Friday, January 23, 2015

Meeting Jay-Z ... Well, really, it was JZ

Female (l) and male Northern Shovelers with an American Coot (r)

This Ring-billed Gull watched me dip on the duck!
Suppose I offered you this scenario ...

You make a three hour drive, stake out a location, get a lifer, have some dinner somewhere, maybe bird some in a National Wildlife Refuge, and drive home.

OR ...

You make a three hour drive, stake out a location, miss the lifer, decide to go birding in a National Wildlife Refuge, meet a really famous person in the birding world whose work you have read quite a bit, spend some delightful time chatting and birding with said person, and leave with a terrific story to tell other birders.

Normally, I'd pick a lifer over almost anything, but a recent encounter has changed my mind.  Let me tell you about it.

Lesser Scaup
The goal was a Long-tailed Duck that had been hanging out around Parrish Park near the entrance to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.  I had already dipped once on this species during a tremendous rainstorm near Portland, Oregon, and I wanted to see it!  So the Red Van Gang (The RVG) made the long trek from Gainesville early on a Wednesday morning.  While a Ring-billed Gull watched us, we made a diligent search of the waters near the park.  There were plenty of scaup, but the  Long-tailed Duck wasn't there.  So we were faced with a choice.  Should we continue the stakeout in order to give us the best chance of getting a life bird, or should we head into the refuge to bird along Blackpoint Drive and Biolab Road?  After a brief discussion we decided on the latter choice and resolved to return to Parrish Park later in the afternoon for a second shot at the bird that was formerly known as an Oldsquaw.

American Coot
I love looking at ducks.  I think they are among God's most beautiful creatures.  And in the winter, Merritt Island can be a duck-watcher's paradise.  I've been there when the number of ducks was in the thousands for each of a dozen or more species.  This day was not like that, but it still offered plenty to see.  We started along Blackpoint Drive and soon encountered nearly all of the expected waders.  White and Glossy Ibises were abundant, but I couldn't find a White-faced all day.  Wood Storks; Snowy Egrets; Great, and Little Blue and Tricolored Herons seemed to be present wherever the eye turned.

But I was eager to see ducks ... so eager that I almost missed something I'm glad I saw.  American Coots are present here in Florida in huge numbers.  It isn't unusual to see thousands on a walk around a lake, so I tend to overlook them.  But one Coot was close at hand, and its red frontal shield was more prominent than on any other Coot I've ever seen.  I thought it was gorgeous, and I was lucky enough to get the shot on the left.

Roseate Spoonbill
We made one stop to look at some American Avocets and to watch several Reddish Egrets hunting nearby.  There were also a few Blue-winged Teals and Northern Shovelers in the area.  Then another birder told me to look through the bush right in front of me.  There stood a Roseate Spoonbill, just a few feet away.  How can you look at that bird and not smile in delight?  Not possible!

Another stop held some White Pelicans, Pied-billed Grebes and Hooded Mergansers.  What a contrast in size!  Some Yellow-rumped Warblers and at least one Common Yellowthroat danced around in the bushes along the road while a flock of Tree Swallows put on an impressive display of aerial skills.

A bit farther along the road we found the pool where the Northern Pintails like to hang out.  Once again they were present in decent numbers.  I think the Northern Pintail is an elegant looking bird.  The brown, white and gray are displayed with clean lines, artistically aligned with a graceful swirl.  I found myself taking dozens of photos because I just couldn't stop!

Northern Pintail
Finally we found ourselves at one pool studying some American Wigeons and Green-winged Teals.  Another birder pointed out to us a bird that he thought was a Eurasian Wigeon.  We got our scopes on it and studied.  We weren't convinced.  Then as we stood there another car drove up.  One of the RVG members whispered, "That's Julie Zickefoose!"  Now, for you non-birders (Hi Judy!!), Julie Zickefoose is a well known birding author, artist, blogger and speaker.  We knew she was in town to give the keynote speech that very night at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.  I'm a big fan.  I read her blogs, I subscribe to her family's magazine (Birdwatcher's Digest), and I even went on a field trip she led in Texas a few years ago.  I found her to be engaging and approachable, so I gathered some courage and walked over to her.

