Friday, September 20, 2013

Two Trips for the Price of One

The River Trail at the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge
In my never-ending quest to see a migrant -- any migrant -- I visited two counties in the past week.  I spent a day wandering around Levy County in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, Shell Mound, and Cedar Key.  Another day was spent at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.  While the hoped-for fallout eluded me yet again, both were great birding days.

The Lower Suwannee NWR is in northwest Levy County and it presents an odd paradox for me.  The habitat is just gorgeous.  The River Trail starts in a mixed hardwood forest that gets swampy in the rainy season.  The trail leads to a boardwalk along the watery edge of the river where tall cedars stand like soldiers guarding the banks.  Eventually, it leads through an area of dense underbrush and younger growth.  It should be full of birds.  I've walked it three times over the years.  Once I was swarmed by birds on the first part and saw a few more on the second and third sections.  Twice I've walked it and found very little anywhere.  Then there is the Nature Drive.  It too covers varying habitats from tall pines with a sparse understory made up chiefly of palmetto bushes to dense, deciduous forest.  There are also about a half dozen ponds along the way.  My guess is that the Nature Drive is used primarily by hunters.  There are few if any hiking trails that branch off of the drive and no view of the river at all.  One of the ponds is usually good for a few ducks and waders, the rest are typically devoid of life.  Stopping along the road to spish can be productive at times, but normally it produces only the expected local resident birds.  Bachman's Sparrows can be found near the southern end of the Drive, but otherwise, it has never been terribly productive.  But it should be!  I'll keep trying.

Curiously, there were no cattle to be seen.  Just Cattle Egrets.
As far as the birding day was concerned, it had its moments!  As The Big Red Van approached the park we were struck by the sight of at least 10,000 Cattle Egrets in a single field.  Seriously, that may be an under estimate.  The field itself was at least a quarter mile long and 500 yards deep.  The egrets were in every furrow and on every fence.  The photo on the left shows just one fence along the western edge of the field.  It was truly spectacular.  

A Green Heron in a tree in the woods.  Go figure.
Before turning into the park we stopped and birded the edges of the road.  An Eastern Towhee came out to see what all the fuss was about, but little else, so we drove to the parking lot of the River Trail.  Early on we saw an American Redstart and a Northern Parula.  They were joined almost immediately by a Yellow-throated Warbler, a Black-and-White Warbler, and both White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireos.  A bit later we saw a flycatcher that appeared to me to be an Acadian, and that would be the "default" flycatcher in the park, but it never vocalized, so who knows?  Unfortunately, that was about the last bird we saw on the River Trail.  We then took the Nature Drive.  We added a few typical woodland birds to our day list, but there was nothing unusual until we found a Green Heron perched in a tree above a small puddle of water.  He posed nicely as we snapped a few photos, and was still there when we left.   Our final stop was at the large pond with the observation deck.  However, other than a few Pied-billed Grebes, there was little else there.

Western Sandpiper
Next we drove to Shell Mound near Cedar Key.  On the way in we stopped to examine a small group of Turkey Vultures swirling above us.  We were rewarded when we noted one of them had a mostly white tail -- a Short-tailed Hawk.  This is the third or fourth time we've been fortunate enough to see a Short-tailed in this spot, and it's always a treat.

Unfortunately, the tide was really high and no shorebirds were hanging out in the area, so we headed into town and stopped at Kona Joe's for lunch.  There on the dock behind the restaurant was a Lesser Yellowlegs, a bird I still needed for my Levy year list.  After lunch we decided to make a sweep of the docks on the road to the airport to see if anything interested was perched up or feeding on the shore.  We saw the usual Royal, Forster's and Sandwich Terns, Ruddy Turnstones, Willets, and Semipalmated Plovers.  And there amid the plovers was a single peep - a Western Sandpiper.

