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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Florida Trip - Day 3

        This was going to be a busy day for us. We started the day just outside of Everglades National Park.  We drove around a few back streets in search of Western and Tropical Kingbirds and found neither but we did come across several Common Ground Doves feeding in the middle of the road. A little farther on we came to Lucky Hammock. This place is amazing. There are wide open fields all around the area and then there is this ¼ acre plot of trees in the middle. 
Lucky Hammock
        Well this little ¼ acre woodlot has recorded over two hundred species of birds and we were here to try to find one in particular. As we pulled up to the spot two birders came out of the wooded area and we introduced ourselves and found out they were from Holland. So we started birding together and we would show them a few birds that they needed as lifers.
      One such bird was a male Painted Bunting which one of them exclaimed “Seeing that bird was like a religious experience”.  Finally we found the bird that I came to see, the Brown-crested Flycatcher. We were able to compare it side by side with the Great-crested Flycatcher that was also in the area. We were able to compare the amount of rusty-red in the tail feathers of both species and we got to hear the call notes which nailed the ID.
       Entering the Everglades we found ourselves on Research Road. We drove the entire length of the road and found nothing until the very end. A White-tailed Kite was flying around offering great views. On the way back we spotted a huge kettle of Turkey Vultures and I was able to pick out a dark morph Short-tailed Hawk flying among them. The name is actually a misnomer since the tail isn't actually short at all.
Dark morph Short-tailed Hawk
        Anhinga Trail is a world renowned site in the Everglades and that is where we stopped next. As you enter the parking area there is a sign warning you about the vultures. See photos below. Apparently they like to eat the rubber around your car's windshield. 

Black Vulture on the attack
         Once we were able to get a tarp over our car (provided by the National Park Service) we were than able to enjoy the Anhinga Trail. If you want to photograph birds up close and personal this is the place to be. Anhingas and most of the herons are right in your face along with the ever present Alligators.

Close encounter of the Cormorant kind
DC Cormorant

Wood Stork

Great Blue Heron

A small portion of the congregation of gators

       Since we still had a long way to go today, we were heading to Sanibel Island on the Gulf Coast, we had to leave the Everglades NP. On our travels we came across a produce market claiming to be the southern most Purple Martin house in the United States.
False Advertising
         This struck me as strange since about a mile down the road there were Purple Martin houses that were also occupied. I assume that there has to be someone in The Keys that also have colonies of martins. We then drove the Tamiami Trail always looking for Snail Kites but not spotting any and then found ourselves at Big Cypress Swamp Preserve. Not much to report from this area that we hadn't already seen elsewhere. We managed to at least hear a Sora. However, one thing did catch our eye. As we climbed an observation tower to look out over a marsh we discovered a troubling situation.
Looks like an Amish person was dinner for an Alligator (joking of course)
        Along the Tamiami Trail there is a post office that claims to be the smallest in the USA. I think I might have to go along with this claim.

At another stop we had the chance encounter with several Manatees (video below). We also saw a large fish about three feet long which we found out later is called a Snook. That brought back some childhood memories of my father. I remember when I lived in Florida (3-4 years old at the time) my father would go fishing for Snook.

       After this we made a couple more birding stops and found some shore birds, Wilson's Plover being the most significant. Then it was onto Sanibel/Fort Myers area and some shut eye.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Florida Trip - Day 2

      We began our second day of birding at Chapel Trail Nature Preserve in Pembroke Pines. I had read Alex Lamoreaux’s blog about Purple Swamphens and he suggested that this was a great place to find this newly countable species.   

Sharon Strolling along boardwalk
         We arrived early, anticipating a long search through thick marshes. When we arrived and walked to the edge of the marsh there were five Purple Swamphens walking on top of the bulrushes no more than 100 feet away. This was definitely one of my easiest life birds to find. They are introduced birds but quickly became established and have flourished throughout southern Florida. The ABA has recently added them to the accepted species list along with Nanday Parakeets after the Florida Records committee added both species to their state list. 
Purple Swamphen - One of five present

         Moving on, we drove a short distance to Brian Piccolo Park. This park is mainly ball fields and soccer fields. But interspersed among the fields are little plots of land about 20’ by 20’ which are cordoned off by yellow tape. Each one of these taped off areas houses a burrow in the ground which in turn is occupied by Burrowing Owls. We drove around the park looking at some holes until we found a burrow that contained two owls standing on the rim, just looking around, checking out the passerbys. Pretty cool.
Pair of Burrowing Owls

       According to eBird, there was a Western Spindalis (formerly known as Stripe-headed Tanager) on Virginia Key on Key Biscayne Island outside of Miami. Although there hadn't been any recent sightings I still wanted to give it a shot at finding the bird. So that was our next destination.

       At the entrance station we were all set to pay the day use fee but the lady at the booth looked at the binoculars around Sharon's neck and asked if we were birdwatchers. We replied in the affirmative, and she told us that we didn't have to pay. Awesome. Once we were in the park, the entrance to the birding area was located on a mountain bike trail between some porta-potties and a huge sewage treatment plant. I had to admit that this wasn’t very appealing.

