Monday, February 16, 2015

Bird a Day

Look closely - that red eye = White-faced Ibis
For as long as I can remember, I've enjoyed setting goals for myself and working toward accomplishing them.  I win some and lose some, but I always enjoy the effort.  So I was intrigued when I read about a challenge called "Bird a Day."  I don't know the entire history behind the challenge, but I heard about it through an email sent by south Florida birder Trey Mitchell.  The idea is to start on January 1 and add one bird each day that you've seen or heard during that day to your Bird a Day Year List.  Once you list a bird, you can't use it again in the same calendar year.  So you can see a Cardinal every day, but you can only use it once.  The goal is to see how far into the year you can go before you go through an entire day seeing or hearing only birds that you have already listed.

It sounded interesting to me, so I decided to give it a shot.  Now, I know I won't make it through the year - not even close.  Until 2014 I never had a year in my life with as many as 365 species - and the idea of getting them to fall just right so I had a unique one to add each day is absurd.  On the other hand, I've had as many as 20 species in my back yard on a weekend, so getting through a month would actually be pretty easy.  So I set a goal of 100 days ... that should certainly be possible, and if I make it that far I'll keep at it as long as I can.  I also decided to add a little wrinkle for January to make it more interesting.  I set a goal of using only birds that are winter residents of this area or migrants passing through during the first month of the year.  No Northern Cardinals or Mockingbirds, no Red-bellied or Downy Woodpeckers, no Turkey or Black Vultures, no Carolina Wrens or Chickadees, etc.  If I could do that, February would be easy and by then I'd be more than half way to the 100 mark.

Bullock's Oriole
The year started well.  I attended a field trip to the Sweetwater Sheetflow Project here in Gainesville and saw a locally rare White-faced Ibis.  I also saw a score or more of winter birds I could use -- but you can only use one a day.  And I wouldn't see those birds for several weeks.  The Sheetflow area is not yet open to the public, so all of those great birds would be out of sight and unusable.  By contrast, January 2 was a blur of activity culminating in taking my son to an airport about 90 miles away.  After the feast of January 1, this was a famine day.  I had no time to bird and saw very little - but I got lucky.  As I pulled off the Interstate near the airport I passed a retention pond holding a small flock of Ring-necked Ducks.  By the time I left the airport, it was dark.  Too close!

The next day was easier.  I visited a friend who had a Bullock's Oriole coming to his feeders.  Easy, rare and gorgeous - that's the best way to do it!  The rest of the week was also easy, if not quite so spectacular.  I picked off the Rusty Blackbirds that were making their annual visit to Magnolia Park just a couple of miles away.  A Black-and-white Warbler, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a Hooded Merganser were all quite cooperative and right where I needed them to be, so one week was in the books!

Swamp Sparrow
Here in Florida there are two large groups of "winter" birds - ducks and sparrows.  I had used two ducks during the first week, but no sparrows.  I set out to change that by visiting Hague Dairy, another great birding site just a few miles away.  That was a good call.  January 8 and 9 added Swamp and Vesper Sparrows.

Then on January 10 I joined other members of Alachua Audubon on our annual winter trip to St. Marks NWR.  Again, the frustrating aspect of this challenge reared its ugly head.  I had dozens of winter birds to choose from, but I could only use one.  And I couldn't even open an escrow account and bank a couple of good ones.  In the end I used a White-throated Sparrow. I had missed the species in 2014 and I hoped I would have more opportunities to see the ducks elsewhere later in the month.  I did not use a Chuck-wills-widow either because I know I can get one in June.  Still ... so many birds and I could only use one ... ARGH!

This Whooping Crane has spent the winter here.
The next couple of days were easy.  A House Wren landed in a bush a few feet from me.  A Song Sparrow perched up nicely back at Hague Dairy.  A Greater Scaup swam just off a beach in Dixie County.  A locally famous Whooping Crane posed for photographs on the University of Florida campus.

