Saturday, February 20, 2016

Bracketed by Owls at Circle B

Circle B Bar Reserve

Great Horned Owl, the first bird of the day.
I don't claim to have had a lot of really good ideas, but there is one that I claim.  Soon after I retired, I decided to start a once-a-month outing for other retired birders.  I also decided to follow the birding with lunch at various restaurants.  My goal was to combine some serious birding with a social occasion.    We have now been meeting for about a year and a half, and I couldn't be happier with the results.  Not only have the monthly field trips become fairly popular, but I've made friends with some terrific people along the way. This past week was a prime example of why I've come to look forward to the Third Thursday of the month.

We gathered at 6:30 on a cool morning and carpooled to Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland, about two and a half hours away.  Sally Larson joined the usual Red Van Gang members, Jerry Pruitt took three more with him, and Alachua Audubon president Anne Casella rode with Celeste Shitama.  I always appreciate those who step up and offer to drive and take others with them.  It makes the logistics of a trip so much easier to manage.

Before we even reached the parking lot, we had our first great bird of the day.  We saw a group of birders and photographers staring up into a tree and learned there was a Great Horned Owl nest up there.  Not wanting to disturb the birds, we stayed only a minute.   We saw no adults, but one of the babies was nice enough to peek out at us long enough for us to take a photograph.

Roseate Spoonbill.  I missed this one.
When we got to the parking lot we were greeted by two more of our group who had driven to the park on their own.  Jim and Lillian O'Donnell have become good friends in the last year, largely due to these field trips.  Their northeast Pennsylvania roots don't hurt either!  Jim immediately told me that a Barred Owl was supposed to be roosting along the trail we were taking.  That would be another great bird if we could find it.

First we searched around the education building.  I had heard there was a Painted Bunting in the area, but we failed to find it.  The park was busier that day than I have ever seen it, with the visitor-filled tram running constantly.  Perhaps all of that activity scared the bird away.

We headed out toward the wetland area and walked the narrow path along the berm.  There were birds everywhere we looked.  Early on we saw Limpkin, Bald Eagle, and a nice mix of the usual waders.  We watched an aerial display by a flock of Tree Swallows, and part of the group saw a Roseate Spoonbill that I missed.  One of the group found a Purple Gallinule and a second one wandered into view as we watched the first.

Purple Gallinule
One of the things I like about Circle B is that the habitat invites a great mix of species.  The wetland attracts all of the usual water birds, but the trail is well lined with trees and shrubs that serve as home to a very different set of birds.  So looking one direction produced Green Herons, Snowy Egrets and American Coots, while looking up gave us Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, White-eyed Vireos and a Prairie Warbler.  About midway along the path we saw a lone Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, the only duck species of the day.  That was a surprise, and continued what for me has been the "Year Without Ducks."

The lack of ducks didn't dampen the day at all.  We picked up a Purple Martin among the Tree Swallows.  We watched a Forster's Tern diving for food and a Royal Tern posing like a model for our cameras.  We watched a Gray Catbird dancing on the leaves at the edge of a culvert and a Green Heron with duckweed on his forehead and bill.

Royal Tern
On previous field trips, we always turned right at the end of the long berm and continued through a hardwood hammock back to the parking lot.  Last Thursday we decided to turn left instead.  The morning was nearly finished, so I opted for the shorter loop.  Also, a couple of years ago I found some good sparrows in the grass along the southern edge of the property.  I had no such luck this time.  The sparrows might have been there, but the entire field was cordoned off to protect a tortoise-breeding area.

Eventually we got back to the crossroad where the Barred Owl had been reported.  We had looked earlier, but didn't find it.  This time we got lucky.  Another birder was standing under one tree staring up.  He pointed and said "Barred Owl."  There it was, the 51st and last bird of the day, providing the closing bracket that had opened with a Great Horned Owl chick.

After leaving the Reserve we made our way to Palace Pizza on US 98 in the Publix shopping area.  Eleven of us chowed down on a variety of pizza slices, salads, garlic knots and some raspberry cookies.  I ate way too much and enjoyed every single bite.  I enjoyed the conversation even more which continued during the drive home.  I think we laughed and chatted for the entire 130 miles.

Like I said, I may not have a lot of great ideas, but our Third Thursday Retirees' birding group is definitely one of my better ones.

Snowy Egret

Baby Alligator completely covered with duckweed.

Anhinga drying itself off after diving for its breakfast.

Royal Tern with an interesting hairdo.

Green Heron.  I think this is one of our most beautiful birds.