A crazy setup made by the mountain bikers

Lighthouse at Bill Baggs
       Sharon and I walked around for about twenty minutes and saw very few birds so we decided to leave and drive down to Bill Baggs State Park. This is a park that I always wanted to visit because I keep reading about all the rare birds that occur in this park. Although no rarities were reported or found by us I at least got a feel for the layout of the park and when the next rare bird shows up, I can than picture the area that it is being found. We were able to add Royal Terns, Parula Warblers and a few others. The rest of the day was spent at Key Biscayne National Park.  

Sharon's attempt at Noodling with a Tarpon

       Within sight of downtown Miami, yet worlds away, Biscayne protects a rare combination of aquamarine waters, emerald islands, and fish-bejeweled coral reefs. Ninety-five percent of the park is underwater, and the shore of the bay is the location of an extensive mangrove forest. The park covers 172,971 acres. The little portion of the park that is on land is where we birded and added Caspian Terns, Great Black-backed and Laughing Gulls and Prairie Warbler.
Prairie Warbler

       We finished up the day at Key Biscayne and on our way to find a hotel for the evening we found a pair of Muscovy Ducks. Some of these in Florida are considered wild, but the ones we saw along a canal behind a row of townhouses are very suspicious. Tomorrow, the plan is to head to the Everglades and then cross over to Sanibel Island on the Gulf Coast.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Florida Trip - Day 1

                Sharon and I decided to take a trip to Florida in hopes of getting a few life birds.  We arrived at West Palm Beach airport and noticed Air Force One was on one of the taxiways. We asked around and found out that Obama was in town for a round of golf. Can you believe that? After picking up our rental car we quickly headed to Green Cay Wetlands Preserve in Boynton Beach. According to eBird reports there was a LaSagra’s Flycatcher hanging around the parking lot, so we figured it would be a fairly easy location to search for this Caribbean species. However, upon arrival we found out the parking area was quite huge.

                We ran into other folks who were also searching for the flycatcher and they told us to look in the area of the maintenance building. After about 15 minutes of waiting we heard the “whit” call that the LaSagra’s make. I was able to spot the movement of the bird among the heavy foliage and got Sharon and another bird group onto the flycatcher. The bird looked to me like a smaller version of an Ash-throated Flycatcher but with even less yellow on the belly.  Mission accomplished. Lifer number one, an hour after touchdown.

La Sagra's Flycatcher
                 After finding the bird in the parking lot we headed into the actual preserve. The feeder outside the HQ was busy entertaining a few Painted Buntings. Two gorgeous males and a nice bright green female made a sporadic appearance. 

Two Painted Buntings
                 The preserve is a remarkable place with a 1.5 mile long boardwalk.  It is a water restoration area for the county of West Palm Beach and by reclaiming the water it provides much needed habitat for local wildlife. Other birds found in the preserve were Purple and Common Gallinule, Anhinga, Wood Stock, White Ibis, White-winged Dove, early Purple Martins, and Boat-tailed Grackles by the hundreds.

Purple Gallinule
                 From Green Cay we headed to another water reclamation area called Wakodahatchee Preserve. This preserve also has a boardwalk about a mile in length. This is an interesting place due to the fact that there are many little islands among the water and all the colony nesting birds are building nests, incubating eggs or already feeding young. Among the nesters were Anhingas, Wood Storks, Double-crested Cormorants, Snowy and Great Egrets, Great Blue, Green, Tri-colored and Little Blue Herons. Walking around the boardwalk we also spotted Roseate Spoonbill and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks but missed the Fulvous Whistling duck that has been present for about a week. 
What the heck is that? A nestling Anhinga

                A large four foot long Iguana was also videoed walking around the grounds. 

                But the best bird was a Neotropic Cormorant tucked in among all the DC Cormorants. Both of these preserves are fantastic places to watch and photograph wildlife. If you are in the Boynton Beach/West Palm beach area I would recommend visiting each of these. And an extra added attraction is they are within a 10 minute drive to Loxahatchee NWR. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Lancaster Field Trip - Feb 2013

Some of the participant's looking over Struble Lake
       World renowned field trip leader, nature instructor and all around nice person Holly Merker led a trip today to Lancaster's Amish country. We set off in search of Rough-legged Hawks and field birds, but the hawks didn't know we were coming so they didn't make an appearance today. Not that we didn't try. We drove all through the back roads and put in a good hour of searching to no avail.
        Field birds were even difficult to come by but we eventually found a few small flocks of Horned Larks.

Horned Lark

     We then headed to Hess Rd, the traditional spot where Wilson's Snipe overwinter along a small streambed. We did find the Snipe but to our surprise, we flushed up an amazing 52 snipe, that would circle around and keep flying right over our heads as they were giving their call notes. Pretty cool!

Wilson's Snipe

     After giving up on the hawks we headed back to Chester County in search of more field birds. We stopped at Pleasant View Rd and found more Horned Larks and started scanning for Lapland Longspurs, but luck wasn't with us at this point. But it was about to change. 
     As we pulled up a little farther over the ridge on Pleasant View Rd a huge flock of blackbirds came into view feeding in the corn field. We started scanning the group for any strangers tagging along with the 5000 or so Red-winded Blackbirds and Common Grackles. Almost immediately Holly and I saw a flash of yellow among the flock and knew it was a Yellow-headed Blackbird. 