"Aren't you Julie Zickefoose?" I asked.  She turned to me with a huge smile, said she was, and she started chatting with us.  I told her about the mystery bird, and she came right over to my scope and checked it out.  At first glance she thought it could indeed be a Eurasian -- we saw only cinnamon in the head, with no hint of green -- but she also readily admitted she could be wrong.  I sputtered out a few thanks for taking a look, and she actually thanked us for getting her on the bird!  What a thrill!  Then as we stood there, another car drove up.  I watched one of the RVG exchange a few words with the driver before the car drove off.  The conversation ended with my friend looking a little startled and at a loss for words.  When I walked over, I was told "That lady asked what we were looking at.  I said a possible Eurasian Wigeon.  She said, 'What, just one?' and drove off."  We started laughing and did so again and again throughout the rest of the day.

Blue-winged Teal
Eventually we left with Ms. Zickefoose still studying the bird.  I turned and said, "She may not be one of the Beatles of the birding world, but she's at least Fleetwood Mac."  That wasn't greeted with much enthusiasm.  We decided to bump her up farther -- the Beach Boys?  The Stones?  Hard to say, but she's a rock star in our world and we partied ... ah ... birded with her.

We decided to lunch at the Visitor's Center, so that was our next stop.  We spent money in the gift shop, watched a Painted Bunting and some Red-winged Blackbirds at the feeders, admired a Great Blue Heron and enjoyed our lunch at one of the picnic tables.

Our next destination was Biolab Road, a narrow, unpaved drive along the water's edge.  This is usually really good for shorebirds, but the tide was high and the time of year not ideal for numbers and variety.  Still we got some good looks at Black-bellied Plovers, a Killdeer, a Least Sandpiper, numerous Short-billed Dowitchers, both Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, and a few Dunlin.  One spot held a nice group of Black Skimmers and Caspian Terns.

Great Black-backed Gull
The sun was now moving with determination toward the western horizon, so we decided to leave the refuge and return to Parrish Park for another shot at the Long-tailed Duck.  Once again, we struck out.  Had we missed it while we were knocking about the refuge?  Did it matter in light of our encounter with Julie Zickefoose?  Someone told us it hadn't been seen all day, but we didn't need to hear that in order to feel better.  But the birding gods left us with one parting gift -- a gorgeous Great Black-backed Gull on a light post.  It posed long enough for me to take a few hurried photos and then flew off.

In all, it was a terrific day.  We tallied about 50 species including nine ducks.  After studying several field guides, we decided that our mystery bird was probably a Eurasian x American Wigeon Hybrid, but I'm no expert so don't take my word for it.  And of course the day was crowned by the meeting with Julie Zickefoose.  She may not be as famous as the original Jay-Z, but she's our JZ, and did I mention I'm a big fan?

You know you wanted another look at a Northern Pintail!

A bonus look at a Northern Shoveler

Caspian Terns and a Black Skimmer

American Avocet

Reddish Egret

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Duck and Chuck

Early on a January morning at St. Marks NWR

 You might think that the title of this post refers to last year's offense at the University of Florida - the quarterback trying to duck under the on-rushing defense and then chucking the ball out there, somewhere, hoping to find the right colored jersey.  But in this case, it perfectly sums up a great day of birding at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  The Red Van Gang made its annual pilgrimage to St. Marks for the Alachua Audubon field trip led by John Hintermister.  For me, this is always one of the highlights of the year.  I love looking at ducks, and there are few places any better in Florida to see a nice variety and in good numbers.

I love this shot of a Common Yellowthroat.
The gang gathered at 4:30 AM with temperatures in the mid-30s and a clear, starry sky.  We drove northwest through High Springs and Fort White, towns I often only see in the dark, before reaching Perry and a tasty breakfast at a Huddle House.  We eventually reached St. Marks just before the official 8:00 AM starting time, so we made a brief scouting trip down to Lighthouse Pond.  Many of the ponds we passed were empty, but a Common Yellowthroat posed nicely beside the road.  I was driving, so I didn't try to get a shot, but later I found the photo at left on my camera.  I didn't take it.  Wish I did.

The field trip itself started with a walk around the area adjoining the parking lot.  Almost immediately we encountered a swarm of Yellow-rumped Warblers followed by a nice mixed flock.  A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker joined the crowd, followed by a Blue-headed Vireo, a Black-and-White Warbler, and a few Brown-headed Nuthatches.  Phil Laipis caught a glimpse of a Golden-crowned Kinglet, but I missed it. I resolved to get back to the area later in the day and try for the kinglet again, but that goal went the way of so many other resolutions I've made.

