Thursday, June 5, 2014

June Challenge Kickoff!

A small portion of the sheet flow water treatment project being built near Paynes Prairie in Alachua County

Bachman's Sparrow. Photo by Stuart Kaye
In Alachua County, The June Challenge (TJC) is a month-long birding competition that culminates in a terrific party highlighted by some nice prizes; a big, honking trophy and lots of beer.  I really love the whole experience, so I eagerly awaited the first of the month and our annual kick-off field trip, typically led by Rex Rowan.  Then I got a note from Rex.  He would be out of town on that day, he said, and wanted to know if I'd be willing to lead the trip.  My immediate reaction was, "I can do that!  I've led many field trips.  This one should be easy and fun."  Well, it was fun.  And successful.  Easy?  You can decide.

The plan was to start out at 6:30 AM at Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve for a few target birds, head to Powers Park to see what was around Newnan's Lake, and then meet up with another group at Paynes Prairie by 8:00.  Yeah, right.

Twenty-seven people showed up in the parking lot at Longleaf.  The early arrivals were treated to an aerial display by several Common Nighthawks who swooped and buzzed over our heads.  It was our first target species of the day and it came right to us.  Great start.  We walked into the park a bit and soon hear a singing Bachman's Sparrow, our second target.  I turned to the group to point to the bird and realized that they stretched out over 100 feet behind me, chatting merrily and greeting old friends.  I shushed, I waved, I pointed ... the bird was perched in the open at eye level only 30 feet from the trail.  You could never get a better - or easier look at a Bachman's Sparrow in your life.  Of course, it flew off as the folks in the back of the line were just reaching the spot and several missed it.  

Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  Photo by Stuart Kaye
We continued along the trail to another Bachman's site, and while we heard one singing, we couldn't locate it.  A distant look at a Blue Grosbeak was a nice consolation prize.  At another spot I heard a Pine Warbler's dry trill.  We found him easily and, in the same spot, added Brown-headed Nuthatch and Great-crested Flycatcher.  Then I realized it was already 7:30 and we were a long way and one additional stop away from Paynes Prairie.  I herded the group back to the cars and we set out for Powers Park.

We had three targets here:  Yellow-throated and Prothonotary Warblers and Limpkin.  The Yellow-throated was easy.  Right above our heads, it sang a greeting to the new morning while dancing from limb to limb in search of breakfast.  The Limpkin was easy; two were perched in the open near the fishing pier.  The Prothonotary was not so easy.  We heard it, but only one of the 27 birders actually saw it.  Since TJC is all about seeing birds - without disturbing habitat - that was a dip for the rest of us.

Blue Grosbeak.  Photo by Stuart Kaye
By this time the group was spread all over the park from the pier to the bathrooms.  I walked about. waving and calling out, "We need to get to the prairie while it's still cool enough for a long walk.  Let's go."  We did ... eventually.

Timing is everything in birding.  When we reached the La Chua Trail parking lot, the first thing we heard was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  I played a Cuckoo song for just a few seconds, and it flew to us.  If you're a birder with any experience with Cuckoos, you know how hard they can be to see in a tree.  They pick a spot, never in the open, often high up, and don't move.  At all.  Getting 27 sets of eyes on the bird was really tough.  Then I realized that several people had already started down the trail.  Should I go get them or stay here and help people locate it?  The dilemma was solved when the bird abruptly flew away, but not before Stuart Kaye got this gorgeous photo (above, right).  Also, a singing Summer Tanager put on a little show for us before it too disappeared.

King Rail
Once on the prairie, I realized my hope of getting the group together was long gone.  A few had taken off in their own direction.  They missed the cuckoo and tanager, but they were rewarded with a Yellow-breasted Chat which the rest of us dipped on later in the day.  At first things were a little slow as we strolled along the boardwalk.  We saw the usual waders and Common Gallinules, but nothing out of the ordinary except a Black-crowned Night-Heron perched across the water from us.  Then we made the turn onto Sweetwater Dike and things got better very quickly.  A couple of singing Orchard Orioles gave us great looks, and even seemed to follow us down the trail for a while.  Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings flew back and forth across our path for the next hour.  At least three Least Bitterns darted low across the ponds.  Several Purple Gallinules thrilled all of us and provided lifers for some of the younger birders.  Next I got the best look of my life at a King Rail that stood in the open and preened while ignoring us.  Then we found a juvenile Pied-billed Grebe.  That's a terrific find for June in Alachua County.  Many years go by without a Pied-billed being recorded on anyone's JC checklist.  Then the cute factor went into overdrive.  We found a momma Purple Gallinule with at least three chicks following close behind her.  A bit later a couple of noisy male Common Yellowthroats popped up near us.  Gorgeous bird!  And why isn't it called the Masked Warbler?

