Sunday, November 10, 2013


What do birders and police checking out a suspected drug dealer's house have in common?

That's right ... stakeout!

Most birding expeditions fall into two broad categories.  First there are the ones spent on foot exploring a habitat, whether woods, prairie, marsh, beach or lake, searching for as many birds as possible and maybe the one or two cool birds that have been seen in an area.  And there are the trips spent birding from a vehicle, perhaps in a car while you check out the fields and farm ponds of an area or maybe on a boat on a pelagic trip looking for birds rarely seen from land.

A LONG distance iPhone shot of a Peregrine Falcon
But then there's the oddity that is the stakeout.  A stakeout begins with excitement.  Word comes of a great bird, maybe a lifer or a state lifer that is worth both effort and patience.  Rarely does it happen that the stakeout bird is in your back yard.  Rather, it often involves travel.  That has its own excitement ... or maybe just the tedium of three or four hours (or more) in a car.  Finally you get on site and you immediately look for the bird, eager for the thrill of seeing the target species.  But if it isn't right there, the waiting starts.  And the waiting can go on for hours.

Last week, those of us in the southeast had a rare opportunity.  A Townsend's Solitaire was found at Honeymoon Island State Park off Florida's Gulf coast.  Only the second record of this species ever to visit Florida, this bird ought to be hanging out in the Rockies.  I was stoked!  This would be a lifer for me, and I wanted it!  Yet for a few days, a combination of factors kept me home in Gainesville.  Finally, on Thursday, the Big Red Van made the 150 mile trip to Pinellas County and a state park I had never visited.  The trip down was uneventful other than a bunch of funny stories and the usual talk of birds.  At one point one of us saw some Limpkins in a retention pond, but the rest of us missed them.  Too bad.  We couldn't stop; we had a bird to see.

We pulled into the park at 8:30 or so, found the reported location of the bird, piled out of the van and looked up.  No bird.  Well, not exactly.  There was no Solitaire, but there was a Peregrine Falcon.  Not a good sign.  Walked up the path a bit, checked out every tree top, snag and bush.  No bird.

Lifer #448, a Townsend's Solitaire
We waited.  And waited some more.  No bird.  Memories of a nine hour stakeout waiting for a Lazuli Bunting that never showed started to weigh on me.

Maybe forty-five minutes later, we decided to split up.  Two of us would change locations a little by moving off the path and back toward the parking lot.  We checked cell numbers and two of us moved away from the others.  On the way to the parking area I heard a guy say that he had seen the bird earlier in the week feeding in a tree across and beyond the parking lot.  I wandered in that direction and put my bins on the tree.  It appeared to be a cedar, and it was loaded with berries.  If I were a Solitaire, that's where I'd be.  We continued in that direction until we heard a whistle.  Someone was calling to us from just in front of that tree.  We scrambled over to them, and there it was - a Townsend's Solitaire - a life bird!

An Anhinga at Brooker Creek
I grabbed the cell phone and called the others.  But within a minute the bird obliged them by flying over to their area and perching up in the open.  We all got great looks before it flew back to the cedar.  We followed it and watched the bird for another hour or so.  Wonderful!  Simply wonderful!

The morning was nearly gone so we left the park and stopped for a celebratory lunch at the Island Outpost.  For the most part, the food was terrific.  I had a jerk chicken sandwich that was outstanding.  But I have a special note to the staff there:  if the menu lists specific ingredients for a sandwich, that's what you put on it.  And if the error is pointed out, just fix it.  Read your own menu!

Anyway, we decided to spend the rest of our time at a place we noticed on the way in.  Brooker Creek Nature Preserve is a Pinellas County nature education center, and it's terrific.  Before Thursday, I had done all of my Pinelas County birding at Fort DeSoto, so while I had lots of birds on my county list, I was missing some common woodland birds.  Brooker Creek turned out to be a treasure trove.  I picked up a nice set of county birds including Hermit Thrush, Tufted Titmouse, Pine Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Belted Kingfisher. 
A Common Yellowthroat near the Brooker Creek bird blind

Eventually, it was time to start back to Gainesville, but we had one more stop to make.  Remember the Limpkins seen earlier in the morning by one of us?  Well, if we could relocate it, that would be a Pasco County lifer for the rest of us.  We were almost back to the interstate when we found the right shopping area with the shallow retention ponds.  Remarkably, about 8-10 Limpkins were still there!

That was a fitting end to a really great day.  There were county ticks in three counties, a really delicious meal (for me, anyway), lots of laughs and conversation with good friends, and (of course) the Townsend's Solitaire, my 448th lifer.  That's what I call a successful stakeout!

Another view of the Townsend's Solitaire

Blow this up - you might see a woodpecker's tongue!

