to enlarge it.  I think they're all Semipalmated Sandpipers.
My first stop was at Shell Mound, just north of Cedar Key.  I hopped out of the car before even reaching the parking lot in order to get a good view of a Roseate Spoonbill feeding with a Willet just a few feet away.  After admiring them for a bit, I looked further out and saw hundreds of peeps.  Unfortunately the silvery sand and the shallow waters of low tide created quite a glare.  That made picking out small details or photographing them quite difficult.  As far as I could tell, they were all quite similar.  I saw dark legs; dark, straight bills; white throats; and some streaking in the upper breast and flanks, but none beyond the legs.  So, Semipalmated Sandpiper, right?

I continued into the parking lot and scanned the sandbars and oyster beds.  There were a few Black-bellied Plovers in gorgeous breeding plumage and some Short-billed Dowitchers.   At least I assumed they were Short-billed.  There were about eight, and I looked at all of them.  I saw no structural differences in the shape of their backs, all were flat.  And I saw no differences in the amount of barring along the flanks.

Gray Kingbird
Meanwhile, I was really entertained by watching the Black Skimmers swooping low over the water while feeding between the sandbars.  I never fail to stop and watch them.  It's a scene that is both ancient and elegant, and one worth appreciating.  While I was admiring them, an American Oystercatcher zoomed by, the only one of the day.

A brief stop at the campground yielded more peeps, and again they all appeared to be Semipalmated Sandpipers.  Here at least I was able to get a few fuzzy photos that were somewhat helpful for studying later last night.  Undaunted, I decided to pack up and head into town.  Perhaps there would be more shorebirds in the mudflats east of town.

No such luck.  The mudflats were empty.  I guess the tide was too low and the shorebirds were well away from the road.  Still, the drive in yielded about a baker's dozen of Gray Kingbirds.  Despite the glaring gray skies behind them, I was able to get a couple of photos because the birds were so cooperative.  They simply ignored me as I crept closer and closer trying to get a usable shot with my little camera.  You can be the judge of how successful I was.

Hey dude!  Got any food?
The absence of shorebirds led me to see if any warblers were around.  This is not the best time of year for warblers in Cedar Key, but I thought it might be worth a try.  Unfortunately the birds didn't cooperate.  I found one female Prairie Warbler at the cemetery.  But while I was there, I had the feeling I was being watched.  I looked around and found a raccoon creeping up toward me, eventually hiding behind a pine and peeking out at me.  Cute little guy!

After lunch I made one last effort to find some shorebirds by driving over toward the airport.  There is a small area along the way where they can sometimes be found along the road or gathered on a series of old piers.  What I found were mostly terns including Royal, Forster's and Sandwich Terns.  The really funny thing was that they all appeared to be singing.  Maybe it was karaoke night and they were getting warmed up?  I assumed they were singing "Tern Tern Tern" by the Byrds?  What, too cheesy?  Anyway, the terns were joined by a few Ruddy Turnstones, Willets, and Laughing Gulls while a lone Spotted Sandpiper patrolled the beach.

So it wasn't a particularly spectacular day, but it had its moments -- and I wasn't confined to bed or a couch.  Sounds like a good day to me.

My best guess:  Semipalmated Sandpiper
Another look at the Spoonbill, with a nearby Willet

A Sandwich Tern with some Royals

Forster and the Three Royals at Karaoke Night

Monday, August 5, 2013

My Back is Back, and I'm Back to Birding

Lily Lake at Chenango Valley SP
 After I returned from Alaska I had a sore back which I attributed to trying to sleep on a long plane trip.  Whatever the problem was, it got worse when I ruptured a disc in the lumbar area.  Dang!  That hurt!  But I'm getting around pretty well now and I've been itching to get back on the birding trail.  I got that chance yesterday, and I jumped at it.

I'm visiting family in Scranton, PA.  I like to hit new places when I can, so I decided to drive up to a state park near Binghamton, NY.  Chenango Valley State Park turned out to be a real gem.  It's a beautiful, family-friendly park with loads of birding trails.  Some are very easy walking; others are more challenging; all are gorgeous.

Green Heron

I started by walking around Lily Lake on a trail that proved to be narrow, uneven, and gorgeous.  I was surprised that there were no ducks on the lake.  It looks good for dabblers, but none were to be found.  I looked for a Swamp Sparrow at the water's edge, but a Song Sparrow popped up.  A Green Heron flew out of some reeds and lit on a branch just above the water.  Then I was swarmed by Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Red-eyed Vireos, a male Blackburnian Warbler and what I'm fairly sure was a Warbling Vireo.  I've only seen this species once, so I needed time to look at the field guides on my phone.  Still, I'm pretty sure I'm right.  If any of you are from the area, you can correct me if this is an unexpected species.

White-breasted Nuthatch climbing head first down a tree
The Lily Lake Trail seemed to disappear, and I found myself standing on what I think was the 12th fairway of the park's golf course.  I hustled around the area and found myself on a driving range.  Still, the lake was on my left, so I kept going.  Eventually I ended up back where I had started, but I never did find where the trail went.  Undaunted, I picked out another trail, this one labeled with an "S".  This one was much less challenging than the Lily Lake Trail.  It was wide, fairly smooth and well maintained.  At the junction of where the trail crossed another (labeled BE), I was swarmed by another mixed feeding flock.  This time the chickadees and titmice were joined by an American Redstart, what looked like a newly fledged Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Hermit Thrush, an Eastern Wood Pewee, and a whole bunch of White-breasted Nuthatches.  I loved watching the nuthatches run down tree trunks, hang upside down on branches, and generally have a great time - all while honking away, sounding like little clown horns.  Nuthatches love life!

Red-eyed Vireo
Next  I drove over to the public beach on Chenango Lake.  I walked around a bit, but found only a flycatcher that was just too distant for me to ID.  My guess from the habitat was Willow, but that's just as likely to be wrong.

It was time to go, so I headed out of the park with only 18 species!  I had to hit 20; I just had to ... Fortunately, New York birds know how to hang out on wires (unlike Alaskan birds).  Along SR 369 I found some Eastern Bluebirds and a Mourning Dove.  Twenty species was not great, but it was enough to make me feel like I had actually done some birding.

It's back to Florida tomorrow, and back to the birding trail more regularly.

By the way, do you have any comments you'd like to make?  At the bottom of each blog should be a line that says "Add a Comment".  Click on it and you can write your thoughts on anything I've written.  Have at it!

Chenango Lake
I love reading signs that highlight local history!