Friday, November 21, 2014

Bob's Gone Birding at Big Shoals State Park

Bob's Gone Birding at Big Shoals State Park
I don't believe that I've ever read a birding report from Big Shoals State Park.  I'm sure there have been some, but it occurred to me that this might be an under-birded site worth exploring.  After all, the state park website describes miles of trails, some ponds and an observation tower on the banks of the Suwannee.  It has to be birdy, doesn't it?

Black-and-White Warbler
First, let me give you an overall impression.  The park is divided into three sections.  Big Shoals and Little Shoals are state park lands located in Hamilton County near White Springs.  They form a kind of parentheses around a wildlife management area.  The two sections are connected by the wide and paved Woodpecker Trail that stretches for over three miles from the lower Little Shoals parking lot to the parking lot at the Big Shoals picnic area.  The lower portion has miles of winding trails and bike paths.  The upper portion has trails for hiking, biking and riding horses.  There are picnic areas and restrooms in both sections, but the bathrooms are considerably better at Big Shoals.  The entire park is bordered on the east by the Suwannee River featuring (when the depth is right) the only Class III White Water rapids in the state.

The Big Red Van arrived just after 8:00 AM.  We picked up a park map at the honor pay station and immediately set out on the Woodpecker Trail.  I have to admit that I was very surprised at the habitat here.  On one side of the trail was a forest of tall pines with a palmetto understory.  The other side was a mixed hardwood forest with a dense, bushy understory.  I'm used to birding in both habitats, but not both at once.  Weird.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
The Woodpecker Trail was aptly named.  We found Red-bellied, Downy and Pileated Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.  On the pine side there were Brown-headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers.  On the opposite side were Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Black-and-White Warbler and a Tufted Titmouse.  Eastern Bluebirds and Palm Warblers darted from side to side while a flock of American Robins flew over us.  So this part of the trail was very birdy.

One of our goals was to find the observation tower mentioned on the park map, so we headed off on a side trail.  At first we had no luck, so we kept walking, slowly circling a large tract.  We picked up a few species along the way including Eastern Phoebe, Carolina Wren and Yellow-throated Warbler, but the tower wasn't where I expected it to be.  We kept walking.  Then we came upon a "tower" that looked more like a glorified hunting platform.  And it looked out on ... well ,,, not much.  The land immediately in front of the tower was cleared of everything but grass.  Beyond the grass was a stand of pines.  That was it.  The better view was to the rear where the trail wound its way through the woods.  The walk back was uneventful.  Still, we added House Wren and Hermit Thrush to our day list.  When we got back to the parking lot, we ate our lunches in the picnic pavilion. 

The Observation Tower
The Big Shoals side proved to be very different in more than one way.  The picnic area was open, not under a roof, and it included a Bat House!  The restrooms were bigger, had running water, and had showers.  The main hiking trail was a narrow, winding ribbon of a trail that cut its way through a scrub and palmetto forest along the river (to the east) to the rapids.  Several swampy ponds dotted the western edge of the path.

And there were no birds.

Well, there were a few ... a flock of Turkey Vultures collected in one area, a Barred Owl called in the distance, and a Red-shouldered Hawk screamed overhead without actually letting itself be seen.  At one spot we found three White-eyed Vireos.  And on the way back we found the day's biggest surprise, a single Tennessee Warbler that must have been the rear guard of this year's migration.  But that was it.  After a really nice start, I only tallied 27 species for the day, and not a single Northern Cardinal among them.  But the variety of habitats, the swampy areas, and the river's edge all should be packed with birds, and the miles of trails should make them accessible.  Perhaps the early November date and the windy weather that marked the afternoon just kept the birds hunkered down and hidden.  According to my phone app, I accumulated over 19,000 steps covering almost nine miles of trails, and I only got 27 species.  On the other hand, I really liked the park.  There were some really beautiful areas.  Perhaps a trip back there during the spring or fall migration period will be more productive.  I'll let you know.

The Suwannee at Big Shoals

House Wren

The Big Shoals Trail

Hermit Thrush

The View from the Observation Tower