[Here's an aside for you non-birders.  The Whooping Crane pictured here appears to be wearing some colorful jewelry.  In fact, they are banding rings that identify this specific individual.  They are placed on the bird prior to its release into the wild and the color and placement are unique to this bird.  I submitted the data to a banding website and learned about his unique and fascinating life story.  If you're interested, you can read about it here: ]

The third week started with another of those "feast" days when I led a field trip into the Sheetflow area.  This time I counted a secretive American Bittern and turned down a bunch of great ducks.  Two days later I had another famine and had to count a Baltimore Oriole that visits my feeders.  I was thinking of my feeder birds as my emergency stash, and this was the first time I had to dip in.  The rest of the week was a blur of trips to Hague Dairy chasing an apparently invisible Lark Sparrow.  I struck out a couple of times, but finally saw it while adding American Pipit and Savannah Sparrow to the list as well as an Orange-crowned Warbler seen in a yard in Alachua.  The week ended with a trip to Merritt Island and a beautiful Northern Pintail.

The last ten days proved that using only winter species was indeed a challenge for me.  I saw several good species in or near the town of Alachua - Cedar Waxwing, American Robin, Blue-headed Vireo and Ring-billed Gull.  I added a White Pelican on a miserably cold day at Alligator Lake in Columbia County.  And I got lucky with a Lincoln's Sparrow on La Chua Trail on Paynes Prairie.  A small but ferocious Sharp-shinned Hawk finished off the fourth week.

Lousy day - lousy photo of White Pelicans
The patriarch of the Flying Wallendas once said that the most dangerous part of walking the tight rope was the last few steps because that was when the hardest part of the task was over, safety was in sight, and the concentration wavered.  I've always remembered those words, and they almost bit me in the butt on this challenge.  On the 29th I had a terrific bird - an Eastern Whip-poor-will, and with only two days left in the month I thought I was home free.  And then for two days I went birding and saw NOTHING new.  Instead, I had to rely on that emergency stash of winter birds coming to my feeders.  A Gray Catbird and the ubiquitous Palm Warbler closed out the month.  Perhaps I had staggered across the line using low-hanging fruit, but January was done and I had ticked off 31 winter species.

As I write this, I'm still in the competition after 47 days.  I've added some pretty cool birds to my Bird a Day list, but I've used a few 12-month resident birds along the way.  That, however, is a story best saved for next month.

Full disclosure:  All of these photos were taken during January, but not all on the day I actually counted the species.  I just like the pictures!

January 31 - A month of winter birds was successfully concluded when this Palm Warbler visited my feeders.

January 30:  This Gray Catbird consumes huge quantities of suet every day at my feeders.

One of my favorite birds - the elegant Northern Pintail.

This Black Scoter was a nice Dixie County surprise.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Taylor-Made for Birding (Econfina River State Park)

Bob's Gone Birding in Taylor County

The Boat Launch at Econfina River State Park
My series of blogs on out-of-the-way state parks has had me pouring over maps looking for a park I'd never visited.  By a lucky coincidence, I am also taking part in a "Twelve Day Big Year" in Taylor County.  That combination led me to Econfina River State Park.  Not only had I never visited the park, but I can't ever recall reading a birding report that originated there.  So the Red Van Gang set out early on a 36 degree Wednesday morning to make the trip from Gainesville to the western edge of Taylor County.

I followed route 14 south all the way to the southern tip of the county, just a couple of miles from the Gulf.  There was a small parking lot, a few picnic tables, and a boat-launch area.  It was gorgeous!  A Northern Flicker called from across the river, and another called from the parking lot.  A Red-bellied Woodpecker darted about as did a bunch of Yellow-rumped Warblers.  It was a nice beginning to the day.

Hermit Thrush
Our goal was to walk the blue trail, a 2.6 mile round trip that begins at the northwest corner of the parking lot.  There is a relatively straight portion of the trail that eventually reached a loop, like a big ring at the end of a rope.  It's advertised as the best birding in the park, and it started well.  We were surrounded by a mixed flock that included Black-and-white Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Tufted Titmouse, and Carolina Wren.  They were joined by a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Gray Catbird and a Hermit Thrush.  A little farther down the path we reached a depression that held a couple of inches of gently moving water.  We crossed it without any thought ... probably a mistake.