Pygmy Rattlesnake at Brooker Creek

Friday, November 1, 2013

Beauty and the Birds

Be sure to double click on the photos to appreciate the beauty of Paynes Prairie
Without a doubt, I go walking on LaChua Trail on Alachua County's Paynes Prairie State Preserve for the incredible bird life.  In recent years, the Prairie has given us a Nelson's Sparrow, a Goove-billed Ani, a Bell's Vireo, a Vermilion Flycatcher, a Harris's Sparrow, and the list goes on and on.  Every hike along the trail holds the potential for something spectacular.  And yet, sometimes I just get distracted because there's a problem when you go birding on the Paynes Prairie -- it's too darn beautiful!

Alachua Sink
I was born and raised among mountains, and I grew up thinking they are the gold standard of natural beauty.  Back then I would have dismissed a prairie as a bunch of grass and nothing of interest.  I could not have been more wrong.  Paynes Prairie is a gorgeous place, and in late October its colors shimmer in the sun, its scent wafts over me in gentle breezes, and its vistas make me pause for a moment, forgetting that I am out there to chase some bird.  I can't possibly do it justice in words, and I'm no photographer.  My camera is not an expensive one, and I have no training in photography at all.  Still, I hope I can give you a sense of what it's like to walk LaChua Trail in the fall.

The air was cool and crisp on Monday morning.  The temperature was in the high 40s when I stepped onto the prairie.  In front of me was a rainbow of colors.  The greens, golds, browns, and reds of the vegetation sparkled under a blue sky.  I had to stop for a moment and take a photo or two.  Meanwhile, the day's first sparrows darted behind me.  I missed them all, but there would be others.  The photo above shows some of the color, but none of the motion.  The Prairie moves like a flag in a gentle breeze making the colors shift and wave a welcome to its guests.

A boardwalk runs along a creek bed and out to an observation platform overlooking Alachua Sink on the prairie's nothern edge.  Often the water level is well below your feet, but now it reaches almost to the platform.  Here a Little Blue Heron was seeking breakfast.  Across the water, a Belted Kingfisher was feasting on something she had pulled from the sink.  In the grass just beyond the deck White-crowned Sparrows (right) sang a greeting to the morning sun.  Further up the trail, juvenile Black-crowned Night-Herons hid among the bushes while others tested the water's edge.  Normally a waterfall gushes out at this spot, but on that day the entire water control structure was under water and only the rush of the current hinted at the rapidly flowing water below.

Scattered on the opposite bank were about twenty of the nearly 100 alligators I was to encounter during the morning.  Alligators are cold blooded critters, so the daylight hours often find them basking in the sun's warmth.  Usually, the prairie's water level is such that the gators are well below the trail.  Now, high water levels had driven the gators up to the edge of the trail.  One big old boy slept on the trail's edge.  We had about 30 feet of clearance, so we got around him easily enough, but more than one nervous glance was sent its way as we skittered by.

Now we were on the main leg of LaChua Trail, and wild flowers lined the trail with water just beyond them on both sides.  I don't know plants and wild flowers at all, but I love their beauty and sweet perfumes.  More than once I stopped to take pictures and breathe in the air around a bush exploding with color.  Often more than one type of flower grew together in a wonderful maze of colors.  I can't understand how some people walk on by, never noticing nature's art show just a few feet away. 

In the distance a Northern Harrier skirted just above the vegetation looking for that one animal that wasn't paying attention or had gotten too slow to react.  Then dive! A brief thrashing of bushes ... and then a morning snack consumed at leisure.  As beautiful as nature is, here was a reminder that it can also be quite brutal.

You know, I think I need to hush up for a moment and just show you some of the pictures:

And among the flowers were butterflies like this Gulf Fritillary:

Near the canal I found this spectacular Green Heron:

Eventually my path was blocked by an alligator that was not content with the sun on the bank.  It moved up onto the trail where it was still crawling about looking for the comfy spot for its afternoon nap.  I turned around.

During the walk back I had the privilege of being present for the alligator version of chest thumping.  Something stirred them up, and they started growling.  Describing an alligator's growl is daunting.  It's a primeval sound straight out of the era when dinosaurs roamed the earth.  It's incredibly deep and overwhelmingly powerful.  Its water-vibrating, earth-shaking, skin-crawling power is at once startling and thrilling.  Gators on both sides of the trail - just a few yards away from me - thundered away for about 15 minutes. 

By this time the sun was high and the sky a bright blue.  Back at the site of the submerged water control structure, a young Black-crowned Night-Heron wondered if it should test the waters where the alligators ruled:

This Snowy Egret had better pay attention!

Meanwhile, this Pied-billed Grebe ignored the growling:

Local birders know that Paynes Prairie is one of God's gifts to us.  If you haven't been there, make an effort.  You won't be disappointed.

Let me leave you with two more pictures.  The first is of a Savannah Sparrow; the bottom one is of a female Belted Kingfisher.