Barred Owl, the last bird of the day.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Getting Back to Marion County ... And to Blogging

Lake Kerr

Swamp Sparrow on Black Sink Prairie
There are occasions when time slips by too quickly.  You intend to do something soon, and you don't get to it for a long, long time.  Sometimes there are too many other priorities; sometimes it's just neglect.  Like all of us, I've had a little bit of each, and two examples come to mind.  Last November I published one of these blogs and had loads of ideas for the next essay.  I never got to them.  Who knew that retirement could be so busy?  And years ago - 7? 8? - I visited Black Sink Prairie in Marion County.  It was during a driving rainstorm and I kept saying to myself, "I've gotta get back here soon, maybe in winter when there could be ducks on these ponds."  Didn't happen.  Fortunately, I was able to fix the latter last Thursday, and that gave me the impetus to fix the former lapse as well.

The Big Red Van headed out a little later than usual, and traffic was annoyingly heavy.  Nonetheless, we reached NE 175th Street before the early February air began to warm.  A roadside pond produced a couple of Hooded Mergansers, an Eastern Phoebe and both Great and Little Blue Herons.  It was a good start to what would be a productive day.

I mean no disrespect to the city fathers of Marion County, but I soon ran into something that was really odd.  I wanted to turn south on NE 35th Ave. Rd.  The name's a bit redundant, but finding it should have been easy enough.  I expected to find it nestled between 34th and 36th, or at least a higher number and a lower number.  Not so.  I passed 32nd and then 37th.  No 35th.  I went back ... no 35th, and so I went on.  I passed 47th, 48th and 49th and then found 35th just before 52nd.  Go figure.

Black Sink Prairie
Very quickly I realized why I wanted to come back to this little dirt road.  Both sides are peppered with ponds and stretches of prairie.  One stop produced a nice little mix of birds including a curious Common Yellowthroat, a bunch of frantic Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a Northern Cardinal that was singing proudly from the top of a willow.  A little farther along the road we found a Tufted Titmouse, a noisy House Wren, and a secretive White-eyed Vireo.  Meanwhile, a Northern Harrier glided by looking for a snack.  

Next, a flooded field produced the day's biggest surprise.  I scoped the pond ticking off some Coots, a couple of ducks that I believe were Mottled, a Pied-billed Grebe, and then passed over something that I assumed was a Wilson's Snipe.  But that ID didn't sit well with me.  There were no stripes along the bird's back, the bill looked too long, and the bird looked grayer than I expected.  Also, it walked with a hunch-backed appearance.  I asked my companions to check out the bird, and they agreed that it was a dowitcher, probably a Long-billed Dowitcher, and my only county lifer of the day.

Yellow-rumped Warbler taking flight
We continued through the prairie adding to a growing list of day birds.  There was a Bald Eagle, all of the expected waders including a beautiful Green Heron, Ring-necked and Ruddy Ducks, and some Lesser Scaup.   There were Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks; Chipping, Savannah and Swamp Sparrows, and what seemed to be hundreds of Tree Swallows.

In planning the day, I had hoped to investigate a second road that seemed to run along the western side of the prairie.  That didn't turn out so well.  The road, NE 21st Ave. Rd., was bordered on one side by a railroad track that was on ground that was built up to be higher than the road.  On the other was a series of homes, but no view of the prairie.  Disturbingly, most of the homes prominently displayed "No Trespassing" signs that threatened to KILL violators.  Not prosecute -- KILL.  I'm sorry, but that's not funny and not appropriate.

Florida Scrub-Jay
Anyway, we drove into Fort McCoy, grabbed sandwiches at a Subway, and ate them in the adjoining park.  Then we continued east over CR 316, crossing the Ocklawaha River.  About a quarter mile later we pulled over to look for Scrub-Jays.  As soon as we got out of the van, we saw a Loggerhead Shrike on the wires, my first of the year.  Soon the Scrub-Jays popped up followed by a red-eyed Eastern Towhee.  I love watching Florida Scrub-Jays.  They're smart, curious, active, and gorgeous.  Unfortunately, I've struck out on finding them in the Cedar Key Scrub Reserve for the last two years.  I'm really happy they're easier to find in Ocala.

Our next stop was in the Ocala National Forest at the intersections of FR 88 and CR 314 where we hoped to find a Bachman's Sparrow and a Red-cockaded Woodpecker.  Despite trudging through wire grass and blackberry bushes, we had very little luck.  We saw a few Pine Warblers, Red-headed and Pileated Woodpeckers, but no Red-cockaded.  One bird that I thought might be a Bachman's Sparrow dove from the top of a palmetto bush into the deep grass and disappeared.  It was dark and sparrow-like, and the habitat was correct, but I never saw or heard the bird again.

We tried to find a hiking trail near Salt Springs than led toward Salt Springs Run, but the one we found went in the opposite direction and was birdless.  We abandoned it quickly and decided to go up to the boat launch area on Lake Kerr.  There we capped off the birding day with a Ring-billed Gull, a Boat-tailed Grackle and, finally, two Horned Grebes, the 52nd and last species of the day.  Overall, it was a terrific way to spend a Thursday, and a good reason to get back to blogging.

We missed on the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, but found this Pileated Woodpecker instead.

The view upwards from the floor of the Ocala National Forest

Eastern Towhee - The red eye suggests that this is a migrant.