Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What To Do in March?

We don't call him "Off-Road Rowan" for nothing.  

It's my opinion that March is the most boring month of the year in Florida.  Simply put, nothing much is happening.  Many of the winter visitors are leaving.  The sparrows and ducks become less numerous, and large flocks of Sandhill Cranes circle overhead before turning to the north for the summer.  On the other hand, migration hasn't really taken hold yet.  Sure there are the early arriving Northern Parulas looking for a safe place to breed and raise their young.  True, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds show up mid-month and the first Swallow-tailed Kites grace us with their aerial acrobatics, but the waves of warblers and other neotropical migrants are waiting for April when the birding activity will shift into a much higher gear.  But in March, we're playing a waiting game, so what's a birder to do?  Fortunately, I had a three-part solution that made the first half of the month more enjoyable.

You can watch birds like this Northern Cardinal by looking out your window!

The first part of my solution begins with a reminder that you can bird by looking out your own window.  I've been happily involved with Project FeederWatch (PFW) for over a decade.  This project in citizen science is sponsored by Cornell University.  It asks participants to watch their bird feeders periodically from late fall through early spring.  For two consecutive days you record whatever you see at your feeders, and you note the high and low temperatures and precipitation during the two days.  You estimate the amount of time you spend looking at the feeders.  Then you report the data to the PFW website.  There is no minimum or maximum amount of time you can spend during the two days watching and counting birds.  You can glance at the feeders when you get a chance, or you can use my approach.  I plant myself on my back porch with a cup of coffee and some birding magazines and kill off a bunch of hours in quiet pleasure.  The goal is to record and report the highest number of each species you see at one time at your feeders or water features.  Then you take five or more days off and repeat.  I love it!

The number of Brown Thrashers coming to my feeders increases every March

And while the rest of the birding world is boring, my feeders explode with activity during March.  The numbers of Chipping Sparrows and American Goldfinches swell from single birds to small flocks, devouring seed at an alarming rate!  They're fattening up before the long journey to their summer breeding grounds.  Local residents who don't regularly frequent feeders, also are preparing for breeding season, and the easy-to-get food of a feeder is too good to pass up.

This Yellow-rumped Warbler Is the most aggressive I've ever seen!

Watching feeders has also taught me something about the behavior of various species.  There are the grab-and-dash feeders like the Carolina Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse that grab a single seed and dash into the cover of a tree to crack it open and eat.  But the House Finch and American Goldfinch are patient, sitting at a single feeder perch for an extended amount of time until they get their fill.  Chipping Sparrows can feed on the ground in a large group in relative peace, but too many bodies in a small platform feeder brings out displays of temper.

I watched this Downy Woodpecker successfully fight off the aggressive Yellow-rumped Warbler

And this winter I had two oddities - at least for me.  First, I had an Eastern Phoebe spend the winter in my yard eating suet.  I've had Phoebes stop in my yard on occasion for years, but this one was here every day for months.  And rather than chasing insects all day, it sat on the top of a raccoon baffle and ate the suet crumbs that fell from the feeder above.  That was a new behavior for me, and I enjoyed watching it.  And then there was the Yellow-rumped Warbler pictured up above.  This bird selected two of my five suet feeders and decided that they were his domain.  He spent every day defending those two feeders against birds of every species, harassing them constantly until they got tired or intimidated and flew off.  Only the Brown Thrasher and the woodpeckers (like the Downy pictured directly above) resisted his aggression.  But Carolina Wrens, Gray Catbirds, Yellow-throated Warblers, and other Yellow-rumps scattered before his fury.

You might think I'm easily amused, but Project FeederWatch kept me very happy for a hunk of March.

And where there is water, you attract birds that don't typically eat at feeders, like this Blue Jay.

