Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Bob's Gone Birding at Suwannee River State Park

Bob's Gone Birding at Suwannee River State Park

The historic Suwannee River
Some time ago I had the idea of writing a series of blogs on my favorite state parks in Florida.  I started with Fort Cooper and promptly got sidetracked by ... well ... birding.  But the idea has been bouncing around in the back of my head ever since.  Now I think it's time to get back to it.  I'd like to feature one state park a month, and I'll try to mix some of the more popular sites with some that are off the beaten track.  I hope you enjoy the series.  And if you have a favorite state park that you think is a great birding destination, please add a comment to that effect at the bottom of this blog.

Suwannee River State Park is a gem of a place.  Set at the confluence of the Suwannee and Withlacoochee Rivers, the park covers parts of three counties.  There are three trails I like to bird, and I can generally cover them in a long morning.  Throw in a few items of historic significance and you get a park that is worth the journey.

A multi-county Belted Kingfisher
Typically I like to start out walking up the Suwannee, passing the boat launch and entering the Suwannee River Trail.  I stay on it until just after it turns away from the river and merges into the Lime Sink Trail.  At that point I turn right and head back along a stream to return to a spot near the boat ramp.  My second loop starts downriver past the old Confederate earthworks to the overlook.  Here you can stand on an observation platform and glance up and down the Suwannee, across the river to Madison and Hamilton counties, or up the Withlacoochee.  I once had a Belted Kingfisher fly from the Suwannee side to Madison County and later had the same bird land in Hamilton County - a rare triple for county listers.  After some time on the platform, I turn around and head away from the river until the path joins the old stagecoach road which leads back to the entrance road and the parking lot.  The Sandhills Trail leads out to the old cemetery and then finishes the loop back at the parking lot.  None of the trails are long, most of the walking is easy, and the birding can be very good. I like to end the morning with a picnic lunch under the trees along the river.  I should also mention that the park is very clean as are the restrooms.

Eastern Towhee on the Sandhills Trail
During October I spent two mornings at SRSP.  On a Thursday early in the month the denizens of the Big Red Birding Van pretty much had the park to ourselves.  We started birdng in the picnic area where we found Downy and Pileated Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Wren, Yellow Warbler and Northern Parula.  On that day we headed downriver first and were rewarded with Hooded and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Ovenbird and American Redstart.  A Catbird flew from Suwannee to Madison County while a Belted Kingfisher (above) took the opposite route before returning to Madison.  At the end of the loop we stopped to use the restrooms and stumbled upon a Bay-breasted Warbler moving slowly from tree to tree.

We took the Sandhills Trail next and walked out to the old cemetery.  The park is on the site of the 19th century town of Columbus which was serviced by steamboats and the stagecoach line.  The cemetery has graves that date back to the mid-nineteenth century.  Unlike the other trails which feature a mostly hardwood forest with some scattered pines, this one runs through a pine and palmetto tract, and the species here are very different than those that can be found just a hundred yards away.  Brown-headed Nuthatches, Eastern Towhees, Pine Warblers, and a variety of woodpeckers are quickly found on a short, easy-to-walk path.

Back at the parking lot, we decided to turn upriver, taking the Suwannee River Trail.  It was getting to be near noon and bird activity was low.  Still, we added Black-and-White and Yellow-throated Warblers, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Northern Flicker and Summer Tanager to the day's list.

Pine Warbler
The second trip to SRSP took the form of a Sunday field trip that I led for the Alachua Audubon Society.  Fate was on our side.  We arrived at the park a few minutes before the gates opened.  We pulled off the road to wait and decided to bird among the trees at the gate.  There we found a Black-throated Green Warbler, my only one of that species this fall.  Once we reached the parking lot we found a Black-and-White and the first of three Bay-breasted Warblers we saw that day.  We started upriver this time and located most of the birds I had seen two weeks earlier including the Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  We also saw a Tennessee Warbler.  On the lower trail we relocated the Hooded Warbler and Ovenbird and added a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker to my park list.  Then we had a little luck along the stagecoach road on both sides of the entrance road.  First was a Blackburnian Warbler and moments later a gorgeous Magnolia Warbler.  Along the Sandhills Trail we relocated the typical pine forest birds (Brown-headed Nuthatch, Eastern Towhee, Pine Warbler) and added Prairie and Palm Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Eastern Bluebird.

Overall, my two-day haul tallied over 45 species including 16 warblers and five woodpeckers.  I really like Suwannee River State Park.  If you find yourself with a chance to stop there, I promise you will discover another jewel in the Florida State Park System.

Brown-headed Nuthatch on the Sandhills Trail

A small spring bubbling into the Suwannee River

Columbus Cemetery with family plots dating to the mid-nineteenth century

An immature White Ibis feeds in one of the streams that run through the park