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Monday, February 24, 2014

Hilton Head and Beyond

          A recent stopover in Hilton Head, South Carolina proved to be an excellent birding adventure in the middle of January. With the weather in the Carolinas in the low to mid sixties we just missed the freezing conditions of the previous week. A friendly Hilton Head resident(who moved here from Levittown 15 years ago to escape the cold northern winters) shared with us some pictures of the frozen fountains looking like sculptures from a wedding buffet here on the island just one week earlier. There were  no crowds this time of year so we biked and hiked over the miles of trails scattered throughout the various communities that make up the island. Golf fairways followed the many streams covering the island and provided us with many birding opportunities.
          The first morning I walked to a fairway only a block from our town house. It was early enough that I avoided any golfers. Across the fairway was a large pond with trees on the distant shore. About 20 birds including white ibis, snowy egrets, tricolored herons, little blue herons, black-crowned night herons and a lone anhinga perched in the trees. 

          I did not get back to the spot until the following evening when I discovered this to be a roosting area for about 100 white ibis, 50 snowy egrets, 50 little blue heron, and 30 tricolored herons. 

          A number of the human residents in the community showed up to photograph the birds from our vantage point on the fairway, but a few people went to the far side of the pond right next to the trees with the roosting birds. Fortunately this did not seem to bother the birds. The next night when Susan and I returned  to the site there were 2 very large alligators on the distant side of the pond right where the birds congregated and close to where the adventuresome folks had visited the night before to get closer looks. 

         There were signs on some of the waterways alerting you to be on the lookout for the gators but mentioned they hibernate in winter in underground dens. Guess these two were illiterate!  
         As Susan and I walked back to our digs a wood stork landed in a small stream right behind our townhouse. He was actually so close I had to back up to photograph him as he filled the picture screen.

       His feeding style was interesting to observe. He would plant his bill in the mud and then swirl his legs around in the muck to scare up some of the critters. We ran out of daylight and as we turned to leave I was able to snap a picturesque sunset at the entrance to our community. 

          The beach was only a mile away and we explored it by foot and on bike. There were fair numbers of red-throated loons, brown pelicans, frigatebirds, royal terns, a small fly-by flock of 5 redheads, a flotilla of scaup(greater, I believe) and a single white-rumped sandpiper feeding with some willets. 

 A cooperative red-shouldered hawk on the dune side of the beach posed as we closed in on him. He changed locations several times but never flew away.

          We also checked out a  wildlife preserve 2 miles away that gave us some nice looks at woodland birds. There were many pine warblers trilling, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, ruby-crowned kinglets, phoebes, a Baltimore Oriole by the side of a stream and a pair of pileated woodpeckers feeding by the side of a busy road. 


         After a week at Hilton Head we headed south to Susan's son's house in Port St. Lucie, Florida. His residential community has many ponds one of which borders his backyard. He occasionally has a resident alligator living there but apparently it moved a while ago much to the relief of the folks in the community and their pets. It was late in the afternoon when we arrived and I did not at first glance see any wildlife in his backyard. After checking the pond out with the binoculars I did discover 3 Wilson's snipe and a little blue heron. The next morning proved much more productive when Susan and I went for a walk. There were numerous raptors including an osprey, red-shouldered hawk, bald eagle and northern harrier and a very distant buteo which I tried to make into a short-tailed hawk but believe was a Broad-winged hawk. There were anhinga, tricolored herons, a single limpkin, a flock of blue-winged teal, sandhill cranes, loggerhead shrike, killdeer, mottled duck, and lots of yellow-rumped warblers.

Mottled Duck

         Our visit was short as we had to leave mid morning for Fort Lauderdale to catch a cruise ship for a week long dermatology conference. Since I am retired the conference part of the trip was optional as far I was concerned.  If anything better came up in the way of fun I was on it!  

          On the second day at sea I was working out in the exercise room on a treadmill. The gym provided panoramic views of the ocean and interestingly some great birding. A Northern gannet showed up at eye level and caused some pleasant surprises among all us sweaty and aged folks and proved a diversion from our heart rates and calories burned. Within 10 minutes a greater surprise followed when two adult and a single immature masked booby flew by again at eye level. They proceeded to fly back and forth provoking "oohs" and "ahs" from all us athletes. I am not certain who was more startled: the birds trying to figure out what ritual all these sweaty humans were engaged in or the humans by the sight of these magnificent birds. Anyway I broke off the exercise routine and headed back to our stateroom to retrieve my camera, but by that time they had moved on. I skipped that mornings conferences and staked out the bow of the ship hoping for a second chance at a photo shoot but no luck. The following day as we approached Puerto Rico the more common brown boobies started showing up. 

           They were also seen in the other islands of St. Marten and St Kits along with the ever present frigatebirds and royal terns. The masked booby was a life bird for me and  saved me the eventual trip to the Dry Tortugas. On our return to Florida I hoped to get a second chance at seeing them since we were retracing our steps but unfortunately no further luck in spotting them. When we returned to Florida we headed to Naples for a week. We traveled by way of Lake Okeechobee and were treated to two separate sightings of Crested Caracaras, another life bird for me. In Naples we ran into two rainy days but this was the only bad weather in the entire trip. We were thankful to have escaped some of the nastiness in the north and had some fun adventures in a more hospitable climate.

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