Sunday, January 19, 2014

Birding Here and There

Calliope Hummingbird
When I began birding I was given a friendly warning about how addictive the hobby can be.  "The first hundred birds are practically outside your window.  But if you get into it, the last hundred  will cost you a second mortgage."  Sure enough, the first hundred were all local and relatively easy.  I hope I'm not on my last hundred just yet, but lifers are getting harder and harder to find.  My previous hundred have involved birding in Florida, Texas, and Alaska and pelagic trips into the Atlantic and the Gulf of Alaska.  Within the last week my car passed the 200,000 mile mark, most of which have been on birding trips.  Such is the life of an avid birder; you can see some great birds close to home, but then you have to hit the road to see another.  It's what we do.

Early this week I heard of two hummingbirds, a Calliope and a Rufous,  hanging out in the same yard in nearby High Springs.  Neither would be a lifer, but both were great birds for Florida.  So I found myself sitting in a backyard in the cold hoping the birds would be cooperative.  The Calliope showed up very quickly and posed for photos like a runway model.  But several hours passed and the Rufous was a no-show.  Fair enough.  One of two isn't too bad.  Besides, I had a bigger goal in mind.

Bar-tailed Godwit, Lifer #450.
In my last blog I mentioned a trip to Tarpon Springs in search of a Bar-tailed Godwit.  After 3.5 hours of driving, we stayed in one spot for well over seven hours in the rain without success then drove 3.5 hours back home.   A week later The Big Red Van was on the road again chasing the same Godwit.  This time the story was a bit different.  This time the trip took a little longer since we hot rush hour traffic, but we pulled into Howard Park at about 9:15.  We saw the bird at 9:16.  We didn't even have to get out of the car.  We drove up to the spot, looked out the window and there it was, my lifer #450.  We hung around for a while and took a bunch of photos.  We also saw a Wilson's Plover, a bird I haven't seen in a couple of years and have never photographed.  We snapped away and got a few good photos.  We ate lunch and started back home.

During the drive back toward Gainesville we got word that a Western Tanager had been seen in the same yard we had visited the day before!  Now we knew what we were doing with our Friday!  Again, we reached the yard early in the morning and hunkered down in the cold to wait.  I noticed that the water in the birdbath was frozen.  This was not comforting.

Rufous Hummingbird
Once again, the Calliope showed up quickly.  It was soon joined by some Baltimore Orioles, American Goldfinches, Chipping Sparrows and several more of the usual north Florida feeder birds.  But there was no Tanager.  Then there was a moment of excitement - the Rufous Hummingbird made an appearance, and it too posed graciously for photos.  But still there was no Tanager.  We waited for about five hours before leaving.  On the way out I joked that I was leaving to break the jinx so the rest would see the bird.  About 40 minutes later I got a text that the Western Tanager had made an appearance.  Dang!

The week ended with a sense of deja vu all over again, as Yogi would say.  I heard of anothr possible Western Tanager in yet another yard near Gainesville.  This time I caught a very fleeting glimpse of a what might have been a Tanager, but that was all.  Once again, I left with the same comment about breaking the jinx.  A bit later I got an email with a photo, not of a Western Tanager but of a female Painted Bunting that showed up just after I left.  Can I call it or what??  But what the heck, I also received a photo of a male Painted Bunting ... in yet another yard in yet another nearby town.  Maybe I'll go there tomorrow and help someone else find a great bird when I leave!

From top: Marbled and Bar-tailed Godwits and Ruddy Turnstone

Wilson's Plover

American Goldfinch

Baltimore Oriole

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Birding in the Elements

St. Marks NWR in the rain
I love being outdoors, so birding is an ideal avocation for me.  Being outdoors, of course, means birding in the elements, taking what Mother Nature is tossing at you and shrugging it off.  While it's essential to remember that Mother Nature is stronger and tougher than we are, battling weather can add a terrific edge of excitement to a day's activities.  I once stood on the edge of a lake during a hurricane to see what great birds might show up.  And I wasn't alone ... not even close.  Frankly, it was exhilarating.  So my birding experiences of the past couple of weeks were my kind of adventures.


In my last blog, I reported on missing the Snowy Owl and the Snow Buntings on Florida's northeast coast.  It was now a new year, and the Red Van Gang was ready for another effort.  We arrived at Little Talbot Island State Park just as it opened and immediately headed for the dunes.  Once again, the weather was challenging with high winds whipping at us and adding a a bite to the cold.  After wandering about for a while we heard the good news.  The owl had just been seen flying north along the beach.  As we started down the boardwalk we met a birder coming toward us.  He warned us that the surf was so high that the waves were reaching the dunes, leaving little walking room.  Florida's dunes are very fragile, and staying off of them is really crucial to their preservation.  So we walked the edge, more than once having the surf run up to and surround our boots.  Still, we reached a good vantage spot, saw the bird at a distance (Lifer #449), took a few photos (left), and set out on the second stage of our day's adventure.

