Thursday, March 31, 2016

Last and most certainly Least

I arrived in Florida for Spring Training on February 25 and have been Spring Birding ever since.  The month of March in Florida seems to be different every year.  I've seen many birds this past month in Floirda I have never seen before in the spring.  Migration has been a little hit and miss, with mostly miss.  But I was lucky to be in John Chestnut Park for a small fallout of Yelllow-throated Warblers, got to listen at dusk to a Chuck-will's Widow at Dunedin Hammock Park, and made two trips to Long Key State Park, first on February 25 for the Zenaida Dove and returned on March 21 for the Black-faced Grassquit.

With my spring trip to Florida winding down, there were a couple of birds I wanted to see before heading north.  A Least Tern and perhaps a Red Knot.  Had I not been doing this Big Year, where I am birding mostly where I am sent, not where I'd like to be, I am missing my planned trip to Delaware for the annual Red Knot migration, where tens of thousand of these birds stop on their long trip from the southern tip of South America, flying over 9,000 miles to their breeding grounds in the Arctic.  That will have to wait for another year, but here in Florida a few do set down to rest before continuing their journey north.

There are a few good places to search for both the above birds, including Fred Howard Park, Fort De Soto, Honeymoon Island and the Courtney Campbell Causway, all in the Tampa Bay Area.  Because of early morning reports by another Robert who had been checking out the beach on the Clearwater side of the causeway, I had been going as many mornings, or afternoons as I could looking for a Least Tern for the Year List.  And I kept coming up short. Tuesday morning he reported, not only Least Terns, but also a Red knot.  It had been raining since early afternoon but by about 5 in the late afternoon the rain had slowed to just few drops.  I had a feeling the beach would be clear of sun bathers, and it was perfect weather for shorebirds.

And shorebirds there were.  Hundreds of them, from Willets and Dowitchers to Dunlins, Plovers and Sanderlings coming into breeding plumage.  And as I crept along the beach, two Least Terns were sitting in little sand bunkers ahead of me on the beach.  I only got to see them long enough to take a photograph, before they headed off to wherever Least Terns spend their days.  Also, notable were at least a dozen American Oystercatchers, which made an interesting comparison to the Black Skimmers.  I love when a skimmer looks right on to the camera.  Seen side on, their beaks look big and thick.  But head on they look like a needle sharp enough to give you an injection.

Knowing that a Red Knot had been seen that morning, it was quite the job to scan each and every shore bird looking for the tell-tail reddish belly coming in.  For a nice comparison there were also a few Sanderlings coming into breeding plumage.  Also of note was a while-morph Tricolored Heron, along with a few regular Tricolored Herons.

So, I leave Florida, briefly, for a trip to Montreal, with 175 species for the year, and I leave you with some final photos from the month of March.

Yup, I got photo-bombed by a Bonaparte's Gull

Saturday, March 26, 2016

It's Avocet Day!

Ah yes, one of my favorite days at Fort De Soto in the Spring.  The American Avocets pass through and briefly hang out at the East Beach Turnaround during the third week of March.  I have been lucky 3 of the last 4 years to be there when they arrive.  Every birder in the park was excited about them and loved sharing the news with other birders along the way.

They are beautiful birds in their lovely spring breeding plumage and they put on a nice show, lifting off from the water and flying in a couple of circles around the beach and then landing again.  Other than the Avocets, though, there was not much birdy-ness in the rest of the park.  

The only other new species for the year list this week were a Brown Thrasher at Forest Run Park, a cute little park not far from John Chestnut Sr. Park, and a Spotted Sandpiper at the end of Bayview Avenue on the Clearwater side of the C.C.C.  Oh, for you non-Floridians, that is short for the Courtney Campbell Causeway.  I was there the morning following the Avocet's arrival, looking once again for Least Terns.  Didn't get one in the morning, so tried again this afternoon, checking out the fishing pier just north of the beach.  Lots of Skimmers, likely the same ones from this morning, but hiding out from the March Breakers who take over the beach each day once the sun comes up.

Intrepid and persistent birder that I am,(okay: obsessive), I shall return at the crack of dawn tomorrow.

        The American Avocets are here!