The second part of the solution that "saved" the early part of March was the opportunity to see a new park that I think has the potential to become a real treasure in the months ahead.  In January, Little Orange Creek Preserve near the town of Hawthorne opened its gates for the first time.  While the park is still in its infancy, and much has yet to be done to help it achieve its full potential, I think it's going to be a great birding hot spot, especially during fall migration.  The park straddles Little Orange Creek, and the current nature trail skirts its eastern edge.  So as you walk along the trail, on one side you have a creek and a series of marshes with its own water-related species.  Meanwhile, on your other side is some rolling hills with newly planted longleaf pine, some open meadows, and some mixed pine and deciduous woods.  The trail actually marks the boundary between very different habitats which have the potential to increase the bird diversity significantly.

In one of the marshes, this Little Blue Heron ignored us while feeding along Little Orange Creek

I visited the park with my good friend and birding mentor Rex Rowan.  I don't see Rex often enough, so the morning would have been fun even without birds.  However, we tallied about 42 species for the morning while we slogged our way through muddy marsh edges and scrambled over rolling hills.  On the watery side we saw Great and Little Blue Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets, Common Yellowthroats and Swamp Sparrows.  On the dry side we saw Hermit Thrush, Ovenbird, Yellow-throated and Black-and-White Warblers, and so on.

This House Wren was not amused by our presence and scolded us loudly until we left him alone.

The park was also great for woodpeckers.  While there we saw or heard Red-bellied, Downy and Pileated Woodpeckers as well as a couple of Northern Flickers.  In one spot we heard persistent drilling, but couldn't find the bird.  Then a woodpecker butt appeared and the Red-bellied Woodpecker pictured below backed out of a hole.  It looks like he was getting a nest ready for his future family!

Those two pointed tail feathers are really stiff, providing the woodpecker with a brace to keep himself steady while drilling.

Here's one shot of the picturesque Cantwell Trail at Little Orange Creek Preserve.  The creek is just over the edge of the trail on the left, and a mixed forest graces the right.

The final part of my solution to the March blahs was to visit Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville while I was NOT leading a field trip.  It seems that every time I've been there recently, I've been leading a group.  While I enjoy doing that a lot, going alone allows me to bird at my leisure and go where I want while not having to worry about anyone else.  I'm also free to take as many photos as I want.  I went there one very cold and breezy morning and had a wonderful time!  Okay, it was cold by Florida's standards - about 37 degrees - and not the cold I grew up with in northeastern Pennsylvania.  Still, it was cold enough.  Cold or not, Sweetwater never lets me down, and that day was no exception.

Tree Swallows feeding over Cell One at Sweetwater Wetlands Park

As soon as I arrived, I was greeted with the sight of dozens of Tree Swallows dashing and darting around Cell One.  I've been wanting to experiment with the Sports setting on my camera, and this was a great chance.  I adjusted the setting and pointed my camera at one spot where the swallows seemed to be focusing.  I pushed the button and let the camera fire away, rapidly taking a bunch of photos.  Eventually most of them got tossed out, but a few of the photos looked pretty good.  I love the electric blue on the backs of the Tree Swallows when they're lit up by the sun!

Meanwhile, an American Coot blithely went about its business, ignoring both me and the swallows:

I'm not sure if that's food or nesting material, probably the former, but this American Coot is looking good!

Just as I got to the boardwalk, I noticed this Palm Warbler hopping about just below my feet.  I enjoyed taking the extra time to watch it going about its morning routine.  Soon Palm Warblers will be leaving us, not to return until next winter.

Farther down the boardwalk I saw this Northern Shoveler (below).  He has been here all winter, and it's wonderful to see his fresh breeding plumage beginning to emerge.  Usually, male Northern Shovelers appear to have a deep green head.  But with the right light and some added water from dipping his head for food, this guy looks more purple than green.  It's not a great photo, but you can see the color on the back of his head.

And speaking of breeding plumage ... check out the color around the eye of this Anhinga.  Wow!  That turquoise is spectacular!