Hard to find but it's there - Yellow-headed Blackbird
        Holly ran back to the other cars that were still over the ridge and told everyone to move forward and set up the scopes. We were fortunate to get all the group on the bird for extended looks. For many in the group this was a life bird.
        As we were viewing the bird, an Amish teenage boy came along and was interested to see what was happening. So I offered him a look through my scope and he was quite excited.

Photo by George Wrangham
      So the trip was a success even without the Rough-legged Hawk. We did manage to see dozens of Red-tails, one Cooper's, one Bald Eagle and both Vultures.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Crossbills on Campus

It was New Year's Day when I found my first White-winged Crossbills on the Haverford College campus.   A flock of about 20 birds landed briefly in a Norway Spruce and then in a group of hemlocks by the North Dorms.   They stayed only a minute or two before flying off into Montgomery County.   I have been looking for more ever since.

On January 29, late in the afternoon, I finally found three birds in the pinetum.  They gave fleeting looks, but I was encouraged, especially when others found more on subsequent days.  Saturday morning, February 2, I set out with camera in hand in the hopes of securing a few photographs.  As usual, I started at the pond where I was happy to see two pairs of Hooded Mergansers.  As I was walking along the meadow's edge, I noted a large form in the tall Tulip Trees in the center of the lawn.  A quick look through binoculars showed that it was not the Red-tailed Hawk I was expecting, but a Bald Eagle instead.  The photo below is zoomed and cropped from quite a distance, but it is clear that the eagle was watching me!  No wonder all the geese were in the pond and not foraging on the grass.

 The eagle apparently did not appreciate even my wide approach as I walked around to try to get a better view.  It promptly took to the wing, but at least I was prepared with the camera.

 Here is a closeup from the same photo.  Today's digital cameras are truly amazing.   All I did was point and shoot.  Notice that the bird has some dark edges on its tail, but still counts as a fourth year bird.

Even though I did not find any crossbills in the pinetum, the eagle made Saturday morning a success.

Saturday afternoon, sans camera, I tried again.  Of course, this time seven White-winged Crossbills put in a brief appearance.  They seem to prefer the spruces that are just below the tennis courts. They also always fly in from over the track, and fly back out in that direction.  They have been seen in the hemlocks behind Drinker (the dorm next to the track).  I reasoned that they might also forage in the row of spruce trees along the brick walk next to the art building.  These trees are evident from the South Lot; however, so far I have not found them there.

This morning, Sunday, I set out again, without the camera.  It was overcast with a few flurries gently floating down in the breeze.  The pinetum was quiet.  No American Goldfinches or Red-breasted Nuthatches.   No Northern Flicker or Brown Creeper.  Not even any House Finches.   I encountered Tom who had come in search of crossbills.   I explained that they preferred the spruces behind the tennis courts, but that they also had been seen in the Japanese Cedars (tour stop #3 between the redwoods and the sequoias) and the hemlocks behind Drinker.   My plan was to sit on the bench and wait for them to arrive.  From the bench the cedars are directly in front of you, the spruces are easily visible to the right and turning around allows a binocular view for scanning the hemlocks.  I was not disappointed.   About 9:15 AM, I first caught sight of a single bird flying into the spruce trees behind the courts and then four birds flew from there into the cedars in front of me.   I moved quickly across the field.   A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was calling.

It is amazing how a pink bird can be hard to find in a green tree, but the cedars are thick and provide good cover.   Two male and two female White-winged Crossbills had settled in to feed.   After a quick call to Win (who had missed the birds the previous day), I called Karl to see if he might come with the camera.   No need!  As we were talking, the birds flew off, across the track, past the hemlocks behind Drinker, and then seemingly veered a bit to the right.   I joked that they were headed for my house and suggested to Karl that he go out to look for them.  In truth, I thought they had flown toward the row of conifers along the wide brick walk, so that is where I went next.  No birds there.  I walked home.

As I approached my house, there was Karl standing in the front yard, camera in hand and a smile on his face.  He actually had gone out to get a photo of a young Red-tail that was harassing the birds on our patio.   While standing in the yard, he heard the crossbills come in and land in the hemlock across the street.   He had photos to prove it.

Well, the photos are not so good because the lighting was poor and the birds were at the top of the tree . . . but, here are a male and a female White-winged Crossbill.

And here is a male teed up on the top of the Norway Spruce.  The males seem to like this vantage.

Of course, the young Red-tail had spooked them just before I made it home.  They had flown across our yard, across the creek and into Ardmore.  The good news is that they, or similar groups, clearly make the rounds regularly.   Later in the morning, both Win and Chris were able to watch them feed in the cedars in the pinetum.

So, come to campus, have a seat on the bench in the pinetum, below the baseball field and wait for the White-winged Crossbills to appear.   If you're lucky, you might even get more than a brief look. . . and perhaps you'll get a good photo too!