         A Pier of Black Skimmers:


            Amazing how big Piliated Woodpeckers really are when seen at eye level:


           Not often you see a Merganser out of the water:


      Spotted Sandpiper.  Too bad you can't see it cutely bobbing its tail,(should have taken it             with my iPhone's Live Photo setting-next time)

      And finally, did I mention I love balancing some rocks

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Of Lost Budgerigars, Black-faced Grassquits and Big Year Dreams

This week in Big Year Birding:

In March of 2012 I had reserved what turned out to be the "Vomit Cruise" to The Dry Tortugas, as it is yet another station of the cross on any Big Year Quest.  It was a 36 hour there and back trip from Dunedin where I slept in my car, saw amazing birds in Key West and Beyond, and tossed more than my cookies off the back of The Yankee Freedom.  Two years ago I took the plane, but felt I was cheated on time on the island, so last year, pre-drugged by a Scopolamine Patch placed on my neck the evening before, I once again boarded The Yankee Freedom and made it all the way and back without contributing to the sea.

This year, as I do my Birds and Blue Jays Big Year, I had intended to go again.  Ah, but alas the job dictates where and when I can travel.  I tried to book too late, and will have to put off that trip for another time.  However a Black-faced Grassquit was being seen down in Long Key State Park again, where I had recently seen the Zenaida Dove.  At least that trip I figured I could make.

But before I could head south, I headed north, back to Hernando County, one time home of one of the last and dwindling populations of wild Budgerigars.  Birders for years have been cruising Gulf View Drive in Hernado Beach checking the wires and occasional feeders for these lovely wild cousins of the budgies many of us had as our first pets, growing up.  The remaining population of these birds in Florida was given an extended run, due to the kindness of one homeowner who had feeders in her back yard, where many of the birds enjoyed a meal or two every day.  Sadly, when she sold the house, the new owners didn't keep the feeders up and by the end of 2013 the Budgeriegars were rarely seen.  

I knew it was a long shot to see them in the spring of 2016, but I went for the nestalga.  The memories of driving the neighborhood the first time, finding my first Brown Thrasher, but not the birds I came for and being stopped by a Neighborhood Watch person, checking to make sure I was not a pervert with my binoculars and camera.  I returned a few days later and did get to see the Budgerigars. This year's trip around the neighborhood resulted in friendly waves from homeowners and my first of year Eastern Bluebirds.

Next I was off to Weekiwachee Preserve, where 4 years ago I flushed a Le Contes Sparrow late in the evening,(and liked it), and had heard an Eastern Whip-poor-will at dusk.  This year I enjoyed the sight of a Sandhill Crane touching down almost next to me in the same field I had found the Le Conte's.  I liked that too.

Which brings us back to last Monday.  Not having a ticket to the Tortugas didn't keep me from driving down to the Everglades late Sunday evening in order to get to Long Key State Park early enough  to have a good chance at the Black-faced Grassquit.  Of course, so as to keep up with tradition, I slept in my car at a rest stop in Alagator Alley, and awoke with a start at 7:10 am an hour after I had set my alarm.  I had wanted to be there for 8am opening, but ended up arriving at 9:30, plenty early for the bird I was looking for.  As were a half dozen other birders including Olaf, another birder doing a Big Year.  He has the luxury of plenty of time and money to do the kind of Big Year I can only dream of at this time in my life.

We all walked the camp road between sites 11 and 34 for nearly two hours.  Nothing, not even a whiff of Grassquit.  But no one had anywhere else to be and you don't give up on such a rare bird during a Big or any other kind of year, without a fight.  So we searched and chatted and searched and waited.  We split up, so as to cover more ground.  I really wanted to be the person who spotted the bird.  More often than not, someone else spots the bird and puts me on to it.  Not this time, baby!  About half an hour earlier I was sure I had seen a bird that could have been the Grassquit, sitting on a bucket in a camp site and then flitting into the bushes.  So I concentrated my time in that area, and nearly an hour later, walking into an empty site, and peering round the back, I saw the little olive green bird with a dark face, sitting on the sand.  I got a great look and 100% ID,(I had seen one the previous year in a Bahia Honda SP), noted the location and darted back to the road to alert all the other restless birders.