So, the solution to an otherwise boring March ... spending time watching my feeders, visiting a new place with an old friend, and visiting a great spot alone.  Put them together, and the first half of March was a lot of fun!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

A Mixed Bag

Ring-necked Ducks (and a Bufflehead) at ISWQIP

The latter half of Florida was a mixed bag for me.  I had better luck outside Alachua County than inside its borders.  The variety of species I saw was low, but I got some great looks at birds I don't see really often.  Also, I got to see at least one spot that I'd never seen before - and that's really unusual this close to home.

I have mentioned in previous blogs that when I retired from teaching I started a birding/social group for other retired folks who are looking for some group birding opportunities.  We meet once a month on the third Thursday.  We bird early and then many of us go to lunch together in order to extend the social element.  I love the group and enjoy each outing with them, but there is a downside.  I have to plan each month's outing including the birding destination and the lunch stop afterward.  So I was thrilled when Debbie Segal arranged for us to visit a new site in nearby Columbia County.  The Ichetucknee Springs Water Quality Improvement Project (ISWQIP) is a new water treatment facility that uses nature's own filters to clean water before it trickles down into the aquifer below.  It does so by spreading water over nine pools filled with a variety of vegetation covering about 120 acres.  Of course, such a facility will attract plenty of birds making it an ideal birding destination.  It was a perfect day for birding, and there were plenty of birds to be seen.  One nearly dry pool held hundreds of shorebirds including the largest collection of Lesser Yellowlegs (below) I've ever seen.

Another pool held a huge number of ducks.  Most were Ring-necked Ducks, but there were others as well.  I saw about 20 Green-winged Teals, a few Buffleheads, and some Lesser Scaup.  Another spot had Blue-winged Teals, Hooded Mergansers, and Northern Shovelers.  A few of our group saw a Common Goldeneye, but I missed it.  While searching for it I got a distant look at a Gadwall.  I love looking at ducks, so this site was a real bonanza for me.  Here's a look at three of the Lesser Scaup.

Part of my group is in the photo below.  I think we were studying shorebirds at the time.  The little flecks in the picture is a swarm of midges that swirled around us during a piece of the morning.  Fortunately they don't bite as much as some other Florida pests, and they make great food for the flock of Tree Swallows that dashed around us.  For the day the group had about 40 species, topped off with a terrific look at a Merlin that was hanging around the eastern edge of the property.  We ended the day with a delicious lunch at Conestogas in Alachua.  Dixie, our waitress, got 34 people seated, got our orders taken, and had our food out in record time - and it was fantastic.  Many of the group told me we had to plan another birding event in the area so we could return to Conestogas for lunch really soon.

The Third Thursday crowd.  Click on the photo to get the full version and look for the midges.
A few days later on a Saturday morning, I had a wonderful opportunity to help lead a "Family Bird Walk" at Depot Park, Gainesville's newest family-friendly recreational facility.  Emily Schwartz organized the event on behalf of the Alachua Audubon Society (AAS).  We had about 14 children, almost as many parents, and four AAS volunteers.  We loaned binoculars to all participants, and the children got a worksheet listing the birds, plants, and natural features they should be looking for during the morning.  We had so much fun watching American Robins dashing around the skies, Killdeer feeding along a stream, and an American Kestrel posing on a wire just above us.  It was fun getting the kids to see the ring on the bill of the Ring-billed Gulls (next photo), and I had to scratch my head before answering some of the questions. [Why isn't a Pied-billed Grebe a duck?]  I got a lot of great photos, but nearly all of them have children in them, so I can't publish them here.  For the morning we found 25 species of birds and all of the plants and natural features on the checklist.  The blustery, overcast skies had no impact on our spirits, and I had so much fun, so thanks Emily and AAS for inviting me along!