American Wigeon
This year John opted not to join Don Morrow's tram tour of the eastern pools.  I think the cold temperatures and stiff winds had something to do with it.  Instead we made a quick stop at the double bridges before moving to the boat launch spot at Stoney Bayou 1.  I hopped out, saw only a few American Coots, and raised my camera.  Only it wasn't my camera.  After swapping cameras with one of the gang, I looked around and found very little to photograph.  Slow day so far.

Next we moved on to Headquarters Pond where the day got a lot better in a hurry.  The pond was teeming with life.  About 40 Black-crowned Night-Herons lined one side.  A Sora patrolled the edge nearest the road.  Some gorgeous American Wigeons (right) swam among dozens of Coots and Ring-necked Ducks.  A few Redheads (bottom) joined the crowd adding another splash of color to the mix.

 It was at this point that the Red Van Gang separated from the rest of the group for a while.  They were heading out for a long hike, and one of us was recovering from a bad cold and wasn't feeling up to the walk.  Instead, we drove down to the Lighthouse and started working our way around the pond.  It was loaded with birds and especially with female Northern Shovelers and some spectacular Canvasbacks.  But before we were there for more than a few minutes I got a phone call from John.  One of the group had spotted a Chuck-will's-widow in a tall pine behind the bathrooms near Headquarters Pond.  We piled back into the car and hurried to the site.  No one was still around, but John's directions had been precise.  There it was, sitting quietly across (not along) a branch apparently taking a nap.  We were able to get a few photos and even get some other folks on the bird.  What a terrific sight!   This is a bird that I've heard way more often than I've seen it, and even then it's been in the very dim light of early night just after twilight.

Eventually we drove back to Lighthouse Pond and returned to studying the Canvasbacks.  I thought the one pictured on the right was particularly handsome.  Farther along we encountered a few Northern Shovelers.  The females were out on parade, but the males were snuggled in the reeds with their heads tucked into their sides.  Offshore to our left, the Gulf was alive with Double-crested Cormorants, Redheads, Horned Grebes, Common Loons, Laughing Gulls, Red-breasted Mergansers, and an occasional small shorebird that zoomed by too quickly for me to identify.

At the end of the path is a gazebo that is a wonderful spot for a brief rest and some leisurely sea watching.  There was a family there speaking a language that I didn't recognize at all.  The man spoke a little English, and with words and gestures he asked me what I was seeing through my scope.  I mentioned a bird and indicated he should look for himself.  He did, and immediately called to his wife and daughter to look as well.  Just then one of the Gang saw a Reddish Egret, which I eagerly turned to examine with my bins.  When I turned around the family was happily looking out to sea with both of our scopes while the girl also tried to digiscope something using her iPhone.  It took a while before we could reclaim our property and move on.

Swamp Sparrow
On the way back toward the Lighthouse some movement caught my eye in the vegetation near the pond.  First a Sora and then a Clapper Rail came into view, both disappearing almost immediately.   Another motion to my left proved to be a Swamp Sparrow (left) who was not as shy as the rails.  It posed patiently while I snapped a half dozen shots.

After a picnic lunch and a quick look at Picnic Pond, we decided to inspect Mounds Pool 1 and 2 by walking along the dikes.  What we found was a distant mass of ducks including our first Northern Pintails and a few stunning drake Mallards.  They were too far away to get a decent photo, but I snapped a few anyway.

The afternoon was getting old, so it was time to rejoin the group.  We typically end the day at Bottoms Road, well to the west, in hopes of finding a Short-eared Owl.  This time John wanted to try Wakulla Beach.  About 15 of the original field trippers made that much shorter trek and staked out a likely area.  Unfortunately we struck out, but the talk and camaraderie made it worth the time and effort.

I hate to end this on a negative note, but I feel I owe this to birders everywhere.  If you are in Perry and need to eat dinner, don't go to Pouncey's.  I had the worst restaurant meal of my life there and I won't go back.  Our waitress was very nice, but the food was paradoxically cold and overcooked and the building and furniture were badly in need of repair and cleaning.  Save yourself the unpleasantness and use one of the fast food places or the Huddle House.

Alachua Audubon in the dying light at Wakulla Beach

A Canvasback looking good!

Ruddy Duck taking a bath.

Ring-necked Duck