When we all got back to the spot the Grassquit surprised us all and hopped up on a fence rail not 10 feet in front of us.  I got my camera up but my 150-600 50lb zoom lens was too big for the job.  However everyone got a great look at the bird before it flew into the bushes in the next camp site.  That site's owner let us keep looking for the bird, but it flew past us and by the time I left a half hour later, it had not been reforund.  I ended the day at Loxahatchee, where once again I missed what should have been an easy look at a Smooth-billed Ani.  But I did see a Bobcat for the third time in two years, and the second time in a row, while looking, unsuccessfully for a Smooth-billed Ani.

Still, it was a great chase and a great day all around.  Always nice to meet a fellow Big Year Birder.  Of course I am getting late start to this 2016 Big Year as almost all my travel outside Ontario and Florida won't begin in earnest until April, but from then on it will be either birds or Blue Jays non stop until, hopefully the end of October, and beyond.

Female Black-faced Grassquit:

Sandhill Crane in the very field I chased a Le Conte's Sparrow 4 years ago:

I'd love to know if this is a courtship rite, or an argument over who gets to stand on the rock:

I do believe these Logerhead Shrike were courting.  Nice consolation prize to the Red-whiskered Bulbuls I was cruising the Kendelwood neighborhood for in Miami:

Muscovy Duck in the ponds at the Baptist Hospital in Miami, one of the best bets for this species outside Texas:

Nanday Parakeet on the power lines around the corner from Loxahatchee.  I almost always see one or more here:

The Florida Bobcat, my consolation prize for finishing in last place in my south Florida chase for a Smooth-billed Ani:

At dusk, as I saw this big bird fly in, I could only hope it was the Ani.  Still, always nice to see a Piliated Woodpecker:

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Let the Migration Begin...

... And so it begins.  The annual influx of kids and families on March Break migrating to Florida, filling up the beaches and trails, making it just a little harder to find the newly arriving warblers from South and Central America.  Sure there there are lots of Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers and plenty of shore birds, but now begins the migration season birders pine for throughout the long, cold winter.

So, while I am stuck here in Florida while rare birds are being reported all over North American that my very specific, practically carved in stone, schedule may not allow be to see, this past week I visited parks both new and old.  Brooker Creek Preserve is a an old standby in the Tampa Bay Area.  Each year I first hear and then see at least one Yellow-thraoted Vireo.  This first visit of the year I did not find the vireo, but did come upon only the second Yellow-throated Warbler I've seen in Florida.  Frankly the only other place I've seen one is during migration in Rondau Provinicial Park back home in Ontario.

My first stop was recommended by Margie, one of the administrators of FLARBA, the Florida rare birds alert.  She had actually put an eBird report up in a park I thought would be nice to visit, since I had never been there before.  Alas, it was in another one of those "gated communities" I didin't have access to.  However, after exchanging a few e-mails and a phone call she agreed to meet me at the park later in the month, when more migrants would be showing up.  In the meantime she recommended I check out A.L Anderson Park, which is a lovely park by the water, where I saw my first Black-and-white Warbler of the year.  And one thing I've learned over the past four years is once those warblers in tuxedos arrive, the other warblers can't be far behind.

There were lots of Northern Parulas and even a couple of Yellow-throated Warblers.  But it was just this past Tuesday evening where the real show began.  I had only limited time in the evening to bird and had to get back to work after dark, and the closest and birdiest park I could get to was John Chestnut Park.  I saw and heard my first Yellow-throated Warbler very quickly; but then the fun began.  Out of seemingly nowhere, another and another and yet another Yellow-throated Warbler.  And then more.  There had to at least half a dozen at any one time, but I suspect there were closer to 40 of them.  I fallout of Yellow throats nearly every tree between picnic areas 9-10.   Very exciting!

Yesterday I spent the late morning and early afternoon at Fort DeSoto with lots of shorebirds, but alas not the Cave Swallows or the Lark Sparrow I was seeking.  Also missed a Least Tern near the Courtney Campbell Causway, due to lack of time and not very exact directions.  I think I'll check there later this afternoon and take a trip to Possum Branch, as I have not actually eBirded from there this month.

