Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Birding with My Boy; Dipping in Duval

Remember that classic opening to ABC's Wide World of Sports?  It's that proclaimed that they covered the "Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat."  They were talking about birding.  Really.  This past week proves it.

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.

Once on the trail we got a look at several young Black-crowned Night-Herons and a Belted Kingfisher that posed for us (right).  After looking at the many alligators basking in the sun on the banks, we continued along the trail.

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 awoke late the next morning to the sounds of torrential rain.  I checked out the radar and it seemed that the storm was taking direct aim on LTISP.  I was exhausted from a night spent well past my bedtime, so I decided to risk waiting one more day.  Then late Sunday night there was an ominous posting.  The Owl was seen late in the day flying south, across the water to another park where the search would be much more difficult.  I had a bad feeling about this ... but a Snowy Owl ... I had to go.

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.

Black Scoter
Plan A was a failure, but there's always Plan B.  If I couldn't find the lifer, I'd try for a state lifer.  There had been reports of a Harlequin Duck at Fort Clinch State Park just to the north of where I was.  We headed north, hauled out the scopes and started the long walk to the end of the pier.  There was a small collection of birders including Gainesville legend John Hintermister.  I asked if there were any signs of the duck.  John just shook his head.  I gazed out at the water, casting only a brief look at what I thought was a common local sight.  "Ruddy Duck," I said unenthusiastically.  "Black Scoter female," said John.  I whipped around and of course he was right.  That was the best look at a Black Scoter I've ever had (right).

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.

Harlequin Duck

 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

Thursday, December 19, 2013

AAS and a CBC

Bubba and Scott talk while others check out the auction items.
I'm very fortunate to be living in an area with a really active chapter of the National Audubon Society.  The Alachua Audubon Society (AAS) is filled with terrific people and expert birders.  It runs one or two field trips nearly every weekend from early September through late March.  It sponsors the June Challenge, a friendly birding contest that has spread to many states and a few countries.  It also sponsors a number of educational/informational activities including presentations, classroom learning kits, and a Backyard Birding Tour.  It's all fantastic stuff, but it sure can keep me busy.  Several of you have been nice enough to inquire about the lack of a blog entry in the last month.  I blame AAS.

Our Holiday Social and Silent Auction was so much fun.  There were probably about 40 people, lots of great food, plenty of holiday libations (I enjoyed the wine!), and too many laughs to count.  The auction offered some really interesting pieces of art, some books, framed photos, massages, birding tours, and so on.  I got out bid on the bird-by-boat trips around Cedar Key, but was successful in getting the Madge and Burn book on Waterfowl.  During the party I was approached by three people who wanted to ride with me to the next week's field trip, so I ended the night with a full car as well.

Purple Gallinule at Circle B Bar Reserve
The following week I led a field trip to Circle B Bar Reserve in Polk County near Lakeland, Florida.  It's a 272 mile round trip, and I was really pleased to have Felicia Lee, Glenn Price and Sharon Kuchinski with me to share the ride.  We talked about everything from birding in California to educational testing in Florida.  And we laughed a lot!  The time whizzed by.

The trip itself was very successful.  We were joined by a local birder, Cole Fredricks, who acted as our guide, and by Dave Goodwin, president of the Florida Ornithological Society.  We spent about three hours walking along the wetlands and ponds, tallying about 56 species.  There were more Limpkins that I've ever seen in one spot, including a couple of moms with their fuzzy little babies.  There were a few spectacular Purple Gallinules, lots of Roseate Spoonbills, a gorgeous Green Heron, and many more.

One of the Tour yards.
I mentioned that AAS sponsors a Backyard Birding Tour.  It's a terrific event that is the brainchild of Ron Robinson.  Each year we feature six homes, each of which has yards and gardens specifically designed to attract birds.  Volunteers at each site talk a bit about the specific plants, water features, feeders, etc, that the homeowner uses to bring in the birds.  This year we also have volunteers from the Native Plant Society and the Master Gardener program who will be at two of the sites to share their perspective.  For $10, you can spend a great day touring yards and learning how to attract birds to your own place.

One of the tasks that must be done to prepare for the event is to create a good map and set of directions to each site.  We also need to decide where to place directional signs that can guide participants to out-of-the-way houses. To that end I joined Ron one afternoon to drive the route, check the directions, and plan for the signs.  I'm so glad I did.  Ron is one of the world's really good people.  I enjoyed the two hours immensely.  We talked non-stop, laughed quite a bit, and found that we have had a lot of similar experiences.  Again, the time flew by and the task got completed.  I'm really looking forward to the Tour on February 8.  (You can buy tickets at Gainesville's Wild Birds Unlimited starting on January 1.)

Lincoln's Sparrow on Kanapaha Prairie
And then there was the Christmas Bird Count.  For my non-birding friends, the CBC is an annual event that occurs all over North America.  In short, there is an assigned territory, and on a specific day a bunch of birders cover that territory as thoroughly as possible, listing every bird species that we find and counting every individual bird.  Here in Alachua County, our team (Team #7 led by Rex Rowan) starts at 4:00 AM counting owls and ends when it gets too dark to see at night.  It's an awesome and exhausting experience, and I love it.

This year, we began in a rainstorm that didn't let up until late morning.  The rain and wind hampered our search for owls.  Where we usually get three species and six to nine owls, we got one this year.  On more than one occasion we were caught away from the car in a heavy downpour.  Two of our team members were in a canoe on a local lake during the worst of the storm.  I got soaked to the skin once. And yes, I had a ball!  Once the rain cleared up, the birding got better too.  I was fortunate enough to photograph a Lincoln's Sparrow and a Grasshopper Sparrow, two birds I see infrequently and had never caught on film.  Our team also found a Snow Goose in a cow pasture, a Common Goldeneye in a retention pond at a post office, and a White-winged Dove and seven Baltimore Orioles in a single yard ... after a Sharp-shinned Hawk left its perch in a tree above the feeders.

So December has been a busy, busy month with the Alachua Audubon Society, highlighted by a terrific party, a very successful field trip, and a memorable Christmas Bird Count.  But throughout the month, the constant has been the great people I get to call friends.

Dave Goodwin (in the yellow shirt), Cole Fredricks (center in shorts) and some AAS fieldtrippers.

Grasshopper Sparrow at Kanapaha Prairie

Limpkin and her fuzzy young'un

Roseate Spoonbill at Circle B Bar Reserve