Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Being Gull-able

Alachua Audubon Society studying gulls with Michael Brothers of the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet

On February 1, the denizens of the Big Red Van rode over to Cedar Key, one of my favorite places in Florida.  It's a quaint little fishing village that has survived both time and tide to become the ultimate contradiction - a sleepy tourist destination.  Perhaps it's the out-of-the-way location or the lack of land on which to build, but the town has remained small and quiet despite the obvious attractions of sun and sea.

On this day, we had to deal with a heavy fog and very limited visibility.  Nonetheless, our first stop was at Shell Mound, just north of town and in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge.  It can be a great spot for shorebirds, waders, gulls and terns.  Unfortunately, the tide was low and the shorebirds were gathered in spots that were quite distant from us.  Still, we were lucky enough to spot a Horned Grebe, always a pleasant surprise in this area.

Our typical second stop was the road to the airport where for many years the docks along the street were home to large congregations of birds.  This allowed for close study and photography.  However, a hurricane a few months ago wiped out all of the docks, and they have yet to be replaced.  All I saw in that part of town was the Laughing Gull pictured above.

I'll happily admit that one of the highlights of birding in Cedar Key is the chance to visit a local restaurant.  This time we stopped in the Big Deck Raw Bar.  I had a Philly cheesesteak that was fantastic.  I topped it off with ice cream from the little shop under Steamers.  Delicious.  While I ate my ice cream, I enjoyed watching the Brown Pelican pictured below.

As you can tell, by that time the fog was gone, but the day ended with fewer than 50 species.  Still, a great meal, a Horned Grebe, and a few Marbled Godwits made the day a great one, so no complaints from me.

The next day I was fortunate enough to accept an invitation to Mike Manetz's house to see the Dark-eyed Junco that has been visiting his feeders.  Admittedly, the photo below is poor.  It was taken in really low light and from a little bit of a distance.  Still, I haven't seen a junco in Florida for about eight years, so I was happy to see him at all.  So pretend it's a clear shot and you're just a little tired or your glasses are dirty.

On February 7 I had the rare privilege of attending a lecture by Michael Brothers (below) of the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet.  Michael is perhaps the leading expert on gull identification in Florida and one of the top experts in North America.  His talk on that topic was incredible.  Often, experts who know everything on a topic have a hard time talking to people who know very little.  Michael is different.  He was born to teach, and he does so with wonderful enthusiasm, patience and clarity.  I took page after page of notes, and spent a bunch of time in the subsequent days comparing my notes and my field guides.  Now I was ready to take it to the field!

The following Saturday found the Red Van Gang kicking off the morning at Blue Spring State Park in Deland.  My goal was to walk out the Pine Island Trail a little way in hopes of finding some Florida Scrub-Jays.  At first, I thought it would be a futile attempt.  Very few birds showed themselves in the beautiful hardwood hammock at the beginning of the trail, and even fewer were seen in the open area once we emerged from the hammock.  Then an Eastern Towhee popped into view:

Suddenly there was a chorus of towhees singing from all around us.  It was pretty cool, but other than in the sky above us, the only other bird that we saw was a Palm Warbler:

Fortunately, we noted a spot where we thought we might have glimpsed and then heard a Scrub-Jay.  So on the way back we stopped there and waited patiently.  Soon an ever-curious Scrub-Jay wandered over to us to see just who it was that was disturbing his morning.  This lovely bird, one that only exists here in Florida, should be our state bird.  Look at the photo!  What's not to love:

Back at the center of the park, we killed some time by strolling along the boardwalk and watching the manatees swim in the crystal clear water of Blue Spring.  This one obliged me (below) by surfacing while my camera was ready.

Finally it was time for the whole purpose of the trip.  Following Michael Brothers's talk to us, we were going to meet him at Frank Rendon Park in Daytona Beach Shores where we would try to apply what we had learned earlier in the week.  The photo at the very top of today's blog depicts just a little more than half of the people who showed up to walk the beach with Michael and study the thousands of gulls that gather there late in the afternoon.  In fact, this is the largest gathering of gulls in North America, and it happens every afternoon in the winter!

