Part 1: Birding with My Boy
|My favorite sighting of the day|
When I took up birding, those around me tended to look at me like I'd grown an extra head. I suspect they figured that "this too shall pass." Well, it didn't. Fifteen years later, I'm as avid about birding as ever. And so it was an enormous surprise and pleasure for me recently when my son expressed an interest in going out birding with me. I expect it was really "one last day with my dad before I move to California" and not an true interest in birding, but heck, I was thrilled. And so it was that on the morning after Christmas, Robbie and I headed out La Chua Trail on Paynes Prairie for his first birding trip and to start his official life list!
I wanted his first bird of the day to be a good one, so we hustled down to a spot I had staked out, set up my scope, and peered into a hole in a tree. There was a beautiful Barn Owl staring back at us. How's that for a Number 1!?
We checked the edges of Sparrow Alley and found very little, so we headed toward the boardwalk. We examined and talked about a Green Heron hunting the edges of the creek, a Little Blue Heron standing motionless, a Cattle Egret pretending to be a Snowy Egret, and an Eastern Phoebe flying out to nab a bug and then back to its perch. It's amazing how exciting it is to share even the most commonplace birds with your rookie birder son! Then he whispered, "Dad, over here." It was a perfect male White-crowned Sparrow.
Just a few feet off the path was what I believe is a juvenile Cooper's Hawk (below). It didn't seem to mind the photographers and birders who stopped to gawk. Once we reached a bit of open water we saw a few Ruddy Ducks. We also added Sora and Virginia Rail to his list. Eventually we got to the observation platform and a nice (if distant) view of a female Vermilion Flycatcher.
Unfortunately, it was getting late. He had brunch plans, and I had things to do. We hustled back in, chatting about each of the birds we had seen. I promised to give him an ABA field checklist with his 40 Florida birds marked off. Filling out that checklist later in the evening was such a pleasure, and he was genuinely pleased the next morning when I gave it to him. He's off to his new life in California now, but this trip would be a memory for a lifetime, mine and I hope his too!
|I believe this is a young Cooper's Hawk. Any opinions?|
Part 2: Dipping in Duval
The Snowy Owl is very high on my wish list. I really want to see one, but sometimes the fates conspire against a birder. Such was the case this week. Early on Saturday I saw a post on Facebook that a Snowy Owl was hunting among the dunes at Little Talbot Island State Park (LTISP), about two hours from my home. The urge was to hop in the car and go immediately. But that was the day my son was driving alone and non-stop from Gainesville, Florida, to Austin, Texas, in a Budget Rental truck. I had promised to stay close to a phone, and he said he would keep me informed as to his progress. So I sat home, studied for my planned trip to Oregon, and waited. Despite the truck failing to start once, all went well. He sent his last text to me at 1:53 AM (Eastern) and I got to bed at 2:00.
|The Dunes on Little Talbot Island|
I left the house the next morning at about 4:45. Along the way I wondered, would that owl return to the hunting grounds it had fed upon for two days, or would it take up residence in a new spot. I tried to recall stories of Snowy Owls in irruptive years. Didn't they often hang out in one spot for a long time? After some discussion, my friends and I decided to go to the original site and try there first. We reached the park before opening time, and mine was the second car in line. When the gates opened a small caravan headed straight for the south parking lot. Soon birders were spreading out to search the dunes. There was no owl. We walked south to the tip. No owl. We walked north until we were in sight of the upper boardwalk. No owl. Other birders were also searching carefully. No owl. I checked the listserves and the Birding Florida Facebook page. No one had seen the owl that day.
We waited, talked, laughed and told birding stories, but there was no Harlequin. Soon the talk turned to lunch. We decided on a local Subway and started the trek back toward the parking lot. As we walked, I looked to my right and saw a duck flying in. I knew this duck. I had studied this duck before my Alaska trip and had looked at it again just the night before. "Hold on!" I yelled. "There it is! It's the Harlequin!" I turned to birders in both directions. I yelled, I whistled, and I waved and pointed. The duck landed about fifty feet off the pier, but immediately began swimming in closer. Others ran to the spot. Binoculars were raised and cameras aimed. It was too close for a spotting scope. We shook hands, high-fived and praised that duck to the heavens. "That's a great bird right there. A great bird," John said. A veteran of six decades of birding, he lit up like a boy at Christmas. That's the joy of birding.
Our last goal for the day was neither a lifer nor a state lifer, just a good bird. Three Snow Buntings were down at Huguenot Park. There was time, and if fortune smiled on us, we could add the bunting to our Duval County lists. We stopped at Subway, ate a quick lunch, and drove south. Huguenot is a great shorebird spot - one of the best in north Florida - especially on the inlet side at Ward's Bank. It was here a few years ago that a Greater Sand Plover caused such a stir. The park attendant told us that the buntings had been seen in Zone 14 and we drove there immediately. There were no buntings to be seen. However, we knew that they had been seen at the north end of the beach earlier in the day. We drove out there and searched carefully. Nothing. We took another look on the inland side. Nope. Then I ran into another Gainesville birder. He told me that just an hour earlier a Peregrine Falcon had chased the buntings across the inlet into the Mayport Navy base. When it happened, we were at the other end of the park. Another Duval Dip!
|Little Talbot Island State Park|
|Red Knots. Not Snow Buntings, but still a great bird!|
|Another look at the Harlequin Duck|