Two days later we made the long drive to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge where birds thrive in the shadows of NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building and a variety of launch pads; all places that evoke strong memories of my youth and America's space race with Russia.  Even on a birdless day, this would be a great place to visit, but our hopes were high after recent reports of double-digit warbler species.  If you've been reading any of my blogs at all, you'll know that I've been focusing on learning more about shorebirds.  Unfortunately, the shorebird magnet know as Biolab Road was closed for repairs -- in shorebird migration season -- come on, people!  That's not right!  Anyway, we started by taking Blackpoint Drive where there were a lot of Tricolored Herons.  Most of the other waders were present as well as Caspian, Royal and Forster's Terns, some Black-bellied Plovers and a few Dunlin.  A Northern Flicker surprised us as it flew in front of us, and a Belted Kingfisher appeared to take umbrage at our disturbing its morning.

Red-shouldered Hawk
Of course our target for the day was Dummit's Grove and the Oak and Palm Hammock Trails where the warblers had appeared a coupe of days earlier.  There were no birds in the Grove.  I take that back; there was a single Red-bellied Woodpecker.  However, we used its shade to relax and eat a quick lunch before heading to the hammock trails.  The Oak Hammock Trail is the shorter of the two and that's where we started.  It's gorgeous.  I enjoyed the shade of the canopy, basked in the lush greenery, and admired the huge oranges growing wild next to the trail -- descendents of Dummit's orange trees that survived the freeze of 1835 and provided the foundation for Florida's massive orange-growing industry.  We started the walk with a Redstart, a Red-eyed Vireo and a Summer Tanager with a Northern Parula putting in an appearance a bit later.  Then we hit a long dry spell, perhaps the fault of the Red-shouldered Hawk pictured above, right, who seemed very well fed.

Mottled Duck
Just as we reached the end of our walk it started raining fairly hard.  I didn't want to lose another camera to water damage, so I darted under the kiosk at the trailhead.  Thank heavens!  No, not because my camera was now safe ... but as I stood there a small mixed-flock of birds invaded the trees right in front of me.  Here was another Redstart, there a Black-and-White, and over there a Yellow-throated.  Then there was a bird that at first appeared from below to be a Red-eyed Vireo, but that wasn't right at all.  There was more supercilium than eye-stripe, it was too small, and it was acting like a warbler, darting quickly from place to place as it chased, caught and ate bug morsels.  But it was gone a moment later, and I forgot about it for a day.  Then another birder posted a photo of a Swainson's Warbler taken in that same area.  I looked at the photo and thought, "Yep, that's the bird I saw." 

We made a quick stop at the headquarters shop and walked the nearby boardwalk but found nothing new for our day lists.  Our final stop was characterized by a long, bouncy drive along Peacock's Pocket - no doubt named after the many potholes that are more numerous than the eyes in a peacock's tail.  Here we added Yellow Warbler, Glossy and White Ibis, Barn Swallow, Mottled Duck and Blue-winged Teal to our day's haul.  For the day, we scored about 45 species and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had added eight birds to my Brevard County life list, getting me up to 153.  Then I realized that aside from some pelagic species, nearly all of those birds were seen at Merritt Island, truly one of the nation's best birding hotspots!

A Black Racer at the Merritt Island HQ

A Common Gallinule family

Red-eyed Vireo from Cedar Key

I came so close to walking face first into this!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Touring Jackson County

Blue Grosbeak before the rains came
On Tuesday morning I had a birding day shortened by rain.  To be precise, I was a mile away from my car when the skies opened and dumped a couple of inches of rain on me.  I was soaked inside and out, with water running down my back until it reached my boots.  I was so wet that I decided to take a slow stroll back to the car and enjoy a walk in the rain.  And so a day that started out with some promise (a Yellow-throated Warbler and a Northern Waterthrush) ended quickly.  Things evened out the following day.