Now, I'm familiar with the adult plumage of the gulls I most often see - Laughing, Ring-billed and Herring.  The Laughing Gull in today's second photo from Cedar Key is well on the way to its adult plumage.  Soon its head will be all black and the white upper and lower "eye cups" will really jump out at you.  Now here's an adult Ring-billed Gull:

Note that beautiful, clean vertical black ring around the bird's yellow bill.  If only all gulls were named after - and prominently possessed - such obvious features!  But no.  Look at these two photos:

The bird in the lower photo is a Herring Gull.  (No, I don't know why it's named after a fish, and I've never seen a Herring Gull eat a herring.)  Now look at the brown bird in the center of the upper photo.  It too is a Herring Gull, only at least on the surface, it looks very little like the stunning white, gray, and black of the other bird.  The upper bird is a youngster in its first year, and its black bill and muddy brown features are the hallmarks of its age group.  Only the pink legs seem to survive into adulthood, while the rest of the bird turns white and gray and the bill becomes yellow with a red spot.  So Michael taught us also to look beyond the plumage at the size and shape.  The Herring Gull really has a different shape, more elongated through the body and a little front-heavy.  That was really helpful to hear and then see.

Here are two more birds to examine:

These two are Lesser Black-backed Gulls, a second year bird in the upper photo and an adult in the lower.  To me, the Herring Gulls look almost like a football that is under inflated on the back end while the Lesser Black-backed Gulls are smaller and rounder when seen in profile.  The dark gray of the adult can be picked out of a crowded beach pretty quickly.  But the brown of the younger bird can get lost among other brown gulls.  Fortunately, the size and shape really help, and even the brown of the second year Lesser Black-backed Gull is mixed with some deeper browns and grays making it darker than the other similar species.

Then there's this:

This one is a giant.  It's the Great Black-backed Gull.  I wish I had a good photo of a first or second cycle bird of this species for comparison, but I don't.  However, the key here is that this is one really big gull.  According to Sibley, they average 30" in length with a wingspan of about 65".  By comparison the Herring Gull, typically thought if as a really big gull, averages 25" in length and its wingspan is about 58".  Around here, this is the biggest gull on the beach, its sheer size making it a fairly easy ID.  Here's another look at the Great Black-backed Gull:

Just as an aside, we saw thousands of gulls that day, but very few terns.  Almost the only ones we saw were these two Royal Terns (below).  They landed near the gulls, but basically kept to themselves.

I spent that night in Daytona Beach Shores, and after a fantastic breakfast at the Best Western, I made the drive to Oviedo and the Lake Jesup Conservation Area, East Tract.  I hoped to spend a few hours birding the area and - if I were lucky - perhaps adding to my paltry Seminole County bird list.  Upon arrival, the first bird to greet us was this cute little Eastern Phoebe:

The trail wound its way through some of the most gorgeous forest you could hope to find.  Here's a shot of me trying to find a bird in the canopy.  I was unsuccessful.

The trail is peppered with wild orange trees and honeysuckle shrubs that perfumed the clear morning air.  The trail is well maintained and I enjoyed every minute in the park.  However,  on this day there were very few birds, and most of them were Yellow-rumped Warblers (below) or Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

I should also mention that the sky above seemed to be filled with Bald Eagles.  I think I saw at least six, but probably more as several of the sightings were of adults and, well, they all looked alike.

Meanwhile, my plan was to reach the observation tower and use it to find throngs of great birds on and around the lake.  Nice plan.  The lake is very low right now, so it was quite a distance from the tower.  Even scoping the lake was difficult as heat waves off the water distorted the view.  Still we found White Pelicans and Great Egrets easily enough.  And the pelicans proved to be a new county bird for me!  At least one Great Blue Heron flew across the water, and I thought I had a glimpse of a Tricolored Heron.  But the best looks that we had were of the many Common Yellowthroats (below) that surrounded us in the tall grass just in front of the tower.

So the first half of the month drew to a close.  My numbers were relatively low - 85 species for the first two weeks - but my experiences were wonderful.  The opportunity to study gulls with Michael Brothers was exceptional, and the walk around the property at Lake Jesup was beyond memorable.  I'm planning to return there in fall migration when I think those same woods will be teeming with warblers.  At least, that's the plan.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

More Great Birds in January

Birding during the first half of January had been pretty spectacular.  Vermilion Flycatcher, Dickcissel, and Red-cockaded Woodpecker were the headliners of a very busy opening of the year.  What could happen during the second half of the month to top that?  Glad you asked ...

I led a field trip for Alachua Audubon to Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland on January 14.  It may seem like a long drive for a Saturday morning birding trip, but it's well worth the effort.  Circle B is ALWAYS birdy.  We spent some time birding the parking lot area, dipping (by a few minutes) on the Myna that had been seen there but scoring with a Prairie Warbler.  Then just a few steps away from the parking lot we encountered the Painted Bunting in the photo above.  What a gaudy sight!