At this point, much of the group peeled off and headed for home.  The remaining ten or so turned toward the long walk that would get us to an area I had been hoping to see for months.  A water treatment facility is being built on land that sits adjacent to the prairie.  Modeled in part after Green Cay in Broward County, a series of ponds are to be surrounded by shelters, berms and boardwalks that will allow people to stroll though the facility, enjoy the tranquil setting and watch the birds.  A classroom building that is now under construction is sure to become prime destination for local kids to learn about ecology and the aquatic world around them.  The area isn't formally open to the public yet, but local birders have long known that on Sundays, a long hike and a scramble through some tall grass would reward you with a look at the project.  So the remaining June Challengers marched to the end of Sweetwater Dike and stepped out onto the southern berm.

Even in its partially-built state, the place is fabulous.  A slow walk around the berm and we found several of the birds we were hoping for.  Black-bellied Whistling Ducks congregated in one spot.  A couple of Killdeer and Spotted Sandpipers roamed around another.  An American Coot and several Mottled Ducks swam among the reeds.  Red-winged Blackbirds chased a Red-shouldered Hawk off to our left while a Roseate Spoonbill joined a flock of White Ibises in a low and lazy flight over a pool to our left.

After a long walk we crossed a flat area, forded a stream, climbed a fence, trudged along a short trail and finally found ourselves on Sparrow Alley.  We rejoined another section of the original field trip group and learned that they had located an Acadian Flycatcher.  I tried for the Yellow-breasted Chat in the spot where it had been found in the morning, but struck out.  The field trip finally ended around 1:00 PM after a very successful morning.  But I wasn't done yet!

Brown Thrasher
After a quick lunch in the parking lot (thank God for air conditioning in cars!!), I drove out to Hague Dairy.  I arrived as the rain started falling, so I was confined to my van.  I picked off a few easy "farm birds" (Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow, Brown-headed Cowbird) and then turned to Cellon Creek Boulevard.  A short, slow drive produced some Eastern Meadowlarks, Eastern Kingbirds, and Rough-winged Swallows.  Usually this is a great spot for American Kestrel and Northern Bobwhite, but neither were seen.  I heard a Bobwhite, but with the rain I had no chance of seeing it.

Next I drove through the charming little city of Alachua and checked the wires for White-winged Doves.  No luck, but there were a few Eastern Bluebirds.  By checking various feeders I found Brown Thrasher, Tufted Titmouse, Downy Woodpecker.  Through all of this time, the rain fell in sheets, scouring the streets and keeping the birds hunkered down where I couldn't see many of them.

A Moe's burrito made for a good dinner before I drove out to a cemetery in  Newberry.  Last year I found Northern Flickers and an Eastern Wood-Pewee here, but once again, the rain was an obstacle.  By now it was beginning to get dark and I had one more stop to make.  I drove to Watermelon Pond Road to a spot that has never failed to produce a Chuck-will's-widow for me in June.  I parked and lowered my window to listen.  I immediately raised my window and searched for a towel to clean my glasses and wipe rain off the door and my shoulder.  I opened the opposite window and listened.  Nothing.  So, I thought, why not play a Chuck's call for a few seconds and see if anything responds.  Almost instantly, a Chuck flew out from a low perch in a nearby tree, crossed right in front of my windshield, and disappeared into the night. Yes!  It had been a challenging day, with long walks in unrelenting sun and then driving rain in the latter part of the day, but it had also been quite successful.  I had seen the water treatment facility for the first time, scored 72 species for the day, found many of my target birds, and successfully herded the cats ... ah ... the field trip participants through three different parks.  I'd call that a winner of a day and a great start to the 2014 June Challenge.

SPECIAL NOTE:  I owe a big salute to Stuart Kaye for the gracious use of his photos for this blog.  For the most part, I forgot I had a camera with me, so this would be nearly all text without his contributions.  Check out his work at:

Brown-headed Nuthatch at Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve.  Photo by Stuart Kaye.

Here's another look at the King Rail that we saw along Sweetwater Dike.  Photo by Stuart Kaye.

Blue Grosbeak.  Photo by Stuart Kaye

This Summer Tanager was singing in the La Chua Trail parking lot.  Photo by Stuart Kaye

Red Rat Snake near the La Chua Trail parking lot.