Blue-winged Teal in Kapok Park:

Muscovy Duck near the parking lot in Cliff Stevenson Park:

Great Blue Heron and chick in a nest at John Chestnut Sr. Park:

A young, and slightly cuter, Wood Stork in the swamp at Brooker Creek Preserve:

Great Horned Owl at Kapok Park:

One for the Rodent-y List, a European Black Rabbit at A.L. Anderson Park:

Monk Parakeets living in the basement apartment of the Osprey Nest, 
atop the lights at the Bobby Mattick Baseball Complex:

Purple Gallinule at Circle B Bar Reserve near Lakeland:

The Star of the week, Yellow-throated Warblers at John Chestnut Sr. Park:

Baby Great Horned Owls in a nest near the fort at Fort De Soto Park in St. Petersburg:

I didn't get a chance to look for the Least Tern, but did find a cool 
punk rocker Green Heron at Possum Branch Preserve:

Saturday, March 5, 2016

An eBird a Day...

You might think it's easy to submit an eBird report every day for an entire year.  After all you're out and about several times a day and there are usually birds around here and there.  But you get busy with work or sleep or lunch and the day is suddenly slipping away.  Sure, I could just report one bird from one parking lot, or look out the window, and check one Rock Pigeon, but that's not much of a challenge.  If I'm going to do this, I want to explore, try to bird every day from different places, and the Tampa Bay Area has no shortage of great places to go birding.

This past week I have been to Honeymoon Island, Kapok Park, Lake Chatauqua Park, Moccasain Lake Nature Park and walked the Pinellas Trail in Dunedin, in the late afternoon today, as time and sunlight was running out to do an e-bird list for March 7.

Same thing this past Friday.  Time was slipping away and with the sun still setting relatively early, I had to make a concerted effort to not just report an Osprey,(which is a "gimme" in these here parts), and really go somewhere.  While in Florida through the month of March, I am sometimes working from 7:00am to 6:00pm. I finished work just after 5:30pm. Siri told me that the sun would set just after 6:30pm.  She also told me the closest park was Kapok Park in Clearwater.  I've been there before, so I thought I could get some good birding in before it got dark.

Oh, the best laid plans.

Firstly, when I got to the parking lot and retrieved my binoculars and Camera, I discovered I couldn't find my car key.  I searched seemingly everywhere and could not find it.  Sunset was closing in.  I needed to start recording birds.  So I gently closed the car door so as not to get locked out and decided to bird within "seeing" distance of the car and got my list going.  Once I had a few, I went back to the car, searched some more and found the key on the roof of the car, in exactly the same spot I had left my iPhone a few days back in south Florida.

That done I started my walk, and discovered a new boardwalk that hadn't been there a year ago.  Walking across I saw other birders searching around.  There was a Great Horned Owl in one of the trees.  I had heard one calling the previous day at Honeymoon Island, but it was hidden from view.  I went to take a photo and wouldn't you know it, I had left my SD memory card in the car.  I ran back to get it and by the time I returned the owl had flown off, not to be seen again before dark.  I did enjoy seeing my first Mottled Ducks of the year,(eBird lists it as a rarity for this spot), swimming with Blue-winged Teal and a couple of Mallards.  I think I'll go back again in a few days as migrating birds start to arrive. 

Yesterday afternoon I tried out Cliff Stephans Park.  I had gotten to Moccasain Lake Nature Park after the gates had closed, and Cliff Stephans did not have a gate so I decided to walk there, only to find that about 200 yards in, it turned into Kapok Park.  I enjoyed the boardwalk that connects the two parks and birded until dark.

Today it seemed as if there would be no birding if I didn't get get out of my office for a while and walk the Pinellas Trail.  Not a great selection of birds, but what the heck.  Sometimes you do just have to contradict yourself and, if not bird from a parking lot, go birding pretty close to one.  

I'm sure over the next few days or so the migrating birds will start showing up and the best place to find them at this time of year is Fort DeSoto.  I can hardly wait for Daylight Savings time to kick in so I can get there after work with a couple of hours to go birding before sunset.  I'm also very much looking forward to my trip to The Dry Tortugas, but that is not until March 21.

The proud parents taking some "them" time away from the babies

The babies having some "us" time with the parents out of the nest

The cutest Common Ground Doves, very likely to be proud parents, themselves soon

I'm not sure I want to see what happens next

Though I think the 'gator is hoping at least one Ibis will jump into his mouth