When we finally reached the wetlands area, we quickly added a nice variety of waders and raptors.  I love Snowy Egrets like the one above, but always have a hard time photographing them.  I have trouble with the brilliant white of their plumage, so I was happy to get this shot.  Don't you love the bright yellow feet?  Also in the area were Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Limpkins, and Blue-winged Teal.  While I stood there admiring all of these fabulous birds, I noticed a huge kettle of vultures soaring high above us.  I gave them a cursory look and noticed one that was different than the rest.  At that point one of my group asked me a question, and I got distracted.  Later I learned that the unusual bird up there was a Short-tailed Hawk.  I'm pretty certain that was the bird I noticed, but I didn't ID it at the time.

Next we turned to the northwest along Marsh Rabbit Run.  Almost immediately we encountered a little pool with this Pied-billed Grebe.  Such a cute little bird!  And just above him was ...

... a female Belted Kingfisher.  This is one of the few bird species that defies the birding rule of thumb that the male is prettier than the female.  That extra reddish breast band is very becoming!

Banana Creek Canal runs along the south side of this trail, and it's one of the most reliable places I know to get close looks at Green Herons.  I especially like this bird's color palette with its deep red and green on the flanks and back, the stark white setting off the breast streaks, and the gold edging to the feathers of its wings.  Fortunately, this beauty was way too busy hunting to mind my presence just a few feet away.  I think the green stuff clinging to its legs is duckweed.

The open water at the end of Marsh Rabbit Run is usually good for a few nice surprises.  Several Royal Terns (above) were joined by a couple of Forster's Terns in a mad dash back and forth over the water in search of tasty treats.  The Royal in the photo above stopped for a few minutes' rest, affording the half dozen photographers nearby a chance to snap away at their leisure.  Then the bird took flight again in the eternal quest for food.  Also in the area were a few Roseate Spoonbills, always a treat, and two Peregrine Falcons, always a thrill!

The day ended with a quick hike over to the lake to check out a couple of Brown Pelicans, and then this Barred Owl, just off the parking lot.  For the day the group tallied about 65 species.

A few days later Linda Holt was traveling along a road near Newberry in Alachua County when she noticed a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on a nearby wire.  This bird is more typically found in Texas than in Florida.  The word spread pretty quickly, and I made the dash out there to add a special bird to my year list.  The photo isn't the best - the distance was too great and my camera doesn't have any special lens, but what the heck -- it's a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher!

I have mentioned in a previous blog that once a month I lead a field trip for a group of birders who have retired from the world of work.  We start the morning by birding somewhere and end it by having lunch together at a local restaurant.  On January 19 we walked out La Chua Trail on Paynes Prairie.  Our first stop was the boardwalk in the hopes of relocating the sparrows and Dickcissel that have been hanging out in the area.  Early on, we had only limited success.  Song and Savannah Sparrows were most numerous, a few people got a quick look at a Lincoln's Sparrow, and one particularly cooperative Vesper Sparrow (below)  stopped to watch us watch him.

The day was pretty overcast and bleak, and we started out in a heavy fog, so most photography wasn't very successful, at least not for me.  So one of the few shots worth publishing is this one of the Florida state bird, the Northern Mockingbird (below).

Overall, the day was mildly successful.  We saw Green-winged and Blue-winged Teals, Northern Shovelers, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Wilson's Snipes, a few Long-billed Dowitchers, a lone Stilt Sandpiper, and thousands of Sandhill Cranes.  But we got really lucky at the end of the trail when close by the viewing platform we saw ...

... a Whooping Crane that dwarfed a nearby Sandhill Crane.  I had been out to the platform looking for him a few times and was rewarded with only unsatisfying distant glimpses through a scope.  This time he strutted right by us looking majestic and proud.  I've read various estimates that there are between 400 and 500 of these birds left in the world, so seeing one is an enormous treat.  I hope that some day, people won't understand the fuss because there will be so many of them around.  But for now, this is one of the rarest birds in the world, and worth a long, loving gaze.

On January 23 I drove over to Gainesville's Depot Park.  Andy Kratter had spotted a Common Goldeneye in the large pond near the park's entrance.  This is a locally uncommon bird, so I wanted to add it to my year list.  I found the bird among a few Ring-necked Ducks, but I had to wait about 30 minutes under a cloudy sky before it swam in close enough for me to get a photo.

That same afternoon, the sun broke through, the temperature climbed, and my feeders got really busy.  I was especially pleased to see this Eastern Bluebird (below) that stopped by to snack on some mealworms.