We reached the loop and decided to walk counterclockwise.  Almost immediately we saw another flock with several of the same species and a few new ones.  An Eastern Towhee sang to us from one side of the path while a Blue-headed Vireo danced around the other side.  Farther along we found a Pine Warbler with its dry, raspy call. 

Looking back on the crossing we worked around.
We covered about three quarters of the loop when we encountered a problem.  A gap in the path was filled with a foot or more of water.  A thin branch looked like it might be used as a bridge, but only for hobbits or elves.  We could turn around and take the long way back, but not these intrepid explorers!  We searched the area and found where we could gain the other side by crossing three more shallow areas.  A couple of inches of water here, a couple of inches of mud there, and we were across.  Hah!  Nothing can stop us!

We were rewarded almost immediately with a secretive Marsh Wren who allowed us a quick glance before it dove for cover.  A Little Blue Heron and a Great Egret also flew out of a nearby channel.

Soon we completed the loop and turned toward the parking lot.  Suddenly we stopped dead in our tracks.  That couple of inches of moving water we had crossed two hours earlier was now much more formidable.  There would be no getting around this one.  There also would be no going back.  Nope, the trickle of water had become a stream deep enough to reach just below my knees, and it separated us from the parking lot.  We had to cross it.  We sat on the ground, stripped off our shoes and socks, rolled up our pants legs and waded into the water.  There is no way for me to describe this adequately, so I'll just say it.  The water was VERY COLD!!!!  I got to the other side, used my scarf to dry my feet, and put my socks and shoes back on as quickly as I could.  We hastened back to the parking lot where I realized that I had forgotten my thermos of coffee.  Grrrr!

Lesser Yellowlegs
We had a quick lunch in the picnic area and then drove to our second destination, Hickory Mound. This is really a great place, and if you haven't been there, you need to get there.  Essentially, it's a square driving trail that winds its way among salt water marshes, shallow ponds, deeper pools, and channels leading to the Gulf.  Based on the season, waders, shorebirds, gulls, terns and ducks can be found everywhere you look.  Quickly we saw a nice group of shorebirds that included Dunlin, Western and Least Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers and what I'm convinced were both Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers.  I studied the dowitchers for a long time - long enough that I missed a Virginia Rail seen by the others.  We watched Northern Harriers and Belted Kingfishers hunt the marshes for a late lunch.  And we slowly drove past Laughing, Ring-billed and Herring Gulls that resented our incursion into their resting area on a narrow piece of the road.  Along Coker Road we added a Common Yellowthroat and a Bufflehead to the day's haul.  This was terrific birding!

An Osprey at Hickory Mound
On the other hand, we were way behind schedule!  So we turned from Hickory Mound and headed toward the coastal beaches along CR 361.  Along the way we stopped at a farm pond where a flock of White Ibises were feeding on the opposite side.  A Killdeer flew over my head and into the field beyond.  An Eastern Phoebe perched quietly on a rock as if sunning himself on a lazy afternoon.   

Eventually we reached Adams Beach where we saw a Brown Pelican and a Ruddy Turnstone on an oyster bar just off shore.  Next was tiny Dekle Beach where a quick drive along Front Street added European Starling and Eurasian Collared-Dove, birds often associated with more urban environments.  And then with the sun sinking toward the horizon, we pulled into Keaton Beach, a charming community with a small public beach and a big fishing pier.  Here we found the day's only House Finch, the 72nd and final new bird of the day.

We had just a bit of daylight left - enough to let us head into Hagens Cove to watch the sun set in a blaze of orange.  It was a spectacular way to wrap up a great day of birding.  We then ended the day with an excellent fried shrimp dinner at Roy's in Steinhatchee.

I love the birding life!

Sunset at Hagens Cove

Common Yellowthroat along Coker Road

The Osprey posed for a long time.

Savannah Sparrow at Hickory Mound