The Red Van Gang collected at 4:30 on Wednesday morning and headed north and west toward Jackson County.  After a quick stop in Tallahassee for breakfast, we reached Three Rivers State Park just after 8:00.  But wait ... why were the gates closed?  Oh yeah, we had just entered the Central Time Zone; it was just after 7:00 and the park was closed.  Undeterred, we continued north on River Road and birded the many lakes and ponds in the area.  There were a few Common Gallinules and American Coots.  A couple of Green Herons landed on the bank across from us.  A Double-crested Cormorant swam under the bridge moving from one portion of Lake Seminole to another.  A Belted Kingfisher perched up on a snag.

Apalachee WMA
A bit up the road we saw a sign for the Apalachee Wildlife Management Area.  In the parking lot we met a ranger named Bunting (really!) who was very helpful and very knowledgeable about the local bird life.  He told us where to walk in order to find the pine species we needed for our county lists.  We had good luck from the start.  First we found a Northern Waterthrush working the edges of a large puddle.  Then an Eastern Wood Pewee landed on a perch above us.  One tree over were two Summer Tanagers.  After a bit a Brown-headed Nuthatch came in to check us out.  Farther down the trail we found at least three Bachman's Sparrows.  Eventually we reached a small lake filled with vegetation.  I could hear Common Gallinules calling out, but I couldn't see them.

Bachman's Sparrow
By this time the state park was open.  Our first stop was the area around the campground.  I've heard that there are times when the lake is a haven for ducks, but of course it's too early in the season for that.  We were hoping for a tern, a gull and some waders.  All we found was an Anhinga on the opposite side and a Green Heron on a small island a couple of hundred feet off shore.  In the woods we added a few birds to our day list including a Yellow-throated Warbler, but for a while it seemed we would find nothing special.  Fortunately, just before we left we looked into a tangle of vines in some dense vegetation.  One of our group said, "There should be a prize bird right there."  Instantly, a Worm-eating Warbler popped up at eye level.  I was so surprised I forgot I had a camera and never got a shot of it.  Then it dove into the thickets a few feet away, and we followed it hoping for another look at a terrific bird.  We didn't relocate it, but we did find a Hooded Warbler.

It was getting late and we still had more ground to cover, so we left the park and drove north.  A few more ponds produced mostly an incredible swarm of Love Bugs.  A King Rail called from one pond but never showed itself.  A Wood Duck swam in another before disappearing behind a small island.  Some Wild Turkeys meandered through a field, and some Snowy Egrets waded in yet another pond.  We also checked out two small parks, Parramore Landing and Buena Vista Landing.  Both were beautiful little parks, but we added only one or two birds to our day list.

Buena Vista Landing
Next we headed for Tower Road.  We had heard that the fish farm located there had a pond that often was very birdy.  We almost missed it, driving right past it the first time.  It's lucky that we did.  There was a shallow pond on the right that had about eight Killdeer and another eight Least Sandpipers.  A u-turn got us back to the fish farm where we added a couple of Blue-winged Teals to our day list.  They were also the first ducks of the season for me, always a cause for celebration.

We continued along several small roads passing among huge cotton fields.  There was an Eastern Kingbird in one, but we found little else until we found a farm pond along SR 71.  This produced a great collection of shorebirds: Solitary Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Killdeer and Least Sandpiper.  Also working the edge was a Glossy Ibis, another "First of the Season" (FOTS) bird.

Least Sandpipers and Killdeer
At that point we decided to call it a day - but the county listing was not quite complete yet.  We stopped at a Hardee's for dinner and found a Chimney Swift flying just east of us.  Then a House Finch landed on the wires directly above the parking lot.  Add two more for the day.  A Eurasian Collared-Dove on the wires in Marianna was the 61st species of the day and the 31st new species for my Jackson County list which grew from 49 to 80.  It was a long day - we left at 4:30 AM and got home at about 8:30 PM - but a great one, filled with birds, friends, and new vistas.  My kind of day!

Lake Seminole
Who says jeans don't grow on ... well ... bushes?
Winner of the 2013 Ugliest Boat-tailed Grackle Contest