These Ruddy Turnstones took refuge on the pier

I wanted to add Harlequin Duck to my 2014 year list, so Fort Clinch was our next destination.  We took the long hike out to the end of the fishing pier.  The wind made standing still a challenge and more than once threatened to tip over my spotting scope.  A week earlier, a photographer had searched for the Harlequin by walking out along the stone breaker that parallels the pier.  He was a good 10 feet above the water.  Today the surf and winds drove the waves over the breaker.  Fortunately, the duck was there, swimming with a few Black Scoters and a bunch of Red-breasted Mergansers.  That was easy!  However, there had been reports of a White-winged Scoter in the area, so we hung around on the pier battling the cold and wind for an hour or so before deciding to get some lunch.

Our last stop was Huguenot County Park where we had dipped on our search for some Snow Buntings the previous week.    Earlier in the day I had joked that I had been sandblasted by the wind.  Then I felt like the salt spray and wind at Fort Clinch had scrubbed the sand from my pores, taking a bit of skin with it.  Now I was back in the path of a sandblaster!  We searched the dunes along Ward's Bank and then moved to the inlet side.  Suddenly I caught a glimpse of white and black out on the beach.  It was the Snow Buntings!  Before I could even raise my camera, the three buntings flew up and directly over my head, disappearing into the dunes. Success!  We were three for three on the day, and the gritty sand in my teeth, which I tried to pick out all night long, only added to the thrill of victory.


Bullock's Oriole in the cold in Gainesville
Meanwhile, there was another surprise waiting closer to home.  A Bullock's Oriole had found a backyard feeder to its liking in northwest Gainesville.  In a stroke of great luck, the human residents were all birders and immediately recognized the importance of their little visitor.  Bullock's Orioles are birds of the west, rarely getting farther east than Texas.  Yet here it was, and I wanted to see it!  That morning was bitterly cold by Florida's standards.  Temperatures were in the low 20s when I got up, and were still at 28 degrees when I reached the house.  I found a spot where I was at least partially hidden from view and tried to stand as still as I could for the next couple of hours.  Dang!  It was cold!  Growing up in Pennsylvania had meant many a cold day, but 30 years in Florida had helped me to forget how bad it could be.  I stuck it out for three hours before I had to leave without seeing the oriole.  That meant I was back out there - in the cold - a day later.  This time I saw it!  He was spectacular!  Even the stinging in my face, toes and fingers couldn't take away from the pure wonder of that gorgeous bird.  Worth every bit of it.


American Oystercatcher
Florida has been filled with birding surprises recently.  One of them was in the form of a Bar-tailed Godwit that has been hanging out on the Gulf Coast near Tarpon Springs.  This is another bird that has no business being in Florida, so the Big Red Van started out at 4:30 in the morning in a gentle but steady rain to make the long trek south.  We reached Howard Park at 8:15 AM (while it was raining) and stayed there until 3:15 PM (while it was raining).  The Godwit never showed up.  We drove in the rain, spent seven hours in one spot while it rained most of the time, and drove home in the rain without seeing it.  Yet, we had so much fun!  We talked, laughed, got some terrific pictures, saw some nice birds, and are going back again next week rain or shine.  I want that bird.

My last adventure with Mother Nature occurred on Saturday.  Alachua Audubon sponsored an all-day field trip to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Wakulla County.  This is one of my favorite field trips of the year.  Even so, I really hesitated about going because a severe storm was expected to come through the area during the day.  And then I thought, this actually sounds like fun, so I went.

This Sora came within a few feet of us.
In fact, it rained nearly all day until about 3:30 in the afternoon.   Heavy fog and constant rain marked the morning's birding.  We got rained off a bridge while we were searching for Rusty Blackbirds, but when it let up a little the birding was great.  Buffleheads, Redheads, and Canvasbacks were scattered among many American Coots.  There were American Wigeon, Greater Scaup, Ring-necked Ducks, Ruddy Ducks and Blue-winged Teal.  Admittedly, I had to concentrate a bit as I scoped some of the birds through the fog, but seeing a Canvasback bow up in the water and and beat its wings in a macho display was well worth it.  We studied shorebirds through an opened window, waited out a secretive Virginia Rail, found those Rusty Blackbirds, and used a break in the rain to add Brown-headed Nuthatch and Pine Warbler to our day list.  Of course there was an hour or so in which birding was impossible.  The torrential rain reduced visibility to just beyond the end of the car.  Wind and lightning drove us into the visitor's center, but we used the covered porch to search the nearby trees for something to add to our list.  The day ended without rain but in the deepening darkness along Bottoms Road.  We failed at getting the hoped-for Short-eared Owl, but scored a Clapper Rail to bring the day's total to 75 species.  All those birds and a wild thunderstorm as well, what's not to love?

Piping Plover.  Note the yellow band on the right leg.

Black Skimmers landing on the beach at Howard Park

Reddish Egret at Howard Park