On the fourth Wednesday of every month from September through May I get to lead a bird walk at Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville.  This relatively new facility has only been open to the public for about a year and half, but it already has become a premier birding hotspot in the area.  The January walk started out in another heavy fog, but who cares?  Sweetwater is always a wonderful place, and this time I was joined by several people who were both new to the park and new to birding.  This gave me the chance to stop and appreciate even our most common birds because I could see them through beginners eyes again.  How cool is it to compare male and female Red-winged Blackbirds for the first time?  It's even cooler to point out the comparison to new and eager birders.  A couple of hours of birding yielded about 35 species, ending with over 400 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks (below) standing together in the southwest corner of the park.

The month was winding to a close, but it still held some nice birding opportunities.  The morning after the Sweetwater trip a couple of friends and I walked east on the Hawthorne Trail and took the cutoff to the Alachua Lake Overlook.  This is one of the prettiest walks in Gainesville, especially when the wildflowers and plum trees are in bloom.  Along the way, we encountered this Orange-crowned Warbler:

Two days later I was back at La Chua Trail for another Audubon field trip.  This time I was lucky enough to get a good look at this Long-billed Dowitcher:

The last day in January held one more neat surprise for me.  I was in my own driveway, looking for something I had left in my van, when I heard quite a ruckus behind me.  It was the unmistakable war cry of a Red-shouldered Hawk.  Make that two Red-shouldered Hawks, sitting together atop the light pole directly across the street.  How cool is that??

And so ended a fantastic month of birding.  During January I saw 109 species of birds within Alachua County's borders and another 30 outside of the county for a total of 139 species.  I hope February is as successful.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Kicking Off the New Year

Ducks at St Marks National Wildlife Refuge

It's a new year with its new challenges and new opportunities.  Many of us kick off the new year with a resolution or two, and if you're like me, they often don't last beyond the first few weeks.  But this year it's going to be different!  One of my resolutions is to get back to blogging and to make some changes along the way.  And since I'm trying to do this in public - assuming anyone other than myself reads this thing - you'll all know if I succeed or fail.

Basically, I'm going to do a Year in the Life of a Birder.  Typically, I'll write about chunks of time rather than one day at a time - with possible exceptions of significant birding trips.  There will be more photos, fewer words, and occasionally a non-birding element may sneak in for a moment.  I'm going to make the pictures larger, so keep scrolling until you reach the end.  I hope you enjoy the changes.

The birding year started with a walk along La Chua Trail in Paynes Prairie State Preserve on January 4.  I had a terrific day that featured some really good looks at a variety of sparrows.

Maybe the best stop of the day was along the boardwalk before the trail itself actually starts.  There was a mixed flock of sparrows feeding just below my feet.  It included the Grasshopper sparrow pictured above and the White-crowned Sparrow pictured below, as well as Vesper, Savannah, Song, Lincoln's, and Swamp Sparrows.

Savannah Sparrows are a common sight here during the winter, so a photo of one is not unusual, but I like this one:

Our Christmas Bird Count listed 7,500 Sandhill Cranes, nearly all of which were on Paynes Prairie.  Their raucous calls could be heard from more than a half mile away.  They packed the sides of the trail, especially along the second half.  Here's a view of a tiny section of them.

For the day, I tallied 47 species that included a Stilt Sandpiper near the observation tower at the end of the trail.  But the star of the show was this Dickcissel feeding with the sparrows.

Later that same day, I heard from a friend who said she had a Western Tanager in her yard.  I rushed over and waited about ten minutes before the tanager popped into view.

On the following Sunday I made my way to one of my favorite places in Florida, St. Marks NWR in Wakulla County.  In winter, St. Marks has a fabulous variety of ducks.  The photo at the top of today's blog shows a typical scene from Lighthouse Pond at the end of the entrance road.  Here is a sample of some of the other ducks I saw that day.

My best guess is Greater Scaup, but I'm open to helpful comments!

American Wigeon
Red-breasted Merganser
There is more to St. Marks than just ducks.  I totaled 61 species on the day, and among them I was delighted to see this Black-crowned Night-Heron, one a couple of dozen that were hanging around various ponds.

The St. Marks Show also had its star, a fabulous male Vermilion Flycatcher (below) that was not shy about posing for people.  There were about twenty birders, nearly all armed with cameras, snapping away as this little guy flew among and around us feeding - and posing - on both sides of the road.

The next day included a tour of Liberty County, visiting a few sites listed on the Great Florida Birding Trail.  At one stop I was entertained by a few Brown-headed Nuthatches (below) that chattered above me sounding like squeaky springs in an old mattress.

That day had its star as well, a Red-cockaded Woodpecker.  The best photo I got of the bird is below.  It isn't a great picture, but hey, it's a Red-cockaded Woodpecker!

That wrapped up the first half of the month.  I had some really nice birds during the first half of the month, and there were some really good ones during the second half.  Come back in a week, and I'll have a report on the rest of January.