Words that warm the heart:  "Mommy, I can see the ring in its bill!"
And then there was, "Why isn't the Pied-billed Grebe a duck?  It looks like a duck!"
A week later, AAS sponsored another wildly successful event, this time coordinated by Alan Shapiro.  It was a day-long Backyard Birding Tour in which participants got to tour a series of local yards that are designed to provide the best habitats and feeding practices for birds.  I started out in the first yard at 9:00 AM and finished in the last one at almost 3:00 PM.  I saw a wonderful mixture of formal suburban gardens, small urban yards, and tiny but bird-friendly patches just out the back door.  I saw expensive, commercially-produced bird feeders and inventive feeders made from discarded items.  The small price of admission was well worth it as I came away with several really good ideas.  While the large crowds kept many of the birds at bay, the stars of the day included a Western Tanager at one home, a couple of male Baltimore Orioles at another, and three Red-shouldered Hawks perched in pines above the feeders at a third.  Here are a few images from the day:

Ron Robinson (center near tree trunk) showed off his variety of self-made feeders and water features.
A Pine Warbler at a seed hopper with attached suet feeder from Wild Birds Unlimited
Chipping Sparrows enjoy a mixture of sunflower, safflower and millet.
Hmm, I wonder what food this Red-shouldered Hawk was looking for?

On the following Wednesday I led another bird walk, this time at Sweetwater Wetlands Park.  I volunteer at SWP once a month, and I think I have more fun than the other participants.  This month was really special because my group consisted almost entirely of retired teachers, several of them colleagues from previous schools, and none of them veteran birders.  I was especially thrilled to have Wiley Dixon join this month's walk.  Wiley was my principal at both Fort Clarke and several years later at Gainesville High School.  He and Donna Kidwell were the best principals and leaders during my 41 year career.  They brought out the best in me, and I'm grateful for the opportunities they gave me.

My Sweetwater group on February 22.  That's Wiley in the red cap.
In my opinion, Sweetwater is one of the best birding destinations in all of Florida for both beginning and expert birders.  It provides up-close looks at birds and other wildlife in a beautiful setting.  You can study common wetland species while searching for the rarities that seem to show up there with surprising regularity.  At one point a Sora (below) walked right below our feet, oblivious to the excited conversation and clicking cameras right above it

A few feet away on the other side of the boardwalk, an American Bittern (below) stood frozen in place, blending in with the surrounding vegetation and waiting for breakfast to swim by.

At the same time, a Limpkin landed on the railing almost right next to me.  He seemed to be asking what all the fuss was about.

Meanwhile, Blue-winged Teals went about their business:

Blue-winged Teal, male (left) and female

On the following Monday I got the chance to head over to the Gulf Coast and Cedar Key.  I had hoped to find some shorebirds to study at Shell Mound, but that was not to be.  Aside from a couple of Willets, a few American Oystercatchers (below) and some very distant Black-bellied Plovers, there wasn't much around.

I had a little better luck out toward the airport.  A couple of the docks that were swept away by Hurricane Hermine are being rebuilt, and I saw evidence that others will be rebuilt soon.  On the remnants of one dock were several Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns and one Herring Gull.

Royal Tern
Herring Gull
A Great Egret prepares for takeoff at Shell Mound near Cedar Key in Levy County.  
Of course, you don't really need to travel at all to see some beautiful birds.  Put out a few feeders and get some dripping water going in your own back yard, and the birds will come to you.  During the latter half of February local yards are graced by the presence of our resident birds, our winter visitors, and some who are just passing through.  Here are some highlights:

American Robin, a sign of spring when I was a boy in Pennsylvania, now a winter visitor in Florida.
Carolina Chickadee, a regular at feeders throughout the south.
Brown Thrashers can look angry at times, but in the water they're just plain cute.
So February ended, and I only had 82 birds on my county list for the month, but that included enough new species to get my county total to 119 for the year.  During my travels I added another 36 species for a state total of 118 for February and raised my 2017 Florida list to 160.  I'm certainly not going to break any records, but I'm off to a really good start to the year.  I can't wait to see what March holds.